Home Electronics: Bright Idea

  • Brent Butterworth

High-end audio manufacturers sometimes gnash their teeth at the mention of Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, or Armani. These brands are synonymous with luxury cars, watches, and clothing, yet all of the luxury audio marques remain obscure to everyone other than electronics enthusiasts—except, perhaps, for one company.

B&W, also known as Bowers & Wilkins, may not be a household name, but it is the only high-end audio brand that enjoys some familiarity among nonenthusiasts. For this reason, the audio industry watches the company’s every move as closely and as anxiously as the sports car trade monitors Porsche’s activities. Mention that you are traveling to see some new speakers, and not even your dog would feign interest. Announce that you are flying to New York City to witness the launch of a new line of B&Ws, though, and anyone with even a modest awareness of home entertainment will pepper you with questions.

The new B&Ws represent the first revision of the company’s flagship 800 Series in seven years—and only the third generation for this 26-year-old line. Most audio brands would produce three or four generations of product over a seven-year period, and many of the current brands did not even exist when B&W introduced the original 800 Series in 1979. Calling the 800 Series a classic is not an exaggeration, especially considering that the 801 is the standard monitor speaker in classical-music recording studios.

B&W did not radically reengineer the new 800 Series; after all, the previous models worked exceptionally well. The new speakers therefore appear almost identical to their predecessors. The difference is in the details—specifically, in the incorporation of exotic new materials in the speaker drivers.

Most noteworthy is the use of a diamond dome tweeter. Yes, the diaphragm is made entirely from diamond, and no, each one is not carved with hammer and chisel by a master jeweler from Manhattan’s Diamond District. B&W instead employed a new industrial technique that “grows” a diamond surface on a metal mold; remove the mold, and you have a pure diamond dome. The advantage of the diamond is in its unparalleled stiffness; it retains its shape even when it is being thrust forward and backward 40,000 times per second. A material that is more flexible can lose its shape and produce ear-straining distortion as the dome moves to and fro. B&W may have yet to earn the name recognition of Mercedes-Benz, but it can take solace in knowing that its new tweeter moves more than four times as quickly as the pistons in the carmaker’s sports coupe.

The “D” at the end of the model number denotes a diamond dome 800 Series speaker. Like its brothers in the series, the flagship $20,000-per-pair 800D tower speaker displays B&W’s visual trademark: a yellow, Kevlar-coned midrange driver. Its woofer cones are made from a sandwich of Rohacell foam (a material used in aircraft manufacture) bounded by layers of carbon fiber. Three additional diamond dome tower speakers and two diamond dome center speakers are also available.

We cannot say whether the diamond dome yields a dazzling sound, because at the introduction, B&W displayed the speakers but did not demonstrate them. But you can judge them for yourself: The new 800 Series speakers are arriving now at B&W dealers—an event of which even casual listeners might take note.

B&W, 978.664.2870, www.bwspeakers.com

Photo by James Lipman
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