Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones review
Bowers & Wilkins are well known as one the crown jewels of the British hi-fi industry, if not of British industry in general, so it’s always a little bit exciting when it releases a new product. With many of its speakers costing eye watering amounts, its recent foray into headphones has been quite surprising for the affordability of its products—its top-of-the-range P5’s come in at just £250 for example—not bad for a company that will sell you speakers that sit firmy in the “if you have to ask you can’t afford it category.”
The P3’s are a product unashamedly designed to fill a gap in the market. At £250 are the larger P5s are serious propositions, but at £180 the P3’s have an eye on the group that is looking for high quality but in a more practical and affordable package.
A key advantage over the P5s is that the P3’s fold up. You could slide them into a largish jacket pocket or put them in a hard case is provided so you can pack them in a bag. Take care opening that hard case though as it snaps shut rather eagerly. In fact, it’ll have your hand off if you’re not careful.
The P3’s certainly look like as classy as you’d expect from B&W, with a soft touch finish and smart silver edging. The look is refined and tasteful rather than streetwise, and make for a very different statement compared to the likes of Monster headphones. With the Bowers & Wilkins logo imprinted large of the sides you’ll be broadcasting you’re appreciation for a different approach to audio than the mainstream and that’s certainly reflected in the performance as well.
B&W were keen to make the P3’s as comfortable to wear for as long as possible. Key to prolonged listening while retaining comfort is acoustic fabric. The ear pads are made of heat sensitive memory foam that feels soft, but firm and is designed to mould itself to your ears after prolonged use. I can report it works and after brief periods of discomfort, I could wear these comfortably for hours. The ears can get a little hot after a while, but that’s the nature of wearing something covering the whole ear.
The ear pads are held on with a neat magnet system, underneath which sits the cable. The default one has an in-line controller designed for iOS devices only. An alternative cable is supplied for other brands but there’s no inline control for them.
It has to be said that the in-line controller itself is one of the weaker parts of the P3 design. It feels insubstantial and it’s difficult to distinguish between the controls. Pressing up or down alters the volume and pressing it in the centre pauses—and frequently when I wanted to do the former I ended up doing the latter, which can rather take you out of the mood of whatever you’re listening to.
And listen you will. The Bowers & Wilkins P3’s offer an audio experience that is very much in keeping with the brands traditions. It’s a fine refined sound. Paul McCartney’s recent Kisses on the Bottom is composed of the ex-Beatles take on some Jazz standards and the P3s are all over this. The cool breezy atmosphere and delicacy of the piano and the timbre of Macca’s smoky vocals are well clean and detailed. Higher frequencies and a wonderful mid-range come together to make a fantastic sound.
One of the odd things about the P3’s is the bass. Compared to the likes of typical Monster over ear headphones the P3’s base is full, but well balanced and neutral. Some may prefer the way Monster’s go about their bass business, but in fact the B&W P3’s are a lot more accurate. That’s not to say that the P3 don’t have deep rich, and creamy bass – they do. Try Sly and the Family Stone, or Billie Jean or something up to date like Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack and you’ll know what I mean.
At times though the bass can seem to lose a little control, making things a touch muddier than I would like. Oddly, one area this makes a difference is with Podcasts. With deep, bassy speech, the P3s can sound a little boomy, making them harder to listen to than cheaper headphones that lack bass and instead emphases higher frequencies, which give voices a more brittle tone that can easily be followed. (One solution on the iPhone was to use the Vocal Eq setting, though you can only do that with the native iPhone audio app).
What the P3s do a really great job of though, is giving a sense of space to your music. You can place instruments in a band and separate out the parts, which makes everything very involving and often dramatic. Their airy sound really bring the soundstage to life making it a more natural experience than that of say, the Atomic Floyd in-ear headphones I reviewed recently.
By way of comparison I had a quick listen to the Bowers & Wilkins P5 and found that the P5 were even richer and more detailed. B&W hasn’t killed its own more expensive goose with the P3s.
If you’re deciding between the two you have to balance up cost, practicality and sound quality. If the latter is a priority the P5s are the better choice, but you’ll have a less practical package for the commute.
For me personally I’d take an in-ear pair for regular commuting and use an over ear pair for more critical listening. In that situation I’d prefer the P5s but then you are paying £80 more for them. If the cost saving and the increasing portability of the P3s appeal then rest assured you’re still getting a very fine sounding pair of headphones.
Bowers and Wilkins has produced a set of headphones that improves on the more expensive P5 in portability, but doesn’t quite equal them for sound quality. Based on the price, this is a well judged position for them to be in. Which is more important is up to you, but on strictly audiophile grounds the P5s have the edge, and niggles with the iPhone in-line controls blot the copybook from the otherwise high quality package. That said, I like the P3s a lot and personally, I’d take the P3s over any comparable Monster headphones, thanks to a more natural, accurate sound.