The iconic 800D is compared to its smaller brother Nautilus 804, the Magnepan MG3.6R, and the Synthese Floating 2
Above: placed like this, the 800D’s look nice, but with the Magnepans in their optimal position, this is far from optimal placement for the 800D’s. Although the 800D’s are not extremely fussy with room placement, they do need to be positioned carefully if you want to hear them at their best. Too far apart and the bass is thin and imaging is vague. Too close to each other and the bass is overwhelming. Too far from the listening seat and focus suffers. Too close and the midrange starts to sound too forward. It seems that the 800D’s are much more fussy than the 802D’s. The lattter will simply start to sound overly sweet when placed incorrectly, but then, the 802D’s don’t have the coherence that the 800D’s are capable of either.
Any loudspeaker is highly interactive with its environment, the room that it is placed in. In all but the most perfect rooms, you are listening to a mixture of direct speaker sound and your room, reacting to the speakers. My room is far from perfect and even though I have heard a large amount of speakers in it, my experiences need not be typical of results obtained in other rooms. At the very least though, the results as mentioned as part of comparisons with other speakers, should provide something of a starting point. Ultimately though there is just no substitute for listening to speakers in your own setup.
I bought these magnificent speakers in an attempt to find more manageable replacements for my Magnepan MG3.6 magnetostatics. Indeed, you couldn’t have two speakers that are more different. Still, it was my desire to have more aestetically pleasing speakers in the listening room, even if that meant having two 125 kilo heavy behemoths in the middle of the room. The Magnepans are nice enough to look at from the listening position but from the sides and rear they are less pleasing. This is because they are slightly curved and also leaning forward. This so called tilting is important for the imaging and other aspects of the sound. They also have to stand way into the room. All in the name of good sound, right? Well, I thought I’d undertake an effort to find other speakers, also because the Magnepans, great though they are, are no bass monsters. The 800D’s are. So there you have it, my reasons for trying the 800D: aestetics and bass. But do I really need reasons to try new equipment? Of course not! It’s all just too much fun, and when I stumbled upon a great second hand deal, I jumped on it.
Above: the Magnepans in their optimal position. Notice that they lean forward slightly? That’s how they sound best to me, but it looks odd from the side indeed. By contrast, the 800D’s are more like expensive jewelry/posh furniture, no matter what angle you look at them. Their position as shown on the picture however was far from their ideal position. The final position was much closer to the listener, in fact very close to the carpet, a good 2 meters from the rear wall.
So, here goes…
Before I start rambling about the sound, I want to put up a small disclaimer. Rooms and their acoustics make up half of the sound. My room is far from perfect and therefore frequently causes problems for dynamic speakers. Magnetostatics are different in that they radiate differently and don’t nearly agitate as many room modes and resonances as traditional speakers.
As I said, the Magnepans are at an advantage because of their dipole characteristics but to make this review more meaningful, the 800D’s are compared to the smaller N804’s and also to the Synthese Floating 2’s. Enough babbling already, how do they sound?
Above: this was their final position: closer together and closer to the listener. The Magnepans have been moved close to the rear wall. The Synthese Floating 2’s were only in position for the portion when they were compared to the 800D’s. During the critical part of the listening the 800D’s were freestanding. btw: the B&W’s tweeter enclosures are often seen as microphones by non-audiophiles. With the Syntheses they now think that they are telephones!
Diamonds are a boy’s best friend, too?
Let’s start with the most important aspect of the 800D’s: the D for Diamond. This tweeter is actually made from diamond. Not in the sense that it’s facetted, glitters brightly and makes women want to put it on their fingers, because it looks nothing like diamond. It’s matt and frosted and is synthetic but technically speaking a diamond nevertheless. I don’t fully understand how it is made but from what I gather they take graphite and make it vapourize under immense pressure, thereby emulating the natural pressurization that normally occurs over thousands of years. It was my hope that the diamond tweeter at least would be a match for the stunning pure ribbon tweeter in the Magnepans. After all, I had had the B&W 802D’s years ago and found them ever so sweet in the treble, more than a match for the Nautilus 804’s at the time. But the 802S’s were also way too bass-rich and had a muffled midrange. They sounded a bit like the loudness button was always on. I couldn’t live with them and moved on to Martin Logan electrostatics. But, from memory, the diamond on the 800D sounds very different from the one on the 802D. It is much cleaner and dynamic, more articulate but also darker in balance. It is in fact, very dark, too dark for me. But then, I am spoilt with the Magnepan’s ribbon, which is, in all fairness, perhaps a little too bright. But even compared to the Nautilus 804, with its aluminum tweeters, the 802 is decidedly dark in balance. What’s more, the N804 always amazed me with its treble spread. Even behind the speaker there would be plenty treble energy and this was what makes them so easy to live with: anywhere in the room I choose to listen to music, it sounded find. Not so with the 800D’s tweeter. This one seems to be very focused and strongly bundled. It is on the dark side at the perfect listening spot already but the treble drops off alarmingly if you move out of the comfort zone. It is almost like listening to Martin Logans: there really is only one perfect listening spot and it is 1,5 seats wide. Move to the side of the couch, listening only slightly off-axis and already the balance tips so much to the dark that it almost becomes unlistenable. Even though the treble enclosure’s shape of the N804’s is very similar, there is something different going on inside. When you put your ear behind the N804’s treble tube, you can clearly hear treble coming out. Not so with the 800D’s treble tube: out comes nothing. So, it looks like its tube is completely damped, where the N804’s is an open tube. But I’m getting ahead of myself with the N804 comparisons. There’s more about the 804’s further below. Back to the Diamond. The 800D’s treble can be hard and unforgiving at times, yet smooth, fluid and subtle at other times. It is, in a word, super honest. Never artificially, intentionally brittle as an add-on effect but also never forgiving of badly recorded music. Well recorded CD’s, especially music with acoustical instruments, can simply sound spectacular, very live, very dynamic and very engaging. But badly recorded CD’s will sound very bad indeed, even worse than on the Magnepans, which are much more forgiving in the treble. But as I found out, the treble isn’t the 800D’s only super-analytical element.
The familiar yellow FST Midrange
I have owned various B&W speakers and have heard even more of them at shows. Always has that FST unit been in place, even on the oldest B&W’s I heard. It has become their trademark. And I have always found much in favor of this driver. It has the ability to convey emotion in a way that not many midrange drivers can. It can sound very lively and direct-coupled while also posessing body and color. The sound of the FST varies, depending on the speaker that it is used in. For example, in the N804 it can be slightly forward and nasal while on the 802D it can be too smooth, too laidback and muffled. I would say that the 800D’s incarnation is almost spot on. The midrange of this speaker is very open and very neutral. There’s no nasality or chestiness and neither is it woolly or muffled. But I find the FST unit getting a bit long in the tooth. It may have very low coloration and the Marlan enclosure may well be highly sophisticated and lacking woodiness, but there’s always a recognizable signature to its sound, something that does sound like chestiness (even though it is not, how could it be/), no matter what incarnation is used. But this is a mild complaint, something you only notice when you have lived with Nautili and their offspring for a long, long time. Other than that, the midrange is very well-executed, and may well be the best part of this speaker. It is the Marlan enclosure and the FST unit in it, that makes for a super-wide soundstage that can really float around the speakers. These big beasts can really totally disappear, with the music being all around you and filling the room. Imaging is first rate, both focus and depth. In fact, they image deeper than the Magnepans do. The sound can really be very 3D. Can be? Yes, because, like the treble, this is very much dependent on the quality of the recording that is being played. Of course, that’s only fair and that goes for many, if not all speakers. But there’s something else. Again, the 800D is so very neutral, so honest also in the midrange, that more often than not I have to conclude that the recording is flawed. With the Magnepans I can play almost all (let’s say 75%) CD’s with good results. With the 800D’s, this goes down to less than half my collection.
Above: how cute the 804’s look next to their big brothers!
Of course you don’t buy these big beasts if you’re not into bass. I’ll say it right now: I like bass. I like it deep and I like it strong. But I definitely don’t like it vague, unrhythmic or ill-defined and one-note. I don’t mind bass-heaviness but it has to be good bass. Well, the 800D doesn’t let down. Actually, it may well have the best bass of all models in the 800 series, past and present. The bass is very well integrated, not like with the 802D where it was too thick and too slow. The 800D can really give you the illusion of listening to a small two-way monitor speaker. The bass is that well integrated. It is fast, articulate, dynamic, punchy and, not to forget, DEEP! It really is incredible how deep these speakers reach. The bass is always solid and feels very physical. But, unlike with the 802D’s, there is no bass when it is not on the CD. It’s not like there is always a constant rumbling down below. The 800D’s bass is simply faithful to the recording. This aspect of the 800D makes me want them most. If you want good bass, there is simply no substitute for a big cabinet and big drivers. The Magnepans simply fail on this aspect. That is why I have two Rel Strata subwoofers. But even with their help, the bass never sounds as full, dynamic and present as with the 800D’s on their own. And this is with Jeff Rowland model 6 amplification. The Rowlands are indeed very good amps that have plenty of current in reserve, but they are hardly bass champs. I suspect that if you connect a big McIntosh or Bryston, the bass will really rock!
What is my overall opinion, you might ask. Thing is, this is difficult to decide. Sometimes these speakers amaze me and sound totally convincing. Other times they sound thin, flat and plain uninspiring. They perform at their best with real music, acoustical instruments and voices. Blues and jazz can be stunning. Electronic music fares less well: it quickly sounds electronic as well. Smooth jazz often isn’t smooth on the 800D’s. Often times, with less well recorded CD’s, these speakers sound nothing like their hefty price tag presumes. Of course you could argue that the source is to blame. Garbage in, garbage out, right? Well, I can’t disagree, but I listen to music for my enjoyment. Not to be punished for having bought mediocre CD’s. I guess that this is the price you pay for having state of the art monitors. After all, that’s what they are: studio monitors. They have been developed for making music mixes while listening loudly. The most important factor was for them to be able to play really loud while having vanishingly low distortion. That goal has been achieved. My initial listening was with Transparent cabling allround. The speaker cables are Transparent Reference XL’s and while they aren’t mushy or overly smooth, they are very subtle and forgiving in nature. But even with these cables the speakers sounded analytical. I swapped to Cardas Golden Reference but that was too much and it resulted in sloppy, slow bass and less articulation in the lower midrange. As a whole, these are certainly among the best speakers I have heard. But they are a bit too fussy for me. Also, I don’t think that they perform optimally in my room. I suspect that these speakers need an even larger room. To further test this, and to make the review more meaningful, I compared the 800D’s to a few other speakers.
Compared to Nautilus 804
A comparison was easy to make since the 804’s are permanently setup in the cinema room. Immediately after connecting them up it was evident that the 802D indeed has a dark balance. There are people who find the N804’s treble brittle or hard. I’m here to tell you that this is nonsense. They may have heard new speakers, bad equipment or there may have been a mismatch going on. But the Nautilus tweeters are certainly never harsh or brittle. This was again evidenced when comparing them to the Diamond tweeters. The N804 was at once more open and airy but also a lot more fluid and gentle. The Diamond could be said to be more accurate and more dynamic but it was also ruthless. The Nautilus tweeter by comparison was much more forgiving and made me think of the Magnepan’s ribbons. of course the latter are even airier and open but still, I very much like the Nautilus tweeter. So, have B&W gone too far? Have they traded musicality for accuracy? I’m not sure. I have also had the 802D’s in the past, and their tweeters, if memory serves, were very fluid and in fact sounded less like tweeters than those of the N804’s. They simply made music and never made themselves known. So what changed in the 800D? Perhaps a combination of the filter components, lower tolerances and maybe the conscious decision to make the 800 a more honest speaker. But I digress. The N804 not only sounded airier and more subtle, but it was also more engaging overall as if it was completely run in and the 800D came freshly out of the box. But these 800D’s were already 6 years old when I bought them. They may have been out of duty for a while, while the previous owner enjoyed his new speakers but still, I made sure that I shook them loose (poor neighbors) and listened to lots of music over the course of two weeks before starting on this review. Of course the N804 had less bass, but it coped well, its bass being more agile and quick and also more tuneful. When combined with the Rel subs, the 804’s could really shine. This was a sound that I could live with if I didn’t have Magnepans. The enormous price difference at first didn’t seem justified. But the midrange was where the N804’s had to bow to the 800D’s. Where the 800D’s had an immense soundstage and managed to image completely free from its enclosure, the N804’s were narrow and 2D in comparison. You should know that I compared the N804 to many speakers and always have they sounded utterly spacious. This only goes to illustrate that the 800D’s are really special in that respect.
Compared to Magnepan MG3.6R
The Magnepans are a tough act to follow. Even for 800D’s as it turns out. Again, my room may be to blame too, but the Maggies just sound more detailed, are more open, faster, and more articulate. Their treble is so much more open and delicate that the 800D’s treble sounds dull and muffled in comparison. The Magnepans also manage to do this while avoiding being too clinical. In fact, their treble is much more smooth and fluid than that of the 800D. The Maggies may well actually have too much treble energy in absolute terms but even so, the quality of the treble is apparently difficult for regular tweeters (diamond or not) to follow. The Maggies’ midrange however is less stellar than their treble in that it possesses a slight analytical quality and can be thin if ill-matched or ill-setup. Still, the Magnepans manage to win me over for their midrange when compared to the 800D’s. It is much more refined and subtle but more importantly, it doesn’t have any apparent coloration. The FST unit in the 800D’s has a definite character that makes it stand out sometimes. The Maggie’s midrange by contrast is more embedded in the whole and doesn’t make itself heard at all. This is the advantage of having no enclosure. The bass, finally, is where the Maggies have to bow to their masters. For a full range magnetostatic, they have good bass: fast and articulate it is much better in fact than that of its predecessor, the MG3.5. But it has no real power and doesn’t go very low either. If combined with good subwoofers, they can perform quite respectably but after having heard the 800D’s you will not easily be satisfied with the bass of other speaker again. Also, while the Magnepans have a similar soundstaging capability in that they image very widely and have excellent focus, they don’t image as well in the depth field. Here the 800D’s are clearly better.
Finally, a quick comparison with the Synthese Floating 2
These odd speakers have a free “floating” midrange and treble enclosure. This makes them image very well. Like the 800D’s, they have the ability to image way outside the borders of their enclosures. Their sound is royal, deep, wide and colorful. They have very deep, albeit not very accurate, bass. The entire enclosure is a transmission line for the bass. This makes them sound full and deep and there’s a very relaxed quality to the bass that is very soothing. The matching relaxed midrange and treble make for a sound that reminds of very old IMF/Kef speakers. There’s just no aggression. At all. These speakers aren’t as detailed as the 800D’s though. Not by a long shot. even the N804’s beat them at that. Easily. But these funny “phones” demonstrate very clearly where the 800D’s hurt. For me, no matter how accurate they are, they are just too unforgiving. The Syntheses make it easy for you to relax and stay on the couch the entire evening. The 800D’s by contrast can make me restless and annoy me sometimes.
Trying other speaker cables
Shortly after writing this review, I tried a pair of Cardas Golden Reference speaker cables to see if they could ameliorate the 800D’s clinical character. The results are interesting because, as it turns out, the GR cables sound much warmer than the Transparant XL’s that I normally use and also less focused and rhythmic. This was surprising because I know that the Transparent is also pretty smooth and the Golden Reference is said to be very neutral yet I find it sounding much like the Golden Cross, which is forgiving, friendly, smooth and never harsh. It is also a little slow and unprecise in the bass and lacks a little focus and definition in the midrange. If you have speakers that sound slightly harsh and/or forward, Golden Reference cables might alleviate the problem. Even though the Cardas cables indeed made the 800D’s less critical with bad recordings, they also tended to blur the bass and lessen apparent detail throughout the frequency range. People that have read more reviews written by me know that I don’t actually like a forward/clinical sound, but the Cardas simply just smooths things over rather too much. The treble becomes very much more tolerable even with bas recordings but you pay the price with a loss of PRAT and apparent resolution. Perhaps with more forward sounding amplifiers the story would be different, but I don’t think that the Golden Reference cables match the 800D’s particularly well. Nor do my Rowland model 6 amps for that matter, but I’ve had them for a long time and they allow me to make a good estimation of how a speaker sounds. That said, I think that McIntosh amps would make a good match because of their more forgiving nature while maintaining drive and coherence.
To come back to an earlier question… Do I like these speakers? Yes I do. I have immense admiration for them when all circumstances are optimal. That means combining them with forgiving cables and playing only well-recorded CD’s. They have fantastic soundstaging and their bass can be stunning. If I had a second room and no cost restraints then I would probably keep them. They are that good. But now that I have to choose between them and the Magnepans (or Apogees as I would later opt for), I simply have to conclude that the Maggies move me more. Not by sheer bass power for sure, but emotionally they do the trick, whereas the 800D’s fail to move me with a sizable part of my CD collection.