Review: Bowers & Wilkins P5 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones
Sometimes a company's industrial design prowess -- its choices and sculpting of materials -- is so potent that we can't help but fall in love with something regardless of how well it actually performs its given function. Bowers & Wilkins' P5 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones ($300) are one of the most striking examples of this phenomenon in play: this is quite literally the sexiest headset we've ever seen, made from a combination of soft, high-grade sheep's leather and chrome-accented brushed metal that manages to match the subsequently-released iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G without in any way aping them. And, because P5 comes from the audio team at vaunted B&W, there are certain expectations as to what it will deliver for its $300 price tag; depending on the device you're using, you may or may not find that P5 actually meets them.
Though B&W’s Zeppelin entered the iPod marketplace with the sort of bold, interesting design that polarized potential customers, the company’s three subsequent products—Zeppelin Mini, MM-1, and now P5—have all found ways to bring similar materials into more conventional but still eye-catching shapes. Viewed dead on, P5 looks like a fairly conventional set of black and silver headphones, notable for the thickness of its top foam pad and the boxiness of its earpieces, but from the side, it’s a true work of art, bursting with curves that are simultaneously unnecessary and beautiful: metal and fabric cables intertwine for organic, tube-shaped extenders, metal ovals sit atop the rounded rectangular earpieces, and mixes of brushed, polished, and diamond-cut metals have all the right visual accents in just the right places. P5 screams “money” and “class” in a way that no other on-ear headphone we’ve seen could muster, and B&W’s included quilted carrying case is almost equally luxurious. They make Bose’s QuietComforts seem like cheap toys from an aesthetic standpoint, though it should be noted that P5 offers no active noise-cancelling capabilities; price aside, it’s not truly a comparable product.
But there’s more to P5 than just appearances, and that’s where this model begins to have some issues that will vary in importance from person to person. Bowers & Wilkins ships P5 with two different sets of headphone cables, one with an integrated three-button remote control and microphone, and the other just a plain jane audio cable that can connect to a 1/8” adapter for attachment to stereo receivers. While the remote works exactly as expected with Apple’s latest iPods, iPhones, and iPads, the microphone is a little more sensitive for whatever reason than the ones we’ve tested in other Apple-authorized remote units, so P5 does two things differently: in quiet environments, it renders your voice with greater clarity than a standard Apple mic, but in noisy rooms, it picks up lots of ambient noise and discussions when you’re making phone calls. Callers told us that the people at a table five feet away from us in a Starbucks were as easy to hear as we were; they also said that we were highly intelligible when in a comparatively quiet space.
Having spent considerable time listening to P5, it’s our impression that these headphones were—despite the inclusion of the remote and mic cable—designed to be used with audio equipment with different headphone port efficiency than most of Apple’s digital media devices. At safe listening volumes, P5 presents music with a significant emphasis on bass and midrange sounds, offering what we can only describe as far too little treble and balance for a $300 headphone, even one with the splendid industrial design elements P5 incorporates. With the exception of rock music, particularly tracks from the Beatles and its former members, P5 consistently felt as if it was only presenting two-thirds of the songs we were listening to, although we also noticed something unusual: the midrange and bass portions it was performing sounded really quite nice, with ear-pleasing warmth.
Further testing suggested that P5 was actually capable of performing pretty well in the treble department, too, but only when the volume levels were turned up too loud: at 50% on the typical iPhone or iPod dial, the audio sounded both clean and balanced, but we wouldn’t want to listen at that level for any length of time. Our impression was that there was an impedance mismatch between P5 and Apple’s portable devices, though B&W’s specs suggest that it’s in the right range; the issue might just be that the speakers aren’t sensitive enough.
That having been said, we really wanted to love everything about P5, because in addition to the beauty of the headphones, they’re also amongst the most comfortable models we’ve ever used, a surprise given that on-ear headphones are routinely too tight or lead to moist, pressurized ears. Not so with P5, which between the use of foam and surprisingly resilient sheep’s leather felt like little cushions atop our ears, and remained on for very extended listening sessions without complaint or any obvious damage. The pads are replaceable, using magnets to hold their ear-facing plates in place without providing any clue that they can be removed—until you go to swap the headphone cables. Our suspicion is that they won’t need to be swapped for new ones under normal usage conditions, but the fact that they can be without returning the entire headset back to the factory is a nice feature.
On balance, Bowers & Wilkins’ P5 is a good headset that some users may find great, depending on both their sonic preferences and the devices they’re pairing with the headphones. Virtually anyone who puts P5 on will find it to be a comfortable, beautiful-looking pair of headphones, sculpted by some extremely talented industrial designers; however, whether you like the sound of the speakers and microphone inside will vary between devices and use environments. It’s with regret that our rating is lower than it would otherwise be for a product of P5’s caliber, but it’s obvious what B&W needs to do if it wants to score higher with a subsequent follow-up: optimize its components for the specific audio needs of iPhone, iPod, and iPad headphone ports rather than the broader range of devices that are out there. This might have been too much to ask at the point when P5 was under development, but at this stage, there are so many iPhones, iPads, and higher-end iPods out there that there’s unquestionably a market for a pair of awesome-sounding headphones with looks this stellar. Here’s hoping that B&W takes up the challenge, and soon.