Bowers & Wilkins' latest flagship headphone, the P7, may have a fine pedigree and sheepskin leather, but is it really worth $399 given that the Beats Studio adds noise cancellation and jacked-up bass for the same price? If you're into serious luxury styling and want your concertos and jazz quartets to sound exciting, not bombastic, the P7 is for you.
Click to EnlargeWith soft black (real) leather padding on the ear cups and headband, stainless steel hinges and brushed black aluminum back plates, the P7 headphones sport the classiest design we've seen -- outside of B&W's smaller but similarly styled P5. B&W's dual-cavity padding helps the ear pads mold to your ears while retaining firmness, and the pads are held tightly onto the cups by powerful magnets. You can remove the pads to replace them ($22 each, http://www.bwgroupusa.com/bwgroup-parts/index.php/bw/headphones.html), or swap out the cable with inline mic/controller (for iOS devices) with the included standard audio cable.
The cabling feels very sturdy and is somewhat rigid, effectively preventing tangling. The three-button mic/controller handles playback, Siri, calls and volume, and it is understated and unobtrusive.
The ear cups fold up so the headphones curl into a crescent shape, which fits in the attractive but purselike travel case. With its magnetic flap and black quilted design, B&W clearly focused on the case's portability and style, but we wish the company considered protection a little more for a $400 set of headphones.
Click to EnlargeThe P7's ear cups are so roomy and comfortable that we found ourselves wearing them even after our playlist finished; our medium-large ears just barely grazed the inside of the pads, but there was zero discomfort even after several hours on a plane.
Thanks to the closed back design and good seal maintained by the padding and headband tension, these headphones isolate you from ambient sound very well. While they're not as effective as a set of active noise-canceling cans like the Beats Studio or Bose QuietComfort 15, they definitely kept plenty of noise out -- and music in.
The ample padding on the underside of the headband also remained comfortable, in contrast to the Beats Studio's hard rubber headband, which can get a little uncomfortable during longer sessions.
The P7's audio performance can best be described as "forward." Think of leaning into the sound so you get lots of midrange detail and crispness. The bass response is also excellent, whether you're listening to the boom-thump of Jay-Z's "Holy Grail" or Miles Davis' "I Fall In Love Too Easily" (from his 1965 recording Live at the Plugged Nickel). You get all the tightness, extension, consistency and punch you could want at this price. The treble range is clear but slightly rolled off, albeit not as much as with the Sennheiser Momentum.
The amount of detail and sense of space in classical tracks like Wynton Marsalis' recording of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and acoustic groups like the Joe Henderson Big Band's "Step Lightly" is stunning. You can hear the room as well as every nuance of each instrument, whether it's during an ensemble or a solo passage. The P7's sense of space rivals some open-backed headphones, thanks in part to the driver and suspension, which actually resembles a traditional speaker assembly more than a headphone.
Do yourself a favor, though, and don't bother listening to 128Kbps MP3s on the P7s. Their high level of detail will bring out the subtleties of your music, but that means you'll hear the digital artifacts common to heavily compressed (128Kbps and below for MP3s) tracks -- such as ugly shimmering around cymbals and sibilants.
Call quality via our iPhone 4S sounded very good on both the caller and receiver ends.
Worth the $399? Our eyes say yes, and our ears wholeheartedly agree. Very few headphones compete with the P7 in looks or sound at this price. If you prefer a slightly mellower sound, the Sennheiser Momentum may be a better fit, and if you want bass that will make you think you're at an all-night dance club, go ahead and get the Beats Studio. But the P7 is our newest top choice for both musicality and style.