Bowers and Wilkins (B&W for short) is a long established English manufacturer of audio products, most famously its Nautilus and 800 series loudspeakers. B&W speakers have a history of usage in the making of recordings. As well, they have often been highly reviewed in the audiophile press.
In recent years, B&W has expanded into iPod and iPhone related products and desktop audio with its Zeppelin one-box iPod systems and MM-1 computer speakers (to be reviewed in an upcoming issue of Playback). But now the company has introduced a full-size, on-ear headphone called the P5—the very first headphone the British company has ever produced. Naturally, we were curious to learn what this venerable brand could do with a new product category that falls far outside the firm’s traditional comfort zone.
The P5 is designed for musical accuracy in a mobile environment. As such, B&W has employed high-strength neodymium magnets and a carefully shaped Mylar diaphragm in the P5. These features, however, do little to differentiate the P5 from any number of other similarly configured headphones, though I would note that the devil (and the angels) is in the details here.
B&W has made real efforts to give the P5 some noise isolation, though this is not an active noise-cancelling headphone. Note particularly the use of sheep’s leather from New Zealand and memory foam in the P5’s supple ear pads, which serve to create a user-specific seal to the outer ear.
The P5 is a 26-Ohm headphone, with rated sensitivity of 115-db/1V (or 100-dB/1mW). As such, it should be work well driven directly from a portable device.
The P5 is priced at $299. That places it a little above some very fine headphones (the Shure SRH 840 and several Grado models, for example). Can B&W justify that extra expense?
The P5 has several attractive attributes in actual use. First, it is a close-backed headphone, so fewer external noises get to your ears and less of your music leaks out to disturb those around you. Second, even though this is an on-ear rather than circumaural design, the compliance of the ear pads’ leather and memory foam provides a bit of a seal and again reduces noise transfer. On my test flight on an MD-80, I immediately sensed a decrease in noise when putting the P5 on. This isn’t as dramatic as one would hear with active noise cancellation, but it helped a lot. In an office, this level of noise reduction would be nearly ideal.
The ear pads, combined with a low-pressure headband, mean that the P5 is quite comfortable for long periods. I would rate it as among the most comfortable in my experience, though heads differ, as may your experience. This test took place in December, so I couldn’t test the heat/perspiration factor using our standard Texas blast furnace simulation technology, but indoors there was no issue.
The ear pads pivot so that the P5 lies flat in the included case. The P5 is therefore pretty easy to store in a backpack or briefcase, but the ear pads don’t fold inside the headband, so the footprint is large enough to preclude putting them in a purse or other small case.
The cord is short-ish at a bit over 1 meter. I think this is ideal, but your circumstances may make you wish for a somewhat longer cord. The cord is also very thin, which helps with packing and reducing the tug factor.
I also found the P5 fully capable of being driven by an iPhone 4. I used the P5 on a flight from Chicago to Austin and volume was more than adequate. A mic and remote cable is included for iPhone use, meaning that the P5 can also serve as a headset—a feature prized by many contemporary listeners.
A significant part of most headphone reviews deals with the inevitable difficulty of reproducing upper midrange and high frequencies in a way that sounds natural. Basically, our recordings, ears and brains are designed for music that is reproduced by sound sources that are located some distance from us, and are not designed for music reproduced a fraction of an inch from the ear. Headphones therefore have to deal with the nasty issue of HRTFs (head-related transfer functions), which is basically how our heads and outer ears equalize sounds coming from the outside world. Since headphones for the most part bypass the head and outer ears, the headphones themselves have to have built-in frequency response deviations that simulate what the HRTFs do.
This is easier said than done. First of all, there isn’t complete agreement about what the frequency domain effects of HRTFs are. The HRTF has to be observationally derived and with the inevitable variations between human research subjects it is easy to see why there might be divergent viewpoints on HRTF effects (interestingly, the most famous paper on HRTFs measured a mere 10 subjects, though even if hundreds were used we’d still be talking about averages). Second, getting a low-distortion driver to render the inverse of the HRTF frequency response curve is difficult. Headphone makers have to create a carefully shaped peak in the upper midrange and lower treble which is a quite different goal than what they’re tying to achieve with loudspeakers or microphones, where ruler-flat frequency response is generally the order of the day. Finally, HRTF isn’t just a frequency response concept, but also a timing concept.