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Speaker Asylum: REVIEW: B&W Nautilus 803 Speakers by LowPhreak

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REVIEW: B&W Nautilus 803 Speakers

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Model: Nautilus 803
Category: Speakers
Suggested Retail Price: $5000
Description: Floor standing speaker
Manufacturer URL: B&W
Manufacturer URL: B&W

Review by LowPhreak ( A ) on December 23, 2003 at 12:37:48
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for the Nautilus 803

A reasonably powerful amp is required to drive the N803's. You don't need a large, "arc-welder" solid-state design, such as those from Rowland, Bryston, Levinson, Krell, YBA, Classe', etc. But, if you choose tubes (as I do), get an amp with some power (say, at least 60-100 w.p.c.); and a tube amp that is as neutral as possible and doesn't add euphonic "sweetness" to the sound. I doubt very much that single-ended triodes will work well with the N803's at all. I'm using a Mesa Baron amp with the N803's, and at 55/85/120/150 watts per side (depending on either triode or pentode configuration), it drives the N803's admirably and without fuss.

Bi-wiring is also called for with these speakers to allow them to perform to their full potential. Some good choices, (again, depending on listening tastes, amp, cost, etc.) would be Audioquest Granite or Gibralter, Synergistic Research Signature 2 and/or 3, Cardas Neutral Reference, Coincident Technology, Nordost SPM Ref., and Goertz Alpha-Core, to name just a few. However, I wouldn't recommend a "laid-back" or "forgiving" type cable, unless you have edgy or bright solid-state components to start with. The N803's will tell you whatever you give them to reproduce.


I have my N803's positioned in a 20' x 13.5' room, on the long side of the room with a large bay window behind them. 28" from the back of the speaker to the rear wall, 4' from outside of the cabinets to the side walls, about 9' 8" apart from the center of each speaker baffle, and about 11' from each speaker to the listening position. Toed-in so that their axes cross behind the listening spot.

My N803's are set upon a pair of Sound Anchor stands, specifically designed for them. The stands significantly improve the focus and coherancy of the overall sound, probably due to the slight (approximately 5ยบ) tilt-back that I use - which helps to time align the speakers. As well,the Sound Anchors clean-up and "tighten" the low frequency response, insofar as they raise the speakers a few inches off the floor and decouple them from the floor. This helps to tame the mid-to-upper bass boom, if you have that kind of room anomaly. Another benefit is that much less floor-borne vibration is transmitted from the speakers to the other components in the system. For those of you that own or are considering owning the N803, I would definitely recommend the Sound Anchor stands. At only $200./pair, they're a steal and almost mandatory.

Finally, don't even THINK about getting these babies to sound right until they've had AT LEAST 200 hours of play time on them. Actually, more like 300+ hours of break-in is required before they begin to really settle in and sound like they're worth their $5k retail price. Be patient, and you will be rewarded.

*The Sound:

The integration of the sound from top to bottom is very coherent and seamless, similar to an electrostat. But, you have the punch and dynamics present with the N803 that no e-stat can hope to match, without the narrow sweet-spot that you're forced into with e-stat's.

And speaking of dispersion, that and the delicacy of the Nautilus tweeter is a revelation. B&W has done quite a commendable job on this unit and the Nautilus housing that it resides in. Ditto the midrange unit - harmonics come through as smooth and rich as you could ask for, without harshness or "brightness". They also define separate instruments very well in a broad yet focused soundstage. You want imaging? I can find each and every one of Billy Cobham's Octoban drums, cymbals, hi-hat's and the rest of his kit, and all of the other instruments placed on the soundscape on his "Spectrum" album. And this from a self-recorded cassette from a CD source!

And what's more - you can REALLY hear what the N803's can do when fired-up with a good turntable rig. (Not to offend you 'digiphiles' out there, but you owe it to your musical enjoyment to get yourself into a good analog rig. I've owned some of the top CD rigs in our galaxy, and they simply cannot do justice to the music the way an analog set-up can.)

The bass response of the N803 is excellent down to around 30Hz, with none of the "boxiness" or boom and chuffing noises that many ported designs have that pass for "bass", and without the "chestiness" and thickness on male vocals, etc.

I don't feel the need for an external subwoofer with these speakers, although I'm sure that an old Entec or some of the better REL offerings would just increase the enjoyment of what's already there, and would give you that final lowest half octave of subterrainian rumble. The lows are dynamic, extended, solid and taut, very informative as to the timbre and character of the particular bass instrument being played, and exhibits good transient speed along with fullness (two almost mutually exclusive qualities in many so-called "high-end" loudspeakers). In other words - these guys BOOGIE!

Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that the Nautilus-series are best only on classical or jazz-type music, either. These speakers will get down and rock if you want them to! Just don't expect them to sound like the distorted, boomy "rock" speakers that you may have heard before. Try a well-recorded album from Dire Straits, Yes, Santana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Lynerd Skynyrd, etc., some good blues material, or vocal-based stuff like Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Diana Krall, Natalie Merchant, et al - and you'll see that these are a great choice in speakers for many musical types and styles. The N803's do well on movie soundtracks too, because the clarity of the spoken dialog is so easy to pick out of the background sounds. Clarity in abundance is yet another descriptor for these speakers.

One more thing: for the quality of their sound, they're a reasonable size. Proving once again that you don't need a refrigerator-sized speaker to get excellent, full-range reproduction!

I chose to purchase the B&W Nautilus 803 after much in-home listening and demo-ing of many of their competitor's products in the same price range, and some models that were more AND less expensive than N803's. I even chose them over B&W's own N804 and N805 models after extended listening sessions, which are fine units in their own rite. I'm very satisfied with my decision, and you may feel the same after you give them a proper audition.

Product Weakness: *Some think they sound "bright". Maybe they need better components upstream.
*None really, except a fairly high phase angle-to-impedance ratio between about 80 Hz (-39.4 phase/3.6*), up through about 98 Hz (-20.7 phase/3.1*); which may in that range be a bit difficult for some lesser amps to drive. In other words, don't complain about the sound of these speakers if driven with inferior amplifiers/receivers.
Product Strengths: *Cabinet finish is absolutely exquisite in Natural Cherry, but the Red Cherry is fine also.
*Dynamic and fairly efficient. Does not compress or get 'nasty' at high loudness levels.
*"Tells the truth" about upsteam components better than any other dynamic cone/dome-type speaker I've heard (but of course, I haven't heard them all!). i.e., almost as transparent as a good electrostatic.
*Beautiful overall industrial design - these are great looking speakers, and are something better than the traditional 'box' speaker. Is solid as a rock internally due to the "Matrix" bracing.

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: Mesa Baron
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): Audible Illusions Mod. 3 (not 3A)
Sources (CDP/Turntable): VPI, C.E.C./Pass D1 DAC, Yamaha CT-7000 tuner, Sony ES cassette
Speakers: N803
Cables/Interconnects: Nordost SPM Reference bi-wire, XLO Sig. 1.1, AQ Anaconda
Music Used (Genre/Selections): most everything buy rap & country
Room Size (LxWxH): 20 x 13.5 x 8
Room Comments/Treatments: non-audiophile living room
Time Period/Length of Audition: 2+ years
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: B&W Nautilus 803 Speakers - LowPhreak 12:37:48 12/23/03 ( 12)