One of the things that I have really come to value about Twitter is the recommendations you get from like-minded fellow human beings for all kinds of stuff from vegan fish and chips to films: it’s great. However, sometimes it can get expensive…
First helgeg tweeted about some new headphones he had bought. They were made by Bowers and Wilkins, and I hadn’t come across them before. So I visited the site to have a look and was rather smitten. I used to have a pair of bookshelf B&W speakers years ago, and loved the sound. These headphones looked like the perfect balance of features for mobile headphones, and they had a great retro-futuristic kind of design too.
Then bestoftimes also got a pair, and he loved them too. It was getting harder to resist trying a pair out. I got some birthday money from a bunch of very generous relatives, and decided that I would go and just try them out. If I liked them, I might think about putting my birthday money towards them.
Well, obviously, this was only going to end one way. The P5s turned out to be as glorious as everyone said, and I decided that they were well worth the money, even though they cost a lot more than I would usually contemplate spending on headphones. What’s so great about them?
Bowers and Wilkins really know about speaker drivers. They seem to be able to work their magic with drivers in every size of enclosure from massive, nautilus-shaped floor-standers to the relatively tiny cups of headphones. The sound is beautifully detailed and neutral, and simply presents recordings as they were meant to be heard. They are warm (but not cloying) and involving. Headphones can sometimes feel — for want of a better phrase — claustrophobic. The P5s don’t feel like that, and there is a great spaciousness to the soundstage that’s pretty incredible for tiny drivers sitting on your ears.
People make fun of audiophiles (sometimes rightly) for fetishising new gear. I think that the real test of whether some new bit of kit is worth the money is whether it makes you want to listen to all your music again (right now). If it lets you hear music you know like the back of your hand and still find something new and surprising, or if it suddenly makes you feel something you have never felt before, then it is worth it. Audio equipment should only be about getting you closer to the music.
As far as I am concerned, the P5s have delivered just that. I keep putting them on and thinking, “hey, I bet X would sound brilliant with these!”, and before you know it, several hours have passed as I’ve moved through my music collection. I couldn’t even wait to get them home, so I put them on in a busy coffee shop in Birmingham and listened to Chris Wood’s Handmade Life album. It was on shuffle, but the first track up was ‘Hollow Point’, and I nearly cried, sitting there in the coffee shop. It’s a great song, and one I have liked from the start, but the intimacy of Chris’ voice, and the building atmosphere of dread and doom was almost overwhelming. I noticed a sound in the background that I hadn’t heard before: a long, drawn out note that sounds like brakes on an Underground train, but also like a scream. That was a pretty good introduction to the cans, if a trifle embarrassing.
The P5s are on-the-ear headphones: the cups sit snuggly on the surface of your ears, but don’t enclose them totally. I’ve tried this style before and often felt as if my head is in a vice after a while, but these are really comfortable. The amount of grip is just right: tight enough that they feel secure, but not so tight that your ears get squashed. It helps that they are generously padded with memory foam on both the cups and the headband, and are covered in really soft leather. I’ve spent some quite long periods with them on and felt perfectly comfortable. After fiddling about with in-ear earbuds for a while, it’s lovely to have a pair of headphones that are so simple to put on and take off, and don’t require adjustment every two minutes.
Design and features
I think that they look great, but they might not be everyone’s cup of tea. They are elegant without being flashy and have a kind of timeless quality. There are some clever features, like the fact that the ear pads are attached magnetically, so pull off easily (but don’t fall off), so that you can clean them or switch over the cable which is detachable. They come with two cables: an iPhone specific one that has an inline microphone with a volume and play/pause button, and a plain cable for any other device with a 3.5mm jack. I really like having the control, both for easy answering of the phone, but also for quickly changing the volume or pausing without having to fish in a pocket or bag for the iPhone.
The P5s reduce noise passively by having closed, metal backs to the cups, and pads that make a good seal with the ear. I didn’t think this would cut out much noise, but actually they are quite impressive at reducing annoying background noises, even in busy coffee shops, trains and other similar environments. You could probably do better with active noise cancellation, but these headphones don’t need batteries and they don’t interfere with the sound quality. I actually found that it was so effective that you have to be careful if you use them as a headset: your own voice sounds so quiet that you have to avoid bellowing into the mic.
One nice extra is that you get a free 3 month subscription to Bowers and Wilkins’ Society of Sound. They collect together recordings (some existing albums and some new collections or recordings), and make them available as high bitrate downloads (AAC, 16-bit FLAC and 24-bit FLAC). It’s curated by Real World Studios and the London Symphony Orchestra, so there’s a lot of music which is right up my street. You can download unlimited albums, but they have a rotating selection, with two new albums each month which displace two old ones. I really like the idea, and have already found new music I really like through it.
In short, I love these ‘phones to bits. Thanks to helgeg and bestoftimes for the recommendation, even though you guys cost me money — perhaps you should try to claim commission from Bowers and Wilkins!