British high-end-audio manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) has been making speakers for over 40 years, but it's only with the P5 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones, announced last November, that the company has ventured into the field of private audio listening. Offered as a set of premium, full-size headphones for mobile listening, the $300 P5 is pricey, but it's an impressive product that's worth a look if your wallet can handle it. (The P5 is available initially only from the Apple Store online and Apple Retail stores.)
One look at the P5 makes it clear this isn't a budget product. Each earpiece is made of brushed and polished aluminum (or, as Apple's similarly British Jonathan Ive likes to say, aluminium); the earpads and trim are made of luxuriously soft New Zealand sheep leather; and the sturdy, polished-metal headband is cushioned by thick, leather-covered padding. Look for the P5 display at the Cooper-Hewitt soon.
The P5 comes bundled with two 4-foot cables: a basic cable for using the headphones with any audio device sporting a 1/8-inch minijack, and a cable with a microphone/remote module for use with an iPhone, a recent iPod, or a recent iMac or MacBook. The mic/remote module is an Apple-approved three-button version, letting you control playback as well as volume level, and a modular design lets you easily swap between cables or replace a bad one--a welcome feature to anyone who's ever had to buy a new set of headphones because of a loose connection.
But the unique way in which the cable connects may make such replacements unnecessary: Instead of putting the cable jack on the exterior of either earpiece, where the connector could be subjected to strain, Bowers & Wilkins put the connector inside the left earpiece. It turns out that the P5's comfy earpads are also replaceable, held in place by small magnets; each earpad pops off with a firm pull, revealing a 40mm Mylar-diaphragm driver. Behind the left earpad is a cable groove that winds through a couple turns to reach the connector deep inside (see image at right). This design, along with a tiny cable grip near the bottom of the earpiece, keeps the cable from putting strain on the connector, even if the cable gets pulled or snagged during use. (The design also gives the P5 a cleaner look, as the plug and jack are hidden from view.)
The P5 also comes with an attractive, padded carrying case--the P5's earpieces fold flat for travel--and a 1/4-inch adapter for connecting to a home stereo system. Replacement earpads and cables can be purchased separately.
At-home sound, portable design
One of the unique aspects of the P5 is that despite being a set of full-size, high-end headphones, the P5 is aimed squarely at portable use. In addition to the fold-flat design, short cord, 1/8-inch miniplug, and iPhone mic/remote module, the P5 is easy to drive: Unlike many full-size headphones, which require more juice to sound their best than an iPod or computer headphone jack can provide, the P5 was engineered to sound great directly out of a portable source. The P5 also has a low profile on your head, and, despite its sturdy construction and materials, weighs just under 7 ounces.
Oh, and did I mention the noise isolation? Even though the P5's earpieces sit on your ears rather than completely surrounding them, the super-soft earpads block an astonishing amount of external noise when properly positioned. I'm a big fan of in-ear-canal headphones (also known as canalphones), in part because they block most external noise without the audio drawbacks of noise-canceling headphones. But during my testing the P5's earpieces blocked nearly as much external noise as many canalphones without the challenge of getting a tight in-ear seal--I could listen in noisy environments without having to crank the volume to dangerous levels.
On the other hand, this impressive noise isolation is accomplished in part by a tight fit: the P5's headband presses the memory-foam-filled earpads firmly against your ears. I have a fairly average-size head, but when I first started testing the P5, the fit was uncomfortably tight. It felt better after 20 minutes or so, and after several days of use, the headphones did loosen up a bit--I was eventually able to wear the P5 comfortably for multi-hour listening sessions--but I never forgot I had headphones on. If your noggin's on the large side, you may not be as lucky; be sure to test the fit before buying--or purchase from a retailer with a good return policy, just in case. (The leather earpads can also get a bit warm during long periods of use, but that warmth never became uncomfortable for me; we'll see if this holds true during hot summer months.)
If the P5's fit isn't too tight for you, you'll be rewarded with audio that's as luxurious as the P5's craftsmanship. The solid acoustic seal makes for great bass response--visceral and powerful but tight and natural-sounding, with relatively flat extension down to approximately 60Hz. Midrange and treble response are also very good, although those with golden ears may find that detail is not quite as clear as with the best-sounding $300 headphones out there. The result is a warm, rich sound that's easy to listen to for hours at a time and fits the P5's portable-listening focus well. (One tip: The P5's sound quality varies noticeably with the position of the earpieces on your ears; a minor adjustment can really improve sound quality.)
I was also impressed by the P5's stereo imaging, and I found that, as with many good headphones, the P5's audio quality improves with better amplification--for example, when listening through the NuForce uDAC, a USB digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that bypasses your Mac's own audio circuitry in favor of the uDAC's higher-end DAC, outputting the resulting audio through a superior headphone amplifier.
Of course, you won't be able to fully appreciate the P5's audio capabilities if your iPod or iPhone is filled with low-bit rate music--the P5 can't make 128 kbps pop tracks sound like lossless, high-quality recordings. At the same time, it's also worth noting that if sound quality is your primary concern, and you don't need the P5's portable-friendly features, there are a number of great $300 full-size headphones out there, especially if you do most of your listening at home with good amplification. These are upscale portable cans.
Finally, and it seems like almost an afterthought, the P5's voice performance is also good: People I talked to on my iPhone said my voice sounded clear and relatively natural, and I could hear them clearly--the P5's noise isolation was especially helpful here. The only drawback to the P5 in this respect is that the earpads provide such a solid noise-isolation seal that I did experience mild occlusion effect when talking.
Macworld's buying advice
B&W's P5 offers full-size sound quality and outstanding passive noise isolation in a truly portable headphone. While a good chunk of the $300 price tag surely goes towards the P5's design, the result is much more than an attractive appearance: the P5's construction, comfort, swappable components, and compact size add utility and long-term value. And while there may be $300 headphones that can best the P5's impressive audio performance, the ones I've tested are either canalphones (which some people simply can't wear) or are ill-suited for portable use--they're bulky, require better amplification than an iPhone or iPod can provide, or wouldn't stand up to the rigors of regular mobile use. When it comes to outside-your-ear-canal headphones, the P5 is as well-rounded a portable product as I've seen.
My only warning--besides telling you not to audition the P5 if you don't have $300 burning a hole in your pocket--is that those with large heads should give the P5 a 20-minute trial at the nearest Apple Store before splurging.