Bowers & Wilkins 803S Loudspeakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Floorstanding Loudspeakers
Written by Robert Mead   
Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The name “B&W” brings many positive thoughts to audiophiles around the world, and with good reason. This high-end speaker manufacturer, owned by John Bowers and Roy Wilkins, has been a prime catalyst for developing major upgrades to every loudspeaker unit that they ever produced, starting with their first commercial loudspeaker, the P1, which they began manufacturing in 1966. Many years later, they developed the very awe-inspiring Signature 800 series of loudspeakers that featured the very innovative Diamond Dome tweeters, which most people only could gasp at when they saw this amazing-looking futuristic tweeter design at CES 2001.

The startling “tweeter on top” found in the Signature 800 series, effectively gets rid of the problem of bouncing sound that is found in a speaker system when you put a loudspeaker’s tweeter in the conventional box cabinet that most loudspeaker’s manufacturers still use. Combine that type of innovative B&W technology with the Kevlar cone material that compliments every Signature 800 series loudspeaker on the market today, and you have a truly award-worthy loudspeaker series line. Using Kevlar as the main fabric for their mid-range cones brings a consistent dispersion pattern that covers all range frequencies no matter what type of music you happen to be listening to, thereby delivering a constant, clean sound to the listener or the group of listeners experiencing the dynamic sound coming out of these acclaimed loudspeakers.

Overview

I demoed these speakers while visiting Premiere Home Entertainment, located in Las Vegas. This magnificent loudspeaker will run you around $3000 for each speaker. The height of these formidable speakers is 41.9 inches and the width is 11.5 inches, while its depth is 17 inches. Just one speaker weighs in at 90 pounds, so you can see that this speaker system will deliver quite a punch to your home audio system without question. The cabinet is made out of either Cherrywood, Rosenut or Black Ash, depending on what model you actually feel compelled to purchase. B&W designs all their speaker series with real wood veneers, and the cabinet that I was reviewing certainly looked and felt real. It really is a beautiful speaker to behold.


The use of B&W’s aluminum dome tweeter allows the bass driver to extend its low-end response, which resulted in some extremely deep bass sounds pushing out from this speaker system. The speaker series’ also incorporates a new synthetic gel that cushions the tweeter in its top-end position so that there is little or no mechanical vibration from the bass cabinet. It’s that type of clear innovation from the designers at B&W that keeps this company at the award-winning level they currently enjoy. The drive units feature a 7 inch Rohacell cone bass, a one-inch aluminum dome frequency and a 6 inch woven Kevlar cone FST for the mid-range. The inner-workings of the 803S series of loudspeakers is definitely worth noting. The Matrix is what the design team at B&W labeled as their way of interlocking the panels inside the speaker’s cabinet that essentially creates a three-dimensional honeycomb structure which eradicates the problem of allowing the speaker’s bass drivers to blur the sound pushing out of the speaker’s midrange frequencies, which is an underlying mistake that most speaker manufacturer’s make time and time again.

I took a good look at the B&W patented “Mushroom” design of the bass driver in the demonstration model, and I could only feel great admiration for the B&W design team. The diaphragm design of the driver increases the bass driver’s rigid construction by bonding the cone onto just one single inside frame that ensures that the linear components of this speaker series is stable and featherweight at the same time. I realize that this sounds like a contradiction of terms, but the design team at B&W actually delivered that delicate balance between delivering heavy bass tones in their speakers while still being able to drive pristine and subtle high tones to the mid-range without any crossover problems whatsoever. And their “Mushroom” bass design is the main catalyst for the pure and often times extremely powerful low-end audio emanating from this superior line of floor-standing speakers.

Set-Up

I experienced this demonstration in a room about ten feet wide and 15 feet long, with three insulated walls and one sliding glass door with insulated curtains draped over the glass.  It’s not quite what I’d call a “sound-proof listening room” by any means, but I was able to get a good demonstration of the loudspeaker system nonetheless. The 803S speakers were placed about three feet away from the main audio components on either side, while I sat six feet away from the speakers as I listened to the demonstration. Kimber Kable speaker wire was used in this set-up and a McIntosh MC402 power amplifier was the main source of power driving the entire audio system. That power amp was connected to a McIntosh MCD500 SACD/CD player that was also combined with another McIntosh 275 power amplifier. The 275 series looks almost like a relic from the bygone era of the 1940’s when you first see the double rows of tubes staring at you from their black wire-framed casing.

But since McIntosh is so well-respected by me as well as almost every other audiophile on the planet, I relished the opportunity to hear the type of clean power that this combination of power amplifiers could deliver to the B&W 803S loudspeakers that I would soon be listening to. The McIntosh MCD500 player was the main audio component in my demonstration of the B&W 803S loudspeakers. This high-end SACD player features a twin laser pickup that are relayed through one lens assembly and includes a quad balanced digital to analog converter, which ensures that all sound levels of the music I would be listening to had little to no distortion and that I would be able to clearly hear the mid-range frequencies interact seamlessly with the low-end range of musical sounds. The weight of this audio component is roughly 28 pounds while the height is only 6 inches, thereby making this SACD player extremely easy to mount on any audio rack you can find at your local home theater store. The speakers had about 5 months of break-in time already, so I knew that these speakers would sound natural and ‘alive’ during the demonstration.

Music

The first SACD I listened to was a re-mastered compilation SACD of Eric Clapton’s career that features most of his acoustic hits he made in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. “Clapton Chronicles: The Best of Eric Clapton” (Reprise Records, 1999) featured a very wide and varied musical experience in which I could actually detect Clapton’s finger-strumming with every stroke of his hand, and his vocals really cut through the room I was listening in, so much so that it sounded like the guitar master was standing directly in front of me. The warmth in Clapton’s guitar tone shone through on nearly every song, but primarily on the first track, “Blue Eyes Blue,” I noticed that the 803S loudspeakers brought out and delivered an incredible amount of texture and depth that I was not accustomed to hearing on such a simple kind of a tune that features just acoustic guitars, vocals and not much else.

The background vocals on “Blue Eyes Blue”, while not completely at the forefront of the song itself, soared to a new level of pristine quality when I turned up the volume to see if the loudspeakers could handle the highs associated with the background vocals. Needless to say, the impeccable tweeter situated on top of the loudspeakers handled the higher notes with great aplomb. The next song on the track listing was another very simple, yet effective acoustic number entitled “Change the World.” It was not a multi-layered song at all, but Clapton’s soft vocals sounded clear and concise, while the acoustic bass that was accompanying his vocals and guitar sounded agile and at the same time forceful with its laid-back impact.

Next up on the SACD list was from the Grammy Award nominated jazz group “Fourplay”. Their 2000 release on Warner Brothers entitled “Yes, Please” starts off with the song “Free Range”, and I was immediately enveloped into the jazz world completely as I heard the first passages of the subtle jazz piano intro turn into a nice and bouncy jazz-fusion of sorts when the solid guitar playing of  Larry Carlton kicked into gear. The subtle dynamics of this jazz trio that also features Harvey Mason on drums and Bob James on piano, creates a rich soundstage of circulating audio textures that really makes the B&W 803S series loudspeakers truly resonate with the naturalness of a live performance surrounding you, almost as if you were in a small concert hall listening to the group as they perform onstage. My listening room area, all ten feet by 14 feet of it, was filled with a deep and driving clash between piano, guitar and drums that were tonally perfect, and at the same time fluid with excellent coloration. The next song, “Double Trouble,” really excelled at showing the dynamic range that guitarist Larry Carlton is known for. The entire audio configuration, but especially the loudspeakers, revealed the guitar player’s exceptional jazz riffs and confluent solos like no other loudspeakers possibly could.

The last CD I listened to on the McIntosh MCD500 CD player was from the award-winning female vocalist Diana Krall. The Grammy Award winning 1999 jazz-vocal album entitled “When I Look into Your Eyes” was selected because of the vibrancy surrounding Diana’s main vocal abilities, and after listening to this CD for a minute or two, I could see why she won the Grammy at the 2000 award ceremony. The title track was the first song up for me to listen to, and I was overwhelmed by the sonic resonance that the 803S series loudspeakers were very efficiently delivering to my ears. Her voice is dripping with the sweet tones of honey, yet her vocals also made me believe that she was a woman of the world that had seen many ups and downs in her life, but was still up to the challenge of defeating any obstacle in her way. That type of emotional impact is hard to achieve, no matter how much money you spend on setting up a state-of-the-art audio system.

The nice and jaunty song called “Devil May Care” was up next, and this song was straight forward and to the point, as it just features Diana singing along at a fast pace with the piano player while her lyrics convey to the listener how much she wants to avoid future heartbreak with any guy who comes her way, no matter how pure his intentions are. Without exception, the B&W speakers handled Diana’s impassioned vocals with perfect results, and solidly drove the fast and colorful underlining piano parts to the forefront of the song without diminishing the graceful vocals that Krall so flawlessly demonstrates on this carefree song.

The Downside

It is hard to convey any real dissatisfaction I had while listening to the remarkable 803S series of loudspeakers from B&W, but if you really need speakers to fill a room that is over 20 feet long, you might lose a lot of the clarity in the soundstage of that larger room if you are only relying on only these two speakers to fill your large room completely. Also, when I was listening to Eric Clapton’s guitar work, I felt that the loudspeakers lacked the powerful punch needed to send the guitar tones into that “sweet” sound level that could truly captivate a more demanding audience that wants to feel every note in the music that they listen to.

The placement of these speakers in your room is also a critical factor in getting the most out of these pristine units, so if you do buy a pair of these speakers, make sure that you position them no further from your listening area than 4 or five feet directly in front of you, preferably at a slight angle pointing towards you and away from any insulated part of your room. Otherwise, these speakers will not be able to deliver the precise and accurate soundstage that I was able to enjoy at Premiere Home Entertainment.

Conclusion

The B&W 803S loudspeakers have a compelling and inviting vibrant sound that certainly accentuates any audio system’s dynamic range with its ability to compress mid-range musical notes and low-end bass sounds with a high degree of precision and clarity. The $6000 price tag that comes with buying a pair of these speakers for your own audio system is a fair price for the consumer who wants to upgrade to the big leagues when it comes to audio components, yet still wants to have some money left over to pay the mortgage.  So if you are looking for speakers that not only can handle all the power that your mono amplifier or integrated amplifier can output, but can really enhance every CD in your music collection, you should really look into purchasing a pair of these immaculate speakers post haste.

 

Special thanks goes to Premiere Home Entertainment, a Las Vegas based home entertainment company specializing in the design and installation of home theater, home automation, and home integration systems.  They are located at 2300 N. Rainbow Blvd., Suite 119 in Las Vegas. 

Model Bowers & Wilkins 803S Loudspeakers
Impedance 8-ohm





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