The Beats by Dre promise, the thing that’s driven millions of people to spend hundreds of dollars on headphones for the first time, is an intoxicating mix of premium design and bombastic sound. Style plus bass-soaked substance. But listen to any song with "promises" in the title and you’ll know that they’re most often just fragments of wishful thinking: Beats headphones look and sound flashy, but aren’t truly premium in either category. Look beyond the Doctor’s portfolio, however, and you might find headphones that live up to the beastly Beats hype. Headphones like the Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature.
Celebrating 50 years in business, British audio company Bowers & Wilkins decided to splurge with these headphones and go for premium everything. I found myself immediately enamored with the look and design of the P9s, which scorn plastic in favor of solid metal, fine leather, and cushy memory foam. Their exterior is dressed in Saffiano leather and protected by a cleverly designed, collapsible Alcantara case. Before they produce even a note of music, these headphones evoke a sense of high quality and craftsmanship that makes them easy to love. But premium design and materials don’t come cheap, and Bowers & Wilkins asks a hefty $899.99 for the privilege of owning its P9 Signature cans.
On the inside, B&W has engineered a new suspension system for the audio driver that helps it deliver its payload without introducing undesired vibrations and resonance that would discolor the music. Going even further, the company has decoupled each ear cup from the headband, so distortions and reverberations are kept to a minimum. The ear pads are held in place using magnets — awesome magnets that are a joy to play with, rather like the AirPods container — and inside them is a mesh-covered speaker that’s angled to more naturally channel sound into your ear. All of this fancy engineering is happening in a collapsible design, which is substantially larger than a pair of Beats Solos, but still highly portable and easy to power with just a smartphone.
Wearing the P9s is not as delightful as looking at them
Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?
Well, it kind of is. Wearing the P9s is not as delightful an experience as looking at them. Though padded, the headband puts substantial pressure on the top of my head, and the ear pads clamp tightly on each side. This doesn’t mean their fit is necessarily uncomfortable, as I’ve worn them for many hours without feeling unduly disturbed, but it does mean you’ll never forget you’re wearing them and is likely to prove fatiguing to many. One of the downsides of not using flimsy plastic is weight, and the Bowers & Wilkins P9 weigh in at a considerable 413g (0.91lb).
Their look, when worn, is also far from inconspicuous: the rainbow-shaped metal band attaches to the outermost part of the ear cups, which are quite deep, making the whole setup quite obvious and eye-grabbing. Maybe that’s a good thing if you want people to see your swanky new cans, but I did find myself attracting bemused looks while wearing these around Amsterdam. And that’s Amsterdam, the world capital of tolerance for fellow weirdos.
There is a reason for all the heft and tight clamping of the P9s, however, and it’s born out in their sound. The close fit secures the headphones in place and ensures a good seal around my ear, which is essential for isolating exterior noise and for reproducing bass notes well. And bass, frankly, is the main reason for the existence of these headphones.
The bass is perfect
The P9s have probably the best and most satisfying bass I’ve heard in a pair of portable headphones. Bowers & Wilkins loves to emphasize bass, as exhibited to an extreme in the recent P7 Wireless, and the P9s elevate that habit to a new height. Like perfect jelly, the bass of these headphones wobbles like mad without losing its structural integrity. You’ll have heard terms like "bloated" and "flabby" used to describe bad bass, and in each case the problem is a lack of precision caused by poor vibration dampening, bad speaker design, or sloppy frequency tuning — and none of those issues are present with these B&W headphones.
What’s exceptional about the P9 sound is that it bumps the bass without overwhelming or disrupting the higher frequencies. Playing games or watching movies with these headphones is an immediately improved experience, as explosions rumble with more substance and gravitas while voices remain present and crystal-clear. That being said, games are also the place where I discovered one of the P9’s aural limitations, which is a narrow soundstage.
Rival headphones like the Beoplay H9 are able to present music and in-game environments across a wider and deeper "stage" around my head, whereas the B&Ws mostly just center everything in the middle. That can certainly be a more engaging way to listen, lending a sense of intimacy. But there’s lots of music that benefits from a more expansive presentation, allowing the listener to pick out the position of various instruments and thus conveying a more realistic feeling of the performance.
These headphones just wanna have a good time
The way Bowers & Wilkins has constructed the P9 sound is analogous to a pyramid. You get a lot of (amazing) bass, then the quantity gradually diminishes as you go up in frequency. Good side of this is that you’ll never experience listening fatigue from excessively sharp treble. But the downside is that you’ll also miss out on some of your music. Listening to "Aljamiado" by Renaud Garcia-Fons, I get a series of delightful bass thumps (which my iMac speakers can’t even register) anchoring the song, but the wind instruments feel insubstantial and don’t have anywhere near as much impact or effect. I’m definitely of the mind that good bass is more important than good treble, but at the price of the P9s, I think it’s fair to expect both to be excellent.
Ultimately, I don’t think the B&W P9s’ sound should be taken seriously. And I don’t mean that as a criticism. This is a relaxed, affable sound signature that takes the fun parts of music and amplifies them. I’ve loved listening to everything from heavy metal to synth-pop to hip hop with the P9s, though the sweet spot for them is definitely in electronic dance music. They were just made to dig into a deep serving of bass with extra bass sauce. This pair of headphones isn’t perfect, it’s not analytical, and it won’t really expose you to stuff you haven’t heard before, but it will certainly get your foot tapping and head nodding.
Bowers & Wilkins set high expectations for itself with the P9 Signature, giving them the designation and price of an uber-flagship. By using only the finest and most luxurious materials, and by engineering a stupendous boombox that you can strap to your head, I think B&W has been faithful to its goal of creating something unique and premium. I’m also of the mind that these are the closest we’ve yet come to the Beats ideal of stylish and portable headphones that also sound terrific.
But would I buy a P9 pair for myself? No. $900 is not a price you can justify purely on the strength of performance or portability or any other everyday consideration. What the P9s are is the perfect pair of headphones to present as a gift — there’ll be no mistaking their premium nature and there’s no danger of the recipient hating the warm and friendly sound. Were they that little bit lighter and more affordable, the P9s could really do battle with the Beats of this world, but then Bowers & Wilkins already does that with its P5 and P7 models. Like a fancy car, the P9s are that extra flourish for the foolish.
Photography by Vlad Savov.