B&W 801

B&W 801Its brief was simple; “to be the first commercial effort to design 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”. B&W said that “no restrictions” were imposed on the design team, other than the need to reproduce full range sound with very low distortion. When it launched in 1979, the general consensus was that the new 801 had met its objectives, because the speaker soon found itself adopted as the classical monitor at Abbey Road Studios. It was also installed in all Decca recording studios, and Deutsche Grammophon used it too.

In the first ‘Series 80’ models, that vast enclosure contained a 270mm thermoplastic coned woofer with 50mm voice coil and 4.5kg ceramic magnet. This crossed over to a 100mm Kevlar (aromatic polyamide fibre) matrix cone with a 25mm voice coil and a smaller ceramic magnet. Then the 26mm polyester weave tweeter took over, running a high energy nickel cobalt centre pole magnet; a total moving mass of 0.3g was claimed. The fourth order crossover network was claimed to be one of the most advanced in any loudspeaker at the time, and this featured a special APOC overload protection circuit to prevent thermal damage to the drivers. The voltages applied to each of the drivers was monitored and if the safe operating level of 32V was exceeded then a ‘fail safe’ would cut power to the speaker and a LED would illuminate; this could then be reset by pressing a button on the front baffle.

At the time, its enclosure design was radical, effectively splitting off the bass driver in the cabinet from the midband and tweeter in a separate ‘head assembly’. Not only did this let B&W engineers reduce coloration going to the mid and treble units by means of a rubber decoupler between upper and lower sections, but it also improved distortion and provided correct time alignment too. Unusually the entire upper assembly could be rotated independently of the bass unit, if required. Interestingly, the edges were ‘contoured’ to reduce diffraction effects, something that wouldn’t catch on for nearly a quarter of a decade, or so. Everything about the 801 was and is big, strong and made to last – which is precisely why the speaker is such a doyen of recording and broadcast locations, and why it has become a legend in its own lifetime.

The specifications were pretty special by the standards of the day, and now. The 801’s claimed frequency response was 45Hz to 20kHz at -2dB, and it gave a claimed sensitivity of 95dB/1w/1m with nominal impedance said to be 8 ohms. On paper, the speaker was able to produce reasonable levels of sound from a modest amplifier, but in practice needed at least 50W RMS per channel, and indeed a pretty gutsy one at that. No three-way infinite baffle enclosure (tuned to 37Hz) with a complex crossover is going to be particularly easy to drive, and the 801 didn’t rewrite this rule. Amusingly, B&W said there was “no upper limit” to maximum input power, because the electronic protection was designed to catch overloads before they could do damage. In practice, the 801 soaked up a good 250W RMS, something no other hi-fi speaker of the day could do. The company proudly quoted pair matching accuracy to be typically better than 0.25d8.

In 1987, the speaker got its first major facelift; the external styling was largely unchanged, the difference being redesigned cabinet internals with special bracing; this gave it the Matrix 801 soubriquet. In 1998 the Nautilus 800 Series was launched, which saw the Matrix 800 series being tweaked with technology derived from the 1993 statement Nautilus. In 2005, the 801D got its most recent, and arguably one of the most worthwhile modifications with the introduction of B&W’s new Diamond dome tweeter, giving it the name 801D. By this time it was running a 380mm Rohacell coned woofer, 150mm woven Kevlar midrange driver and 25mm diamond powder coated dome tweeter.

The 801 was extensively tweaked throughout its life. Even during the first Series 80 run, the head assembly material was changed early on, and the tweeter became a polyester film type. Self powered APOC was introduced, too. The Matrix 801 in 1987 saw the switch to reflex porting with an external bass alignment filter. The two crossover boards originally fitted were merged to one, with a reduction in over twenty passive components from launch to the present day. Even the English rock wool stuffing inside the early 801s changed to foam rubber. One improvement that is commonly thought to have substantially improved the sound is the deletion of the electronic circuit protection with the later models.

Sonically, the 801 is a moveable feast; all versions share its big, powerful, visceral sound that makes almost all other speakers seem diffuse, vague, veiled, boxy and uncommitted by comparison. The way it swats away most hi-fi designs is staggering. It’s a speaker that makes no apologies for itself in any respect. Its massive physical presence is the starting point; there’s no substitute for ‘cubic inches’, and this has a breathtaking visceral thwack to the way it delivers bass. But there’s more than this, because the 801 has a superbly balanced sound that lets music flow out without being cerebral, restrained or considered. It sounds like a big PA speaker, but with loads more finesse and accuracy.

This speaker gets into a recording and recreates it with a scale that you don’t see from conventional domestic hi-fi designs then, and serves up a dizzying amount of detail. Opinions differ but some owners prefer the infinite baffle cabinet of the earlier version, which seems a little tighter, tauter and faster – but almost everyone agrees the treble and midband of the later 801D is far superior, with a delicate airiness that the earlier high frequency units cannot match. At all times, you can never fully escape that Kevlar midrange driver, because it does have its own unique tonal patina – but it isn’t too intrusive unless you’re an avowed ribbon or electrostatic fan. Certainly it works well in the context of the overall design, and helps the speaker produce massively high sound levels with consummate ease.

Although other speakers better it on individual aspects of performance, there is a strong case to be made for the B&W 801 as the world’s best all round loudspeaker. There are few designs that deliver such a strong across-the-board performance. Massively detailed and accurate across a wide bandwidth yet never bland or emotionally unengaging, it makes music fun as well as telling you what is going on in forensic detail. Each generation of this classic line has its fans, but any will prove an excellent buy secondhand – providing of course you have a listening room large enough, and very friendly neighbours…

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