So after a week listening to the new Bowers & Wilkins PX wireless and noise-cancelling headphones, we’d say the company is on track to take over the mantle of executive earwear, such a delightful combination of style and sound does the PX provide.
The PX is the speaker brand’s first noise-cancelling wireless headphones, and they deliver a number of innovations, or at least ideas which others have tried before, but which are delivered far more successfully by this new design.
Take, for example, the app control of noise cancelling. This idea is not new, but B&W’s careful implemention of it is a good distance ahead of what we’ve seen before. The PX app offers three levels of noise cancellation (or ‘Environment Filter’, as it's there termed), each with a selectable level of voice passthrough.
So there is ‘Office’ with very light noise cancelling, ‘City’ which is designed to reduce city noise, and ‘Flight’, with the heaviest of the three NC implementations. By default the Office and City modes include some level of voice passthrough (so office workers don’t have to do the waving table-banging thing to get your attention, or, in the city, so that you can stay aware of what’s happening around you). These defaults can be dialled down or up, depending how much you need to hear what's going on around you.
And best of all, the app is not one to confuse the user by giving them a million possible EQ options and thereby buggering up what is an excellently delivered sound balance here. The 40mm PX drive units are derived from the company’s reference P9 Signature headphones, using the same angled design aiming at effective soundstaging. A “smart suspension system” helps the drivers’ abilities to ascend to frequencies up to 30kHz, says the marketing, though we note the specs say only to 20kHz (which is fine by us). The result is not a wide-open type of sound, rather a solid and musical one, with B&W masterfully handling the difficult task of voicing for both cabled and wireless operation, and across different levels of noise cancelling, which inevitably affect the sound. We found that each iteration of noise-cancelling slightly reduced bass reponse and reduces soundstaging, tightening the sound more centrally. The Office setting was therefore our favourite, even for a rumbly bus commute, with the voice passthrough dropped to zero (we so rarely talk to fellow bus passengers).
Another impressive implementation is how little the Bluetooth sound is degraded compared with the wired connection. They support the aptX codec for those Android phones which support it, and also the newer aptX HD, which applies the mildly lossy (about four times data reduction) algorithm to 24-bit signals to a maximum of 48kHz (see here for more on aptX HD).
They also play via USB (we’ll report on their frequency and resolution abilities in our full review in the next issue of Sound+Image).
On your head, off your head
The other ‘best implementation’ we’ve seen is how the PX design handles its “Wear sensor”. PX is B&W’s first smart headphone, with built-in sensors that pause the headphones if you lift either earcup, and go into standby if you put them down or drop them around your neck.
This kind of behaviour has driven us crazy on some other headphones, because they have required manual restarting after even a momentary removal of the headphones. The PX is rather smarter, switching back on when you wear them again, even if it's the following morning, AND making the previous Bluetooth connection, AND restarting your music.
So when we used the PX headphones for several days with Sony’s A1 OLED TV (which can send its audio via Bluetooth), we could simply put on the headphones, they would connect to the TV and mute its speakers without any other interaction required. Better still we could just put them down on the table for the connection to be severed and the sound to return through the A1’s Acoustic Surface audio system. Which meant the missus didn’t wake us at 2am asking why there was no sound on the TV, as has happened with previous Bluetooth headphones used in this way.
So top work, and the app allows adjustment of their sensitivity if you find them a bit overzealous in operation, or to turn off the Wear Sensor entirely should you be allergic to such cleverness.
The app can also be used to upgrade not only the app but the headphones too, should future firmware arrive to improve them. The app checks the headphones have enough battery life to update successfully, otherwise you'll be instructed to charge them before performing the update. Again, thoughtful stuff.
Battery life is quoted at 22 hours wireless noise cancellation, or 33 hours in wired noise cancellation mode.
Not knowing the price during our pre-release play, we fully expected the PX to surface at $799 or higher, so we’re impressed to see the pricing released today — in Australia they retail for $549.95, available in ‘Space Grey’ or ‘Soft Gold’ etched-aluminium finishes.
Downsides so far? Nothing at all sonically, other than that slight shrinking of sound under heavy NC, and technically only that the app can take some time to recognise the connection with the PX, and has to repeat this recognition even if you pop off to your preferred music app for a few seconds. But hey, such app glitches are easily updated.
Our full review will be in the October-November issue of Sound+Image magazine.
More on the PX at: www.bowers-wilkins.net