Product Review: Stereonet Bowers & Wilkins 803 D4 Floorstanding Speaker Review
With a little over a year with 800 D4 reviewers are able to offer a more intimate and considered account of the range. Read Michael Evans' review from Stereonet.
Is this mid-range model in B&W’s prestigious 800 Series Diamond an orphan child or its unsung hero? Michael Evans decides…
Bowers & Wilkins
803 D4 Floorstanding Speaker
The current model line-up of B&W 800 Series Diamond floorstanding loudspeakers takes a little working out. It’s easy to spot the flagship 801 D4 as it looks both stately and impressive, even before you even play a tune. Weighing in at over 100kg, this huge speaker commands respect in listening rooms of any size. There’s also a clear place for the comparatively diminutive and least expensive floorstander, the 804 D4, which is over two-thirds lighter and noticeably more compact than its biggest brother. But what of the two middle speakers in the stable?
The penultimate model in the 800 Series Diamond range – the 802 D4 – is simply an 801 D4 that’s been on a diet – with B&W claiming that it’s “slightly smaller, but still exceptional”. I totally get that there’s also a market for such a speaker, especially if it means you no longer have to reinforce your floor to accommodate a pair. But what of the middle range 803 D4? Far from being the orphan child of this fascinating line-up, I believe it’s quite a compelling choice, as we shall see later…
All models in the latest Diamond series have been completely reinvented and reworked from their previous five-year-old D3 incarnations. B&W’s design budget of late has been nigh on astronomical and is paying dividends for the fifty-plus-year-old company. For many, the 800 series is the gold standard of speakers, the reference point by which others are judged. It is plain to see the passion that the company puts into its top models; it has produced a range of benchmark high-end speakers that other manufacturers should rightfully be jealous of.
For this reason, it’s no surprise that the 800 Series carries the ‘go to’ speakers that so many hi-fi reviewers and manufacturers use as their reference. They are highly transparent and revealing and let first-class source components really shine. The flip side of this is that they also show the flaws in any sub-par turntable or DAC being fed into them, not to mention the amplification. They don’t just need to be matched carefully with source equipment; rather, they demand excellence.
Like a road-going Porsche sportscar that has benefitted from the company’s Le Mans racing car parts bin, the 803 D4 has more than a passing resemblance to its two bigger brothers. Technological buzzwords like Turbine Head, Continuum Cone, Fixed Suspension Transducer and Biomimetic Suspension System sound more like they should be in a racing car than a loudspeaker. Inherited from B&W’s more expensive loudspeakers, they are all worth more in-depth explanation, so for a better idea of these various technologies, click on David Price’s review of the 804 D4.
Like the Porsche supercar mentioned above, this loudspeaker is put together with exceptional attention to detail and craftsmanship. The finish is close to perfection, and the build quality is quite staggering. As a result, it’s easy to see where at least some of your money has been spent. From the tweeter-on-top downwards, the components are superb quality, innovative and, in many instances, almost revolutionary in their design and application. Importantly, it’s the most affordable (i.e. the cheapest) model that features the Turbine Head – a dedicated midrange enclosure with its decoupled midrange cone.
Setting up the 803 D4 is considerably easier than with its bigger brothers, although still a two-person job thanks to a kerb weight of 62kg per speaker. If you wish to move either one of the stereo pair closer to or further away from the wall, or even toe them in a little, then it’s possible without industrial lifting equipment. It’s a big speaker alright, but in my view, just about useable in a slightly larger than average listening room – whereas the two bigger designs can easily overpower domestic spaces.
The 803 D4’s striking and unusual looks ensure that a pair of these will be the first talking point for anyone who enters the room. Aesthetically they are not everyone’s cup of tea. Some visitors were very inquisitive and charmed by their unconventional looks and ‘Dalek-like’ appearance – mainly due to the decoupled treble units – whilst others were not impressed at all!
The speaker is available in four finishes – gloss black, white, satin rosenut and satin walnut. All are equally beautiful, although my personal preference was for the black, which adds to the imposing looks and presence. It seemed quite impervious to fingerprints too, which is a bonus as almost everyone who saw my review pair in the flesh felt the need to touch them for some reason!
I was fortunate enough to have the team from B&W on hand to assist with set-up. The 803 D4 isn’t especially fussy about where you place it, but we all felt that about a metre away from my back wall, with the treble units toed in to a single listening point, worked brilliantly. Suitably installed, the energy that the speakers emitted was impressive, and one could pretty much feel the amount of air being moved!
Despite not being the range-topper, there is absolutely nothing lightweight about the 803 D4 – including its performance. Bass is satisfyingly rich, deep and extended – yet very fast. Never does this speaker sound fat, bloated or boomy. The midband blends in seamlessly, and it’s impossible to tell where the low-frequency drivers stop and the midrange takes over. Treble is handled expertly too; never too bright, it is always clinically detailed and tonally neutral by the standards of almost all other speakers.
The soundstage produced from the 803 D4 is also excellent. Instruments are clearly defined and incredibly easy to place in the mix. The ability to make the listener stare in wonderment at a blank space being filled by a guitar, or keyboard, or vocals in the recorded acoustic is quite mesmerising. And as for its dynamic capability, this is enough to lift you from your seat when a snare drum is struck unexpectedly, or when a power chord is played at force on an electric guitar, yet this speaker is wonderfully subtle and delicate should the music require it. It shines with any kind of music, but especially with superbly recorded tracks – its transparency highlights the genius behind some of the best recording engineers…
For example, playing the superbly dynamic Blue Jean Blues by ZZ Top from the Fandango album is a wonderful experience. It showcases the unusual guitar tone supplied by Billy Gibbon’s 59 Fender Stratocaster on the recording. The back story behind the song is that his guitar was plugged directly into the board as the band’s equipment truck had broken down, and they had no amps. The clock was running, and their engineer told them bluntly, “If you want to get something on tape, we can plug your guitar straight in.” The result is a joy to behold through this loudspeaker.
Moving on to the hauntingly sultry You Don’t Believe Me by Caroline Henderson shows how well the 803 D4 handles simple arrangements. Again its detail retrieval, stereo separation and soundstage is excellent compared to almost all other loudspeakers on sale today. Such delicacy and nuance is allied to massive motive power that’s enough to pretty much knock you off your seat. For example, if you have not heard the song Stimela (The Coal Train) by Hugh Masekela from the Hope album, it’s worth checking out. Played at high volume, the dynamic range of the recording takes one completely by surprise via this speaker. I got great pleasure from playing this track to friends and watching them jump at various moments in the recording, in response to the visceral power of the piece.
Long After You’re Gone by Chris Jones is another audiophile staple which I’ve heard many times, but the tone of his classical guitar really comes to life with the 803 D4. Bass notes are rich and crisp, and it is so easy just to get lost in the experience. And the mono version of Donnie Hathaway’s The Ghetto is quite a thing to hear via this big Bowers & Wilkins box. This speaker wasn’t at all put off with the recording, and in some ways the experience was better than the stereo version. The sense of occasion that the track delivers felt extremely powerful.
Keith Don’t Go by Nils Lofgren from his Acoustic (Live) album works outstandingly well with the 803 D4, and it takes a while before it sinks in that it is a live recording, as the engineering on the track is so accomplished. This is a definitive hi-fi staple and whilst Mr. Lofgren may not appeal to everybody’s taste, there’s no denying the masterpiece of this recording. Again, this speaker tells you all about its brilliance in no uncertain terms, such is its ultra-high resolution.
Give it the spellbinding Aerial Boundaries by the late Michael Hedges from his album of the same name, on the Wyndham Hill label, and it’s time to pick your jaw off the floor! Even on a budget system, the mastery of the performance stands out, but via the 803 D4, you really do find it hard to believe that it’s only one person playing one guitar, such is the richness and detail placed front and centre in the listening room.
The 803 D4 shares all the benefits of being in Bowers & Wilkins’ prestigious 800 Series range – both in terms of build and finish and, of course, sound quality. Interestingly, this model hits a sweet spot between user-friendliness and affordability. Although very big, it’s not prohibitively so for many people’s listening rooms – and should not completely overpower them or excite their resonant modes just a touch too much.
The 803 D4 is hardly affordable for most people, yet it’s way more accessible than its bigger 801 D4 and 802 D4 brothers. It gives a large percentage of their performance in a more compact package and for less financial outlay. In terms of outright quality, I’d say it’s closer to the 802 D4 than the 804 D4 – and as such, it gets an especially hearty recommendation. So if you’re in the market for a serious high-end speaker with an abundance of the ‘wow factor’, look no further than this.