Bowers and Wilkins P5 headphones review
Bowers & Wilkins struggle not to blow you away. From the most lust-worthy speakers, through to the design statement that is the Zeppelin iPod dock. The P5 step into the limelight knowing that audiophiles are going to be peering very closely at them.
It's a good job then that the P5 are exquisitely designed. As on-ear headphones they are flatter than most, so you don't look you've just stepped out of the DJ booth when walking down Bond Street wearing them. Subtle but distinct, passers-by will coo, ladies will go weak at the knees, chaps will doff their hats in recognition of your good taste.
A heavy dose of retro chic is blended into the P5's design and that hits the right note in headphone circles, where plastics are all too common. The P5 serve up a palette of metals and leather, fused with precise detail, for a result that we think looks outstanding.
The rectangular pads are encased in leather wrapping around to where they meet the oval brushed metal backs. These pads are slightly larger than some on-ear (or supra aural) headphones, so those who wear spectacles might struggle to get a comfortable fit - and that unfortunately applies to many sunglasses too.
Usually you'll find a foam filled hole in your headphones, but not so here as the leather covers the openings too. The result is an on-ear set that will sit lovingly on your ear and is surprisingly effective at isolating external noise. There is no technical wizardry here, no active noise cancellation, just a headphone that fits very well.
We tried the P5 in all environments. B&W says that the idea is to preserve the quality of the music without making you totally isolated and they coped well enough, giving you just enough of the outside environment, but naturally we did have to turn up the volume slightly on the Underground.
The headband is also lovingly encased in leather, with ample padding so they are comfortable when worn for a long time. Often you'll find ugly clicking sliders to adjust the side of your headphones, but the P5 hide this inside the headband, preserving the good looks.
The pads are held in place magnetically, the left-hand one popping off to reveal a neat little secret. The P5 comes with a choice of cables, either a traditional 3.5mm cable to plug into pretty much anything, or one with Apple's in-line remote and mic. This clearly indicates where the P5s want to be: plugged into your iPhone or iPod, so it’s no surprise to find that they are available in the Apple Store.
Changing cables is simply a case of plugging in the one you want, so if you have no interest in Apple you can pick the plain one, although it is worth testing to see if the Apple controller will work with your device, some controls work on the BlackBerry too, for example. You also get a quarter-inch adapter for those with Hi-Fi kit with this larger connection.
If there is one criticism, it is that the cables are a little thin and the tab that secures the cable inside the left ear piece looks like it will easily damage the cable with frequent changing. Perhaps that isn't an issue, as once you have your cable of choice in place, you are likely to leave it there.
The microphone is also of reasonable quality with callers reporting that we sounded normal, although it won't match the latest Bluetooth headsets for active noise cancellation when it comes to making calls in noisy environments. You also might find you have to slip off one of the ear pieces to balance out the sound of your own voice.
Bowers & Wilkins boast that its headphones contain none of the jiggery-pokery that some headphones do. They don't claim to enhance the bass delivery or anything else. In fact they make a much bolder claim, which is that the P5 are designed to deliver audio "as close to the sound of the original recording as we can possibly take you".
The sound quality, it has to be said, is exceptional. There is detail and depth in abundance and a real skill at delivering across all genres of music. The P5 aim to deliver natural and neutral sound, not swayed to one end of the scale or the other. In our opinion they sit a touch towards the bass end of scale a little, bringing that rounded depth to music that bass delivers.
You'll also quickly notice the difference between your good quality music and bad, so if you have some dirty low-bitrate MP3s lurking in your collection, you'll probably be driven to re-rip a better quality copy.
There is also an impressive range of volume on offer and they don't distort as they get louder: in fact they seemed vary capable at coping with heavy bass at louder volumes, which is a challenge in itself. Turn them up loud and those around you will also be able to hear your music too, so remember to be considerate.
We found the P5 to be comfortable for long periods of time, but after a couple of hours we did find that pressure on the ears was noticeable. Interestingly they aren't as hot as we'd expected. Sure, when we settled down for a session on Modern Warfare with them, our ears did get a little hot and those in warmer climates might find this is something to consider.
The B&W P5 aren't designed to be a reference grade headset for your home recording studio, which some might have expected: they are designed to be portable and for taking on the move, partnered with your iPod or iPhone. They fold flat and you get a bag to keep them in too.
But this much goodness, and rolling out of Bowers & Wilkins, doesn't come cheap. At 5 pence under £250 you are making a statement both in style and the depth of your pockets. But the P5 don't make an empty promise. They are fantastic headphones and if you can stretch to the price, they are well worth checking out.