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CES 2010: Bowers & Wilkins P5 Headphones Hands On

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CES 2010: Bowers & Wilkins P5 Headphones Hands On

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Tariq Pugh

January 9, 2010, 5:07 am

Ooh, sexy fun! Any word on price? i was thinking of replacing my perfectly-functional-but-actually-tank-sized Beyer DT150s. This may be the pair for me. B&W are one of few tech companies that make genuinely beautiful objects, and without compromising on sound, generally. Phillipe Starck would wear these pretties!

ilovethemonkeyhead

January 9, 2010, 10:44 pm

sometimes i wish i could recable my grados for a much more tangle resistant cable, for when i'm on the move (or when i get sick of the y joint stabbing me in the chest) - but i guess i may eventually have to suffice with multiple pairs of headphones, to suit different occasions, in the end.

JeffH

January 10, 2010, 7:07 am

These headphones sounded great at the show this week. I even went back the next day to get another sampling!


One of the B&W employees said that these would sell for about $300 when they hit the market later in January. She said they'd be available on the Apple site.


Well worth the price, IMHO. :-)

Olaf Dietrich

January 21, 2010, 12:00 am

Will the microphone can be used for talking over the phone?

Kerwood

March 3, 2010, 4:50 am

Just bumped on a pair of these in the Apple Store in central London.


Fine balance of taught bass, airy trebles as for the medium , well, between brilliant piano and grainy voices, I am almost tempted to call them the LS3/5A of headphones!


£250 is certainly not within reach of most, and I guess that some other headphones are more apt for wild "one night stand".


These headphones are for "marriage", I think, as they provide a very satisfying sound experience, with a comfort you feel like appreciating for a very long time.

dalethorn

April 30, 2010, 8:47 am

The B&W P5 is about midway in my listening tests between the Sennheiser PX100 and the Sennheiser HD800. All three are approximately the same in bass response, but the midrange is very significantly clearer on the HD800 than on the B&W P5. The PX100 makes a good comparison because it is very neutral/flat with extended bass, and it is the only good headphone I can wear around my neck all day without being aware of it. The B&W P5 is as much clearer than the PX100 as the HD800 is clearer than the P5. I use the term clearer because the differences don't seem to be related to brightness or emphasis in any frequency range - and the differences are not subtle - they're obvious and significant.

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