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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bowers & Wilkins P7 review: One of the best luxury headphones you can buy

The Good The Bowers & Wilkins P7 offers impressive build quality, good comfort, and smooth, rich, well-balanced sound in an over-the-ear headphone design that shuts out a lot of external noise. The earpads are removable and there's an extra cable with a built-in mic and volume control that turns the P7 into an Apple-friendly headset, and a protective carrying case.
The Bad Expensive; leather earpads will cause your ears to get steamy on warmer days; some remote features may not work with Android or Windows devices.
The Bottom Line The Bowers & Wilkins P7 may not the best headphone you can buy in its luxury price range, but it certainly is among the best, with excellent build quality and rich sound that works well with a wide range of music genres and sources.
Bowers & Wilkins has been on a quest in recent years to expand its brand from the "classic" audiophile realms of living room stereo and home theater to the more growth-friendly audio categories of the post-smartphone era -- namely, wireless speakers and headphones -- while still maintaining its upscale appeal. In the latter category, Bowers recently introduced the P7, an over-the-ear model that looks similar to its previous well-regarded P-series siblings but has bigger earcups and a higher price tag, at $400 (also available for £330 in the UK and in Australia for AU$550).
The build quality and comfort level is generally quite impressive. What's likable about these headphones is that after a little break-in period they offer a tight seal around your ears but don't put too much pressure on your head. While they're characterized as "mobile" headphones, they're fairly beefy, weighing in at 290g. By comparison, the Beats Studio Wirelessweighs 260g.
Bowers & Wilkins says the "dual-cavity construction helps the pads mold to the contours of the wearer's head" and the design "maintains a consistent volume of air between the drive unit and the surface of the ear at both sides of the head," which is supposed to enhance the stereo imaging and help optimize the sound for every listener.
The headphones fold up (but not flat) to fit into an included half-moon shaped carrying case. That they collapse helps to reduce their carrying size, but they're obviously not the most compact headphones, and we've seen better case designs.
You remove the earpiece to detach the headphone cable (click image to enlarge).Sarah Tew/CNET
Along with the carrying case you get both a standard straight cable and one that integrates an Apple-friendly remote/microphone for making phone calls (in other words, the headphone can do double duty as both a home and mobile headphone). Some of the remote's features won't work with Android or Windows phones, but you'll still be able to make calls using the microphone.
Like the P5 (available for $300, £250, or AU$450) and P3 ($200, £170, and AU$280), the earpieces adhere magnetically and can be removed to access the detachable part of the cable. This makes replacing the cables relatively easy should you run into a cable problem (a short in the plug, for instance).

Performance

The P7's rich sound works well with a wide range of music genres. Not only that, it's a fairly easy headphone to wear for hours at a time. Switching over to the Bowers & Wilkins P5 on-ear headphones the sound thickened, and was less clear overall. The P7 was superior in every way.
Next, we popped on the $300 Grado SR325e (available for £300 in the UK, and AU$450 in Australia) open-back headphones, which don't isolate the wearer from external noise nearly as well as the closed-back P7. It was immediately apparent that the SR325e was significantly clearer than the P7 with Bon Iver's song "Flume." The shimmering details of the acoustic guitars and the song's ample reverberation that were muffled by the P7 were revealed by the SR325e.
The upside to the P7 is its much fuller/richer balance compared to the leaner and more airy sound of the Grado. They are two very different sounding headphones, and while we admire the SR325e's clarity, it ruthlessly reveals recordings' deficiencies and harshness the P7 glides over.
The full-size, closed-back $300 NAD Viso HP50's (£200, AU$350) sound is much closer to the P7's, but the HP50 pulls ahead with its more spacious stereo imaging, which leaves the sound seem a little less stuck inside your head. Drums and percussion had superior "snap" with the HP50 and vocals sounded more natural, but the P7's bass dynamics, impact and power nudge past HP50 -- not by a huge amount, but it's noticeable.
Irritatingly harsh new recordings, like Spoon's "They Want My Soul," were rendered more listenable by the P7 than the other headphones we tried. The SR325e will be favored by buyers seeking the highest resolution of fine detail, and don't require the isolation of a closed-back design. The P7 wins for its soul-satisfying warmth, but the HP50 might be a better choice for folks who need a bit more clarity than the P7 provides.
The headphones fold up but don't fold flat.Sarah Tew/CNET
Another option in this price range is the $350 Sennheiser Momentum (£260, AU$300). The Momentum is also more detailed than the P7 and warmer in the midrange. However, we didn't find the Momentum isn't quite as comfortable to wear as the P7. Additionally, the P7 once again sounds slightly smoother with harsher recording and compressed audio in general.
Is one better than the other? No, not really. Ultimately, it comes down to your sound and music preferences, and it's hard for us to say which one you'll like better.
The included carrying case has a quilted design (click image to enlarge).Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion

We can't declare the P7 the best headphone you can buy for $400, but it is among the best in the $300-400 price range. While you're paying extra for the Bowers & Wilkins brand along with the swanky build quality at least it has the fit and finish of a premium headphone. Detail hounds may be more happy with some other the other headphone options mentioned in this review, but as we said, the P7's rich sound works well with a wide range of music genres and sources, so it's an overall "safe" choice.
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