Monday, October 31, 2016

Speaker Quest

About a year ago, with my new place in escrow, I started on the Priority 1 task of getting my home audio system good to go for when I moved in (hey, life is short, and hearing good enough to enjoy audiophile recordings is even shorter)

As part of the process, I did a great deal of research on line.  I was also amazingly fortunate to be shopping for new speakers at the exact time that my long time favorite speaker maker was just starting to ship their latest generation speakers (basically a complete redesign...pretty rare event).

Fortunately, some of the very first units in Southern California were in San Diego, and had been delivered literally a week or so before I started my audition process.  I spent a great deal of time with the new kit, and captured my notes for others that were waiting with bated breath for these new speakers:

This started what has become an extraordinary year of music and rediscovering what I love in music. To set the stage for sharing some of that journey (which is WELL beyond my usual ”Album(s) of the Year" post), here are the process notes from my speaker quest.

More from my (re/new)found audiophile obsession to come...

November 15, 2015

As background, I'm a very long time B&W fan (owned exclusively B&W speakers for 30+ years), but I have not had a critical listen to new gear since my last upgrade cycle in 2008. Back then, space and family constraints limited me to the 805S with a sub (which are awesome), but I now have a much larger space (20x25' with equipment on short wall, vaulted ceiling great room) so time to step it up.

Based on my research, my starting options were a used pair of 802D2's, or a new pair of 804D3's (trying to keep to a ~$10k budget). Our local Magnolia had 803D3s, 804D3s, 805D3s, and 802D2s on the floor fed by a full Mac stack (MC601s, etc), so I took a hookie afternoon and spent 4+ glorious hours immersed in the new kit.

We started with the 802D2s. I had never heard these speakers before, but my expectations were sky high (my bias was towards the 802D2 going in). I was shocked at the poor performance of this set up, to the point where my conclusion was that something was wrong with the speakers. It was the muddiest and flattest presentation I had ever heard in B&W gear. Best description might be "loose and sloppy", which is the exact opposite of the B&W sound that I love. Given the reputation of the 802D2s, something was clearly wrong, so we moved to the 803D3s.

The 803D3s were an absolute revelation. The extent and precision of the soundstage was extraordinary. Even in a modestly large space (15x25'), it was absolutely effortless. During the audition, there were several glorious moments, but one that stands out was during "So What" (Mile Davis - Kind of Blue) when Miles joins in. The soundstage was so broad and precise that you could tell exactly where Miles was standing, and hear the horn sway and move during the piece. It honestly felt like Miles was in the room with us, and it was one of the most musically real experiences I've ever had in front a piece of kit. (As an aside, in my notes I wrote "Miles is about 5'8" tall"...a Google search when I got home showed me he was 5'7" ;)

Mids and highs were tight, effortless, and glorious. Lows were tight, but bass extension was not what I was hearing/feeling with the 802D2s. I agree with other folks that there is no way these guys are getting down to 17Hz. Has anyone found independent measurement of frequency response of these puppies?

After about an hour and half with the 803D3s, I had fallen in love, and rediscovered music that I thought I had long ago become overly familiar with. The extent and character of the sweet spot was stunning. "Glorious", "lovely", "effortless" are scattered everywhere in my notes. Aesthetically, side by side the 803D3s blow away the 802D2s (which are damn attractive). My only nit is the deep lows perhaps being a bit thin, but we did not spend any time tuning room placement to optimize.

Next was the 804D3s (basically same placement, same kit and content). After the glory of the 803D3s, I was braced for disappointment. I was (happily) very wrong. The 804D3s are an extraordinary speaker, with very few compromises vs the 803D3s. It was definitely of the same family/voice as the 803D3s, and had much of the same wonderful character, but just slightly less across the board.

Mids and highs were an absolute delight and the low end was surprisingly full, although thinner than the 803D3s. Overall, I would say they were an absolute joy, but had to try harder to get there. As we switched back and forth between the 803D3s and 804D3s, I would characterize the sound as less effortless, and the soundstage as less precise and less expansive.

The 804D3s had more difficulty filling the room. Where as for much of my demo content the 803D3s had "beyond the walls" sound imaging (the sound stage extended beyond the side walls and the ceiling), the 804D3s had a sound stage that filled ~2/3rds of the room. Whereas Miles was just standing there in the 803D3s, he was generally on the left-center side of the stage of 804D3s.

The 804D3s had flashes of jaw dropping glory and reveal, the 803D3s had sustained stretches of face dropping glory and reveal. The 804D3s just seemed to be working much harder to accomplish the same thing (like watching a tier 1 college basketball player vs a tier 1 NBA player). If I hadn't experienced the 803D3s, I would have been over the moon about the 804D3s. Coming from 805S's, it was everything I love about the B&W sound taken up to the Nth degree. If you're of limited budget, don't give in to the temptation and listen to the 803D3s, unless you're OK opening up the even bigger wallet.

Unfortunately, my local Magnolia did not have a 802D3 on the floor. After the revelation that was the 803D3, the 802D3's are on my must listen list. If it is able to fill out that last little bit of the low end, it may be time to get out the fork lift to carry in the still bigger wallet.

I am also keen to give the 802D2s a proper listen in a different setting. They weren't even a 1/10th of the speaker I was expecting. There was something clearly wrong with the floor models. My next step is to compare the 802D2s to the 803D3s and the 802D3s. My Magnolia rep was also steering me towards the REL S5 subs. I'd really like to get away from subs for 2 channel audio (they definitely have a place for HT), but I'll give them a go if there is an opportunity.

With 802D3s potentially on the table, it is fiscally prudent for me to consider speakers outside the B&W world. Any thoughts/suggestions for $20k+ speakers that could tempt me away from 802D3s?


November 19, 2015

Today I was able to spend several blissful hours auditioning the 802D3 vs the 803D3. Different room and kit (Classe amp this time) but a truly magical experience.

We started with the 802D3. I have never heard such a balanced speaker in my life. Normally my notes are packed full as I go through my audition selections, but today it was very sparse, with a scattering of "very clean", "rich", "present", "balanced". There wasn't much to say: it was just right. End to end, I don't think I've ever heard such a balanced and effortless speaker.

Although I've been listening to some of my audtion material for decades, every one was fresh. For the first time, it felt like I was over the shoulder of the sound engineer at the mixing board, really hearing what they were hearing when they were mixing the album. I had an intellectual understanding of reference, but this was the first time I really experienced it first hand.

I spent a full 25 minutes with the 4th movement of Beethoven's 9th. I've had this CD for 30+ years, and know it as well as any piece of music I've ever listened to. This was the first time I had ever listened to it where there was no passage that I could find fault or want in the speakers. I had heard all the passages done well before, but this was the first time I had heard the piece done well as a whole. Afterwards, I thanked the person helping me with the audition for a once in a lifetime experience, but then I realized it didn't have to be (quite humbling).

As amazing as the 803D3s were with Mile Davis' "So What", these just took it farther and richer and in a more effortless way. The imaging was even more precise and the soundstage even more rich and expansive. As we pushed the volume, it stayed in control and effortless. Very very addictive.

I had been planning on stepping through the 804D3s and perhaps the 805s as well, but I was lost in the 802D3s and didn't want to listen to anything else. After 3 hours of bliss, finally bit the bullet and went back to the 803D3s so I could get a sense apples to apples.

In this space with this kit, the 803's were strikingly similar to the 802s. The differences were subtle and fleeting. They were the same, but just had to work a little harder to get there. Some key overtones and undertones were muted, and the sensitivity of the speaker seems a bit less (I didn't have a SPL meter...qualitative sense). Just had to push the amp a bit hard to get the same detail and volume, and even then, just a hair more strained to get there.

Through particularly dense and demanding sequences, you could hear the soundstage briefly compress and get muddled (esp. at higher volumes) as the speaker approached it limits, but these moments were very fleeting. Same moments on the 802D3 were striking for how it could deliver it without breaking a sweat.

From high's to low's, no matter the density and layers, the 802D3s took it all in stride, with a balance that truly and honestly felt like you were sitting in the sound mixers chair. Disc after disc, it just sounded right, without fault or strain. A stunning tour de force of music reproduction. I did not think this possible across this many music genres and this many dynamics.

In a small or midsize room, I would be delighted with the 803D3s. For all intents and purposes, they are very nearly the same speaker as the 802D3s. These are world class speakers at a price point that is awesome.

I'm going to be moving into a home with a larger listening space (20x25' with high vaulted ceiling), so I've decided to go with the 802D3 to make certain I can fill the space. That being said, I wouldn't be surprised if the 803D3s could (in practice) gobble up the space 99% of the time. With either model, I don't think you can go wrong.

I'm looking forward to the 802D3s, and am grateful for saving ~$25k by not having a chance to audition the 800D3s. Kidding aside, I'm not sure how the 800D3 could raise the bar that much farther than the heights the 802D3 and 803D3 are flying. Find a great room with great equipment, and give these guys a listen. A wonderful time to be a music lover.

Originally Posted by SMC23
Great review Ray. It's one of the first thorough user reviews of the 802d3 I read. Congrats on your new speakers. Can't wait to get mine! 
Thanks, but now I feel guilty for not putting more thought into it ;)

Having (literally) slept on it over night, so additional thoughts:

It is astonishing how similar the 802D3 and 803D3 are 
This was by far my biggest surprise yesterday. My audition of the 802 was glorious. I could have gone on to listen to it for several more hours without switching to any other speaker. When we switched to the 803s, I expected a notable step down. I was shocked how similar they were. 

If I were to do a blind audition separated by any amount of time, I'm not sure I could distinguish which speaker I'm listening to. The only "tell" I could pick up was in particularly challenging passages where the 803 seemed to cap out sooner (there may also be a hair less depth at the low end). To tell them apart, I would have to cheat and use source material I'm intimately familiar with, and critically listen to particularly sequences. 

The differences are very very small (far far smaller than I'm accustomed to in speakers that are part of the same family). Unless you have a larger room or prefer to push your speakers to very high levels (or both), the 803D3 is an astonishing speaker and tremendous value (game changer I think) 

It is unclear to me why B&W chose to deliver both the 802 and 803 in the new series. The price delta is relatively small (no fundamental difference except for size of cabinet and size of drivers), and so is performance. I am very curious to see how sales play out, and what they're able to do to clearly distinguish the 801s (802 may end being the odd guy out in this line, with stoopid money going 801, and value money going 803) 

802D3s were the first speaker I've auditioned where I stopped listening to the speaker 
I was pretty focused for a critical audition, notebook in hand and ready to do a comprehensive critique. When the 802 fired up, I had nothing to say: it was just right. The balance was better than anything I could have critiqued or tweaked. Effortless and seamless across the full range. We could not push them (with content or volume) into a stressed zone (effortless). 

In my earlier write up on 803 vs 804, I compared the 803 to a tier 1 NBA player to the 804 being a tier college player. The 802 was like watching Stephen Curry: doing miraculous things, but being so smooth and effortless and matter of fact that you barely notice he's doing them. 

After 45-60 minutes of what was starting to become frustration at not being able to find anything to pick at, I switched gears and started to really listen to the music and (more tellingly) the mixing choices made by the producer and sound engineer. I learned so much about blending music to create a stage, even in this limited session. Particularly on older analog material, the art of balance and tone really came through. 

The choices the pros had made when recording the music were obvious. I felt like I was an apprentice in the studio, sitting at the soundboard as they tuned and crafted the final mix. There was nothing lacking and nothing hidden or overbearing. I can't wait to revisit my library with these new set of "eyes". 

802D3s are lovely, but they look huge sitting next to the svelte 803D3s 
The aesthetics of the whole 800 series are taking a huge step forward with the D3s. To my eye, the 803D3 is in the sweet spot of audio performance and aesthetics. If you have (spousal) constraints on acceptability in a shared space, make sure you see them both side by side. 

You can't go wrong with either model
I would be delighted and have no regrets with either speaker. There is no settling or compromise here. Bravo to the engineers at B&W for the work they've done. 

For me the decision came down to having a little more headroom with the 802s to tune and adjust in my new space. My situation is unique in that I'm closing on a new home in a couple weeks. An in house audition would be of limited value, since it will take many months to get to know the new space and build it out with other furnishings, etc. 

For a relatively small price delta, the 802s have that little extra to give me flexibility to go several different directions. With the bump in resale value, I'm comfortable paying the extra $$ (and dealing with the extra bulk) so I don't have worry about it. 

If I were settled into a space and knew it well, I would do an in home audition and then decide which speaker is best suited to the room.

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