How the Model 801 changed music recording

Bowers & Wilkins is 50 years old in 2016. As part of the celebrations of these five decades in the world of high-performance audio, we are running a series of blogs that investigate our history, our people, our technologies and our products. Here we look at how the original Model 801 became the loudspeaker of choice for many of the world’s most demanding recording studios.

Around ten years after John Bowers started B&W Electronics in the garages behind his electrical store in Worthing, he began working on his most high-end speaker design yet. Bowers wanted to make the best possible transducer he was capable of and cost was not going to be a consideration. The project would result in the Model 801, the first of the 800 Series – a range that remains the pinnacle of Bowers & Wilkins achievement to this day.

Long-serving Steyning Research Establishment engineer Steve Roe explains how the Model 801 came about. “The whole project started with the DM7. We were playing around with time alignment between tweeter with the bass unit, and to do that we had the tweeter on a little bookend so we could move it backwards and forwards to find the best position.

“Then I noticed that as soon as you put this on top of the cabinet the bass response got a lot worse. So we then developed a spherical tweeter, and once we did that it didn’t interrupt the response of the bass unit anymore. And from then on we had that firmly in our mind, and when we went on to midrange enclosures we started designing them to be separate which is how the Model 801 came about.”

1979 saw the launch of the Model 801, a loudspeaker that set a new bar in terms of cost – at £1000 it was over double the price of the most expensive Bowers & Wilkins speaker up to that time – but also in performance. A loudspeaker that rapidly became used as the reference monitor in the world’s greatest recording studios.

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Industry standard
The adoption of the Model 801 by the recording industry was incredibly rapid, clearly demonstrating the sheer ability of this amazing product – the result of John Bowers’ desire to make the best possible loudspeaker that he could at the time. The Model 801 was launched in 1979, and by 1980 it had been evaluated and tested by EMI, who immediately decided to adopt it as its standard classic monitor. The first studio to receive a pair of Model 801s was London’s world-famous Abbey Road Studios.

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Steve Roe explains how this came about: “Dennis Ward was our production director, and he had previously worked at EMI with Peter Dicks, who then went to Abbey Road as their acoustic consultant. As they knew each other it gave us a great route into Abbey Road. So John Bowers and I took some of the first Model 801s up there, and they were pretty much immediately appreciated by the classical people.”

Shortly afterwards engineers from Decca auditioned the Model 801s and decided to put them in all of its recording studios. Pretty soon all the major recording companies, including classical specialist Deutsche Grammophon, were using 801s. Over the next six years, Decca alone monitored over 100,000 hours of digitally recorded music on Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series loudspeakers.

This dominance of the classical music world was personally rewarding for John Bowers, and it also helped to put the company he founded on the map. At one point estimates suggest that upwards of 80 percent of classical music recordings were monitored using Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers. Indeed, the majority of the first classical CDs came with the legend: Monitored on Bowers & Wilkins.

“The irony is, they were never designed to be studio speakers,” Steve Roe says. “It was John Bower’s passion for classical music that made them what they were.”

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The 800 Series
The 801 was eventually followed by the 800 Series, and over almost four decades they have been through a number of iterations, but each series has once again been adopted by the recording industry. Today, 800 Series products are still the go-to monitor in many of the world’s most demanding studios.

These are exactly the same models that any audiophile can buy for their home – they have been adopted by many of the world’s most demanding recording studios as their reference units of choice. Why? Because of their absolute clarity in revealing music’s true nature – allowing producers and recording engineers to hear the sound as the artist intended, before the customer gets to hear that same sound at home.

The latest generation, the 800 Series Diamond, provides even more insight into recorded music – while at the same time remaining very much a consumer loudspeaker designed for use at home. The Model 801 is retained in spirit in today’s 800 D3, regarded by Bowers & Wilkins as the best loudspeaker it has ever manufactured.

The original Model 801’s success saw a seismic shift in Bowers & Wilkins. The young company was only just entering its second decade, but it willingly took on the mantle of the reference loudspeaker manufacturer for a major proportion of the recording industry. And still to this day much of the music that you hear performed, was first heard on Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series loudspeakers.

2 Comments

  • Jeff S says:

    My 803 series II still delight me after 22 years, it speaks to the incredible build quality.

  • ROUCK says:

    If 801 have changed studio recordings, it seems clear that the new material of the medium cones (continuum) of the new series has done the same.

    A story circulated that a recording studio after receiving the new 800 was forced to change the location of microphones when taking piano sound.
    The new 800 revealing some dampers noises that had never been perceved in the usual positions.
    The BW’s conceptors can be proud of that.

    I am the owner ot the 800 n°31 and n°32. i love these loundspeakers since the first day I met them in september 1979. Being so permeated by signing the 801, I was dreading it fails.
    Fortunately when the first sign of old age happened, the 800D3 series came out.

    At my first meeting of the 800D3 series, I was instantly convinced by evolution from continuum cones.
    Lack of access (stairs miller) in my listening room forcing myself a weight limit of 50 kg, only 804D3 met the criteria.
    A doubt remained in me with regard to the low frequencies.
    The 2 x 165 mm in a small 804D3 would they be as pleasant as the 265mm woofer in cash of 801 200 liters.
    After several hours of listening, all doubts flew away. I am totally satisfied.
    To extract the best of B & W, I was helped by the store that supported by an importer allowed me to make cable testing home.

    I congratulate the team of B & W for the work.

    Note: The price in constant money, 801 of 1979 and that of 2015 804D3 is comparable but the quality has increased hugely. Nostalgia associated with my 801 left me totally.

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