Bowers & Wilkins stunned us with 2010’s P5, a drop-dead gorgeous pair of on-ear headphones made with sheep’s leather, chrome, and brushed metal, which it followed up last year with the over-ear model P7. This month, B&W has returned with P5 Series 2 ($300), which updates P5 with new speakers “based on technology developed for” the $400 P7. This isn’t to say that P5 Series 2 sounds identical to P7 — it doesn’t — but the two models are now sonically and aesthetically closer than they were before.
P5’s design ethos was pretty simple: black leather, silver metal, and black rubber cabling were the only three materials, and they looked great with the then jet-black and silver iPhone 4. By the time of P7’s release, B&W kept the chrome but switched the brushed metal to black, adding a chromed-out remote and 3.5mm plug to the rubber cable. P5 Series 2 adopts P7’s black brushed metal sides but otherwise keeps the rest of P5’s looks, apart from a somewhat less organically padded leather-coated headband. There’s still a plastic 3-button remote on one 3.5mm cable, and another in the package without a remote, plus a soft quilted carrying case for the flat-folding headphones. B&W has dropped the 1/8” headphone adapter from the package, an omission no one will miss.
It bears repeating that P5 Series 2 remains amongst the most comfortable on-ear headphones we’ve tested. Developers routinely struggle to achieve a proper balance of tension and padding for on-ear headphones, as the wrong materials and curves can squeeze your head like a vise or let sound leak in from outside. This version of P5 follows its predecessor in doing a particularly good job of passively isolating outside noise while remaining comfortable, expanding for larger heads using elegantly implemented side extension arms. Our only issue with the design is that it’s not particularly comfortable to take off and wear around the neck.
Sonically, P5 Series 2 sits somewhere between the original P5, which we noted “consistently felt as if it was only presenting two-thirds of the songs we were listening to,” and P7, which brought “treble and mid-treble levels up to better offset the ample midrange, mid-bass, and bass we heard in P5.” Pull off one of P5 Series 2’s magnetically-attached earpads and you can see that there’s a 40mm driver inside each earcup, visually all but indistinguishable from P7’s.
As has been the case for prior generations, you still need to turn up your iOS device’s headphone volume to at least 50% before P5 Series 2’s sound really opens up and balances, here with the bass ascending to match the mids and treble with each step up the volume level. At around 60%, songs play with an appropriate balance of treble, mids, and mid-bass, plus just enough bass that you won’t think anything’s missing until you do A-to-B comparisons with other headphones. Flip over to the P7, and despite the similarities between their drivers, you’ll hear a bit more thump and soundstage depth that P5 Series 2 is missing. In other words, P5 Series 2 is an improvement on the original, but not quite the P7’s match, a claim that B&W was careful not to make during the new model’s announcement.
Bowers & Wilkins could have left the P5 alone, but it made the right decision to borrow P7’s improved audio DNA and release P5 Series 2 — this new model may look nearly identical to its predecessor, but it’s quantifiably better sonically, and that’s what should matter most to headphone buyers. If you’re looking for on-ear headphones and willing to pay a little extra for a pair made with luxury materials, P5 Series 2 is a very good choice. It’s worthy of our B+ rating and strong general recommendation. Consider P7 instead if you want an over-ear version and are willing to pay a $100 premium.
Company and Price
Company: Bowers & Wilkins
Model: P5 Series 2
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones + iPods