There’s something about the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series: the term ‘iconic’ is so over-used these days as to be almost meaningless, but for more than 35 years, the original 801 and its successors have really been the essence of Bowers & Wilkins.
It’s not just about being a ‘flagship’ design – just about every speaker company has one of those – nor even a ‘reference’ model (which is another of those almost meaningless terms). Rather the 800 Series has always been an exemplar of what Bowers & Wilkins engineers and designers can do when they’re let off the leash, and given the freedom to develop the best products they can, freed from all the ‘yes, but’ considerations.
As a result, the 800 Series models have provided not only world-beating performance of the kind that’s seen successive generations adopted as monitors for recording and all stages of music production, but also the technology familiar throughout the Bowers & Wilkins catalogue. From the use of ultra-rigid Matrix cabinet construction to the idea of separate enclosures for high-frequency drivers or Flowport bass-reflex tuning, they all started out in 800 Series products.
As the brochure for the original Bowers & Wilkins 801 put it, way back in 1979, the speaker was ‘the first commercial effort to develop and produce a loudspeaker that would reflect the highest standards attainable without regard to any of the so called “practical considerations” that inevitably compromise conventional designs.’
Alright, so there were some demands placed on the design and engineering teams: the speaker had to be able to reproduce the full musical spectrum without coloration or distortion; be able to recreate sound levels close to those of a live performance; and have an appearance able to ‘grace most listening environments’.
The jury may be out on that last one: to most eyes the 801 was a design classic, but to some the uncompromising design with its three ‘stacked boxes’ for bass, midband and treble was certainly function over form, despite the attempt to soften the lines with a ‘hood’ to fit over the upper sections.
What was beyond doubt, however – and remains so to this day – was that this was a very special loudspeaker, both in its neutrality and transparency, and in that ability to deliver realistic sound pressure levels, making it an ideal choice for monitoring in recording and mastering. That was fundamental to the design: company founder John Bowers loved classical music and really wanted to make a speaker that served his listening and the recording community well.
Bowers’ view of what made an ideal speaker was that it ‘isn’t the one that gives the most, it’s the one that loses the least’, and he further simplified this aim to just two words: ‘True sound’. That’s what the 801, and the speakers following it, have been designed to achieve.
Unsurprisingly, the 801 was rapidly adopted by the likes of EMI and Decca in the UK, CBS in America, EMI Pathé France and EMI Electrola Germany, not to mention many other studios worldwide.
The fact that the speaker was also designed to be almost bombproof – a design able to generate very high sound pressure levels, and with power handling described as having ‘no upper limit’ required advanced, and easily re-settable, thermal protection for the drivers – also enhanced its appeal for use in a professional environment, where engineers and artists might tend to get a bit ‘over-enthusiastic’!
Perhaps the most famous early user of the 801 was EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London, and that association continued with the adoption of successive generations of 800 Series models.
So what was the secret of the 801’s success, not to mention the enduring appeal of the 800 Series? Well, then as now, it was a combination of innovation, pure and applied research, and the willingness to build speakers from scratch, right down to component level, rather than settling for the compromises of ‘off the shelf’ parts. Even back in 1979, Bowers & Wilkins was using computer modelling to examine the effects of different crossover designs: back then it was referred to as ‘numerical optimisation’, and it allowed not only the rapid analysis of multiple versions of a design without all the trial and error of conventional ‘build and test’ development, but also the comparison of those working versions eventually built with the mathematical ideal, to ensure consistency and optimisation.
These days, such analysis and modelling is commonplace in audio design, but three and an half decades ago it was indicative of the way Bowers & Wilkins combined pure science with audio engineering, a way of working the company has continued to develop and refine with ever more investment in research and the application of its discoveries in its products, meaning its range features an extensive portfolio of unique technologies.
For the original 801, one of the most striking was the use of new materials, not just innovative design: the speaker may have heralded the deployment of separate enclosures for the midrange and treble drivers, giving them optimal spaces in which to work and decoupling them from the effects of that massive 27cm bass unit driven by a 4.5kg ceramic magnet, but the even more clever stuff was under the skin of the midrange ‘head’.
Literally so, in fact: within the rigid polystyrene outer casing of the head was ultra-inert Fibrecrete, a glassfibre-reinforced concrete designed to ‘take the enclosure out of the equation’.
At the time, the company described the 801 as ‘The next step up’, so confident was it of the speaker’s ability to advance the speaker art. However, it wasn’t a case of ‘job done’: after all, research and development people have a way of continually asking ‘what if?’ Despite the work done on decoupling that big bass unit and the midrange and treble drivers from the main enclosure of the 801, something more fundamental was in the offing for the second generation of the speaker, launched in 1987 – the structural integrity of the cabinet itself.
All speaker cabinets use some form of bracing: however thick you make the walls of a box, and however strong the joints between them, without bracing there’s the possibility of flexing, and thus resonances. What Bowers & Wilkins did next, however, was way beyond conventional bracing: as the 800 Series moved into its second generation, and expanded into a range of speakers, Matrix technology was introduced to brace the entire cabinet with a lattice-work, or honeycomb, thus significantly reducing cabinet resonance.
Into the Matrix
The 801 S2 may have had an even larger main cabinet than the original model, plus a forward-venting port in place of a previously sealed design (thus giving even greater bass extension), but that cabinet was remarkably inert, so it was hardly surprising that the same Matrix technology was adopted to the expanded range, now encompassing more room-friendly floorstanding models and the little 805 standmount speaker, and bearing the Matrix 800 name as well as the much-copied yellow Bowers & Wilkins Kevlar-cone midrange unit, chosen for its combination of stiffness and low mass.
More than that, the material also offers unique break-up characteristics, rolling off the response in a controlled manner above the working range, while the woven construction means resonances across the cone are largely self-cancelling. It’s all about a more neutral, more revealing presentation, entirely in line with that John Bowers ideal of ‘true sound’.
Over the years, that Kevlar cone has become something of a telltale for the company’s speakers, and while imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, the latest implementations are a very long way from those used in the early days. It’s not just a matter of being yellow, you know: like all Bowers & Wilkins technology, the Kevlar cone has been continually developed over the years, not to mention being ‘trickled’ down all the way to the company’s very affordable 600-series models.
New heads, new shoulders
That idea of trickle-down technology came to a head – literally so – with the arrival of the Nautilus 800, in 1998. By then, the 801 had been a studio favourite for almost 20 years, and was already in its S3 version, but the Bowers & Wilkins engineers had identified some drawbacks. As they said at the time, with remarkable candour, ‘the relatively low sensitivity and maximum output level, together with the relatively ponderous bass quality on impulsive type signals had begun to restrict the system’s appeal when compared to Nautilus™ and other competitive loudspeakers’, and they also realised that, while the 801 S3 was the latest iteration of a design classic, it wasn’t exactly what you’d call pretty, despite the range of finishes available since the very start.
The Nautilus 800 range was an attempt to tackle all of those perceived limitations, keeping the appeal of the speaker to professional users while also making it more domestically acceptable. The most striking evidence of the changes was – well, just about everything, really: the speaker gained a more curvaceous floorstanding cabinet, with a bass reflex system venting downwards into an integral stand, and atop the main enclosure sat the now-familiar midrange and treble ‘heads’, but now reinvented using styling and technology derived from the company’s celebrated Nautilus loudspeaker.
That meant the replacement of the boxy ‘heads’ of the earlier models with a striking midrange enclosure sitting on, but decoupled from, the sloped top-panel of the main cabinet, and supporting a tweeter housing formed from a tapered tube derived from the original Nautilus. This tube, filled with carefully controlled damping – loosely packed behind the drive unit and becoming denser further down the tube –, absorbs the rearward energy from the tweeter in a precisely controlled manner. Invented for the very exotic sculptural speaker from which it takes its name, it has now been used in just about every Bowers & Wilkins speaker range.
The engineers soon realised that, desirable though such a tube would be for the midrange driver, too – after all, it had worked well in the Nautilus itself – it wasn’t ideal for this design. Plan B was to use a spherical enclosure for the Kevlar midrange driver, with initial experiments and analysis of prototypes using a similar construction to the old heads – glass-reinforced plastic over Fibrecrete – suggesting a 30cm sphere would be suitable.
However, extensive modeling revealed that a combination of sphere and tapered tube would bring the most benefit in controlling internal resonances, with only minimal damping, so the final design adopted this strategy. There was only one problem: how to make the resulting complex shape, while at the same time keeping the housing stiff and heavy. GRP/Fibrecrete wasn’t ideal for mass production, but the answer came in the form of Marlan, a synthetic resin material able to be moulded to suit. And thus the now-famous head design of the Nautilus 800 series was born.
And just in case you thought the bass driver had been forgotten in all this head-scratching (!), the low-frequency section of the speaker was all-new, too: a completely redesigned 15in/38cm driver was fitted, using a cone made from kapok pulp, Kevlar and resin, and with what’s called a ‘mushroom’ design, in which the oversized central dome is driven directly by the voice-coil former, both of these components being made from carbon-fibre.
Tuning the bass was a reflex port using another Bowers & Wilkins innovation now found widely across its range. Flowport, designed to tackle one of the major problems in ported speaker design, is all about controlling the velocity and smoothness of airflow in the port-tube, which after all is about allowing the ‘spring’ effect of an enclosure to be regulated precisely.
Trouble is, air passing through a simple tube, however smoothly it’s shaped and surfaced, is subject to aerodynamic effects such as turbulence, which cause uneven flow and thus audible symptoms such as ‘chuffing’ and what the engineers call ‘windage noise’. The solution to this ‘amusing-sounding until you hear it’ problem came in the form of the dimples on a golf-ball, which allow the ball to fly much further than a smooth-surfaced sphere by creating a thin layer of air over the ball in flight, thus decreasing the ‘wake’ it creates in flight (think a boat cutting through water) and so reducing drag.
By adopting carefully-designed dimples in the surface of the port, it was possible to make the air-flow in the Flowport much more predictable, and thus giving increased control of its effect when used as part of the bass system – and the Bowers & Wilkins engineers really like being in control of the fundamentals of a speaker design, rather than finding ways of compensating for problems!
The result of all this was a speaker, and indeed a complete range, meeting all those requirements of improving on the original 801 design: more accuracy, better imaging for a more precise stereo ‘picture’ and above all greater maximum sound pressure levels without distortion. Or, as the engineers put it when launching the Nautilus 801, ‘a very transparent transducer that enables the listener to readily perceive differences in ancillary equipment and the quality of the recorded programme.
‘This degree of performance is maintained to high sound levels – the target output level of 120dB spl at 1m has been achieved – which has the effect of making the speaker sound less loud than it is actually playing, as distorted sound is perceived to be louder for the same measured level.’
Even more, the speakers now looked exceptional as well as sounding it, in no small part thanks to those curvaceous cabinets, made possible by the extensive skills in wood-handling developed by Bowers & Wilkins. With techniques including the kind of steaming and bending of wood used for generations in the construction of everything from ships to fine furniture, it was possible to make cabinets combining striking looks with massive rigidity, not to mention greatly enhanced acoustic properties.
The engineers weren’t the only ones convinced they’d achieved their aims with the Nautilus 800 range: giving the Nautilus 802 the award as European High End Audio of the Year 1999-2000 – just one of many accolades for the 800 speakers over the years – the Europe-wide EISA judging panel said that ‘B&W has succeeded in condensing the exceptional technology of its Nautilus 801 into a loudspeaker system of the highest quality, but at a lower price and smaller size.
‘As a result, music lovers can now fulfill their dreams and experience at home the astonishing sound quality of the recording studio.’
Sparkle, not bling
With the Nautilus technology now established in the 800 Series, the company launched a Signature version of the 800 speaker, finished in a unique Tiger’s Eye wood veneer, and available in a limited edition to mark the company’s 35th birthday in 2001. But it was four years later that the final part of what makes up the 800 Series fell into place, with the arrival of the company’s diamond tweeter in the top models of the 2005 800 Series.
The use of the diamond material was aimed at tackling one of the major challenges with dome-shaped tweeter diaphragms – namely, keeping them dome-shaped in use. Only by achieving high rigidity is it possible to keep the dome from deforming as it moves, thus getting away from the ideal of purely pistonic motion: if the dome does anything more than just move back and forth in response to the signal applied to it, distortions are inevitable.
Trouble is, stiffness usually means extra material; that adds weight, making the diaphragm harder to move, and move fast. For that reason all kinds of exotic materials have been applied to tweeters from ceramic coatings, but the Bowers & Wilkins solution was a diamond coating ‘grown’ on the surface of a substrate, using vapour deposition: once the diamond coating is created, the ‘growing medium’ can be removed, leaving an ultra-light, ultra-rigid dome.
This series also gained an improved version of the company’s innovative FST (Fixed Suspension Transducer) midrange driver, designed to improve the pistonic motion of the diaphragm by controlling break-up characteristics and thus lowering distortion – again this is a technology now found widely throughout the Bowers & Wilkins range.
And the bass got some attention, too, with the adoption of a new cone material, Rohacell, in place of the previous pulp/Kevlar/resin combination. By using a sandwich of lightweight foam between two sheets of carbon fibre, Rohacell achieves the highly desirable combination of low weight and stiffness: a favourite ‘party trick’ of the time involved an engineer proving that you could stand on an unsupported Rohacell cone without it deforming.
Diamonds for all
Eventually, just as some of these technologies had trickled down to the 2005 800 Series, so the use of the diamond tweeter found its way across the range in the reinvention of the range as the 800 Series Diamond line-up in 2009. The range was rationalized and revamped, so for example the 800D became the 800 Diamond, and the 801D and 803S models falling by the wayside to create the present line-up, while changes were applied to all the drive units.
All the 800 Series Diamond speakers feature diamond tweeter with an improved surround material for more even dispersion, and four magnets to enhance dynamic ability, and this is mounted in an aluminium Nautilus tube in all models, whereas some speakers previously used plastic tubes.
And while that FST midrange unit remained unchanged apart from the use of a polished aluminium phase plug, the Rohacell bass drivers gained smaller dust-caps and larger voice-coils, enabling the dual-magnet design adopted to be moved inside the coil, thus improving both linearity and power-handling.
Only on the top-end 800 Diamond was the voice-coil size reduced by 25%, simply because the old version had much higher power-handling capability than required – the ‘motor’ was designed when the top-end 800 models used a single massive bass-driver, rather than the twin units used in modern versions. A side-gain from this was the ability of those Bowers & Wilkins engineers to design a more linear suspension.
As a final move, the company closed its cabinet factory in Denmark, and centralised almost the whole of 800 Series production, the better to integrate the research, design and production of its most famous range, and now everything to do with the 800 Series Diamond range happens back at HQ in Worthing, Sussex.
And that’s where it all began…