B&W's sweet new P5 headphones

Everybody's getting into the headphone market, but when Bowers & Wilkins enters the fray, expect something special. Yup, the P5 is pretty amazing.

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.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
The B&W design team worked their magic on the P5 Steve Guttenberg

Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) has a new headphone, the P5.

B&W is one of the more legendary names in British hi-fi, and its speakers are used in many of the world's top studios, including the Beatles' favorite, Abbey Road.

B&W is also known for its sleek styling, and the P5 is definitely a looker. Its real leather and chunky construction put all of the other $300 headphones on the market to shame. The P5 is a handsome luxury design, on par with B&W's high-end speakers.

Comfort? The P5's thickly padded leather headband and ear pads are soft and comfy. That's great, but the full leather-to-ears contact may promote perspiration. My ears didn't sweat, but they sure felt hot when I wore the P5s for extended periods. The upside to the close contact design is that it blocks a fair amount of external noise. Not as effectively as noise-canceling headphones, but the P5 doesn't need batteries.

The P5 is being marketed as a portable design, so it's smaller than most full-size, over-the-ear headphones. The included quilted carry bag is nicer than what you get with most headphones.

A user-replaceable 48 inch cable is attached to the left earcup. The P5 is supplied with two cables, one of which, the MFI cable with built-in microphone, is for use with the very latest Apple iPod and iPhone models. The removable (magnetically attached) earpads are more squarish than round, about 3 inches high, and they fold flat against your chest when you put the headband on your neck.

The P5's leather ear pad Steve Guttenberg

Some P5 owners have noted the headphone sounds "muddy" at first and needs a bit of "break-in" time to sound its best. I left it playing for two days before I scrutinized the sound.

The sound is easy on the ears; it's warm, rich and yet clear. I noticed that moving the earpads' position relative to my ears changed the sound somewhat. Clarity improved when I had them a bit higher than where I started. I advise P5 owners to play around with how the earpads sit on your ears.

In any case, it's the sort of sound that you can listen to for hours on end without fatigue. Bass is full, with great impact and definition is good.

Playing to Peter Gabriel's new "Scratch My Back" album, the P5 had a more upfront/closer perspective than my mellow-sounding Sennheiser HD-580 headphones. Some of that difference can be attributed to the P5's brighter tonal balance, and Gabriel's vocals and the orchestra's low strings seemed more immediate over the P5. The HD-580 is an "open back" design, so its sound was less inside my head than the closed-back P5.

Hard rock from the White Stripes proved the P5 had more powerful bass and was more dynamically alive than the HD-580. The P5 was clearly the better headphone on rock. Treble is very present, not too bright or soft; the balance is just right.

The P5 ($300) is beautifully made and sounds great. It's a B&W, after all.

That said, The P5 isn't going up against the world's best, full-size headphones, but it's a good deal more affordable than any state-of-the-art headphone.

Speaking of good sound, there's still time to enter The Audiophillie Music Awards for Excellence in Recorded Sound contest. Just make a recording and send it in.