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Bowers and Wilkins P5 Series 2 review: A premium on-ear headphone that looks the same but sounds even better

The $300 Bowers and Wilkins P5 Series 2 has the same winning design of its highly rated predecessor, but its sound engine has been upgraded. We approve.

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David Carnoy
Steve Guttenberg
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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Steve Guttenberg

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

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Bowers and Wilkins' P5 Series 2 headphone is both new and not really new.

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8.1

Bowers and Wilkins P5 Series 2

The Good

The Bowers and Wilkins P5 Series 2 headphones have excellent build quality and rich, well-balanced sound that's now more transparent and accurate. Its earpads are removable and the two included cables are detachable (one has a built-in Apple friendly remote/microphone). The tight seal shuts out a lot of external noise and the headphones don't leak sound. A protective carrying case is included.

The Bad

Somewhat pricey; leather earpads will cause your ears to get steamy on warmer days; not all remote features will work with Android and Windows devices.

The Bottom Line

The Bowers and Wilkins P5 Series 2 has the same winning design of its highly rated predecessor, but now it sounds even better.

That's because, except for a color change from silver to black on the earpieces, it looks identical to the original P5 and also costs $299.99(£249.99 UK, AU$449.95). But on the inside, the new P5 has a driver that's more in line with the driver of its big brother, the step-up P7 , an over-the-ear model.

For an on-ear headphone, the P5 is comfortable (though not exceptionally so) and we've always liked its swanky design, a mix of retro and modern styling. For some, the headphone may fit too snugly at first, but you can release some of the pressure by flexing the headband (I hesitate to say you're bending it, but that's more or less what you're doing). It's not so different from working in a baseball glove.

Bowers and Wilkins P5 Series 2

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The headphone folds flat and comes with a nice carrying case. It's also worth noting that the cord on the headphone is detachable. However, the P5s don't have your typical headphone input jack at the base of one (or both) of the earpieces. Instead, the connection is built into the driver and is accessed by pulling off the earpiece, which adheres magnetically (watch the video to see what we're talking about).

You get both a standard cable and one that has an integrated remote and microphone that plays well with Apple devices, which simply means not all the remote features will work with Android and Windows devices, but you'll still be able to make calls just fine using the microphone (sound quality was decent).

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On the new model the earpiece is finished in all black instead of silver and black.. Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance

The first thing you notice about the P5 Series 2 is that it's a more transparent headphone than its predecessor, which had a warmish sound profile and was easy to listen to for hours at a time.

The haze that softened details of the P5's midrange and treble has lifted. Don't worry, this new model doesn't have so much extra zip that it becomes fatiguing, but cymbals and percussion now have more "air" and shimmer. (Switching back to the P5 taps down the sparkle, which makes it feel a little dull).

The P5 still sounds sweet and full-bodied, while the P5 Series 2 is a bit leaner. As for the bass, the new model reveals more shadings and texture in the low-end (we came to this realization while listening to some Bob Marley tracks). The new headphone's sound also seems more natural and accurate.

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The headphones comes with a carrying case and an extra cable. Sarah Tew/CNET

The P5 Series 2 was doing everything right, so we wondered how it would it stacked up against the P7 , Bowers and Wilkins current flagship headphone (which, curiously, did not get a "Series 2" upgrade for 2014). That model produces a larger, more open soundstage the sound seems a little less stuck inside your head.

Aside from that more open quality and the P7's slight edge in its resolution of fine detail, the two Bowers and Wilkins models sounded similar and share the same sound DNA.

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The earpieces adhere magnetically. Sarah Tew/CNET

For our final comparison, we put the P5 Series 2 up against the Grado SR325e, which is an open-back headphone. That one generated a broader, more spacious soundstage than any of the Bowers and Wilkins headphones. The Grado SR325e has the sound edge, but it does leak sound and lets external noise in while the P5 Series 2 does provide some sound isolation.

Conclusion

Despite its somewhat high price, we gave high marks to the original P5. While it lacked a little zip and clarity, it was a comfortable, warm sounding on-ear headphone that you could listen to for long periods. The new P5 Series 2 is more transparent and accurate and for most people it will be seem like a clear upgrade. That was certainly our impression.

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8.1

Bowers and Wilkins P5 Series 2

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 8Value 7