B&W Matrix 800 loudspeaker

We all know it's impossible to reproduce live music. An obvious statement, no doubt, and one that holds every audiophile hostage to the never-ending search. As a musician, I find the situation especially frustrating. The constant reminder of live vs reproduced makes living with an audio system a serious compromise, regardless of price or quality. About three and a half years ago, however, I reviewed a product which I felt, and still feel, offers the first real glimpse of that impossible dream: the B&W 801 Matrix Monitor (footnote 1). Although it wasn't perfect, I found this speaker provided more musical honesty than anything I had heard before. In this respect, it established a new standard by which others would be judged.

Well, B&W has done it again. With the introduction of the Matrix 800, they have redefined the liaison between music and machine, offering a product that again I feel is destined to become a standard of excellence. This is, in my opinion, the first speaker design to successfully meld the dichotomy of musical and sonic reference, without making any compromises. One may say that this is a contradiction, since "reference" implies an analytical quality rather than the ability to provide an emotionally moving listening experience. And in all other cases, I would have to agree. But not this time. The Matrix 800 has the uncanny ability to uncover the most minute flaws inherent in source material and electronics, while supplying a listening experience only rivaled by live music. Yes, there are more expensive speakers that will provide grander displays of audio spectacle, but not with the same magical mix of musical honesty and ultimate transparency as the 800.

With my beloved 801s relinquishing the throne to their new, more expensive cousins, the question must be asked: Do I still like the 801? You bet. Next to the 800, it remains my speaker of choice. The next logical step in this discussion is an apples/apples comparison between the two. A difficult task, since they are so entirely different in all respects. But if I were pushed to make an absolute comparison between these two products, I'd have to say that the 800 is the full realization of the seed planted by the 801. In other words, the 801 redefines dynamic loudspeaker design—the 800 redefines the art of musical reproduction.

Physical highlights
The Matrix 800 is a unique speaker—you'll either love it or think it's the ugliest thing since the Edsel. In contemporary surroundings, such as in the company of the art works of Morris Lewis or Pablo Picasso, a pair would be magnificent. But in a small room, decorated with English oak and pine antiques, such as I have, they stick out like the biggest, sorest rosewood thumbs imaginable. When I mentioned to my wife, Lynn-Jane, that perhaps a less obtrusive finish such as black ash would make them more domestically palatable, she came back with "That's about as effective as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!" We presently have a standoff between speakers and spouse. She hates the way they look but loves the way they sound (a true love-hate relationship). I guess I get to keep them.

Physically, the Matrix 800 stands just over 6' tall, with quasi-pentagonal woofer enclosures located on top and bottom. Each bass module is the vertical mirror image of the other, with front-venting circular ports located on the very bottom and top of the vertical array. To one side, these woofer cabinets extend into two triangular points, facing sideways, with the opposite side offering a flush surface from top to bottom of the speaker. The midrange/tweeter enclosure is vertically sandwiched between the two woofer modules, and the three cabinets rest on a flat base constructed of heavy-gauge cast alloy filled with nonresonant Fibercrete (the same material used in the midrange/tweeter heads of the Matrix 801 and 802 speakers). There are four threaded metal cones provided, which screw into the bottom side of the base. All three cabinets (two woofer, one midrange/tweeter) are connected with a rear-mounted steel coupling bridge affixed to the central cabinet (which is acoustically decoupled via energy-absorbent mountings).

The two complete speaker assemblies are mirror images of one another, which can either be placed with woofer cabinet points facing inward or outward (toward or away from the opposing speaker). Both of these positions are valid, depending on the individual room acoustics, and will be discussed in greater detail further on in this review.

Although the Matrix 800 differs dramatically in design from any previous B&W product, it represents an application of current technology rather than the incorporation of any radical innovations. According to the people at B&W, the development of the 800 has given them the opportunity to use a significant amount of the data gathered during their ten-year experience with both versions of the 801. Their "Matrix" technology, incorporating an internal system of honeycombs within the cabinets, is employed within the 800's woofer and midrange/tweeter enclosures and effectively produces sonically inert cabinets.

Unlike the Matrix 801, the 800 has separate crossovers housed in the three separate cabinets. Each woofer enclosure has a low-pass crossover dedicated to the driver inside, and the central cabinet houses the mid/high crossover boards. All crossover components are laid out to minimize any possible interactions and crosstalk, and polypropylene capacitors are used exclusively. There is no internal wiring between high-, mid-, and low-frequency drivers or crossovers. All the connections between the different sections are accomplished externally, via four pairs of WBT gold-plated binding posts (which are the finest I've yet come across). All internal wiring between binding posts, crossovers, and drivers is composed exclusively of van den Hul 2.5mm-square silver-plated OFC.

The 800 can be connected to the amplifier in a number of ways, but bi-wiring is suggested as a minimum by the manufacturer. To encourage this, B&W encloses a pair of Monster PowerLine cable jumpers for connecting the two woofers, on top and bottom of each speaker array. There are also pairs of solid metallic jumpers supplied for external connection between tweeter and midrange binding posts, so that all that is basically required is one source cable to the lower woofer binding posts, and one to the midrange or tweeter. Tri- and quad-wiring is also possible (I've tried both), as is bi- and tri-amping.

Just as with the 801, the 800 bass units are tuned to a fourth-order Bessel alignment (–6dB at 32Hz). However, the supplied bass-alignment line-level filter (aka "equalizer") converts the alignment to a Butterworth sixth-order (–6dB at 19Hz). The theoretical benefits conferred by this not only include an extended bass response in a cabinet tuned to a higher fundamental, but also a rapid attenuation (36dB/octave) of any low-frequency information below 19Hz that might cause excessive woofer excursions and possible distortion. While the bass-alignment filter is, in my opinion, a necessity for accurate low-frequency reproduction with the 801 Matrix Monitor, I'm not so sure that the situation is the same with the 800. More on this later.

Footnote 1: The B&W 801 review appeared in Stereophile Vol.10 No.9, December 1987.
B&W Group North America
54 North Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864-2699
(978) 664-2870