Technology - Audio
Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond: The latest iteration of an iconic line of speakers from an iconic brand.
BY GEORGE MCCLURE
THE BRITISH COMPANY BOWERS & WILKINS has been a leader in high-performance audio technology for more than 55 years. Each new generation of the company’s flagship 800 Series Diamond is a landmark event for the audio world, as there are always numerous new technologies and refinements that further the art of sound reproduction.
“We’re trying to make a speaker that doesn’t sound like a speaker,” says Andy Kerr, Bowers & Wilkins Director of Product Marketing. “We want the sound to be a true representation of the recording, and every single element of the speaker contributes to the overall result. Which means the 800 Series Diamond D4 relates to other speakers like SpaceX relates to a hot-air balloon.”
Bowers & Wilkins began as a radio and electronics shop in Worthing, England started by John Bowers and Roy Wilkins, who had met while serving in the Royal Corps of Signals during World War II. When the shop began supplying public address equipment to schools and churches in Sussex, Bowers became more involved in the design and assembly of loudspeakers, and in 1966 he started a separate business –B&W Loudspeakers Ltd. The first speaker, the P1, was profitable, which allowed the company to invest in new calibration equipment.
During the 1970s the company developed a reputation for innovative design backed by advanced research and development, introducing new design concepts including Tweeter-on-Top and new cone materials such as Aramid fiber, also known as Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests.
John Bowers wanted to develop a speaker superior to anything he had done before, so in 1976 he initiated a then unprecedented three-year research project with no constraints. The result was the first Model 801, which emerged in 1979. Though not originally designed to be a studio monitor, its unique configuration with a mid-range drive unit mounted inside a separate enclosure made it perfect for the task, and it quickly became popular with recording facilities around the world, including Abbey Road Studios and Skywalker Sound.
The 800 Series has, of course, evolved over the years, with a bevy of advanced new technologies. For example, 1987 saw the introduction of the Matrix bracing structure, which boosts driver performance by reducing cabinet vibration. The curved Nautilus cabinets, which have become a hallmark of the range, were first employed in 1998. In 2005, the addition of diamond tweeter dome technology created such improved sound quality that it was incorporated into the name, becoming 800 Series Diamond. And in 2015, Continuum mid-range cones replaced Kevlar in the 800 Series Diamond D3. Like Kevlar, Continuum uses a woven composite structure, but the material – which took eight years to develop – sounds better than Kevlar because its flexibility is more controlled.
The new series is available in multiple colors: piano gloss black and white painted finishes, and rosenut and walnut wood veneers. Newly designed magnetically attached grilles are included for the cone on each cabinet.
"We’re trying to make a speaker that doesn’t sound like a speaker."Andy Kerr, Bowers & Wilkins
a conversation with Andy Kerr, Bowers & Wilkins Director of Product Marketing
GEORGE MCCLURE: Give us a little historical background on the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series.
ANDY KERR: This is our flagship range, the most advanced range of loudspeakers we know how to make. We don’t replace it very often – most iterations have lasted in the market for at least five years, if not more, before needing to be replaced. We use 800 Series as a technology incubator. It is always the first-to-market with any of our most significant innovations. We then work to reverse-engineer as many of those iterations as we can – dependent on cost – into other, more affordable loudspeakers. In other words, 800 Series sets the tone for the entire Bowers & Wilkins business: where it leads, we follow.
From the start, the 801 found favor with recording studios. It provided a compelling combination of extreme performance, high power handling and exceptional durability. John Bowers and our Chief Acoustic Engineer of the day, Steve Roe, hand-delivered an early pair of 801s to Abbey Road Studios in 1980: so the story goes, the engineers took a brief listen, said “That’s fine, you can leave those there” and the rest was history. We’ve been used in that space – and many others – as the monitor loudspeaker supplier of choice ever since.
We have a saying: “The music that will soon be heard everywhere is heard first on Bowers & Wilkins.” And it’s the 801 that inspired that. Even if you’ve never been fortunate enough to hear an 801 or any other Diamond Series loudspeaker, the chances are you’ve experienced something that it has contributed to, because this loudspeaker has been used to create some of the most famous pieces of film sound and music sound in the last 35 to 40 years. If you saw Return the Jedi, if you saw Lord of the Rings, if you saw, more recently, Skyfall or 1917, the scores for those films were made and monitored using 800 Series loudspeakers. Similarly, from a music point of view, everything from Pink Floyd to Celeste has been done using 800 Series loudspeakers.
GEORGE: How was the new Southwater Research & Engineering (SRE) facility helpful in the development of the new 800 Series?
ANDY: You’re only as good as the lens you can see through. People in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat, but they weren’t idiots: they just couldn’t see any further than the horizon. Today, we can see closer into the structure of a speaker and the behavior of its drive units than ever. We have more listening room space – such as three fully-floating listening rooms – plus more measurement space, more simulation capability and generally, just more of everything. We try to produce loudspeakers that deliver the most accurate, realistic performance possible. We look for a “flawless pane of glass,” an utterly transparent window on to the original signal. To simplify it down to its most basic elements: we want to create loudspeakers that don’t sound like loudspeakers. Instead, we want to recreate the original performance, as best as we can, in your home.
To that end, everything, and I do mean everything, makes a difference. We will re-examine every single component part, every element, no matter how apparently trivial, in the pursuit of our goals. We call the end game “True Sound” – a performance that delivers the original signal as the artist intended.
We’re fortunate to have our own R&D and our own manufacturing. We believe that every single element of the loudspeaker makes a difference (as I mentioned above). To that end, we try to design, develop and manufacture as much of each loudspeaker as we possibly can. I would also argue that we’re fortunate enough to be a brand of a certain size. To that end, we pursue not only quality, but repeatable quality. We have invested very heavily in automated, highly accurate machinery that allows us to manufacture in quantity to a level of precision that we believe few brands emulate.
GEORGE: Tell us about the advanced cabinet construction in the new series.
ANDY: Briefly, the more a cabinet vibrates, the more audible it is. So, we pursue an incredibly stiff curved cabinet construction – because curved cabinets are stiffer – that is formed from multiple layers of beech wood. We use 12 layers of wood, each of which is bonded to the next by a layer of glue, in our more compact models. We use 18 layers in larger speakers: that’s solely because larger cabinets have more radiating structure and therefore require more material to achieve the same stiffness target.
Those wooden cabinets are formed on powerful hydraulic press tools, using up to 80 tons of vertical pressure and 60 tons of horizontal pressure. At the same time, we apply high heat – 135 degrees Celsius – to “cure” the layers of glue and bond the whole structure into a whole. Naturally, every element of that process requires bespoke process and tooling.
After being bonded together, the cabinets need to be trimmed precisely by a laser-guided 5-axis CNC cutter to shape each cabinet precisely into the correct form. We then use another highly powerful tool to “spread” the cabinet very slightly so that we can insert its internal bracing structure – which we call the Matrix – into the cabinet. This system is critically braced with aluminum in key areas to further minimize vibration. At that moment, each cabinet needs to be machine sanded and prepared to receive paint. Our gloss black cabinets receive sanding preparation, four coats of paint, a further process of machine sanding, a further four coats of paint and then, after a two-week hiatus to allow the paint to fully harden, they’re machine polished.
GEORGE: What are the benefits of using diamonds as a tweeter material?
ANDY: We’re looking for the best possible combination of lightness and stiffness: we don’t want a dome to deflect or distort but of course, we need to be mindful of mass and as a result, sensitivity. Diamond domes have an enviable combination of very low mass and very high stiffness: our diamond dome is just 30 microns thick and is phenomenally stiff.
Why does that count? The upper-frequency audible range for a young adult with good hearing is 20kHz. If you just designed a dome to reach that audible limit and no more, it would inevitably begin to stress and load – also known as distort – as it approached that 20kHz threshold. Think of a car that has been designed to do more than 100 mph and then imagine the driving experience at 99 mph in that same car – you’ll get the idea.
So our solution is simply explained: we design our diamond domes to have distortion limits that massively exceed the upper-frequency audible range. Instead of just hitting 20kHz, they reach 72kHz before entering any audible stress modes. Now to be doubly clear – you cannot hear any sound in that frequency range: that’s not the point. What we’re trying to do is deliver an entirely stress-free experience in the audible range where you can hear. So rather than design a car that can only do 100 mph, we’re delivering one that can do 250 mph. At 99 mph, it’s entirely within its engineering tolerances and nowhere near its limits – and the result is effortless.
THE WORLD’S TOP RECORDING ENGINEERS CHOOSE BOWERS & WILKINS
"I use our B&W 802 speakers on everything I record. This would include several of my Grammy® winning projects like Terry Riley’s Sun Rings with Kronos Quartet and Laura Karpman’s Ask Your Mama. I would say truthfulness is the most important characteristic in a speaker, and the 802s display the kind of sound that lets me know if I have to change a mic because it doesn’t sound like what I want, or have a singer move forward or back. The clarity is outstanding."
LESLIE ANN JONES
RECORDING & MIXING ENGINEER AND
RECORD PRODUCER, SKYWALKER SOUND
"All of our recently released Boston Symphony and Boston Pops projects have been recorded and mixed on Bowers & Wilkins speakers, which translate extremely well and sound great. I trust that the decisions I make with them will be reflected accurately when mixes are played back elsewhere on other systems. A great speaker like B&W can make the music come alive and create a magical listening experience, helping evoke emotion and feelings in the music that you wouldn’t experience otherwise."
LEAD RECORDING ENGINEER,
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND BOSTON POPS