When audio-video industry types get together these days, they talk a lot about distribution pipelines. The biggest change to the AV business in more than a generation is the change to the pipeline. Gone is Circuit City. Gone is Ultimate Electronics. Gone is Tweeter. Gone are regional dealers like Myer Emco (and so many others). Gone are juggernaut one-off brick-and-mortar stores like SoundEx. Who has filled the void in the marketplace? Amazon, Costco, Target, Walmart, Best Buy/Magnolia, and even the Apple Store.
No single company has better maneuvered these seismic changes to the specialty audio-video pipeline than Bowers & Wilkins. They are sold in Magnolia, they are sold in the Apple Store, and they still have a serious brick-and-mortar dealer network. It's not difficult to track down the company's high-end speakers or, in this case, headphones because they combine audiophile credibility with a look/feel/design that retailers like the Apple Store demand.
The Bowers & Wilkins P7 is a $400 over-the-ear headphone designed to meet the highest standards. Upon picking up a pair of P7s, you immediately notice how significant they are in terms of build quality. The metal work is slick. The brand etching is first rate. The stitching on the leather headband reminds me of the stitching you might find in a Maserati. Put them over your ears, even with no music on, and you enter your own personal comfort zone. I use in-ear monitors (like the ones you see musical performers use on stage) for most of my headphone listening, and I can tell you that the P7 headphones are so much more comfortable, it's not even funny. They are also less fatiguing to have on your head for long periods of time.
Making the P7 work is as easy as plugging its eighth-inch connector into the device of your choice. Most of my listening was done with the P7 plugged right into my MacBook Pro, but I also "gilded the lily" (to quote my man Mario Batali) by doing some listening through the Resonessence Labs Herus portable USB DAC, which only made something very good sound that much better. It also doubled the price of the value proposition, as the DAC costs about as much as the P7.
Musically, the P7 headphones have a very neutral but laidback sound--pretty much what you would expect from any Bowers & Wilkins speaker product. On "Bridge Burning" from The Foo Fighter's Wasting Light, I heard the frenetic opening build with a volume and intensity that reminded me of a performance car that just begs you to stand on the accelerator, even when you are likely over the speed limit. Each segue from the bombastic chorus into a quieter verse highlighted the incredible detail that the P7 offers.
On "Human Nature" from Michael Jackson's Thriller (1440 AIFF), I could hear the slightly dissonant chimes that mimic the pleasing main melody. I tell my wife that listening for such details is the type of stuff we learned in music school, which is true--but let me assure you, you can't hear this kind of detail in every pair of speakers and/or headphones. On "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," I heard some bouncy bass that shows off the fact that the P7 can produce better bass than I am used to, even with the custom ear molds of my in-ear monitors. The bass extension is low, controlled, and tight, yet the imaging and details are vibrant and lively.
During some casual listening, I was drawn in by "Walking in Your Footsteps" from Synchronicity by The Police. This is a song that I've heard at least 200 times, but I've never noticed the abstract way that Stuart Copeland (very possibly the best drummer in rock-and-roll history) played on the track. It's really avant guard; but, in all of the times I listened to this song on one of my favorite albums, I simply never noticed such unique tapping, bumping, and thumping by Copeland. The P7 headphones helped me to hear parts of my favorite music that I didn't know were there.
• The fit and finish of the Bowers & Wilkins P7s are simply first rate.
• The P7 headphones are extremely comfortable and super easy to fit on anybody's head.
• The P7's over-the-ear design isolates you from outside noise nicely without needing any noise-canceling technology.
• You can buy the P7 pretty much anywhere--including online, at hundreds of U.S. dealers, and even at the Apple Store.
• The Bowers & Wilkins P7 is pretty big and wouldn't fit into my briefcase the same way that my Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors or Etymotic Research ER-4s do.
• The P7 headphones are too nice and likely too bulky to use as workout headphones.
Comparison and Competition
My headphone needs have recently been more focused on in-ear monitors, but I had a chance to sit down with some really nice over-the-ear headphones at this past Consumer Electronics Show, including but not limited to the $1,099 Oppo Digital PM-1 planar magnetic headphones. The Oppos are a lot more money and more like STAX in their design; however, they are comparable in terms of premium fit and finish. For slightly less money ($349), Focal's Spirit professional headphones are comparable in terms of sound to the P7, but they aren't quite as sexy in terms of fit and finish. Sennheiser's Urbanite XL at $249 is another lower-cost option, but once again the fit and finish aren't up to the standard of the Bowers & Wilkins P7.
Bowers & Wilkins has found the sweet spot with the P7 headphones. They are comfortable, detailed, dynamic, and musically engaging. They have the ability to resolve music in ways that I've never heard before on tracks that I've listened to hundreds (if not thousands) of times. The P7 headphones are both luxurious and high-performance. While they aren't cheap by any means, they are fairly priced for someone who is looking for a great pair of headphones for at-home listening at the highest quality level.
• Bowers & Wilkins Launches T7 Wireless Speaker at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Bowers & Willins Launches P7 Headphones at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit our Headphones category page for similar product reviews.