High End 2022: Bowers & Wilkins 805 D4

Imagine you’re at a Las Vegas magic show. Fantastic, unbelievable apparitions are popping up right in front of you. You’re aware, at a keenly conscious level, that what you’re seeing is impossible. Yet there it is. Eventually, you suspend disbelief, sit back, and just enjoy the show. Seeing is believing.

Listening to the new Bowers & Wilkins 805 D4 is a lot like that. This is a modestly sized stand-mounted speaker, and we all know that such devices have inherent characteristics and limitations. But, somehow, the 805 D4 banishes many of those preconceptions. In fact, the speaker pulls off several magic tricks. As you listen, you’re intellectually aware that what you’re hearing shouldn’t be possible. Yet there it is. Ultimately, you suspend disbelief, relax, and embrace the illusion. Hearing is believing.

For those not keeping count, we are now in the seventh generation of Bowers & Wilkins’ storied 800 Series, which originated in 1979. Like Leica’s M Series rangefinder camera, now in its eleventh iteration, many aspects of the 800 Series’ philosophy, design, and technical choices have remained constant over the decades. In particular, Bowers & Wilkins has remained committed to employing separate, optimized enclosures for each driver type. This enables both time alignment between drivers and minimal baffle diffraction. Just as Leica M cameras are instantly recognizable to the photo enthusiast, an 800 speaker of any era is easily distinguished by the standalone tweeter perched atop one or more larger boxes.

As with the Leica, each new generation of 800 speakers brings upgrades, even while hewing to the original formula. Recent-generation 800s have boasted a diamond-domed tweeter in a tapered, solid-aluminum housing; a “reverse wrap” main cabinet shape that enhances stiffness and further minimizes diffraction; and layered beechwood construction that’s internally braced by birchwood and reinforced with strategically deployed aluminum.

Now comes the D4 versions, with improvements that are both subtle and significant. There’s more aluminum—on the top plate and behind the front baffle—for greater stiffness. The crossover, previously lodged inside the speaker, has taken up residence on the rear panel. This aids heat dissipation and frees up precious internal volume, which in turn increases bass extension. The tweeter housing has a longer taper than before, which gives the driver more room to breathe, and the turbine head is better de-coupled from the cabinet below. Finally, a dashing touch of gorgeous leather now graces top surfaces.

Entry to the latest 800 D4 Series comes via the 805 D4. The only stand-mounted speaker in the line, the 805 D4 is a traditional two-way design with a diamond tweeter and a 6.5″ Continuum midrange/woofer. The cost, believe it or not, is just under $8000 a pair. You should also budget $1250 for the matching stands, which definitely improve sonics and, in a thoughtful touch, provide a hidden path for cables. Despite the under-$10k total, the 805 D4, with just one exception, boasts the same technology, parts, materials, bespoke fit-and-finish, and tweeter as the rest of the line, including the flagship 801 D4.

The exception pertains to the mid/bass driver. Pure midrange units in the 800 D4 Series receive a “biomimetic” suspension in place of the usual fabric spider. A spider, for those not familiar with this relatively obscure driver component, is a flexible ring that connects the voice coil to the basket, thereby holding the coil in place but allowing it to move freely back and forth. During its research for the D4 line, Bowers & Wilkins was surprised by how much changing the spider composition decreased distortion. Alas, the new spider isn’t compatible with the necessarily greater excursion of the 805 D4’s mid/bass driver. Maybe we’ll see that in the next generation.

On the other hand, there is one respect in which the 805 D4 has changed more than its bigger brothers. Those models have had the difficult-to-manufacture reverse-wrap enclosure since the previous generation, but Bowers & Wilkins hadn’t figured out how to scale that process down to an 805-sized enclosure. In the intervening years, the company has overcome this limitation, so now the 805 D4 reaps the benefits of this superior structure.

Upon arrival and initial setup, the 805 D4 was none too impressive. This was despite a break-in period that included continuous playing over the better part of a week, while I was out of town. After returning, I got more serious about positioning, Tube Trap placement, etc. Yet the speaker continued to sound strangely incoherent.

However, only a few days later, the trouble simply evaporated. Apparently, my break-in protocol had been neither long nor loud enough to get the job done. Once the 805 D4s had some high-octane blood pumping through their veins, they gelled. Likewise, after I finalized positioning, I never felt the urge to fiddle with it.

Specifically, the speaker ended up with its back just over a foot from the front wall. Given its compact proportions, this meant that the 805 wasn’t imposingly jutting out into the room. The nearby wall no doubt added some useful bass reinforcement, too. A touch of toe-in completed the setup.

The 805 D4 proved to be a benign load. Both the CH Precision I1 and the T+A A200 had no trouble driving it to high volume levels. Each speaker has two sets of binding posts, so naturally I compared the sound with and without biwiring. As is usually the case, the advantages of biwiring were myriad and immediately obvious.
Magic Tricks

Although the 805 D4’s first magic trick is a predictable one, like a magician divining what card you chose from a deck, it’s nonetheless remarkable. I refer, of course, to its ability to disappear. Small, two-way speakers are famous for being able to do this; yet the Bowers & Wilkins pulls off the feat with unusual alacrity. As a result, I never once heard the 805 D4 as a sound source. Instead, I heard only musicians assuming their rightful places on the soundstage at the front of my room. Their images were never vague; nor were they unnaturally etched. As I said, this ability to disappear is common among good two-way speakers. But the 805 D4 goes a few steps further.

For one thing, the soundstage these speakers create holds steady from a wide variety of listening positions. No narrow sweet spot here! Further, even when positioned close to the wall behind them, as they were in my room, the 805 D4s deliver plenty of convincing depth. On the Decca LP of Mahler’s Second Symphony, for instance, the Bowers & Wilkins places the woodwinds in the opening movement convincingly behind the speakers. This trait makes these speakers a natural choice for a compact reference system, where soundstage depth and convenient placement are often at odds. With the 805 D4, no compromise is necessary.

Doing all this takes a lot more than a two-way architecture. To start, the speaker must also be highly coherent. If the drivers don’t meld seamlessly, the speaker will give itself away. Sure enough, once the 805s had fully settled in I was never aware of any incongruity or disparity between the drivers. The speaker sounds of a piece.

Minimizing diffraction is another key to achieving a complete disappearing act. Ideally, a speaker’s front baffle will be no wider than its drivers. This is precisely why Bowers & Wilkins uses different enclosures—and therefore different-sized front baffles—for the 800 Series. On the 805 D4, the tweeter has no baffle whatsoever. Meanwhile, the mid/bass driver’s baffle is barely wider than the driver itself. Also, thanks to the reverse-wrap design, the mid/bass baffle is set back and curves away from the driver, which reduces diffraction still further. All these elements work together to essentially shroud the 805 D4 in a cloak of invisibility.

Let’s turn now to magic tricks that aren’t so common. For example, the bête noir of small, two-way, stand-mounted speakers: bass performance. Many small speakers lack both bass quantity and bass quality. Not the 805 D4, which excels in both respects. Indeed, bass is one of this product’s greatest strengths. I’m not saying it plumbs the deepest depths (the speaker is rated down to 42Hz at -3dB), but I am saying that the 805 D4 produces bass to kill for.

The superb low-end performance starts with attacks. They are pinpoint, going from nothing to room-rattling in an instant. You can hear this particularly easily when watching movies. Film sound engineers have become fond of inserting a single, deep “thud” into films right before something calamitous happens. With the 805s, this effect not only has the necessary heft, but it also comes out of nowhere—exactly as the filmmaker intended.

There’s no bass overhang, either. Combine that with spot-on pitch definition, and the result is bass lines that are incredibly easy to follow. Check out Jim Fielder’s work on “Spinning Wheel” from the eponymous Blood Sweat and Tears album (ORG LP). The initial bass line is complex and worth appreciating, both for its own sake and as a perfect counterpoint to the horn and vocal parts. But then, in the song’s middle section, Fielder suddenly shifts style completely. Now he’s riffing on a walking bass line. Through the 805 D4, this musically significant event is crystal clear.

You’ll also be hard pressed to find a speaker—of any size—that delivers more sheer bass information than the 805 D4. With this product, no two bass instruments sound alike; rather, each has its own distinctive timbral and transient characteristics. The best high-end speakers offer this level of timbral diversity in the midrange, but many fall short in this regard in the bass. Not so the 805 D4.

Finally, any speaker described as having “good bass” must have low-frequency grunt. Given its size, the 805 D4 is absolutely shocking in this respect. You get a hint of this when, on the opening of “Spinning Wheel,” the left hand of the piano has more weight than expected. Then you put on something like “The Man in the Long Black Coat” from the MoFi One-Step, 45rpm LP of Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy. You should hear gut-wrenching, room-energizing bass—the kind you’d think could only come from a large, multi-woofered floorstander. Yet again, the 805 D4 does this with ease.

In fact, of all my bass torture test tracks, the Bowers & Wilkins failed just one. The speaker sailed through the bass line on the outro of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” from So, as well as the repeated kick drum wallops in the title track from the old Flim and the BB’s Tricycle CD. Only when confronted with the descending organ pedal tones on the Rutter Requiem’s “Pie Jesu” (Reference Recordings) did the 805 D4 fall short. But even then, the speaker delivered a soul-satisfying rumble, even if it couldn’t quite resolve the lowest pitches. All of which is pretty amazing for a speaker this size.

It’s not just bass that will fool you into believing the 805 D4 is a much bigger transducer. In perhaps its most amazing sleight of hand, the 805 D4 can produce musical scale that’s completely at odds with its stature. In particular, the 805 excels at conveying height. Combine that with the outsized bass performance, and you have a speaker with an uncanny ability to mimic a full-range floorstander.

For example, on a big orchestral work such as the aforementioned Mahler, most small speakers shrink the scale of the soundstage—in every dimension. In contrast, the 805 D4 delivers an appropriate chimera of a grand ensemble. You can even tell that the string section is larger than usual. Or perhaps you’re watching a movie and the screen is considerably higher than the tops of the speakers, as is the case in my listening room. No worries. The 805 D4 can project an image every bit as tall as the top of the screen.

I asked Andy Kerr, Director of Product Marketing and Communications at Bowers & Wilkins, how the 805 D4 manages to pull off this hat trick. He replied: “It’s a combination of the cabinet’s shape and the mechanical properties of its construction. Acoustically, the curved cabinet, with its mid/bass drive unit forward of the baffle in a separate aluminum pod, reduces the cabinet baffling effect, allowing more of the mid/bass drive unit’s energy to radiate freely into the room. The decoupled tweeter-on-top assembly does the same thing for high frequencies, arguably to even greater effect because the structural element in, around, and behind the diaphragm is reduced to the smallest possible area.”

“Also,” he continued, “mechanically, the cabinet minimizes wasted energy by mounting each drive unit in a stiff, well-braced construction with very little vibration. This comes from the combination of the cabinet’s material properties, its curvature, its internal matrix bracing (which is superior in the D4 to that of the D3), its aluminum bracing, and its improved high-frequency decoupling assembly.” Now you know the secret behind the apparition.

I’ve already alluded to the 805 D4’s last magic act, which is its price. At well under $10k, including $1250 for the matching stands, this is another area where you just have to shake your head in disbelief and ponder how Bowers & Wilkins does it. My guess is that there are two parts to the answer.

First, Bowers & Wilkins is a heavy user of computer modeling to predict the acoustic behavior of driver, cabinets, and other factors. In this way, engineers can vary shapes, sizes, and even materials, then assess that change’s influence on accuracy and distortion. This is all done without having to build an endless series of expensive and time-consuming prototypes. Of course, once those computer models are perfected, the company constructs and extensively tests physical prototypes, but by then, a lot of time and money has already been saved.

Next and most importantly, Bowers & Wilkins has the benefit, unique among high-speaker manufacturers, of very large economies of scale. Between its extensive dealership network for audiophiles and its near-universal embrace by recording studios, Bowers & Wilkins is likely the world’s largest maker of high-end speakers. As such, it can leverage suppliers for lower prices. Further, the company can share many components across a given product line. For instance, the diamond tweeter used in the 805 D4 is the same unit found in every 800 D4 speaker. This practice leads to further economies of scale.

Most high-end speaker manufacturers don’t have the product breadth or the sheer sales volume to match Bowers & Wilkins in these respects. Consequently, what costs $8000 in a Bowers & Wilkins speaker could easily cost twice that—or more—from another manufacturer. Keep this in mind when you audition the 805 D4. This is no mere magic trick, where unseen corners have been cut. It’s a true bargain.
Overall Sound

I’m fairly familiar with the sound of 800 Series speakers. In an earlier life, I owned a pair of 801 Matrix IIIs. More recently, I reviewed the D3-generation’s flagship model. I’ve also learned a lot about Bowers & Wilkins’ culture and sonic priorities from visits to its North American headquarters and in meetings with the company’s senior engineers. What I’ve deduced from all those sessions, listening and otherwise, is that Bowers & Wilkins will stop at nothing to remove sources of distortion from 800 Series speakers.

Given this philosophy, it’s not surprising that the line tends to be self-effacing in nature. The folks at Bowers & Wilkins aren’t interested in creating a particular sound; they’re into building good drivers and giving them the best possible environment in which to thrive. The 805 D4 is firmly in keeping with this tradition. Its cabinet is the quietest it’s ever been, and the drivers are more linear and well-behaved than ever. As a result, you don’t hear them.

That’s not to be construed as implying that these speakers are dull. Far from it! They have a wide dynamic range and plenty of rhythmic pizzaz. But they also allow more subtle musical flourishes, such as tiny dynamic nuances, to emerge in a natural, unshowy way. I suspect this is down to the diamond tweeter, which isn’t as extended as some I’ve heard but is incredibly smooth and never etched.

Indeed, this is the one area where the Vegas magic act analogy crumbles. Such spectacles are invariably flashy affairs, whereas the 805 D4 is more interested in not calling attention itself—the better to get out of the way of the music. If you’re looking for a speaker that emphasizes detail, the 805 D4 probably isn’t for you.

Combining all these characteristics—an absence of distracting traits, dynamics big and small, propulsive rhythm, etc.—adds up to a speaker that is incredibly musical. Like the flagship 801 D4 that Andrew Quint reviewed in the February issue, whatever you play through the 805 D4s, whether an audiophile recording or not, is immediately engaging. Along with the music, you’ll revel in the sound’s scale, timbral richness, and authoritative bass. Then you’ll remember that you’re listening to an affordable, small, décor-friendly speaker. You may find that hard to accept. I did. But hearing is believing.

Associated Equipment
Analog source: Lyra Etna cartridge, Goldmund Studietto turntable, Graham 2.2 tonearm
Digital source: Bryston BCD-3 CD player
Electronics: CH Precision I1 universal amplifier (phonostage, DAC, streamer, linestage, power amplifier)
Speaker: Metaphor 1, Stenheim ALUMINE 3
Cables and Cords: Empirical Design
Room treatment: ASC Tube Traps
Footers: Goldmund Cones

Specs & Pricing
Type: Two-way, vented-box, stand-mounted loudspeaker
Recommended amplifier power: 50Wpc–120Wpc
Frequency range: 42Hz–28kHz (+/-3dB)
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
Sensitivity: 88dB/2.83V/1m
Maximum SPL: 113dB
Drivers: 1″ diamond dome tweeter; 6.5″ Continuum mid/bass
Dimensions: 9.4″ x 17.3″ x 14.7″
Weight: 34.2 lbs. each
Price: $7999 (matching stands are an additional $1250 per pair)

Bowers & Wilkins North America
5541 Fermi Ct. N
Carlsbad CA 92008

Alan Taffel