Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 Floorstanding Loudspeaker Review
Rafael Todes auditions the latest version of his very own reference floor standing speaker…
Bowers & Wilkins
USD $13,000 /ea
I have long been a keen advocate and appreciator of the Bowers & Wilkins 802 loudspeaker in various guises. Many years ago, I started with a pair of Nautilus 802s, followed by an 802 D. I currently use the 802 D3 as my reference speaker to review and mix the many recordings that I make as a professional musician. So I was naturally curious to see what innovations B&W has brought to the table with this latest launch…
The 802 D4 has as its genesis the smaller brother of the original 801, a speaker that was and still is to be found as a reference monitor at the Abbey Road Studios. First launched in 1980 in a similar form factor, it has gone through successive iterations. In 1986 B&W launched the so-called Matrix iteration, which had a matrix of braces within, to stiffen the cabinet. In 1988 the S2 was launched, and in 1999 the Nautilus version emerged, with the now-famous Nautilus tweeter enclosure, which in 2005 was updated with a diamond tweeter and got the name 802D.
In 2010 this was updated to the D2 marque, and in 2015 came my D3 model, with the turbine head being constructed of solid aluminium and the body being constructed with multiple layers of beach wood pressed together, taking onboard a more structural shape and known as 'reverse wrap”. Of course, this brief summary of the history of the 802 only skirts the surface of the multiple changes included in each iteration – but each has been a marked improvement on what came before.
Importantly, the benefit of a speaker that has undergone multiple versions is that the current research team stands on the shoulders of all the preceding teams. They have the opportunity to address the concerns and further tweak – or in this case, substantially rethink – the characteristics of the new version. I am told that even when a new speaker is launched, R&D continues towards the next model – this is effectively the acoustic equivalent to painting the Forth Bridge!
This latest 802 D4 has many new additions. Starting from the top of the speaker and working down, it has a substantially upgraded cabinet and an all-aluminium top plate onto which there is mounted a rather beautiful piece of Connolly leather trim. The tweeter tube is longer and is now decoupled from the housing with two points of contact with silicone rubber. There are now two neodymium magnets in the motor, not three as before, with other improvements to the voice coil, which is now lighter and with more vent holes behind the winding to clarify the sounds of lower frequencies, says B&W.
The midrange driver has been redesigned with a four-point decoupling with the turbine head, together with biomimetic suspension to replace the previous spider suspension, which yields an 80dB cut in noise at 1kHz. The low frequencies have been improved, with the Aerofoil cone now having a foam anti-resonance plug. Similarly, the three steel parts of the system now have lower inductance and electrical conductivity, which lowers the current distortion and THD. The double spider suspension has been changed for a single spider.
The cabinet has seen changes to the internal bracing, now with vertical sections as well as the previous horizontal braces. These are now screwed and glued into place - before they were pressed. I notice that the aluminium plinth is a bit wider than the D3; this is apparently a safety feature and not for acoustic reasons. It makes the speaker more stable in the case a sideways force is applied and, therefore, less likely to topple over.
There are some other minor changes to the speaker terminals at the rear, as well as individual driver covers, as the D3 has a dual cover for the bottom two drivers. The speakers come in black, white, rosenut and walnut, and the quality of the finish is amongst the finest you will see anywhere at any price. It's impossible to fault.
As you would expect from the second-from-top model in B&W's flagship range, the 802 D4 is big and heavy; it measures 1218x413x602mm and weighs 88.1kg apiece. This means that you'll need a large listening room and sensible access to it – because getting the speakers inside, and set up, is an adventure in itself. Effectively, it's a three-person lift, and even this isn't easy despite the brilliant packaging. Once on the level, the speaker has castors that make it mobile. Installation is not an operation for the faint-hearted and really needs a specialist mover due to the weight and size.
The full specs are on the Bowers & Wilkins website, but the vital statistics are a claimed sensitivity of 90dB, which is so-so for a really big speaker such as this – but still good in the great scheme of things. It means that relatively low powered Class A solid-state and valve amplifiers can have a fairly easy time driving them – or at least go louder than you'd expect. Experience teaches me that despite the decent efficiency, big B&Ws such as this still really benefit from high power, high-end amplifiers; the upper range of the 802 D4 is 500W RMS. The frequency range is quoted as 17Hz to 28kHz (-3dB), which is about as wide as anyone will ever need.
Another issue you should be aware of from a user's point of view is the running-in process for this big B&W. I think this is often overstated in hi-fi reviews – of course, it's necessary but isn't usually make-or-break. Yet, with the 802 D4, it is an essential 'rite of passage'. Much to StereoNET editor-in-chief David Price's dismay, it took far longer than he had hoped before I could complete this review!
Having had three new pairs of 802s so far, I was well aware of the running-in required. When I received the Diamond model, I remember it took three months before I could do any serious listening; they had Kevlar midrange cones which were particularly unforgiving. The 802 D4 isn't as fussy in this respect, but it still took two months of a few hours of use per day for things to come right. The treble gained focus, the extra resonance of the speakers diminished, and I was left with the true voice of the speaker.
My reference system is based around two VAC Phi monobloc valve power amplifiers, rated at 200W RMS per channel; I have never had the slightest problem with these driving the previous model. In front of these is a Townshend Audio Allegri Reference passive preamplifier and, before that, a Chord Dave DAC and M-Scaler, plus a dCS Network Bridge. I also use Townshend Audio F1 speaker cable and a PS10 power regenerator.
Sir Simon Rattle's recent recordings of late Haydn symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic are excellently recorded, brilliantly characterised and very useful for making audio comparisons. Listening to the Symphony No 90 in C major, it was clear that – once run in – this speaker is an extremely serious contender for the best that I have ever had in my system.
The top end, which on my previous 802 D3 could occasionally sound harsh, seemed to be softer and gentler yet still very accurate. Indeed the treble, which has got progressively less strident through the post Diamond generations, has reached a point of great sweetness now. The other striking feature is how bass seems to go deeper now. Typically, when double basses have a tune, you hear the phrase till the end, rather than select notes which seem to disappear into a puff of smoke. These new speakers have the ability to reproduce low bass with consummate control and variety.
Of course, this new loudspeaker can do immense scale – it always could – but now there is a feeling of top-to-bottom control of the sound, the whole orchestra being rendered beautifully. String sound is detailed, nuanced and weighty. On the Haydn piece, the woodwinds were well located at the back of the sonic picture and sound characterful and sweet. Really rather impressive! The timing on this recording is immaculate; the bass speaks fast and tunefully.
One thing that perhaps I miss over the previous model is the airiness of the soundstage. It is possible that with the revoiced treble, there is a slight trade-off operating here, and some of those high frequencies which serve to create the sense of air have been reined in a touch. That might be the trade-off that gives the smoother, less brittle top end, but on the other hand, the speaker might need a few more months of running in to really bloom?
Flicking over to the older model with the same piece shows a lesser degree of integration from the orchestra as a whole. When things get loud on the D3, I don't hear the same degree of bass cover that I hear with the newer model. Things – particularly the upper strings – come across as drier, more studio-like and less rounded, and bass is less prominent and less well integrated. I am less aware of the musical conversations going on in the music with the older speakers, and it sounds more analytical.
Indeed the bass of the new 802 D4 is very special. Oscar Peterson's We Get Requests, and You Look Good to Me via hi-res Qobuz had wonderful low-frequency detail. This recording inherently lacks distributed stereo, as it's a bit extreme in terms of the left/right mix, but I love the way the entire range of the double bass' pizzicato was so clear. Peterson's piano sound was just a bit more real than the previous model, there was a little more detail in the sound, and due to the immense complexity of the piano sound, it sounds more refined and more like a single instrument. Percussion sounded superb, with effortlessly good hi-hat work, starting and stopping near instantaneously. The whole track just seemed to swing and was highly dance-worthy!
Listening to my pair of D3s in a side-by-side comparison, instruments seem less fulsome while bass is less rich and resonant; when Peterson goes down then deep some of the notes disappear. Yet, with the new model, they are all there, and there is immense clarity of the musical line. The three instruments on the earlier model aren't as well integrated and seem less of a whole. The earlier model is a bit drier in sound, presenting more like a studio monitor than a hi-fi loudspeaker compared with the later incarnation.
One great torture track for loudspeakers is Gergiev's recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with the Kirov Orchestra – you have musical violence on an industrial scale! What's so incredible about the new 802 D4 is just how well it portrays the complexities of structure and form in this music. As my interest shifted from one group of instruments to another, the B&W was absolutely confident in its ability to go straight to the heart of the score. The bass drum sounded powerful, precise and massive, very different to the D3 in this respect. The new speaker also portrayed the delicacy of the quieter passages, whilst bringing out the violent conflict in the music in a way I have not heard on my system before.
Tonally it is a distinct improvement on its predecessor. Tears of Joy is one of Antonio Forcione's finest albums, and the 24-bit digital recording offers up a clean punch to the sound. Here the 802 D4 sounded fast and coherent, really tight at the bottom end, and able to convey all the subtleties of the percussion littering the sound stage. The guitar got the best rendition that I've had in my system, combining great 'twang' with the wider body of the sound in a way that was utterly believable. The massive range of textures of the contrasting instruments were beautifully expounded here. There is something so satisfying about listening to a top recording through a great pair of loudspeakers – it's what hi-fi dreams are made of! I came away genuinely surprised by how much extra Bowers & Wilkins has eked out from the 802 – so many improvements from what was already an impressive offering.
The new 802 D4 is not a cheap loudspeaker but offers value for money, nonetheless. Think of it as a high-end design for all seasons, as it works so well across such a wide range of music. It is large but not huge, whilst having a bandwidth and a physical scale of sound that's wide enough for pretty much anyone except wild eccentrics. The new D4 version shows up the D3 as being cruder than I had suspected. It retains the great skills of the older design whilst polishing things to an even more lustrous shine – and the result is that everything sounds more natural and less 'hi-fi'. The technological improvements that Bowers & Wilkins have made are real and not just marketing waffle. A quantum leap over what came before, current 800 Series owners and B&W newbies alike owe it to themselves to hear this.
Gifted violinist Rafael is one quarter of the Allegri String Quartet, playing second fiddle. Once a member of the CBSO under Sir Simon Rattle, he now teaches at London’s Junior Royal Academy. A long-time audiophile, he’s still on a quest for the perfect sound.
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