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Bowers & Wilkins P3 review: Bowers & Wilkins P3

Bowers & Wilkins P3

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 reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
4 min read

Bower & Wilkins' P3 is the third headphone model to hit the market from the venerable British speaker company and it shares some common traits with the earlier on-ear P5 and in-ear C5.

Bowers & Wilkins P3 (Black)

Bowers & Wilkins P3

The Good

The <b>Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones</b> have an impressive design, strong performance, and an iPhone-friendly integrated microphone/remote. They also come with a hard-shell carrying case and an extra "straight-wire" cable that can be easily swapped in.

The Bad

They're fairly pricey and the integrated, remote isn't compatible with all smartphones, and you'll get some sound leakage from open-back earcup design.

The Bottom Line

The Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones' impressive combination of design, sound quality, and features put it near the top of the class for portable headphones in its price range.

Like those products, the P3 features a striking design and strong performance. It doesn't come cheap at $199.99, but it is more affordable than the swankier P5.

The P3's design is both modern and retro, with sleek lines and rectangular earpieces that give it a distinct look (the headphones come in a black or white finish). At least for me, the first word that comes to mind describing them is "classy."

The P3 is more lightweight than the P5, has a fold-up design, and comes with a hard-shell carrying case that functions almost like an oversize jewelry or glasses case. I can't say I liked the case design as much as the headphones' design. The clamshell can snap shut on your finger and since the case is made of hard plastic, it's going to get scuffed up over time. On the other hand, it is very protective and the headphones will likely hold up well over time. I did find myself wanting to treat them with care, perhaps because I didn't want their slick exterior to become blemished.

The Bowers & Wilkins P3 comes in black or white. Bowers & Wilkins

Along with the carrying case, the headphones come equipped with a cable that has an integrated remote/microphone that's designed to work with the iPhone. The microphone will work with other phones, including Android models, but the remote features are hit and miss with non-Apple smartphones.

If you're an audiophile who wants to eliminate the switch for "straight wire with gain" performance, B&W provides a second cable that leaves off the microphone and inline remote and is easy to swap in (the earpads adhere magnetically to the earcups and can be removed to expose the detachable wire).

The P3 headphones are made out of aluminum and "durable" rubber, and Bowers & Wilkins is highlighting the custom-made, "ultralight" acoustic fabric on the earpads. These headphones are very comfortable for on-ear headphones, but they don't feel quite as comfortable as the P5s, which have bigger, plusher leather earcups.

The fabric earcups on these guys do breathe better than the P5's leather earcups, though they'll still get your ears a little steamy on warmer days. You get a decent amount of passive noise-cancellation, though over-the-ear models will do an even better job muffling sounds from the outside world.

The headphones fold up to fit into a hard-shell case. Sarah Tew/CNET

It's worth noting that the P3s have a straight plug rather than an L-shaped plug. The common wisdom is that L-shaped plugs are preferable. That said, straight plugs tend to offer better compatibility with a wider variety of smartphone cases, which can sometimes leave the headphone jack fairly recessed.

As for performance, the P3s sound very good and like the P5s have detailed, well-balanced sound and good, tight bass. If you're looking for a headphone that really accentuates the low end, this isn't it. These are pleasant-sounding headphones designed to work well with a wide variety of music. They impress on their own, but my view of them changed a bit once I compared them with the step-up P5s. The P5s just sound a bit more detailed, open, and refined. In other words, that extra $100 you pay for the P5s does get you better sound. It's not a huge difference, but it's there.

Close up of the inline remote and microphone. Sarah Tew/CNET

I also compared these with the Bose OE2i mode that retails for about $30 less. The Bose is more comfortable and has a creamier sound that's rich but not as well defined as the P3's sound. Both CNET contributor Steve Guttenberg and I preferred the P3's sound. I thought the P3 sounded a bit more accurate and made my music sound more present and immediate.

In the end, the P3 is a strikingly designed headphone that sounds very good. I can't say this is a great deal at $200, but it's about what you should expect to pay for a headphone that features this level of industrial design, sound quality, and features. Yes, you can find headphones that sound better in this price range (the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 is one example), but few look as good.

If you're trying to decide between this model and the more expensive P5, that's a tough choice. Because this model is lighter, it's a bit more suited to mobile use, though I have seen plenty of people walking around New York with P5s. Of course at the time I saw them, they didn't didn't have a choice between the P5 and P3. Now that they have the choice, I have a feeling some would opt for the P3. Overall, it may not be as good as the P5, but in certain ways it's better. That's why it's a tough call.

Editors' note (June 13, 2014): The rating on this product has been updated (lowered from 4 to 3.5 stars) to reflect changes in the competitive marketplace.

Bowers & Wilkins P3 (Black)

Bowers & Wilkins P3

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 7Value 7