B&W -- or Bowers & Wilkins, if you prefer -- has for decades been one of the world's most respected audio companies. Audiophiles and recording engineers love its iconic 800-series speakers with yellow Kevlar drivers. Although the company has recently shifted its focus to relatively inexpensive, iPhone-era products like headphones and wireless speakers, it's kept its rep intact. That's part of the reason why the introduction of the company's first over-ear headphone, the $399 P7, got so much attention when it was announced today.
That said, it seems to me a lot of reviewers just roll over like affection-starved collies when a B&W product comes around. I've liked most of the B&W products I've heard, but the company's had a few missteps, too. So in today's hyper-competitive headphone market, can an old-school name like B&W compete with the branding of Beats and Skullcandy or the sound quality of PSB?
See my full lab measurements for the B&W P7 in this image gallery.
• 40mm drivers
• 4.2 ft/1.3m cord with inline mic and play/pause/answer button
• 4.2 ft/1.3m standard cord
• Leather carrying case included
• Weight: 9.2 oz/260g
Although the P7 is rather large and thus might be best-suited for home use, it's no larger than some big travel 'phones like PSB's M4U 2. So to get an idea of the P7's comfort and travel-worthiness, I took it out for a round trip on L.A.'s Orange Line bus after first giving the headphone a few hours of break-in with music.
It's a fairly large headphone, but the earpieces fold in, making it easy to slip the P7 into the Tumi "man purse" I take on my jaunts around the city. B&W also supplies a half-moon-shaped leather carrying case; it's a little large to carry in your laptop bag, but just fine for a small suitcase or rollaboard.
My earlobes are pretty large, and often get mashed by headphone earpads, but the P7 stayed comfortable on my head for the full length of the Orange Line ride, about an hour each way. I felt my left earlobe was getting slightly mashed by the end of the ride, but still, for me this is above-average comfort.
I was extra-impressed by the sound isolation I got with the P7. I could barely hear outside sounds or most of the noise from the Orange Line bus. When I played the quiet, acoustic opening of the live version of James Taylor's "Shower the People" from Live at the Beacon Theatre, the whine of the bus's tires and engine didn't drown out the details in Taylor's guitar. I also found that I didn't have to turn the P7 up as loud as I do with most headphones.
Lauren Dragan, headphone editor for The Wirecutter, happened to be over at my house for some soundbar testing, so I asked her to give the P7 a spin. She found it pretty comfortable, although she found it difficult to get a good seal of the earpads against her face; I guess the headband didn't have enough spring to press the relatively firm earpads firmly enough to get the great seal that I got. (Note that at 7-3/4, my head is on the large side, and obviously hers is much smaller.)
Just so you know, my source devices for this review -- on the Orange Line and later at home -- were an iPod touch, a Samsung Galaxy S III phone and a HiFiMan HM-601 portable music player.
From the first few notes of K-Pop band Big Bang's "Haru Haru," I knew I was going to like the P7. The big, reverberant mix of this tune practically exploded out of the P7. The sound was huge, yet the placement of the instruments and the voices within the stereo soundstage was exceptionally precise -- a sound similar to what I've heard when sitting at a mixing board in a recording studio with professional studio monitor speakers placed just a couple of feet to each side of my head. The dense mix of overdubbed voices sounded unbelievably clear; I could hear more "into" the mix than I ever have before.
Looking through the shaky notes I made on the Orange Line, I see the word "detail" appear over and over. Don't get frightened off, though. Often, with great detail comes great brightness and, eventually, great listening fatigue. Not so with the P7. It definitely has some treble emphasis; some high-pitched instruments like cymbals sometimes sounded a tad sizzly, and Robert Plant's voice on Led Zeppelin's "Dancing Days" sounded a little bit lispy, but somehow the P7 never sounded bright to me and never fatigued my ears.
The detail was great not only in the treble but also in the midrange. I noticed this especially on recordings with acoustic piano, such as Steely Dan's "Aja" and the live version of jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd's "Sweet Georgia Bright" (from Rabo de Nube). On both of these tunes, the piano sounded unusually clear -- especially on "Sweet Georgia Bright," where it stretched luxuriously across the entire stereo soundstage.
Lauren noted this same character, going so far as to call the sound "a little mid-heavy," but still praised it overall, citing a satisfying tonal balance and good low-bass defintion as the P7's strongest points.
What's not to like about the P7? That depends on what you like. It sounded to me like the bass has a resonant peak around 50 Hz or so, which gave it an extra-punchy sound but not much definition in the mid-bass. (Note that my lab measurements did not reflect this perception, but still, it's what I heard -- and it's what Lauren heard, too.) So the powerful bottom-end in "Haru Haru" sounded awesome through the P7, but the fine details of the acoustic bass in "Sweet Georgia Bright" were lost, and even some of the groove in The Cult's "Wild Flower" failed to come through.
So if you like your bass flat and accurately rendered, you might like something like the PSB M4U 1 better. If you like your bass punchy and exciting -- but never overbearing -- the P7 is likely to please.
Want another opinion? Check out Geoff Morrison's review on Forbes.com, where he said, "I wish they were a bit cheaper, but they sound and look great."
Incidentally, if you're choosing between the P7 and the P5 on-ear model, spend the extra $100 for the P7. Its sound is much fuller and better balanced than the somewhat trebly P5, and the P7 is a billion, zillion times more comfortable.
The B&W P7 easily ranks among my favorite passive headphones in its price class, the others being the PSB M4U 1 and the Sennheiser Momentum. Which would you prefer? It's hard to say. If you demand the flattest, most neutral sound, I'd suggest the PSB. If you want a little more bass (and to save a few bucks, too), get the Momentum. If you crave a more dynamic, detailed and exciting sound, get the P7. If you crave an even more vivid sound, get the Phiaton MS500.
The P7's $100 more than the M4U 1, and $50 to $170 more than the Momentum (depending on where you buy it), so it's a more expensive option. But I prefer the P7's comfort, form factor and styling to any of the other headphones mentioned.
Does this all sound like an indecisive, fence-sitting, wussy conclusion? So be it. When you have so many good products in a specific category, it all boils down to personal preference.