Headphones: Bowers & Wilkins P5
From across the pond, we bring you a welcome alternative for your ears to replace those winter ear muffs: B&W’s P5 headphones. B&W is gunning to unseat the Bose QuietComfort from your wish list. Whereas Bose claims its crown in the active noise cancellation department, B&W foregoes active NC for passive NC derived from superior materials construction, eliminating that occasionally detectable NC background hiss in the process. The P5s are crafted from leather, aluminum, and stainless steel. You won’t find any plastic here. The set exudes quality and sounds divine--if you enjoy unmodified, natural audio. Some headphones will artificially inflate bass and treble; B&W does not. The set only aims to faithfully output whatever was put in.
Now, about that noise canceling. If you’ve ever listened to a set of active NC cans, you know that they generally excel in cutting out low-frequency noise, such as engine rumble, while letting through voices, traffic sounds, and so forth. This is heavenly on long plane rides, and it’s good to still be able to hear some of the world around you in case somebody has something important to say, like "the wing is on fire!" However, most people really don’t say anything important (Ed.: cynical much?), especially directly to you, and all you really want is to drown out most of the world, leaving just enough to let you hear something worth hearing. This is the problem with in-canal headphones, which simply block out everything because they plug your ears.
Circumaural (surrounding the ears) headphone designs, including many Bose QuietComfort models, headphones also have a tendency to block a lot of ambient sound and be bulky in the process. On-ear headphones, which rest on top of the ear rather than surrounding them, tend to let in too much of the outside world. Finding the right compromise is tricky at best and depends a lot on your personal preferences. The P5 is circumaural, but just barely. When you look at the pads, they seem flat, as if they would merely sit on your ears. However, the cushioning is made to form around the ear (it helps if your ears lean toward the small side), and the metal construction of the cans serves to block out most noise. The overall effect is that the P5s feel light like an on-ear design but do as much passive noise blocking as a circumaural set.
Additionally, the cans are made such that the pads are held in place with magnets. They snap off fairly easily and reveal where the removable audio cabling plugs into the drivers. If you ever damage your cable, you simply replace it, not your whole headphone set. This is without question our favorite product feature.
The P5s are made with iPhone users in mind. The audio cable sports an inline playback controller and microphone, allowing you to receive and conduct calls without having to deal with your phone’s screen. Inline mics tend to sound hollow and distant. The P5 mic is no Plantronics boom mic, but it’s better than most and does a fair job at cutting ambient noise.
For $300, you definitely want to hear the P5s before committing your new year to using them. But with great fidelity, build construction, comfort, and headset capability to boot, our guess is you’ll find a lot to love here.