In 2010, famed loudspeaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins shocked the hi-fi world by entering the headphone market with their nearly $300 per pair P5 Mobile Hi-Fi headphones. I reviewed them back in July of 2010 and found them to be a brilliant mix of style and substance. Soon afterward, they became a personal reference, a distinction they still hold to this day. Two years have passed since the P5's arrival on the scene and, in that time, Bowers & Wilkins has released two more headphone designs, the in-ear C5 and the new P3 reviewed here.
The P3, which retails for $200 per pair, shares more than passing resemblance to its older and more expensive sibling, the P5. To the uninitiated, the P3 may be mistaken for an updated P5, but I assure you they're different, as different can be. For starters, the P3 has a much more compact and travel-friendly design, thanks to its ability to fold. While the outside of the ear cups appear to be similar to, or even the same as, the cups found on the P5, the P3 cups are different, using cloth cushioning, as opposed to the P5's leather. The smaller, less padded headband is also wrapped in matching cloth, as opposed to leather - no doubt one of the contributing factors to the P3's lower asking price. The P3 is available in two colors, black or white. The entire package fits nicely inside an included hard clamshell-style travel case that resembles the type of case you'd get with a quality pair of specs or sunglasses.
The drivers have been engineered from the ground up and are unique to the P3. They feature Neodymium magnets driving a Mylar laminate diaphragm. The P3's reported frequency response is 10Hz to 20kHz, with an impedance of 34 ohms. Sensitivity is listed at 111dB, with the maximum input power rated at 50mV. Distortion is said to be less than one percent.
The 1.2 meter cable features iPhone-compatible controls, including microphone capability. Those without iPhones will still be able to use the P3, though they won't be able to control a smart phone's volume or play/pause functionality. The same goes for the microphone. The P3 uses a 3.5mm mini-jack on the cable and connects to the drivers via a 2.5mm jack, in case you need or want to swap out the cable for something better and/or longer. The P3 itself weighs 130 grams, which is lighter than the P5 but not by a lot, which is surprising given the size difference between the two.
The P3 doesn't have a noise-canceling or even noise-isolating design. That said, it does a remarkable job of blocking out ambient noise and/or distractions. I listened to the P3s while seated directly below my home's swamp cooler, which registered anywhere between 78 and 80dB on my SPL meter, yet with the P3s sitting atop my head and with music playing it (the swamp cooler) was barely audible in the background. Who says you need complicated or often expensive active noise cancellation to enjoy a quiet listening experience?
In terms of its sound quality the P3s have a lot going for them. Out of the gate, and in comparison to the P5, the P3 is a little darker in its tonal quality. There is a richness present with the P3 that comes at the expense of some top-end air that you'll find with the costlier P5. Still, for a $200 per pair set of headphones, there is a lot to like here. Vocals sound soulful with a hint of added warmth, which bodes well for lesser recorded music and/or downloads. The P3's high-frequency response, while not as extended as the P5's, is still natural-sounding and sweet, it just lacks the same amount of air. Bass is firm, taut and deep, though it's a little smooth on the impact, which isn't an altogether bad thing in my opinion. For a headphone that sits squarely (and firmly) on the ear, the spaciousness afforded to the performance via the P3 was surprising. Overall I'd say the P3 is less neutral than the P5, imparting a bit more romanticism throughout, making for a seductive and soothing listening experience, but one that I can't classify as wholly neutral. Still, all genres of music are well-served and, as I said before, the P3 is not overly critical of the quality of the source material, so those who like Pandora or Spotify should take note.
Long-term comfort isn't great, but it's far from horrid. I was able to wear the P3 comfortably for about an hour to an hour and a half before needing to "stretch" my ear lobes. They weren't sore, but the pressure was noticeable. What's important to note is that at no time did the added pressure or fit of the P3 give me a headache. The same is also true for its sound quality.
Read about the high points and low points of the B&W P3 on Page 2.