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.
I have had B&Ws starting with their first model, the P2H, then the DM70, DM3 and so on. I was a dealer for some time in the 80s sold some 801s. Use to be able to pick one up and carry it by myself; can't do that anymore. They had a better bass than most people experenced, needed more power than was generally avalable. The best amp I used on them was a Crown SA-2 [I think that was the correct model no.] Only good Crown I ever heard, B&W used it at the Chicago show to demo 801s. ML3s were good on the bass but dire elsewhere, I tried one for a short while. They should still sound good with a modern high powered amp and a suitable room. Could well be a bargain at prices they are selling at.
I've always found the BW line, since the late late '90s, to date as being esthetically separated from the traditional. it's a love 'em or leave 'em affair. The Nautilus series definitely had my eye, and ear for a time as I plodded thru the BW line up with an aim towards the 802N's. It wasn't to be however.

The new D series improves upon an already striking visual in the 801 & 802Ns. I think they have sufficient odd, unatrual and uniqueness to provide that eyecatching appearance and interesting beyond the common each and everytime they are seen.

I won't say they look lovely, or ugly in particular. it's a combination more so than specific one. I'll hang my hat on 'strikingly different'. Much improved over the previous old TV set on table legs look that I auditioned previous to the N series.

I always wondered who made those squeakers in Kubrick's CO.
Thanks for the comments.

The first time I heard 801s at a dealer in Portland, Oregon, in 1980, it was with a Crown amp. Having survived a DC-300a, it surprised me to see the Crown, but that one (whatever it was) was better than the DC-300a.

Lipnick's review mentions that the original 801s had a soggy bass and rolled-off highs unless used with a punchy amp with a bit of top-end emphasis. I guess the Crown was just what they needed!
I am kinda new to the hobby, have B&W DM604 S3 pair and enjoyed reading this post as I am considering buying a pair of 801 Matrix S2. Couple of quick questions:

- what maintenance is needed for these 25yr old speakers
- how different 801 S2 will sound from 604S3
- What other amps could do justice, besides the Crown amps mentioned above
There should be quite a number of amps now that are much better than the ones available in the 80s. I would think that GamuT would work well, I have a M3 Musical Fidelity and their big amps, M3, 300, 500,550 should be very good. CJ 350 is expensive but very good. Give me an idea of how much you want to spend; I would buy used as you can get more for the money.
...and buy used on Audiogon, of course!
thanks Stanwal, I would say $1k max, $600 is preferred budget.
Also, I do have a pioneer 92TXH receiver with 130Wx7 RMS (allows bi-amping) and B&K AVR-202 (105Wx5 ??), not sure if they can be meaningfully utilized in some capacity.
Where is the 801 serie 3 in your explanation? You jumped from series 2 directly to Nautilus...Oh! series 2 are the ones for sale!
Nice article, I would have to agree 100 percent, I have owned 5 different pairs of the B&W 801 Matrix, and I currently have a pair of the 801 Matrix series 2 anniversary limited edition pair, and LOVE them, every pair I have owned have been sold whenever someone would come over and listen to them they would want them so I would sell them and then regret it, then I would end up looking for and finding another pair and buying them, so to date since 2004, I have owned another pair of anniversary pair, 3 pairs of series 3, and now again the other pair of anniversary, I have also owned 802 nautilus, DM-7's, 802 Matrix series 2, 804 Matrix series 2 and I will say I own a lot of different pairs of speakers, as I have a Vintage Audio website, but my all time favorite speakers are and will always be the B&W 801 Matrix speakers, if anyone ever hears them they will buy them, hands down the best speaker ever for under $20,000.00 in my opinion, yesterday, today and tomorrow..Thanks, Don
Vangoughear (!), I may've skipped a detail or two. If so, my bad.

SpidermanSubaru, thanks for the details. You may've just bumped up the market price on the Matrix!

Thanks to you both for reading and commenting.
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!