For all its audiophile heritage and reputation as something of a style connoisseur, it is strange that Bowers & Wilkins has until now abstained from competing in the higher-end headphone space with the launch of its B&W P7 over-ears.
Don’t get us wrong, the on-ear B&W P5 headphones are superb and quite rightly considered among the best portable cans around. And, at around £250, they’re not exactly cheap, but they are meant to be light and for everyday use.
That’s why the Bowers & Wilkins P7 is a landmark product for the British audio firm. It borrows much of the sumptuous style of the P5, with a slight size increase, but ramps up the audio performance aspects with some aplomb. Does it make for the company's best headphones yet?
These latest and greatest headphones in B&W’s range are also the company’s first over-the-ear cans, where the ear cups quite literally sit around your entire lobes, and we have to say that they tick every box for comfort, design, and - let’s not forget - sound quality.
In the design stakes, although they are larger than the P5 set, the P7 are still portable. The leather and brushed-aluminium earcups fold in on each other to compress the shape, and there is a soft and swanky carry case that comes in the box. Also, you would not feel out of place wearing them on the Tube, for example. To be honest, you’ll be competing with teenagers that look like Cybermen as their ‘phones are so ostentatious. The B&Ws? Positively subtle by comparison.
READ: B&W P5 review
The London Underground would also be a good location to find out just how capable they are with noise isolation. Unlike noise-cancelling headphones that use powered microphones to counter ambient noise by emitting reactive frequencies, the P7 cans simply rely on the fabric and closed back of each earcup to prevent ambience from spoiling your enjoyment. It works. It works very well. And you don’t get that dull earache that some noise-cancelling headsets can be associated with.
Additionally, each ear sports a 4cm headphone driver especially designed by Bowers & Wilkins for the P7. These, say the company, work more like hi-fi speakers than traditional headphone driver units, each featuring a diaphragm focused purely on sound duties. The end result is imaging we’ve barely encountered in headphones of this price range.
There's also a neutrality and cleanliness to performance. They are no slouch with bass licks, but nor do they need to overcompensate. Not only are they as adept at rendering every swipe on Pete Townsend’s guitar strings during The Who’s Live at Hull remastered recordings, but they handle Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force’s Planet Rock with such precision that you still get basslines that could damage a kidney.
We are perhaps even more impressed with their ability for imaging virtual surround sound content. Watching Fast Five on an iPad with the audio output decoded as Dolby Mobile gave a truly cinematic soundfield. The spacing felt much larger than you would think feasible for something locked to your dome, and you could swear you were in a room, not listening on such relatively compact headphones.
Like a sieve
If there is one minor criticism it’s that there is some considerable audio leakage for fellow passengers, especially at the beefier volumes. Not that you need to turn them up too loud when out and about - you’ll still get superb performance and avoid evil stares. It's not like they're iPhone earbud awful either, thanks to that isolation.
We tested the P7 ‘phones mainly on a combination of iPhone 5 and iPad mini and they worked brilliantly with both. For those looking to pair them with an Android device or other audio source, there are two cables in the box. One comes with an iOS-friendly in-line microphone and remote control, the other doesn’t, so is suitable for everything else.
Perhaps the first and most impressive thing when taking the P7 pair out of the box is the feel: the weight, the soft leather, that brushed-aluminium and steel construction - all of which exude an aura of class.
Then you put them on and things get even better. Not only are they compact enough to want to wear out on the street - although you’d be best saving them for the summer as you’ll not want to expose such objects of beauty to the British winter - they're spot on for the home too.
And, of course, there’s that all-important sound quality, which is everything you’d expect from Bowers & Wilkins, a brand that constantly strives for perfection and will only release a product when it’s ready, not when it’s fashionable to do so.
In the B&W P7, it has cracked both style and sound quality. We're genuinely very impressed.