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Bowers and Wilkins PI5 Review

Verdict

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Fun sound? Tick. Good noise cancellation? Tick. Great looks? Tick. The B&W PI5 earphones have the performance where it counts at this price, though comfort is an issue, and they fall short of class-leaders for sound.

Pros

  • Fun, bassy inflection to sound
  • Robust noise cancellation
  • Great aesthetics
  • Good call quality

Cons

  • Comfort struggles
  • Battery life runs short
  • No EQ customisation
  • Some odd connectivity struggles

Availability

  • UKRRP: £199
  • USARRP: $249
  • EuropeRRP: €249

Key Features

  • Wear sensorAuto-pauses music when earbuds taken out of the ear
  • Bluetooth codecSBC, AAC and aptX wireless streaming
  • Call qualityFour microphones for enhanced clarity during calls

Introduction

After years of observing from the side lines, Bowers & Wilkins entered the true wireless market with the PI7 and PI5.

I reviewed the PI7 when they launched and enjoyed them; their style, innovative charging case and premium sound scored them high marks. The PI5 are their less expensive siblings at £199 but look around online and they’ve fallen to even more affordable levels.

While there was plenty to like about the PI7 there were aspects that didn’t hit the mark. The PI5 bears several similarities, and in some ways, they fare better but also commit some of the same sins.

Design

  • Still has issues with comfort
  • Look terrific
  • Tactile feel to operation

The PI5 look like the PI7, which is to say they exude style and elegance. However, like the PI7, comfort is an issue.

For whatever reason the PI5 sits in the ear better than their premium sibling, but the use of hard plastic produces a similar dull ache. It’s not as bad as the PI7, but that’s not a redeeming characteristic.

Bowers and Wilkins PI5 earbuds on ground

But because of the slightly better fit, there’s no need to resort to swapping out ear-tips to tighten the earphones’ seal. With its striking black or white finishes, tripartite housing and machine precise look of the touch controls, the PI5 score highly in terms of craftsmanship.

In terms of the controls there’s access to ANC, pause, track skipping and voice assistant but no volume or activation of Ambient Pass-Through (for that you need the app). Inputs are responsive, but playback often stops when cycling through ANC modes and if you listen to the Soundscapes in the app, auto-pause appears to be disengaged.

Bowers and Wilkins PI5 charging case

The case is a slim one that easily fits into tight pockets; the LED on the front presents the earphones’ current state, with a Bluetooth pairing button sandwiched in-between the earbuds’ cradle to initiate pairing.

Features

  • Responsive wear sensor tech
  • Robust noise cancellation
  • Better battery than PI7
  • Strong IP rating

Battery life betters the PI7 but not by much – 4.5 hours to 4, and overall, 24.5 hours to 20. That’s better than Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds, but most premium sets are shifting towards 30 hours. The signs point to an earphone suited for short bursts.

So, if you are someone who listens for a long time, you’ll be charging regularly. At least there are multiple ways of topping up with fast- and QI wireless charging.

Water-resistance is IP54 so you’ll be protected against splashes of water and limited ingress of dust. Wear detection works as well as it does on the PI7, which is to say it’s impressively prompt with its stops and starts.

Bowers and Wilkins PI5 detail shot

Wireless connectivity is Bluetooth 5.0 and Android owners get Google’s Fast Pair technology for instant first-time connection and install of the B&W Headphones app. While the earbuds boast Bowers & Wilkins’ TWS+ technology for “high quality synchronisation”, connectivity gaffes still pervade.

There were times where the PI5’s connection become spotty but putting them into the case and taking them out resolved this. Busy signal areas can knock the earphones off their stride and connecting to the B&W Headphone app causes a stutter before pausing music, weirdly.

Wireless codec support hits an aptX ceiling, so they’re not as tuned for the high-res audio as the PI7, missing out on those earbuds’ 24-bit/48kHz transmission.

The one area where I feel the PI5 betters the PI7 is in its noise cancellation, and that’s largely down to the seal of the earphone’s passive noise isolating design, which proves to be better than the PI7’s looser fit.

According to the manual, the noise cancellation is adaptive but that may be a misprint. It ‘intelligently’ tunes the earphones’ performance in relation to its environment. I’ve never been too hot for adaptive ANC – one-size-fits all is more to my liking – but this earphone is nonetheless robust at repelling sounds. Most sounds within the near vicinity are diminished, vehicles intrude less often, people talking as they go by are less audible and therefore less distracting. There’s a better sense of quietude when walking about.

It’s not as dismissive in scope as either Sony’s WF-1000XM4 or Bose’s QC Earbuds, as some noise still peeks through, but within the price bracket of less than £200, the B&W PI5 impress.

Bowers Wilkins Headphones app PI5

The transparency mode is also effective, letting noise in without sounding unduly harsh or unnatural, and providing a good enough sense of what’s around you. There’s no slider for choosing a specific level of pass-through, but in the Headphone app you can opt between ‘More’ or ‘Less’ to change the amount of noise that filters through.

The Headphones app for the PI5 doesn’t cater much to customisation with no EQ mode, and toggling on/off the ANC, Ambient Pass-Through and Wear Sensor is all you can really change. Like Jabra’s Sound+ app there are some ‘natural’ Soundscapes to listen to if you want to chill.

Bowers and Wilkins PI5 case with earbuds

A brief hold on the right earbud brings up voice assistance on your smartphone, so there are no built-in smarts. I don’t think that matters much unless you’re someone who interacts with digital assistants often.

Call quality is among the better true wireless earphones I’ve tested, with clarity afforded to voices and a reasonably natural tone to call reception, too. They are susceptible to picking up noises but not to the point where it becomes a distraction.

Sound quality

  • Big bass performance
  • Smooth vocal reproduction
  • Short on detail and dynamism compared to the best

First thing to comment on is that the PI5 sound big – both in scale and bass – and that has benefits and drawbacks.

But the positives first. Armed with a 9.2mm bespoke dynamic drive unit, bass is prodigious in giving music a weighty, powerful and substantial sound. A play of Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy seems tailored for them, as the earphone delivers low-end depth beyond the Sony WF-1000XM4’s more measured take.

Bowers and Wilkins PI5 on top of case

There’s a sense of warmth that verges on being rich and lush at times, but is also capable of delivering plenty of kick, the driver set-up giving percussion instruments a firm presence while still sounding relatively clear and detailed in the mid-range frequencies. Vocals are smoothly handed, broader in size and scope than some other true wireless when listening to Faye Webster’s Sometimes or Queen of the Stone Age’s No One Knows.

But against tougher competition the B&W sound a bit more ordinary. Measured against the WF-1000XM4 – which might be slightly unfair given price gulf between them – it’s a match up that reveals the areas the B&W are deficient in.

One of those areas is the top end of the frequency range, which is not as sharp or as incisive as I had hoped. The piano playing in Michael Giacchino’s Bundle of Joy is bright enough to have impact, the timbre of each note played out to differing degrees, but the lingering decay of high frequency notes is missing, gone almost as quickly as it arrives.

The mid-range is not as effectively parlayed as more premium options, the downside of the ‘thicker’ sound in FINNEAS’ A Concert Six Months from Now is that there’s not as much detail, clarity or crispness to be observed.

Bowers and Wilkins PI5 touch control

Like the PI7, the width of the soundstage doesn’t extend far out, so while these earphones sound big, they don’t offer as big a sense of space, which reminds me of Devialet’s Gemini. When it comes to their sense of dynamism, highs and lows of a track are executed with more aplomb on the Sony, the PI5 are like the PI7 in that they’re slightly reserved, the sweeping nature of Joe Hisashi’s Water Traveller carries less conviction.

That doesn’t mean that the B&W PI5 aren’t a fun listen. They assuredly are. Their sonic abilities match their weight class, so they’re better than earphones around the £150 mark but not as good as those above £200. An enjoyable listen, especially for those who like their bass, but not the authoritative listen the Bowers & Wilkins name would imply.

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Should you buy it?

If you love that bass: If you love music dripping with bass, then the PI5 bring plenty of with its performance. They’re a big, substantial sounding pair of earphones that go deeper in the low frequencies than more premium space

If you want a better fit :Like the PI7, the PI5 struggles to provide a fit that doesn’t leave you with a dull ache. It’s not as bad as the PI7 but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing either

Final Thoughts

Among their price bracket the PI5 are a fun listen, but compared to the best they’re short on dynamism, clarity and detail. If you like bass then the PI5 have plenty in reserve: the noise cancellation makes these earphones one of the better around its price and they look terrific. Good, but not quite great.

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We test every headphones we review thoroughly over an extended period of time. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever, accept money to review a product.

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Tested with real world use

Tested over several weeks

Tested with music streaming services

FAQs

Do the B&W PI5 have built-in voice assistants?

No, but they they do support the voice assistant on your smartphone through their touch controls.

How much battery life does fast charging provide?

A 15-minute charge offers two more hours of playback.

Can I adjust ANC levels with the B&W PI5

No you can’t, but you can change the Ambient Pass-Through mode from More to Less.

Full specs

UK RRP
USA RRP
EU RRP
Manufacturer
IP rating
Battery Hours
Wirless charging
Fast Charging
Weight
ASIN
Release Date
Model Number
Driver (s)
Noise Cancellation?
Connectivity
Colours
Frequency Range

Jargon buster

ANC

ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) uses an array of microphones in a headphone to detect the frequency of the sound coming at the listener, with the ANC chip creating an inverse wave (i.e. opposing sound) to suppress any unwanted external noises.

IP rating

An abbreviation for ‘Ingress Protection Code’, which lets you know to what extent a device might be waterproof or dustproof.

Midrange

Midrange refers to the part of the frequency range that sits between the bass and treble. The midrange is the area that handles vocals and most of the instruments heard in a track. It can also be in reference to midrange loudspeaker drivers that replicate this area of the frequency range.

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