Review: Bowers & Wilkins P7 Headphones
Back in 2010, Bowers & Wilkins established the gold standard for Apple headphone industrial design. Its P5 was the sexiest pair of headphones ever marketed towards Apple users, using leather, aluminum, and chrome accents to upgrade a product category that had become stale -- at a $300 price. Last year, B&W released P5's smaller sister P3, which preserved much of the luxe fashion at a more affordable $200 price point. For 2013, Bowers & Wilkins has just unveiled P7 ($400), a deluxe step up from P5, which places similar speaker drivers inside a bigger and fancier package. If you're looking for a pair of circumaural/over-ear headphones to match your Apple gear, and aren't afraid to drop a serious wad of cash on the purchase, this is a great place to start.
P7 is best understood as an over-the-ear version of P5, one of very few on-ear headphones we’ve ever enjoyed wearing. Although both models use 40-millimeter speaker drivers, P7 houses them inside earcups that look nearly twice the size, a change that contributes to an added 95 grams (0.2 pounds) of additional weight—not enough to be obvious on your head, but clearly different when both headphones are held in separate hands. Just as before, B&W’s new earcups are rounded rectangles of sheepskin leather, this time plushly but firmly padded to completely enclose adult ears, held in place with a metal and similarly soft leather headband. In addition to a 1/8” headphone plug adapter and a fine quilted carrying case, two black plastic cables are included in the package, one with an in-line three-button remote control, the other without.
Although B&W fans now take this for granted, it needs to be said that P7 again has a drop-dead gorgeous industrial design. Brushed aluminum ovals with diamond-cut chamfers are connected to the headband by curving polished metal tubes and fabric cabling—a look unrivaled in class by any rival headphone we’ve tested. Small tweaks to P5 have enlarged and subtly changed P7’s metal parts without compromising their appeal; the ovals are now colored metal rather than silver, borrowing a design element from the P3 that helped B&W enhance P3’s later color offerings. Overall, P7 is the best-looking over-ear headphone we’ve ever tested, and certainly one of the most comfortable thanks to the padding.
The leather earcups are once again interrupted by silver metal plates that appear only as side accents, while enabling you to magnetically attach or detach the pads and reveal the hidden junction point for the replacement cable. While there’s nothing wrong with this concept, and it enables users to more easily replace the pads if they wear out, they led us to encounter one problem with P7’s design: durability. When we tried to remove one of the two earpads, a very short, not-sharp fingernail was enough to tear the super-soft sheepskin leather within our first day of using P7. We’d describe this as a fluke given our experiences with P5, which uses the same leather and has been trouble-free during extended use, but it demonstrates a hard truth about using such soft leather: you’ll want to pamper these headphones.
Apart from that issue, P7 feels even more solidly-built than before. The in-line remote control has shifted from matte black plastic to a chrome metal tube with a thin line of black plastic buttons; this tweak doesn’t compromise the microphone’s strong performance at all, though you may need to familiarize yourself with the tiny breaks in the line of buttons to know where the volume controls separate from the larger multifunctional central button. P7’s headphone plug is similarly chromed out and thus not as thin as P5’s, though it’s still capable of working with most cases we’ve tested. Rather than flattening for portability like P5, P7’s earcups fold inwards to form a crescent like P3’s, consequently occupying roughly the same footprint in a bag. B&W’s new carrying case evokes the basic look of P5’s, yet doesn’t feel quite as nice, the only step down from the less expensive model in this bundle.
They are fundamentally very similar-sounding headphones, but B&W has made some improvements from P5 to P7. Small changes to the sensitivity and the switch from an on-ear to circumaural design collectively result in marked improvements in apparent detail and sonic balance, bringing P7’s treble and mid-treble levels up to better offset the ample midrange, mid-bass, and bass we heard in P5. Regardless of the musical genres we threw at P7, it did a very good to great job of performing songs, continuing to perform best around the 50% volume level on current Apple devices; at that level, the midrange and mid-bass really come alive, offsetting the added detail with welcome but measured warmth and energy. Thanks to both the over-ear design and quality drivers, P7 goes beyond engrossing you in your music: it also enables you to enjoy a certain pleasingly crisp definition that is all too often lost in fashion headphones such as the ubiquitous Beats Electronics Beats Studio series. Some companies disclaim their products’ value to audiophiles; Bowers & Wilkins welcomes their attention, and in P7’s case, will certainly satisfy most of them. Our only comment is that there isn’t enough of a sonic difference between P5 and P7 to fully justify a $100 premium.
Taken as a whole, Bowers & Wilkins’ P7 is an easy headphone to recommend to price-no-object accessory buyers—beautiful, comfortable, and sonically effortless to enjoy. The single biggest obstacle is its $400 price point, which feels somewhat steep given the actual delta between P7 and the prior P5, though we would certainly be inclined to pick P7 first given the choice between them. If you’re looking for an over-ear headphone that balances fashion and audio performance more impressively than the Beats lineup, start your search with P7. It’s certainly not the least expensive headphone you’ll find, or the most rugged, but it fits its intended purpose very well. P7 merits our strong general recommendation.