Many audiophiles know what a Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series loudspeaker typically sounds like, or at least we think we do. I’ve reviewed my fair share and even been blessed enough to own a couple of pretty cool Bowers & Wilkins speakers over the years. They have always been very accurate, polite-sounding, and downright excellent speakers when it comes to concepts like engineering, fit and finish, as well as resale value. What has me blown away about Bowers & Wilkins second from their top speaker (I am ignoring the Nautilus, which they still sell an amazingly large number of even after all of these years) is how it has significantly evolved in its high frequency sound. My knock on even the best Bowers & Wilkins speakers of the past is that they’ve historically been a bit bright or etched in the high frequencies. That a little bright high end is their signature sound and always has been. That is, until now with the D4 upgrades to the Bowers & Wilkins 802 loudspeakers. Whatever Andy Kerr and his vast team of engineers in the U.K. did from Version 3 to Version 4 is an audiophile epiphany. The highs are unlike what you expect while the rest of the speaker is just sublime.
The Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 is second from the top speaker in their top-level 800 Series. The Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 is the speaker that is specifically used in places like Abbey Road Studios and Skywalker Ranch, but the 802 D4 has a slightly less wide footprint and to my eyes looks more proportional. You likely will not miss the bass performance between the 802s and 801s in most use-case scenarios, especially if you add a subwoofer.
What Makes the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 Audiophile Loudspeakers Special?
- We talked about the improvement in the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series D4’s tweeter, but I can’t make this point more strongly – it is radical. The high frequencies are staggeringly resolute with the ability to resolve the most minute musical details as well as present a stunningly wide image.
- Gone is the signature yellow Kevlar midrange driver that has been so often associated with Bowers & Wilkins speakers over the years. The fact of the matter is that others had co-opted the yellow Kevlar look and instead of pulling a Bose and suing everyone, Bowers & Wilkins just designed a new midrange driver that is not yellow but is much more independent from any effects of the bigger bass drivers, thus better sounding and more accurate. The new decoupled midrange is more taught and faster to recover as a speaker driver. It might not be as visually differentiated, but in terms of performance, this is one hell of an engineering feat that makes your mids sound open, solid, punchy, and downright awesome.
- I’ve had the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series bass driver (from an 801) in my hands and wow, is it beefy. The company is using carbon fiber now to get extra extension while retaining amazing rigidity. They call their new design an Aerofoil Bass Cone. Let me be clear: you do not need a subwoofer with Bowers & Wilkins 802s to be happy. Adding one is icing on the cake.
- You can get the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 speakers in gloss black, gloss white, satin rosenut, and satin walnut as stock finishes. My pair are in white and offer an R2D2 look to them with the round organic shapes integrated into the speaker. If you want to go custom, you can pick any color that you like and Bowers & Wilkins will paint your speakers accordingly. That costs thousands extra and takes months, but a pearl white or a deep blue (like on their Signature 801s and 805s) is gorgeous. Note: the company uses robot sanders to get a beyond-car-level finish on its speakers. They go down to an ultra-fine 3000 grit sandpaper that leaves the speakers gleaming when sitting in your living room.
- The Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series speakers, including the 802 D4s, come with four spikes as well as two outriggers to help stabilize the speaker. Additionally, the 802 D4s have a larger, nicely finished bottom plinth that allows for even more stability. I am pretty sure the plinth could be removed in past versions but not anymore, and for good reason. In my case, with an 18 month old at home, I’ve even used matching white straps that are bolted into the wall for baby proofing.
- The 802 D4 speakers bring a very resolute, mastering studio sound to your listening room at home; however, they aren’t overly analytical. Most encouraging and unlike other excellent speakers in its class, the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s are able to present such a musically engaging sound even with less-than-excellent recordings.
- The Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 speakers are not too hard to drive at 90 dB efficiency. You wouldn’t want to run a $500 integrated amp into these speakers, but you don’t have to go crazy on power and electronics out of the box. I used a Classé Delta power amp for most of my listening. I also used one of Nelson Pass’ most lauded designs, the Pass Labs XA-25, which is a pure Class-A amplifier and very linear. Both amps could drive the snot out the 802 D4s without a hiccup. (Reviews of both amp reviews are coming later in the year.)
- The form factor of the Bowers & Wilkins D4s is a bit slenderer than that of the 801s. And I like that. To my eyes I just like the lither look. Also, the money saved between the 801s and 802 D4s is enough to buy some serious supporting electronics, if you have the need, including a deep-reaching subwoofer like my SVS SB-4000, which was a bit over $2,000 retail the last time that I looked.
- I alluded to this earlier in the review, but the parts and build quality of the 802 D4 are simply unmatched in the high-end audio world. I’ve owned five pairs of Wilson Audio speakers (various versions of WATT Puppies over the years), two pairs of Revels, top-level MartinLogans, top of the line Paradigms, as well as my former reference speakers, Focal Sopra No. 2s, and while they are all truly excellent speakers without question, the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s are every bit as good in every possible way. Build quality, imaging, bass, dynamics – everything. These other speakers are clearly in the game, but nothing bests the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s in the above criteria.
Why Should You Care About the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 Loudspeakers?
Rarely does anybody start their audiophile journey with a speaker as high-end as the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s, which is understandable at their price. For those who have been growing their system and want a truly world-class loudspeaker that is good enough to be the studio standard at Abbey Road and Skywalker Ranch, you might consider something from the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series, such as the 802 D4s. They are capable of filling a big room, as I have an open-floorplan living room with high ceilings and sadly, pretty dicey acoustics. That’s just my reality in this house and with this system, but it doesn’t really matter because the 802 D4s perform admirably despite the acoustical and logistical handcuffs that I put them in. They’re as happy in a real-world living room as they are in a fully treated, world-class mastering lab.
Some Things You Might Not Like About the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 Loudspeakers
- The 802 D4s are very modern and somewhat organic looking. While they appeal to me in a modern-looking white finish with gray accents, not the typical black, including some luxurious leather between the midrange driver and the top-mounted tweeter, even the wood finishes might be a little too edgy for people living in a more traditional décor. Custom paint could help, but there are other, more traditional looking speakers in the market that might be a little less visually challenging.
- The magnetic grills are really nicely integrated to the speaker, but they make for a very compelling toy for my little one. We keep Giovanni away from the speakers as best that we can, but it’s hard to explain that the midrange speaker grill isn’t a toy. My Revel B328 BE speakers downstairs have a more integrated grill that is less likely to get lost or removed by a young one, but I like the look of the Bowers & Wilkins grills better in terms of an overall aesthetic.
- Like a Wilson Audio speaker, setup of the Bowers & Wilkins benefits from very incremental physical adjustments. By all means, you can expect your dealer to tune in your speakers using tape measures, lasers, and mirrors as I often do, but like other top-level audiophile speakers, the 802 D4s do benefit from taking the time and care to get the Nth degree of positioning, be it for bass performance or the imaging. Even with a fireplace in the middle of my speakers, I was able to get them to image to outrageously good levels after a few days of ¼-inch and maybe even 1/8-inch adjustments. None of this is hard, but some other speakers in this category can be placed roughly in their desired location and that’s that. The Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s benefit from a little more tweaking and audiophile love.
Listening To the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 Loudspeakers…
I started my evaluation of the 802 D4s with my professional theme song, “You Never Give Me Your Money” from the quite appropriate Beatles record, Abbey Road on AIFF 1440 ripped from CD of the 2009 remaster (buy at Amazon). I’ve never heard the piano sound on this track sound so delicate and engaging. McCartney’s bass sounds round and tight. As the song morphs into a more honkeytonk vibe, the depth of soundstage is truly notable. It was as if I’ve never heard this song before when listening to the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s, despite the fact that I’ve heard the track, start to finish, 200 times if I’ve heard it once.
Earlier, I mentioned how the 802 D4 speakers resolved an overall musical experience that was consistently enjoyable, be it with the best or most-modern recording as well as other legacy records that thrive in the performance and production category but might not hold up in terms of recording quality. “Don’t Give Up” from Peter Gabriel’s So 25th Anniversary Remaster Album (buy at Amazon on CD) is a perfect example. Tony Levin’s Chapman Stick (like a bass guitar and a very cool instrument) is the backbone of this lyrically life-affirming song. The depth and layering later in the track with the piano and dueling vocals is next level. I love the performance on this iconic recording, but even on SACD, this has always been a bit underwhelming on other high end audiophile speakers. Not the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s. Another example from So is the opening to “Red Rain,” which has a hi-hat that can sound very tinny and bright on other systems. Specifically, on the D4 version of the Bowers & Wilkins 802s, the highs don’t sound overly sibilant or bright. In terms of dynamics, “Sledgehammer” is a worthy track to turn up the volume on. Again, the bass and driving drum beat make for a more visceral experience that other, more tweaky audiophile speakers will fail to reproduce.
You need to be really confident in your musical abilities to take on covering a song like Jimi Hendrix’s all-time-great “Voodoo Chile,” and the man up to the task is guitarist Tom Morello. His resumé has him with the role of lead guitarist for Rage Against the Machine as well as the short-lived but excellent supergroup Audioslave. His cover of the Hendrix classic from his Comandante collection is an instrumental and worthy of cranking up the volume, sitting back, and preparing yourself to be amazed. The intro starts by sounding very muted while teasing you with a very familiar melody. By about 30 seconds in, the dynamic window explodes right in front of you. This is the audiophile version of red-lining a very high-powered racecar, as you get that same push-you-back-in-your-seat feeling. As the song progresses, the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s hold up to the 100 dB (plus) torture test as if to mock me or to challenge me to turn the volume up even higher. The improved bass and midrange drivers are so coherent sounding even on a cluttered, explosive recording like this version of “Voodoo Chile.”
Do the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 Loudspeakers Have Good Resale Value?
You are damn right that they do. The 802 D4 speakers are the type of product that so many audiophiles dream of someday owning. They have the performance, design credibility, and performance that you’d expect (if they were a car) from say a McLaren. The brand is well marketed. Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s are sold in Magnolia (inside of Best Buy), which means that unlike many other competing high-end audiophile speaker brands that tens of thousands more audiophiles have had a chance to hear Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series speakers than, say, Magico, YG, Wilson, Focal, or Revel. Not that those are bad speakers because they aren’t, but they don’t have the distribution (including dozens of the best audiophile stores that aren’t inside of a Best Buy) and that does nothing but help resale value if you ever were to upgrade.
Who Is the Competition for the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D2 Loudspeakers?
There are so many very worthy competitors in this lofty space, but let’s start with a speaker close to home in the Bowers & Wilkins 804 D4. At $14,000 per pair, you get a whole lot of the 802 D4 experience for a hell of a lot less money. They won’t play quite as loud but that’s really nitpicking. Any bass lost is easily gained back (and then some) with a modern, room corrected sub like my $2,200 SVS SB-4000 or even something a little less beefy. I reviewed the Bowers & Wilkins 803s D4s and at $20,000 they also can be an option based on your budget. In a perfect world, I like 802s best, as I feel 801s are just a little too big for me and 802s feels like the Goldilocks zone.
Another speaker with a stunning audiophile legacy and that I am personally still a very big fan of is the latest version of the Wilson Audio Sasha V. With a price of $48,900 per pair, the value of the Wilson speaker is nowhere near as good as the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s. Wilson is the originator of the custom paint finish option in the audiophile speaker world, and perhaps nobody does it better at this stage. The two-piece construction of the Wilson Audio Sasha V is still an odd throwback to the days of David Wilson’s WATT studio/location monitor and the somewhat add-on Puppy bass module that turned the WATT Puppy into a very manageable, very high-end audiophile speaker that could fit into any home. Today’s Wilson’s no longer have Focal tweeters, but their modern speakers have a less bright, more engaging high end. They image like few other speakers and are very placement critical. Wilson Audio speakers aren’t as easy to drive as versions from the long-ago past, but they aren’t hard to drive. Like the 802 D4s, they simply appreciate some excellent electronics backing them up.
The Focal Sopra No. 2 at $22,000 per pair is the speaker at the core of my last audiophile system in my 1950s mid-century home that I sold about five years ago. The speakers stayed with the Hulu executive that bought the place, as did the Crestron smart home, the Classé electronics, and a lot of other AV goodies. The Focal Sopra No. 2s have gone up a lot in retail price since I bought them at $14,000 per pair, but they still represent a very good value in this category. Like Wilson speakers, you can get custom paint finishes, but Focal stocks more unique colors without the need for a custom order. The Focals are perhaps the easiest speaker in this category to drive, which allows you to get a little more fancy with your amplifier selection if you’d like. Where the Focals fail compared to the Bowers & Wilkins is their ability to present such a broad range of music in a truly engaging way. I simply enjoy the Bowers & Wilkins 802s better on a day-to-day basis and that comes as a bit of a shock to me, as I loved my time owning Focal Sopra No. 2s. The Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s are just better and well worth the few extra grand.
Final Thoughts on The Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 Loudspeakers
I thought I knew what I was getting into with this review, having owned, reviewed, sold, and experienced Bowers & Wilkins speakers for over 30 years. I was wrong. The 802 D4 speakers grossly exceeded my expectations in nearly every way. Gone is the bright tweeter and in is some of the best, most accurate imaging that I’ve ever heard in a speaker at any price. At low levels, the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s can resolve the most intimate musical details. At high levels, the speaker’s modern upgrades make for a more visceral, impactful sound.
The Bowers & Wilkins 802s are the Boeing 787 Dreamliner of audiophile speakers. The designers and engineers back in England are given free range to seek any and every possible upgrade when it comes to Bowers & Wilkins speakers. They test these upgrades out every few years in their Signature Series speakers, which just came to market with some midrange upgrades and a better mount for the tweeter module. The Bowers & Wilkins Signature 801s and 805s are significantly more money, and I’ve heard the A/B test. It will cost you a pretty penny to get that next level of excellence, but they never stop striving for incrementally better performance on every level of speakers sold under the brand.
I couldn’t be happier with the Bowers & Wilkins D4 loudspeakers. They’ve exceeded my already high expectations in nearly every way. They’ve made me forget about wanting another pair of Focals, which I really thought I did. You don’t see this next comment from me very often, but I have no choice but to cut a check for these speakers. Simply put, they can’t go back to England. They need to be with me as my reference speaker here at the beach in California.