Bowers & Wilkins PX Headphones Review
Will you want to p/x for the PX?
What is the Bowers & Wilkins PX?The Bowers & Wilkins PX is an active noise cancelling headphone with Bluetooth. It represents Bowers & Wilkins’ first foray into the field of noise cancelling but the fact that they have moved into this area should not be too surprising. Firstly, from a single pair of headphones roughly a decade ago, the category has become a significant part of the company’s portfolio. Along with Focal, they have successfully challenged the incumbents and have managed to make the link between their mainstream speaker offerings and their portable audio look both logical and work to the benefit of both categories.
Secondly, the noise cancelling headphone market is serious business and one where customers can be brought around to the idea of spending a little more money if the product in question offers a compelling reason to do so. As a result of this, the rate of technical progression we have seen in the category has been considerable. What started as devices that could apply a fixed cut to external noise sources has become increasingly sophisticated with microphones monitoring the noise level in the earpad, active noise cancelling and different modes depending on the sort of noise you are looking to cancel. The addition of Bluetooth has made them easier to live with for long listening sessions on a cramped aircraft and that should be celebrated too.
This does mean that the calibre of competition that the PX faces is very high. Bose has long had serious presence in this category and the PX goes head-to-head with the Sennheiser PXC-550 which is one of the most beautifully realised pieces of portable audio I have tested in recent years. This means that if the PX wants to keep up the strong performance showing that Bowers & Wilkins heapdhones have been achieving, it needs to be seriously good. So is it?
The PX is built around a pair of 40mm dynamic drivers – perhaps not too surprising as this seems to have become the default size for portable headphones. The material used in the driver construction is unclear but it seems fairly certain that Bowers & Wilkins is not using a weave for the construction although they do see fit to describe the construction as ‘Reference’ – a term that has been seeing a fair bit of creative implementation of late.
One aspect of the drivers that has been seen before in the P9 is their mounting – instead of being mounted flat against the rear edge of the housing, they are instead mounted at an angle that is intended to create a greater sense of front left and right than would be the case with a ‘normal’ mounting. This looks decidedly odd but based on the listening experience of the P9, it has the potential to sound extremely good.
These drivers are partnered with a noise cancelling system that is nothing if not sophisticated. Like rival systems, this uses multiple microphones on the inside and the outside of the housing. These compare noise levels and adapt the amount of noise cancelling that is required based on this data. This is then coupled with three different settings that the user can select – Flight, City and Office. These names are simply terms for different noise cancelling approaches. Flight is effectively ‘all she’s got to give’, City concentrates on levelling peak noise and office goes after background noise while allowing you to focus on the foreground.
This last setting is probably the most intriguing of the lot. The processing of the PX allows it to discern voices and work to allow them to pass through while still working to eliminate other sounds. This sounds like witchcraft in itself but you can additionally adjust this feature via a control app. The app is available for iOS and Android and allows you to adjust the settings on the fly and use a slider to increase or decrease the discernibility of voices.
This functionality is available wired but can also be accessed via apt-x Bluetooth and this, for the first time on a product I have tested is the new apt-x ‘HD’ format. This ups the bandwidth available in the wireless transmission to what is described by parent company Qualcomm as ‘better than CD quality’ although some circumspection is required in these circumstances as the whole idea is that the Apt-X codec uses a compression/decompression system that allows for more data to be sent and recovered rather than a signal greater than 1,411kpbs. The PX then takes this incoming signal and upsamples it to 768kHz via internal DAC. We’ve seen some increasingly sophisticated Bluetooth arrangement on headphones of this nature in recent years but this has to be seen – on paper at least – as a step forwards again.
From the start of their headphone program, Bowers & Wilkins has had a very distinctive design ‘language’ to their products and the PX doesn’t significantly alter this, although it does have some interesting modifications intended to make the PX a friendlier device for use on the move. This is related to the control interface. There is also a slight alteration to the size of the PX that is all important. Previous models might have best been described as on ear designs but the PX – while not significantly larger than them, has an earpad that is capable of completely enclosing the ear – something of a natural advantage in noise cancelling terms.
This has been combined with a set of controls that are a combination of conventional buttons – for volume, noise cancelling modes etc and sensors built into the headphone itself allow it to respond to actions. Lift an earpad to catch an announcement and the PX will pause. Pop them down on a flat surface and they will pause, then enter standby. Lift them up again and away they go. It is clever, well thought out and perhaps most importantly, it works like a charm. I will say that once you have dialled into it, the touchpad on the Sennheiser PXC550 might be seen to be more impressive still but both of these headphones are really well thought out and user friendly devices.
Where the PX pulls out an advantage is the battery life. Bower & Wilkins claims an impressive 22 hours but honestly I think that this figure will be exceeded by many owners in use – or at least it will feel that way. Thanks to the way that the PX conserves energy, it ensures that those ’22 hours’ are genuinely when it is in operation and as it will cease function when not in use, you’ll enjoy all of those actually on your head. Both models are well built (as is the Bose) but the PX holds its own and goes a fair way to justifying the asking price.
Not everything is perfect. I don’t especially like the quilted carry pouch; It feels slightly too small for the headphones to fit in and the level of impact protection it offers isn’t huge. While the levels of comfort are generally good, I don’t think it is quite as comfortable as the PXC550, in part down to greater sprung tension on the head – although this does mean that the PX probably has the edge for people that exercise.
As a piece of industrial design though, Bowers & Wilkins has done a good job here. The PX looks smart, looks like it is part of the family but balances this with being easy to handle and unobtrusive (although a variant with gold detailing is available if you like that sort of thing). This is a headphone that, thanks to avoiding anything particularly faddy about the design, should look as good in a few years as it does now.
We’ve seen some increasingly sophisticated Bluetooth arrangement on headphones of this nature in recent years but this has to be seen as a step forwards again
How was the PX Tested?The Bowers & Wilkins has been tested as a passive headphone with a Chord Mojo and Hugo 2 connected to a Lenovo T560 ThinkPad. Some additional testing was done on the move using a Chord Poly attached to the Mojo. Bluetooth testing was done via Motorola G4 Android Phone and iPad Air with the control app installed on both. These served as the basis for most noise cancelling testing which was carried out in a variety of environments. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC, AIFF and DSD as well as Spotify, Tidal and Netflix.
Sound QualityThe strong showing of the P9 in listening tests left me feeling pretty confident about how the PX would perform and for the most part, the performance of the new model used as conventional headphone is good. Like its big brother, this is a big and confident sounding headphone that seeks to entertain with a large spread of material. The Tidal Stream of The Comet is Coming’s Channel the Spirits is propulsive and manages to sound fast and fundamentally together. The idea of speaker ‘speed’ is something you either subscribe to or you don’t but there is a lack of overhang to how the PX handles fast and complex bass routines that really helps it.
This is balanced with tonality that is correct without being unforgiving – a balancing act that is very handy for devices that are unlikely to be fed a constant stream of high quality material. Voices and instruments manage to sound lifelike and generally have the weight and scale required to be a believable part of the performance. The caveat to this is that the PX never sounds that expansive even with very large scale recordings. This is in part because the PX is closed back – it’s a tricky job to make a device of this nature sound huge – but equally, the angled drivers don’t impart the PX with the phenomenal soundstage of the P9.
There is also a slight but consistent sense that the presentation has a slightly ‘cupped’ quality to it even with no noise cancelling engaged. It is never severe and most rivals- with the exception of the PXC-550- have it too but can creep in with high quality material when listening in a quiet room via a high quality amp.
The caveat though is that this form of listening is not what the PX was designed to do and can’t really be seen to be playing to its strengths. This is most notably demonstrated when you move to wireless listening – again with no noise cancelling. First up, crucially, there is no discernible increase in the noise floor – testament to the quality of amplification on board. There is also, if anything, a slight improvement to the audio performance – as if the decoding of the PX takes the enclosures into account and counters the behaviour I experienced in passive listening. This does mean that as a wireless device, the PX is seriously good, even in a quiet space, helped in no small part by the considerable headroom available.
Turn the noise cancelling on and matters improve further. To be clear, despite the technical wizardry on offer, when confronted with the consistent noise of an aircraft interior – which as I didn’t have one to hand was created by a Yamaha RX-A3040 and a set of Monitor Audio AV speakers playing a test file of a Boeing 777 via Pro-Logic IIx at a set volume level – the PX achieves a good cut to the overall levels but nothing we haven’t already seen before. It is more than good enough though and should allow most humans to sleep in a plane interior.
The voice filtering though borders on the magical. The ability to knock out vast swathes of the outside world while listening to a person talk next to you is simply outstanding. As a device for selectively re-engaging with the world around you, the PX has no peer. The only slight caveat is that over boosting the setting when listening to music does tend to alter the tonal balance of music a fair bit. As I don’t imagine they were designed to be used at the same time, this is perhaps not too surprising.
This does mean that as a wireless device, the PX is seriously good, even in a quiet space, helped in no small part by the considerable headroom available
- Truly outstanding wireless and noise cancelling performance
- Well built
- Excellent specifications
- Can sound a little 'cupped' when used wired
- Exerts a fairly high pressure on the head
- Carry case is slightly cramped
Bowers & Wilkins PX Headphones ReviewThis is a keenly contested market and in my time testing a few different models, a design compromise has become increasingly apparent. Some designs are first and foremost about noise cancelling. The builders accept that the level of processing they apply will affect the performance of the device with music. Other brands go for sonic performance and accept that this will reduce the scope of noise cancelling. What has made the Sennheiser PXC-550 the pick of the pack is how well it balances these opposed needs.
The Bowers & Wilkins PX is another take on this balance. If your listening regimen involves plenty of passive listening to a decent source, it has to play second fiddle to the Sennheiser. As a device for active noise reduction on the move though, the PX is simply outstanding. It balances impressive noise reduction with excellent (and long legged) wireless performance and the added filtering facilities are simply in a different class to the competition. For these reasons the PX comes highly recommended and if 2018 has a healthy dose of long haul in it, you need to equip yourself with a set of these.
Ease of Use9
Design and usability8
Value For Money8
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