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CES 2010: Bowers & Wilkins P5 Headphones Hands On

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Bowers & Wilkins announced its first ever headphone product a couple of months ago, but today I managed to get my hands on a pair for the first time. It has been a busy time for Bowers & Wilkins of late, pushing ever harder into the digital music domain, starting with the superb Zeppelin back in 2008. Since then the company has launched its Panorama soundbar and the Zeppelin Mini (a full review of which is coming soon). Now B&W is about to launch its first ever headphone set, and shortly after that its first ever multimedia desktop speaker set.
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But it’s the P5 headphones that I want to talk about right now, because I managed to spend a decent amount of time with a pair today when I met with Bowers & Wilkins at CES. The first thing you notice about the P5s is how good they look, although this hardly comes as a surprise. The Zeppelin is a beautifully designed piece of kit, as is the Panorama, and even the company’s traditional loudspeakers have always looked very special. The brushed metal and leather construction has a minimalist style to it, without being ostentatious – not an easy balance to achieve.

The design isn’t a case of style of substance either. That black leather finish isn’t just there for show, it’s real New Zealand sheep’s leather, which has been used to achieve ultimate long term comfort. Having listened to the P5s for a good while today, I can confirm that they are indeed, extremely comfortable. They are also surprisingly light on the head – 195g to be precise, but I found them barely noticeable when wearing them.
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The P5s have been designed for mobile use, rather than being for static home listening. This in itself is something of a surprise, since I would have expected B&W’s first set of headphones to be an audiophile grade product, with a price point to match. In fact, the P5s are designed for use with the latest iPods and iPhone and ship with a cable sporting a three button inline remote with an integrated microphone. That said, there’s also a second cable in the box without the remote for when you’re not using an iPod – not that the iPod cable won’t work with other devices of course.

Since the P5s are designed to be used on the move, it’s no surprise that they employ a closed back design – not only does this provide a degree of noise isolation, but it also means that you don’t have to force your music on everyone else on the train/bus/park bench etc. But despite the closed back design, the sound produced isn’t in any way muted or muddy, as can sometimes be the case compared with open back headphones. I also didn’t find my ears overheating, which is also often a symptom of closed can designs.
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It’s fair to say that the P5s isolate ambient noise quite well, since there are few more hostile environments for headphones than the Las Vegas Convention Centre during CES. Trying some Jazz first, in the form of Ronny Jordan’s Blues Grinder, the P5s produced a very well balanced sound, with Ronny’s licks expertly rendered over the snare and bass. The sound can best be described as smooth, which is exactly what you want when listening to something like Ronny.

The Pilooski remix of Beggin’ by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons sounded wonderfully rich, with the bass thumping in the left ear, but never overpowering the piano in the right. The vocals have that old school sound that highlights the juxtaposition of the modern mix surrounding them, but the P5s still managed to make it all gel together in a way that some headphones just can’t.
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In general, the sound from the P5s seemed to be flat enough to turn their hand to any type of music, but they maintained a warmth to them, that just made the whole experience feel, well, good. There was no excessive bass drowning out the high end clarity, but they never sounded or felt harsh either.

Obviously I need to spend far more time with the P5s before I can come to any real conclusions, but from the time I spent with them today, it does appear that Bowers & Wilkins could have another winner on its hands. As usual, I’ll be requesting a review sample as soon as I touch down in the UK next week.

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