Michael Brown Apr 21, 2010

Bowers & Wilkins P5 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones

Hard to believe this is a rookie effort

Bowers & Wilkins’ P5 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones have blown away several of our long-held beliefs: First, they’ve demonstrated that circumaural muffs aren’t the only means of isolating outside noise and preventing sound leakage in a traditional headphone design; second, they’ve proven that large drivers aren’t a requirement for fantastic bass response; and third, they've revealed that we’re not immune to the charms of fashion.

We find this last revelation the most curious. While we’ve always appreciated great design, we’ve always valued function over form. And on airline flights, we’ve always preferred in-ear monitors because they draw less attention than headphones. But the P5’s look so fabulously elegant that we wouldn’t mind if people did give them a second look. More importantly, they sound so superb that we wouldn’t mind if people asked us about them. That’s doubly impressive considering these are the company’s first-ever headphones.

B&W’s minimalist design approach renders the P5’s excellent travel partners. Where most sound-isolating phones come in oversized, hard-shell cases, the P5’s pads fold flat for storage and the phones fit inside a black, quilted clutch—yeah, it’s just a bit effeminate—but the whole package is just 1.5 inches thick and weighs less than eight ounces.

The headphones are constructed primarily from metal wire and brushed aluminum and are all but devoid of plastic. The earmuffs and headband, meanwhile, are generously padded with memory foam and covered in exquisitely soft and breathable New Zealand sheepskin—a welcome departure from the typical vinyl, especially since the pads rest on your pinnae as opposed to your skull. And that brings us back to our preconceptions about headphones. When we placed the P5’s over our ears, the pads compressed just enough to form a remarkable seal that blocked nearly as much outside noise as the vastly inferior Able Planet NC300B headphones we recently reviewed—and those use active noise cancellation. This seal was so effective that when we removed them after a listening session, we felt a tiny pop as the pressure inside our ears equalized.

Don’t worry, we’re not degenerating into audio fashionistas—the P5’s sound as spectacular as they look and feel. Listening to “Tonio Yima,” from the album The Afrobilly Sessions was a genuine feast for our ears. This album is an outstanding collaboration from British producer and blues guitarist Justin Adams and Gambian singer and ritti player Juldeh Camara encoded in 24-bit FLAC. And these headphones’ reproduced the entire audio spectrum—pounding bass drum, plucked bass strings, distortion-rich guitar, chanting male and female vocals—with such superb definition and clarity that they transported us to an imaginary seat behind the studio’s mixing console. Indeed, we found no reason to dispute B&W’s remarkable frequency-range claim of 10Hz to 20kHz.

Pull off the magnetic ear pads and you’ll find 40mm mylar diaphragms driven by neodymium magnets. The phones come with two cables: a conventional cord with 1/8-inch jack and a ¼-inch adapter, and a second featuring an in-line remote control and microphone that’s compatible with newer iPods and iPhones. The cable connection is made at a right angle inside the left earpiece, which should reduce strain on the cord if it becomes caught on anything. We do hope B&W will introduce a longer cable as an accessory, because we want to plug them into our hi-fi system, kick back in our La-Z-Boy with a generous pour of Red Breast, and groove the night away.


Bowers & Wilkins P5 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones

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