A Visit to Bowers & Wilkins

In August 2015, I visited loudspeaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins in England (footnote 1). It was an exciting prospect to see the factory, and meet the people who designed and built the speakers I've been using for years. Of course, as the time of my visit approached, it was impossible not to speculate that something important was afoot—there was growing Internet buzz that it was time for B&W to update its 800-series speakers. Nonetheless, B&W remained tight-lipped.

I arrived in Brighton in the morning and took the afternoon to tour the town. I hadn't been there in over 40 years, and barely recognized it. I'd remembered a bright, busy sand-and-sailing town, but Brighton is now deep in the throes of urban renewal, with construction and reconstruction sites on nearly every block. There was a sense of optimism in all the activity. At dinner that evening, optimism also brimmed in Doug Henderson, president of B&W Group North America.

Henderson told me that the reason for my visit was, indeed, to see firsthand what was going into the development and production of the first major revision of the 800 models since 2005, timed to coincide with the company's 50th anniversary, in 2016. I clearly recalled the impact of the original 801, in 1979. With its individual enclosures for the bass, midrange, and high-frequency drivers, it was not only a great-sounding speaker but, more significant, the first truly full-range, bullet-proof speaker of domestically acceptable size. At that time, all the other big speakers were really big. Most of them, from Altec, JBL, and Tannoy, were derived from professional/studio designs: even B&W's own landmark DM70, with its panoramic electrostatic tweeter and 15" woofer, was difficult to fit into a home listening room. In a sense, the 801 was the first uncompromised domestic loudspeaker.

Since then, the 800 series has grown: by expansion, with the additions of larger and smaller models; and by evolution, with the Matrix (1987) and, later, Nautilus (1998) lines. Beginning with the original three-way, three-box design, features were retained and added, and some became emblematic of the 800s: a curved main cabinet of multilaminate, Matrix cross-bracing inside, the use of nonresonant materials for the midrange and tweeter housings, a Kevlar midrange diaphragm with a free-suspension termination, a diamond-dome tweeter, a stiff composite woofer cone, and, especially, the Marlan midrange head and tweeter tube inspired by the classic Nautilus (1993), which has remained the flagship of the line.

The next morning, at B&W's Visitors' Center, I was given an overview of the history and philosophy of the 800 series by senior product manager Andy Kerr. Development of technology at B&W is ongoing, and many of the new features now being implemented have been in the works since well before the release of the previous 800 series. This theme was repeated by Martial Rousseau, head of research, who outlined the background work that determined the changes that have gone into the new speakers.

Recent improvements in structural analysis made possible by the use of a laser Doppler vibrometer permitted Rousseau's team to determine how the structures should be modified to minimize responses to sound-related forces. 3D printing allowed them to quickly print and test prototypes. Advances in finite-element analysis and computer modeling and simulation contributed to their research. This long and fascinating presentation included extraordinary graphics that showed how changes in shape and materials can reduce resonant responses and distortion. This was done by magnifying the time and amplitude of the real-world effects until the animated models bent and twisted like small buildings and bridges subjected to hurricane-force winds.

The new 800-series’ gracefully curved enclosures are formed under pressure in a heavy-duty press.

In short, a busy morning. That afternoon, I stretched my legs with a tour of the factory. Again, B&W's website boasts many illustrations and videos of the factory, but a few things stood out. According to Dave Ford, head of production, all B&W speakers used to be made in this 135,000-square-foot facility; now, it and its 320 employees make only the 800 models. To my surprise, production of the 800 D3 series was already in full swing, the intention being to have product in the distribution pipeline worldwide by launch date. As we toured each department—from driver construction and testing to cabinet construction and finishing to final assembly, quality control, and packaging—Ford showed me the care and precision of the work being done at each stage.

I was particularly impressed with the painting and finishing of the Turbine Head and solid-body tweeter housings (above). Following each of the multiple applications of paint, workers hand-polished and carefully inspected the housings. As I examined a rack full of housings, Ford told me that they were rejects; sure enough, their imperfections had been marked. But many of the circles surrounded flaws invisible to me, and those that I could see were minuscule. I asked Ford why they couldn't just mount these units so that their blemishes were hidden underneath, and I wondered how big a flaw had to be for a part to be rejected. His responses were swift and clear: No, he replied, they wouldn't use the part, and they had no defined criterion for rejection. Any noticeable imperfection, no matter how small, would result in rejection. Impressive.

My final morning at B&W was spent at the listening room in the Steyning Research Establishment (SRE), originally established by the company's c-founder John Bowers as B&W's R&D facility (above). I'd earlier visited the site to see the labs, the modeling shop, and the buzzing engineering workroom, where more than two dozen people were preparing for the future. Still, the day's biggest kick was entering the B&W listening room, pictures of which I've seen for decades. Here is where every B&W speaker model and update is vetted by the designers and production people.

The purpose of that day's auditions was to compare the older Diamond models with the new D3 models. The B&W guys swapped them in and out, using padded hand trucks. In every case, using the same few musical selections, the D3s sounded distinctly clearer and more dynamic, and conveyed a more open and convincing soundstage. I returned home greatly looking forward to getting a pair of 802 D3s to audition on my own home field: see my review elsewhere in this issue.

Footnote 1: It was announced in early May 2016 that Bowers & Wilkins had been sold to EVA Automation, a much smaller—40 employees vs B&W’s 1100—audio/video operation based in Silicon Valley. It had been common knowledge for some time that B&W’s previous majority owner, Joe Atkins, was looking for a buyer; the surprise was that the deal was struck just a few weeks after Atkins’s first meeting with the purchaser, Gideon Yu, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, and co-owns the San Francisco 49ers football team. Yu was previously a chief financial officer at Facebook.—Ed.

TJ's picture

Really? Back then, we chose the KEF 105 over the 801 as our recording studio monitors. We never had any regrets about that decision. It doesn't diminish the 801 or the fine B&W speakers of today to give KEF the recognition they deserve, then and now.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Ah, yes. I will grant you that. In the 60s and 70s, I was a big fan of KEF for my DIY designs.

The 105 was, in many ways, comparable and deserves acknowledgement. My only excuse is that my local audio shop was a B&W dealer, so I got to spend a lot of time with the 801 but could sample the 105 only at shows.

jimtavegia's picture

We can only hope that the sale will allow B&W to continue their current path of greatness. I show to my middle school math class my B&W DVD of Sound of Science to show them the marriage of math and science and what it can do properly applied. And of course we listen to the music clips as well. They are pretty impressed. Most never look at all the stuff they own and wonder about how it is made... sad in a way.

Thanks for sharing.