The 801 D4 is the flagship model of the company’s latest-generation reference loudspeaker range, and a direct descendant of a speaker line in use in recording studios worldwide, including London’s Abbey Road, for more than 40 years. For this latest line-up, Bowers & Wilkins further developed the wide range of in-house technology found in previous series of the 800 models, making the 801 D4 a showcase for its design and engineering – as you might expect, given the elevated price.
Everything about this speaker is unique to Bowers & Wilkins: the tweeter uses a diaphragm formed from diamond material, and is mounted in an isolated solid aluminium tubular housing the company calls Tweeter-on-Top, sitting on top of the Turbine Head – again in aluminium – housing the Continuum Cone midrange driver, which is also designed and made in-house using a unique woven diaphragm for stiffness and light weight. This driver also uses a new suspension system designed to reduce noise, enhancing the purity of the midband, as does the decoupling of the Turbine Head from the main speaker body.
For all the apparent complexity of the design of the lower cabinet, housing two 250mm bass drivers, it’s actually formed from a single piece, using multiple layers of wood shaped under pressure and heat, while inside an improved version of the company’s Matrix bracing is employed to stiffen the whole assembly, along with the metal spine running down the back of the speaker, which also houses the crossover components. Add the substantial plinth on which the speaker sits, providing space for the downward-venting bass Flowport, and this imposing design is as heavy as it is lofty: it stands more than 112cm tall, and weighs just over 100kg.
By any standards, the 801 D4 is an exceptional speaker, fully living up to its heritage as a studio reference. Given its size and price, it’s not a design to be used with just any system, and is best paired with high-quality amplification able to deliver both a pure sound and plenty of power – it’s designed for use with amplifiers of up to 1000W! – and placed in a room giving plenty of space to ‘breathe’. Get all that right, and this speaker will deliver both striking levels of detail and a hugely musical performance. Forget any idea that studio monitors can be over-analytical, or that big speakers like this can bring on the thunder but are also sometimes a bit slow on their feet: the 801 D4 is all about delivering the whole of a musical performance, whether that’s a full symphony orchestra, the lowest pedals of an organ or the full scale of a charging dance track.
For all that complexity of materials, modules and drive units, what’s immediately clear with this speaker is the way everything integrates smoothly to bring the listener a complete – and captivating – view of what’s being played. It’s as convincing playing solo piano or voice and guitar at low volumes as it is when called upon to deliver all the drama of opera or prog rock, and the way in which it can punch out rhythms is as impressive as its delicate fluidity with quieter pieces, and the way it lets you listen in to hear the recorded space around a performance.
Spend some time making sure the speakers are set up correctly in your room – they have built-in castors to allow them to be manoeuvred out of their huge boxes and into place, and then adjusted before their integral spikes are deployed to keep them in position – and they’ll deliver a wonderfully natural-sounding and focused soundstage picture. Close your eyes and you’ll hear not sound coming from two speakers, but an image of the performance before you, with performers located precisely and reliably, and also having depth between and behind the plane of the speakers. That’s what stereo is all about, and that’s what the 801 D4 delivers.
And in case you were about to ask ‘Will they go loud?’, then the answer is an emphatic yes. Provided your amplification is up to the job, they’re capable of massive sound pressure levels, enabling you to have the best seat at an orchestral concert, a place in front of the PA at a live rock gig (should you really want to!) or realistic club levels – and all without any change in tonality from the quietest whisper to full-on room-shaking. You don’t need to drive them hard to hear what they can do, but any hardening of the sound when you do turn things up is more likely to be your amplifier reaching its limits, not the speakers.
The 801 D4 series comes in an extended range of finishes – as well as all-black, you can have the speakers in white with a silver ‘head’, rosenut veneer with black, or walnut/silver – with the top of the main cabinet trimmed in high-quality leather. Grilles are provided for the midrange and bass drivers, while the tweeter has an integral mesh over it. Build and finish is exceptional throughout, but you’ll need two things to hear these speakers at their best – plenty of space, and an exceptionally good system with which to feed them.
While widely adopted by studios, the 800 series was never designed as a monitor, but rather the best the Bowers & Wilkins team could build given their current capabilities. Since the first 801 in 1979, the engineering has been constantly refined and the speaker improved, making this latest-generation statement design one of the most compelling speakers you can buy. You should hear it.
Britten: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern)
Benjamin Britten may not have known it, but this is the ultimate system test-track, highlighting each instrument in turn before building a massive whole as they all join the party. The 801 D4 delivers all the fine detail – and then all the power to tingle the spine
The Who: Baba O’Riley
This live version of the classic, from the Albert Hall in 2000, is just part of a towering set allowing the 801 D4 speakers to do their ‘hi-fi PA rig’ thing – and the combination of all that finesse and those big bass drivers means they’re more than up to the job
Espen Eriksen Trio: In the Mountains
Deceptively simple, this piano/bass/drums trio puts all the emphasis on the way a speaker can resolve and place performers in a soundstage – which is just what the 801 D4 does, right from the taut but powerful opening drum beats
Writing in an extensive review for Hi-Fi News, our own Andrew Everard commented that while the Bowers &Wilkins flagship may look like the model it replaces, just about everything is new – and its performance paid tribute to all the changes, with every note wonderfully clear, and a persuasive impression of instruments in the room. The review loved the way the sound was both informative and vivid, bringing to life everything from driving rock to the most subtle of solo instruments and voices.Even better, the review said, they’ll also go scarily loud with enough amplification driving them!
This isn’t just a technical tour de force, but also an immensely enjoyable loudspeaker design. As impressive to look at as it is to listen to, it will show off the capabilities of a high-end hi-fi system like very few other speakers