B&W 802 Diamond Speaker System
Price: $32,000 At A Glance: Clear, sparkling highs • Tight, extended bass • Broad, deep soundstage • Stunning fit and finish
If you’re unfamiliar with the British speaker company Bowers & Wilkins, perhaps that’s because it’s more commonly known simply as B&W. Founded in the mid-1960s by John Bowers and Roy Wilkins, it’s now one of the most respected loudspeaker manufacturers in the world, with products ranging from budget-priced to Olympic.
The 800 Diamond series is the third generation of Bowers & Wilkins’s most sophisticated range, with iconic looks that date back to the late 1990s. The 802 Diamond is one step down in price from the company’s current flagship, the $24,000/pair 800 Diamond. And while B&W’s lower-priced speakers, like most, are manufactured in China, the 800 is built in the company’s facilities in England.
The Blue Pill or the Red Pill
Unlike manufacturers that use unconventional, costly, and difficult-to-machine materials such as aluminum or composites, the bass cabinet for the 802 Diamond and its siblings is constructed of wood shaped into curved forms using sophisticated bending techniques. Inside the enclosure is a complex structure of interlocking horizontal and vertical braces designed to essentially kill cabinet panel vibrations—the matrix-braced technique B&W has been employing on its premier models for over 20 years.
The woofer cones in all of the 800 Diamond speakers have a core of Rohacell (an expanded foam material used in aircraft construction) with outer skins of carbon fiber on both sides. All of the full-range 800 series models, apart from the two-way 805 Diamonds and HTM4 Diamond (Home Theater, October 2010) also employ B&W’s long-used 6-inch FST (Fixed Suspension Transducer) midrange driver to cover the range from 350 hertz to 4 kilohertz. Since midrange frequencies require little cone excursion, the FST’s woven Kevlar cone was designed without a typical surround. A ring of foam terminates the outer edge of the cone, keeps it centered, and is said to reduce distortion.
In addition, the 800 Diamond series models use tapered tubes to control the back waves of the tweeters and (if included) midranges. In the 802 (and 800) Diamonds, the midrange sits in a rounded, tapered enclosure made of a synthetic resin material called Marlan. This combination of shape and material is said to have advantages in reducing resonances, increasing dispersion, and minimizing cabinet-edge diffraction. It’s this head that gives these two designs their distinctive appearance.
Advanced as all of this is, however, it’s B&W’s diamond dome tweeter that puts the Diamond in the 800 line’s name. Some designers may and do disagree, arguing for other exotic materials such as beryllium or ceramic for their premier tweeter domes—or even that more conventional soft domes are sufficient or even preferable. But for B&W, diamonds are a tweeter’s best friend. The diamond dome is produced by vapor deposition on a substrate that is later removed to leave the self-supporting diamond layer. Screen grilles cover the fragile tweeter diaphragms. You can remove them, but I don’t recommend it—a replacement tweeter will set you back over $1,000. Grilles are provided for the midrange and woofers as well. I left the tweeter screens in place for the listening tests but removed the others (all the grilles were left in place for the HT Labs Measures testing).
Other features of the three full-range 800 Diamond series models reviewed here include ported cabinets (foam bungs are included to block the ports of the 804 and HTM2 Diamonds, if desired, but not for the bottom-ported 802 Diamonds), an optional stand for the HTM2 Diamond center, and dual pairs of high-quality binding posts for biwiring or biamping.
The sealed-box DB1 subwoofer employs two 12-inch woofers together with onboard DSP room compensation. A microphone and all the other associated gear needed to calibrate the sub (the SubApp program can be downloaded from B&W’s Website) are also provided— apart from the PC required. I encountered a few snags in retrieving and setting up the program (it’s designed for a PC and not a Mac, and I’m mainly Mac-centric), but once in place, it took me only a little longer to perform the actual calibration than to plug in all the cables. There’s also a built-in graphic user EQ, which I didn’t use, that offers adjustments at 20, 28, 40, 56, and 80 Hz.
All of the DB1’s setup adjust- ments (apart from performing the computer-controlled room compensation) are accessible through navigation buttons and a small indicator window located on the bottom front of the sub. There is no remote, and in any case the window is too small to read from more than a foot or two away. You practically have to stretch out on the floor to see and use the menu comfortably—not exactly an ideal arrangement.
Those interested can find more exhaustive detail on the engineering behind these speakers at bowers-wilkins.com.
Once unpacked (a two-or-more-person job!), the 802 Diamonds can be rolled around (though not easily) thanks to their invisible casters. They also come with the heaviest feet I’ve ever seen. These can be installed with either spikes or feet pointing out but should not be put in place until you’ve finalized the positioning of the 160-pound speakers. I didn’t use them, as I wanted to retain the ability to move or rotate them easily over the limited range allowed by my non-perforated projection screen. Users wanting more placement flexibility for the front speakers (and willing to accept some picture compromises) might consider positioning the three front speakers behind an acoustically transparent projection screen, though this would be a waste of their extraordinary good looks.
The 802 Diamonds were toed in, tilted forward slightly (their tweeters are 44 inches off the floor, 7 inches above my seated ear height), and positioned about 5 feet out from the 15.5-foot-wide wall behind and directly to the left and right of my projection screen (retracted for music-only listening). The closest side wall was about 2 feet from the right speaker. The HTM2 Diamond center was placed on a low stand beneath the projection screen. The 804 Diamonds, used as surrounds, were located near the back of the room’s 25-foot length on aftermarket outriggers (soundocity.com) to increase their stability on my carpeted floor. The DB1 subwoofer sat behind the center speaker, closer to the front wall.