It’s not hard to make a wish-list for a pair of Bluetooth headphones. First, put sound quality at the top: I always do! Then perhaps on the second line of that list should go ‘solidity of connection’, because although today’s digital wireless headphones have done away with the swishy noises of old you still need a headphone that will connect easily and doesn’t drop out. Comfort, aesthetic design, battery life—and perhaps size—might all be added a little further down the list (size being a requirement in convenience terms, so the headphones are easy to store and to transport.)
For all these criteria, Bowers & Wilkins doesn’t put a foot (or an ear) wrong with this P5 Wireless model, which is actually a Bluetooth version of the company’s on-ear P5 wired headphone, and I was impressed with B&W’s insistence on re-engineering the acoustic enclosure to tweak the sound back to that of the wired P5 rather than merely making compensations via the digital EQ that would be possible now that there is active amplification within the wireless models.
The P5’s internal rechargeable battery is quoted as being good for 17 hours of listening via Bluetooth, which seemed borne out in my usage, and re-charging the battery is very easy and convenient since it’s able to be done using a standard micro-USB socket.
These are on-ear phones, usefully dinky and light at 213g, the earcups folding inward so they slip easily into the supplied quilted bag with its magic magnetic catch and take up little precious space when transported. As with their wired counterparts there is a sense of refined luxury from the sheep’s leather used on the headband and earcups, plus the swirling aluminium work which serves to anchor the earcups before disappearing up into the headband, allowing a good 30mm of fit adjustment on each side—the maximum extension enough to accommodate even the largest head sizes.
Operating the controls and setting up the Bluetooth pairing was easy and intuitive. The P5Ws are powered-up by a slider on the right earcup (I had trouble spotting the left/right markings on the anchor studs, but the controls define the right earcup), activating Bluetooth by a further push of this, pairing quickly with my iPod Touch and thereafter doing so automatically. The link remained solid nearly all the time no matter whether I had the iPod in a top pocket, a jeans pocket or in a carry-bag, though I did experience some drop-outs on the morning bus commute, apparently corresponding to moments of exessive engine acceleration.
I have used many BT headphones whose controls were easy to use in error; the controls on B&W’s P5Ws are just perfect. A nicely tactile three-position switch on the back edge of the right earcup allows easy control of volume, pause (one press), next track (two presses) and last track (three presses). It also allows call taking and has two microphones and ClearVoice technology built in.
With my iPod Touch, press and holding activated Siri, which then worked through the mic and headphones; rather fun. (And, just in case you were wondering if Siri is an acronym, it’s not. It’s the short form of the Norwegian girl’s name Sigrid, which means ‘beautiful woman who leads you to victory’, and comes from the intended name for the original Siri developer Dag Kittalaus’s first-born child, a plan thrown into disarray when his first-born was a boy.
When Dag Kittalaus left Apple in 2011, Steve Jobs, who’d never liked the name, tried to turn the word Siri into an catchy acronym by labelling it a ‘Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface’, but it didn’t stick.)
While the earcups are a mere 75×55mm—so only a few millimetres in depth added to the wired P5 to include the extra electronics—the nylon-damped diaphragm within is a good 40mm in diameter and so is able to provide solid full-range sound. It’s a little less than entirely airy up top (Android users able to employ the aptX Bluetooth codec supported here may gain in that area), but B&W’s careful engineering has delivered a balance that prevents this manifesting as a weakness. The midrange is particularly rich and punchy, bass is solidly supported and slightly emphasised without ever overdominating, and crucially I found the music simply poured through. The P5 Wireless held Leonard Cohen’s vocal combination of bass content and treble rasp as a single entity, it delivered the detail and nuances in Weezer & Hayley William’s delightful version of ‘Rainbow Connection’ (one of my emotive testers, hairs successfully raised by both this and Morricone’s ‘The Mission’ soundtrack.
You can use the P5s with a supplied cable if your battery is low—this confused me at first, because there is no visible connection socket on either earcup!—but the online manual (B&W prefers to include a full-colour promo for the company in the box rather than a product manual) explains how to pull apart the left earcup in order to insert the cable. It’s a bit alarming first time, but entirely reliable and keeps a tight and safe hold on the cable but… you can’t even connect via Bluetooth until the cable is again removed. This made my A–B comparisons of the sound via Bluetooth and via hard-wire connection a little longwinded, but the cable connection allowed higher playback levels while also opening up the top end for added welcome edge and delight, though also increasing a little too much the emphasis in the upper bass and lower mids. Overall I’d take the wireless balance by sonic preference as well as convenience.
Light, compact, reliable, intuitive, and musical—the B&W P5 wireless is everything a Bluetooth headphone should be. While not cheap at $599.95 (the larger but cable-only over-ear P7 is the same price), the luxury and sound quality are as you would hope for at this level, and their minimal size is a delight for portability. Jez Ford
B&W P5 Wireless
Reviewed at $599.95, now $649.95
+ Solid music sound via Bluetooth; Intuitive controls; Compact convenience
Warranty: Two years
Product page: www.convoy.com.au