Product Review - B&W Nautilus Home Theater Speaker System - February, 2001

B&W Nautilus Speakers

804 and HTM1

One Metal Dome 1" Tweeter, One 6" Midrange Driver; Two 6 1/2" Paper/Kevlar Bass Drivers

Recommended Power 50 - 200 Watts (804); 50 - 250 Watts (HTM1)

MFR: 45 Hz - 20 kHz (804); 49 Hz - 20 kHz (HTM1) Ī 2 dB

Sensitivity: 89 dB/W/M (804); 90 dB/W/M (HTM1)

Nominal Impedance: 8 Ohms

Size: 40" H x 9 1/2" W x 13 1/2" D (804); 12 1/2" H x 30" W x 12 1/2" D (HTM1)

Weight: 53 Pounds Each (804); 46 Pounds (HTM1)

MSRP: $3,500/Pair USA (804); $2,000 (HTM1)

Finishes (Wood Veneer): Cherry, Ash

 

805

One Metal Dome 1" Tweeter, One 6 1/2" Paper/Kevlar Mid-Bass Driver

Recommended Power: 50 - 150 Watts

MFR: 56 Hz - 20 kHz  Ī 2 dB

Sensitivity: 88 dB/W/M

Nominal Impedance: 8 Ohms

Size: 16 1/3" H x 9 1/2" W x 13 1/2" D 

Weight: 20 Pounds Each 

MSRP: $2,000/Pair USA

Finishes (Wood Veneer): Cherry, Ash

Introduction

It's the most wonderful time of the year! No, I am not talking of the just passed holiday season, but rather our present winter season here in New York . .  . trudging home through the muck and mire of these tough cold February days . . . arriving in the darkness of early evening (if you live in the great state of California, you may be arriving in darkness for a totally different reason from the rest of the country). Finally, breathing that sigh of relief, and tension release, and relaxing in that very special and well-positioned easy chair. Away from the harshness of the environment, you reach for the trusty remote, so as to be taken away on a fantasy adventure, courtesy of your personal home theater. Yes, life is good.

There is nothing that can add to a home theater experience more than a high quality audio system. Enthusiasts will have differing opinions concerning the areas of emphasis, in assembling a personal home theater setup. But one point should be clearly understood: with only the speakers in the TV, one is really just watching moving pictures. The addition of a top quality audio system stimulates a second human sense, which in turn, increases the viewer's ability to be whisked away to another land and time. One of the quickest and most satisfying audio upgrades is an upgrade in your speaker system.

Does this thought of upgrading your audio equipment bring a smile to your face? Does the dream of high-end audio speakers always have to include the added fantasy of a state lottery win? High-end performance need not always mean penthouse level costs. There are manufacturers of some very high quality performers, which do not expect all their customers to live in mansions. The term, high-end, relates more to attaining a signature level of audio performance, rather then necessarily reaching that same stratospheric level in price. Retail cost and quality performance need not be mathematically linked together in high-end equipment. If one is ready to make the bump-up in their home theater audio system to high-end speakers, then this reviewer may have found the reader a setup that will not also require a salary bump to coincide with the purchase.

The B&W Nautilus Home Theater Speaker System, reviewed here, consists of a pair of Nautilus 804s ($3,500/pr) as the front channels, the Nautilus HTM1 ($2,000) as the center channel, and a pair of Nautilus 805s ($2,000/pr) as the rear channels. Now, I realize that $7,500 for a five-channel speaker setup is by no means inexpensive, but is rather competitive in comparison with other high-end manufacturers. High-end speakers can usually crack the $10K level with ease, and some even attain the price level of a down payment on a home. I had the chance to directly compare the B&W setup to several other systems in the same quality, including an Aerial Acoustics setup at $8,800 (Model 7B/Model CC-3/Model 5), a Hales Design Group setup of $9,470 (Transcendence Three /Cinema /One), and the Linn AV-51 Home Cinema system at $6,285.

Technology

These speakers utilize the Nautilus design mechanism in a very well made cabinet structure for creating their distinctive sound. They modify the normal manufacturing system with four distinct B&W technologies. These are the Nautilus tweeter, the Kevlar Fixed Suspension Transducer (FST) drive unit, the Flowport airflow system, and the Matrix cabinet design.

The prime design goal of the Nautilus speaker line is to remove as much unwanted colorization as possible. A colored loudspeaker does not accurately reproduce the audio signal, thus adding unwanted additional sound to a recording or movie that the artist never originally intended. Home Theater enthusiasts, who usually go out of their way to create the best possible video display that is loyal to the original intentions of the director and cinematographer, surely do not want artificial ingredients added to the soundtrack mix. B&W, in these main four design techniques, are attempting to build what they term “the first cabinetless speaker”. Obviously, the speakers are still physically within a cabinet. Acoustically, though, bad cabinet designs tend to create their own unwanted resonance.

The metal dome tweeter is a signature feature of the B&W Nautilus line. It is mounted on top of the actual physical wood enclosure, and incorporates a flat-profile foam surround, a copper-clad aluminum ribbon wire voice coil, and a finite element-designed motor system. What does all this mean to the consumer and listener? This feature results in tweeter performance that exhibits a distinct open and transparent sound. The highs that exit this tweeter truly extend all about the acoustic space. When listening to the 804s in the stereo mode, musicians come alive within the room, beyond the limitations of the actual physical speaker enclosures.

Speed and accuracy are also very important attributes in speaker performance. Many speaker manufactures have been trying to develop a cone substance that can act like a perfect piston. A substance that can accurately reproduce sound and return to form with minimal coloration is a desired element by many high-end speaker manufacturers. A poor performing cone system can result in what many call floppy surround. This creates audio characteristics that step all over each other, and muddies the acoustic presentation.

B&W's Kevlar FST midrange driver improves cone response time and accuracy. This speed and accuracy is a much valued asset in both music and movie soundtrack reproduction.

B&W also states, in its white pages, that golf ball aerodynamics are greatly improved by dimples. We are talking of the type of dimples, that one might find, Tiger Woods smacking around the Pebble Beach golf course. Dimples adhere surface airflow for a longer period of time, therefore, reducing air turbulence. By reducing air turbulence in a speaker design you minimize chuffing noises. Chuffing is a sound created by large movements of air within a speaker port. The dimpled surface on the port is shown in the photo below, left.

Finally B&W's matrix cabinet design not only gives you one of the best build quality speakers on the market today, but it might be the best available period. Certainly a design goal competing manufacturers are attempting to duplicate, but few come near to the quality neighborhood of B&W. This unique internal bracing system (photo above, right) reduces coloration to almost zero levels.

Quality craftsmanship is abundantly flowing all around these speakers. The finished product looks more like something that would originate from a master carpenter's custom workshop, rather than from a speaker manufacturer. They certainly are beautiful pieces to look at, with or without their front grilles in place.

These four manufacturing designs combine together to accomplish the goals set by B&W creator, John Bowers. Goals, that result in the ability of a loudspeaker line that can reproduce audio signals with an open, accurate, and transparent quality. All done with as close to zero colorization as is possible. The B&W Nautilus speaker line is certainly one of very high quality. This high-end performance is accomplished, though, at a very competitive price cost level. Many manufacturers have set higher cost levels for far less quality and performance.

The Sound

My personal philosophy in shopping for a five-channel home theater speaker system is to always start with the center channel. Pivot your research around the best quality center channel that can fit within your speaker budget. Many new home theater enthusiasts do not realize the vast amount of sound information that is transmitted through the center channel. It is not only dialog, although this is of great importance, but a good deal of music and effects also are funneled through this channel. So, if one purchases a center channel that has difficulty discerning between important dialog and other effects, his home theater experience will suffer. In doing my research for this review, I found the B&W Nautilus HTM1 to be at the top of the heap. In my opinion, it is one of the best dedicated center channels on the market. There are other high quality contenders, such as the Aerial Acoustics CC-3 (I have yet to test their new CC-5 center channel model). But to my own ears, the Nautilus HTM1 was a clear step above the competition.

The accuracy and clarity of dialog was completely engrossing. One can completely step into the clothes of a character with the help of this center channel. Even subtle, but important vocal inflections, intended by the actors to convey a particular emotion, are experienced in more detail through the Nautilus HTM1. Actors are utilizing all the tools available to them to convey the emotion of a scene. You, as a viewer, should be able to experience all of these techniques, without strain or throwing off the speaker level calibration. For example, in the DTS version of the movie, “The Peacemaker”, after a friendly adversary is unexpectedly killed, we can experience the emotion in George Clooney's dialogue through his vocal inflection. We can share in his pain and outrage, thus are totally captured by the emotion of the moment. The HTM1 reproduces this scene effortlessly, where many other center channels seem to lose detail. In the movie, “Entrapment”, after a broken loyalty and tussle on the floor between the two main characters. Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones whisper their true emotions toward each other, only to be heard by themselves and hopefully the viewer. This whispered dialogue is experienced without the slightest of strain through the HTM1. Of all the dedicated center channels I tested, the Nautilus HTM1 and the Aerial CC-3 were at the head of the class, during similar test demonstrations. Clearly, these two had superior performance from the other test models. But even the Aerial CC-3, was a significant step below the Nautilus HTM1 in detail, accuracy, and overall performance. From movie dialogue to musical vocals, the HTM1 reproduced sound with uncanny reality.

Even the results from a very important audio test for all dedicated center speakers clearly documented the HTM1 as superior. The test was that my eighty-year old father no longer had to ask,  “What did he say?” during a movie! Many moons and audio systems ago, I had to frequently raise the center channel volume, so as, to make the dialogue more audible to my father. In doing so, I also raised the volume on certain effects to unpleasant levels. Thus, watching a movie with the family meant the added task of having my finger poised and ready on the volume remote. My father, who knows little about audio specs, calibrations, and performance levels, was quick to point out that the HTM1 was the best he had ever experienced now or in the past. In fact, just out of curiosity, I took him on a number of follow-up test demonstrations. And even to his less than discerning ears, he noticed differences between the B&W, Aerial, Hales Design, and Linn center channels. I point this out to show that the value of a quality center channel is not only appreciated by audiophiles. The HTM1 made my father's subsequent movie watching a much more enjoyable experience.

Even viewing regular television programs through this center channel is a lot more enthralling. Hour long action dramas, such as "N.Y.P.D. Blue" and "L.A. Law", are easily improved through the Nautilus HTM1. In watching the rerun episodes on digital satellite, I am finding new things that went unnoticed in previous viewings. Television episodes are filmed in a much tighter time frame than the movies, so they do not have the time to re-shoot a scene seven or eight times. A scene where a side character makes a comment or statement can be easily lost in the main action occurring simultaneously. This can be especially evident in ensemble shows, like the above-mentioned Steven Bochco dramas. I am finding that the HTM1 is bringing a renewed enjoyment to programs viewed many times previously.

Once the decision on the best center channel for your home theater budget is complete, the next step becomes a bit easier, but nonetheless, almost equally as important. Many speaker manufacturers specifically design matching front channels to the center channel of your choice, and they do this for a very good reason. Your goal is to have a seamless integration between the three front speakers. You want an AH-64 Apache Helicopter to sound like this thunderous warbird consistently across all three front channels as it flies from one side to the other. Nothing will zap a viewer out of the home theater experience quicker then having an effect drop its sound characteristic to the level of a Tonka toy in the middle of a fly-by run across your speakers.

The 804s are a perfect match for the HTM1. The integration between these three speakers meets the desired goal of seamless integration, in spades. In fact, you might even say that a HTM1 is almost the same speaker as the floor standing 804. They both share the same size 6-inch woven Kevlar cone midrange with two 6.5-inch Kevlar cone bass drivers. The 804s continue with the accuracy, detail, and full transparent sound of the HTM1. Of all the test systems, the B&W seemed especially attuned to mating best within its own line of fronts and center channel. One can notice the separation of each individual channel more readily in the other test systems. If I had to pin it down to just one feature that separates the B&W from its competition, I would have to cite the Nautilus tweeter. This common feature of all five B&W Nautilus units makes sound reproduction less dependent and tied to the actual physical enclosure. In other words, movies and music can be experienced beyond a specific designated boundary. This lets you enjoy more freedom of the listening space, therefore, giving it the room to roam the field, as the artist originally intended in his work. This feature is an integral factor in making the smooth blend between the channels.

A wide range of musical choice is also excellently reproduced through the 804s, whether one is listening in two-channel stereo or in full five-channel mode. Classic Rock, Jazz, and Classical music are all reproduced with exacting detail and transparency. They reproduce a listening soundstage with such clarity, that it is not hard to imagine the musicians playing live within your acoustic space.

All three of these full front speakers can also handle their share of the low bass load. So while you are looking for the perfect matching subwoofer (something I hope to write about in the very near future), these soldiers can handle the job admirably.

Using the 805s as rear channels, you complete the blended mixture of this five channel system. Having the two rear channels match the front three used to be not as important to some audiophiles as it was to others, because Pro Logic had a restricted bandwidth in the rear. Now, with DD and DTS, all channels get a full spectrum of sound. If you have the ability to do so, within your speaker budget, and the manufacturer's product family, careful matching of the rear to the rest of the speakers does come with some very enjoyable benefits. This is personal advice I usually offer, because with this option, and the right product, one can reap great acoustic rewards. The B&W Nautilus speaker line certainly accentuates this personal rule of thumb. When the seamless integration between channels can be extended to include all five speakers, instead of the normal front three, it adds exponentially to the listening experience. The 805s share the same high frequency tweeter as the other Nautilus speakers in this review, with the same woven Kevlar cone midrange (albeit, it is 6.5-inches compared to the others' 6.0-inches), and with the same Flowport as the front 804s. Now the helicopters can fly all around your listening area without any degradation of sound. You are now listening to an audio unit as opposed to five individual speakers. You might even feel the need to scream, “Incoming!” and duck for cover. The opening sequence of the James Bond special edition thriller, “Tomorrow Never Dies” is a good demonstration of this phenomenon.

I have always favored the performance of DTS soundtracks over Dolby Digital 5.1, and it is clear, to at least my ears, particularly in this sound format, that a full rear channel is the best performer. If you have the ability to use full rear speakers, I would recommend positioning these units behind the viewing position, rather then to the sides.

Conclusion

The four B&W manufacturing features, described previously, bind these speakers acoustically in their openness and transparent sound. I would advise positioning the five tweeters as close to equal ear level, as possible, along with the other standard speaker positioning tips and tweaks within your listening area. Once you get them positioned to your liking, prepare yourself for one of the most enjoyable audio home theater experiences to date. And at $7,500 dollars for the complete set, the bump-up to high-end is not such a daunting step as first thought. Inexpensive by no means, but when taken in the context of the significant performance increase, very competitive to other manufacturers.

These speakers come with a few caveats, so as to better experience their full performance potential. First, as was noted above, play with the positioning, because they do have the ability to synchronize as a unit when placed correctly. Your five B&W Nautilus speakers will perform as a unit, making you less aware of their individuality, but rather, more aware of their combined final presentation. Thus you will attain the ultimate goal of the home theater experience: full immersion into the medium of movies.

Secondly, the B&W goal of minimal coloration will be for naught if you pair these speakers with poor amplification and audio processor components.  In test demonstrations of these speakers, one should be keenly aware of the audio components that are fueling the demonstration. And, if your not planning on an equipment upgrade anytime soon, most definitely demo the speakers with your exact brand of amp, processor, and or A/V receiver.

Finally, I would strongly recommend that you bi-wire all five speakers in this system. The Nautilus line come with excellent five-way binding posts that are all available for bi-wiring. Also, allow for a break-in period, so as to receive a bonus performance surprise from B&W. To be perfectly honest with you, for my ears, these units sounded fantastic right out of the box. The fact that they will get even better over time is serendipity. This system is highly recommended, and should be tops on your list of test demonstrations.

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