The sound doesn't disappoint, though, and for an asking price of $199.99, the P3s are a competitive high-end contender for shoppers with a sartorial eye and a commute that won't stop.
The name's 3... P3.
There's something a bit Bond about these headphones. The dark model we tested looks red-carpet ready, with matte-black ear cups, handsome fabric, and cool metal flourishes. And some of these elements are made for more than just good looks; the design components are simultaneously fashionable, useful, and leather free (a fact animal lovers will surely appreciate). A layer of memory foam works to remember the shape of your ear after each wear (though this does little to alleviate the pressure that comes with on-ear design), and the pads pop right off for easy cleaning.
Out of the box, the P3s ship with a 3.93-foot Y-shaped cord. The split is not adjustable, but the fact that this cord is replaceable helps make up for that. Just remove the ear cups—which rare-earth neodymium magnets hold into place—and unplug the jacks underneath. A spare cord even ships with the P3s, so don't fret when your maniacal house cat murders the first one (but spray her with a water gun, because the extra doesn't include a microphone). To store your P3s, simply collapse the ear cups into the band and pop the whole rig into your hard-shell carrying case. Just watch your fingers—this case snaps shut, and the edges are sharp.
Feel free to judge the P3s by their cover, because they sound as great as they look.
Overall, the P3s reproduce desirable, balanced sound. Notes throughout the frequency range are right where they should be, and most errors are barely audible. Overall, the P3s stay quite close to our ideal limits, without exaggerating or underemphasizing notes to a pronounced extent. Not only this, but the left and right channels remain fairly even in loudness, so that music should sound accurate.
There were a few problems worth mentioning, but none are deal breakers. A few extremely high notes are audibly underemphasized, and the left speaker is louder than the right—but other than cymbals and piping piccolos, this issue won't effect much. Most listening will therefore carry on undisturbed—only very practiced ears will notice the underemphasis (professional cymbalists?).
Lastly, since the P3s do not have a noise-cancellation feature—and since the cups are a bit small—they really don't do much in the way of blocking external noises. As far as leakage, they do emit some sound, but not enough to bother your neighbors very much. Beyond these minor complaints, there really isn't much to gripe about.
Like an impeccably dressed lady, the P3s just aren't very comfortable.
Visually, these headphones relay a sense of luxury, but it just doesn't translate into comfort. The on ear design inevitably applies pressure, causing one's ears to ache after extended use. They are made with memory foam that some may find helpful, but if you have sensitive ears, these are definitely not the headphones for you—on ears never are. Furthermore, the attractive metal limbs that extend from the band continually catch at unbound hair; long braids were my only recourse, à la Little House on the Prairie. The whole rig feels a bit unsteady, slipping about with the shake of a head, and the ear pads almost feel too small.
We do appreciate how compact and lightweight the P3s are, though. These cans weigh about 4.5 oz., and they collapse nicely into a compact form for transport. Additionally, the microphone and remote make it very easy to take calls, skips songs, tinker with volume, and pause music while on the go. Just remember that since the P3s aren't the most effective isolators, noisy environments may prove frustrating.
If looks could sell
The Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones look exactly like what they are—a gorgeous set with high-end sound and a steep price tag ($200 MSRP). If looks aren't everything, you can do better for the price—especially in terms of wear. As luxurious as these headphones look, they just aren't especially comfortable because of the on-ear design and the smallness of the pads. If you can afford to surrender another Benjamin, the P5s (MSRP $299.95) appear to be a more opulent bet.
Regardless though, the P3's produce very desirable sound for the balanced music listener. Aside from perhaps an underemphasized cymbal crash now and again, these headphones produce even, ideal sound. If you're a bass monger or a gamer, these obviously don't fit the bill, but if you don't have tender ears and you want a sleek set with high-end sound on the go, the P3 headphones are a reasonable buy.
Our time with the Bowers & Wilkins P3s was well spent. These headphones put up a fine fight in the lab, performing well in just about every test.
From frequency response, to tracking, to distortion, and beyond—these cans just didn't disappoint. Read on to take a look at the hard facts.
Piccolo players and cymbalists should be the only complainers
The P3s do a standup job handling the parent signal throughout most of the frequency range. Sound is almost exactly where we want it, and the errors you see are barely worth mentioning, but we will, since this is the science page.
Between 2kHz and 3kHz, and again at 5kHz, there are falloffs, but these are barely audible. The most notable error occurs around 7kHz, where you can hear the highest notes of a piccolo, cymbal, pipe organ, and other such instruments. At 7kHz, there is a minor ~7dB drop in loudness in the right channel—so sound in your right ear will be slightly more than half as loud as in your left. Let's be clear, though: It is very likely that listeners will ever hear any of these errors.
Untroubled by distortion
Distortion is yet another area of performance in which the P3 excelled. Data shows that these headphones do not clip, pollute, or otherwise distort the parent signal on an audible level. Music listening should therefore be a pure experience, unmarked by unwanted added noise or other unpleasantries of the sort.
Of course, these results do not apply if you listend any louder than the P3's max sound pressure level of 109.901dB. But don't listen to music this loud! Above 100dB, you're actually in danger of damaging your hearing. Your ears deserve more love than that.
If you have an eye on the P3s, maybe you should eyeball the isolation results while you're at it. High-pitched noises will have a hard time getting through to your ears, but since these cans don't have noise cancellation of any kind, and maybe also due to the smallness of the pads, low frequency sounds will breach the barrier rather easily.
Your neighbors may have the better end of this stick, since the P3s don't leak much sound at all. If you're in an office setting, you may want to turn your embarrassing Bieber beats down a bit—the guy next to you may hear. It won't be particularly loud—just enough for your coworker to realize what you're listening to and ruthlessly mock you. But on the train? Crank away. No one will hear.
Meet the testers
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Virginia is a former Managing Editor at Reviewed.com. She has a background in English and journalism. Away from the office, Virginia passes time with dusty books & house cats.See all of Virginia Barry's reviews
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