REVIEW: BOWERS & WILKINS 805D3 LOUDSPEAKERS
If B&W’s new 805D3 speakers were human, they’d be the perfect long-term companion. We take a closer look at the latest offering from one of the biggest loudspeaker names in the world.
Click below to open the StereoNET Digital Magazine review, otherwise read on.
Bowers & Wilkins
If Bowers & Wilkins' new 805D3 speakers were human, they’d be the perfect long-term companion.
And here’s a thought: some music lovers may prefer to spend more time listening to these accomplished compacts than they would relating to other people.
An intelligent use of time is how I describe this scenario.
Elegantly styled, beautifully finished and with a personality that’s vivacious and supremely articulate, the 805D3’s with their esoteric diamond tweeter raise the audiophile happiness factor by a huge margin, and then some.
These medium sized compacts are easily the most musical speaker that’s passed through my audition room in 2017, and it’s fair to say they’re one of the brand’s most ear pleasing speakers we’ve heard in a decade.
High praise indeed. The measure of my affection for what’s an expensive but commensurately presented and sonically capable stand mount model is the amount of time I spent with the 805s, which was considerable.
To say they were more on then off, is to suggest long listening sessions given over to hours of hedonistic listening pleasure.
Describing the sound of the $8500 805D3 compared to a hands on listening session, is rather like trying to convince yourself that sitting in a training simulator is as good as being in the cockpit of an F15 as it soars into the ether.
Which is a way of saying the superior sounding components have a quality that escapes the confines of language.
True, the latest version of the DM805 has a sound replete with a dizzyingly high level of transparency, sound stage accuracy, working dynamic range and tonal accuracy.
So do plenty of other fine and capable loudspeakers.
Hear a pair in situ however and assuming the rest of the system is as revealing as the NAD used in our audition sessions, and one thing comes into focus: the B&W 805D3 have a sonic X-factor, shared only by a few much more expensive rivals.
A nice segue for a closer look at this very desirable model and the matching NAD equipment chosen to drive them.
Forget any approach that sees the 805D3 as merely a makeover of the previous 805D2. The 805D3 is a complete rethink and redesign. So complete, virtually every part of the D3 (and the other six D3 series models) is wholly new requiring expensive retooling by the B&W factory.
The sole stand mount in the D3 series, the 805 uses a 16.5cm mid-bass driver fitted with a new cone material. Gone is the Kevlar cone that’s become a logo for B&W and in comes a new cone made from Continuum, a material developed in-house to improve the sonic performance of Kevlar.
Redesigned also is the new 805’s exquisite diamond tweeter. A beneficiary of a complete redesign, everything is new and all that’s been retained from the one used in the previous model, is the diaphragm.
Even the distinctive and ultra stylish aluminium pod chamber it’s mounted to is the recipient of a new design approach. The 25mm tweeter gets a new motor system while the chamber made from a single piece of aluminium is now decoupled from the D3’s sumptuously finished cabinet.
Moving to the front of the cabinet reveals a wholly new dimpled port with a surface resembling the texture of an orange. The ports crenelated surface is there to minimise noise created by air thrusting at warp speed through the port.
Superficially, the cabinet looks similar to the model it replaces. But a close scan reveals minor but significant changes to its contours, whilst internally the bracing that B&W calls Matrix, has been given extra rigidity.
The cabinet in keeping with all of B&W speakers is at the top of the pole for its visual aesthetics and high standard of finish. Our review pair came in eye-pleasing Rosenut, but you may prefer gloss black or satin white.
Specs wise, the D3 has a sensitivity of 88dB SPL measured at one metre. Impedance is a nominal 8-ohm load. But this seldom drops below 4 ohms. Again in keeping with B&W’s elite models you’ll need to bring a hefty amplifier to the table and one that’s got plenty of refinement as well as drive.
In use, the 805D3 delivers a wonderfully balanced sound and its frequency response of 34Hz and 35kHz won’t leave you wanting a larger floorstander. Indeed, the sound is so satisfyingly comprehensive from top to bottom, it invites the accolade that the 805D3 is one of the few medium sized compacts that subjectively, delivers a floorstander’s full frequency sound field.
The 805D3 is 424mm high, 238mm wide and 345mm deep. Dimensions suggesting it will work nicely in small to mid-sized rooms, but such is the performance of the D3 it will delight those with larger rooms as well.
NAD Is Masterful
The 805D3 as befitting a hi-end loudspeaker requires carefully chosen ancillary components.
As luck would have it, two NAD Masters Series components arrived for review around the same time as the 805D3 loudspeakers. These are the NAD 50.2 Digital Music Player as a signal source and the M32 Direct Digital amplifier to provide the drive.
It’s worth pausing to draw breath and ponder why this matching? When you factor in the NAD components are pitched pricewise at the upper mid-fi end of the market, the answer is as simple as realising the 805D3 has an upper mid-fi price tag.
That it competes with $16,000 high-end compacts is a testament to its soon to be classic status and design accomplishments.
Putting this trio together was an inspired decision on two counts. Firstly the price keeps the combination within reach of what I presume is its target market: the music lover keen to have a complete, audiophile quality, modern audio system to keep for more than a decade.
Secondly the cool tonal presentation of the NAD components matches rather beautifully with the slight lower midrange warmth of the B&W 805D3.
‘Synergy’ also plays a part with the D3’s performance giving this system’s lashings of high-end qualities. Like I said, this choice of gear is quite inspired.
The $6699 NAD 50.2 is a thoroughly postmodern audio component. Essentially a file server with a built in CD transport, the 50.2 comes with 2TB of internal storage, a high-grade BlueOS streamer and line level input to work with other BlueOS models via the same network.
As for the CD transport, it’s clearly much, much more than an afterthought. Used with a pile of familiar CDs, it’s detailed, transparent, has plenty of timing and pace and it’s musical. What a bonus for buyers who like us, have a mountain load of CDs.
You get a device that’s a hi-res network music player and one that handles files up to 24/192 kHz. The 50.2 does Internet radio, has Tunein, Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, Deezer, iHeart Radio, Murfie and others.
Used wired or wireless, the 50.2 is a joy to use and its large TFT panel affords effortless access to hi-fi component controls including pause, play, skip etc. But surely the biggest selling point to its aforementioned target market of set and forget audio keepers is this model’s level of future proofing.
NAD refers to it as ‘’software defined’’ by which the brand wants to suggest new cloud services or codecs can be had by changing the 50.2s software stack. Take it as given, future proofing is emerging as a make or break point for many audio gear buyers.
The amplification picked to work with the file server is NAD’s $6699 M32 Direct Digital model. Described by NAD as a BluOS Ready, high-end stereo integrated amplifier that’s also a bridge product thanks to its modular construction.
The modular approach yields inputs and their circuitry built onto uniform replaceable modules. There are four MDC card slots and three are of these can be expanded.
The M32 has preinstalled modules for SPDIF and AES/EBU, two for coax and two optical and all handle signals up to 24/192 kHz.
The M32 has a single amplifying stage to cater for all preamp and power amp modes. It also carries a phono input for moving magnet cartridges and the power on tap is said to be 150 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load.
According to NAD it’s a true digital amp that does its amplification totally in the digital domain. It converts to analogue only at the speaker terminals giving it the shortest signal path in the brand’s long history.
Signals arriving from coax, USB, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi are all routed without any conversion until they hit the speaker terminals. A design that ensures the M32 functions like an advanced DAC that can power speakers and earns it the accolade of being an authentic digital amp even if technically it is a class D model.
Everything in the on-board preamp including volume and tone controls function by way of elegant mathematics. NAD argues this eliminates any noise that would have been introduced by more traditional potentiometers. Maybe.
Interestingly, this software driven approach yields a lack of phase or distortion for the tone control and an added benefit: a built-in crossover useful for adding a subwoofer.
In this application, I’m using the NAD M32 as an audiophile quality integrated amplifier connected to the 50.2 file server with its built in CD transport, plus an SME 20/2 turntable with an SME V tonearm fitted with a Garrott P77i cartridge.
But the M32 is so flexible some might want to add a BluOS module and stream hi-res music around a home to other BluOS enabled audio components. Nice one NAD.
After auditioning the M32 I was left convinced that the future of great sounding audio is firmly in the capable hands of legacy audio brands the calibre of NAD, Marantz and Denon.
Why? Audio’s future is digital with a capital “D”. Forget advances in analogue. As much as some of us treasure the sound of vinyl, and moreover regard it as the pinnacle of great sound even in the 21st century, vinyl’s golden age has come and gone.
Analogue, as much as it pains me to write this, is marching up and down in the same spot. I know, I know, cartridges are getting better, so are turntables and tonearms. But hey, the software is still what it always was, with the same physical and material limitations.
If we’re truthful, it will be components the calibre of a Devialet, or the NAD 50.2 digital player and M32 direct digital amplifier that will shape our love, or lack of music.
Think about it: endless amounts of hi-res tracks stored wherever you chose to store them, neatly and discretely. Moreover, the choice of how and where you want to hear your music expands according to the number of components talking to each other not only around your home, but outside too.
But in this software driven approach to audio, the clinchers are upgradeable, modular components and the big one: an infinite expansion of the resolution of digital music.
24/192kHz? Big deal. A piffle compared to what the future promises. For the forces that might bear upon exactly how high the resolution number might climb, look at TV display screens now reaching dizzying heights of resolution.
Hate to say it, but computer technology is the future of reproduced music. A future where price, build quality, sound quality will connect with ultimate convenience to win over consumers’ hearts, minds, and wallets.
As a salve to our glorious analogue heritage, I consoled myself during this audition with this salient notion: by far the best sound emerged from my venerable SME turntable playing through these NAD harbingers of a digital future driving the irresistible B&W 805 D3 speakers.
Into the Mystic, or Not
Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You is a refreshing musical experience reproduced as a 24-bit/192 kHz track compared to the vinyl version.
A track driven by guitar and Mitchell’s vocals, both emerged in my listening room with strings resonating and the emotional colours of the singer’s voice transparent and poignantly rendered. A great beginning for hi-res music.
Moving to the vinyl version brought gains in subliminal detail, soundstage scale and weight along with more believable macro and micro dynamics. But hi-res sounded cleaner overall.
Comparing vinyl to digital versions of the same music reveals hi-res music’s lack of micro detail, impoverished soundstage vis-à-vis analogue and a complete lack of what we call, air and liquidity. But worthwhile gains are the lack of surface noise and of course the greater convenience of digital compared to the ritual of tonearm lowering and lifting that’s an inherent part of the vinyl experience.
Clearly, the NAD M32’s phono stage is gob-smackingly detailed and neutral while the 50.2 server is simply serving up what’s on the recording while adding only a touch of dryness to the overall presentation.
The 805D3’s proved a revelation, behaving as an open window into the sound whilst revealing the differences as components were changed. Insert a different interconnect cable and the D3’s respond with alarming clarity to the change.
Driving percussion, crazy keyboards and a vocal rendition bursting with energy are hallmarks of the hi-res version of Springsteen’s No Surrender. Not a great recording either in digital or analogue, the track wins through nonetheless with its energy and unquenchable pace.
Interestingly on vinyl, treble sounded a bit more brittle and the bass riffs were a deal spongier than the digital version. But again, the vinyl version’s imaging was sharper, the vocal had more air and the time and pace of the music was slightly less mechanical.
The M32 coasted through the swings in micro and macro dynamics and had ample power in reserve whilst providing plenty of headroom to the 805 D3’s.
Tonally the neutral but immense detail coming from the M32 was complimented by the D3’s faultless tweeter that delivered the upper frequency harshness of the track without adding anything of its own.
The gorgeous midrange quality of the D3 (and after all the midrange is where 90 per cent of all recorded music lives) was on display with Dylan’s Trouble In Mind.
The 50.2 and M32 sending a neutral signal to the D3s allowed us to wallow in the sand paper texture of Dylan’s voice that emerged from a near silent background whilst instruments were played by convincingly real performers.
Whilst I didn’t have a vinyl version to make a comparison, it was clear the track’s soundstage had truncated depth and the scale of the performance was also diminished. That’s not to say the track wasn’t enjoyable. Far from it.
And this leads to a point about hi-res digital well worth the making, which is that in the context of quality components, hi-res digital is both convenient and enjoyable. Clearly the NAD components’ overall neutrality and touch of dryness working with the slight warmth and agility of the 805D3 made for a highly entertaining if not totally enthralling listen.
Van Morrison’s Into The Mystic isn’t anything to get excited about recording quality wise in vinyl or digital. But compared to the hi-res version this track had an almost intuitive sense of timing on vinyl but was more laboured, more mechanical, on digital.
The highlight of hearing Into The Mystic through this NAD/B&W system was the speed of these components. They responded to the music’s peaks and troughs like a gazelle negotiating a rocky mountain trail.
Which is to say, gracefully and effortlessly. You can throw any genre of music at this gear and you’ll get an effortless response with abrupt start/stops and totally no overhang from the speakers. The M32 puts a vice like grip on the D3’s but lets go when called upon to do so by the music.
Frank Sinatra’s Autumn In New York tailed off my selection of hi-res digital music. The track is all about strings backing Sinatra’s legendary phrasing whilst brass in the background adds a nostalgic gloss to the melody. Hi-res or vinyl, a thrilling experience to be sure.
Differences there were and not all analogue’s way with the strings via the digital rendition presenting with less grain and brittleness compared to the vinyl version. Digital was also cleaner throughout the midrange that had a trace of grain on vinyl. Soundstage and imaging honours went to analogue, as did tonal presentation, which had more warmth and air than the digital version.
I couldn’t end the review session without a bit of self-indulgence. In this case Van Morrison’s Ballerina track from one of our desert island albums, ‘Astral Weeks’.
To assuage the pleasure quotient delivered by any gear, this is a go to track that potentially has mesmerising amounts of timing and pace courtesy of Morrison’s grating voice.
Insistent guitars to the left of the soundstage, mandolin to the right and xylophone in the middle rise and fall incrementally creating a tension that never dissipates.
As a final summation of the M32 and B&W 805D3, this track emerges with all its famed hallmarks intact - vocals, timing and pace, creative tension, rich harmonic structure and oh, so subtle micro and macro dynamics are all created in your listening space by components that gel together to comprise a truly magical audio system.
The message here given the calibre and flexibility of the M50.2 server combined with the excellent MM phono stage and highly neutral and detailed amplifier stage of the M32, is that yes, you can have it all. Analogue and digital, high-end sound quality and convenience.
As for Bowers & Wilkins’ 805D3? What a revelation of a speaker. Compared to the 805D2 model it replaces, the D3 adds vivacity and translucence to the D2’s refinement and detailing qualities. Moreover its responsiveness and dynamics conjure a human quality to its reproduction of vocals in a way few speakers at any price points can rival.
Endearing, wonderfully blissful for extended listening sessions, handsomely styled, nicely proportioned and well dressed. Like I said at the start of this review, if the B&W 805D3 were a person, I’d invite them to live in. And the NAD components? Well I’ll make space for them as well.
For more information visit the Bowers & Wilkins brand page.
One of the veterans of the Australian HiFi industry, if there's a speaker he's likely heard it or owned it at some point in his career. Peter was formerly the audio-video editor of the Herald Sun for over two decades.
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