Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature Headphones Review
Is the P9 the headphone for every occasion?
What is the Bowers & Wilkins P9?The Bowers & Wilkins P9 is the latest headphone from what is still seen by many as the older statesperson of the British loudspeaker industry. The company has been producing headphones for a number of years now and has been slowly moving up the pricing structure while other models have added features such as Bluetooth so that two of the four strong over-ear range are now available as wireless models.
A common theme with the headphones that Bowers & Wilkins have released up until this point is that they have all been models that have been designed with a view to being used on the move. They fold up and generally have a size to them that encourages you to use them as travel headphones with some secondary abilities at home. This is sensible enough – the company does after all make a pretty hefty selection of speakers for home use and it gives the headphones a narrative of taking the Bowers & Wilkins sound with you when you go out and about.
The P9 is somewhat different, although it is still equipped as a portable headphone and has all the features you'd need for such a task. In terms of both the size of the unit overall and the asking price, the P9 is much more of a home headphone than anything that has gone before. Does the P9 reflect the changing use patterns of headphones and mean that we're ready for a really big 'nomad' unit or is this Bowers & Wilkins showing some reluctance to move out of their comfort zone?
SpecificationsThe P9 is a full size headphone that encases the ear with a closed back housing. The housings themselves make use of the Finite Element Analysis process that Bowers & Wilkins use in their full size speakers. This takes the external dimensions of an enclosure and the materials it is made out of and then proceeds to calculate the best use of space inside this enclosure.
The driver used in this case is a 40mm unit – no larger than the one that is used in the rather smaller and more affordable P7. Bowers & Wilkins states the cone is 'nylon damped with an acoustic coating' that doesn't completely explain what the driver is made from but suggests it is a non-metallic type. Particular care and attention has been devoted to the mounting and suspension of the driver to aid it in producing a clean and accurate full range signal – this is a balancing act between the driver moving a considerable distance for low notes while retaining the ability to make very fine movements for upper frequency ones.
The most radical element of the P9's drivers pertain to their placement. Instead of placing them flat in the enclosure, they are instead angled back at fifteen degrees. The reasoning behind this is logical enough. Bowers & Wilkins is seeking to give the P9 a presentation more in keeping with a pair of conventional stereo speakers where the sound – while frequently immersive – will be arranged in front of you. To make this practical, the padding on the P9 has to be relatively deep to ensure that the driver doesn't physically intrude on the ear and the internal volume of the housing is also reduced.
The other area that Bowers & Wilkins has paid special attention to is vibration. With the two drivers connected by a common headband, the effect of one driver misbehaving can directly affect the other. To this end, the P9 uses decoupled enclosures that should ensure that the left and right channels have no effect on one another. The decoupled mount is in intriguing design in that it takes the form of dozens of flexible strands around the mount. These expand and contract depending on the angle of the mount and dampen any forces they exert. As another bonus, the mounts allow for useful lateral movement in any given direction.
The P9 has a single cable input on the left hand side with the right hand side being wired via internal cable. Two cables are supplied – a short one with integral microphone and remote and a longer one that does without for home use – and props to Bowers & Wilkins for supplying a properly long 'long' cable too. The attachment on the headphones themselves is an interesting design. It uses a 2.5mm socket buried deep in the mounting behind the magnetic earpad which reduces the strain on the mount.
DesignBowers & Wilkins was creating a 'strong visual identity' with their products before the phrase had been coined by marketing types. Their speakers are immediately recognisable as Bowers & Wilkins designs and their headphones have also got a strong visual theme to them. The use of rectangular earpads that combine straight edges with rounded corners has made for products that are immediately recognisable as Bowers & Wilkins designs.
The P9 doesn't mess around with these themes too significantly but as it is altogether bigger than preceding models, a degree of 'beefing up' has been undertaken. The headband is thicker and more substantial than has previously been the case and being as it is made out of metal, it feels extremely solid. The other materials used are equally well thought out. The headband and earpads are Saffiano leather which looks and feels excellent. The earpads can be changed by unclipping them from the housings – they use a combination of magnets and guide pins to stay in the right place. You can also buy replacements which is a useful feature.
All these materials combine in such a way as to be very substantial and attractive. Even judged by its relatively lofty £700 asking price, the build quality is superb and everything feels thought out and extremely well designed and this is reflected in a headphone that has excellent weight distribution and feels comfortable to wear despite the fairly high weight of the design.
The looks are slightly more subjective but I like the decision to switch to a silver finish and brown leather. There is a slightly retro theme to the appearance but this is neither overdone, nor does it interfere with the operation of the P9 as a headphone. In keeping with the other members of the range, the P9 has a hinged headband that allows it to fold in on itself and be carried around. All credit to Bowers & Wilkins, the P9 still feels like a well assembled home headphone but it is certainly more compact than most full sized rivals.
The only slight detractor is why the P9 folds at all. It simply feels very large for a portable headphone and I personally would not really want to go out and about with a model of this size and the P9's appearance, while rather pleasant, is one that attracts a lot of attention. I appreciate that the size of headphone that people seem happy to walk around with has increased but this still seems like a bit of a whopper to want to have with you on the move. I imagine that Bowers & Wilkins would not have bothered unless they felt there was a benefit to doing so.
Even judged by its relatively lofty £700 asking price, the build is superb and everything feels thought out and extremely well designed
How was the P9 tested?The bulk of testing with the P9 has been done via Lenovo T530 ThinkPad running Tidal and jRiver into a Chord Hugo. Some additional testing has been carried out with a Naim Supernait 2 connected to an ND5XS streamer and XP5 XS power supply and Avid Ingenium Twin with Cyrus Phono Signature. Finally, a small amount of portable testing has been undertaken with a Pioneer XDP-100R. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF and DSD, Tidal (including Tidal Masters), vinyl and Spotify.
Sound QualityIt is important to note before we delve into the audio performance of the P9 that whatever my reservations about the size of them, they are undoubtedly sensitive enough to work with a relatively hefty smartphone or dedicated DAC or audio player. The amount of power that this relatively large headphone needs to work is commendably low and there's no question in my mind having spent a little time with them, they are capable of performing their dual role as envisaged by Bowers & Wilkins.
Used as a home headphone, the P9 makes a compelling case for itself. Partnered with the extremely neutral Chord Hugo, it gives a sense that what you are hearing is a faithful and accurate representation of what is on the mix. Listening to the Tidal playlist of Mali: Desert Music Oasis which has a variety of tracks, some I know well and some I don't, the tonal consistency and general presentation is extremely enjoyable. The various guitars have a richness and presence that is very welcome and with music of this nature, getting this key component right means that everything else tends to follow.
Neither is this something that requires the sounds of the desert to confirm. The arrival of the extremely influential Breaking Atoms by Main Source on vinyl gave the P9 the chance to work with something rather different and it does so with an assurance that leaves you ignoring the hardware and concentrating on the software. Vocals are clear, well defined and well placed in relation to the music and there is an impressive sense of space for a headphone that is notionally closed back – suggesting that Bowers & Wilkins' 'vented earpad' is indeed doing something.
What is harder to get a handle on is the effect of those angled drivers. As the P9 is only equipped with them, there's no way of judging what the effect would be if they were flat. In use though, any sense of the audio being largely in front of you is subtle at best. On the other hand, the P9 remains immersive and able to generate a meaningful sense of the space in which a piece of music is happening, so perhaps the effect is better judged than I might give it credit for.
More significantly, the P9 has that slightly indefinable sense of fun that I can be found bemoaning the lack of when it isn't present in equipment. Listening to Waste a Moment by the Kings of Leon shows this off to great effect. The P9 is invigoratingly fast and exciting in a way that has you engaging with the music beyond simply reproducing it with a dutiful sense of accuracy. Combine this with an impressively redefined top end and you have a headphone that is very satisfying to listen to for extended periods.
In fact the only minor detractor that really makes itself apparent in the performance of the P9 is that the bass might be perceived on occasions to be ever so slightly overcooked. This doesn't really make itself felt with acoustic music and even most rock material but listening to electronica – even material that is well recorded and generally well balanced – there is a sense that there's a little more low end than there strictly should be. Whether this is a final aspect of the P9 being designed with a view to use on the move – where a little boost to the low end will always help the performance in noisy environments – isn't completely clear but there is a sense, again through the scrupulously neutral Chord Hugo, that there is a little more low end than might be expected. The good news is that the bass is tight, controlled and detailed.
Used as a home headphone, the P9 makes a compelling case for itself
- Engaging yet refined sound
- Superb build
- Slightly over keen bass
- Not totally sure what they want to be
Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature Headphones ReviewMy time with the Bowers & Wilkins P9 has been extremely enjoyable tinged with just the faintest hint of confusion. In truth, this is an excellent headphone for use at home and on the move but I find myself wondering if it could have been even better if the portable element had been removed. On the other hand, the P9 is surprisingly easy going for such a large headphone and it will work happily with devices that most similarly priced rivals won't.
This slight identity crisis should not detract from a headphone that is superbly made, comfortable, handsome and continuously good fun. Bowers & Wilkins has made a headphone that is seriously accomplished and even if you don't feel the need to use it on the move, you should still check it out.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £700.00
Ease of Use8
Design and usability8
Value For Money8
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