Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Speakers - Bowers & Wilkins 801 Matrix Series 2






While scouring the Web for reviews of the B&W Matrix 801 Series 2 loudspeakers, I came upon one comprehensive review, by Stereophile, and a few forum posts, but nothing else substantial. That's surprising, as this speaker model is heralded as being one of the most popular high-end speakers produced in the past 25 years. Hopefully this review will encourage other 801 owners to chime in and leave comments, so that this speaker can get its fair share of attention.
 
The Purchase 
I've waited for a pair of 801 S2 or S3 (series two or three) speakers to pop up for local purchase for a few years now. The few times I've seen them, I hadn't the available cash, or they were plucked up by another buyer. This time I got lucky. Found this pair on CraigsList in a nearby town, and communicated with the seller a few times throughout the day, finally arranging to meet him for a listen that same evening. As soon as I walked into the room, I knew I'd be leaving with these speakers. There were a couple of finish options for the 801s, and the all black ash was the one I'd been waiting for. Not that big black speakers look great in my family room, but the wood veneer options for these with the brown Fibercrete head units were, in my opinion, atrocious. Of course the sound mattered as well, so my son and I did a test-listen with an acoustic guitar CD, jazz, and some rock. The speakers passed muster on all counts. They were as good as I had hoped.
 
With the help of the seller, my son and I were able to load these beasts into our van. Once home, it took considerable effort to tilt them out of the rear compartment and onto a skateboard which I used as an improvised dolly. From there, it was only about ten feet of travel into the garage, but each inch was a test of balance, strength, and nerves. These are 110 pounds each, 39" high, 23" deep, and absolutely no handles of any kind. Yes, there's a bass port, but that's a hole, not a handle.
 
The Move Inside 
They sat in my garage for four days until the family left on a Saturday. I needed an empty house with plenty of echo room for cursing and grunting that I predicted would accompany the transfer of these speakers into our den. I was right. The three steps from our garage into our kitchen were agonizing. At one point, with neither any room behind or in front of me to rest the speaker on a flat surface, I felt a shock of pain in my lower back. I steadied myself, and then slowly pushed the speaker onto its side and slid it past the threshold into the kitchen.
 
Once in the family room, I drove to my local hardware store and bought eight 2.5" casters and installed them on the speakers. I'm pretty certain these didn't bring the speakers to their optimal listening height, but, since I can't find that info online anywhere, I'll live with this setup until information comes my way. People have suggested using the original Sound Anchor stands built for these speakers, but at $300/pair, I couldn't get myself to pay for something that I think I can eventually improvise with commonly-found building materials. More on that in another post.
 
The Setup 
Once in the den, I disconnected the right Vandersteen 3A Signature and bi-wired the 801 in its place. From the preamp, I was now able to use the balance control to switch back and forth between the other Vandersteen and the new 801. I had prepared for this listening test by transferring several dozen lossless audio files onto my iPod Nano. For this family room system, I use a Keyspan TuneView iPod dock connected to my Sony STRDA555ES receiver that I use as a preamplifier. The Sony is connected to my Aragon 8008 power amplifier.
 
The Sound 
My first impression while listening to both channels was just how apparent the sonic differences are in the Vandersteens and the B&Ws. Where the Vandersteens were laid-back, neutral, and forgiving, the 801s were forward, analytical, precise, and aggressive. Not all of these terms can be immediately likened to sonic fidelity, but they immediately come to mind when i think about the characteristics of these speakers. Speaker reviews are often criticized for using language that's too esoteric, but often, using concrete terms to transpose an emotional, aural experience is a wasted effort. When I write about the 801s being analytical, I'm referring to their honest, uncolored reproduction of sound - all sounds, true to the original recording. There's a wandering bass line in the Beatles Golden Slumbers that snaps to the front of the soundstage on the 801s where it gets lost somewhere in the lower mid-bass on the Vandersteens. The Vandersteens produce silky-smooth mids and highs, but Paul's voice sounded like he was in the room with me on the B&Ws. Some of the vocal realism is also due to the fact that the 801's midrange and tweeter sit at ear-level for my prime listening location. These drivers on the Vandersteens were nearly a foot above my ears. Adjusting my head height a bit revealed more realistic mids and highs on the Vandersteens, but I'd have to sit on two pillows to get that height from my couch. That's not going to happen, and no, tilting the 90 lb 48" tall Vandersteens downward to adopt a more precise driver angle isn't going to happen.
 
I disconnected the other Vandersteen after several minutes of listening to both brands. Once the other 801 was connected, I sat back for some serious fun. The close-mic'd vocals of Julianna Raye sounded amazing. Her sensitive, but not overly-breathy "Dominoes" brought me right into the studio with her, and "White Bicycle" was equally as hypnotic. Karen Carpenters vocals sounded a bit more harsh on the 801s, but then I realized that her vocals are so clean and clear that, again, I felt part of the studio session instead of listening in a home environment. I heard Richard Carpenter move on his piano bench, and the hammer mechanisms inside the piano. Sounds were being revealed that I'd never heard before. The subtle wavering in Karen's well-controlled vocals, the violin bow hair doing an initial, gentle bounce off the strings before moving along them, so many musical discoveries that force me to want to listen to more and music to rediscover sounds I'd not heard before.
 
UPDATE: I switched out the Sony ES receiver for my McIntosh C31V preamplifier/audio controller. I made this change because I didn't need the complicated sound fields and Dolby intrusions on the Sony, and was interested only in two-channel sound, even for my home theater in that room. With the McIntosh, I also have the benefit of a five band EQ broken into frequency steps of 30, 150, 500, 1,500, and 10,000 Hz boost or cut at 12dB. This gives me a great range to tweak the sound, when needed, for various recordings, but especially for movies, where, without the use of a center speaker, vocals can get lost. NOTE: I use the Playstation 3 as our Blu-ray, and have HDMI coming out of it for our TV. I use the PS3 Multi-out analog RCAs for audio. As the McIntosh C31V is an all-analog unit, I'm not using the digital optical from the PS3, but might consider getting a decent DAC and going that route someday.
 
B&W 800 Series Bass Alignment Filter
So far, in my Web searches, there's been more written about the B&W Matrix 800 Series Variable Bass Alignment Filter & Equalizer than the speakers, themselves. I've got an eBay search going for one, and will probably purchase one if I can get it for around $150 or less. Seems like a reasonable experiment, in any case, and can always resell it if I end up not using it. I won't go into details on how this bass alignment filter works, suffice to say it changes the 4th order crossover in the 801s to a 6th order Butterworth crossover, allowing an extra 1/2 octave of deep bass. The nice thing about the McIntosh C31V is that I can eek out quite a bit of bass between the variable loudness and the 30 Hz EQ boost, so this little filter may not make much, if any difference. True, the McIntosh won't let me hear what isn't already reproduce-able, but at that low of a frequency, it's gonna be hard to tell without listening to isolated test tones.
 
Conclusion
I am so very pleased with these speakers. After a hit-and-miss affair with B&W speakers over the years - LOVE the DM640, lukewarm on the 602 and DM100i, like the DM12, did NOT like the 802 Series 80, the fact that these met every one of my expectations speaks volumes and is quite a relief. I've flipped my fair share of speakers, but always hang on to the ones I consider "keepers." I'm glad to say these fall into that category. Full range speakers like the B&W 801 S2 have to step to the plate with a lot to offer. Although one could always throw in a subwoofer to round out the low-end, the idea with these is that you shouldn't have to do that. If I find that a full-range speaker isn't living up to its name, I'll sell it. The 801s are going to stay with me for a very long time. 

5 comments:

  1. Hi
    Interesting speakers, and a good review which really gets the character of these speakers across to the reader.
    We have exchanged a little correspondence regarding the K.E.F. 105.2's - I wonder how these compare to the B&W 801 Series 2's? The design is superficially similar with all the drivers having their own separate enclosures, and the staggered front-to-rear positioning which I suppose is also to ensure time-alignment between the drivers. However the 801's look much more solidly built, and this impression is confirmed by your efforts to move them around!
    Best Wishes
    Tony

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  2. Thanks Tony. Interesting you should mention the KEF 105.2s, as I'm considering selling them now. The 105.2s don't have the punch, deep bass, or refined highs as the 801s, but they are still excellent speakers. You're right about the 801s being time-aligned. The matrix internal structure of the 801s mean lots of wood, support, rigidity, and weight! As if it needs repeating, I REALLY like these 801s. :)

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  3. Hi HiFi Collector

    Its great to see someone that loves this speaker for what they are. I'm an owner too, but must mention they need lots to TLC to get them to emotionally hit you hard !!

    1. They need to be propped off the floor by approx. 10~11 inches, depending on your listening seat height. This would remove the "floor bounce" of the port that's located fairly low, thus improving imaging, bass articulation and definition, overall soundstage size and mysteriously you'll also see top-end extension.

    2. Since you have the Series-2, they truly work with the B&W Bass alignment filter that were designed for them but the parts quality of the B&W Filter is horrendously poor. The PSU is terribly underrated while the resistors & caps in the filter are just downright bad. Also, that filter needs to be buffered in its input & output stages so that fluctuating impedance are tightly controlled for that Filter of Q=2 to perform ideally. I personally worked at a complete new rebuild & have never looked back from there. The speakers took on a totally new dimension.

    3. The amplifier to drive them is equally picky. They need a very high current amplifier - more the current the better it works. For moderate funds at hand, I can strongly recommend you Jeff Rowland Model 5 Stereo amp. For more money, the Jeff Rowland Model 7 monos.

    4. The S2 801s came with non-ferrofluid tweeters that can bite into you if adequate care in matching with ancillary equipment not done very well. These tweeters have the capability to out-do even today's much touted Diamond Tweeters when perfect component to component matching is performed. This requires huge care but the rewards from this is the pickup of hall ambiance or info of each & every recording that's played thru them.

    Arup

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  4. Pleasure to come across this review as a long time owner of a pair of S2 801s originally bought in 90's in MA, went to UK with me and now back to US. For various reasons they were not really used for past 8 years - just sat there as silent sentinels at the corners of a room :-) Now am wrestling with what to do as I briefly fired them up before leaving the UK and they sounded great -even though they were being driven by a pair of Adcoms 565s which also had been lying dormant. My partner is not a fan of me attempting to make them work in our new home - its their physical size she has problems with. Appreciate I will lose some of the 801s performance but hoping that by trawling through helpful sites/reviews like these, I will get ideas of what amplifier setup I can use that only leaves the 'problem' of the 801s size to deal with.

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  5. I'm a happy owner of these incredible speakers. My model is the B&W 801 S3. I once had an audio store and listened to a lot of different speakers, but nothing sounds as good as the 801s. Built like a tank, these babies really plays with strong impact, delicacy and beauty at the same time. The bass is impeccable, really goes down and dispense all subwoofer need. Mids are upfront and clear, highs are very sweet and not harsh. For pop music they are the SPEAKER, for jazz and classical are also outstanding, for Rock, only looses IMHO for the JBL L300 or superior 43xx series, but it's not inferior, it just plays different, in my taste the highs and the fun of the JBLs for Rock are without competition.
    As a big tank, they also need a lot of power to make them work. At least 200W per channel amp is necessary, of course you can use a SET tube amp with 20W, but you will only get 50% or less of they can do. They are not tube-friendly speakers, the 4ohms impedance of frequency response requires solid state powers, Krell, Pass Labs and Mark Levinson are recommended. Bi-amping is also very advised, specially if the 2 amps are the same, so you will get away from improper impedance matching with the preamp. If you someday see some of these near you, do not loose the opportunity, grab them and ask for other 2 guys help you, they are 110lbs animals...

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