There’s a class of over-ear headphones, costing between $200 and $500, that’s defined by an emphasis on striking, premium design, and an exciting sound that’s rich on crowd-pleasing bass. You can think of them as the next logical step that most people take when they decide they want an upgrade from their Beats cans — and one of the best exemplars in this category is Bowers & Wilkins and its P series. This year, B&W has kept with the times and introduced wireless versions of its two best-known models, the P5 and P7, and I got to spend a couple of fun weeks with the latter.
Costing $399.99, the P7 Wireless is $50 dearer than the regular, wired P7. By itself, that might be a reasonable premium to pay for the added convenience, but the P7s were already pricey, which nudges the new model into the very top of the consumer premium bracket. So the new cans have to be pretty amazing to justify their expense.
The good news is that Bowers & Wilkins has indeed lived up to its promise of re-creating the sound signature, performance, and ergonomics of the original headphones. If you’re already familiar with and enjoy the P7s, these will not disappoint. For the rest of us, the P7 Wireless are both an intriguing proposition and a harbinger of what’s to come from the headphone industry. Yes, wireless cans have been an ongoing trend for a while now, but they’ve tended to prioritize portability and other features like the QC35s’ superlative noise canceling rather than pure audio quality. The P7 Wireless are a legitimate high-fidelity headphone, with a matching price, going the Bluetooth route.
A great deal of their cost is validated by the use of premium materials throughout, with the glinting metal and demure black leather making for a classy and classic look. The memory foam pads are easily removable — they are held in place securely by magnets — and fit around the ear in a snug and reassuring fashion. One peculiar thing I found about the fit of the P7s is that they’re too tight for relaxed listening at home, but are perfect when I’m out and about. When I’m on the move, their stronger clamping force keeps the headphones on my head when I have to dash to catch a bus or bend down to pick up my backpack. Given that their intended use is mobile, I’d say the imperfect home comfort of the P7s is an okay trade-off for their secure fit when out and about. Though I still would have preferred a softer headband that might not leave quite such an indentation in my hairstyle after an hour’s use.
Bowers & Wilkins doubles down on the luxurious portability concept by giving the P7s a folding design that shrinks their size and helps them fit into an excellent carry case. Honestly, I like that case so much that I’d recommend buying one by itself, at $24, provided your current headphones can fit its so-called half-moon shape.
Much like their physical design, the sound of the P7 Wireless is very much intended for outdoor use. Sitting in the quiet confines of my home office, I find its bass booming and blooming: it’s certainly a pleasant ride, but it’s also a manifestly exaggerated one. I’m not sure I’d spend this sort of money on headphones that don’t at least try to balance the bass against the rest of a recording. But things change dramatically when I’m commuting on the tube, where external noise is well isolated by the ear cups, but still invades sufficiently to undermine the lower frequencies of the music playback. That’s where the P7s’ extra bass comes in nicely and rebalances things — it maintains an impactful and exciting presentation of the music under unfavorable listening conditions.
While I don’t think audio purists would take the P7 Wireless’ tonal balance too seriously — I’m not even sure that Bowers & Wilkins does — I find it an enjoyable one, and it is underpinned by a new driver system that benefits from B&W’s speaker design knowhow. So, like a Fujifilm camera with one of its film filters turned on, you know you’re getting detail and quality that’s worthy of the brand, but it’s not entirely faithful to reality. A tasteful distortion, if it suits your tastes, but an unwelcome one if it doesn’t.
On the wireless front, B&W has done mostly a competent job, but I was left disappointed by the reliability of the connection. Hooking up the P7 Wireless to my Google Pixel XL via Bluetooth, I found the audio cutting out when I had my palm over the glass shield at the back of the phone — which you might think is a Pixel issue, but I found no such problems in the same circumstances with the Jaybird X3 earbuds. Still, once I paired up the P7s with my favored device, they were very easy to operate with simple and handy controls at the back of the right ear cup. A little bump on the play / pause button makes tactile recognition straightforward.
It’s also to B&W’s credit that it hasn’t made its Bluetooth headphones unduly heavy or ungainly with the added need for wireless internals and batteries. The company advertises 17 hours of continuous playback and I was never able to completely drain the headphones during my testing. After three or four days, I’d just recharge them instinctively, so I’m confident they’ll last through a good week of commuter listening without demanding extra power. And even if you do run out of charge, there’s always the option to wire them up and use them in a conventional passive mode, which sounds just as good.
Overall, I find the way Bowers & Wilkins has trimmed the cord with its P7s a very impressive example of what’s to come. Stimulated by Apple’s fanatical pursuit of wireless technology, which was expressed in the removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and the addition of a new W1 wireless chip, most headphone makers are now rethinking their portfolios and I anticipate many more high-end, high-priced models will embrace the switch to Bluetooth.
The next frontier, at least in the mass market for headphones, isn’t better sound quality, but rather taking the existing high-quality sound options and making them wireless. That’s what the P7 Wireless represent: highly listenable sound, ensconced in premium build and materials, and no wires anywhere in sight.