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Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones review

From skepticism to enthusiasm

 

%20Bowers%20%26%20Wilkins%20P3%20headphonesBig sound and a compact form factor make the Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones a must-hear.

Anticipation and doubt

I recently got to spend a few days with a class of headphones I haven’t had a huge amount of experience with, on-ear portables. This is a fast-growing category for a number of good reasons, mostly because of their compatibility with portable players and smartphones. And I admit to having a bit of a bias about them: I have always assumed that when it comes to this sector of the market, sound quality comes in second to form factor and device compatibility. So it was with a mixture of skepticism and anticipation that I accepted the box with the Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones for a bit of steady listening.

A proud lineage

Headphone enthusiasts in the reading audience are no doubt familiar with this set’s big brother, the P5s. They bowed to wide acclaim in 2011 and soon wowed reviewers around the globe, our own Ralph Graves among them.

The P5's unique streamlined rectilinear minimalism struck a chord with listeners. Plus, the sound was clear, true and engaging. They were just a tad big for wearing on the subway. So when Bowers & Wilkins’ plans for a more portable “P-series” family member came to light, everyone, myself included, was curious. Could the company successfully adapt their winning recipe to a form factor that has often put sound quality second?

First peek

Unboxing the P3’s was an unexpected treat. They come in a substantial box with a spring-loaded clamshell case inside. The clamshell cradles the headphones (in folded position) in cushioned comfort. Two thin, tangle-resistant four-foot cables are contained therein, one with an in-line remote switch/mic optimized for Apple® iOS® devices, and one plain one without any inline modification. The cables can be swapped out by removing the magnetic earpads to reveal the clever strain-relief/connector receptacle hidden underneath. When I placed the headphones on my head, they felt really comfortable. They had a confident clamp pressure and  giving, open-weave cloth pads. It all added up to a fit that felt secure on my head without feeling hot or constricting.

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Spin it up

Having given the P3s a thumbs-up for comfort, it was time to switch them on. I did the bulk of my listening in the manner I believe many buyers of these headphones will — plugged into my portable player (in my case, an iPhone®4). I like to begin my listening sessions with headphones with music that is more acoustic in nature, so I spun up singer-songwriter Meg Hutchinson’s Coming Up from her album The Crossing. The definition of the flatpick on the guitar strings (two guitars, split left and right) was crisp and even without being shrill, and when her voice joined in, in the same octave as the guitar, I could see that the overall midrange experience was going to be highly "listenable." I use that term to define a listening session where there’s no fatigue from overemphasized frequencies or poor waveform resolution.

When the bass joined in around 50 seconds, it was an eye-opener. I was honestly taken by surprise that such a compact driver could deliver such pleasant, authoritative bass, and I also felt that its overall voice complemented the midrange presentation to deliver a well-integrated (here’s that term again) highly listenable sound that I haven’t heard from other headphones in its class. It’s not that the P3s are earth-shattering, or that their clarity is beyond that of an audiophile unit --- they’re just way beyond most highly-portable headphones. Plus, they look 500 times cooler than most, too (a purely subjective opinion, but try them and tell me you don’t think so too).

Classical music was next. I chose a contemporary piece, movement 1 of John Adams’ Shaker Loops. While I found the overall image of the string orchestra a bit compressed, I could certainly pick out the positions of various instrumental voice groups with ease.

Finally, I chose a tune by alt-rock mainstay Guster: Happier, from the Lost and Gone Forever album. This is a nicely layered tune, with a lot of dynamic range and some well-defined percussive voices. The P3’s delivered the impact of the bass and percussive voices with a tight, focused accuracy, and a satisfying punch. These headphones might be small, but they sure don’t sound it.

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Attention please

Two notes here. First, unlike most small headphones, the P3s hardly leak at all. I cranked a stadium rock number and a big band number, and asked my cubicle neighbor if he could hear anything. Nada. And while I could still hear sounds around me, they were well-dampened by the ear pad design.

Secondly, be aware that placement of these pads on your ears is fairly critical to your listening experience. A few millimeters one way or the other impacted my perception of the frequency response, so there definitely is a focused “sweet spot” coming from these drivers. Move them around as you play music, it will be very clear to you when you’ve found the right position. Once you’ve set that up, they stay in place nicely.

The bottom line

So how do the P3s compare to the bigger P5’s? Well, they’re not the same. But you can certainly tell they share a lineage. The place where I see the difference is in soundstage, it’s definitely a bit more restricted and close to the head on the P3’s. I suspect the very high end of the treble range isn’t as emphasized on the P3’s, so the acoustic clues for reverb, reflections and other high-frequency dimensional clues are blunted a bit. But on the whole, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed wearing these headphones, and just how convenient and low-impact they were. While they aren’t designed for the critic who depends on everything to be evenly voiced, I found that I was thoroughly enjoying listening to my music on the P3’s. And isn’t that what it’s all about? The Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones are a clear winner for those who like to enjoy their music while on the move.

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