Bowers & Wilkins 803 D3 Diamond Loudspeakers

Our local dealer, Soundhounds is not only one of the most friendly and professional establishments in high end audio (Victoria, BC echoes all the same qualities as a city), but they are a dealership for the very best in high end equipment [reviewed here]. Stellar companies like Arcam, McIntosh, Dynaudio, DeVore Fidelity, Magnepan, Harbeth, Sonus Faber, Audio Note, Audeze and B&W, chief among them. 

I got a chance to listen to the new B&W 803 D3 speakers over several visits and thought I'd offer my impressions to our readers.  

Please don't confuse this with a full Audiophilia review, but you'll get an idea of the new technology and sound behind the famous British line and the essence of what B&W is attempting to accomplish.

And to be completely honest, compared to one of my other lives as a conductor figuring out professional men and women playing complex music on instruments, it usually only takes me seconds to figure out the Gestalt of circuits and electrons. This manifestly unambiguous loudspeaker was easy pickings. 

Easy is not simple. Easy was pure pleasure. And in the pleasure, excitement and admiration.  

The 803 is straight down the pipe in lineage from one of the most iconic floor standing speakers ever built, the B&W 801. John Bowers and his engineers in Steyning, Sussex have become legends building this speaker and increasing the B&W value many fold over the years.  

John Bowers and the original 801 Loudspeaker. 

John Bowers and the original 801 Loudspeaker. 

Most people will know of the speakers or some variation thereof from images of the famous recording room at Abbey Road where iterations of the speaker have been omnipresent for many years. 

The objects of my desire. B&W 802 Diamonds at Abbey Road Studios, London. 

The objects of my desire. B&W 802 Diamonds at Abbey Road Studios, London. 

They also took part in taking my virginity.  

Please let me explain. High end virginity.

One of our neighbours in Montreal, certainly the well heeled member of the street, had the most fantastic high end setup, especially for 1979. Actually, upon first glance, I didn't know what I was looking at. The first 801. The sound was divine, incredible, mind blowing. For a grade 8 kid totally in love with classical music, it was almost too much. 

First piece heard? Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. It was mesmerizing. It was the piece I heard at my first classical concert [Philharmonie Südwestfalen, Paderborn, Germany 1966]. And I had a CD of it ready to go for my first impression of the new 803s. Daniele Gatti's new Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra release on its eponymous label [reviewed here].

The 803s were being driven here exclusively by McIntosh. The B&Ws were not complaining. If not Rolls Royce accompanists, solid Lincoln Motor Company.  

Changes

B&W is a serious engineering company. This new Diamond line is a complete revamp of the previous range. It has the look of the line, but in truth almost 870 of the components used in the 803 D3 speaker are brand new. Only the famous dome, the terminals and a few other minor components remain. It’s the result of seven years of research, analysis and development.

Just like Focal's Utopia Speakers -- one of B&W's prime competitors -- each driver of the new speaker has its own name and specific technology/task. You can read all about the new drivers below.  But just like any other speaker, it has to replicate treble, midrange and bass. The 803 has the ubiquitous turbine head with diamond dome solid body tweeter, the 'Continuum' cone midrange, now no longer made out of the company's signature yellow Kevlar, and the 'Aerofoil' cone bass drivers. New names, better specs, and hopefully better sound. 

Technical features

Diamond Tweeter
Anti-resonance plug
Continuum Cone FST
Turbine head
Aerofoil cone bass units
Flowport
Optimised Matrix
Solid body tweeter
Tweeter on top

Description 3-way vented-box system

Drive units 1x ø25mm (1 in) diamond dome high-frequency

1x ø130mm (5 in) Continuum cone FST™ midrange
2x ø180mm (7 in) Aerofoil cone bass units

Frequency range 16Hz to 35kHz

Frequency response 19Hz to 28kHz (+/-3dB from reference axis)

Sensitivity 90dB (On axis at 2.83Vrms)

Harmonic distortion 2nd and 3rd harmonics (90dB, 1m on axis)
<1 % 70Hz - 20kHz
<0.3% 100Hz - 20kHz

Nominal impedance (min)8Ω (minimum 3.0 Ω)

Recommended amplifier power 50W - 500W into 8Ω on unclipped

Height: 1160mm Width: 334mm Depth: 498mm

Net weight 65.5kg (144lb)

B&W explains about its drivers: 

Turbine

Hear the sound, not the cabinet. That’s the principle behind our separate head units – a feature we introduced when we launched the first 800 Series speaker in 1979. Now, thanks to a radical redesign, the 800 Series Diamond head unit performs better than ever. Constructed from a single piece of aluminium, braced with internal radial fins and with a raised, slimmer profile, the turbine head is almost totally inert, producing a sound that’s free from cabinet coloration.

Continuum cone

For decades, we thought that nothing could beat Kevlar as a midrange cone material. But now, following eight years of intensive development, we’ve finally come up with something even better. Thanks to its composite construction, the Continuum cone avoids the abrupt transitions in behaviour that can impair the performance of a conventional drive unit. The result is a more open, neutral performance. And a giant leap forward for loudspeaker design.

Thanks to computer modelling, the design of the 800 Series Diamond midrange chassis has been completely overhauled. The new chassis is engineered for superior stiffness, while tuned-mass dampers help to reduce unwanted vibrations to a bare minimum.

Aerofoil cone

Sometimes, new technologies allow us to achieve things in engineering that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. The Aerofoil bass cone is a perfect example. By using advanced computer modelling and a new syntactic core material, we’ve been able to produce a cone of varying thickness, with maximum stiffness where it’s needed most. This optimised shape means the cone displays pistonic behaviour further up the audible range, producing bass that’s precise, controlled and utterly lifelike.

Matrix

Matrix provides the backbone for our speakers. It’s an internal structure that works like the bracing of a ship’s hull, with criss-crossed interlocking panels keeping our cabinets rigid and inert. For the 800 Series Diamond, we’ve introduced our most radical rethink of the Matrix concept yet. The internal panels are thicker, solid plywood has replaced MDF, and metal components have been added to reinforce key stress points. All together it’s the most solid Matrix system we’ve ever built.

Diamond domes

Some things don’t change. While almost every component of the 800 Series Diamond has been reinvented, the element that gave the range its name remains unchanged: the speaker’s diamond tweeter domes. Our diamond domes remain the ultimate in tweeter technology, capable of unrivalled acoustic detail, naturalism and spaciousness.

Back to Berlioz

As you can see, a lot of thought and engineering went into the product. And at USD $17,000/pair, they are not cheap. But, if you take engineering prowess, pride of ownership, the superlative build quality, and not leveraging the sound quality, they may even constitute a bargain. Getting equal quality from a Focal Utopia product is going to cost you substantially more. Hey 'Made in France'. Better sound? We'll see.  

The overall feeling when listening is the power handling of the speaker. When listening to macro dynamics, the power seems limitless. Far higher than your ears will manage. Listening to March to the Scaffold on Gatti's debut CD was instructive. I've never heard the timpani so loud on their famous crescendo -- too loud if following the score, but mighty exciting. The speakers never flinched. I had my teeth clenched ready for the test. Nothing. Nada. Just pow and silence.  

I tried the same with the title track from the film American Beauty. This Thomas Newman score is perfect for speaker reviews -- Latin percussion (not Latin music) darting in and out of the soundstage and swirling amongst synthesized bass. A real test for the midrange driver, especially its speed. About a minute into the track, Newman offers a scale zipped upwards at a fast tempo. This synthesized scale has many layers. It's a real test for driver resolution. It matched, not bettered, the many speakers I've reviewed from Focal. It did not better the ribbon tweeter on my Raidho X-1s. I've never heard resolution from a tweeter such as Raidho. Same as the tweeter on the Magico Q1, my favourite speaker. But, in truth, another easy pass for the B&W. So far, so good. 

String quartets. Specifically, Schubert on harmonia mundi. The Cuarteto Casals. I listen very carefully to new speakers and their handling of the string quartet, its character, the players' personalities, and most important, the very subtle differences in string timbre. 

The Casals is one of a legion of young continental quartets. Meet up at college, get some training, mentorship, dip your toes in some competitions (Banff, Portsmouth, etc), align yourself as artists in residence at a top music school, and you have yourself a paid career. But, you have to be good. The Casals is one of the best and record on harmonia mundi, home to many of them.  

What makes the Casals so good is its crack ensemble combined with four individual, characterful artists. On the Schubert CD I had [SCHUBERT STRING QUARTETS D87 & D887], the ensemble is crackerjack -- among the best you'll hear right now, but the individual timbres of each instrument is never at the expense of technique. The sound of the throaty viola or plaintive cello never escaped the rock solid midrange of the 803s. It's not the most 'romantic' of mids -- more admiration than passion -- but it does sing and matches its treble and bass drivers better than many expensive speakers. The mini monitor style of the Magico Q1 or indeed my reference X-1s will always beat a floorstander like the bigger Focals, larger Raidhos and the 803 in soundstage and super tight focused imaging, but the B&Ws did a fine job in showcasing the Casals Quartet in the refulgent acoustic of the harmonia mundi recording. Another easy pass on a very difficult test. Many speakers fail here, tripped up by that last ounce of resolution or a designer who has no idea how to voice a crossover. 

Voices sounded distinct and individual. The replication of the voice is the most important task a speaker has to accomplish. I had my review list with me.  

Michael Bublé sounds mediocre on his new CD Nobody But Me [reviewed here]. Want to be a pop star? That's what the engineers give you. Deal. The 803s replicated the thing that album is. Flat and undistinguished. And when given mercurial, magical material with artists of worth like Reference's new Fiona Boyes on her new album Professin' the Blues [reviewed here], they sang a completely different tune. With the 803s accuracy, you get what you give. Boyes and her unique percussion accompaniment sounded absolutely fantastic. Natural and dynamic.

Summary 

The purchase of these speakers will take audiophiles and music lovers lots of scratch and hours of enjoyable research. You won't be buying over the internet. That said, those wishing a speaker with very coherent drivers, power in reserve and to buy into a speaker family of true distinction, you could purchase them with a cold click. They are superb loudspeakers. Where you'll do your research is in room synergy. Size matters. And B&W provides 8 models from which to choose in the 800 Series Diamond line, including a standmount, two centres and a sub. My guess is you'll be choosing the 803s for your medium to large room where it will fill it with the most musical sounds for many years. Like most of the Focal Utopias, Raidho loudspeakers and that magical Magico Q1, the 803 D3 is a lifetime speaker. 

No Audiophilia Star Component Award due to the nature of the review, but very highly recommended, nonetheless.  

Further information: Bowers & Wilkins 

Victoria, BC audio enthusiasts, you can listen and purchase the speakers at Soundhounds