Note: measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
As a 14-year-old kid, I remember poring over my brother’s issues of Stereophile and ogling Bowers & Wilkins’s then-new Nautilus 801 and 805 loudspeakers. Those models were the stuff of dreams to my younger self, who never imagined being able to own a pair, let alone being able to review them. The Nautilus 800 models were legendary and set a benchmark in my mind for what top-flight loudspeakers should look like, with their beautifully curved cabinets, swooping tweeters, and trademark Cherry finish. Sheer perfection. In fact, I’d happily own a pair of Nautilus 802s today if the price were right. So, 22 years on, when the opportunity arose to evaluate a pair of the English firm’s brand-new 805 D4s ($8000 per pair, all prices in USD), it felt like I’d finally made it.
The family line
Let’s talk history. Since the Nautilus 800 series was launched in 1998, the line has undergone four major revisions. The year 2005 saw the introduction of the original 800 Series Diamond, which brought an across-the-board transition to diamond tweeters. Subtle refinements were made to the line in 2010, in what was popularly referred to as the “D2” generation. The D3 generation, introduced in 2015, brought the most significant overhaul of Bowers & Wilkins’s flagship line since 1998, with brand-new versions of practically every component in each model. The diamond tweeter remained—hence the D3 moniker—but gone was B&W’s iconic yellow Kevlar midrange drive unit, which had been replaced by a proprietary Continuum diaphragm. The cabinets had undergone significant changes, too, with the flying tweeter module milled from a solid piece of aluminum and the spine of the largest three models crafted from a tall piece of aluminum. To my eyes, it was a handsome, progressive refresh. I actually attended the launch event of the flagship 800 D3 in 2016 and was very impressed, both with what I saw and with what I heard.
The recently announced 800 Series Diamond D4 offers iterative as opposed to wholesale improvements on the outgoing D3 range. The product lineup mostly remains unchanged. The smallest model—and the subject of this review—is the two-way 805 D4. The 804 D4 ($12,500 per pair) is the smallest floorstander of the range, and it continues to be the only “traditional” floorstanding model in the 800-series lineup, as it lacks the distinctive Turbine Head midrange enclosure of the larger 803 D3 ($20,000 per pair), 802 D4 ($26,000 per pair), and line-leading 801 D4 ($35,000 per pair). Rounding out the range are the HTM81 D4 ($7500) and HTM82 D4 ($5500) center-channel speakers. There are also two speaker stands available: the FS-805 D4 ($1200 per pair; available in Black or Silver), intended to partner the 805 D4, and the FS-HTM D4 ($800; available in Black or Silver), intended to partner with the HTM81 D4 center speaker. While $1200 for matching, bespoke speaker stands isn’t egregious for a high-end minimonitor, I opted against a review pair since I already have a couple of pairs of stands on hand.
The first thing you’ll notice when comparing the 805 D4 (and its bigger brother, the 804 D4) to its immediate predecessor is that it boasts the same wraparound cabinet as the higher-end floorstanders in the range. Gone is the flat front baffle, now replaced with a perfectly curved front profile that makes the two-way beautifully proportioned. The 805 D4 was a joy to look at from pretty much every angle. The dimpled front bass-reflex port, the Continuum midrange-woofer, and the top-mounted tweeter all feature subtle, brushed-aluminum accent rings that make the design pop without veering into ostentatious territory. Then there’s the ridged, all-metal back panel that finally allows the entry-level model of the 800 series to look just like its larger siblings. In a Sonus Faber-eqsue move, the top of the speaker is clad in leather made by Connolly, a 135-year-old English tannery. The biwiring-friendly binding posts out back are polished and glint deliciously when lit in just the right way. The highly reflective Gloss Black finish of my review samples looked excellent. White is available, and I’ll admit I was disappointed that my sample pair wasn’t finished in one of the two wood veneers that are also available: Satin Rosenut and Satin Walnut. As good as my review samples look, given a choice, I’d go with the Rosenut and not look back. The 805 D4, like the rest of the 800 series, is manufactured in Bowers & Wilkins’s factory in Worthing, on the southern coast of England, and the build quality is outstanding. Based on aesthetics alone, these are some of the most attractive standmounts I’ve ever reviewed, right up there with Sonus Faber’s Electa Amator III. You could easily spend twice as much as this English speaker’s $8000 asking price on a more boutique brand’s two-way and not come away with anything that’s as well designed and well built. As far as luxury hi-fi goes, the 805 D4 is a relative bargain.
Far from just a pretty face, the 805 comes equipped with a lot of underlying technology and knowhow, much of it carried over from the last model. Eagle-eyed audiophiles may have noticed that the tweeter housing is longer on the new D4. Bowers & Wilkins says that this has the effect of lowering the resonant frequency along the length of the tube, which pushes the total harmonic distortion (THD) lower. The 1″ diamond diaphragm remains unchanged, though the increased tube volume results in a net decrease in compression behind the dome, which Bowers & Wilkins claims lowers the drive unit’s THD. The 6.5″ Continuum midrange-bass driver is pretty much identical to the unit used in the 805 D3, short of a stiffer glass-fiber voice coil. The 805 D4’s crossover is mounted to the spine of the speaker and uses gourmet components, including Mundorf bypass capacitors, a Mundorf Supreme SilverGold Oil main capacitor, Angelique leads, and gold-plated terminals in the Molex connector. The crossover’s resistor is mounted directly to the aluminum back plate, allowing it to function as a giant heatsink.
The cabinet is something of a marvel. It’s composed of 12 layers of beechwood, interlaced with layers of adhesive, that are heated and pressure-molded into the curved shape seen in the final product. The company’s famous Matrix internal bracing system is fashioned from 18mm-thick plywood (replacing the MDF used in the outgoing models), while they also use aluminum plates, both on the inside of the front baffle and at the top of the cabinet, underneath the black Connolly leather. The painted finishes, i.e., the Gloss Black and White, take hours of work to achieve. The process requires applying eight layers of paint for the Black finish (or seven layers for the White), a baking process, additional automated sanding, and two weeks of curing before the cabinets undergo an automated polishing process and a final polishing that’s done by hand. There are few manufacturers with this kind of infrastructure, attention to detail, and scale that can make something this high quality relatively affordable.
Quality control is also a top consideration in Bowers & Wilkins’s famed 800 Series Diamond. They use the gold standard Klippel QC system to test all of their individual drive units prior to final assembly. There’s also an end-of-line test using a second Klippel QC system that is performed in one of the anechoic chambers the company uses to test completed loudspeakers. On the R&D front, Bowers & Wilkins has another anechoic chamber that they use to test individual drive units; they also use Audio Precision analyzers for electrical measurements and a Klippel R&D system. Bowers & Wilkins may have gone more mainstream in the past decade or two, but there’s no denying that the legendary English firm is still heavily invested in ensuring its premium loudspeaker line remains as relevant today as the Nautilus 800 series was before the turn of the century. Perhaps most importantly, they stand behind their products with a five-year warranty. Some high-end brands require product registration in order to activate the full warranty, but not so here.
As for the specifications, the 805 D4 has a frequency response of 42Hz–28kHz, ±3dB, and has a rated sensitivity of 88dB. It has a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, dipping to a very reasonable 4.6-ohm minimum. The crossover point is on the high side at 4kHz, using a pair of first-order (6dB/octave) slopes. Recommended amplifier power is 50–120W. Given all that, the 805 D4 should be relatively easy to drive. Harmonic distortion is listed as being less than 0.3% (90dB, measured at 1m) from 120Hz to 20kHz. The speaker’s dimensions are 17.3″H × 9.5″W × 14.7″D, and it weighs a substantial 34.2 pounds.
The speakers ship individually rather than in one box. Inside the boxes, the expected accoutrements were all present and accounted for: two-part port plugs, jumper cables (for those, like me, who don’t biwire), magnetic grilles, adhesive plastic pads for the bottom of the speakers, and a cleaning cloth. I plopped the two-way speakers on my trusty KEF 24″-high sand-filled speaker stands, positioned roughly 12″ from the front wall of my listening room, 7′ apart from one another, and 7.5′ from my listening position. After some quick listening, I wound up pointing the speakers straight into my room with no toe-in. My trusty Hegel H590 integrated amplifier-DAC anchors my system, though I also used the Denafrips Venus II R2R DAC while evaluating the 805 D4s. My source is an Intel NUC running Roon and Tidal. I run a loom of Siltech Classic Legend cables and cords, listed below in the Associated Equipment section. Finally, I use an Emotiva CMX-2 power conditioner, which helps eliminate electrical hum in my century-old home.
Let me just tackle this up front: The 805 D4 is not a neutral loudspeaker. Nor did Bowers & Wilkins intend for it to be. They use a combination of measurements and real-world listening to voice their creations, and they don’t rely on another’s reference curve. So, if you’re looking for ruthless tonal linearity, look elsewhere, my friend. Likewise, if you prefer a rolled-off top end (you know, the kind that is forgiving to even the poorest source material), the newest Bowers & Wilkins two-way will not be your cup of tea, either. But if you’re after something altogether more vivid and exciting, if you don’t want to listen so much as to be thrilled, then the 805 D4 may be your endgame bookshelf speaker.
Alphaville’s “A Victory of Love” was the first song I played on my supremely tolerant dealer’s pair of Nautilus 804s back in the summer of 2002, and it felt appropriate to revisit the track nearly 20 years later by listening to it on the 2019 remaster of their debut album, Forever Young (Super Deluxe Edition) (24-bit/44.1kHz MQA, Atlantic/Tidal). The 805 D4 is a detail monster of a two-way. The plucked strings that sound out from each channel of the track’s intro were rendered with an intoxicating combination of extreme resolution, air, and delicacy. Marian Gold’s opening vocal was then presented in stark relief to the rest of the cut, his every line defined with precision and texture and the kind of eerie three-dimensionality that eludes all but the finest loudspeakers. Spatial definition, both in terms of image specificity and instrument separation, was superb. Source transparency was right off the top shelf, easily competing with like-kind offerings from Focal, Magico, and Vivid Audio. One of the byproducts of the 805 D4s’ vibrant sound signature was their unusually engaging character at low and moderate volumes, a welcome quality for speakers that may well inhabit as many—if not more—shared living spaces as they do dedicated listening rooms. The flipside is that at high volume, drum-machine impacts and the string solo on the back half of the track turned splashy, as if they’d been turned to a Spinal Tap-approved “11.” Note that I did not say bright. That diamond tweeter is a thing of beauty, with effortless extension that never became sharp or brittle.
Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is a rather sharp departure from Teutonic electropop, but it’s no doubt more representative of the type of music that the average 805 D4 buyer will actually consume. And the Minnesota Orchestra’s take from 2000, under the direction of composer Eiji Oue (16/44.1 FLAC, Reference Recordings/Tidal), is probably my favorite recording of the American composer’s most popular work. Astonishingly, the 805 D4s made light work of this big, dynamic recording. The opening drum thwacks exhibited significantly more weight than I had expected over my weeks with the two-way bookshelf speakers. The front-ported design loaded my room differently than the rear-ported speakers that usually roll through my living room. I’m used to the latter’s room gain, which tends to lend additional upper-bass and midbass output. That kind of punch was, up to that point in my listening, rather MIA in the Bowers & Wilkins speakers. But the 805 D4s surprised with a combination of virile extension down to around 40Hz and, crucially, married that to a white-knuckled control that was most impressive.
And then there was the trumpet. The stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen from Worthing won’t divulge what their Continuum midrange (midrange-woofer, in this configuration) diaphragm is made of. But whatever it is, it’s fabulous because the trumpet solo at the 0:25 mark was one of the very best renditions I’ve heard. It wasn’t forward in the recording, which would suggest a tipped-up upper midrange. It did possess bountiful microdetail, however, and I could clearly hear the trumpeter’s efforts as air-through-brass, imbued with a reach-out-and-touch-it tactility. It reverberated in the recreated Minneapolis Orchestra Hall with believable decay and striking clarity. On great recordings, the 805 D4s shone brightly.
On the raw, lackluster recording of “Brass Monkey,” off the Beastie Boys’ debut album Licensed to Ill (16/44.1 FLAC, Def Jam/Tidal), the 805 D4s cast a hard, unforgiving light on the boys from New York. In many ways, the two-ways were at their sensational best with this track, delivering terrific stereo separation of MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D laterally across the soundstage, allowing my eyes to follow the fast-paced lyrics from their respective positions in the mix. The opening synth hung beautifully in space between the two gloss-black cabinets, providing one of the better disappearing acts I’ve heard in my room. The wrinkle arose with the high-pitched synth that plays opposite the track’s simple, plodding bass rhythm. At low and moderate volumes, it was unobtrusive and exceedingly well drawn in space. When I began giving my Hegel integrated the beans, the synth began to overshadow the vocals, and seemed to become the focal point of the track. To be clear, even at very high volume, the synth was obscenely fast, with no overhang or harshness to speak of. This loudspeaker handles transients with the grace and polished athleticism of a ballet dancer. But in this case, the synth proved distracting in its brilliance, as if it had been oversaturated for dramatic effect. This kind of editorializing did not readily impose itself on every track I listened to. On the contrary, it manifested in certain recordings, and only when played at a healthy clip.
Norah Jones’s “Cold, Cold Heart,” off her breakout album Come Away with Me (16/44.1 FLAC, Blue Note/Tidal), was just lovely through the Bowers & Wilkins speakers. From the plucked bass lines that open Jones’s first big single, to her bold, closely miked introductory lines, the 805 D4s were just excellent. Edge definition on each was scalpel-precise, and the two-ways proffered all of the inner detail and texture that I could ask for. Her lazy, golden piano chords stitched things together, and it drove home the conclusion for me that it’s simple, well-recorded material that shines the brightest on these loudspeakers.
Daft Punk’s “Within,” from the French duo’s 2013 Random Access Memories (16/44.1 ALAC, Columbia/Tidal), was another feast of subtle tonal shadings. Chilly Gonzales’s work on the ivories at the beginning of the track was smooth, yet utterly clean. It was complemented by the hyper-articulate augmented vocal and subtle, yet glittering transient percussion that’s peppered throughout the track. And the chimes that shimmer from right to left across the soundstage at the 1:30 mark? All of the intrinsic sparkle and crystallinity that you could ask for were present. Some audiophiles may prefer a tonally warmer or more relaxed listening experience, and if that’s the case, the 805 D4 is not for you. This is a loudspeaker that will wow you on your first listen—and on your one hundredth. It’s microscopically revealing, and you’ll have to look elsewhere in your signal chain if you want to temper their relentless enthusiasm. I suspect that, when partnered with the right tubed electronics, you could summon just the right amount of midrange bloom to satisfy an even larger cross-section of audiophiles.
In many ways, Sonus Faber’s Electa Amator III is the perfect foil to Bowers & Wilkins’s 805 D4. I reviewed it back in 2019 and was bewitched both by its appearance and by its sound. Retailing for $10,000, the EAIIIs include a gorgeous pair of aluminum and Carrara marble stands, which makes them a mere $800 more expensive per pair than the 805 D4s if you include the matching FS-805 D4 stands. And boy, does that $800 buy you something special. The EAIII is crafted from solid walnut, and it features a leather front baffle, a Carrara marble base, and brass accents. Like the 805 D4, the fit and finish are outstanding. But if the Sonus Faber is a work of fine art in the tradition of the masters, the Bowers & Wilkins is altogether more modern—more MoMA than Met, if you know what I mean. While the 805 D4 may be the bigger speaker dimensionally, the EAIII sports the bigger midrange-woofer, measuring 7.1″ in diameter. Allied to the bigger driver is a 1.1″ silk tweeter that’s used in the Italian brand’s flagship loudspeaker, the Aida.
Like Bowers & Wilkins, Sonus Faber did not design its speaker with ruthless neutrality in mind, opting instead for a “smiling” frequency response that features elevated bass and treble response relative to the midrange. In theory, you might expect the EAIIIs to sound similar to the 805 D4s, but they really didn’t. The EAIIIs’ defining characteristic was their fulsome, bombastic bass, which made most material sound punchy. The 805 D4s, by contrast, were more linear below 100Hz, and arguably more controlled, exhibiting frightening speed and control for two-way speakers. While the Sonus Fabers’ midrange performance was full-bodied, it did not provide the final word in transparency, and in that respect, the Bowers & Wilkins two-ways were superior, providing greater insight into recordings, and more accurate spatial definition.
Up top, things got interesting. While the Sonus Fabers may have elevated treble output, the soft-dome tweeters never became objectionable and, while not exactly polite sounding, remained smooth and silky on everything I threw at them. I could enjoy the EAIIIs for hours on end with no listener fatigue. The Bowers & Wilkins speakers’ diamond tweeters, as exceptionally clean and resolving as they could be, did become fatiguing over longer listening sessions, especially when played loudly. I’m quite confident that this is due to Bowers & Wilkins’s intentional voicing of the 805 D4 rather than any potential limitation of the tweeter itself. Both the equipment you plan to partner with them and your musical predilections may turn out to be big deciding factors in whether Bowers & Wilkins’s flagship standmount proves to be too much of a good thing.
Bowers & Wilkins’s 805 D4 is many things. It’s gorgeous. It’s incredibly well built. Its proprietary diamond tweeter and Continuum midrange-woofer are sensational when considered in isolation, with the former being right up there with some of the best beryllium-dome tweeters I’ve heard and the latter yielding the kind of microscopic definition that I’ve come to expect only in loudspeakers that go for twice its price. Its bass control was similarly exemplary. Like any genius, the 805 D4 is a bit unusual, putting forth assertive treble emphasis that, at modest volumes, will thrill even the most jaded listener. Pushed to its limits—and more likely your amplifier’s limits—the 805 D4 may test your patience. But make no mistake, Bowers & Wilkins’s latest 805 model is a terrific loudspeaker.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers: KEF LS50 and Reference 3.
- Integrated amplifier: Hegel Music Systems H590.
- Sources: Intel NUC computer running Roon, Tidal.
- Speaker cables: Siltech Classic Legend 680L.
- Analog interconnect cables: Dynamique Audio Shadow (RCA), Siltech Classic Legend 680i (XLR).
- Power cords: Siltech Classic Legend 680P.
- Digital interconnect: Siltech Classic Legend 380 USB.
- Power conditioner: Emotiva CMX-2.
Bowers & Wilkins 805 D4 Loudspeakers
Price: $8000 per pair.
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor.
B&W Group, Ltd.
Dale Road, Worthing
West Sussex BN11 2BH
Phone: +44 (0) 1903-221-800
Bowers & Wilkins North America
5541 Fermi Ct. N.
Carlsbad, CA 92008
Phone: (800) 370-3740