The Hub: Bowers & Wilkins 801: Good, Bad, or Ugly?

The most irritating aspect of having a truly brilliant idea is that it becomes immediately obvious to any rational soul who hears it; and then, being obvious, it is treated with disdain. The new-millennium response to such ideas is a resounding, "well, DUH!"

Thirty years ago, the Bowers & Wilkins 801 was greeted with more "huhs" than "duhs", but once seen and thought about, the design seemed almost self-evident. If you build a multi-way speaker, it makes sense to isolate the rear radiation of each driver from the others, and it also makes sense to isolate any spurious vibrations of each driver from the others, as well.

Englishman John Bowers may not have originated the each-driver-in-its-own-enclosure idea, but he certainly took that sucker, ran with it, and made the concept known world-wide. Bowers started out hand-assembling speaker systems in the back of an electrical/Hi-Fi store he ran with partner Roy Wilkins. The two had met in the Royal Corps of Signals in WWII; after the war, Bowers taught at the Brighton Technical College, and opened the store, known as Bowers & Wilkins, in Worthing, West Sussex.

The pair sold classical records as well as electronics. One of their clients, a Miss Knight, was sufficiently impressed by Bowers' love of music and the speakers he built for her, that she left Bowers 10,000 pounds in her will! Bowers used the money to leave the retail store and found a company dedicated to speaker manufacture. Bowers and new partner Peter Hayward launched B & W Electronics in 1966, with their first model called the P1. It was the next model, the P2, which utilized the IonoFane ionic tweeter, quickly establishing B&W as a company not afraid to vary from convention.

The DM 1 and 3 in 1968 began the practice of designating high-performance models as "Domestic Monitors", and the label has continued to the present day. The DM 1 and 3 were both fairly conventional designs, but the DM 70, introduced in 1970, brought worldwide attention.

The '70 featured an 11-element electrostatic array for midrange and highs, crossed over at an oddly-low 400Hz to a large paper-cone woofer. The DM 70-C (for "Continental") was a striking design with a satin-finish white cabinet with the electrostatic array mounted above the large bass enclosure,standing on a tubular metal base. The DM 70 was best-known for having been featured,along with a Transcriptors turntable, in Stanley Kubrick's film, "A Clockwork Orange" (the DM-70c can be seen here ).

The innovations continued: in 1976, B&W introduced the DM 6, which first utilized the yellow Kevlar-coned drivers which would become a signature element of their designs. The design prompted many comments as the bumped-out bass enclosure (a step toward time-alignment) resembled a pot-bellied penguin, complete with two legs and feet. 1977's DM 7 introduced the separately-mounted tweeter-on-top configuration, which led, in 1979, to the 801.

During the same period, KEF introduced the model 105 in 1977,and it foreshadowed some of the same concepts as the 801. Each of the three drivers had its own enclosure; the 105 had two small cubical enclosures for midrange and tweeter, stacked atop the woofer enclosure like a child's blocks. A neat feature was that the mid/tweet stack pivoted, to allow the dispersion to adapt to the room(the 105 can be seen here, in the KEF "museum", click on "Model 105").

B&W started with the three-box idea, and utilized their pioneering efforts in the use of laser interferometry to design more break-up resistant drivers, and less-resonant cabinetry. Initial releases of the 801 had a wooden midrange enclosure; in fairly short order it was replaced by a "head" made of a glass-fibre-reinforced concrete composite, not surprisingly called Fibrecrete.

The 801 rapidly found its way into professional monitoring applications(including the studios of Decca and DG), and a large number of homes, in spite of its then-high price of $2850 (over $8000 in 2009 bucks). Its deficiencies of inefficiency and somewhat muddy bass were corrected with the 1987 release of the 801 Matrix Series 2, as listed for sale here.

If the original 801 had been enthusiastically received, the Matrix Series 2 was met with the equivalent of a parade for the Yankees in Manhattan. The Matrix construction utilized honeycomb elements to reinforce and damp the bass cabinet, which was now vented and EQ'd; further refinements included a new metal-dome tweeter and a new plastic-coned woofer with a 13-lb. magnet asembly.

In his December, 1987 Stereophile review, professional Contrabassoonist Lewis Lipnick wrote, "...this is the most musically complete and revealing fullrange loudspeaker that I have heard to date." Confirming the speaker's significance, in 2002 Stereophile listed it as #7 of the "Hot 100" most significant products released during the magazine's first 40 years. Wes Phillips wrote, "possibly the best-selling high-end loudspeaker ever sold in the US, and certainly the most-influential dynamic loudspeaker design of its generation" (linked here).

1998 brought the Nautilus 801, utilizing the laminar-flow technology previously introduced in 1993's Nautilus. The 801 continues today, in its beefiest incarnation yet as the 801d, introduced in 2005. While most manufacturers are moving toward smaller woofers, the 801d features a 15" Rohacell-coned woofer, alond with a 25mm diamond-dome tweeter. Thirty years on, the 801 only gets better; it'll be exciting to see what the next generation brings. Given today's prices, the fact the 801 is still well under $20,000 must be regarded as almost miraculous.
There is a Bryston 4BST listed at $999 which should drive them very well, this is for a basic amp. Also a Quad 909 for $799. I doubt if many receivers have the power necessary. The bigger NAD integrated amps might work, Musical Fidelity in their smaller amps would be in this price range.
What a difference a year makes!! I can't believe it has been a year, since I asked for a good Amp to drive 801s, for $600!

One thing led to other and I did acquire the 801S2 pair referred to, in this posting, in Jan '10 and bought a McCormack DNA225 couple of months later. Kimber 8TC got added and then replaced by Analysis Plus Solo Crystal ICs and SCs. In July a Levinson 390S CDP graced the rack and in Sept DNA225 became a Rev.A+ You get the idea, as you have been down this path before ;-)

After 1 yr I'm starting to understand the sound repro a bit and believe:
a. clean power is key
b. cables make a difference
b. proper mechanical isolation and vibration draining+dampening is crucial

Along this journey, I have found the gon forums to be priceless! And look forward to exploring further in 2011.
Paul, thanks for the update. I can't believe it's been a year since I wrote the piece!

Best of luck on your journey!