201011_bw2"You have to listen to it."

No truer words were ever spoken by or to an audiophile. The listening experience is the heart of our pastime -- music is the soul.

But we don’t all start our searches for great audio products with a listening experience. It would be great if we could, but for obvious reasons, most audiophiles don’t have easy access to all the products they’d like to audition on their quest for the perfect listening experience. Entities like the SoundStage! Network of publications exist to help you on that quest. But manufacturers, too, have websites, and, like most of you, I enjoy perusing the information they present -- in my case, looking for my next review subject.

I was engaged in just such an exercise when I found what I think is an eye-opening comparison, on paper: two loudspeakers -- the B&W 803 Diamond and the Tidal Contriva Diacera SE -- each of which looks extremely promising, judging from the specifications and descriptions provided by their manufacturers.

The similarities between these speakers are striking. Both are ported, three-way, floorstanding designs with dynamic drive-units (the Tidal has four drivers, the B&W five). Both come standard in a glossy piano-black finish, with optional real-wood veneers. Both cabinets are built primarily of medium-density fiberboard (MDF), though Tidal says theirs is a high-pressure variant of this ubiquitous wood-based material. The B&W weighs 90 pounds and is internally braced with the company’s trademarked Matrix system. The Tidal weighs more than twice as much -- about 200 pounds -- a difference no doubt due in large part to its more substantial cabinet with thicker side walls and front baffle and its slightly greater size: 51"H x 11"W x 19"D vs. the B&W’s 45.8"H x 12"W x 18"D.

201011_tidalThe driver complements provide an interesting contrast. The Tidal’s 1.2" black-diamond tweeter, built by the German firm Thiel & Partner (who go by their more commonly used brand name of Accuton) and found in speakers from other manufacturers, is neatly recessed into the cabinet at the top of the driver array. The B&W 803 Diamond also, as its name implies, has a diamond tweeter, in this case a 1" diamond unit unique to B&W. This tweeter is housed not in the cabinet’s front baffle but on top of it, in B&W’s Nautilus Tapering Tube, which is intended to both absorb the tweeter’s backwave and to decouple the driver from the lower cabinet. Both brands profess the great suitability of diamond as a tweeter material, citing its high degree of stiffness, which pushes driver breakup modes far past the upper limit of human hearing -- a good characteristic for a tweeter to have.

Further down in frequency and farther down on the Tidal’s baffle is a 7" ceramic midrange driver, also from Accuton. The B&W’s 6" Kevlar midrange, made by B&W itself, is what the company calls an FST driver, meaning that it has no surround in the conventional sense. B&W claims that this improves the driver’s response time. To reproduce the low end, the Tidal speaker has two 9" ceramic woofers (Accuton again) vs. the B&W’s three 7" cones of carbon-fiber and Rohacell -- a pretty even match in the bass department, I’d say, though the Tidal’s larger cabinet does give it slightly more internal volume to work with.

The crossovers of both speakers include Mundorf components -- specialist parts made in Germany and known for their high quality. Tidal goes into more detail about some of the other crossover bits they use, such as Supremecap-MKP capacitors, M-Resist resistors, and silver internal wiring.

Both speakers are visually attractive. On that front, your choice will probably depend on whether you prefer the more angular, faceted Tidal or the more rounded B&W. Reading the companies’ websites reveals that each firm has a strong grasp of the principles of advanced loudspeaker design and is driven by engineering. The build quality of both looks top-notch, and the speakers’ finishes and shapes would look great in most any home.

There’s no way around it: The Tidal Contriva Diacera SE and the B&W 803 Diamond both appear to be excellent loudspeakers. I’d love to get them both in the Music Vault and let them battle it out -- from what I can gather, they’re pretty evenly matched, and seem to be well-thought-out, high-quality designs made by people who have a great command of loudspeaker engineering. Their specs alone would convince me to review them.

The only problem with such a comparison would be that an audiophile shopping for one of these speakers would be unlikely to be shopping for the other. You see, the base price of the Tidal Contriva Diacera SE is just north of $58,000 USD, rising to over $60k/pair for some of the optional finishes. The B&W 803 Diamond costs $10,000/pair in any of its finishes. Yes, a 6:1 price ratio. How could that be?

Perhaps the listening experience would reveal the Tidal as the far superior speaker -- for its price, I’d certainly hope so. But what if the B&W were actually better? Or what if they were too close to call, or the difference came down to just two listeners’ slight preferences in one direction or another? Considering the wide divergence in price, what would be the implications of a comparison that resulted in a conclusion that the speakers were close or even equal in sound quality? How to put a hard value on stuff that we use only for entertainment? It seems to me that if the goal of a comparative review of these two models would be to help actual consumers with actual buying decisions, then doing the listening and comparing and the writing of such a review would be pointless.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’m sure interested in pondering these questions in more detail. In fact, I think the future of high-end audio might hinge on some of these very subjects.

I’ll leave you with two more: Would you give these two speakers equal odds in a shoot-out, or would you assume going in that the more expensive one would naturally be better? Assuming you had the money, would you make a buying decision between the two based on only their sound, or would other factors contribute to that choice?

Let me know what you think.

. . . Jeff Fritz