Up until a few weeks ago, wireless headphones were a relatively small product niche. All smartphones shipped with wired earbuds; most hi-fi enthusiasts still bought wired headphones for their superior sound quality; and going wireless mostly interested folks who just couldn’t stand wires.
Then Apple launched a headphone jack-less iPhone 7 and wireless headphones became all the rage. While you can still use a dongle to connect regular headphones to the iPhone 7, the way manufacturers rushed to position themselves as the best makers of wire-free headphones on the market shows how the future is obviously wireless.
One of those was hi-fi giant Bowers & Wilkins, which launched a wireless version of its flagship headphones, the P7. I’ve spent about a week with them and I can say that despite several minor flaws, they win where it counts: sound quality.
My initial impressions of the B&W P7 Wireless headphones were mixed. They look classy and have a premium feel, though the overall appearance (especially the accompanying leather case) probably won’t appeal to a younger audience. They are heavy, but fit well on my head. In fact, they’re probably the most comfortable headphones I’ve tried, due to the fact that their cushions are truly circumaural that is, they surround the ear instead of crushing it. They’re foldable, and even though I’ve seen smarter solutions, I like the portability I get when I fold them.
But there’s more to headphones’ ergonomics than the fit. The buttons on the P7 Wireless cans are thin and not exactly the easiest to find or press, especially the Bluetooth pairing button. They also don’t feel very comfortable around my neck, which is where I like to wear headphones between listening sessions.
At times, B&W’s design is just plain odd for example, I dare anyone to find, without looking at the instructions, the headphone jack. Despite being wireless, the P7s come with a cable and it’s a good thing they do, for those moments when the battery is dead or when someone on the airplane crew warns you that you need to turn off wireless connectivity on all your devices. But to connect that cable, you need to remove one of the earpads (they’re connected with magnets), and stick the cable in. While that makes the headphones a tiny bit more elegant, connecting and disconnecting the cable is a chore and I’d prefer to be able to just stick it into a jack on the surface of the cans.
A modest feature set
In terms of features, the B&Ws don’t offer a lot. They only serve up the basics: volume up and down, play/pause, skip song, answer call, and that’s it.
You read that right, the P7 Wireless headphones don’t have active noise cancellation. Surprisingly, that’s not a big issue, as their design offers an amazing degree of passive noise reduction. I haven’t had an opportunity to try them on a plane, though, which is where active noise reduction works best, limiting the annoying drone of the plane’s engine to a quiet hum.
For comparison, Sony’s recently launched MDX-1000 offer a myriad of features, including noise reduction and the ability to let outside sounds in with a gesture. And the Plantronics BackBeat Pros, which have been on the market for two years now, have sensors that automatically stop the music when you take them off.
It’s true that none of those extra, fancy features are necessary, but they’re not useless, and the B&Ws would be a better pair of headphones if they had some of them. This comes with one caveat, however: it’s possible that adding more electronics (and thus, more interference) ultimately harms the sound, and that B&W kept the feature set small on purpose.
Two more notes. B&W claims these have 17 hours of battery life and I have no qualms with that claim; I’ve charged them once and forgotten about doing so again for the entire week (though a big part of my listening was wired, not wireless). As for Bluetooth connectivity, I’ve experienced no sudden disconnects, but if you leave the P7 Wireless aside for a while, you’re likely have to reconnect them to the audio source.
Sound in a class of its own
Regardless of how you feel about the features, you will probably notice one thing about the B&W P7 Wireless: they sound vastly superior to the majority of wireless headphones out there. The bass is clear and rich, the sound stage is wide, the audio incredibly precise. I’ve tested them against the wireless Plantronics mentioned above and against my wired (but much cheaper) Creative Aurvana Live cans, and they just sound better in every regard.
Also, I’ve noticed no clicking or hissing sounds while listening to the P7s wirelessly an issue that plagues many other wireless headphones. A barely audible hum, not unpleasant, exists only when the headphones are connected wirelessly but I don’t think anyone will notice it while listening to music.
Encouraged by the great sound from the P7s, I tried out many scenarios: I’ve listened to 128kbps mp3 files wirelessly, and I’ve listened to lossless, flac audio, played from my MacBook Air, with the headphones connected through the LG-manufactured B&O DAC hi-res audio module and everything in between.
With an average set of headphones, there would be little or no difference between these scenarios. But with the P7 Wireless, it is astounding: with a fine recording, a good audio source and a flac file, the sound stage expands in all directions. Suddenly, there’s air between the instruments and you can point to that guy clapping in the third row after a live performance. Switch to an mp3 file and the music still sounds good, but the spatial dimension disappears.
In my testing, I’ve listened to a very varied music mix from mp3 audio of Frank Ocean, Meshuggah and Arctic Monkeys to flac audio of Tori Amos, Rokia Traor, Nick Cave, Miles Davis and Jeff Buckley. I’ve found the B&Ws to be capable of handling any music style, though I’ve enjoyed live jazz performances the most.
A word to those sensitive to lower sound registers: they are bassy. Every now and then, a bassline (and we’re talking rock and jazz, not over-produced pop or electronica) would pop up to the front and take over often in places where bass was previously just a pleasant background sound filler. But it was never too much: the bass is so clear and precise, I almost wished there was even more of it.
The verdict on the B&W P7 Wireless headphones is quite simple: they sound amazing, probably better than anything else you’ll find in this price range, especially if we’re talking wireless headphones. They’re also very comfortable and quite stylish though different in style from the popular Beats and Bose cans, so be careful before you buy a pair for your kid.
On the other hand, they don’t offer a lot in terms of features, and suffer from some (minor) ergonomic issues.
Simply put, if you’re looking for wireless headphones, and hearing the best possible sound is the thing you value most, get these. The $399 price tag is justifiable if you compare their sound to other wireless headphones in that price range. If you want all the latest bells and whistles especially if active noise cancellation is a must then look elsewhere.
B&W P7 Wireless
Comfortable Amazing sound Fancy-looking (though not for everyone)
Small feature set No active noise cancellation
The Bottom Line
The P7 Wireless offer the best sound in class, but are somewhat hampered by a lack of features, the likes of which are quickly becoming the norm for wireless headphones.