Last week, we reviewed Bowers & Wilkins’ flagship headphone, the large, circumaural, excellent P9 Signature. Today we look at at the opposite end of B&W’s headphone offerings with the small, on-ear P3 Series 2 ($110). (We reviewed the original P3 back in 2012.) Though the P3 S2 sports most of the attention to detail and quality that we saw on the P9 and P5 Series 1, we experienced some flaws with this headphone that hold back our full recommendation.
Where the P9 was bold and substantial, the P3 is minimalist and delicate without being fragile. Its thin headband sports a small strip of padding, no more than is needed for such a light headphone. The sizing mechanism and folding joints move smoothly and silently. Two 30mm drivers are mounted in oval cups attached to leather ear pads in B&W’s familiar rounded-square shape. The cups are connected to the headband by pairs of thin metal wires, twisted together to meet a joint on the rear of each cups. Like the P9, the P3’s magnetic ear pads conceal its clever cable jack mechanism. Polished chamfering accents the edges of each metal component, completing the P3’s classy, high-quality look and feel.
Included with the P3 are a hard carrying case, a 1.2m cable, and a 1.2m iOS cable with inline controls and microphone. This is a more generous offering than some other headphones we’ve tried in this price range, but left us wishing that B&W put as much thought into the bundled accessories as it did the P3 itself. The case, while sturdy, is a bit larger than it needs to be, departing from the minimalist aesthetic and making the P3 a little less portable. The cables are disappointing too — they are thin, grippy, and held the original bends from the packaging, even after two weeks of use.
Even with square ear pads, the P3 is very comfortable for an on-ear headphone and isolates fairly well. It’s light enough to disappear on the head and the clamping force, while firm, caused us no problems even with extended use. There is, however, an unfortunate flaw to the P3’s design. When worn outside, the metal wires which form the P3’s yoke cause a whistling sound that can be difficult to ignore. The sound can be very annoying on windy days, but can be heard even during light winds. This might not be a problem for those with hair long enough to cover the wires, but we find it hard to accept that B&W’s generally thoughtful design missed a detail that interferes with the sound.
The sound signature of the P3 is consistent with what we have come to know as the B&W house sound. Like the P9, we heard substantial boost to the bass and a relaxed treble. However, where the P9 came across as detailed and closer to balanced, the P3’s warm sound seems to cover the entire frequency range. After several hours of listening, this made the P3 seem a bit monotone, like a dull filter was applied evenly to every genre. The P3 performed best with pop tracks with female vocals — songs like Tove Lo’s “Habits” sounded best, with thumping bass and a rounded edge to the higher vocals. Rock, by contrast, was less engaging than it would have been with some more definition.
The P3 Series 2 is the third B&W headphone that we have reviewed in the past year, and we have been consistently impressed by the quality of their construction and the thoughtfulness of their design. The P3 mostly continues that trend, but is held back by a surprising flaw, and the sound signature is of narrower appeal than B&W’s upmarket offerings. If you listen to headphones exclusively indoors, or close to it,, feel free to bump up our rating a bit. But portability should, ideally, be a large part of the P3’s appeal.
Company and Price
Company: Bowers & Wilkins
Model: P3 Series 2
Compatibility: iOS devices with headphone jack or Lightning adapter