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