- Written by Jared Rachwalski
- Published on 09 November 2007
B&W (Bowers & Wilkins) speakers have been around since the 1960's when John Bowers and Peter Hayward built the P1 using an EMI woofer and Celestion tweeter. By the end of the decade they had constructed the DM70 entirely in house with a 12" woofer and electrostatic midrange and tweeter. This was the beginning of B&W's pursuit of loudspeaker perfection.
The journey led to what some believe to be the perfect loudspeaker, the famous Nautilus. The snail shaped design comes very close to zero cabinet colorization.
As with car companies and their race teams, the technology used for ultra high end audio trickles down into the rest of the lineup. This is found in the 804S with solid neutral construction that has separate internal chambers and highly tuned drivers. It is nice to see so much value placed in the construction of the cabinet.
With the 804S, right away you notice the almost separate spherical tapered tube tweeter enclosure mounted on top and slightly back from the front baffle.
This is done in an attempt to reduce internal resonance, edge diffraction, and time alignment errors. Those are the kind of errors that keep engineers up at night, but most people would never notice. With the entire 800 series, B&W has spent time perfecting those seemingly inconsequential details, and it pays off, as the 804s is a highly refined natural-sounding speaker.
The rest of the cabinet also contains separate enclosures for each driver, massive amounts of internal bracing, and flawlessly wrapped veneer.
Handling the midrange is the interesting Kevlar FST (Fixed Suspension Transducer). This midrange driver has an unusual surround edge that is designed to reduce unwanted breakup caused when the surround edge flexes away from the cone as the driver extends outward. The bass is supplied by a pair of 6.5" drivers that utilize Rofacell, a plastic foam used extensively in high performance automobiles. In this application it helps to reduce unwanted imperfections in driver output caused by flexing and poor dampening.
The B&W 804S loudspeakers were sent along with a Rotel RB-1092 switching amplifier which was connected to the pre-outs on my Marantz surround receiver.
The front left and right outputs were configured to full range and used without a subwoofer. I also employed an Oppo 981-HD multi format player to test CD SACD and HDCD playback.
The speakers are capable of being bi-wired/amped and the Rotel stereo amplifier has four outputs for this (bi-wiring) use.
For my listening tests I chose to use standard single wiring as the benefits provided by bi-wiring are not clear to me as yet.
The speakers flanked my projection screen, which put the tweeters seven feet apart and ten feet from my ears. This required minimal toe-in to achieve a tight focused soundstage.
The height of the speakers places the tweeter a tad higher than my ears, but I am at least a tad shorter than average. As well, the speakers have good vertical dispersion, so the height issue was not a problem in my setup.
The adjustable floor spikes were installed into the base which allowed me to level the speaker on my thick carpet.
Jesse Cook's intricate guitar work and motivating percussion found on their Free Fall disc reproduced cleanly, with good separation of instruments and noticeable depth. The imaging of this finely crafted loudspeaker complemented the passionate rumba-flamenco guitar playing, producing an enveloping soundstage.
Strangely, the bass was not satisfying or full enough for me, even though it is a big speaker. Lack of power surely was not the problem seeing as the Rotel RB 1092 provides ample juice. There was plenty of midrange and the top end was revealing and open without being too airy.
With this recording the soundstage and phantom center image can be smeared when you are forced to place the speakers at such a wide distance. A great track for this is "Viva". The percussion fills in the stage, with guitar pulling center duty.
With other speakers it is easy to lose the coherent feeling just by moving your head a few inches off-axis. The B&W's were able to define the soundstage without breaking up at multiple seating locations on my couch.
The first SACD I played through the B&W's was Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Right away, the extended high frequency response was clear through these speakers. The designers of the tweeter did a remarkable job that is evident with the clock chime that opens up "Time". With Claire Torry's vocal solo in "Great Gig In the Sky", there seemed to be no imperfections. This is a great test of midrange and crossover quality as this solo has terrific range and emotion.
Again, here, the bass was the weak point. Mind you the bass line in "Money" was full of presence; it was the deeper bass that was lacking. This was clearly evident with the heartbeat which had missing intensity. Given that bass is very room-dependent, i.e., placement, this must be taken into consideration with your own auditioning. Also, if more bass is desired, add a nice subwoofer.
Editor's Note: I originally reviewed the 804S with a center channel speaker back in 2005, and the bass response was good, so I suspect this is a room placement issue in Jared's case. However, there really is not much option with front left/right speaker placement, so the subwoofer solution is still the one to follow. Also, the amount of bass is colored by the amount of distortion, with more distortion being perceived as "more bass", when you take into account that bass distortion is not necessarily unappealing. The 804S does not have a lot of distortion in the low frequencies, and depending on what one has listened to in the past, the 804S' lack of bass may just be a lack of distortion. I consider the 804S to be superb, and I wanted to see how it performed in a more conventional consumer-type environment, so I asked Jared to review them as a follow-up to my original one.
When I finally obtained a CD player capable of decoding HDCD, I had a difficult time finding a suitable disc. Seems not many of my favorite artists have embrace this technology. The best example of the extra resolution afforded by HDCD that I could find was Tool's Lateralus. This disc was especially fun to listen to, as the B&W 804S were more than capable of reproducing all the layers present in this progressive and loud album. The detail and depth can often become lost with lesser speakers. These towers were able to push the volume limits without distorting the music.
The detail and control were consistent through all volume levels. It was only at very loud levels that the bass finally shone through. Fortunately this album as with all of the Tool disc's begs to be turned up. Maynards melodic vocals were consistently front and center. The heavy crunchy guitar and definitive bass line had their own space and considerable separation. It is just too bad that Danny Carey's drum set had to be subdued.
For Fathers Day, I stumbled upon a bluegrass cover of The Wall by Pink Floyd. This strange melding of genres was done by Luther Wright and The Wrongs. It's a Canadian band lead by Luther Wright and one of the leading punkgrass bands around.
This album is more than The Wall, Banjo Style. They took every song and made it their own. A highlight is the fun finger-picking "Hey You". They somehow retain the dark feel and yet get your toes tapping and hands clapping.
The multiple string instruments all clearly have their own space. The drum kit has depth, and the vocals are firmly planted in the center.
"Comfortably Numb" sounds like it was supposed to be done this way. The accompanying female vocals are found just off-center when used in the chorus. The high-hat and percussion comes through cleanly in amongst all the layers. At one point there is a metal guitar to the left and a banjo to the right. The two instruments extend the soundstage seamless beyond the speakers. This recording is heavy on the mid-bass which masks some of the low bass output.
B&W has produced a solid, well-built tower with exceptional attention to detail, as one would expect at this price level. The design and construction are well thought out and executed. Ample bracing, solid high quality drivers and gorgeous veneer work all combine to create one high-grade speaker. Quite an undertaking for a level entry speaker – the 804S is the entry floor-standing speaker in the 800 series.
The unique placement and construction of the tweeter fill out the top end smoothly, with no audible crossover holes. The midrange and mid-bass sections are very pleasing, providing solid bass lines and natural vocals. The only area I found lacking was the bass output, but that was in my room, and is something easily remedied with a subwoofer, of which B&W has several.
- Design: 3-Way, Ported
- Drivers: One 1" Aluminum
Dome Tweeter, One 6"
Midrange, Two 6.5" Woofers
- MFR: 38 Hz - 22 kHz ± 3 dB
- Crossover: 350 Hz, 4 kHz
- Sensitivity: 90 dB/2.83
- Nominal Impedance: 8 Ohms
- Dimensions: 40.2" H x 9.4"
W x 13.8" D
- Weight: 62 Pounds/Each
- MSRP (USA): $4,000/Pair
<-- Associated Equipment:
Oppo 981-HD CD player
Rotel RB-1092 Amplifier