SIGNED, SEALED: the B&W P9 Signature
A beautiful object, the P9 Signature, offering a level of luxury to which upmarket B&W owners may well aspire, so that, especially in today’s ever-rising headphone market, the price-tag of $1399.95 is no great eyebrow-raiser. Just feel the quality. The earpads are no faux leatherette solution, but genuine Italian Saffiano leather from Scamosceria del Brenta in Vicenza, a company even older than B&W — indeed it was already softening cow hides back when Mr Bowers was first meeting Mr Wilkins in the Royal Corps of Signals during WWII. The leather is soft where it touches your head, stylishly stamped on the outer parts, while even the carrycase (right) is wrapped in luxurious Italian Alcantara, a suede-like man-made fabric sensibly chosen for its durability and stain resistance.
And the case is impressively compact for such sizeable headphones (which are larger than they may seem in these pictures). Their neat folding for storage is an impressive work of engineering in itself. Just gorgeous stuff.
What’s with the ‘Signature’? A ‘Signature’ product usually indicates that a designer of repute is so delighted with the design that he or she has personally endorsed the product, often with an actual signature embossed somewhere on the product, or in a note inside, or something. It’s not entirely clear who might have signed these off — not Mr Bowers, sadly no longer with us, nor Mr Wilkins, whose main contribution to the company, name aside, was to give the young John Bowers space at the back of their shop to indulge his speaker-building hobby that led to the founding of the company some 51 years ago.
Perhaps it represents the combined signatures of the engineering team at B&W’s ‘University of Sound’, the Steyning Research Establishment which gives the company’s engineers an unusual level of independence from the day to day rigours of commercial business — John Bowers’ plan to give them greater freedom of thought.
And certainly they have taken a few interesting steps to achieve the performance here. So the drivers are angled inwards at 15 degrees, the idea being to give a more loudspeaker-like delivery rather than the usual headphonic left-to-right spread. Following that line, B&W refers to the driver enclosures within the earshells as “acoustic cabinets”, using aluminium and composite materials shaped using the ever-present computer-driven Finite Element Analysis — just like a real loudspeaker design process, in other words. And distortion is lowered by having the earcups cunningly decoupled from the headband, says B&W, something we recall seeing only once before, in AudioQuest’s crazy Nighthawk headphones (decoupling of cables to avoid handling noise is more common).
The fact that these are closed designs points to B&W’s intention they be used on the move as well as at home, as does the 22-ohm impedance and the Apple-friendly cable with inline controls and microphone (later in the year they will, we gather, also come with a Lightning cable so iPhone 7 users can ditch their adaptor). But you can switch out the cable for the provided lozenge-less short (1.2m) cable or a longer (5m) cable for home use. Changing the cable uses the same system as on previous B&W designs, popping off one earshell so that the connector is internalised and fully locked; you would think, from the outside, it was permanently cabled.
Not too much is volunteered by the company on the driver itself — it’s 40mm diameter, a nylon-damped cone with an “acoustic coating”, backed by a large surround diaphragm copper-clad aluminium coil with a large-pole magnet. The goal: a “perfect piston”, says B&W, with “precision at high frequencies and compliance for great bass”.
Enough of the luxurious components and accoutrements — how do they sound? Certainly refined; they’re specified as good to 30kHz, but it’s not the sheer height that characterises them, more their effortless delivery of detail combined with a smoothness of sound, ne’er a shriek nor a peak, which makes for extended longterm listening pleasure.
At the other end they produce sound from extraordinary depth, and hold their balance on the way up, so the result is rich and full, but never with too much of a sense of exaggeration. It’s fast too, so that kick drums are tight and thuddy, bass rapid and bloat-free.
Further up acoustic guitars arrive full of crispness and zing, vocals forward and defined; kd lang sounded as sweet and detailed as we’ve ever heard her on The Air That I Breathe, while Leonard Cohen’s wideband vocal was just slightly too strong in the upper bass. The P9s proved wildly energetic for The Strypes’ What A Shame, and their relative neutrality and delight made them absolute bliss for jazz and classical, natural recordings where that soundstaging came into its own.
The 22-ohm impedance and 111dB/V sensitivity assist the P9 Sigs in delivering plenty of level from mobile devices or laptops, but of course if you add a portable or home headphone amp with more power to drive them, they love showing their strengths still more.
So there’s no doubt you’re paying for luxury here to some extent; Bowers & Wilkins might have delivered this level of sound cheaper by using a basic vanilla wrapper. But that’s the point; the company has been celebrating its 50th anniversary with statement visions of the loudspeaker art. Headphones are loudspeakers too, and if B&W came quite late to the sub-genre of headborne sonics, the P9 Signature shows the company heading purposefully to
its very heights.
B&W P9 Signature
Type: closed, dynamic, cabled, over-ear
Driver: Regular Phase type, size not stated
Impedance: 22 ohms