The 800 Series is the long-standing jewel in the Bowers & Wilkins crown. The passive loudspeaker range gets a regular refresh about every seven or eight years and it consistently improves upon the last iteration. The problem for many, however, is that the previous version of the 800 Series was already outstanding. Just how much better can they get? It was to address this very question that we ordered a pair of 805 D3 and 805 D4 from Bowers & Wilkins to compare.
A quick recap is in order; unlike other companies numbering systems, the numbers run backwards for Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series. The 805, being the smallest in the line, is the only stand-mount loudspeaker to carry an 800 Series badge. Like its bigger siblings, the 805 D4 is hand-built in Bowers & Wilkins’ head office factory complex in Worthing, on the South Coast of England. The 800 Series is also the cornerstone of the Bowers & Wilkins line; typically, the first to use technologies developed by the company’s R&D team.
The Hard Science Club
That phrase ‘R&D team’ is frequently chronically overstated in loudspeaker design, as it can mean one swivel-eyed guy with wild hair, a loudspeaker cookbook, and (maybe) a measuring microphone. However, in the case of Bowers & Wilkins, there is a team of engineers, acousticians, and technologists who do the hard science parts that help form the next generation of loudspeakers; that ‘next generation’ usually begins with the 800 Series and filters down through the rest of the Bowers & Wilkins range, and then – typically when out of patent – to the rest of the loudspeaker making community.
The loudspeaker’s headline change is its cabinet, and in some respects, this is the 805 D4 playing ‘catch up’ with the developments put into the D3-era floorstanders. Bowers & Wilkins describe this as a ‘reverse wrap’ cabinet; where the front baffle of the D3 was relatively flat and the cabinet was designed to curve around that baffle, the 805 D4 starts from a solid aluminium spine and the whole cabinet is curved from there. Not only does this give the loudspeaker a more modern, elegant, and gently curved front, it reduces the profile of the front baffle, there by reducing baffle-step problems and improving the dispersion properties of the drivers. It also significantly increases the rigidity of the loudspeaker itself.
This new cabinet design also means the 805 benefits more from Bowers & Wilkins huge presses in its Worthing factory. The previous MDF-braced pressed ply cabinet now a fully layered, glued and formed plywood enclosure and bracing system. This allows the 805 D4 to use improved internal chambering, both at the rear of the mid-bass unit and for the crossover itself, and Bowers & Wilkins’ aforementioned R&D team (I prefer ‘Band of Boffins’) have rubbed their accelerometers over every surface of that cabinet to optimise internal volume and control air pressure within the front-firing ported stand-mount.
Into the Continuum
Larger models in Bowers & Wilkins’ latest 800 Series use the new Biomimetic Suspension drivers, where a composite suspension system replaces the traditional cone spider. However, the 805 D4 retains a version the 165mm ‘Continuum Cone’ mid-bass driver from its D3 predecessor. It’s not merely last generation’s cone, however, as it has a new voice coil and former. It is also now mounted on an aluminium plate at the rear of the cabinet.
The reason for not using a Biomimetic Suspension driver is simple; those new units lack the cone excursion of Fixed Suspension Transducer/Continuum Cone designs. In larger, multiple bass cone systems that need for extra excursion goes away, but in a two-way stand-mount, using Biomimetic Suspension drivers would spell lighter bass.
Spider aside, the materials used in both ‘Biomimetic Suspension’ and ‘Continuum Cone’ drivers remain identical… and a closely-guarded trade secret. Bowers & Wilkins holds the secret in the same safe where the recipes for KFC and Coca-Cola and the formula for Krabby Patty burgers are kept. This secrecy is understandable; the company’s iconic woven yellow Kevlar cone became the subject of extensive rip-offs and clones and that’s a fate not to be repeated with subsequent drivers.
All we can say is it’s not yellow, it took years to develop, the cone material manages to be stiff in all the right places and yet flexible when required, meaning cone break-up modes are at once less abrupt and pushed further out of band. Bowers & Wilkins used Kevlar for years with good reason; but this silvery-white looking woven material that replaced it brings all the benefits of Kevlar to the table, and adds a lot of benefits of its own, making it a hard act to follow for Bowers & Wilkins rivals.
Similarly, the 25mm diamond dome tweeter is similar to the units that has been installed in 800 Series models for the last 15 years, with Bowers & Wilkins taking a pragmatic ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach. However, the 805 D4’s tweeter has two stronger magnets instead of the three in the D3, giving it more room to breathe. This gives the 805 D4 a frequency response up to a bat-eared 35kHz.
However, once again it’s the housing that’s changed… and changed for the better. The solid tweeter pod that the driver sits in is a longer, machined from solid aluminium, tapered tube. The 30cm long tube sits almost perfectly decoupled on a Connolly leather-clad cast aluminium top plate, as distinct from the wooden top panel of its predecessor.
Hits the spot
Sonically, this loudspeaker hits the spot fast. The most immediate thing that draws you in is the bass; for a small loudspeaker intended for small to medium rooms, there’s a healthy amount of gut-pounding, fast, deep, chunky bass firing at you.
Depending on your musical tastes, one of the first tracks you will play through these loudspeakers will reflect that bottom-end gruntiliciousness. I went with the title track from Infected Mushroom’s 2005 I’m The Supervisor [Resist], but it could just as easily been a track by Rammstein, The Prodigy, Orbital, The Chemical Brothers or Leftfield. I played it loud and powerful through a Burmester 911 Mk 3 power amp and it didn’t disappoint. Those bass notes come thick and fast here, and they could pose a near-existential threat to a ported two-way; at the very least, they arrive fast enough to choke up the port, turning precise deep beats into a more broken almost flatulent sound. The 805 D4, however, takes this in its stride, sounding every inch the bigger loudspeaker. Close your eyes and there is a larger floorstander bringing the ruckus, in the process producing a clear and detailed presentation of what passes for subtle bass textures in the techno onslaught.
Bowers & Wilkins is not undermining the laws of physics here, and it isn’t cheating with the 805 D4. There are natural limits to the bass of a two-way stand-mount loudspeaker, but what the 805 D4 does so well is push those limits without sacrificing performance. It’s not that it makes artificially deep bass, it’s that so many similarly specified loudspeakers pull their punches at the bottom end; either going for a mid-bass ‘lift’ at around 80Hz or just sounding bass light. The 805 D4 has sufficient bass energy to deliver clean and powerful bass down into the sub-40Hz region, and that is impressive in its own right.
Once you calm down and begin to play less hyperactive music, the quality of this loudspeaker shines through. It’s not simply a bass machine, but what drew you to the impressive bass holds in other places. The soundstage is wide and deep and extraordinarily solid, especially when you consider this is a stand-mount. This seems to hold even when the music gets complex and orchestral; it’s comparatively easy to have three or four jazz musicians [Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else, Blue Note] sound rooted in space, but this gets a lot harder to do when dealing with whole string sections [Solti/LSO, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Decca]. However, the 805 D4 presents a solid, large, and open soundstage no matter the music. I think the cabinet is making this comparatively large stand-mount act like a small point-source.
Honest to the limit
We’ve come to expect Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers to be honest transducers, with plenty of detail and not much in the way of unevenness in the frequency response, but the 805 D4 takes those concepts to their present limits; and throws in a cabinet with some of the lowest coloration I’ve (not) heard and an absence of driver distortion that makes it sound more like you are direct injecting music into your ears with no intermediary. Honesty without sounding ‘stark’ is always good to find and the 805 D4 does it with such charm many will be won over. You hear this most clearly with female vocals [‘Heart Like a Wheel’ from Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Warner] and solo pianos [Schiff, Beethoven Piano Sonatas, ECM]; the purity of tone from both can be masked by cabinet and driver alike but here it gets close to electrostatic levels of clarity. This is doubly clever in a two-way design as there is no midrange driver to help deliver that sonic clarity.
Perhaps most importantly, the 805 D4 has a sense of fun to its sound. Not comedy or clowning around… just music is supposed to be enjoyable and it certainly is through these loudspeakers. There’s a continuum (cone-related pun not intended) in speaker performance, with ‘worthy, but dull’ at one end and ‘excitable to the point of being unhinged’ at the other. Traditionally, Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series models tended toward the former because honesty should reign supreme. The 805 D4 loses nothing in the honesty stakes, but gains some fun and excitement along the way.
There are some observations to be made here. First, factor those stands into the equation; yes, other stands are available but Bowers & Wilkins own make a useful contribution to the sonic performance of the 805 D4. Next is the power issue; although the 805 D4 is less power-hungry than its predecessor, it’s still a loudspeaker that needs some quality and quantity behind it. The advantage to the current version of the 805 is if you short-change it in the amplifier stakes, it will tend toward soft and easy on the ear; compare this to the previous version that goes in the other direction and sounds hard and edgy when underwhelmingly partnered. This does mean a loudspeaker with something like a ‘power band’; while it’s good at whisper quiet and ear-punishing alike, it really shines in that sweet spot where listening is ‘comfortably loud’.
Climbing off the fence
Normally, I tend to sit on the fence when it comes to changes from one version to another; there is generally an improvement with each iteration, but it’s usually not so big as to make the previous edition sound bad. There are a few exceptions, however, and the 805 D4 is one of the biggest. The 805 D3 is a great loudspeaker, and you can see and hear why it was so popular… right up until the moment you hook up a pair of 805 D4. It takes all the things the 805 D3 does right and makes them a lot better.
The change is not clichéd veil lifting, but what happens in the run-up to visiting the optician for a check-up; you spend a few months with nearly the right optical prescription and then are wowed as you get fitted with lenses perfect for you. That moment of sonic clarity and focus you get from the D4 in the wake of the D3 is striking. It’s worth restating that the 805 D3 is an extremely competent and good sounding loudspeaker, but it’s thoroughly outclassed by its progeny.
Sometimes a change is little more than a step, but in the Bowers & Wilkins 805 D4 it’s a giant leap. Whether or not you follow the fortunes of the little reference speaker from the brand, the Bowers & Wilkins 805 D4 has entered the race as one of the best stand-mount loudspeakers in audio right now.
- Type two-way bass reflex stand-mount loudspeaker
- Drivers 25mm diamond-dome tweeter; 165mm Continuum mid/bass woofer
- Frequency Response 42Hz to 28kHz (+/-3dB from reference axis)
- Impedance 8-ohm nominal; 4.6-ohm minimum
- Sensitivity 88dB (2.83V/1m)
- Finishes Gloss Black, White, Satin Rosenut, Satin Walnut
- Dimensions (H×W×D) 44 × 24 × 37.3cm
- Weight 15.5kg
- Price £7,000 per pair (FS 805 D4 stands £1,250 per pair
Bowers & Wilkins
+44(0)800 232 1513