B&W MATRIX 801 (S80, S2 & S3)

B&W Matrix 801 Series 2 loudspeaker

Since the introduction of the original B&W 801 monitor loudspeaker in 1980, it has been adopted as a reference by several recording studios around the world, Over the past five years, I have seen 801s present in just about every recording session with which I have been artistically involved. While the original 801 monitor had its strong points, I was never satisfied with the detached and muddy-sounding bass, discontinuous driver balance, and low sensitivity. Unless this speaker was driven by an enormous solid-state power amplifier, with an elevated high-frequency response, the tubby and slow bass response often obliterated any detail in the two bottom octaves of musical material.

Well, all this has changed…for the better. The new Matrix 801 Series 2 is as different from the original 801 as apples are from oranges. For me to say that this is just another excellent loudspeaker would make me guilty of gross understatement. In short, this is the most musically complete and revealing fullrange loudspeaker that I have heard to date, effectively redefining such terms as coherent, dynamic, open, and involving.

Technical Highlights
The Matrix 801 Monitor is a large loudspeaker, employing a massive, front-vented cabinet housing the low-frequency driver and crossover network, with a separate fibercrete head housing the midrange driver (the tweeter is mounted in free field above) placed directly above the bass cabinet. The midrange/tweeter head is electrically connected with the lower cabinet via a short umbilical and an XLR connector, and is secured b y a very long bolt that runs completely through the head, down into the bass enclosure. There are two sets of speaker terminal connectors on the bottom rear of the bass cabinet, in order to allow the listener to bi- wire the speakers (these connectors are normally internally bridged, so in order to bi-wire, the bottom cover under the bass cabinet must be removed, and two very short jumpers removed…a less-than-ideal setup).

The cabinet construction is excellent, showing a great deal of attention to assembly and aesthetic detail, except for the quality of the speaker terminal connectors. Rather than utilizing standard five-way binding posts (as B&W does with their less expensive 802 speakers), they have opted. for some rather poor-quality, screw-type terminals that just don’t belong on a product of this quality. Except for the round port vented on the front of the bass cabinet directly below the woofer, the new Matrix 801 is visibly similar to its predecessor. The casters mounted on the bottom are nice to have when moving these behemoths around the house or studio. But since the speakers really need to be placed on stands in order to operate at full potential, this otherwise practical addition is somewhat useless.

The internal design and components represent a clear departure from the earlier 801. By using their effective Matrix technology of incorporating an internal system of honeycombs within the bass cabinet, the engineers at B&W claim to have reduced low-frequency enclosure resonances and colorations to a significant degree (I agree). Additionally, but using a sixth-order Butterworth alignment through the addition of an outboard equalizer, they have been able to achieve extraordinary low-frequency response (-6dB at 17.5Hz) without compromising bass attack and clarity. Although the speaker can operate without this optional equalizer (thereby effectively representing a fourth-order Bessel filter with a -9dB point at 19Hz), the addition of this device clearly enhances its overall musical accuracy.

The midrange fibercrete head assembly and Kevlar-coned driver remain basically unchanged from the earlier 801. The high-frequency driver (the TS26 tweeter), on the other hand, represents an entirely new design, incorporating a metal-domed diaphragm. This design was arrived at partially through B&W’s computer-aided design (CAD), and is a modified version of the metal-dome tweeter used in the less costly Concept 90 series of loudspeakers. B&W claims that this new tweeter “exhibits perfect piston-like behavior to frequencies well beyond audibility.” The newly redesigned bass driver has a cone of specially formulated plastic compound, is heavily damped to remove sonic colorations, and employs a 13lb, 13,000 Gauss magnet.

In order to protect the drivers from over load, B&W has upgraded the already existing Audio-Powered Overload Circuit (APOC) by incorporating two such units: one operates on the bass section, the other on the midrange! tweeter, allowing complete protection even when the system is bi-wired.

Design of a true monitor: not just another loudspeaker

While attending last summer’s CES in Chicago, I had the pleasure of a lengthy discussion with John Bowers, the driving force behind B&W loudspeaker design. His musically intuitive design approach and clearly defined product goals (something too often lacking in high-end audio) gave me the impression that he knew exactly what he wanted to achieve, and how best to do so. When I asked him about the role of monitor speakers vsthose without such designation, he stated that a true monitor should reproduce exactly what is contained in the recorded material, good or bad, rather than presenting an editorialized picture of what one might want to hear.

His point is well taken, since many audiophiles choose their loudspeakers for various sonic attributes that add colorations to effectively create a predetermined spectral balance or acoustic environment. Of course, we all know that such a thing as an accurate loudspeaker does not exist, and even if it did, we would have no way of ascertaining its accuracy unless the recordings were identical to live music. How, then, can anyone claim that they are able to design an accurate loudspeaker?

Realizing this problem, Bowers uses panels of musicians who have performed in specific recordings to ascertain musical integrity between originals and facsimiles. If they and the recording engineers involved are satisfied that what they hear through the speakers accurately reproduces what occurred in the sessions, he feels that some of the subjectivity connected with loudspeaker design has been eliminated.

Which brings us back to the Matrix 801. This is not a speaker for those with preconceived notions of what should be, but for those who wish to hear what is. I have yet to hear another speaker that gives me as much musical information as this one, without any of the usual sonic intrusions that remind me that I am listening to music through a mechanical device. The Matrix 801 is a true musician’s reference transducer, a point made by several of my colleagues in the National Symphony who have had the opportunity to hear it.

Unfortunately, many of the musical attributes that distinguish the new 801 from other products will probably be lost on those audiophiles looking for the latest trends in loudspeaker design, rather than recreation of recorded artistic events.

Sonic Qualities
Being a musician first, and audiophile second, I subscribe to the thesis that musical validity and accuracy is of foremost importance, and that sonics should be viewed as only one component within the overall musical picture. There are, however, those few products that utilize their sonic strengths as a means to musical integrity, rather than the more com mon “let’s see how we can make our speakers sound different from anyone else’s.” The Matrix 801 is one such product; here are some of the purely sonic attributes that set it apart from so many other also-rans.

First of all, I don’t feel that this speaker has any significant sonic weaknesses. It is ruthlessly revealing of everything up front (source material, electronics, interconnects, line-cord polarity, etc), and this is what might ultimately get it into trouble. Many US dealers who will be selling this product are not members of the high-end community, and will probably mate the 801 with greatly inferior electronics.

I can tell you that, after living with these speakers for the past two weeks, anything less than the finest electronics and source material can cause serious listening trauma. As an experiment, I connected a representative Japanese receiver (name not important, since they all basically sound alike) to the 801s, and the results were devastating. The sound was thin, grainy, and white, with no depth or bass extension. And although readers might find this amusing, it really is not—many potential buyers will audition this product with similarly mismatched ancillary equipment, and will very likely blame the speaker for the sonic shortcomings.

The people at B&W figuratively “shot themselves in the foot” when pricing this speaker…it is simply too inexpensive for what it does. While it outperforms other products costing at least twice as much, its requirements for the finest electronics will place B&W dealers in a difficult situation.

While the Matrix 801 works well with both solid-state and tube amplifiers, I definitely prefer the results when using solid-state. Although the manufacturer claims that one can use as little as 50Wpc with the new 801, I would think that at least 100Wpc should be the minimum (especially if you are going to play full orchestral material). Of the three amplifiers that I have tried on these speakers (conrad-johnson Premier Five, Mirror Image 1.1S, and Rowland Research Model 5), the Rowland Research came out the clear winner. I still think that, overall, the Model 5 is the most neutral and musically revealing amplifier I’ve had the opportunity to hear, and the Matrix 801 speaker once more confirmed my findings. While the Premier Five presented itself very well, with beautifully defined midrange and silky high frequencies, low frequencies were slightly muddy and indistinct. The Mirror Image was not even in the running, sounding unrefined, raw, and congested. Although I heard all of the above before through my Martin-Logan Monoliths, the differences between these three amplifiers became much more pronounced with the 801s.

The “optional” 11″ stands are quite necessary. With the assistance of two professional musical colleagues (Robert Kraft, bass trombonist with the National Symphony, and Joseph Kainz, visiting flutist from Chicago), the 801s were auditioned on the floor, sitting on the attached casters, on the floor with the supplied spikes, and on the dedicated stands. Both floor-mounted positions resulted in loss of ambience and musical information, along with noticeably slowed low- and midbass response. When we placed the speakers on the stands, the sound magically blossomed, and the spectral balance became neutral and even. Additionally, the contra octave of bass became tighter, deeper, and noticeably faster.

This all happened before the optional out board bass-alignment filter (aka equalizer) arrived, or the speakers had been bi-wired. Again, B&W’s “option” is a necessity. While I liked the speakers before, the addition of this little black box between preamp and power amp made an enormous difference…for the better. This is the first such device I’ve heard that doesn’t adversely affect the midrange and high frequencies.

B&W has wisely not included hard-wired interconnects, so the audiophile can still use his favorite brand of wiring. What amazed me was how this gizmo improved the entire sonic picture, not just the very deep bass, as we had expected. The sound became more clear and extended (in both directions), and the soundstage opened up, portraying hail ambience and dimension more effectively. I could more clearly define individual musicians in space, as well as the degree of natural hall resonance vs artificially induced reverberation in recordings.

Not being an engineer, I won’t attempt to speculate on exactly what this “optional” filter does, but one thing is for sure: if you’re thinking of auditioning a pair of Matrix 801s, be sure the dealer uses the bass-alignment filter and the stands.

The Matrix 801s should be bi-wired. Although they work quite well in the conventional setup, the balance between the midrange/tweeter and woofer sections is tipped upward toward the former, thereby presenting a slightly lean, hollow quality to the mid-bass that might cause the listener to think these speakers unnaturally bright and aggressive in the upper midrange.

When bi-wired (be sure to use the same speaker cable on top and bottom; these speakers are too coherent to tolerate mix and match), everything came into alignment, with all three drivers becoming more transparent and coherent, and any hint of over-brightness completely vanishing. (As an aside, I would like to mention that Straight Wire Music Conductor Speaker Cable appears to sound the best with the 801s in my system.) All of my subsequent critical observations concerning the sonic and musical qualities of the Matrix 801s were made with the inclusion of bass-alignment filter, speaker stands, and bi-wired installation.

The Matrix 801 is spectrally seamless from top to bottom, dynamic, refined, harmonically. accurate open, and, last but certainly not least revealing. The only other speaker that I have had the opportunity to live with that successfully competes (and I have owned several large speaker systems) is the Martin-Logan Monolith. Whereas the 801 does not always present as large a soundstage as the Monolith, it does appear to present soundstage more accurately. Ensemble and stage size are more clearly defined, and what sometimes appears as spatial information through the Monolith is obviously artificially induced reverberation and multi-miked bleed-through with the 801.

Perspective is more obvious with the 801: forward, aggressively recorded material can really “come out and grab you by the throat;” while the opposite perspective places the musicians well behind the speakers. The 801 is more coherent from top to bottom, more open, more revealing of recording techniques, and much more dynamic.

The only area in which the Monolith is the clear winner is transparency: electrostatics just simply do better with dynamic speakers in this category. They are both great loudspeakers (musically exceeding everything else that I’ve heard, except perhaps for the new Apogee Diva, which I have not yet had the opportunity to extensively audition), each presenting musical information in a valid, but totally different perspective. The Monolith might ultimately be the better speaker for long-term listening, being less analytical, while the 801 gives more of what is really there, albeit possibly a bit intimidating. The 801 is a monitor, and some listeners just might not want to hear everything the 801s will tell them, musical and not.

Musical Attributes
I was not prepared for what I heard the first time I played the 801s. After finally getting these monsters set up and wired, my colleagues and I sat down to listen to a new compact disc of Vaughan-Williams’s Job (Vernon Handley, London Philharmonic, EMI Eminence CD; superb performance and recording), having just heard it recently on the Monoliths. We sat silent throughout the entire performance (something that has never happened before), and after it was over, we looked at one another without a word. Finally collecting ourselves, recovering from the initial shock of what we had just heard, someone quietly said, “I’ve got to have those speakers.”

When it comes to audio, musicians are hard to please. Perhaps that’s why so many of them have such poor audio systems; if you can’t have it all, why even try? The new 801 is a musician’s reference; it simply reproduces music with more immediacy and honesty than anything I (or any of my colleagues) have previously heard. It is quite unlike any other speaker, inasmuch as it goes far beyond any previous design in drawing the listener into the performance, almost as if the listener’s ears and microphones were one and the same. My first impression of the sound was one of unrestrained openness, along with the sensation that the music was expanding out into the hall acoustic, not being stopped by an artificial barrier such as a loudspeaker. This is something previously experienced by this musician only at live performances, and is one of the things that separates the “life” in live music from the constriction of electronic reproduction. Whereas many other speakers have given me the impression of seeing the music through a very clean window, the Matrix 801 not only opens this window, but places me outside, actually becoming involved with the musical picture.

The Matrix 801 outperforms every other loudspeaker I’ve heard in its ability to recreate the wall-bending visceral weight produced by full symphony orchestra, chorus, and organ. Until I heard the 801s, I was convinced that no loudspeaker could credibly reproduce the dynamic impact that I feel during live performances. For the first time, I can sense the massive wavefronts of sound created by full orchestral climaxes, without any timbrel change, constriction, or hardness. And at the same time, this speaker recaptures the finest low-level musical details, allowing the listener to see into, rather than just look at, the performance. All other speakers that I’ve heard to date (except for the Monoliths and Divas) create a “haze” over the music, effectively separating the listener from the performance. This typically causes loss of clarity and immediacy in quiet passages, as well as constriction and “sonic backup” at higher volume levels.

The Matrix 801 does not discriminate between good and bad…it bares all. The non-musical aspects of performance (background noise, instrumental key noise, turning pages, etc.) can really place the listener into the recording session, something made all too clear to us during a playback of Andrew Litton’s recent recording of Mahler’s First Symphony. We were listening to Andrew’s audition copy of the master tape, when a couple of my colleagues detected a bass-drum roll not in the score. When we ran the tape back, and listened again, that bass-drum roll was clearly a rather loud truck outside the hail…something that infuriated Andrew, especially since the sessions had been monitored with a pair of older B&W 801s. According to him, this was not at all audible during session playbacks (and we were only listening to a cassette dub of the master!).

I am also now discovering new tidbits of musical information in many of my recordings that shed new light on the quality of performance. Several recordings, that I had previously thought were musically flawless, have now become less than perfect. In Frederick Fennell’s performance of Holst’s First Suite in E flat for Military Band, with the Cleveland Symphonic Winds, I have discovered a very soft, but magically effective suspended cymbal roll during the first movement, used by the composer as a precursor to the following snare drum roll. Having not heard this through previous speakers, and thinking that the 801s were producing some aberration, I checked the score, and sure enough, there was the cymbal roll. Another interesting but heretofore unidentified aspect of Fennell’s performance came to light with the euphonium solo (introduction of the second theme), also in the first movement. Before the 801 Matrix, I thought that I heard a tonally vague, not very well played euphonium. But now, I could detect two euphoniums (the score calls for only one…for some reason Fennell opted to double the solo part), which were neither together nor in tune. While this might not be very important, nor of any interest to the average listener, it serves as an example of the low-level musical detail retrieval capabilities of the Matrix 801.

This speaker’s low- and midbass reproduction are the most accurate I’ve heard so far. While some other products (such as the Infinity IRS, RS-1b, and KEF R107) probably supply more quantities of bass, the harmonic integrity, texture, and overall quality of low-frequency reproduction is considerably more realistic with the 801 Matrix. Edward Skidmore, another National Symphony colleague (double bass) and member of our musicians’ audio listening group, flatly stated that the Matrix 801 was the finest speaker he had heard that reproduces the double bass accurately. He went on to point out that the bass does not sound like a low cello, or any other stringed instrument for that matter. According to Ed, each particular bass has its own unique sonic qualities that, until the new 801, had been lost.

The same must also be said for my instruments, the bassoon and contrabassoon. With this speaker, I can not only determine what manufacture of instrument the musician is playing, but the vintage as well (ie, the darker, more open and focused 7000 series vs the duller, fatter-sounding 10,000-series Heckel bassoons; the lighter, clearer, but less impactful-sounding prewar Heckel contrabassoons vs the fatter-sounding, more resonant postwar models). While many other speakers provide the listener with accurate bass attack, no others, that I have heard, reproduce the decay of low frequencies as well as the Matrix 801. This important information supplies the listener with the harmonic and textural components of low instrumental tonal propagation. Additionally, this helps to define the space in which the performance is taking place, since decay time of omnidirectional low frequencies is one of the key elements in determining the spatial dimensions of the recording venue.

Transient attack of the Matrix 801, throughout the entire frequency spectrum, is the most musically accurate and coherent of any speaker I have heard (except for full-range electrostatics). Deep-bass transients are remarkably clear (but not artificially dry), an attribute made evident through the reproduction of the bass drum in the third movement of Frederick Fennell’s First Hoist Suite (same as above). While many other full-range speakers have provided me with lots of window-rattling bass response, the Matrix 801 was the first to delineate the type of beater the bass-drum player was using. Whereas I had previously been aware of unusually sharp bass-drum attacks in this recording, I could now definitely determine that the instrument was being struck with a wooden bass-drum stick wrapped with chamois (a trick sometimes used in order to get more immediate attack), rather than the more usual felt beater.

The qualitative differences in attack speed between cello and double bass, bassoon and contrabassoon, bass and tenor tuba, bass drum and tympani, trumpet and flugelhorn, oboe and English horn, flute and piccolo, and violin and viola, are clearly delineated. I can also detect the amount of energy (weight of bow on the string, and amount of air support behind the tonal attack in woodwinds and brass) being expended by individual musicians within an ensemble. This effectively gives the listener a more immediate, rather than vicarious view of the performance (as one of my colleagues so colorfully stated, “this is like having sex, rather than watching it”).

The Matrix 801 also sets new standards for instrumental and vocal harmonic integrity. Differences between American- and German-manufactured Steinway pianos are clearly discernible: the former are more immediate and bright at the two frequency extremes, with a slight suckout in the middle registers; the latter have a more even, resonant, but less brilliant and forward quality. The slight harmonic differences between the bright, forward-sounding trumpets vs the darker, more covered cornets in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique are clearly evident through the 801 Matrix—the first speaker I’ve heard to successfully make this distinction.

And while I’m on the subject of brass: these instruments played at high volume levels create sonic distortions, caused principally by nonlinear ringing of the actual brass material (especially in the flared bells). Played en masse, combinations of french horns, trumpets, trombones, and tubas create “difference tones” and frequencies add brilliance and character to the overall orchestral sound. The same holds true for large pipe organs—beat frequencies created by slight harmonic and atonal discrepancies between the various ranks add interesting coloristic effects to the overall presentation. The Matrix 801 is the first speaker that I’ve heard that can actually reproduce these harmonic phenomena, effectively contributing to the overall sensation of reality.

Vocal reproduction, both solo and ensemble, is superb. This speaker will, however, accurately portray voices too closely miked; the excessive sibilance in hotly EQ’d pop selections can drive you out of the room. But when the source material is more neutral, the intensity and hard kernel of vocal resonance is remarkably well reproduced. The specific characteristics of different vocal tessituras are, for the first time, as apparent as in live performance. The nasal, forced quality of sound indigenous to the tenor sections of many choral groups, as well as the usual flat-sounding, unsupported sopranos, are clearly evident. Text in all vocal music is well delineated, without any unnatural sibilant emphasis. The 801 Matrix can even unravel the most complex voice leadings found in multi-part contemporary choral works.

String instruments produce very different harmonic tonal structures when played with and without mutes. In live performance, muted massed strings produce a covered but resonant carpet of sound (ie, the opening ofSymphonie Fantastique), and until the 801 Matrix came along, I had not heard this accurately reproduced. Most speakers represent this effect as a hushed “buzz” lacking pitch center and tonal focus. But the Matrix 801 lets all the resonance, tonal warmth, and pitch definition come through.

And speaking of pitch definition, this is where most speakers fail miserably. Instruments and voices have (or should have) tonal centers that are clearly heard in live performance. But so many speakers scramble this, representing tonal pitch centers on either the high or low side of the sound, producing overly bright or dull sonic distortions (overly sharp pitch appears to the ear as brighter; low pitch as duller). And with most speakers, this pitch distortion is not consistent: characteristics change with each separate driver, causing frequency-related colorations (this is one advantage of full-range electrostatics). The Matrix 801 is dead on, giving the listener a completely undistorted view of pitch focus and intonation, regardless of instrumental range or vocal tessitura.

The new 801 also allows the listener to follow individual instrumental and vocal lines into and through complex passages. This is not achieved by artificially boosting the upper midrange or high frequencies (as some other products do), since it remains consistent for instruments through the contra octave of bass. Compared with the Matrix 801 in this area of musical reproduction, most other dynamic loudspeakers sound unclear, congested, and amorphous.

Everyone who has heard the Matrix 801 Monitors has unconditionally stated that they hear more music than ever before. Some have felt that they hear too much, and would rather be left a little more in the dark. I don’t. But it’s interesting to note that, ever since my musical colleagues first heard the 801s, the topic of discussion during rehearsal breaks and concert intermissions at the National Symphony has revolved around “those fantastic new speakers that Lipnick has.” I even overheard a few of them muttering something about how they could try to justify buying a $4500 pair of loudspeakers.

Shortcomings
As I mentioned earlier, this speaker has no major shortcomings per se. However, since it is so revealing of source material and ancillary electronic weaknesses, the upper midrange and lower high frequencies can become a bit much. Compact discs that suffer from excessive digititis, as well as those electronics that contain enough grain to build a beach, will be unlistenable on these speakers. For those reasons alone, I cannot understand why the B&W engineers have deleted the environmental balance control on the rear of the midrange/tweeter head assembly that was standard with both the earlier 801 and 802 speakers. This control effectively allowed the listener to attenuate or boost the mids and highs according to personal taste, room acoustics, and associated equipment. Although it might be cheating, in some cases a slight degree of lost clarity may be preferable to an ear bleed, and might also make this product more saleable to people with less than perfect ancillary equipment.

My other reservations are strictly practical. The very awkward procedure required to disconnect the bridge inputs for bi-wiring is unnecessary. There must be a better way. And those horrible input connectors really should be replaced with something more consistent with a product of this caliber.

Conclusion
In my opinion, the B&W Matrix 801 Monitor represents the pinnacle of current full-range dynamic loudspeaker design. It does not have the “see-through” transparency of the best electrostatics, and can sound forward and hard. Because it is so ruthlessly revealing, it may not be the speaker for everyone. But it is the first such product to convince me that it might eventually be possible to accurately reproduce live music. Do not audition this speaker with anything less than the finest source material and electronics—you will be wasting your time. And as good as this speaker is, I am sure that there are plenty of lunatic-fringe audiophiles who will find it unexciting and boring. So be it. But if you are searching for the emotional involvement only live performance can provide, and are willing to live with absolute sonic honesty, then the B&W 801 Series 2 Matrix Monitor is, musically, the end of the road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matrix 801 Series III

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  1. …I hawe in very good condition vintage B&W 801 S80…

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