Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 headphone review

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To paraphrase Yogi Berra, Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 headphones are deja-vu all over again. In my review of the original P5 headphones, I said that they could handle anything I had been able to throw at them. That was four-years ago and now B&W wants even more thrown at their new P5 Series 2 headphones. This should be fun.

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Bowers & Wilkins manages to make some pretty incredible audio gear. I’ve been privileged to get to review some of their portable products. Their attention to detail in both build and audio quality is a treat to discover. The Zeppelin Air speaker is still a centerpiece in our family room where it sits on top of a piano and is used daily. Nothing looks or sounds like it.

B&W’s range of headphones has both amazed and disappointed me. Their least expensive P3 headphones are the most comfortable they offer—on my head, anyway. The C5 earphones just didn’t do it for me. The issues I had with the badly fitting eartips and funky Secure Loop design prevented me from appreciating the C5’s attributes. Then there’s the P7 headphones. All I can say about them is … wow. ‘Nuff said.

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This brings us to the new Series 2 version of B&W’s very cool and very popular P5 headphones. You gotta hand it to B&W. They could have just rested on their success and raked in the cash. But no, B&W is a company that continually innovates and their Series 2 P5 proves it. Note: There is also a Series 2 C5 earphone, but I’m not reviewing that one.

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P5 Series 2 (left) and original P5 (right)

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P5 Series 2 (left) and original P5 (right)

What’s cool is that the P5 headphones incorporate a completely new driver design borrowed from the flagship P7 headphone. B&W states that this design features a suspended diaphragm that’s more like a traditional speaker than headphone, which delivers more precise movement. What this means in english is that the P5 headphones are more accurate than their predecessor.

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At first glance, the P5 Series 2 look the same as the original. They are identical in size and come with an identical soft carrying case—although the new pouch lacks an interior side-pocket that the original had. Closer examination of the headphones reveal some differences. First, the two replaceable cords are slightly thicker. This subtle change actually makes them feel much more durable. One of the cords has an Apple compatible (sorry, Android) remote/mic and one without. I don’t use remotes or mics with headphones (earphones are another story), so this isn’t a big deal with me. I will say that with phone calls, the person on the other end (usually my younger brother) said that the call from the P5 Series 2 sounded the best of all other calls I’ve made using something other than the iPhone itself.

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Original P5 (left) and P5 Series 2 (right)

The P5’s formally brushed silver ear cups are now painted black—another ode to the P7. This gives the new P5s a more aggressive, all-business look. I prefer it. The ear cups still have magnetically connected ear pads as on the original, although these newer magnets are stronger and hold tighter. Behind these ear pads sit the new speaker drivers, which are the same size as the P7’s. The headbands of both P5s look and feel identical—a good thing. Sizing adjustments have the same tight, but smooth sliding motion that shouldn’t loosen over time—it didn’t on the original. I much prefer a right-angle mini plug connector design to the P5 Series 2’s straight plug. A 90° plug is less susceptible to damage in day-to-day use. Note that the new P5 doesn’t include a 1/8” headphone adapter for home stereo use.

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All of the parts and pieces look and feel as good as the original P5 headphone. The fit and finish is (again) first-rate and classy in appearance. Despite the newness of the Series 2 P5, it’s remarkable how the 4-year old original has held up.

I expected the P5 Series 2 headphone to sound good—you do not tolerate less from B&W. What I didn’t expect was how close the P5 sounded to the larger and more expensive P7 headphone. You might think that the new P5 could cannibalize sales from the P7, but the P5 is made primarily for commuting, while the P7 is a stay-at-home headphone (B&W may disagree).

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After listening to the P5 Series 2, it’ becomes a little harder to recommend the P7 as a clear choice between the two. The audio improvements in the P5 make it a great, relaxing headphone. I’ve actually fallen asleep with them on.

“Time to Waste It,” from the new Eno • Hyde album, “High Life” reminds me of Eno’s earlier work with Talking Head’s David Byrne. The staccato rhythms underlying wavy, choppy vocals are sharply presented on the P5 Series 2. This song has excellent soundstage—the ability to locate instruments in a given space. The bass does not sound as overdone as it does on many other recent Eno recordings. The P5 avoids any aural muddiness by keeping every instrument clear and distinct.

The Todd Terje remix of Bryan Ferry’s “Don’t Stop the Dance” is a powerful mix that demands to be played loud. The long synthesized Tangerine Dream-like intro leads into a heavy beat with sparse, ghostly sampled vocals. The P5 elevates the mystical feel of the song into spooky territory.

Ferry’s Mylo remix of “Shameless” has one of the heaviest bass beats I’ve heard. This bottom end will unpleasantly vibrate many speakers. I listened to this song with the original P5 and it handled the bass just fine—no distortion. However, with the P5 Series 2, the bass thumping went straight to the brain with no hint of speaker laziness. The new drivers gave the song an added kick in the gut—or head, anyway.

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One Direction is not my style of music. However, I was impressed with their attention to audio quality on their new album, “Four.” “Girl Almighty” is pure catchy pop, but has a clarity that’s surprising—especially considering that the song is being heard mostly by kids with free earbuds plugged into smart phones. How sad. The P5s completely reveal what these kids are missing on their buds—tight vocal harmonizing backed with excellent guitar and percussion. The singing has a U2 feel about it. As the song progresses, the P5’s new drivers seem to disappear leaving only the sheer, unadulterated fun of just listening.

The soundtrack song, “The Crying Game” by Boy George seems bathed in a bass undertone. There doesn’t appear to be a high frequency note anywhere with the exception of a lonely squeaky tone relegated to the background. The fact that the P5 lets you distinctly separate this higher tone from the mix says something. It also helps to keep the song from sinking into a total melancholic, minor-chord morass.

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The many improvements made to the P5 Series 2 beg the question: If you already own the original P5, is it worth an upgrade? Well, if you’re currently looking for a replacement headphone and can sell or gift your original P5, then upgrade. If you are still happy with the original P5 and have no pressing reason to upgrade, I suggest you keep enjoying what you already own.

For those looking replace their headphones and are unable to decide between the P5 Series 2 or the more expensive P7, Bowers & Wilkins has made it both easier and harder to choose. Harder, because the P5 is now closer in sound to the P7. Even though the P7 sounds fuller and more engaging, the difference is not as dramatic as it once was.

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However, the choice is also easier by just deciding how the headphones will be used. If they will ever be worn while in transit or on a daily commute, the P5 Series 2 is the better choice. If the headphones will never leave the house, the P7s will amaze.

With either choice, you win.

Songs used in review:

Time to Waste It — Brian Eno and Hyde
Don’t Stop the Dance (Todd Terje remix — Bryan Ferry
Shameless (Mylo remix) — Bryan Ferry
Girl Almighty — One Direction
The Crying Game — Boy George

Source: The sample for this review was provided by Bowers & Wilkins. Please visit www.bowers-wilkins.com for more info.

 

Product Information

Price:$299.99 US
Manufacturer:Bowers & Wilkins
Pros:
  • As good and better than the original
  • Almost sounds as good as the more expensive P7
  • Improved speaker drivers
  • Improved cables
Cons:
  • Straight mini plug should be 90° design
  • 1/8” headphone adapter no longer included
Posted in: Audio, Video, TV, Reviews
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