Bowers & Wilkins P3 Review. The P3 on ear headphones fuse style with an interesting sonic signature. Consumers will appreciate this design, although audiophiles will be left questioning their high price.
Bowers and Wilkins an iconic postmodern brand that is infamous for providing both style and substance. With both hi-fi and monitor speakers appearing at the likes of Abbey Road and Metropolis, their professional series isn't the only one to make a statement where Bowers & Wilkins consumer products have inspired many other brands to follow suit with the likes of their debut iPod speaker dock. Known as the 'Zeppelin', this dock was a premium consumer product that sold at a rate of knots, and paved the way for the same sound signature to be translated into portable earphones and headphones. Having recently reviewed the Bowers & Wilkins C5 earphones, we were impressed enough with their performance to rate them with a full five star rating, however, we are now revisiting the brand by reviewing the P3 headphones, and our findings are something rather different.
Overall the package that the P3's arrive in is a similar flavour to that seen with the C5's and, like before, appears to be very well presented with almost the same materialistic attention to detail that Apple offers with their products. Opening the box reveals a medium density foam protector that adequately protects the contents which initially is a hard ABS plastic clamshell case, with a very nice matched velvet interior. Appearances are maintained with the fact that the case is very well made and feels like it can withstand some serious abuse. When opening the clamshell you are presented with the P3's in their folded 'carry' position and the 3.5mm jack cable pre-installed in the driver housing. I must say at this point that the P3's are much smaller, lighter, and dainty than I what I was expecting. Concluding the unboxing process, there is an instruction manual included to guide you through the process of replacing the cable and other general information. As a package, Bowers & Wilkins present the P3's simply and effectively without any extras that are unnecessary or confusing to the target consumer.
Build Quality and Function:
As said previously, these headphones are really much smaller than I was expecting and in some respects this is to their credit. For the commuter that requires an physically unobtrusive headphone design that is hardy, malleable, and practical whilst remaining to fashion conscious statement, then I can see the P3's fitting well into this lifestyle. Equally I can see the physicality working quite well for the modern woman who is reluctant to verge toward earphones for their informal presentation as the P3's fold into such a small footprint that they can easily be carried in the smallest of handbags. Regardless of the footprint working with certain demographics, the jaw dropping P3 elegance is likely to captivate the attention of anyone out there who is willing to spend a small fortune on statement headphones that also feature a higher perceived sound quality than those terrible Apple Earbuds. Furthermore, although dainty, the P3's are by no means constructionally weak in the driver housing and headband department due to a meticulous mix of fanatical engineering and a superior 'second-to-none' manufacturing process. Usually one of the areas of weakness in a product such as this would be at the driver housing to headband junction point, but no such weakness occurs here even within the folding mechanism, that, when transformed, produces a satisfying click.
Part of Bowers & Wilkins marketing surrounding the P3's is that their construction features only three essential materials; rubber, aluminium and cloth, where comfort is maintained (with the exception to the list) with memory foam that is implemented to mould to the contours of a users ear over time. Having tested this product on a large number of consumers I was presented with recurring feedback that, in terms of comfortability, was not very favourable. Personally I found that for extended periods of use left the soft skin of my ears feeling marginally sore, and this is a likely cause of the small size of the earcups pinching the upper ear, and not quite enough padding from the memory from. Saying this, I must note that the headband is also quite uncomfortable. Obviously this is first caused the thin hard headband that is made from an aluminium (and not plastic) core with hard foam, and secondly because it is so thin that it doesn't distribute pressure effectively over a larger area. I do feel here that Bowers & Wilkins have sacrificed comfort and footprint size for style. However, being an Apple certified product, the P3's are specifically made for the iPod generation and it is nice that included is a discreet in-line microphone and standard iPod control. It would have been nice to have seen a much thicker cable with some reinforcement, but again I feel that this might have all boiled down to a fashion statement.
Having stated all of the above the magnetic ear-cup design is one that appears to be unique and ingenious, so therefore this an element that I have investigated in great depths. For the sake of consumer 'ease of use', Bowers & Wilkins have implemented a design that is simple for the average user to replace the cable to the drive unit, if needs be. As much as I respect the aesthetic reasons and cable solder point strain-relief for locating the cable connector behind the ear-cup, as well as the 'replaceable' comfort factor for when the memory foam looses effectiveness, this is a fundamental design overlook. By locating the drive unit cable point in the place that Bowers & Wilkins have, this has come at the expense of potential driver size, increased the interior resonating surfaces, introduced the possibility of loosing ear cups and at the same time left the headphones more exposed to damage by the elements. Even forgetting the technicalities here I have found that the material that the P3's promote as 'acoustically optimised' in fact is detrimental to the performance of the drivers; especially when mixed with memory foam and increased magnetic field created by the 'snap-on' design. This is a discussion that I shall continue in the following section.
Being familiar with the superior sound quality of many Bowers & Wilkins products I was left in a smokescreen of dominating low mid presence and boxy like sound quality - especially on male vocals. As I am well aquatinted with numerous headphones across the board my initial post-burn impressions left me confused no matter what the audio source was; iPod, iPhone, Prism Sound 'Orpheus' etc. I really did have high hopes for the P3 sound quality, and at a premium price I found their 'middle-of-the-road' performance to be sadly similar to a number of headphones at half the price. I particularly noticed that when the P3's were driven beyond a modest point then the drivers would start distorting the top end. Obviously this is a direct result of the small driver size so if portability and style is an overruling factor in your purchase then you will probably be prepared to take this hit.
As I went on a personal voyage of happiness I came across a spot of classical and folk music that has some lovely spacious choir vocals. It was here I noticed a grey area in the top mid where it sounded like there is some acoustical issues that made the higher vocals pool into an unpleasant wash and the soundstage was really quite closed or limited. The tracks I played were Tallis: 'Spem In Alium' by 'Peter Philips: The Tallis Scholars and Ben Howard's 'Old Pine'. Following this I couldn't accept what I was hearing so I went a bit further and removed the magnetic ear-cup pieces and then placed them back on my head and gently cupped my hands around them. In my opinion there was no effect on the soundstage but the sound quality dramatically changed to a polar opposite of what I was hearing before... there was no low mid bass wash anymore, the mids were understated and the tops were extended and slightly brittle. For any of you whom already own a pair of P3's I strongly advise removing the ear-cup of one and then placing them back on your head and you will know exactly what I am talking about. I strongly believe that a combination of the 'acoustic material' properties, memory foam, plastic and magnets have negative effect in terms of performance. As I came to this conclusion I realised that if this component was redesigned then the sound quality of these headphones can be increased and that is where I would like to leave it for a description of the sound quality.
With the Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones it is very much a case of style over substance. Yes they look pretty and are physically functional for places like the tube, but the P3's fail to deliver a sound that is engaging or competitive with any other product in this price range. Although I rarely like to draw parallels with any other brand, I do feel that the Beyerdynamic DTX-501p headphones don't quite have the style, but they sound almost on par at a third of the cost! I was really hoping to like the P3's as much as I loved the C5 in-ears so, with the knowledge above, if Bowers & Wilkins revised the magnetic ear-cup design then this would be a product that can live up to expectations and be awarded with a significantly higher rating. Overall The Pro Audio Web Blog sadly rates the Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones a three out of five rating.