Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 Headphones Review
Bowers & Wilkins' well-regarded on-ears bring style to an on-ear market that often lacks it.
Metal. Leather. Badass drivers. No, I'm not talking about Motörhead's roadies, but something a little more refined: the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 (MSRP $299.99). The updated edition of B&W's P5 on-ear headphones features the same attractive marriage of plush leather and contoured metal wrapped around new, improved speaker drivers.
Amongst headphone aficionados, B&W is well-known for detailed, comfortable headphones that are capable of notable aural magnificence. The P5 Series 2 on-ears live up to that tradition: They're comfortable, stylish, and sound great. Other than a little distortion in the bass range, the performance here is very balanced, smartly emphasizing the entire frequency range.
As stylish, high-end headphones go, the P5s don't have a ton of competition. You could actually pay less for better, more flexible performance, but at a huge loss on the design side of things. You can also find stylish on-ears that do more to boost bass for about the same price—but listeners looking for more subtle emphasis with serious style should keep the P5s in mind.
Immense attention to detail really pays off
It's hard to imagine anyone thinking these on-ears are ugly, though some might argue they're a little too fancy. Luxurious leather helps pad the inside of the band, which transitions down into the ear cups via sleek metal branches that are almost evocatively curvy. The back of each cup proudly bears the B&W insignia against grainy black-brown ovals—both ringed by similarly shiny metal highlights.
The ear pads themselves are just as comfortable as you'd expect for $300, with foam-padded plush leather that practically swaddles your ears. The P5s are about as comfortable as on-ear headphones get; the band is still quite rigid, but if you wear glasses or find over-ears too cumbersome, these are about as good a compromise as the category has to offer. The cups themselves have a good range of movement, too, and extend enough from the band to accommodate heads of all shapes and sizes.
Upon first glance, the P5s appear to have a proprietary, non-detachable cable, but as with other B&W phones you can easily remove it if you first take off the left ear pad. The default cable includes an in-line three button mic/remote combo, and the P5s include a spare cable without the mic. Though both are simple 3.5mm cables on both ends, it's worth noting that they do have a very particular shape, so you can't replace them with any old cable off the shelf. Both cables are surprisingly sturdy at their flex points for being relatively thin and bendable. They're not the big, sturdy cables you get with serious over-ears, but they seem durable enough.
For travel purposes, B&W includes a neatly stitched polyester carrying pouch that's finished with a quilted pattern. The inside of the pouch is lined with felt, which (should) gently clean away fingerprints and dust particles whenever the P5s are stowed. The pouch flap closes with a strong magnetism, making sure the product stays put. It won't protect from crushing force, but it's a nice way to keep the P5s looking new while you're on-the-go.
Very solid sound that's marred by mild distortion
The P5 Series 2 on-ears look (and feel) incredible, but for the price, they need to sound just as good. While testing revealed multiple positive traits, including a detailed, balanced sound, the P5s struggle a bit with perceptible distortion in the low end.
Though they don't boost low-end bass sounds like so many consumer headphones, the P5s provide a healthy, even emphasis from sub-bass to the upper bass range. Expect instruments like tuba, cello, and electric bass to be easily audible without overpowering the other players on stage—this is crucial, since on-ears sometimes lack the expansive feel of over-ear cans.
Mid-range elements like vocals or guitar are emphasized a little less in their normal range, and a little more in their harmonic range, which helps maintain subtle details. Likewise, upper mid-range and treble sounds like piccolos, flutes, or cymbals are quieter upon first attack, but their harmonic resonance is easily audible.
Overall, the P5s produce a balanced, comfortable sound that doesn't over- or under-emphasize any elements to an extreme degree. It's not flat enough for studio engineers, but people who are looking for a pleasant, even tonal response will love how these on-ears sound.
The P5s do have one notable flaw, however: Deep sub-bass and bass elements have a tendency to exhibit perceptible distortion at higher volumes, causing unwanted sounds to clutter the low end. Many headphones struggle with bass-range distortion, and the P5s don't have any major problems, but for their high price tag we were hoping for perfect distortion results. It's likely that only golden-eared individuals will notice the distorted sounds, but they're present nonetheless.
Other than the distorted bass elements, the P5s are all positives. They make for decent isolators for on-ear headphones, and don't leak much sound once you find the right fit. Combined with their high-quality sound, a little distortion is a small price to pay.
Subtle in more ways than one
The Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 are that rare breed of headphone that look as good as they sound. Sleek, contoured metal and cushy leather give way to a round, even emphasis with lots of attention to detail. If it weren't for the small amount of distortion present in the low end, the P5s would be a sure thing. The $300 list price is a little steep, but they're easily found for around $270 on on the street.
As it stands, music lovers in the market for a set of comfy, great-looking on-ears simply don't have a wealth of options. Premium buyers tend to opt for over-ears, so headphone companies have focused their efforts there. That's a shame, because if you wear glasses or commute via train every day, bulky over-ears may not be the best choice. The Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 are an excellent compromise for those shoppers, giving you the compact portability of on-ears with the design and audio quality you expect from a pair of $300 headphones.
If these just aren't your thing, we're also big fans of the Beyerdynamic T51p on-ears, which sound and look great. They lean more heavily on bass sounds, however, with a slightly less refined sound. Likewise, the Beats Solo2 boast an iconic look and great sound, but are also rather bass-heavy.
If you prefer an even, subtle sound but are sick of run-of-the-mill black over-ears, the P5s should stay on your radar.
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