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Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones -- substance and style

First impressions — thinking outside the rectangle

I had my doubts when I took the Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones home for review. I like B&W products — they sound great and they have a look all their own. But I wondered if they had taken industrial design a little too far with the P5's. These headphones had rectangular earpieces! And that's not the shape of my ears.

I needn't have worried. B&W likes to push the envelope in their designs, but never at the expense of performance. When I put the headphones on, the earpieces gently settled over my ears, covering them well enough to block out a significant amount of the ambient sounds around me.

Unusual but effective construction

The earcups were made of supple New Zealand sheep leather and felt very comfortable. And unlike padding made of plastic-based materials, they didn't make my ears sweat over time (and I wore these headphones for long periods of time). 

I really liked the metal posts connecting the earcups to the headband. This tends to be a place where cheap headphones fail, but these P5's should be operational for some time to come. The headband itself is also a metal frame, encased in a generously padded cushion. The metal work made the headphones feel substantial, but they still weighed a little less than seven ounces. The headband's wire frame provided just enough tension to hold the earpieces in place, while the padding kept the headphones from weighing heavily on my mind — er, head.

Made for portability

Bowers & Wilkins talk about how they made these headphones for the iPod® and iPhone®, so of course, I had to try them out with one (an iPod, that is). The headphones come with an inline microphone and controller. The microphone is, of course, for taking calls on the iPhone, while the controller can be used with most connected iPods.

The P5's and my iPod made a great combination, with one drawback.  My listening was often interrupted by folks asking me about my awesome-looking headphones. So if you don't mind being the center of attention...

Seriously, they did a very good job with my iPod's music. Almost all of my digital music is in Apple Lossless format, which means there's a lot of music detail that wouldn't be there in the 128kbps compressed versions that many people are accustomed to. I expected to hear that detail, and the P5's didn't disappoint.

The headphones reproduced the highs accurately, which made a big difference with the classical tracks. The mid-range also sounded great. It was nice and full, and had enough clarity for me to dig into the music and hear what each instrument was doing. I don't have my iPod EQ'd for especially heavy bass, but the P5's delivered nevertheless and my tracks had the overall sound that I was expecting to hear with good quality headphones.

I also liked the sound field I was hearing. It felt like there was a small, seamless globe of sound that nicely encompassed my head. And on the better-recorded tracks, that sound field seemed to expand a little outside the earpieces.

Please do try this at home!

Plugging the P5's into the minijack of a portable player is sort of a worst case trial — and they performed very well. I also gave them a chance to shine on a more advanced system. I have a NuForce Icon 2 desktop stereo integrated amp with a built-in digital-to-audio converter that's hooked up to the computer I store my digital music on. The Icon 2 does two things: it bypasses the marginal soundcard on the computer and processes the digital signal itself. It also provides power to the headphones, so they can operate optimally.

This setup made a significant difference. Going from the iPod to the computer was like looking through a dusty window and then wiping it clean. Could the P5's handle all this additional information? Oh yes. I was hearing much more detail in the music, and it had some actual presence.

Acoustic tracks sounded very natural and warm. While the sound field felt about the same, it was much richer in detail. On a recording of a Mozart string quartet, for example, I could hear an occasional sharp intake of breath from the first violinist (I could tell from the position of the instrument in the sound field — that's how accurate these headphones were).

And when I played some Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, the bass was there in all its glory. Same when I checked out some heavy metal and rap tracks. So it seemed that the P5's could reproduce some solid bass, they were just underpowered when connected to the iPod.

Conclusion: great under any circumstances

I had an opportunity to keep these headphones for a while, and found that I used them for just about everything. They were light enough for on-the-go listening with my iPod, and they did a fine job when I was ready for a serious listening session at home. Not everyone can afford a specialized set of headphones for every application (me neither). The Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones may be made for the iPod and iPhone, but I think they're a good all-purpose choice for whatever type of listening you do — and you'll look incredibly cool wearing them, too.

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