Bowers & Wilkins new PI7 true-wireless earbuds sound fantastic but they're $400
The company has also released the $250 PI5 earbuds.
David CarnoyExecutive 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.
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Aside from stellar sound -- I'll dig more into that shortly -- the PI7 buds have a few bonus feature that may or may not help you rationalize paying $400 for them. For starters, they're the first earbuds I've encountered where the wireless charging case converts into a transceiver, so you can plug the case into the headphone port on an airplane's inflight entertainment system and wirelessly stream audio from the case to the earbuds.
At 75g with the buds in the case (the PI5 is 61g with the buds inside), the case is pretty light and fairly compact, though not as compact as that of the AirPods Pro. It looks like a smaller version of the case for the Sony WF-1000XM3 and -- like that case -- it can only stand upright if you flip it upside-down on its lid.
Additionally, Bowers & Wilkins says the PI7 supports Qualcomm aptX Adaptive wireless transmission (which includes the AptX HD codec) from compatible mobile devices, allowing for "high-resolution music transmission from suitable streaming services, such as Qobuz." Also, the PI7 "backs that high-resolution capability with 24-bit/48kHz wireless transmission between each earbud." That makes the PI7 one of few true wireless earbuds to support high-resolution audio "all the way from your music source to your ears," according to Bowers & Wilkins.
Alas, the list of mobile phones that currently support aptX Adaptive is quite limited -- I don't own any of them -- and I've always found that aptX's implementation in devices is rather opaque. Apple's iPhones support the AAC codec, not aptX (both the PI5 and PI7 support AAC streaming). And while we're discussing Bluetooth audio codecs, which is what happens when you're dealing with high-end wireless headphones, these earbuds don't do Sony's LDAC hi-res audio codec. Sorry, LDAC fans.
The PI5 and PI7 are equipped with Qualcomm's QCC5126 chip, which used to be Qualcomm's flagship Bluetooth Audio SoC (System-on-Chip). Qualcomm is now up to the more feature-rich QCC5151, but the problem is a product like the PI7 takes well over a year to develop -- possibly well over two years, as Bowers & Wilkins says the buds were released after "an extensive period of development." Products powered by the QCC5151 are probably months away from hitting store shelves.
The PI7 and PI5 look the same and feature a IP54 water-resistance rating (splashproof) along with Bluetooth 5.0. The PI5 has a single 9.2mm driver while the PI7 has an identically sized driver combined with a "high-frequency" balanced-armature driver. The PI5 supports AAC and the standard AptX and AAC codecs, not the aforementioned AptX Adaptive and AptX HD -- thus, no support for high-resolution audio streaming. Also, the PI5's case doesn't convert into a Bluetooth transceiver, though it does charge wirelessly. And lastly, the PI7 has 3 microphones on each bud -- one is dedicated to picking up your voice during calls -- while the PI5 has two.
Battery life is slightly disappointing. The PI7 is rated for 4 hours on a single charge at moderate levels with noise-canceling while the PI5 is rated for up to 4.5 hours. The charging case gives you an additional 4 charges on the go.
I still have to do some additional testing and comparisons but from what I've heard so far, the PI7 are right up there with the best-sounding true wireless earbuds and may even be the best sounding overall. Like I said, I don't have an aptX Adaptive-compatible mobile phone but I did stream high-resolution music from a MacBook to the buds using the case as a conduit and also used the Qobuz app to stream music from an iPhone 12 Pro and a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. (Side note: I've grown to prefer Qobuz to Tidal, another streaming service that offers high-resolution streaming.)
In terms of sound, the PI7 has exactly what I'm looking for in a good set of headphones: Accurate and articulate sounding with deep, well-defined bass, natural sounding mids, nicely detailed treble and a wide soundstage that gives the overall sound some largesse. You'll need a tight seal for optimal sound quality and noise-canceling performance, which is also good (the auto noise-canceling setting adapts the noise canceling according to the ambient sound in your environment).
While these are bigger buds that will extend out from your ears (most higher-end buds are larger), I found them comfortable to wear and was able to run with them without having them fall out of my ears (I got a secure fit). I don't know if it's a great idea to run with them. If one of the buds fell out of my ear for some reason, landing on the pavement and getting dinged up, I might cry if I had just paid $400 for them. But I wouldn't have any trouble using them in the gym.
Like the AirPods Pro, these do have a transparency mode that allows sound into the buds. It's not as good as the transparency mode on the AirPods Pro -- there's a slight hiss -- but it's decent. So too is the call quality. The noise reduction during calls was good out on the streets of New York. Callers said they could hear me clearly, and I could hear them quite well, but they also said that while background noise was reduced, they heard a bit of hiss.
Based on my experience with earlier advanced earbuds like this that have multiple microphones, manufacturers tend to make some improvements with firmware upgrades and I wouldn't be surprised if these did improve over time for making calls. Again, call quality is good right now, but when you're dealing with a $400 headphone, you expect stellar. I had this issue with the Jabra Elite 75t when it first came out and it required several firmware upgrades to reach its full potential.
These have touch controls and they work relatively well, but they're fairly limited. There are no volume controls on the buds themselves. It's also worth noting that there are no EQ controls in the companion app for iOS and Android. I'm personally OK with that, particularly with a headphone like this that's already perfectly tuned to my tastes, but some people like the options of playing around with the sound a bit.
Last but not least, if you're wondering whether these have multipoint Bluetooth pairing, which allows you to pair the earbuds with two devices at the same time (such as a laptop and a smartphone), neither the PI5 or PI7 has that feature. But the earbuds do pair with multiple devices and in the app you can toggle between the devices you've previously paired, which I found worked pretty well. But it's not quite as seamless an experience as having true multipoint Bluetooth pairing, which mainly comes in handy when you're using your buds to listen to audio on your computer and a call comes in on your phone.
Once I get my hands on the PI5, I'll be able to put together a more thorough review, with a deeper dive into the sound of both buds. But for now the PI7 have become my go-to earbuds for everyday listening. They may not surpass the high-end competition for noise-canceling and call quality, but they're certainly hard to beat for overall sound quality.
Correction, 11:58 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to these headphones as "P17" and "P15."