Review: Bowers & Wilkins P3 Headphones
Bowers & Wilkins has faced this challenge before: how does a designer distill the essence of one gorgeous product into something smaller and less expensive? Unlike the company's Zeppelin Mini, which radically changed the shape and characteristics of the Zeppelin speaker system to achieve a lower price point, P3 ($200) is very obviously derived from B&W's earlier $300 P5, which is to say that it's nearly as sexy as one of the best-looking and most comfortable headphones ever developed, at two-thirds the price. There are differences between the P3 and P5, to be sure, and there's little doubt that the original model remains B&W's flagship, but they have so much in common that users looking for a more budget-conscious alternative will certainly feel well-served by P3 -- and the new model has unique assets of its own that merit attention.
Unlike most of the full-sized headphones marketed to Apple device users today, P3 doesn’t attempt in any way to emulate the glossy plastic looks of Monster’s ubiquitous Beats by Dre family; instead, it’s a study in class at a comparable price. Sized to nearly cover average adult ears, P3’s speaker housings combine three materials: brushed black metal ovals sit atop soft-touch rubber-coated rounded rectangles and padded fabric ear pads, joined together by length-expanding metal stems and a matching fabric-lined and soft-touch rubber-coated headband. Just like P5, the visual balance draws your eyes to the black parts before letting them dance across silver accents, here only modestly fewer in number than before; curves on the stems are just one of the design elements that continue to scream with high style.
Only when you directly compare the two models do you begin to realize just how much sheep’s skin leather P5 had—it’s all gone here—or that the metallic parts on P3 are a little thinner, matching the new model’s reduced size, thankfully without compromising structural integrity. Polished and diamond-finished metal edges remain intact on the new model, as do the magnetically attached, removable ear pads, which enable you to swap between two included black cables: one has an Apple three-button remote/microphone, while the other does not. B&W has reduced the size of the speakers inside from P5’s 40mm drivers to 30mm for P3, and now requires you to separately connect the left and right cables to their respective chambers, a minor added inconvenience. Since the remote and mic unit is connected by default, users of Apple products will most likely have no reason to swap the cables, anyway.
The last of the changes are the most positive ones. P5 shipped with one of the classiest carrying cases we’ve seen—a quilted, magnetically sealed bag that looked nearly as luxurious as the headphones themselves, though its softness inspired a certain degree of caution when packing everything up for travel. B&W has given P3 a new folding mechanism: hinges are now located halfway up the headband, enabling P3’s speakers to fold upwards rather than flat like P5, and thereby occupy less than half the physical space of P5 during travel. And while P3 ships with a smaller, hard plastic carrying case, it has several little touches that collectively inspire confidence, including a clamshell-style hinge that closes securely, a velvet lining, and a shape that feels rigid enough to resist travel. Due to these tweaks, we’d actually feel safer tossing P3 into a bag than P5, and have more space in that bag for other items, besides.
Not surprisingly, there were some compromises involved in reducing P5’s features for this model. Whereas P5’s padded leather earpieces felt like silk atop one’s ears, P3’s padded fabric isn’t quite as soft—not bad, but you’ll feel the elastic and cotton against your ears, and the smaller pads don’t cover quite as much surface area as before. You’ll also feel the headband, despite the fact that it’s quantifiably smaller and lighter than before, because there’s less padding. But by comparison with headphones that haven’t been designed in any way for user comfort, both of these models remain standouts; P5 was a gold medallist in comfort, and P3 is a silver or bronze.
Sonically, P3 and P5 have a lot in common. Both are focused on warm midrange and bass performance, ideally suited for classic rock and live performances, which sound lifelike and natural rather than muddy or bloated. And both headphones really come alive above an iPod’s, iPhone’s, or iPad’s 50% volume level. While P3 no longer sounds seriously recessed at lower volumes, it continues to perform music most capably at or above the 55% mark, starting to balance out the initial focus on midrange and bass frequencies around 40%, and increasing treble detail as the volume goes up. At these volume levels, a little added depth becomes obvious in P5’s renditions of songs, and P3 sounds a little flatter, but not enough so that anyone will mind for the price difference. Users of more powerful headphone amps will likely find more headroom in P5’s drivers.
There’s one thing that P3 improves considerably upon from P5, and that’s an issue we noted with the earlier model’s microphone: unlike P5, which had a tendency to bring in plenty of ambient noise during phone calls, P3’s microphone hole has been moved from the remote/mic capsule’s back, and does a better job of screening out those noises so that you’re easier for callers to hear. The mics otherwise sound very similar to one another; P5 had slightly more treble, but P3’s mic offers a better overall experience in different situations.
Overall, P3 is a very good new headphone, and worthy of our strong general recommendation. That said, it’s important to understand exactly why it rates higher than its predecessor, as this is one of those situations where the simplicity of a letter grade summary could obscure nuances that prospective customers should be aware of. On the positive side, P3 has virtually all of the assets of P5—a truly beautiful industrial design, solid sound, and compact size for an on-ear headphone—at only two-thirds the price; moreover, the improved microphone performance and superior portability are added reasons to consider it worthwhile. However, P3 users will forego the prior model’s impressive leather and comfort, which were both truly standouts, and lose a little sonic depth that P5’s larger speakers were capable of delivering at higher volumes. So while P3 doesn’t beat its older brother in every way, the lower-priced model will appeal to a larger group of people, and in some ways satisfy them even more.