Craftsman. Snap-on. Stanley. Fluke. These are some of the best tools made. You have heard of them. You might even own a few. Why would you buy a Craftsman hand tool? Because you know it will do the job, it will be well made, and you know that if you need a hand tool, Craftsman most likely makes it.
In the world of high-end speakers, few names are more well-known than B&W. They have been in business since the beginning of time itself. On the ninth day… They make a well-engineered and well-built product, and you know that anything in the product line will sound at least good. B&W is the Craftsman of speakers.
The Nautilus 804 is a tool to hear what is happening upstream. Presenting an exceptionally neutral tonal balance, and an equally exceptional resolution in a beautiful and compact package, you will hear whatever is coming through the speaker cables. Most surprising is the 804’s bass capability. Looking at the design, I thought the bass would be just adequate, but not very powerful or deep.
Sidebar: I’ve said it many times in these pages. In an audio system, there is almost no such thing as a speaker’s bass response. The environment in which a speaker is used has such a large effect on the sound that the speaker and the room should be considered together as the “bass system”. I have heard systems that deliver truly excellent bass, but sometimes this is true only if the listener is seated in a particular seat as the quality can degrade rapidly if the listener is seated just a few feet away from the “sweet spot”.
Back to the N804’s bass. In my two listening rooms, one 12 x 22 x 7.5 feet and the other 18 x 22 x 10 feet, this speaker can deliver very good to excellent bass. This is true not only in detail and definition, but also impact, moving a sufficient amount of air to feel the bass notes. The bass is satisfyingly deep and powerful. This observation comes from someone who normally listens with two powered subwoofers in situ. Reconnecting the subs certainly helped restore the power of a big bass drum, but the notes were present without any help. The bass is rated as being -3 dB at 38 Hz. You could spend $2,000 more for the Nautilus 803 and get -3 dB at 35 Hz, but I suggest that if you want more or deeper bass than the N804 provides, then powered subwoofers would be a better choice, if possible, than the marginal improvement of the N803.
The N804 is very neutral across the audio band, but the most exceptional sound came from the midrange and treble. You probably know that B&W has one the best research departments in the world, and the FST midrange driver – a driver without a conventional rubber or foam surround that allows the cone to move along its outer edge – is a great driver. This is easily one of the best midranges in the world. Pick your adjective: fast, articulate, clear, uncolored, pure, transparent, etc. This is the same driver that is used in the top-of-the-line 800 Signature, so you know that you are getting the best that B&W has to offer. The FST driver is everything one could ask for in a midrange sound reproducer.
The treble is an equal partner. B&W has had years to improve the metal dome tweeter introduced in the original 801. That driver matured in the Matrix 800 series, and now seems to be fully developed in the Nautilus. I did not hear them side-by-side, but I’d venture to say that the Nautilus tweeter is as good as or better than the highly regarded beryllium tweeter in the JM Lab Grande Utopia Be. Just use the adjectives above from the midrange. The Nautilus tweeter also has no hint of any above-band breakup or resonance that has marred the performance of countless metal dome tweeters past and present.
The integration of the midrange and tweeter is very well done. I have always been bothered by the difference in sound between the Grande Utopia’s midrange and beryllium tweeter, feeling that there is a large discrepancy in the relative performance of these two drivers. They just don’t sound as if they belong together, the midrange sounding relatively slower and less articulate. The N804's midrange and tweeter, however, are a perfect sonic match. So you have a $3,500 speaker outperforming an $85,000 speaker in at least one very important area. I could live with the N804, but not with the Grande Utopia Be.
The N804 prefers tube amplification. Being a tool, it has very little sound of its own. It does not seem to be voiced either on the cool and analytical side or the warm and sweet side. On the other hand, the superior resolution clearly presents any hint of the typical solid-state characteristics of coolness and upper frequency grain. Less than top-quality "sand" amplification should be avoided, although the very grain-free Bryston SST amps might be a good match. One amplifier I used with excellent results was a 100 wpc Audio Research VT100 mk. 3. The Cary SLI-80 integrated also worked well. The Nautilus 804, like most B&Ws, prefers amplifiers that have plenty of current drive and headroom.
The reason for this, I am sure, is in the crossovers. The engineers at B&W have done a remarkable job of providing a very good blending of the drivers to present a seemingly flat frequency response. But music is more than just going from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz with very little deviation. Music needs correct phase all across that range or strange things happen to the sound stage. Images can shift from one location to another, depth certainly suffers, and complex music can sometimes seem to blend in certain frequencies and we lose the ability to “see” many individual musicians clearly. Crossovers shift phase as a byproduct of filtering unwanted frequencies. These effects are minimized in the N804 because the crossover frequencies are at 350 Hz and 4000 Hz, out of the range of most fundamental tones.
While the N804 is better than many speakers at making a seamless transition from one driver to the next, it was apparent that those transitions were not as crystal clear and relaxed as the drivers themselves. But please remember that this is a common trait of multi-way speakers and why there is a significant following for the crossover-free “full range” speaker such as Fostex and Lowther, and also for electrostatic speakers. These single-driver and planar speakers can present a sound that I can best describe as relaxed, because the sound seems to flow smoothly from one frequency range to the next, up and down, with no frequency zones that require our brains to subconsciously edit to sound right and proper. Less work, more fun. Actually, with a little experience listening to crossover-free speakers, most listeners would probably stop thinking about the artificial constructs of “midrange” and “treble” because all sounds are seamlessly integrated into a sonic whole.
The N804 is a precision tool: if you just throw it in a system without taking enough consideration for the amplifier, cables and overall system sound, these speakers can sound rough, hard, flat, and uninvolving. Like a precision tool, if you take the time to understand it and then use it properly, you will be rewarded with very involving sound. There were a good number of associated components used with the N804 during the review, and while I did get satisfying sound, it was not as easy as "plug and play".
The Nautilus 804 is an excellent speaker when used in a complementary system. It looks great, takes up very little floor space, can play LOUD as required, and offers exceptional, electrostatic-like resolution and excellent musical performance. You could spend a lot more money for a speaker that is not any better than the N804.
Overall Rating: 8 LPs