B&W 802D loudspeaker

Back in the 1970s, I used to hang out at an audio store on Northern Boulevard's Miracle Mile. After business hours—and sometimes during them—a group of us audiophiles would put every new product through the wringer. One of the most anticipated was the original B&W 801, which appeared in 1979. The 801 was simply unflappable. Fed enough power, a pair of them played louder and cleaner than anything we had ever heard, including the mammoth, multimodule Fultons that were the pride of that shop. But—and this was a big but—the 801 lacked immediacy and engagement, and I soon fell back to preferring an earlier B&W model, the DM6, which seemed more coherent and to offer the music out to the listener. The 801 was more objective and detached, but boy, could it knock you over with the right source material.

Perhaps I was imprinted by that experience. Afterward, I observed the introduction of each successive generation of the 800 series with interest but some detachment—until I reviewed the Signature 800 for the June 2002 Stereophile. No need for you to consult the archives—I was very impressed with the Signature 800, finding it much more outgoing and immediate-sounding than I'd expected, and with no faults other than a less-than-generous lateral soundstage and a tendency toward a more in-your-face sound than I ultimately preferred. But despite the Signature 800's all-around excellence, B&W now offers a new 800 series that retains many features of the earlier series—and some substantial changes.

The innovations B&W has included in its new 800 series include tweeters with diamond domes, redesigned Kevlar FST midrange cones, new woofer diaphragm materials, and a new crossover configuration. And while to the casual observer the 802D may look much like its predecessor, the Nautilus 802, there are external changes as well.

The 1" tweeter used in the new 800 series has a dome of vacuum-deposited particles of diamond, which, though not as low in mass as materials such as beryllium, possesses greater stiffness in the useful frequency range. With its new suspension and motor assembly, the tweeter's lowered fundamental resonance also permits a first-order, 6dB/octave crossover to the midrange, which in turn dictated the new series' most obvious external feature: the bullet-shaped tweeter enclosure is now embedded deeper into the midrange enclosure, so that the tweeter and midrange drive-units are in phase at the crossover frequency.

The 6" Kevlar-cone midrange driver, in B&W's signature yellow tint, has been updated with the addition of a foam damping ring under the cone periphery, and its more powerful but smaller neodymium magnet structure and redesigned basket mean that obstruction of the cone's rear radiation is greatly reduced. The controversial FST midrange cone is still intended to break up in a controlled manner, but even more uniformly and predictably. Again, the characteristic midrange Nautilus-shell is nestled into the soft, glove-leather embrace of the main enclosure, as in earlier 800-series speakers.

Two 8" woofers with Rohacell diaphragms complete the driver array. Rohacell is a lightweight sandwich of rigid foam between sheets of carbon fiber. B&W engineers like to demonstrate its remarkable stiffness by standing on a speaker cone unsupported by frame or magnet assembly.

B&W's proprietary Matrix construction is retained for the woofer cabinet, but the 802D's base and port are inherited from the Signature 800. The flared port is lined with dimples that, like those on a golf ball, are intended to reduce air turbulence, providing for noiseless laminar flow at all sound-pressure levels. Further, the port is aimed downward at and precisely spaced from a fixed base. The construction, shape, and relationship of the base to the port fixes the port's performance and makes it independent of floor coverings and mounting devices, such as casters and spikes. The wider bandwidths of the new drive-units allowed B&W to simplify the crossover, with fewer passive elements in the signal path between input and driver.

Biamp terminals and jumpers are provided, as are machined aluminum phase plugs to replace the plastic ones, if you can live without protective screens over the Kevlar midrange drivers.

As before, B&W provided me with delivery and setup—these babies weigh 176 lbs each. Still, I was impressed by the clever design of the reusable packing and think that the average healthy buyer should be able to handle moving these speakers, with a little help from a friend. The little casters provided aid in positioning the speakers on carpets but might mar a hardwood floor.

Rolled into position in my main system, the 802Ds seemed only a bit less imposing than the Signature 800s and no less beautiful. After biwiring them with AudioQuest Mont Blanc/DBS to my bridged Bel Canto eVo6 monoblocks, I immediately noticed the 802D's relatively high sensitivity—my system's default settings were a bit generous for them. Even with the level controls trimmed, the 802D still displayed a little British reserve, but sounded good enough for the B&W guys to know that their work was done.

Of course, that was not enough for me. I spent the next few weeks fussing with exact speaker position, orientation, and room treatments to optimize the 802Ds' performance as perceived at my regular listening position. They ended up in almost the same places where they'd begun, but with a toe-in of about 10°. I moved a pair of Echo Buster Phase-4 traps into the room corners behind the speakers, rotated to expose their more reflective sides, and placed a pair of regular Echo Busters directly to the 802Ds.

The 802D, like other topnotch designs, was immediately musically appealing and disarming. The bass was full, the presentation somewhat forward. The 802D seemed to invigorate favorite old recordings, drawing me into the music. Though I must now proceed to the analytical, the 802D kept pulling me away from that responsibility.

Starting with the bass, the 802D did a great job. Extreme low bass, which depends as much on the room and speaker position as on the speaker itself, was extended, but less so than I recall hearing from the larger Signature 800, or than I can get from a dedicated subwoofer. That said, the quality of the low bass and midbass, where voices and overall tonal balance begin, was excellent. Cellos and basses, both orchestral and electric, had weight and impact but retained all their distinguishing overtones in appropriate balance. Listening through the 802Ds to the opening lower strings of Boccherini's La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid, from the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra's Die Röhre—The Tube (SACD, Tacet SACD74), was scarily close to getting the Stuttgarters themselves into my chamber. Nor was there any need to suspend disbelief when the higher strings entered with smooth strokes and delicate pizzicatos.

I then pulled out my old bass torture discs. The 802D was capable of pounding power without losing the characteristic acoustic qualities of the electronic Cosmic Hippo or of Saint-Saëns' Symphony 3. While some bass EQ to minimize room influence might have been useful, it was clear that my room and the 802D's low end nicely accommodated each other; short of sound effects, I had no need of a subwoofer.

Because the 802D splits the range of the human voice by crossing over from the woofers to the midrange driver at 350Hz, it was remarkable that I heard no discontinuities in voices that spanned that transition. Instead, they were full and somewhat forward, which suited some better than others. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's mezzo-soprano on her Handel Arias (SACD/CD, Avie AV0030) had a smooth, engaging presence, but Patricia Barber sounded almost too intense on her Café Blue (SACD, Mobile Fidelity MFSA2002).

I also found that, just below the lower crossover frequency, the smoothness of lower male voices varied when I used different power amps. Men sounded full and forward with the sainted McCormack DNA-1 Rev.A, a bit less forward but still ripe with the Simaudio Moon W-8. With either amp, male voices and lower strings had a greater-than-natural heft that some visitors found impressive. With the Classé Omicrons or bridged Bel Canto eVo6s, that range was not emphasized though still full enough to be thoroughly engaging and realistic, but was disappointingly lean with the admittedly overmatched 56W of the Linn Chakra C4100 amp. I settled on the eVo and the Omicrons for most of my listening.

Regardless of the power amp used, the 802D exhibited degrees of detail resolution and clarity from the midrange up that could put some electrostatic speakers to shame. The speaker's generous bass helped it to engage me in a way that few speakers have, including B&W's own estimable Signature 800 or my reference, the Revel Ultima Studio. Perhaps this was due to the diamond tweeter's transparency without any glint or tizz. Cymbals, struck or brushed, had realistic initial transients and extended, detailed decays. There was no subjective brightness in the highs from any musical source, and the soft background hiss of FM broadcasts was extended, as with the other speakers. The 802D's upper-range transparency was as likely due to the seamless integration of its diamond tweeter with its midrange, both mounted in the unique Nautilus head unit, which blended their outputs into what seemed a single, indivisible sound source even when listened to from only a few inches away.

All of these probably contributed to the 802Ds' open, wide, deep soundstage, which seemed almost completely disassociated from the physical structures of the speakers themselves. Especially in the upper midrange and treble, voices and instruments were magically arrayed in a large three-dimensional space that began well in front of the speakers. The 802Ds did equally impressive jobs with small jazz ensembles such as Ray Brown's, on his Soular Energy (DVD-Audio, Concord Jazz DVD2011), and small chamber groups such as Pavel Serbin's Pratum Integrum Orchestra on The Italian Album, a disc of music by Dmitry Bortnyansky (SACD/CD, Caro Mitis CM 0042003), revealing all the intricacies and interactions while simultaneously establishing their presence in the ambience of an actual performance space. In fact, so generous was the 802Ds' spatial rendition that switching to the multichannel tracks of the Bortnyansky hybrid SACD gave only a subtle increase in soundstage width and virtually no change in balance, resolution, or soundstage depth.

B&W Loudspeakers
54 North Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864-2699
(978) 664-2870