Bowers & Wilkins P3s Headphone Review

Eventually Bowers & Wilkins put its decades of loudspeaker experience into headphones, producing the superb P5s, which were as comfortable as they were beautiful, with sound quality to match. And recently Bowers & Wilkins invited a group of journalists to the World famous Abbey Road Studios, where the company debuted its latest set of headphones, the P3s. Although it's easy to think of the P3s as simply a more compact incarnation of the P5s, that couldn't be further from the truth. Bowers & Wilkins has designed the P3s from the ground up, with everything from the drivers to the housing, and even the material used for the ear pads being completely new. There's no denying that the P3s look superb, finished in aluminium, chrome and rubber. The ear pads and head cushion are made from a bespoke fabric, manufactured by the same company that makes B&W's speaker grilles. Put simply, the P3s are a triumph of industrial design that will complement the iPhone 4S that the majority of buyers will undoubtedly plug them into. To cater for those iPhone users, the P3s ship with a cable that comes equipped with remote controls for play/pause and volume, along with a microphone for hands free calling duties. Don't worry if you don't have an iPhone, because the P3s ship with two cables - one for Apple phones and players, and the other for any other devices.

Although having two cables in the box is a nice touch, I do find the cable slightly short, and would have appreciated an extension. That said, I only struggle with the cable length because I tend to carry my iPhone in a cargo pocket on my trousers, so it really depends on your personal carrying habits. Like the P5s before them, the P3s are unbelievably comfortable to wear, even for extended periods. You can't avoid warm ears when using over-the-ear headphones, but the P3s manage to maintain a comfortably close fit without causing any unpleasant sweatiness. The P3s also feel incredibly light, while the beautifully engineered adjustment sliders make it simple to set them just right for you. The headband cushion allows you to create a pretty tight fit without causing discomfort, so they never slip or shift around once you place them on your head. As always, though, the most important aspect of a pair of headphones is sound quality, and here the story remains mostly positive. Since the P3s are clearly aimed at iPhone users, I spent a significant amount of time with them plugged into my 4S. On top of that, I've been using the P3s while working at my desk, plugged into the superb Arcam rPAC external DAC / headphone amp.

The Bowers & Wilkins P3s produce a very pleasant sound, almost as if they've been tuned to appeal to the largest number of potential buyers. That's all well and good, but it also means that these headphones don't really excel in any particular area, so if you're looking for a particular sound signature from your cans, the middle-of-the-road nature of the P3s might cause you to look elsewhere. Don't get me wrong here, though, I'm not saying that the P3s sound bad, far from it in fact. I've been listening to the P3s every day for the past couple of weeks and I've enjoyed every minute, but they don't produce the kind of crystal clear, cohesive sound that I get from my Shure SE530 earphones. But I'm not really surprised by that fact - when the SE530s launched, they cost over £400, while the P3s will retail at £169 when they launch in June.

The weakest link in the P3's aural arsenal is the handling of low frequencies. That's not to say that you can't enjoy music with a strong, thumping bass line, just that it can come across slightly muffled and muddy - not enough to spoil the experience, but still noticeable. Coldplay's debut album, Parachutes, sounds mellow and smooth through the P3s. The piano on Trouble is beautifully reproduced, while Chris Martin's vocals sit above the rest of the mix, but not in a distracting manner. If you want to hear just how good these headphones can sound, this track and album as a whole are a good place to start. By contrast, the characteristics of the P3s complemented The Prodigy's, The Fat of the Land perfectly. Breath can only be described as a full-on assault on your senses, especially with the volume pumped up, and the P3s gave it a sense urgency and presence that's often lacking when listening through headphones. When I closed my eyes I could imagine myself at a club or concert with the floor vibrating below my feet and my eardrums straining under the pressure of that relentless bass. The P3s turn their hand to rock extremely well too. Firing up Nirvana's Heart Shaped Box, from the album In Utero, proved to be a real treat. The overdriven guitars, the prominent bass line and Kurt Cobain's hauntingly desperate vocals merge into a superbly cohesive ensemble.

If you're not a fan of in-ear audio, and you're looking for supremely comfortable, beautifully designed and great sounding headphones, the P3s are definitely worth considering. As always though, it's always worth listening to a few of your favourite tracks first.

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