I've had my Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones for about ten days now so my review is probably a bit premature. However I am very impressed by them and so I feel motivated to actually write a review.
Over the last six months I have been on many flights to and from Ireland using the nearest airport to me which is Gatwick (south of London). At Gatwick the electrical goods retailer Dixons has a few shops with a demonstration available of the Bowers & Wilkins headphones along with some others. Each time I flew to Ireland I would listen a bit to these headphones for about 10 minutes at the demonstration using my first generation iPod Touch as the source. Each time I tried them I thought they sounded really rather promising. Other headphones demonstrated were the Bose QuietComfort 15. The demonstration stand had a loudspeaker through which a sound typical of the drone inside an aeroplane could be played. The Bose QuietComfort headphones were very efficient at reducing this sound and the Bowers & Wilkins P5 less so. However I think the P5s were as good at reducing the general chatter in the shop and general chatter coming from the airport lounge. This would accord with the view that active noise reduction works best with continuous sounds but less well with highly variable sounds like general chatter.
Although I had been trying out the P5s at the airport shop I knew that use in aeroplanes wasn't going to be that much really. The intention is to use the P5s on public transport, which I use a lot.
The headphones I have been using on public transport to date are my AKG K450s. These are compact on-ear headphones and have been successful but I'd welcome more isolation and more quality. I have tried my AKG K271 and AKG K550 headphones on public transport. These do have more isolation and better reproduction however they are much too bulky.
A couple of weeks ago I had the offer of some work in Milan for about a week. I decided to buy the Bowers & Wilkins P5s for that trip. I flew out from Gatwick and so I bought them from the Dixons shop in Gatwick. I will mention that even though that shop is "Duty Free" the headphones were priced higher than on Amazon, so before I went to Gatwick airport I phoned the Dixons shop and talked about this. They reduced the price to the one advertised on Amazon.
Before I write about the sound quality of the P5s I will mention that in fact I am not a great fan today of the kind of review I am about to produce. I believe that suggestion and auto-suggestion has massive influence in our appreciation of audio products. To write a review, simply, of impressions of an audio product which makes no attempt to address the influence of the suggestion or auto-suggestion is not very valuable. However nearly all reviews of audio products have been like this for over thirty years now. It is not possible for an individual such as myself to easily set up a blind ABX listening arrangement, particularly for headphones. However I do think that "professional" reviewers who work for blogs and magazines should set up effective blind ABX tests for equipment they are reviewing. That they don't do this is a great failure on their behalf and explains so much of the absurdities in audio today.
So now I hope to give you my impressions of the performance of the P5s. I would love for these headphones, like all others, to be subject to proper blind ABX tests, but I know that alas this won't happen.
The P5s are extremely neutral, note that when I write "neutral" I do not mean "neutralising". I guess that the frequency response curve would probably be close to flat for these headphones. The tonality of the instruments is presented very well indeed and the expression within the playing is very apparent. The timbre is very clear. I am used to listening to music with my AKG K702s primarily, so I will compare a bit with them. The K702s are, of course, extremely neutral, however the P5s really do sound very different because with the P5s each instrument in the orchestra sounds a little fuller. With the P5s there is a bit more flesh on the music. The K702s deliver, really, a much better sound-stage than the P5s. I don't think sound-staging with the P5s is very well developed. The bass is very good with the P5s according to my perspective but people who want headphones with a lot of bass would be best looking elsewhere.
The most surprising thing about the P5 headphones is that they are extremely detailed as well as compatible with many sources and, it seems, remarkably indifferent to amplification used. If I were reading my own review by now, having read "neutral" and "detailed" I would be assuming that the P5s would be quite revealing of the source and the amplification, but not at all. I have used the P5s plugged straight into my first generation iPod Touch, I've tried them with the Meier-Audio HeadSix portable amplifier into that iPod and noticed no difference, then I have tried them plugged directly into my MacBook Pro and my Mac Pro, and there really is no difference in sound there. I have tried them with the Mac Pro using my Meier-Audio StageDAC and using my Sugden HeadMaster amplifier and my Pro-Ject Headbox II amplifier. There is a difference to be heard comparing the Sugden HeadMaster and the Pro-Ject Headbox II however the difference is much less than that to be heard when using my AKG K702s. For them the difference is very apparent, the budget Pro-Ject sounding rather dry and constrained and the much more expensive Sugden sounding a tiny bit velvety but with limitless sound-stage.
Listening to my CD of Francisco Guerrero's orchestration of Isaac Albéniz's Iberia with José Ramón Encinar conducting the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia is very enjoyable with the P5s. They do not have the impressive soundstage of my AKG K702s but the tone of each instrument is, probably, a little clearer. Everything sounds a bit more rounded. Good information retrieval is very enlightening when listening to this CD as the orchestration is very deep, there is a great deal going on in the details. I actually sync to my iPod Touch with bit rate at 256 kbps whereas all the music in my iTunes library is copied from the CDs. With the P5s it is not possible to identify significant differences between the 256 kbps version on my iPod Touch as being inferior. It sounds really, just as good. I am thinking there must be a down-side to this extremely good handling of source material, but it is difficult to find it. I love the impressionists in classical music, best known composers being Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Listening to Maurice Ravel's Violin Sonata by Viktoria Mullova (violin) by Katia Labeque (piano) on their Recital CD with the P5s really is hugely pleasurable. The excellent rendition of piano and violin tone with the P5s really helps with developing an increasing understanding of this work. In addition dynamic range seems to be very good with the P5s. Ravel makes great use of the impact of sudden increases in sound level. Ravel always saw the piano and violin sounds as essentially rather incompatible and in this piece he actually exploits this great difference in the nature of sound of each of the instruments. There is a great cleverness in the rhythmic construction. The P5s allow us to hear Ravel's inventiveness with terrific clarity.
The P5s do not offer a truly transparent window, but instead a superbly well presented view of the music. In my case they work extremely well with my first generation iPod Touch and I think they will work equally well with other portable devices. I don't feel any need to use an alternative amplifier with my iPod Touch which is great because I find using an alternative amplifier to be quite a bit of hassle. With the P5s I just plug then straight into the iPod Touch and put that in my pocket.
The P5s have a rather clever detachable cable. In fact they come with two cables, one has volume level and play/pause control, and I believe a microphone, the other is a plain cable. These supplied cables are short, they are intended for use with mobile devices. The cables are also very thin, this does not bother me, my AKG K450s have a very thin cable and this has lasted well for years. If I need to replace the cable on the P5s this would be simple as the plugs are 1/8 inch stereo jack plugs. The controls on the cable with the controls do not work with my first generation iPod Touch but I am told they work with more recent Apple mobile devices. The controls do work with my MacBook Pro. I haven't tried the mic yet.
The P5s look great. They are made mostly of metal and the ear pads and headband are covered in sheep skin. It's really lovely. Ear pad foam is memory foam.
A practical disadvantage with the P5s is that it is not easy to wear glasses with them. They have quite a firm clamp and being on-ear they flatten the ears and so wearing glasses becomes difficult. I actually just hook the glasses over the actual ear pads of the headphones and this works okay, however if I wish to wear glasses for a long time then I would use different headphones.
I have seen some comments about these headphones that are not very positive but my initial impressions are that for portable use these really are superb headphones. If you think the price is a bit high, I would suggest that you factor in that you probably won't need to buy an additional amplifier with your mobile device. Just plug 'em in and enjoy.