Bowers & Wilkins P5 Review

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Brief: The first personal audio release from a company known best for their floorstanding speakers, the P5 certainly has the pedigree and style to roll with the favourites in this lineup

MSRP: $299.99 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $290 from amazon.com

Build Quality (8.5/10): The design of the P5 manages to be both minimalistic and high-tech at the same time. Upon originally extracting the P5 from the box, I was extremely surprised by how much larger the headphone looks in all of the photos I’ve seen. Despite its small size, however, the metals and plastics used in the construction of the P5 are all of the highest quality and the headphone feels like it was built to take a beating. Despite the rock-solid construction, the P5 is only marginally heavier than the Phiatons and Monster Beats Solos – quite a feat considering how much more solid the construction of the P5 feels. The only letdown is the cable, which is thin and stringy. Mercifully, the cord is detachable, with the 2.5mm connector hidden under the (magnetically-attached) left earpad. There is also a spare (iPhone) cable included with the P5s but additional replacements will need to be purchased from B&W. Aftermarket cables terminated with a slim 2.5mm plug on one end may work in place of pricy B&W replacements but finding ones with gold-plated plugs may be a challenge.

Comfort (9.5/10): Far smaller than I originally expected, the B&W P5 occupies about the same amount of aural real estate as the Monster Beats Solo and Sennheiser HD25-1. The flat rectangular pads remind me of the ones used by Sennheiser’s HD228 and 238. Helped along by the compliant fitment mechanism of the P5, the pads spread pressure very evenly across the ear and remain comfortable for many hours. The supraaural coupling also prevents the headphones from getting too warm over prolonged listening sessions.

Isolation (9.5/10): The P5 is surprisingly well-isolating, nearly keeping up with the legendary HD25-1 despite also being more comfortable. The flat earpads, surprisingly, seal well enough for some driver flex to be coaxed from the P5. Obviously designed with portability in mind, the P5 performs beautifully as an on-the-go set on busy streets or public transport. Leakage is a little higher than with the HD25-1 but still impressively low for a supraaural.

Sound (8/10): There is no denying that the P5 is a brilliant portable headphone from a usability standpoint, but it also holds its own in sound quality against the other consumer-oriented sets in this lineup. It should be noted that the positioning of the P5 on the ear plays a role in how they sound – the optimal position for me turned out to be a bit further back than with something like the Sennheiser HD25-1 or Monster Beats Solo. Starting at the low end the P5 exhibits a relatively balanced and refined sound, offering bass quantity similar to that of the HD25-1. The bass has good extension and generally sounds well-weighted and controlled. However, the HD25 still wins out in low-end detail and texture, which is most noticeable at lower volumes as the slightly constrained dynamics of the P5 really limit its ability to sound natural unless the volume is turned up at least slightly. At lower volumes, I prefer the Phiaton MS400 as well – it is only as the volume is turned up that the Phiatons start sounding a bit plasticky in comparison. Truth be told, the P5 does have slightly better clarity and generally sounds smoother, leaner, and tighter than the MS400 but lacks the fullness of the Phiaton’s bass and the warm lushness of its midrange.

On the whole, the B&W P5 is still a warm-sounding headphone and has a noticeable emphasis on the mid/upper bass and lower midrange. Bass bleed is, for the most part, minimal, and the mids sound smooth and pleasant. In the context of the P5’s laid-back sound signature, the lower mids are actually somewhat forward but next to the intimate-sounding MS400, the P5 still sounds slightly distant on the whole. Detail retrieval and clarity lag slightly behind the HD25-1 (especially at low volumes) and transparency is far from outstanding. Partly this is due to the slightly thicker notes as presented by the P5 – in the IEM realm this sort of presentation would be equivalent to a Klipsch Custom 3 or Radius DDM. The P5 is not veiled-sounding in the strictest sense but it really doesn’t portray intimacy as well as the HD25 or MS400 can, which I feel has more to do with the way the soundstage works (more on that later). In addition, there definitely is a distinct coloration to the sound of the B&Ws, as well as a darker overall tone, which won’t be to everyone’s liking.

The treble transition is smooth and untarnished by harshness and sibilance. It seems that B&W took extra steps to make the P5 as inoffensive as possible to the average listener as they actually have a tendency to diminish sibilance present on recordings. The MS400 and HD25, while mostly smooth and level between the midrange and treble, certainly don’t go out of their way to do any of that and as a result get harsh faster when the volume is cranked beyond reason. The treble of the P5 is soft and smooth but not particularly crisp or sparkly. Treble clarity is on-par with the MS400 but the HD25 still fares better and derives an additional bit of perceived clarity from its brighter overall tone. To my ears, the greater treble energy of the HD25 makes for a more realistic overall sound but I’m sure many will disagree. Regardless, despite being laid-back on the whole and especially in the treble, I can’t say that the P5 sounds either recessed or rolled-off. The treble is all there but prominence is not one of its strong suits, which adds to the darker overall tonality of the headphones.

As mentioned above, the overall presentation of the B&W P5 is laid-back, putting a bit of distance between the listener and the music, a-la Sennheiser’s higher-end open sets, and makes the HD25 and MS400 sound more forward in comparison. The soundstage itself is fairly well-rounded, with good width and decent depth, but limited on either end. The front-to-rear and top-to-bottom positioning of the P5 is on-par with the HD25 and not quite as good as the MS400. At times the P5 seems to lack positioning precision and elements – especially vocals – can sound a tiny bit ethereal. The HD25, on the other hand, has less soundstage width but makes up for it with slightly better separation and layering, as well as a bit more positioning precision. Part of the issue is the dynamic range of the P5, which is only slightly better than that of the MS400 and not nearly as impressive as that of the HD25. Whereas the MS400 has a tendency to be a little ‘shouty’, especially at higher volumes, the P5 is closer to the center of the spectrum and really can’t portray extreme aggression or extreme delicacy very well. In its defense, the P5 works just fine straight out of a portable player, which was obviously the designers’ intent, and manages to be pretty forgiving of crappy recordings and rips while maintaining a semblance of fidelity, partly due to the slightly compressed dynamic range. On the whole, the P5 is definitely a peculiar flavour of headphone – colored and far from flawless from a technical standpoint – and probably won’t appeal to those who, like myself, seek a more realistic and neutral sound even on the move. However, there is charm in the unabashed mainstream-ness of the P5 and I have to admit that the engineers at B&W do understand the type of thick, slightly bassy sound that works best in a portable setting.

Value (7/10): The B&W P5 is among the priciest of the consumer-grade portables – a luxury gadget for the iPod/iPhone crowd. It is also the one with the most hi-fi pedigree and, unlike the Monster Beats, is fairly likely to be picked up by a discerning listener in search of fidelity. Fidelity, however, is not a strong suit of the headphones, which possess a couple of technical shortcomings but generally take few sonic risks with their warm and colored sound. Sonically, the P5 has trouble pulling itself above cheaper competition from manufacturers such as Phiaton, Denon, Audio-Technica, and Sony. Where the P5 succeeds is in offering comfort, portability, and isolation to match the HD25 without tossing style so completely out of the window. Build quality could also be considered impressive if not for the vermicelli-thin detachable cable. Is the P5 worth $300? It is to those who are willing to pay a premium for the combination of extreme portability, style, comfort, isolation, iPhone-compatibility, and decent – if not hi-fi – sound offered by the P5. However, I don’t see myself ever using ‘P5’ and ‘bang-per-buck’ in the same sentence unless the price drops by at least a third.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10 – 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 26 Ω
Sensitivity: 115 dB/1V
Cord: 3.9ft (1.2m), single-sided, detachable; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding


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About Author

Living in the fast-paced city of Los Angeles, ljokerl has been using portable audio gear to deal with lengthy commutes for the better part of a decade. He spends much of his time listening to music and occasionally writes portable audio reviews across several enthusiast sites, focusing mostly on in-ear earphones.

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