Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Loudspeaker Review

Posted on 6th February, 2024

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Loudspeaker Review

David Price auditions the latest and greatest version of this iconic British high-end speaker and comes away suitably impressed…

Bowers & Wilkins

801 D4 Signature

Floorstanding Loudspeaker

AU$79,900 RRP

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Review

For many audiophiles, the Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 is the ultimate high-end loudspeaker. It is far from being the most expensive design on the market, and there are products that purport to be even better still, yet it packs an amazing punch and is such a strong all-round performer that it's really hard to argue with. Indeed, this is precisely the big B&W's appeal – it's an iconic product that has got ever better over the years and is the automatic choice for those who want no-nonsense, super-fi sound.

I have auditioned every incarnation of the 801 over the past three decades and personally reviewed most of them. For me, the line started getting seriously good nearly ten or so years ago with the advent of the D3. Then its D4 replacement a few years back ratcheted up the performance even higher. I now struggle to think of any high-end speaker at or near its price that can offer as convincing an all-round sound. This, in turn, begs the question, how best to replace it when the time comes for the D5 refresh? Well, Bowers seems to have been asking itself that same question, and the new Signature you see here goes a fair way to answering it.

Work began on the speaker almost immediately after the September 2021 release of the current generation of 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers, according to B&W's Andy Kerr. “The Signature name is one of the most evocative in our history,” he tells me. “We only use it when the product concept we've got in mind is appropriate and consistent with the narrative that underpins our Signature models. After John Bowers died from cancer in December 1987, as a tribute to him, the engineering team developed a no-holds-barred special-edition speaker, the 1991 Silver Signature, that would encapsulate all his ideas and everything he stood for in one product. It would be a personal tribute, a loudspeaker imbued with his distinctive signature.”

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Review

“In the past,” Andy explains, “the concept was reserved solely for events such as anniversaries, as with the Signature Diamond, released to celebrate our fortieth anniversary in 2006. Now we've moved to a more frequent cadence for releasing Signature loudspeakers. Essentially, so long as we feel we can deliver sufficiently impactful technical and aesthetic upgrades that merit the name, we'll explore the idea of introducing new models to complement an existing range. Developing the 801 and 805 D4 Signature after the introduction of the new 800 Series Diamond models in 2021 meant that, in many cases, the team was able to further explore ideas that had already been evaluated during the development process of the standard model.”

The changes made to warrant the Signature sobriquet were a combination of computer simulation, modelling, development, measurement and listening. Andy says: “I have always found it fascinating how much can evolve in the listening process and how much extra magic the acoustic team is able to conjure from each model during the course of the final sign-off process. That said, there's a tonne of intensive, laborious and yet very necessary research and development work that underpins that final listening stage.” For those wanting a deep dive into B&W's design philosophy, click here.

UP CLOSE

The new Signature version of the 801 D4 is the standard model but with some very carefully targeted changes made to certain aspects of the design. This means it's a 3-way bass reflex loudspeaker and sports B&W's latest and best 25mm Diamond Dome tweeter, a single 150mm Continuum cone FST midrange driver and twin 250mm Aerofoil Profile bass units. These are set into a massive cabinet that measures 1,221x451x600mm and weighs 100kg. This enclosure is an extremely solid affair, with extensive internal bracing, and comes in a choice of California Burl Gloss and Midnight Blue Metallic, both with black grilles.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Review

These new finishes are beautiful and exclusive to the Signature version. But the improvements are more than skin-deep. Firstly, the aluminium top-plate has been revised with new machined-out holes in the structure to change the resonant frequency. The top-plate has also been redesigned to offer a higher clamping force. This is paired with a modified leather-trimmed plastic collar that slots into the aforementioned top plate; now with a change to the ribbed design on the underside and featuring a so-called Techsound damping material, also utilised in the 'Turbine Head' midrange section.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Review

The Signature retains both the tweeter and the 'tweeter on top' housing for the high-frequency driver, but the grille mesh has been redesigned. Andy Kerr says it offers a better combination of stiffness and openness and took over twenty-five iterations to perfect. Without giving too much away, this improvement is surprisingly noticeable and will be rolled out throughout the company's range of speakers. Great news.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Review

At the other end of the frequency range, the Signature gets a new bass unit with better steel in the top plate and mid plate; this is said to lower inductance and reduce current distortion. The speaker also gets an improved bass port assembly; the Flowport flare goes from being plastic to cast aluminium for greater rigidity. Finally, as per tradition, the Signature 801 D4 gets tweaked bypass capacitors in the crossover. All the other aspects of the standard model have been retained, from the    Biomimetic Suspension to the Turbine Head design.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Review

Bowers claims a frequency response of 15Hz to 28kHz, ±3dB; I don't always believe manufacturers' specifications, but my ears tell me that there's not much wrong with this. Quoted nominal impedance is a standard 8 ohms but can drop down to 3 ohms, meaning you'll need a muscular solid-state amplifier to get this speaker to give its best. Recommended amplifier power is from 50W to 1000W. For this review, I used the excellent Rotel Michi P5 S1 DAC/preamplifier, driving a pair of Michi M8 mono power amps.

THE LISTENING

The standard 801 D4 offers tremendous power, physicality and punch alongside great clarity, low colouration and excellent soundstaging. I can think of various loudspeakers that surpass it in some aspects – all significantly more expensive, by the way – yet it's hard to think of rivals that deliver meaningful, comprehensive improvements. And therein lies the big B&W's strength. The new Signature version brings more of everything. Especially noticeable is the improvement in bass grip and tunefulness, midband clarity and treble quality, plus depth perspective and image placement. It also sounds more rhythmically coherent as the music flows better. There's a touch more textural detail, too, with the standard 801 D4 lacking some of the Signature's sheer intricacy and insight.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Review

4hero's Spirits in Transit is a great track with which to make comparisons between the standard and Signature versions of the 801 D4. Play the former, and you're struck by this speaker's clarity, authority, musicality and ease. The latter two facets, by the way, are significantly better than the previous D3 version, but I digress. With a decent source and amplification, few audiophiles will have heard a superior speaker to this. It tracks every instrument in the mix in an apparently effortless way, letting you sit back and focus on whichever strand of the music you so wish. Or you can push up the volume and be amazed by the gut-thumping bass, the way the snare drums and rim shots hit you in your upper chest, or those soaring, wiry violins. It's classic studio monitor stuff, the hi-fi loudspeaker equivalent of a supercar that's impervious to its surroundings, offering vast power and impeccable road manners.

The Signature version delivers an even better overall sound; the improvements seem subtle initially, yet the more you listen, the more profound they become. You get a slightly larger and cleaner window onto the recording, with even crisper bass, more detailed and intimate midrange, and vibrant treble. Suddenly, you can hear the exquisite grain of the strings, which become imbued with a lovely natural timbre, as do the woodwind clarinet and flugelhorn. Likewise, the sound of the electric piano work is so delicate and authentic, and the tautness of the plucked double bass strings is a joy to behold.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Review

Soundstaging is improved, too. The 801 D4 Signature retains the original model's great sense of architectural correctness, with everything laid out clearly and precisely before you within the soundstage. Yet stereo images are more precisely focused, and the depth perspective is even better. You still don't quite get an electrostatic panel-style 'out of the box' experience, yet it is surprisingly close – it's all commendably even both on and off-axis. All the same, you never get the sense that all this detail is being laser-etched on your forehead. Instead, the Signature actually does more, whilst apparently trying less hard.

Dynamically, the new Signature is excellent – and again subtly superior to the standard version. It doesn't quite deliver toe-crushing amounts of power with the amazing speed of speakers such as JBL's twice-as-expensive Everest DD67700, yet it's close – and is also able to go extremely loud with nonchalant ease. There's no huffing and puffing, nor does the D4 Signature need time to pick up its skirt and run – so to speak – when called upon to deliver massive bass transients. It rather reminds me of a huge and powerful 'mega truck' that barrels along, completely unperturbed, regardless of the road surface. This isn't the most supple-sounding big speaker I've heard in the bass, yet it still makes listening to music great fun all the same. I loved how the bass line underpinned the song's percussive work from the congas and marimbas.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Review

The Signature's superior musicality makes a surprising difference to poorly recorded tracks such as REM's dirge-like Maps and Legends – the new speaker is clearly better able to drill down into the detail. This beautiful folk rock song sees singer Michael Stipe's sultry vocals immersed deep in the mix, dominated by Peter Buck's jangling Rickenbacker guitar. It can sound thick and muddy on lesser loudspeakers; however, the Signature scythes through it and connects the listener with the emotion of the performance rather than the recording's obvious failings. This big Bowers & Wilkins makes it more palatable than you might expect, beguiling the listener with the dreamy nature of the song.

By contrast, the stock 801 D4 sounds more mechanical. It tells you all about the poor recording quality and dutifully does its job of playing the song in a workmanlike way. This is impressive enough for most people, yet the Signature version better conveys the emotion within. This is helped by the subtly tighter bass control that the latter provides. Mike Mills' bass guitar work underpins this song like a vice – it's rather unrelenting on the standard 801 D4, yet it becomes more fluid through the Signature, better capturing the nuances of phrasing.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 Signature Review

One great strength of the stock 801 D4 is that it has no particular musical preferences – it can mix it with most super-speakers no matter what genre you choose. So it's no surprise, then, that the stock version carries DJ Chris Paul's For Your Love in a most satisfying manner. This is a compressed, fairly lo-fi techno recording from 2011, yet the big Bowers does it true justice – and the result is a super-fast and pacy sound with really tight, driving electronic bass drums, a soaring chorus and a forward yet not piercing female vocal line. The huge, gutsy, squelchy analogue synth bass is but the icing on the cake. It's surprising how many high-end speakers fall to pieces with this sort of programme material – it's almost as if their designers have never listened to electronic music, which poses its own very unique set of challenges. Not so here, though.

The Signature version handles this recording even more dextrously. It sounds marginally more controlled, coherent, open and insightful. Given the lo-fi nature of the drum machine's hi-hat cymbal sounds, it's surprising that the upgraded 801 really jumps ahead in the treble department. Yet there's a lustre to high-frequency sounds that the standard 801 D4 simply cannot match. And when you move to more demanding programme material, such as the beautiful Debussy prelude that is La Cathedrale Engloutie, the difference in the piano sound is clear to hear. All its sparkling harmonics suddenly come alive, with this superb close-miked recording showing striking speed and attack. Here, the Signature is sublime, its tweeter being one of the best conventional dome types I have heard so far. As those big piano cadences crash, the big Bowers convincingly carries the sound of this instrument on the ragged edge. The magical evocation of mood as the cathedral symbolically rises out of the sea is quite a thing to experience.

THE VERDICT

Running the gamut of my favourite recordings – from Haydn's glorious opera, The Creation, to far less highbrow eighties pop – Bowers & Wilkins' new 801 D4 Signature makes a great case for itself. It's not vastly superior to the standard speaker, yet its obviously enhanced sound will make many existing owners wonder about upgrading. My gut feeling is that if you're contemplating getting into 801 D4 ownership, you should audition the Signature before you make a decision – and then you'll likely opt for it if you can. If you already own a pair of 801 D4s, then it might be better to wait for the D5 in a few year's time, which should likely surpass even this D4 Signature model. If you currently have D3s, then you might like to get down to your friendly Bowers & Wilkins dealer pronto.

Visit Bowers & Wilkins for more information

    David Price's avatar

    David Price

    David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.

    Posted in:StereoLUX! Hi-Fi Loudspeakers Floor Standing Applause Awards 2024
    Tags: bowers wilkins  bowers & wilkins  masimo 



    JOIN IN THE DISCUSSION

    Want to share your opinion or get advice from other enthusiasts? Then head into the Message Forums where thousands of other enthusiasts are communicating on a daily basis.
    CLICK HERE FOR FREE MEMBERSHIP

    00004912

    applause awards

    Each time StereoNET reviews a product, it is considered for an Applause Award. Winning one marks it out as a design of great quality and distinction – a special product in its class, on the grounds of either performance, value for money, or usually both.

    Applause Awards are personally issued by StereoNET’s global Editor-in-Chief, David Price – who has over three decades of experience reviewing hi-fi products at the highest level – after consulting with our senior editorial team. They are not automatically given with all reviews, nor can manufacturers purchase them.

    The StereoNET editorial team includes some of the world’s most experienced and respected hi-fi journalists with a vast wealth of knowledge. Some have edited popular English language hi-fi magazines, and others have been senior contributors to famous audio journals stretching back to the late 1970s. And we also employ professional IT and home theatre specialists who work at the cutting edge of today’s technology.

    We believe that no other online hi-fi and home cinema resource offers such expert knowledge, so when StereoNET gives an Applause Award, it is a trustworthy hallmark of quality. Receiving such an award is the prerequisite to becoming eligible for our annual Product of the Year awards, awarded only to the finest designs in their respective categories. Buyers of hi-fi, home cinema, and headphones can be sure that a StereoNET Applause Award winner is worthy of your most serious attention.