Bowers and Wilkins P5 Wireless review

Stunning wireless audio...but with a connectivity catch

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Our Verdict

The sound quality of these wireless headphones is excellent; rich, detailed and surprisingly powerful. But the P5 Wireless is let down by some flaky, frustrating Bluetooth connectivity problems.

For

  • Fantastic sound quality
  • aptX support
  • Great battery life
  • Easy to connect

Against

  • Often flaky Bluetooth
  • Cheap-feeling control buttons
  • Pricey
  • Can get uncomfortable when wearing glasses

Without wanting to sound too much like a disappointed Gordon Ramsey, judging some inept chef... Damn, these are some frustrating headphones.

On one ear Bowers and Wilkins' first wireless headphones sound utterly fantastic and I don't want to take them off my head, but on the other the vagaries of Bluetooth connectivity makes the experience an often stuttering one.

The P5 Wireless headphones are, unsurprisingly, based on its successful wired P5 Series 2 set. It has worked hard to ensure the same audio technology has been used in these Bluetooth headphones as it used in the standard P5.

To that end there are twin 40mm drivers, one in each ear-piece, with a huge dynamic frequency range of between 10Hz and 20kHz.

The wireless set also looks almost identical to its cable-conscious forebear.

There is only a slight extra girth to the ear pads; it's noticeable but doesn't affect the look of them too much. They are also slightly heavier, but the difference is less than 20g. That's impressive given they are packing Bluetooth connectivity and lithium battery to boot.

The stylish, twisted aluminium frame remains though, giving the P5 Wireless the same classy, though understated, aesthetic as the P5 Series 2.

These then are some serious-looking headphones.

Bowers and Wilkins P5 Wireless

In terms of that wireless tech we're talking about Bluetooth 4.1 and because of the audiophile heritage of the Bowers and Wilkins brand it would have been crazy had it not opted for the aptX standard.

On the right-hand ear cup are the controls. The on/off switch on the underside also doubles as the pairing button and there's a micro-USB socket for charging. There are also controls for volume and play/pause, and you can double-tap to skip or triple-tap to go back.

The battery is good for about 17 hours of playback, measured at around 80% volume, and I've not felt precious about using that battery life either.

If you do find yourself powering-down though you can pull off one of the magnetically-attached ear-cups and plumb in a discrete cable to keep on listening.

Sound quality

The aptX codec allows for the transmission of CD quality audio over Bluetooth, offering the highest level of wireless audio you can squeeze into a pair of headphones.

I've been running them from a little Sony Walkman Hi-Res Audio player with the compatible codec - both source and output device need to be rocking aptX support - and the sound is fantastic.

The level of bass response these diminutive on-ear headphones are able to produce at low volume levels is seriously impressive, but that in no way diminishes the quality of the mid and high-ends of the aural experience either.

Bowers and Wilkins P5 Wireless

It may sound rather trite, but the P5 Wireless manages that much sought-after feat of allowing you to hear new things in songs you thought you knew inside out. Listening to a FLAC version of The Cure's Wish album I suddenly heard a whispering Robert Smith echoing his lead vocals in Apart.

They're incredibly versatile too. The impressive spatial sound and tonal separation means the P5 Wireless is great for more electronic music too.

Emancipator's occasional machine-gun drums sound clear and distinct. Each beat being clearly separate from the last - on previous listens, with other headphones, they can get crushed together.

The sound is almost as good as the wired P5 Series 2. Testing the two headphones together I personally think the wired set has a warmer sound. There's not a huge difference in the tech, but there seems to be some difference there.

But the P5 Wireless has still ruined me for the in-ear Sony buds I've been sporting. Going back isn't going to be an option.

Connection

Were it all about audio quality I'd have few problems with these lovely-sounding B&W headphones.

But it isn't, because it has finally dipped its toes into the wireless audio market.

When I picked up my first set of P5 Wireless headphones from B&W I was told that it was only now getting into the Bluetooth arena because the tech was now robust and reliable enough for the Bowers and Wilkins brand.

Bowers and Wilkins P5 Wireless

"We very much set out, as we always do, to make sure it sounds great, to be a great-sounding experience for everyone," explained Shaun Marin, Brand Manager at B&W. "Bluetooth aptX was, we felt, a real step forward to allow people a universally good experience."

I would though have to disagree. Not about aptX, but about that universally good experience...

On the way back from that meeting, sat on a train, I fell in love with the sound of this latest P5 set. But almost as soon as I got off the train the problems started.

With my phone in a trouser pocket, combined with a relatively brisk walking pace, I started experiencing cut-outs in the sound. Shifting the source device around - switching pockets or dropping it instead into my bag - did help, but still the problems remained.

So my first set went back and I'm now on my second review pair. The connection problems seem improved, but not solved.

Flesh can be an issue it seems.

The recommendation is to have the source audio device on the same side of your body as the right-hand ear-cup, with all the Bluetooth goodness in it, so your body doesn't get in the way. But I've also had problems using the controls where having my hand over them cut the sound too.

Likewise wandering around with your hands in your pockets isn't recommended either…