Digital signal processing would seem to be called for given all this complexity, but the price and power requirements of the headphone market generally work against that approach. Say a prayer that all those “ridiculously” expensive headphones will be market successes if you really want great headphone sound in the future.
The reader may be wondering at this point why I’ve provided a mini-treatise on headphone design issues instead of covering the B&W P5 headphones. Well, it is because the P5 so simply and stunningly gets this HRTF compensation right. In the P5 we have a loudspeaker maker doing something objectively quite different from a loudspeaker and in the process showing up a bunch of headphone manufacturers who’ve been at it for decades. I was surprised, to say the least. The midrange and treble of the P5 sounds quite natural, and they make you realize (even if you’ve spilt many a word on the subject) how subtly but importantly most headphones deviate from the ideal.
To be specific, the upper range of the P5 does a few things better than most, and you need to know what these are, especially if overall accuracy and naturalness are part of your headphone quest. First, the P5 treble sounds quite fine grained. Instruments and voices have a smoothness combined with a level of detail that is aligned with the way things sound in reality. Related to this, the P5 does a fine job of producing low-level midrange and treble sounds. You need this to hear the space where the recording was made and to hear the upper harmonics that differentiate instruments. While you might not care about those things in an analytical sense, but you need them in order for music to sound natural. Finally, the midrange and treble of the P5 sounds dynamic without being harsh, edgy or hard.
One example of this treble purity comes on Jack Johnson’s “Wasting Time” [On and On, UMVD]. The electric guitar/amp in the intro can have a painfully hard sound on many components—especially on those that have a small peak in the upper midrange or lower treble. The P5, however, passes this test brilliantly: the guitar is dynamic but it doesn’t “shout” or distract.
This natural clarity and balance extends across almost all of the frequency range from upper treble down to upper bass (roughly 100hz to 15khz). The P5 simply sounds well defined, relaxed and open. Overall bass/midrange/treble macro balance is quite natural.
Upper bass is within the P5’s broad area of strength. On “Happy House” from Old and New Dreams’ A Tribute to Blackwell [Black Saint], the tom-tom drums are clear and tight. Similarly, Ginger Baker’s drum kit on “Toad” from Cream’s Wheels of Fire [Polydor] is amazingly well defined and dynamic. The long drum solo section makes heavy use of snare and tom-tom and the skin definition (in a 42 year old recording of one of the all time great drum solos) is impressive and the dynamics really engaging.
Once you get below 100 Hz, the P5 has some weaknesses, though they aren’t severe. First, bass rolls off slowly as the frequency goes down. That means that to some ears the P5 will sound slightly lightly balanced down low. It also means the P5 isn’t ideal for power rock that depends on strong midbass for its dynamic flow. Before taking that too literally, however, note that my newfound appreciation for the ‘60s power trio Cream happened courtesy of the P5.
The Jack Johnson track mentioned above demonstrates the slight midbass limitations of the P5. When the string bass enters during the intro the level is good, but the definition is somewhat blurred. The somewhat lower pitched bass on the Jack Johnson track “Dreams Be Dreams” fares a little better, again showing good—though certainly not over-rich—balance and a reasonable if slightly blurred sense of air.
But unless you consider yourself a bass junky, don’t let these quibbles throw you off. The P5 is a major achievement and must be heard by anyone interested in accurate headphones for a mobile environment.
• Consider this headphone if: Midrange and high frequency smoothness and detail are paramount, and you would like to reach that goal with a headphone that imposes few tradeoffs elsewhere in the audio spectrum. Also consider the P5 if comfort is critical to you (come to think of it, isn’t comfort critical for everyone?), or if you prefer a headphone that really doesn’t need an auxiliary headphone amp.
• Look further if: You live for bass punch or enjoy playing music so loudly that you sometimes annoy other drivers by rattling your license plate trim rings.