In recent years, Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), one of the more legendary names in British hi-fi, has been making an effort to appeal to a more mainstream audience beyond its audiophile roots. It's put out a line of uniquely styled Zeppelin iPod speaker systems and is now branching out with its MM1 PC speakers and P5 headphones reviewed here.
In keeping with the company's emphasis on unique designs, the $299 P5s definitely stand out and manage to look both throwback and modern at the same time. The construction seems very solid and the nicely padded leather headband and earpads give the headphones a luxurious feel that's easily on par with Bose's QuietComfort headphone offerings, which run about the same price.
Unlike Bose's noise-canceling headphones, the P5s offer passive, not active noise-cancellation. What's that mean exactly? Well, like the Bose QuietComfort 3s, these are on-the-ear headphones that sit flush--and rather snugly--against your ears.
They're comfortable and muffle a lot of external noise, even when we walked through around the hectic streets of New York City. They're not quite as effective as the Bose models at silencing noise, but we thought they did a good job for passive noise-cancelling headphones--and they don't leak sound, either, so the people around you won't hear your music.
That said, one of the drawbacks of the on-the-ear design is that we did have a little trouble wearing them with certain glasses (we had to adjust how the headphones sat on ears so the arms of the glasses didn't dig into the side of our head) and when we wore them in warmer temperatures, they made our ears rather steamy, especially after walking at a brisk pace for several minutes.
The P5s have a couple of unique features. First, the square-ish earpads are magnetically attached and removable (if they're replaceable, B&W doesn't seem to offer any easy way to get new pads). Once you remove the left earcup you notice that the 48-inch cable actually plugs into headphones with a 2.5mm jack and is detachable and replaceable. That cable has an integrated microphone, as well as a volume control, that sits near the top of the cable; you may not notice it at first because the integrated mic/volume control isn't much thicker than the cord itself. The microphone and remote are specifically compatible with the iPhone 3GS and late-model iPods. When using it with an iPhone, the music will pause when a call comes in; when you finish taking the call (or ignoring it), the music automatically comes back on.
For those without a compatible iPhone/iPod, a second, shorter cord is included that should work with any standard 3.5mm jack. It's also worth noting that B&W throws in a two-pronged adapter for airplane use. The case is nice, but it may be a bit too Burberry-esque for some people's tastes. For travel, the headphones fold flat in the case and they also fold flat against your chest when you put the headband on your neck.
The P5s are generally very good-sounding headphones. Some P5 owners have noted the headphones need a bit of "break-in" period to sound their best, so we gave them several days of listening before writing our final review. You also may find that adjusting the headphones position on your ears may change the sound slightly, so we suggest playing around with their placement to optimize performance.