Bowers & Wilkins P7 £329.99
26th Nov 2013 | 15:18
Expensive and restrained
When Bowers & Wilkins does something new, we pay attention. It has been going since 1966, in the grand old tradition of British audiophile companies producing and sticking with a very few, very excellent models.
The iPhone was a catalyst for a new chapter in its history; B&W was for a long time the only manufacturer making a speaker which incorporated Apple's wireless media technology, AirPlay, and partly since the company seems to share Apple's brand values, there's a good chance that the well-off music-obsessed iPhone owner will plump for a pair of B&W on-ear P5 headphones.
In their own way, and in a remarkably short time, they've started to become as iconic as Apple's white earbuds. (The difference is that B&Ws sound wonderful.)
Now, though, B&W has introduced the P7s, a set of over-ear headphones to join the P5s and newer, cheaper P3s, both of which sit on your ear.
Over-ear headphones – more properly called circumaural – such as the P7s have pads that go completely around your ear and press onto your head. They create a little void your ear sits in rather than having a solid pad pressing against your ear itself. There are two main advantages to this approach.
The first is comfort; even soft, high-quality on-ear (supra-aural) headphones such as the P5s can become at least uncomfortable, if not downright painful, when you wear them for hours at a time – especially if you wear glasses – thanks to the way they press your ears against your head.
Here, though, because the generous leather pad presses directly against your skull, you can wear them for hours with very little tiring. (Do note, mind you, that some people with large or very prominent ears still report discomfort having them tucked inside circumaural headphones.)
There is a trade-off, though; these are bulkier and heavier than the P5s, which, though you don't really notice their heft when you're wearing them, can be annoying when you're carrying them around or slip them off to sit around your neck. Happily, at least, the cups fold up; don't imagine that this makes them immediately pocketable, but the slight reduction in bulk is certainly welcome.
The second advantage is that because they're often bigger, there's more space to put in larger drivers – and that usually means better drivers. And certainly, the P7s sound really quite special.
The rich, refined, assured sound won't be for everyone. Some will want a more bombastic sound stage, a super-saturated experience that gives RnB, dance and Top 40 hits a thumping, juvenile quality. Basically we're saying that if you are attracted to Beats by Dre, you'll probably find the P7s lacking in drama.
For all right-minded people, though, what you get here is properly glorious. There's a warm, fulsome quality to the bass which is nevertheless always completely controlled and never flabby.
Treble is never reedy or thin, vocals have wonderful presence, and all throughout the spectrum sounds are crisp and distinct. In short, these sound truly excellent, and as with all good headphones, you'll discover subtleties and probably even entire new instruments in tracks you think you know inside-out.
Well, all that holds true if you're listening to tracks that are well-mastered and ripped in a lossless format, or at least ripped at very high bitrates. The P7s very quality means they mercilessly reveal compression artefacts and glitches in mastering that cheaper headphones would gloss over.
What's more, while these are tremendously rewarding headphones to wear at home or in a quiet office – headphones you wear when you want to sink into music as into a hot bath, relishing it, focusing on nothing else – their comparatively poor audio isolation (surprising since they're closed-back) means they're not ideal for wearing on a commute or when walking around a busy town.
You get a carry case for them – which put us in mind of nothing so much as a sporran – and an alternative plain cable which lacks the inline iPhone controls (play/pause, skip, volume and mic for hands-free calls) of the default one.
Swapping this, or replacing it if it gets damaged (which is very welcome) is easy; the ear pads are held in place with strong magnets, so you can pull them off and swap the cable, or indeed the pads. Pricing for replacement pads hasn't been announced yet, but as a guide, a pair of pads for the P5s cost £36.
There's no doubt that these headphones are good. They're probably even great. They probably even justify that price tag. If we were to judge them on audio quality alone – sitting here, writing this review, listening to the warm, layered, nuanced balm of Lambchop washing over us; pausing every now and then as a line, a chord, an arpeggio we've hitherto missed suddenly strikes us – then they'd undoubtedly score a perfect five stars.
There are a few niggles, though. The first is the price. We're categorically not saying the price is unfair, or that B&W is greedy. The build quality and the care and investment in materials – real leather, though for some that will be a negative – and technology are clearly significant; if you can afford or can scrape together the money to buy a pair, you'll likely, however reluctantly, agree that the price is probably about right. None of that stops 'over three hundred quid' being a lot of money.
The second is the comparatively poor audio isolation. There's no active noise cancelling – which might after all seem a little crass here – but worse is that more ambient sound than you'd expect from a big, circumaural set of headphones leaks in. An answer on the B&W website suggests this is intentional, but it does mean you can't lose yourself in your music when out and about, and does question B&W's claim that these provide 'truly immersive sound'.
Finally, it's worth noting again that while we adore the audio signature, for some people it will be too restrained.
Regardless, the ultimate test of any product is whether you'd be happy to receive it as a gift or whether it would sit unloved in a drawer or be surreptitiously returned to the shop, and if someone gave us a set of B&W P7s, we'd give them a big kiss.