Bowers & Wilkins 803 D4 Speaker REVIEW
This is a review written by Terry Ellis April 2023.
For my video review please see my YouTube channel link here
For a large number of music lovers and audiophiles all over the world, the dream would be to own some Bowers & Wilkins 800 diamond range speakers. That aspirational goal is even loftier in 2023 with the prices of the Diamond 4 speakers starting at £7,000 and going up to over £30,000. The 803 D4s I’m reviewing cost £18,000. If you save up all your pennies and live on noodles for a decade and finally fulfil your dream and buy these speakers, what is the experience like and what should you expect?
When I was a much younger audiophile, the first speakers I ever felt any connection to were some Rock Solid Sounds, which were these little pod-type speakers with an integral wall mount leg system and I think B&W had something to do with their engineering. I used them in my bedroom in my parents’ house with a REL Q50 subwoofer and I loved that system. I listened to music on it, played games through it, even did some DJ’ing with it and it was a great system to me, I absolutely loved it.
When I moved into my first house, I was excited to finally set the Rock Solid Sounds speaker up in my lounge in a “proper HiFi fashion” on stands away from the walls. I spent all day setting up the system as neatly as possible and I was just about to press play for the first time when I knocked one of speakers off its stand and it broke. I was devastated. I didn’t even to get to listen to one song and so I did the only thing an inconsolable audiophile could do, I bought some new crazy expensive speakers, well crazy expensive for me at that time.
I viewed B&W 800 as the pinnacle of speakers at that time and, I think it might have been the first diamond range which was the current model. I couldn’t afford them sadly but of course really wanted them.. However, I saw some original B&W Nautlius 805 speakers in Black Ash on eBay for £1,000 and I bought them. Not long after I moved into my current home and into my current listening room, I was able to set up the 805 up fairly well and, fortunately, didn’t break this pair but to be honest I was pretty disappointed in them as they didn’t live up to my expectations.
Really, I was disappointed with myself because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing in terms of a HiFi system setup. I didn’t understand and didn’t know and didn’t have anything like a good enough system for them, and so it was a all a little bit of a disappointing experience for me, but not a wasted one as we learn from our mistakes, that is the journey. I vowed that in the future I would love to get some more 800 series speakers to be able to experience much of what they are all about. This is what motivated me to want to review the 803 d4.
For me the 803 is the sweet spot in the range because it’s the most affordable way into the true 800 series form factor, with the solid aluminium turbine head and the fully curved matrix braced cabinet. In terms of its size, I thought, because it is a medium sized speaker and not room dominating, it would be okay in my room. Being honest, I think my room is too small to fully appreciate what the 803 can do from an overall size of sound stage point of view, but I have been able to make them work without too much trouble. This could be great news for someone reading this who might be considering using them in a smaller room also but do remember I have more acoustic treatment in this room than most studios, which undoubtedly helps.
I don’t want to spend too much time going over all the improvements from the D3 to the D4, I have already made a video at the Bowers & Wilkins factory for the launch of the Diamond 4 range and explained all this in detail. This video has had around a quarter of a million views. If you haven’t seen it, there is a link here. You should watch it because it helps explain why the 800s are so expensive – their manufacturing and build quality is next-level impressive.
Build and Set-up
The 803 weigh 63kg and so they are seriously heavy. One of their best features is the integrated casters built into their heavy, I believe, aluminium base. This is a great feature as it makes it very easy to move the speakers around to find that perfect spot and toe in for the room. Even better, once you have found the right position there are spikes which you lower to raise the speakers off the casters. It is a bit of a fiddly job to do but it’s a great idea because finding the perfect placement is extremely important and I found the B&Ws quite finicky in this regard, small changes matter as they allow you to hear very clearly when things are not quite right. Once you’ve zeroed in on the right spot you then simply lock it down, I think this is a brilliant design.
The 803 feature the famous 1-inch diamond dome tweeter housed in a solid aluminium tapering tube that’s longer and better isolated with the D4. I think this is a very cool part of the speakers look, especially from a side profile. This feature is very stand out and it is very much Bowers. I do wonder if they wouldn’t look even better with the tweeter going all the way to the back of the cabinet. Maybe we will see that in a D5 range in the future.
There is a spiderless 5 inch continuum mid-range driver. The spider is the often-yellow mesh suspension system we see on 99.9% of speaker drivers. Its role is to support a driver cone and keep its motion pistonic instead of wobbling around. B&W have developed what they call a biomimetic suspension which is tiny and very much gets out of the way. It is designed to lower distortions and is important to the speaker’s clarity of sound.
For the bass there are dual 7-inch aerofoil drivers with a down firing port. For most of the time the drivers barely seem to move, even at loud volumes, but I was able to get them going of course. Slowed down video footage of this shows an impressive linear pistonic motion. You will see this in my video review
One specification I found very interesting is the 803, although having a 90db sensitivity, which is reasonable, also has an amplifier rating of up to 500 watts. Through conducting this review, I found that the amplifier used with these speakers is very important to their sound presentation. This is one of the very first things to consider if you are going to take the leap into ownership of a speaker like this. Even a very good amplifier might not be good enough. You will need an excellent amplifier with plenty of muscle, maybe even monoblock amplifiers in one guise or another, if you really want to get the most out of them. I am not over exaggerating this for dramatic effect, more to make you aware right at the start.
I completed the lion’s share of the review using two different systems. The main system was all from Chord electronics using their ULTIMA 3 Pre amplifier and their Ultimas 6 stereo power amplifier. I have already gone into a lot of sound quality details in that review linked here. Everything positive I said about them I said about the B&Ws as well so it would be a good idea read that review also and or watch the video review here.
For my sound quality assessment, I decided to compare the B&Ws with my own current reference speakers, the Mission 770 which, at less than a quarter of the price, you might think is a strange comparison. However, the 803 D4s could easily be my or your next speaker in the journey and so how the two compare could be very relevant for a lot of people.
Straight away I noticed the B&Ws are a much fussier speaker in every regard. For some context, the Missions’ ‘super-power’ is that they are easy to place in the room, relatively easy to drive and to relatively easy to get great sounding music from. They are the sort of speaker which, after about a fifteen minute setup, five hours of very enjoyable music has gone by, and yet they are still very transparent, but not brutal in this regard. They are politely transparent so tell you the truth without ruining your enjoyment of the music. I think the Mission 770 are excellent speakers and that is why I bought them.
The B&Ws took a lot more work to get sounding “right”. I had to take more time with their placement because getting the bass right with them was extremely important because of how the mid-range and, most notably, the treble are balanced. Using the Chord Ultima setup I had to think about things more still in order to get the system balance right for the speakers, I detail this in the Chord Ultima Review, it was a case of finding the right Chord Hugo TT 2 DAC filter mode. When I got it right the results were certainly worth the hard work.
As I mentioned earlier, this was especially true for the amplifier. The Chord ULTIMA 6 Power amplifier was able to get much more out of the 803s in terms of dynamics, energy, scale and excitement, compared to the NAD M23. The NAD couldn’t really drive them to deliver music in the same way. Be mindful of your amplifier as the B&Ws really separate the men from the boys. They seem to be a much more challenging load, and I could not hear the same disparity between the amplifiers when using the Mission 700, both sounded different but great.
B&Ws 800 speakers have been notorious for having a lively treble. This is possibly since the tweeters became diamond and so this has been the case for years now. B&W told me when I was at the factory that the new D4 range was supposed to sound sweeter in the treble than previous generations, and in the sound demo they gave me on the day I would agree with them. The diamond tweeter capability is fantastic, the detail, scale and energy they can create is really something. It had me thinking about the kind of immediacy I have heard from very expensive, very large Avantgarde horn speakers, which is not something that is common for traditional dome tweeter speakers, normally they are not even close. I think the treble is still very lively though as the rumours and suggest, but when you get the system setup right you can appreciate why they are designed like they are. This is one major area of difference between the B&Ws and the Missions. The Mission treble is very high quality too, nicely detailed but is much more set back, relaxed and softer by comparison. This is what makes the Missions a less fussy and more forgiving speaker because they ease off the part of the music our ear is very sensitive to for better and for worse.
The 803 takes the dynamic extremes further, especially with the height of the sound stage, where there is energy and detail I haven’t ever had from the Missions in my room. This took some getting used to, but I do like it. There is a fine line with the Bowers in terms of getting the system setup correctly. Slightly out and they can sound too forward, whereas I think you would have to really go some to make the Missions sound too forward. I think that is because the mid-range and vocal region with the B&Ws favours a leaner, more technically accurate representation, going for outright clarity and purity of sound, especially in the lower vocal and upper bass region. Vocals do sound extremely clear and have a great sense of roundedness and three dimensionality which I really like. For the tone of vocals and how a vocal makes you feel when you listen to them, I think the Mission 770 have the edge because they have a wonderfully full sounding vocal with a bit of a gloss to it that is just pleasing, a vintage type of gloss, whereas the B&Ws lay it bare. That can be equally pleasing in a different way, but there is not the same lovely vocal character of the Missions.
Bass is very interesting because the Mission perform brilliant in my room and are very satisfying speakers to listen to, digging deep and being punchy at times, but once I had their placement in my room fully dialled-in the B&Ws offered a very noticeable level above this. I only moved them inches to find the spot but once I did, they delivered more bass overall with better definition and control, greater bass pressure and with better articulation and resolution, in a grander sounding overall soundstage. There was a much greater sense of scale created by the bass and kick drums sounded more authentic. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more bass from the B&Ws still and, I wonder, if even more amplifier power would have helped with that.
This difference, combined with the perception of a more extended dynamic range at the treble end, leads me on to the biggest two differences between the speakers. The first is scale. The B&Ws created large sonic images around the vocals, and so the vocals were similar in size from the two speakers, but everything happening around the vocals was larger and more extended. The sense of depth, the sound that goes beyond the speakers was about the same as from the Missions. No doubt my room size is the limitation to that, but the way the B&Ws made the rest of the soundstage more audible by making it all sound bigger and clearer was an obvious difference. The overall height, size scale and three dimensionality of the sound stage was noticeably better. Also, the scale of some instruments was a little larger, clearer, or more well defined and sometimes all three.
The last major difference is with the energy of the music, the immediacy, or the way it gets out of the speakers, the B&Ws sound much faster than the Missions, like there is less in the way of the music. Sometimes this is for the worse but, most of the time, it is for the better. I found this aspect of their sound quality very much system dependent.
To sum up I have really enjoyed my time with the 803 D4 and, this time around, I don’t feel like I let myself down. In fact, I have had some stunningly good sound from them that I found to be very up lifting. I really didn’t want to break apart the system as I felt like the journey of discovering the B&Ws was only just beginning, and there would be more and better to come over time. Speaking of time this was only a very short review period for me of a few weeks, the Bowers were here for a good time and not a long time. To me these are a journey speaker where by an owner may have them in their system for decades and over that time work on finding more and more sound quality from them, there is something in that challenge or opportunity that excites me as an audiophile.
To close out this review, am I sad to be going back to my Mission 770 after a few weeks with Bowers? No actually, the Missions are still great to me, but am I going to miss the 803 D4. I was very comfortable with them in my room for their size and especially their looks, you don’t get bored looking at them that is for sure. Although, I think I prefer the white finish to the black, so hopefully I will some other white 800 speakers in this room in the future.
But this has been one of my audiophile bucket list things to do so thank you Bowers & Wilkins for the opportunity.
An Essential Audition Award is granted in recognition of a products high performance but with a certain uniqueness that makes auditioning even more essential.
For the full specification of the Bowers 803 D4 please see their website linked here