B&W P5 Hi-Fi Headphones Review 
Home Theater Accessories Accessories
Written by Tim Hart   
Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Back in my jaded days of audiophilia I can remember clearly discounting the iPod as any serious means by which to listen to music. Sure, they were convenient and sure you could put a lot of songs on them but at what price. I knew the answer as I had heard music ripped to the mp3 format with even more jaded ears and pronounced them unfit. Done, game over. It’s ok for kids but…I have since lightened up quite a bit but I am still not willing to compromise too much on certain things and sound quality is one of them.

I finally bowed to the iPod phenomena only because I was given the ability to control the quality of the format I used to store my music. I bought the 160 GB iPod Classic and ripped my CD collection to WAV files, which was acceptable. But using the supplied ear buds was like putting Big O tires on a Corvette. What is the point? No bass, less than stellar fit and mass market sound that negated the effort I went into preserve the quality of the files I was listening to. I explored dozens of options for earphones and settled out of exasperation for a pair of Shure SE210s in-ear headphones because I really couldn’t find what I wanted that would play on the iPod and I was not going to pay a lot of money if it wasn’t what I wanted, so I parted with my $110.00 and waited for the right solution to come along.

The in-ear style ear phones are not everybody’s choice but again they are very portable and you can get decent sound provided you’re willing to pay a little more than the cost of the player. What I wanted though was a full sized closed back design. The problem was that the iPod couldn’t drive a big set of headphones and I was not willing to pay for a headphone amp in order to get the big sets benefits. As luck would have it B&W offers a product that seems ideally suited to my type of listening and happens to be iPod and iPhone compatible in the P5 Mobile Hi-fi headphones. It would seem my search was over.

Closeup leather view

Features

The B&W P5s are designed pretty much for the Apple players although they can be used for other players, which is why the P5s come with 2 connection cables, one of which is the MFI cable that takes advantage of the latest iPhone and iPods so you can change tracks and control the volume using the buttons on the cable. For iPhones there is also a built in microphone near these buttons so you can take that important call as well.

The heart of the B&W P5 Mobile headphones is the two 40mm diameter drivers that utilize ultra-linear Neodymium magnets. With optimized Mylar diaphragms the P5 frequency range is on the order of 10Hz to 20 kHz and has a sensitivity of 115bB/V at 1 kHz. The noise cancellation aspect of the closed back design works surprising well. This helps to keep your music as unadulterated as possible and is said to preserve enough ambient sound to give the listener a sense of space. I found that after about 100 hours of operation that the drivers loosened up nicely and produced a more relaxed and a more complex sound than I heard when I first listened to the P5s, so if you like them right out of the box it only gets better.

Side View

The quality of the materials used for the P5s sets it apart immediately. You would expect that from a company that, arguably, makes some of the finest loudspeakers in the world, and the P5s maintain B&Ws reputation in that regard. The eye is immediately drawn to the brushed aluminum outer cases which sport the Bowers & Wilkins name tastefully embossed on the lower portion of the case. The smooth movement of the swivel allows the New Zealand leather wrapped ear pads to properly and effortlessly align to your ear or lay flat so you can store them in the supplied carry pouch. The memory foam under the leather completes the interface to your ear. The leather wrapped headband adjusts with the right amount of tension so that you don’t have to fight it to extend or retract the ear pad for a better fit.

The ear padding and headband give the P5s a very comfortable fit, although I felt the fit was more comfortable after a couple hours of use. A small quibble is that it is not readily apparent which is the left or right hand side, which after some searching I found that they are marked on the ear pad pivot. A nice touch is the quilted looking carrying case that has an inner pouch for the standard or MFI cable and the included ¼” jack adapter so you can use the P5s with your home audio gear.


Listening

One philosophical issue I have with iPods is I feel that they have made music listening too casual. Listening to music used to be an event. I’d buy the album and after I cued it up I would read the liner notes or check out the cover art while listening to the first side and really sit down and listen. CDs took some of that away as the liner notes and cover art were too small, but the music listening event was still there. The convenience of an iPod accessible music library is too compelling to ignore, and I feel B&W P5s are the vehicle to recapture that event. As I stated earlier, I have stored a majority of my CD collection in WAV, and although these are uncompressed files I can still get over 3900 songs on my 160GB iPod Classic, so I am not exactly limiting myself.

Ear Pad side viewI started off with Frogs from Alice in Chains MTV Unplugged CD. This recording I have used for years as I felt it was one of the best rock recordings I have run across for dynamics, midrange clarity, and detail. Cantrell’s guitar has a vibrant presence as each string pluck at the beginning of this tune takes on an almost three dimensional quality where it simply hangs in space slightly to the right of the soundstage where he is actually positioned within the band. Resonance and decay of the harmonics through the P5s sound more natural than through the Shure SE210s that I used regularly. The P5s definitely have a wider and more spacious soundstage, as well as a much more balanced presentation. Another quality or difference from the Shure in-ear headphones and the P5s is that the P5s sound feels roomier. I attribute part of this to the actual location of the sound source being further from the ear drum than the Shure’s, and the other part to the noise cancellation aspect of the design. And physically I can see why that would make a difference. I feel like in-ear headphones don’t let the ear breath like external head phones do, which may have a lot to do with hearing damage that we are reading more and more about.

For female vocals I used a FLAC file ripped from the DVD-Audio version of Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions. This 24 bit/96 kHz file I played using my PC through the Asus Xonar soundcard capable of decoding high resolution FLAC files. The P5s did an admiral job of portraying Crow’s voice on A Difficult Kind. The slightly raspy quality of her voice floated in the dead quite backdrop the P5s allowing the tiny details to come forward, which is a hallmark of this recording. The sibilance and micro dynamics are the best I’ve heard in headphones of any kind.

Breaking Benjamin’s I Wish I May from Saturate was one of those tunes that is better the louder it gets. And on the next song, Sugarcoat, which has a nice melodic section that rips into an aural assault, showed that the P5 s can transition without any congestion or fatigue and not sacrifice the nuance when that is the requirement.

Downside


The $299.00 price tag will take the B&Ws P5 off of the radar for the casual listener simply because they won’t feel that the added performance is worth the extra cash. And the size of the P5s will not fit everybody’s life style of portability. I feel that although they are larger than in-ear sets the size is justified by the performance you get.

Top View
The MFI cable and the other standard cable are very delicate and look ready to break if you look at them too hard. Minimizing micro phonics is important to any headphone design so I understand the intent. But if you are rough with your headphones be prepared to order a replacement cable as these don’t look like they can take much abuse.

Conclusion

For me the B&W P5s were a prayer answered. A true high fidelity closed back headphone that works with the iPod met my portable listening needs perfectly. iPhone users can also spend their time wisely while waiting for that next phone call enjoying the audio quality of their recordings through the P5s. Making listening to music an event in today’s hectic lifestyle has become a reality thanks to B&Ws P5 Hi-fi headphones. Highly recommended.





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