Over the last several years, the high-end audio industry has taken notice of the growing importance of personal audio. Some of audiophiledom's most revered brands have heeded the call with trick new products purpose-built to work with computers, iPods/iPhones, and, of course, headphones. One such company is Bowers & Wilkins. So serious about personal audio is Bowers & Wilkins (more familiarly known to the world as "B&W") that they created a new division called "New Media" to parlay B&W's 45 years of experience into the development and manufacture of high-end personal audio products, beginning a few years ago with their now famous Zeppelin iPod/iPhone docking audio system (the Zeppelin still commonly found as the audio centerpiece of many Apple Stores worldwide). A couple of CES's ago, Bowers & Wilkins' New Media product roster jumped from one to four, when they announced the Zeppelin Mini iPod/iPhone speaker system, the MM-1 Computer Speakers (which I'll also be reviewing), and the P5 headphone.
One might think a company steeped so heavily in advanced research and development in the high-end of the audiophile loudspeaker world would perhaps be an ideal candidate to develop these "New Media" transducer products. Maybe. But consider the challenges for such a company, too. On the one hand, the most expensive of these products so far is the Zeppelin, with a retail price of $599.95--a price that is near the lowest price point B&W reaches for a pair of speakers outside its New Media line, but yet one of the very highest price points for a widely available iPod speaker system. In other words, for a company that develops and produces some you-could-buy-a-nice-car-with-this-priced speakers--and whose products can be found in some of the world's top studios and audio salons--coming up with products that have wow factor at prices that non-diehard-audiophile consumers can stomach is a formidable challenge. I think it could reasonably said, though, that with the Zeppelin, B&W's New Media team went one-for-one, the reviews for it being almost universally gushing, so B&W certainly got off on the right foot.
The Bowers & Wilkins P5 (left), and the P5's earpads (right).
(Click on the photos to see larger versions.)
Included in the most recent batch of B&W's New Media products is one creation that is probably going to be of more interest to Head-Fi'ers than their other newer SKUs, and also the one that represents one of the biggest product departures in B&W's history: The P5 headphone. Yes, it's a transducer product, but it's a headphone, which might reasonably be said is quite an entirely different type of product to develop and manufacture than loudspeakers. Bowers & Wilkins sent me a production sample of the P5, and it has become a more permanent fixture in my messenger bag than any other over-ear headphone I've had--ever. Do I think they've got a winner with the P5? Yes I do. Do I enjoy using and listening to it? Oh, you bet.
The P5 comes priced at $299.95, which places it in extremely shark-infested waters. As any Head-Fi regular knows, there is so much headphone goodness from several companies at or below $300.00 that the P5 has its work cut out for it. However, several of the other headphones at this price point are intended for (or at least designed to be more conducive to) desktop/home listening, or are in-ear monitors (which not everyone is comfortable wearing). And it's in consideration of this that the P5 hits a relative bulls-eye, as it was designed and built by Bowers & Wilkins to be used primarily as an over-ear headphone on-the-go, and for that the P5 is, in my opinion, outstanding. To make sure they're clear on the P5's portable aim, B&W calls the product the "P5 Mobile Hi-Fi" on the box and user manual. In the press kit that was sent with the production sample can be found the description "portable hi-fi performance headphones." And in the press kit's FAQ, B&W answers the question about whether or not it can be used with a home hi-fi system with the following (emphasis by me)...
...as if to completely eliminate any possible ambiguity about their design goals for the P5. I'd have to say I agree with B&W's FAQ answer--that this headphone is best assessed as a portable piece. Before I even get to how it sounds, its positive form factor traits alone constitute a lengthy list worthy of enumeration:
- The P5 folds flat. To me, this is an absolute necessity for an over-ear headphone designed for portable use. It comes with a fancy quilted soft case (with magnetic closure) that is lined with a sueded fabric. The folded P5 inside of this case makes for a very slim, portable package.
- Though only time will tell the true story of its durability, my experience with the P5 suggests to me that it's built to last, with an all-metal chassis and strong fittings. After a year of use, I feel perfectly comfortable putting the P5 in its soft case, and then shoving it not so gently in my messenger bag or backpack, wedging it in between any small gap in my gear that will accommodate it. Portable gear in my hands takes some amount of abuse, and this P5 still looks brand new.
- When B&W's Greg Williams stopped by my office last year (very soon after I'd received the P5), one of my first suggestions to him was to offer an optional hard case for the P5, my fear being that the included soft case wouldn't offer enough protection. After almost a year with the headphone, I withdraw that recommendation, as in my experience, the P5 is so durable that a hard case would only serve to take up more space in my bag.
- I find, even with my somewhat large head, that the P5 is extremely comfortable for long-term use. The earpads--opulent memory foam numbers covered with New Zealand sheepskin--are comfortable and posh (and, as can be seen in one of the photos at the top of this review, have absolutely no exposed seams). Of New Zealand sheep I had absolutely no specific knowledge before the P5 arrived, but I can now say with resolute authority that our woolly friends of the New Zealand stripe do have outrageously soft, supple skin. Also, after a summer using the P5, I didn't find it to cause my ears to overheat, which I feared, given how thoroughly they supra-aurally blanket one's ears. (Those whose ears tend to overheat easily may judge the P5 differently in this regard.)
- The earpads attach to the headphone using a very slick magnetic mount. Very easy on. Very easy off. Little pegs guide the process, and keep the pads from rotating. In several months with the P5, the pads have never unintentionally come off, so the magnets hold them on with just the right amount of force.
- I've read some comments from people who wear eyeglasses who've found supra-aural (on-ear) headphones uncomfortable, the P5 included. I wear two different sets of glasses, and have had no problems with the P5 with either of them.
- I've worn the P5 outside on several windy days (some of those days particularly gusty), and the P5's lean, low-profile design, combined with the excellent passive isolation, seems to minimize the effect and sound of wind buffeting the headphone while worn. That passive isolation also deserves more than passing mention, it being among the best of any portable over-ear headphone I've used, and quite possibly the best of any supra-aural type I've used.
- To my eyes, the P5 looks good--extremely good--when worn. In fact, these may be the best-looking headphones on the head that I've yet seen. Again, the P5 is very lean and low-profile, unlike some of my favorite pro audio headphones.
- The P5 comes with two cables: One is a standard mini-to-mini cable, and the other a cable with an iPod/iPhone three-button remote and microphone--the mic/control cable is the one that comes installed on the P5, and is the one I use. As an iPhone and iPad user, having the mic and controls is extremely handy, and a big plus for mobile use.
- The P5's cable design is single-side entry (into the left earpiece), which I prefer in a portable headphone; and both cables are extremely flexible and lightweight. Despite its light weight, and its suppleness, it has so far proved a durable cable. B&W sent me spare cables in the press package, and I've not had to use any of them yet. (Actually, contrary to what many believe, I've found that very supple, thinner cables tend to be more durable than thick ones, as they're often less susceptible to cracking and kinking with repeated bending and winding.)
- Also worth mentioning is the way in which the cable connects to the headphone. The cable is routed through a narrow, curved channel carved into the left earcup, underneath the earpiece, before its small plug couples with the earpiece's jack. This routing channel acts as a very clever strain relief, obviating the need for a traditional strain relief grommet, thus keeping the cable entry area sleek and more comfortable.
- The P5's constituent materials and build quality are worth emphasizing again. Like no other headphone I've handled, Bowers & Wilkins' P5 looks and feels like a piece handcrafted by an artisan who spent decades as a watchmaker, and who, after stumbling upon our hobby, decided to change course and rededicate his centuries-old techniques, skills and precision to the start of a headphone manufactory. The P5's headband sizing mechanism, for example, is of very common design, similar to the type used by most over-ear headphones, past and present. How it feels when you actually slide the P5's headband extensions in and out, however, is most definitely not common--buttery smooth, well-damped, more akin to what you might feel sliding a control on the dashboard of a luxury sedan.
The P5 is one of very few over-ear headphones I can think of that (aside from the cable and its constituent parts) has not a square millimeter of plastic anyplace your hands come in direct contact with it. The P5's chassis is built entirely of metal, and gorgeously adorned with leather, both for aesthetics and feel. The headband is constructed of steel covered with meticulously stitched leather; the yokes are steel; each earpiece is constructed of an edge-polished aluminum slab that the driver is mounted to, a bezel piece sheathed in leather that makes up the outer perimeter of the back of the earpiece, and a thick brushed aluminum backplate. Despite the extensive use of metal, the P5's total weight comes in at a meager 195 grams (6.9 ounces).
In other words, with regard to its build, for you fancy-watch-wearing, fancy-pen-toting cognoscente, the P5's physical qualities will almost certainly not disappoint.
So I've established that I'm bowled over by the P5's design, build and aesthetics. This is Head-Fi, though. How's it sound?
When I first heard the P5 at CES 2010 (last year), I was underwhelmed. But, to be fair, when I listened to it there, the ambient noise was outrageous, and enough so to make critical listening pretty much impossible. Though it was obvious that the P5 was passively blocking quite a bit of noise, the area around B&W's exhibit at CES 2010 was located in the middle of such intense cacophony that even the extreme isolation afforded by tight-fitting in-ear monitors would probably still not have been enough. It was almost certainly for this reason that few (if any) reviews of the P5 came out of CES 2010.
When the P5 arrived here, I had no idea what to expect, based on that less-than-ideal Las Vegas experience with it, as well as the fact that Bowers & Wilkins is a newbie on the headphone playing field. Without the insanely loud CES environment around me, the P5's excellent passive isolation was even more obvious. I've seen it hinted or said that the P5 uses active noise cancellation, but it absolutely does not--this is a purely passive headphone, so any isolation achieved is without the use of such circuitry. Long story short on isolation, again, the P5 provides some of the best passive isolation in a portable over-ear headphone that I've used so far, and certainly for a supra-aural type.
With the relative silence provided by the isolation as a backdrop, Bowers & Wilkins has opted to paint a sonic picture that is at once safe and, to my ears, very pleasant--but certainly not reference (again, though, by B&W's own words, it really wasn't intended to be). B&W describes the P5 as possessing "natural sound," stating in their literature and manual that they did not wish "to compensate for a weak midrange with exaggerated bass and treble," due to the fatigue that would result from that. This might suggest that the P5 has neutral bass, which it does not, to my ears. The P5's mid-bass is elevated, the extent to which I find can be a positive quality in a portable headphone that will find use in settings with louder-than-home ambient noise (and especially low-frequency noise). Bass extension is good (as evaluated with various tracks, including "Polka and Fugue" and the "Heartbeat" track on the Head-Fi/HDTracks Open Your Ears headphone test album). Even with its mid-bass prominence, I find the P5's bass controlled enough to reveal some bass definition, even if it's far from a speed demon down low. If that sounds like faint praise, it's not intended that way, as, again, I actually quite like the P5's brand of emphasized mid-bass signature when surrounded by the low-frequency din of travel in vehicles winged, wheeled or tracked.
The Bowers & Wilkins P5 carrying case.
(Click on the photo to see a larger version.)
The P5's midband has a some lushness to it, but is generally flat and even-handed. It seems B&W's engineers opted for midrange smoothness over outright detail, so, with the P5, you won't be discovering vocal nuances you've not heard sung before, or woody timbre and rosiny textures from Ma's cello you've not previously experienced. Wipe that disappointed look from your face, though, as unless you're sporting one of the top-tier IEMs, you're not likely to get those things from any of your other over-ear headphones in a noisy packed cafe or rumbling rattly bus either, which, again, is where the P5 is more at home than, well, at home.
Treble performance is where I think the P5 faces its biggest sonic criticism from me, with enough treble softness and roll-off to heighten the warmth of the P5's overall presentation, especially combined with the P5's smoothness everywhere else. Even through the clamor of public transportation, treble detail can often be heard and appreciated, and it is here, with the P5's upper registers, that the P5 falls the most sonically short. If I had my druthers, I wouldn't ask the Bowers & Wilkins engineers to abandon their aforesaid aversion to exaggerated treble--but I would enjoy enough of a boost in the upper registers (compared to where it is now) to get me to something I'd describe as a more neutral treble presentation. More detail up top would help to carve out a greater sense of detail in what is, again, a generally very safe (probably too safe), smooth, and pleasant overall sonic presentation.
Despite its overall tendency towards smoothness, especially at the expense of treble detail, I still find the P5 to be a fun, musical headphone to listen to, and one, that after almost a year, I still turn to frequently.
Bowers & Wilkins chose to design and release a portable mobile over-ear headphone as its first crack at the headphone market, and the resulting P5 is an impressive first headphone effort.
As stated earlier, making the P5 non-fatiguing was a clear goal of Bowers & Wilkins in designing it, and they've done that, in terms of comfort and in terms of its sound signature. I find the P5 to be extraordinarily comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and its rather conservative sound signature is certainly easy on the ears, even after several hours of straight use (not to mention a sonic profile well suited for music listening away from the tranquility of home).
The P5's artisanal materials, fit, finish and style make for a headphone that many of its owners will be proud to own. Its delicate lines and light weight belie its vault-strong construction. Almost a year later, and I still love handling and wearing the P5. Something this gorgeous, this well crafted, does instill that sense of pride of ownership that one might feel owning, say, a beautiful wristwatch.
After about a year with the Bowers & Wilkins P5, has it found much use with my desktop rigs? Will it supplant my reference headphones, like the Sennheiser HD 800 or Audeze LCD-2? No. And no. Again, it's not supposed to--it wasn't designed to. The P5 was designed to be listened to and enjoyed while out and about, and, for that--for an over-ear headphone--it is wonderful. If you're on-the-go often, and don't always feel like wearing in-ear monitors, then I very strongly suggest you give the Bowers & Wilkins P5 a listen. Its $300.00 price tag is going to make some people flinch, but I feel, for what it's designed for, it's more than a worthwhile contender, and has been one of my constant companions since its arrival almost a year ago.