Hardware Reviews

B&W 801 Signature goes the extra mile

B&W - 801 signature

Bowers & Wilkins 801 Signature

The engineers at Bowers & Wilkins research and development department have been taking their jobs home with them again. It only seems like yesterday that the 800 series was launched in D4 form (apparently it was 2021) yet this summer they unveiled two Signature versions of the smallest and biggest models in that range, the standmount 805 and 801 flagship. These benefit from all the ideas that the engineering team have dreamt up in the two years since D4 took flight, some of which are refinements of what is in those models and some a change of approach.

The 801 Signature is a substantial loudspeaker that weighs in at just over 100 kilos (222 lb) and stands a respectable four feet tall, but this is not a case of mass for its own sake, that mass is the result of an extremely stiff and well controlled cabinet combined with a ‘Turbine Head’ midrange housing and matching Solid Body tweeter on top. This is of course the same in both the standard 801 and this Signature variant, where the extra £10k goes is in the finish which is pretty obviously fabulous, especially the California Burl IMHO, but most of the acoustic upgrades are under the skin.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 Signature https://the-ear.net

One bit that you can see is the tweeter grille, this is significantly more open than that found in the D4 version and is said to contribute to the presentation of this model in no small way. This is the only change that does not cost more, in fact it can be seen on the new 600 S3 series models, but it does let more of what that diamond dome tweeter does into the air without compromising on stiffness. A less obvious upgrade has been made to the collar that supports and surrounds the Turbine Head, here the aluminium casting that provides the interface between cabinet and head has been milled out, essentially made lighter, which raises the resonant frequency of this part to the point where it is not going to be excited by vibration in the woodwork that forms the body of the bass system. You wouldn’t think that this was likely to be honest but apparently it’s a case of less metal means lower colouration.

The final change to the collar is in the plastic former that supports the leather upholstery that you see on top, here the structural lattice underneath has been partially filled with a damping material called Tecsound. This deadens vibration in the structure and makes for a quieter cabinet. On the underside of the 801 Signature is a large reflex port (100mm), this is hidden from view but vents onto the plinth, it’s a flared port that fits into the aluminium plate that forms the base of the cabinet. For the Signature version the flared element is changed from plastic to cast aluminium, the reflex tube above it remains the same but the extra stiffness that the metal brings to this part of the cabinet was considered to be beneficial to the end result.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 Signature https://the-ear.net

While the diamond dome tweeter and FST midrange with its woven Continuum cone remain as per the regular 801 D4 the ten inch bass drivers have been treated to upgraded motor systems. This consists of a higher specification steel in the top and mid plate, which gives better flux flow and lower distortion in the motor because of lower inductance. The crossover has new bypass capacitors, a small but significant change.

The rest of the 801 Signature is as per the standard model which isn’t all that standard by anyone’s er, standards and includes a laminated bent wood cabinet with a wood and metal internal matrix and aluminium bracing for the bass drivers. The Turbine Head is made of machined aluminium and has internal damping and the midrange driver incorporates a minimalist biomimetic suspension that is pretty revolutionary when compared with the fabric rings used in the majority of other drive units the world over. The Aerofoil cone bass drivers, Continuum midrange cone with its tiny FST surround and diamond dome tweeter in the extremely substantial Solid Body housing are all fundamental parts that mean the 801 D4 is not that far behind the Signature version in terms of performance.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 Signature https://the-ear.net

A demonstration at Bowers & Wilkins Worthing facility did reveal differences however, most notable being an extra openness which one has to presume is the result of the change to the tweeter grille. We shouldn’t underestimate the cost of the new finishes for the Signature versions, the Midnight Blue metallic and California Burl wood veneer are trimmed in Connolly leather and look fabulous. Finishing is one of the most expensive things in cabinet making and this work, as well as cabinet manufacture and loudspeaker assembly, is done at Bowers & Wilkins’ Worthing facility.

Set-up

Setting up these speakers is aided by the fact that they have four wheels in their bases that mean that you can roll them into position, which makes fine tuning this aspect of installation a lot easier than it would be otherwise. The tricky bit comes when you want to raise the 801s off their wheels with the four substantial spikes that are screwed into the base, I wanted to use the magnetic pucks that Bowers supplies in order to avoid making holes in the floor as well. This is a two person job really, one needs to lean the speaker over sufficiently for the other to get underneath and screw the spikes down far enough to raise the speakers. While you’re under there it’s not clear how high this is but I guess the end user can leave this task to the supplying dealer.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 Signature https://the-ear.net

In my case a piece of wood was used to tilt each speaker sufficiently to access the spikes. Bowers supplies anti tilt legs that can be used by those with lively children or animals, but they would have to be pretty substantial creatures to knock these beasts over if my tilting activities are anything to go by. A stainless bar is included in the accessory box which can be used to adjust the spikes without tilting the speakers but you have to bring them down far enough for this to be usable beforehand. Also in this box are jumpers to join the fancy chrome finished cable terminals, these aren’t the flat plates that tend to undermine sound quality but short cables terminated in spade connectors that can be clamped on. These were used to accommodate my Townshend Fractal F1 single wire speaker cables.

Sound quality

You can describe the sound that the 801 Signatures produce in one word; extraordinary. But that isn’t really enough, what struck me first was that despite their not inconsiderable bulk they can ‘disappear’ leaving just an extremely accurate rendition of the recording for you to hear. All the work done to make the cabinet as silent as possible pays off with a holographic style of imaging that you rarely hear from larger loudspeakers, it’s something that usually requires cabinets constructed out of materials that are less inclined to resonate than wood. Vivid Audio achieve it with their composite glass fibre based creations but it’s a rare thing to achieve with a loudspeaker that can also reproduce extremely low bass.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 Signature https://the-ear.net

And these can do that with a degree of articulation and subtlety that is absolutely thrilling. This isn’t fat, thick heavy bass this is deep, contoured, three dimensional bass that reflects the timbres and textures of the instruments that produce it. John Martyn’s version of Glory Box has become a bit of a go-to reference of late, yet it has never sounded as good as it did with the 801 Signatures. I was using my Moor Amps Angel 6 power amplifier to control the speakers, and this is a very good amplifier but it’s perhaps a bit more affordable than you might expect to use with a £45k loudspeaker. And yet the results were inspiring, the reverb on the snare, the intimacy of the vocal and the shape of the guitar notes made this piece into a full on experience.

I love the way that the 801 Signatures give you the depth, the weight and shape of bass notes with none of the thickness that usually accompanies the low end on many speakers. There doesn’t appear to be any overhang or tendency for the cabinet to hold onto low frequency energy and release it thereafter, a characteristic of many subwoofers that is masked by the fact that it makes the bass seem fuller while in fact it’s just blurring what the drive unit is trying to resolve. There appears to be no thickening effect with the 801 Signatures and this means that the midrange and highs remain clear and unclouded, allowing you to hear right into every piece of music that they produce.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 Signature https://the-ear.net

Moving over to a pair of B.audio B.mono power amplifiers which at £25k a pair are more appropriate partners for a speaker of this nature revealed a whole other level of capability in them. These amps are more powerful, quite a lot more transparent to detail and extremely fast, all of which made for spectacular high resolution music. Timing was now locked down and super precise, yet musically fluent at the same time which is a sublime combination. The definition in the bass went up a couple of notches because of the control that these amplifiers manage to exert without adding any apparent grain or sense of effort and the mid/top opened up huge vistas from a broad range of recordings.

The depth of imaging was extraordinary as a result, the better recordings delivering a spaciousness that seemed to push through the wall behind the speakers and open up the ceiling above them. Acoustic instruments with their natural reverb benefited significantly but this was also the case with sounds that were highly ‘produced’ or manipulated such as How Much a Dollar Cost by Kendrick Lamarr. Here it was clear that the producer had put in a lot of effort to create a deep bass line with shape and precision. And when a truly great song came along in the shape of Joni Mitchell’s Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow I was in pieces. Not only does this have huge emotional power but the complexity of the way that the various instruments interact is just spectacular when you have this degree of clarity, of separation and of immersion.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 Signature https://the-ear.net

The musical message is not lost in the detail either, that is key really, there are a few very revealing loudspeakers in the world but not all of them do more than impress with their technical prowess. The 801 Signatures put the tune, the melody and the rhythm front and centre by delivering the music in an even handed, coherent fashion. Timing is critical and these speakers make this abundantly clear. I spent a long evening playing them at higher levels with a group of friends who had come for volume but left realising there is more to truly enthralling musical entertainment. Highlights of this ‘70s music centred gathering included Proud Mary by Ike and Tina Turner, a performance that has so much intensity that you are held in its grip, we lost one of the real greats when she passed away.

Conclusion

If you have read this far you will know that the Bowers & Wilkins 801 Signatures are stonking loudspeakers. They need good quality sources and amplification to reveal the full range of their capabilities but it will ever be thus. They made music into a living breathing experience regardless of whether the source was analogue or digital, they also represent impressively good value in the context of other high end loudspeakers. Bowers & Wilkins are among the largest manufacturers of uncompromised loudspeakers and this means that they bring economies of scale that few if any can compete with. If the 801 Signature were made by any boutique brand they would cost twice as much if not more. I dare you to hear them for yourself, it will be a memorable experience of that I have no doubt.

Specifications:

Type: three-way reflex loaded loudspeaker
Crossover frequencies: not specified
Drive Units:
Bass: 2x 250mm (10 inch) Aerofoil cones
Midrange: 150mm (6 inch) Continuum cone FST
Tweeter: 25mm diamond dome
Nominal frequency response: 15 Hz – 28 kHz (+/-3dB from reference axis)
Nominal impedance: 8 Ohms (minimum 3 Ohms)
Connectors: bi-wire binding posts
Sensitivity: 90dB at 2.83Vrms at 1m
Dimensions HxWxD: 1221 x 451 x 600mm
Weight: 100.6kg
Finishes: Midnight Blue, California Burl
Warranty: 5 years

Price when tested:
£45,000
Manufacturer Details:

Bowers & Wilkins
T 0800 232 1513
http://www.bowers-wilkins.co.uk

Type:

floorstanding loudspeakersr

Author:

Jason Kennedy

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