Before I get into the gritty detail of this review, I'll admit, right up front, that I like Bowers & Wilkins. When I built my very first proper, separates, Hi-Fi system, I pumped everything out to a pair of B&W DM560 speakers, and I absolutely loved them. From that point on, I have always found myself swaying towards Bowers & Wilkins when seeking out new Hi-Fi or home cinema equipment.
Then a few years ago, Bowers & Wilkins took the iPod generation by storm, releasing the universally praised Zeppelin iPod dock. The Zeppelin proved that you didn't have to compromise on sound quality, just because you wanted to take advantage of the simplicity and capacity of an iPod.
Eventually Bowers & Wilkins put its decades of loudspeaker experience into headphones, producing the superb P5s, which were as comfortable as they were beautiful, with sound quality to match. And recently Bowers & Wilkins invited a group of journalists to the World famous Abbey Road Studios, where the company debuted its latest set of headphones, the P3s.
Although it's easy to think of the P3s as simply a more compact incarnation of the P5s, that couldn't be further from the truth. Bowers & Wilkins has designed the P3s from the ground up, with everything from the drivers to the housing, and even the material used for the ear pads being completely new.
There's no denying that the P3s look superb, finished in aluminium, chrome and rubber. The ear pads and head cushion are made from a bespoke fabric, manufactured by the same company that makes B&W's speaker grilles. Put simply, the P3s are a triumph of industrial design that will complement the iPhone 4S that the majority of buyers will undoubtedly plug them into.
To cater for those iPhone users, the P3s ship with a cable that comes equipped with remote controls for play/pause and volume, along with a microphone for hands free calling duties. Don't worry if you don't have an iPhone, because the P3s ship with two cables - one for Apple phones and players, and the other for any other devices.
Although having two cables in the box is a nice touch, I do find the cable slightly short, and would have appreciated an extension. That said, I only struggle with the cable length because I tend to carry my iPhone in a cargo pocket on my trousers, so it really depends on your personal carrying habits.
Like the P5s before them, the P3s are unbelievably comfortable to wear, even for extended periods. You can't avoid warm ears when using over-the-ear headphones, but the P3s manage to maintain a comfortably close fit without causing any unpleasant sweatiness.
The P3s also feel incredibly light, while the beautifully engineered adjustment sliders make it simple to set them just right for you. The headband cushion allows you to create a pretty tight fit without causing discomfort, so they never slip or shift around once you place them on your head.
As always, though, the most important aspect of a pair of headphones is sound quality, and here the story remains mostly positive. Since the P3s are clearly aimed at iPhone users, I spent a significant amount of time with them plugged into my 4S. On top of that, I've been using the P3s while working at my desk, plugged into the superb Arcam rPAC external DAC / headphone amp.
The Bowers & Wilkins P3s produce a very pleasant sound, almost as if they've been tuned to appeal to the largest number of potential buyers. That's all well and good, but it also means that these headphones don't really excel in any particular area, so if you're looking for a particular sound signature from your cans, the middle-of-the-road nature of the P3s might cause you to look elsewhere.
Don't get me wrong here, though, I'm not saying that the P3s sound bad, far from it in fact. I've been listening to the P3s every day for the past couple of weeks and I've enjoyed every minute, but they don't produce the kind of crystal clear, cohesive sound that I get from my Shure SE530 earphones. But I'm not really surprised by that fact - when the SE530s launched, they cost over £400, while the P3s will retail at £169 when they launch in June.
So, when considering sound quality, it should always be considered with the factor of price firmly in the mind. And when you do factor price into the equation, the sound quality offered by the P3s far more impressive than it has any right to be.
The weakest link in the P3's aural arsenal is the handling of low frequencies. That's not to say that you can't enjoy music with a strong, thumping bass line, just that it can come across slightly muffled and muddy - not enough to spoil the experience, but still noticeable.
That issue with bass is exacerbated by the fact that the P3s handle everything else in a near exemplary fashion. High-end clarity is commendable, making acoustic and classical fare a joy, while vocals are generally rendered beautifully too.
Coldplay's debut album, Parachutes, sounds mellow and smooth through the P3s. The piano on Trouble is beautifully reproduced, while Chris Martin's vocals sit above the rest of the mix, but not in a distracting manner. If you want to hear just how good these headphones can sound, this track and album as a whole are a good place to start.
Although I'm sure that many disagree with me, I consider The Bends to be the best Radiohead album, and I couldn't begin to count the number of times I've listened to it over the years. Here, the P3s gave a good account of themselves, but the overall effect isn't quite as cohesive as I'm used to. Black Star for instance, sounds just a little bit muddy when the full accompaniment winds up.
By contrast, the characteristics of the P3s complemented The Prodigy's, The Fat of the Land perfectly. Breath can only be described as a full-on assault on your senses, especially with the volume pumped up, and the P3s gave it a sense urgency and presence that's often lacking when listening through headphones. When I closed my eyes I could imagine myself at a club or concert with the floor vibrating below my feet and my eardrums straining under the pressure of that relentless bass.
The P3s turn their hand to rock extremely well too. Firing up Nirvana's Heart Shaped Box, from the album In Utero, proved to be a real treat. The overdriven guitars, the prominent bass line and Kurt Cobain's hauntingly desperate vocals merge into a superbly cohesive ensemble.
Of course the question is, whether or not you should buy the P3s over the multitude of other headphone options out there, but the answer is as much dependant on you as it is the product itself. Headphones are incredibly personal, and what one person finds perfect, another might hate - it's the nature of the beast.
If you're not a fan of in-ear audio, and you're looking for supremely comfortable, beautifully designed and great sounding headphones, the P3s are definitely worth considering. As always though, it's always worth listening to a few of your favourite tracks first.
The Bowers & Wilkins P3s represent another triumph in design and comfort. Like the P5s before them, these headphone look incredibly stylish and are quite possibly the most comfortable I've ever worn.
Sound quality isn't quite as breath taking as the design, but it's still very good indeed, especially when you consider the £169 RRP. Add to that the in-line iPhone controls and second cable for other devices, and the P3s appear to be quite the bargain.
You might be able to find better sound quality elsewhere, but you'll be paying a lot more for the privilege, so if you're looking for a headphone upgrade that you can wear in comfort for hours, the P3s should be high on your list.
Pros: Beautifully designed, supremely comfortable, affordable price.
Cons: Sound quality can be a bit muddy at times.
Manufacturer: Bowers & Wilkins (opens in new tab)