From its inception in 1966, Bowers and Wilkins showed itself to be one of Britain’s great innovating loudspeaker manufacturers. It soon became famous for technologically interesting products, pushing forward the frontiers of design. This was crystallised in 1970 with the advent of the DM70. Sporting a number of radical ideas, it had two cabinets per speaker, one for the bass and the other for midband and treble. The former was an infinite baffle-loaded 300mm woofer, the latter a curved, 11-segment electrostatic panel. This set a very high bar for what was to be the company’s most important flagship of its early period – the 1979 801.
When this launched at the end of the nineteen seventies, it was declared to be the company’s finest cost-no-object product yet made, done with “no restrictions” imposed on the design team, aside from it having to be full-range, wide bandwidth transducer with very low distortion. It won plaudits from the world’s hi-fi press, and soon Abbey Road Studios adopted it as the classical music monitor of choice. The B&W 800 series legend was born, but the problem the company then faced was how to extend the franchise downmarket.
The 802 was the answer; whereas the 801 was simply too big for many British listening rooms, so the 802 had to be more compact and domestic living room-friendly. For this reason, the company came up with something that these days seems utterly unremarkable and run of the mill, but by the standards of nineteen seventies speakers was seriously radical. It produced a tall floorstander – measuring 1040x300x370mm – with a footprint less than half that of the 801. By the standards of the day, the 802 was unusually slender – unlike the big, wide baffle boxes that were the norm back then. This set the trend for the so-called ‘tower’ floorstanders in use toda
The first 802 Series 80 showed oodles of clever, forward-thinking design touches – from special materials technology to the use of computer modelling for various aspects of the loudspeaker cabinets and crossovers. Its drive unit line-up consisted of a single 26mm B&W TS26S tweeter sitting inside its own special pod, atop the MK100/802 midrange driver which was in its own separate compartment too. Two 220/802 polymer bass drivers worked in parallel, rubber mounted and isolated from the main cabinet box.
The latter was made of high density particleboard, heavily braced inside and veneered both in and out. It was laminated with 6mm anti-resonance bituminous pads. At the bottom of the 802 sat the crossover, a complex affair with APOC (audio powered overload circuit) electronic protection – complete with an LED indicator to show if it had been tripped. B&W made much of it at the time, pointing out that that it was the first manufacturer in the world to offer such a thing. APOC worked by sensing the voltage applied to each individual drive unit, protecting against DC, thermal and transient overload signals. If anything arrived at the driver that risked blowing it, the crossover would temporarily attenuate it. Power output was quoted at 600W, with 90dB efficiency.
At the time of its launch, the 802 was a taste of things to come. The hi-fi world was emerging from the nineteen seventies, where most of the loudspeakers had been highly coloured in one way or another – thanks to poor cabinet construction and/or old fashioned drive unit materials that were heavy and overdamped. The new 802 got the balance just right, with a far tighter and tauter sound than many of its rivals, and a clean, spry midband with loads of detail, plus a crisp, extended treble. This 32kg behemoth required careful placement, but its sealed cabinet meant it could go closer to boundary walls than reflex-loaded rivals. Also – aping the classic DM70 – its upper drive units could be angled towards to the listener slightly, so the whole cabinet enclosure didn’t need to be.
Gone was the 801’s large diameter bass driver, so the 802 couldn’t quite match its bigger brother’s bass extension; it rolled off 10Hz higher yet for most types of music this wasn’t an issue. The 802 Series 80 imaged exceptionally well by the standards of moving coil box loudspeakers of the day, and also tracked dynamics very effectively showing very little compression at high levels. Overall, the early 802 was a powerful, punchy and engaging performer that showed real grace under pressure, alongside a decently smooth tonal balance and lots of fine detail.
Unhappily, the original Series 80 design proved to be problematic. The wooden midrange enclosure tended to crack with age, and this lead to B&W designing a more enduring and better damped head enclosure using glass reinforced concrete inner lining – called Fibrecrete – while the outer shell was moulded from rigid polystyrene. The 802F appeared sporting this modification, and the company claimed this brought cabinet vibration 60dB below the cone vibration. Then the 802F Special model arrived shortly afterwards featuring a new polyamide dome tweeter and B&W’s Environmental Controls; these gave a high frequency lift or cut of 1.5dB at 5kHz, or a choice of midband attenuation of either 1.5dB or 2.5dB from 1 to 3kHz. Of the very early 802 loudspeakers, the 802F Special is the most desirable.
This hurried mod to the 802 was the first in a long line of changes to the speaker, that takes up to today’s 802 D3 – which is a very different beast in every way, aside from size and general raison d’être. The clever thing was that B&W kept improving the design to keep it ahead of the rest – or at least up with its commercial rivals. Many loved the 802 for its sheer robustness and wide variety of competences; not everyone wanted a fragile, tweaky loudspeaker at this price. The early 802 sold for around two thousand pounds at launch – so it was never an inexpensive pleasure. Many people thought – then as now – that it still represented great value for money.
Reeling in the years
The 802 has received regular updates, with countless new iterations during its long life. The biggest early development was 1986’s B&W 802 Matrix. Introduced by designer Laurence Dickie, it was an internal grid-like construction which gave a far quieter and more rigid cabinet. Metal-dome tweeters, Kevlar midrange drivers, new woofers and bass reflex loading were featured. Two years later the Matrix 802 S2 arrived, and then the Series 3 a year later.
The Nautilus 802 was a radical departure with cabinetry derived from the Nautilus of 1993, and sported B&W’s Fixed Suspension Transducer (FST) midrange driver. Here, more powerful motors were used, with neodymium magnets; twin 200mm Kevlar coned woofers arrived, with B&W’s dimpled Flowport bass reflex port. The crossover was simplified too. This speaker won EISA’s European High End Audio of the Year 1999-2000, with the Europe-wide judging panel saying, “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.”
It was a landmark improvement, but then came the Diamond 802D in 2005 with a new treble unit diaphragm coated in diamond particles using chemical vapour deposition, and better FST midrange drivers and carbon fibre/Rohacell woofers. The too was a major improvement over the previous metal dome, adding superior subtlety and speed.
Thanks to the sheer number of different variants, expect to pay anything from £500 to £5,500 for a pair of used 802s – depending on whether it’s the original spec or the latter Diamond 802. As a rule, £2,000 will get you a very good pair of Matrix 802s, capable of delivering excellent sound at very high levels. Due to the large quantities sold, this speaker isn’t too hard to find, so there are bargains to be had.
1970 B&W DM70 launched
1979 B&W Model 801 launched
1980 B&W Model 802 launched
1982 B&W Model 802 F Special
1986 B&W Matrix 802
1988 B&W Matrix 802 S2
1989 B&W Matrix 802 S3
1999 B&W Nautilus 802
2005 B&W Diamond 802D