Bowers and Wilkins has a strong reputation when it comes to audio. The company’s speaker systems are enviable (and expensive) and have impressed audiophiles for an age.
Enter the B&W P3 over-ear headphones: as part of the P-range, at the top of which you'll find the P5s, can these pricey yet elegant headphones live up to the manufacturer’s prized reputation?
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From the box design right down to the included hard carry case, before you’ve even seen the very headphones that are the prime point of purchase it’s the packaging that screams quality at full volume. It’s an almost Apple tactic, one might say.
Pop open the case and the headphones, tucked into themselves by their folded design, are dwarfed by their carry case. A good thing, as these little beauties can comfortably slink over the ears without looking as brash or bold as some of the other trendy headphones on the market.
The P3s don’t have the leather earpads or headband of the pricier P5 series, but this means the main band is also smaller and therefore these are the more discreet pair of the two.
Instead B&W has used what is calls a "bespoke fabric" that, as we outlined in our first look, is said to minimise sound interference yet enhances comfort. And they really are comfy. The bulk of the pads is made, as B&W states, from a heat-sensitive memory foam that moulds to the shape of your ears, so they get more comfortable after settling down.
The twisted aluminium shafts that the earpieces are mounted on also slip out of the main headband in a super-smooth motion when adjusting to fit.
Now here’s what B&W is renowned for: natural, neutral sound that audiophiles and sound engineers pine for. To some, the P3s may sound a little boring, dark or even dull, but in some respects, that’s almost the point. Well, not exactly: this is natural sound without conflict or unnecessary processing.
Of course what you plug them into will make a difference, depending on the original source and device’s EQing/processing. But with the short leash cables that project out of these cans it’s not like you’re going to have a high-end turntable wired up while on the go.
Digital aficionados will want to use their prime file formats, then, as there’s a lot of detail in the sound. iPhone users can also benefit from an included control on the cable. No iPhone? No worries - there's a second cable included without the control that can easily be wired up.
What we found most impressive about the P3s was the sense of space. The separation of bass, mid and treble is most pleasing and feels to have an individual separation – that sort of positioning when listening to a live band in some respects; this is stereo dynamism at its best.
We tested out all manner of music on these B&Ws too: from bass-heavy techno and compressed breaks, through to modern-day rock, a dash of pop and a good smattering of classics to ensure every base was covered.
All responded well enough, and even the bass-heavy music managed to produce a decent enough separation and the bubbling, rolling bass that didn’t over-dominate the sound.
As we say, though, they won’t be for everyone. Neutral isn’t fun; it’s not the sort of sparkly or loud post-limited broadcast quality you may be more used to, instead it’s something altogether more suave - if you like that kind of thing.
The one slight problem we do have is sound leakage. Although the P3s claim to "form a perfect seal around the edge for better bass and noise isolation" the latter part is pushing it. Amp these ‘phones up to a mid-high level - and they can really crank out the volume if you want them to - and everyone around you will know what you’re listening to. Nothing like bog-standard iPhone in-ear nasties, mind, but still not closed-cup enough to truly isolate. Look towards proper monitoring headphones like Sennheiser’s HD25 IIs for that.
These great-looking, uber comfortable headphones might cost a pretty penny, but they’re more than up to the job where demanding users are concerned. Audio fans can cheer, as can design fans, heck we all can – these are tip-top headphones that are even on a par with the P5s in our opinion.
It’s hard to fault them as such, yet the natural sound isn’t going to suit all tastes and won’t match up as well to modern, bass-heavy music. Dubsteppers and deathmetallers walk away now: there are other monitoring ‘phones out there for you. Audiophiles - well, we say that almost in jest, given that these ‘phones are more or less designed for the iPhone - can rejoice as these headphones are well matched for your digital on-the-go listening.
The only major moan is sound leakage at mid-high volumes and, as mentioned, that £169 price tag is a fair amount. But we think they’re totally worth it.