Work in a loud cubicle environment? Want to focus when you’re working at a coffee house? Are you an audiophile with discerning tastes? While Bose has long been known for their noise cancellation headphones, there is another contender for high-end on-ear headphones in the Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) P5 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones. Read on for my impressions of the B&W P5 and how well it handles a multitude of environments.
When I traveled extensively for work 10+ years ago, the Bose QuietComfort noise cancellation headphones were the thing to have. They reduced airplane noise, were portable enough, and had decent sound quality. I tried a pair out, but never ended up buying them. Why, you ask? Because they are active noise cancellation headphones. This means that they require power in order to produce an opposite wave signal of standard background noise. Which meant they required batteries (which made them larger than they could have been), were over-the-ear, and most importantly – they caused me to have terrible headaches. I’m very sensitive to sound, and the noise cancellation technology actually hurt my ears worse than the background noise in an airplane. Now, things got better once they introduced the on-ear model, which sits on the ear, but does not surround it completely. This style of headphone also kept my ears from getting too hot, but even those QuietComfort models still bothered me – I couldn’t get around the issue with the active noise cancellation.
Leave it to Bowers & Wilkins to introduce a solution that I wanted to explore. B&W has long been known for high-quality audio equipment. Some of you may be familiar with their popular Zeppelin and Zeppelin Mini iPod Speaker systems, but B&W has long been known for other high-quality equipment, including Abbey Road Studios, where The Beatles recorded their iconic album with the same name.
What sets apart the P5 is that it uses noise isolation instead of noise cancellation. This means that it does not require a power source, but still provides most of the benefits of the noise cancellation technology. It prevents background noise from affecting your listening experience, while providing a better, safer listening experience.
The P5 comes in a very nice case that adequately protects the headphones. There is a white pull tab at the top of the inside box to let you know that there are additional items underneath the main compartment.
Underneath, a nicely sewn fabric case is included. The flap closes via a magnet and safely holds the headphones while protecting them during transport.
In addition, an instructional booklet is included, along with a 3.5 mm to 1/4″ adapter for use with standard component stereo systems. But the P5 also has two standard 3.5 mm cables included: The one attached to the headphones includes a microphone, play/pause, and volume up/down buttons and is designed to work with Apple iPhone and iPod devices. A standard 3.5 mm cable is also included.
The ear pieces on the headphones rotate in order to allow the headphones to lay flat so they take up less space when traveling with them.
If you want to switch between the cable with the microphone and the standard cable, or if you are replacing the cable, you simply remove the left inner ear cup and change the cable. Both ear cups are held firmly in place with magnets, but remove easily enough.
In the following video, I show how to remove the ear cups and show how they reattach strongly with the magnets.
Specifications are available on the manufacturer’s website, but these are driven by Neodynium magnets and have high-quality sheepskin leather. While these are manufactured in China, they seem very high-quality. While the 3.5 mm cable seems thin, it seems to be high-quality. Since I can replace the cable if it breaks, I have no doubt that these headphones will last a long time, and I could replace the cable if necessary.
The on-cable microphone, play/pause, and volume up/down buttons (on the left earpiece) are advertised to work with the iPhone and iPod devices, and they work well. I can use all of the built-in functionality. In fact, just like Apple’s headphones with built-in mic, I can even use this for audio input on my Mac via the headphone jack on my MacBook Pro.
However, when I try to use it on my Android phones, such as my T-Mobile G2, I can only use the volume up/down functionality universally, and the play/pause functionality doesn’t work in every application. The microphone does not work at all, unfortunately. To be fair, many other headphones, including Apple’s own headphones exhibit the same behavior when plugged into my Android devices.
These headphones grasp firmly to the side of your head. This helps aid in the noise isolation features. I wear glasses with fairly thin metal temples, but did not experience any discomfort while wearing the headphones for extended periods of time. I often wear these for 6+ hours a day at work while I’m at my desk and not in meetings. I’ve also worn them extensively at home and elsewhere without issues.
The headphones are constructed of a lot of metal and leather. As such, the headband on the top is a bit heavy. I noticed that while the headphones always sit comfortably on my head, if I lean forward (to bend over to pick something up, for example), if I have positioned them in a not totally “secure” position, they tend to fall forward on my head. Simply readjusting and placing them more on the top of my head does the trick each time.
I was worried with as isolating as the ear pieces are, I would get too hot wearing them. However, I have not had any issues with heat or sweaty ears due to these headphones. In fact, since they are on-ear, I can easily take them off or put them on, and will do so sometimes to give my ears a break. This is something that isn’t easy to do with in-ear earbuds, and I dislike how those irritate my ears after long periods, as well as the ear canal pain I get from wearing them for extended periods.
Sound Quality and Noise Isolation Effectiveness
Besides the ergonomics of the headphones, the most important aspects to me are sound quality and how well they perform at noise isolation. I’m happy to say they exceeded my expectations.
As I mentioned before, I have sensitive hearing, and I often listen to my music at only about 25% – 35% volume. At those levels, I pick up all the sound I care about, across a wide range of genres, including classical, jazz, rock, and even electronica or ska. When I wore my other headphones at work, I would still hear a lot of background noise at work, such as other conversations, and general noise such as the air conditioning system. But turning up the volume simply gave me headaches and ear aches.
With the P5 headphones, I immediately am in a much more silent environment, even with the headphones off. Once I turn them on, I am amazed at the quality of the sound I get, even at low volumes, and with no distortion at high volumes. The stereo functionality is amazing, and due to the noise isolation features, I literally feel like I am in a surround sound environment. In addition, the headphones pick up little details I don’t normally hear on my headphones or anywhere else except on a high-end stereo system with good speakers. Having this type of sound quality in a such a portable package is impressive!
But what is vitally important to me is being able to still be aware of what is going on around me without necessarily being annoyed by my surroundings. These headphones cancel out all of the ambient noise and minimize other distractions, such as conversations. But if someone comes to my desk and asks me a question, I am still able to hear that someone is talking to me. Today, for example, we had a severe weather announcement on the overhead intercom, and I was able to hear that and quickly get to a safe place in the building. That’s exactly the right balance for me with noise isolation and sound quality.
If you want to test/experience the sound quality for yourself, many Apple Retail stores now have them available to listen to on an iPod. Or, bring in your own music player and listen for yourself. The retail store is a perfect environment to try them in. They are usually noisy and you’ll immediately be able to tell how well the noise isolation feature performs, as well as experience the sound quality. Since these are not cheap headphones, I would suggest trying them in person, as it is the best way to see if they work for you.
While these headphones are costly at $299, they are definitely worth it for me. They are well-built and I anticipate having them for years to come. They are portable enough that they make the trip with me to and from work daily, and I am using them all the time without any fatigue. These are the best headphones I’ve owned in many years.
B&W P5 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones is available online at retailers such as Amazon and Apple, among other locations, and in Apple Retail Stores.
MSRP: The P5 retails for $299.
What I Like: Noise isolation features, sound quality, build quality
What Needs Improvement: More support for other (non-Apple) microphone capabilities