Amongst headphone aficionados, B&W is well-known for detailed, comfortable headphones that are capable of notable aural magnificence. The P5 Series 2 on-ears live up to that tradition: They're comfortable, stylish, and sound great. Other than a little distortion in the bass range, the performance here is very balanced, smartly emphasizing the entire frequency range.
As stylish, high-end headphones go, the P5s don't have a ton of competition. You could actually pay less for better, more flexible performance, but at a huge loss on the design side of things. You can also find stylish on-ears that do more to boost bass for about the same price—but listeners looking for more subtle emphasis with serious style should keep the P5s in mind.
The Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 (MSRP $299.99) are solid performers in almost every area we test, save for distortion. Time in the lab revealed a semi-flat frequency response with mild extra emphasis on things like sub-bass and mid/high frequency harmonic resonance, making for a detailed soundscape that maintains a healthy balance between obvious and subtle musical elements. The only drawback here is some distortion in the bass range, which peaked above our ideal limits.
Frequency response is the measurement of how a speaker (or set of speakers) responds—in decibels, or volume—to each frequency across the audible spectrum, from 10 through 10kHz. To measure this, we put each set of headphones that we test on our Head-and-Torso Simulator and feed a frequency response (at 78 dB) through the headphones. The data we gather tells us how much a set of headphones emphasizes or under-emphasizes specific frequencies.
The P5s performed optimally here, neither over- or under-emphasizing any frequency from bass to treble. The result is a finely detailed, balanced sound with ample bass presence and plenty of harmonic emphasis. Note that sub-bass and bass frequencies play back around the same frequency as the input (78 dB), which tapers down to about 70 dB at the mid-range around 800–1kHz. Because these midrange frequencies are easier to hear than bass frequencies, the audible result evens out.
The P5s add more emphasis around 1.5kHz, peaking at about 78 dB—the same emphasis as the bass range. The result is that harmonic overtones from midrange (800-1kHz) sounds are given a little more emphasis than normal, helping valuable musical details stand out.
Immense attention to detail really pays off
It's hard to imagine anyone thinking these on-ears are ugly, though some might argue they're a little too fancy. Luxurious leather helps pad the inside of the band, which transitions down into the ear cups via sleek metal branches that are almost evocatively curvy. The back of each cup proudly bears the B&W insignia against grainy black-brown ovals—both ringed by similarly shiny metal highlights.
The ear pads themselves are just as comfortable as you'd expect for $300, with foam-padded plush leather that practically swaddles your ears. The P5s are about as comfortable as on-ear headphones get; the band is still quite rigid, but if you wear glasses or find over-ears too cumbersome, these are about as good a compromise as the category has to offer. The cups themselves have a good range of movement, too, and extend enough from the band to accommodate heads of all shapes and sizes.
Upon first glance, the P5s appear to have a proprietary, non-detachable cable, but as with other B&W phones you can easily remove it if you first take off the left ear pad. The default cable includes an in-line three button mic/remote combo, and the P5s include a spare cable without the mic. Though both are simple 3.5mm cables on both ends, it's worth noting that they do have a very particular shape, so you can't replace them with any old cable off the shelf. Both cables are surprisingly sturdy at their flex points for being relatively thin and bendable. They're not the big, sturdy cables you get with serious over-ears, but they seem durable enough.
For travel purposes, B&W includes a neatly stitched polyester carrying pouch that's finished with a quilted pattern. The inside of the pouch is lined with felt, which (should) gently clean away fingerprints and dust particles whenever the P5s are stowed. The pouch flap closes with a strong magnetism, making sure the product stays put. It won't protect from crushing force, but it's a nice way to keep the P5s looking new while you're on-the-go.
Total Harmonic Distortion, or THD, is a measurement of unwanted or clipped notes within headphone frequency response. Many headphones struggle to present the deepest sub-bass notes without traces of distortion, though any distortion below 3% is quite difficult to hear, especially in the bass range. The P5s didn't test with too much of an issue here, though sub-bass and bass elements do peak above 3% THD, which may really bother those of you with trained ears.
You can expect these distortion results as long as you don't listen louder than 114.554 dB, which wouldn't be safe anyway.
Very solid sound that's marred by mild distortion
The P5 Series 2 on-ears look (and feel) incredible, but for the price, they need to sound just as good. While testing revealed multiple positive traits, including a detailed, balanced sound, the P5s struggle a bit with perceptible distortion in the low end.
Though they don't boost low-end bass sounds like so many consumer headphones, the P5s provide a healthy, even emphasis from sub-bass to the upper bass range. Expect instruments like tuba, cello, and electric bass to be easily audible without overpowering the other players on stage—this is crucial, since on-ears sometimes lack the expansive feel of over-ear cans.
Mid-range elements like vocals or guitar are emphasized a little less in their normal range, and a little more in their harmonic range, which helps maintain subtle details. Likewise, upper mid-range and treble sounds like piccolos, flutes, or cymbals are quieter upon first attack, but their harmonic resonance is easily audible.
Overall, the P5s produce a balanced, comfortable sound that doesn't over- or under-emphasize any elements to an extreme degree. It's not flat enough for studio engineers, but people who are looking for a pleasant, even tonal response will love how these on-ears sound.
The P5s do have one notable flaw, however: Deep sub-bass and bass elements have a tendency to exhibit perceptible distortion at higher volumes, causing unwanted sounds to clutter the low end. Many headphones struggle with bass-range distortion, and the P5s don't have any major problems, but for their high price tag we were hoping for perfect distortion results. It's likely that only golden-eared individuals will notice the distorted sounds, but they're present nonetheless.
Other than the distorted bass elements, the P5s are all positives. They make for decent isolators for on-ear headphones, and don't leak much sound once you find the right fit. Combined with their high-quality sound, a little distortion is a small price to pay.
Our tracking test measures the relative volume between a pair of headphones' left and right speaker channels, aiming to find major discrepancies in volume. Obviously, if one speaker is notably louder than the other, it's quite distracting no matter what you're listening to. Fortunately, the P5s don't have any major issues here. There is a shift of about 3 dB around 3kHz (upper midrange), but only very astute listeners will notice this.
Subtle in more ways than one
The Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 are that rare breed of headphone that look as good as they sound. Sleek, contoured metal and cushy leather give way to a round, even emphasis with lots of attention to detail. If it weren't for the small amount of distortion present in the low end, the P5s would be a sure thing. The $300 list price is a little steep, but they're easily found for around $270 on on the street.
As it stands, music lovers in the market for a set of comfy, great-looking on-ears simply don't have a wealth of options. Premium buyers tend to opt for over-ears, so headphone companies have focused their efforts there. That's a shame, because if you wear glasses or commute via train every day, bulky over-ears may not be the best choice. The Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 are an excellent compromise for those shoppers, giving you the compact portability of on-ears with the design and audio quality you expect from a pair of $300 headphones.
If these just aren't your thing, we're also big fans of the Beyerdynamic T51p on-ears, which sound and look great. They lean more heavily on bass sounds, however, with a slightly less refined sound. Likewise, the Beats Solo2 boast an iconic look and great sound, but are also rather bass-heavy.
If you prefer an even, subtle sound but are sick of run-of-the-mill black over-ears, the P5s should stay on your radar.
Our impulse response test measures how long it takes notes to stop sounding (rate of decay) after being played back through a set of headphones. We feed a full frequency sweep through the headphones, and our Head-and-Torso Simulator measures how long (in milliseconds) the sounds take to decay. Generally, we consider any decay time longer than 15 ms to be problematic, but none of the P5s frequencies persist for longer than 10 ms, which is essentially a perfect result.
Our isolation test measures how well a set of headphones naturally blocks outside, ambient noise. Because they don't cup the ears and don't do any active canceling, the P5s aren't the strongest performers in this regard. Sub-bass, bass, and even mid-range frequencies aren't really dampened at all, so expect to still hear things like truck horns or airplane engines. Office chatter and crying babies will be reduced by as much as 20 to 30 dB, however, making them much harder to hear.
Meet the tester
Lee has been Reviewed's point person for most television and home theater products since 2012. Lee received Level II certification in TV calibration from the Imaging Science Foundation in 2013. As Editor of the Home Theater vertical, Lee oversees reviews of TVs, monitors, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers. He also reviews headphones, and has a background in music performance.See all of Lee Neikirk's reviews
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