Review: Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature Headphones
It’s easy to be cynical about the Bowers & Wilkins P9. It costs $900, far more than many great-sounding headphones we’ve heard in the past. Where most of its competitors have utilitarian, futuristic design, the P9 looks unserious and reminiscent of the past. Instead of a minimalist, performance-driven chassis, the P9 has leather in places that don’t touch the head for what B&W describes as “luxurious” experience. It’s easy to assume that the P9 is just another “lifestyle” product aimed at people with money to burn, where sound was an afterthought. After some time with the P9, we found that it’s also easy to be wrong. The P9 is a fully developed over-ear headphone that earns its price tag with exquisite build quality and great sound.
Out of the box, the P9 hits the eye in much the same way as a mint-condition vintage sports car. Rounded metal meets squared leather, and chrome accents transition between different materials and textures. The P9’s seams are clean, and its parts fit together with the kind of tight tolerances one would expect for a product this expensive. We might have preferred a black leather option, but the light brown looks classy and will likely gain character with age. The P9 feels substantial, and close inspection reveals B&W’s attention to detail. The included travel case, made of alcantara and Saffiano leather, is equally classy and perfectly sized for the P9. The only departure from this high-quality aesthetic is the P9’s cables. While we appreciate that three cable options are included — 1.2-meter with iOS controls, 1.2m plain, and a comically long 5m cable — we have seen more substantial cables included with much cheaper headphones.
We don’t mean to suggest that luxury materials alone justify the P9’s high price. Plenty of companies have added value (or just cost) by wrapping their products in leather and chrome, and it rarely results in a better headphone. The P9 is set apart by the high degree of engineering effort apparent in its build. The cups pivot, but do not creak. The sizing mechanism and folding joints move silently and smoothly. Magnetized ear pads — unique to this headphone — separate from the P9 to reveal a cleverly-hidden cable jack, then re-attach like magic. The driver cups are “suspended” in a flexible rubber surround, a design that B&W claims will eliminate unwanted vibration. Though we’ve never had a problem with that kind of vibration, we love how effortlessly the P9’s contact points interface with the head and ears.
The P9’s luxury materials and high-quality moving parts come at a significant weight penalty. The P9’s stout aluminum frame and thick leather upholstery weighs in at 0.92 pounds with the standard 1.2m cable; this headphone won’t be part of your daily carry without some planning. On the head, however, we found the P9 to be surprisingly comfortable. The wide, soft padding on the headband distributes the P9’s weight broadly and evenly, and the large ear pad openings and strong clamping force keep the headphone in place without bothering the ears. Even after hours of use, the P9 seems to disappear on the head; its weight is really only felt in the form of inertia during a quick head turn. In addition to comfort, we found the P9’s ear pads to provide excellent isolation, even compared to other closed-back headphones. The P9’s 40mm drivers are set back far and angled towards the ear; we can’t say that this provided a “speaker-like” experience, but we do like the P9’s imaging and sense of space.
The P9 is very easy to drive. We were able to achieve painfully loud volume from both from the iPhone 6’s headphone jack and through the iPhone 7’s Lightning adapter. The included iOS cable has familiar controls that work flawlessly with the iPhone. The P9’s high sensitivity, folding frame, great isolation, and a slick carry case makes it a worthy travel companion, though they might be a bit large for a commuter. Notably absent here is the lack of a Lightning-compatible cable, but B&W says a free Lightning cable will be available in early 2017. The P9 may be the last flagship headphone wearing the “Made for iPhone” badge to get a pass for not including a Lightning cable, or even a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter in its box.
Two words sum up the P9’s sound signature: dark and relaxed. Like a luxury car with a comfort-tuned suspension, the P9 deliver detail, but with a smoothness that makes listening easy. The P9’s bass presentation is rich and boomy, with a slam that can often be felt. On the other side of the spectrum, there may be a spike in the P9’s treble, as female vocals occasionally came through with a bit too much energy. We enjoyed the P9 with most genres, especially multi-layered rock and electronic tracks, where the P9 brought out small details with a good sense of space and imaging. The P9’s colored sound can, however, present a slight dullness to the midrange. The tone and decay of snare drums, for example, are undeniably lower and shorter on the P9 compared to some similarly-priced flagship cans. At its best, the P9’s relaxed character makes long listening sessions easy and fun. There are times, however, when the P9 crosses the line into dullness; this is most apparent with dense metal music, which can sound muddy on the P9.
It’s sometimes difficult to justify the price of a headphone like the P9. There are many headphones in every price range that sound good enough and, unlike a laptop or phone, there is no simple number or test to quantify the diminishing returns offered at the higher end of the spectrum. When we reviewed the Audeze EL-8 Titanium last month, we found that it was a competent headphone, but in our opinion, not an $800 headphone. The P9, however, does not have that problem. The P9’s sound might be a little warm for some users, and it won’t be the headphone of choice for detail junkies, but we have no doubt that there is real value here. B&W calls the P9 their “Signature” headphone, and we believe it. With impeccable build quality, slick engineering, and high-quality sound, the P9 is a true luxury experience.