Doug Schneider - DAS

B&W's - Matrix 803 Series 2

"How much are those speakers in the window.....?"

Back in about 1986 I went shopping for a new pair speakers in the $600 - $800 price bracket. For that price, then and now, you can get some pretty decent sound. Furthermore, since I was a student price was definitely a big concern for me (guess it still kinda is). Every dollar I was about to spend needed to be worth it.

After weeks of careful shopping and comparisons I had my choices nailed down....until I spied some little black boxes in the corner. They were about $1200, far out of my price range, and not much bigger than a shoe box! My newly picked $650 speakers were considerably larger, but admittedly, not nearly as elegant. I knew I needed to hear those little buggers just to compare what the difference in price would buy. Not only that, I wanted to hear what kind of sound could come out of a pewny little box with only a tweeter and one woofer!

Knowing my tight budget, the salesperson grudgingly hooked them up. I could sense from him that he was feeling that this was about to be a total waste of time. From the outset I knew I was hearing something like I hadn't heard before. Their clarity was outstanding! My jaw dropped as quickly as my budget grew. "May-tricks what's did you call them?"

"In the beginning...."

Before I get to actually talking about the 803 Series 2, a little 'B&W Matrix History According to DAS' is in order. Being an owner of three different Matrix speakers over the years (the Matrix 1, the 802 Series 2, and now the 803 Series 2), I think I have a good understanding of the progression of the Matrix events as they unfolded over time. However, I do apologize if I make any errors and I invite your e-mails to correct this. Remember, this is just the World According to DAS and no-one else.

Soon after that listening session I owned a pair of those B&W Matrix 1's. They were far more than I wished to spend, but they were worth every cent. The Matrix 1 was part of the initial B&W Matrix offering - The Matrix 1, 2 and 3. "Revolutionary," the B&W posters proclaimed about the Matrix technology. Actually, the technology behind by Matrix concept wasn't as spectacular as it was elegant, simple and very, very effective. It was all about those damn vibrating cabinets.

Taming speaker cabinet resonances has long been the goal of designers; clean up those resonances and you should get cleaner sound is the theory. B&W's take on this is their patented Matrix method which uses a criss-cross pattern of tightly spaced braces throughout the cabinet. The innards end up looking like a square honeycomb, the result being a rock-solid cabinet. The best I can do to test this is 'The Knuckle Wrap Test,' which confirms the cabinet's solidity.

A while after that initial Matrix 1, 2, and 3 lineup, B&W gave their much-heralded 801 the Matrix treatment and dubbed it the 801 Series 2. The audio world had heart palpitations. Although some disagreed, many called it the greatest dynamic speaker of the day. Stereophile's Lewis Lipnick crowned it Class A and that was that. Soon afterwards their longstanding 802 became one of the Matrix brethren and it too carried the Series 2 moniker.

B&W seemed to like that Series 2 name so gosh-darn much that when they released a new version of the Matrix 1, 2, and 3 lineup they tacked Series 2 to the end of that too. However, from what I could tell the consumer world didn't seem to like the 'Series' part of the name as much as they liked seeing 800 up in front. The B&W 800 series quickly became known as the upscale B&W line.

Being the smart marketers B&W are, they latched onto the 800 name pronto and brought out a mucho expensive 800 speaker (Series 1 implied, I'd imagine). Seeing as they already had an 801 and 802 (in Series 2 form) it seemed only logical to scrap the Matrix 1, 2, and 3, redesign 'em, then call them 803, 804, and 805 (Series 1 implied of course).

"But all that glitters isn't gold...."

For the most part their entire lineup was a hit. The 800 received raves as an ultimate home reference monitor (although I have NEVER heard them sound worthy of their price tag in over 10 setups). The 801 and 802 seemed to be doing well in their respective price brackets (I ended up owning a pair of 802 Series 2 for a couple or so years). The 805 was becoming known as a great dynamic little performer at a great price, and the 804 was getting raves for it's 801-like performance at a fraction of the 801 price. But where was the 803?

The 803 was sticking out like a sore thumb...not because it wasn't that good, but because it didn't offer all that much better performance than the 804 for a whole lot more money. A friend of mine, who is a B&W dealer, felt the 803 was their weakest link in the line. People either went for the 805 or 804, or if they had the cash, 802 or 801.

Not to rest on their laurels, it seemed that when B&W snapped back with revised versions of the 801 and 802 (Series 3 now) they also brought along a revised version of the 803. The 803 Series 2 was born. A speaker that was now a whole lot better than their 804, did indeed justify the extra cost, bettered their 802 Series 2 (in my opinion), and came pretty darn close to the 801 in many areas. And it's the 803 Series 2 that is the topic du jour.

"Let's get physical....."

Although similar on the surface, the 803 Series 2 is a complete redesign of the original 803. It still retains the tall columnar appearance with bevelled corners that was consistent with the Series 1 version, as well as the rest of the lineup. But it now sports dual 6.5 inch polypropylene woofers instead of just one woofer. And it retains the 6.5 inch Kevlar midrange and the hallmark 800 series metal dome tweeter perched in its owned plastic casing up top.

The guts of the Series 2 enclosure includes their patented Matrix technology. The real nifty improvement here is the internal isolation of the midrange and woofer chambers using a solid, angled MDF brace. Instead of me trying to paint with 1000 words, if you're really curious and really care then you'll probably just go down to any B&W dealer and they'll show you a picture of exactly what I'm trying to explain.

High quality bi-wirable binding posts are located midway up the backside. They work great but I have to fault them because they are a bit too wide for some spade lugs (the TARA ones come to mind). Now I use bananas which fit nicely.

Fit, finish, quality, and overall looks is always high with any B&W speaker. Their cabinet work, with real-wood veneers, is finished second to none on all sides. And with their excellent metal edged grill clothes running the full length of the front cabinet, the 803 Series 2 is unobtrusive, elegant, and so darn sexy that I want to rub myself on their sides and purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Although B&W supplies spikes for the pre-drilled holes on the bottom (to hold the speakers firmly in place) I like the Sound Anchor stands for three important reasons:

"You say Po-tay-toe and I say Po-taw-toe"

The 803 Series 2 retails at about the $3000 price point (U.S.). To me this is a very important place in the high-end speaker market. For anyone looking to pay this much, you can find some very high quality speakers offering much of the performance you'll pay at any price. Furthermore, the fit n' finish of speakers at this price should be as good as anything. In a nutshell, the $3000 price point is where diminishing returns start setting in rapidly and consumers can expect to get a lot of speaker for the money. This is especially true within a manufacturer's own lineup. Compare the 803 to the 801, or the Mirage M3si to the M1si to see what I'm talking about.

Competition in this price range includes Mirage M3si and M5si's, Proac Response 1's as well as the Studio series, the Vandersteen 3A, Totem, Gershman, Von Schweikert, Martin Logan, PSB, and on and on. There are many more that I've missed, but these are ones I'm familiar with and they're all very good in their own right. Are any of these better than the other? Depends who you talk to, on what day, then you have to keep in mind what they had for breakfast and when their last bowel movement was. Alot of it comes down to preferences and gut-feel.

I couldn't possibly compare the B&W to all of these, but I will try to explain the 803 virtues and faults and how I feel a $3000 speaker should sound.

The 803 is a fast, quick, dynamic performer. The high frequencies are very extended. The one, most common complaint of these speakers is that they can 'Walk on the Bright Side', which puts some people off of them. I can easily see this happening because this speaker has no roll-off up top whatsoever. Poorly matched components or cables can result in a hard-etched top end. But is it the speaker that's bright? I don't think so. With the right equipment the top end can sound pure, clean, detailed and infinitely extended. I'm getting good results with Classe amplification and Silver Sonic T-14 speaker cables. I've heard ARC amplification with Cardas cabling sound wonderful as well. On the lower priced end I've heard Rotel amps kicking nicely too.

I did have some Tara Lab TFA Returns on for a while that worked well in other applictions, but with my Classe amp the combo produced some nasty sounding screeching at the top end - the hacksaw through the ears effect. It's the combination of components that counts. I found out quickly that this speaker puts out what is put in. It's a characteristic called - revealing - and that is consistent with the rest of the frequency range.

Like the upper frequencies, the midrange is transparent, detailed, and ruthlessly revealingly. Careful component matching can't be stressed highly enough again. Although B&W tends to lend itself to the dry side I find them very natural and neutral through the midband. When comparing them to the Proac Response series, for example, I found the Proacs a little warmer and more full-bodied in the mids, which I did like. Likewise I found the Mirage M3si a little warmer but woolier, and not as detailed in the midrange as the B&W's or the Proacs. Vocals float nicely from the B&W and there is never a problem with congestion or a chestinessd in the lower mids that plagues many speakers. The midrange is where the effects of the Matrix technology come into play more. Cabinet resonances, which reduce upper bass and midrange clarity in many speakers, is completely absent here. Blue Rodeo's Dark Angel, with Greg Keelor's raspy, closely miked voice, resonates uncontrollably on many speakers. The result is a vague, sometime irritating and grainy sound. Here the sound remains open and natural at all times.

Bass performance is the biggest area of difference I find between competitors at this price. B&W employs a technique they've used in a number of their speaker models. The 803 has two 8 inch woofers. One of the woofers operates at the lowest frequencies but rolls off far below the midrange. The other woofer covers those frequences, and as well, it extends higher to crossover with the midrange unit. Reportedly, this results in better driver integration between the low and mid frequencies.

I find B&W tends to offer as much quality bass as they can, but they do not sacrifice tightness and detail for extension. High quality bass performance costs and this is where speakers in the $3000 range usually lack compared to their more expensive brothers. Although literature claims response down in the 28 hz range, I'm not doing much better than 50 in my room. In addition, they 'hump' a bit at 80 hz, but this probably has more to do with the room that anything since I'm getting great smooth bass when listening in, of all places, my bathroom (a phenomenon I call Bottomless Bass in Odd Places - eg. kitchens, bathrooms, distance bedrooms or closets far away from the actual listening room - those bass waves new room!).

I have heard the 803 in larger rooms and they do not have anywhere near the bass of, say, a Mirage M3. But then again, most of the Mirage series offers some of the best bass performance (in terms of extension) of any speakers near their price. Compared again to the Mirage, I find the bass more detailed on the B&W. As I said before, it comes down to preferences. If you're a bass hound and wanna use your speakers for dance parties and all-night Raves don't look to this B&W model (although B&W does have an 800 series sub that would do the trick, however, I'd be more inclined to mate that with the 805). Is it enough bass for me? Sure is! When the girlfriend throws on Zane, Coolio, TLC, or any other 'bass thru to my butt' performers and my chest starts heaving from the pressure buildup in my room, I know I'm doing well in the low end department. That said, 803 bass is very tight, and like the mids and highs, very detailed. There is great integration between all the drive units.

"Waiter, check please...."

On the whole, the 803 lends itself slightly to the drier, more analytical side of speaker performance. They claim their entire line to be reference monitors, and although I don't know that this model is used in studios like some of their others, it would surely qualify. Of course, this quality also necessitates careful system matching. Throughout the frequency band the sound is neutral, transparent, and highly detailed. Soundstaging is similar to what I've heard from most of the B&W lineup. They are not speakers that exaggerate the stage, instead they throw a stage that has good width and depth that depends entirely on the source material. I feel that they are highly accurate in this regard. If they are to be faulted it is for a lack of palpability, which doesn't necessarily translate into a lack of accuracy. Speakers that lends themselves to the warmer side (eg. Mirage) tend to have a 'fuller' soundstage. Again, it's those preferences making the decisions.

In this price range there are many speakers with varying virtues that should be examined by anyone looking to buy. But as for this speaker, it works well with moderate amplification (I've seen as low as 50 watters to the several hundred watters) in a medium to medium-large size room. Overall, I feel they offer great performance and in high-end audio dollars they offer great value. Is it a good speaker for you? Well that's for you to decide. If I was shopping today I'd certainly examine ALL the possibilities from ALL the manufacturers. Different strokes for different folks.

Right now, as I type this sentence, Sting's wonderful rendition of Angel Eyes from the excellent Leaving Las Vegas soundtrack is playing on my system. The sound is smooth, extended, detailed, and wonderfully transparent....and that about sums it up.


...Doug Schneider