Introduction - what is the Bowers & Wilkins PI7?
The Bowers & Wilkins PI7 is a true wireless (while still not an absolutely official term, I think we’re far enough into this product sector development to acknowledge it means a completely wire and tether free, ‘separate bud’ style design) earphone that is the flagship of two new models that represents Bowers & Wilkins’ entry into the segment.
This is entirely logical - Bowers & Wilkins has taken a different approach to Focal when it comes to headphones, never breaking the £1k barrier for any of its designs where Focal now specialises in price points often considerably above that. Where Focal has evolved a consistent pattern of headphone design, the nature of the headphones that Bowers & Wilkins makes is shaped by the demands of its more volatile sector. True wireless is booming now, so it has entered the category.
At the same time Bowers & Wilkins doesn’t rush. It has consistently brought good ideas and some impressive ‘design language’ (yes, it’s a cliched phrase but the right one here) when its models have arrived in a given segment. Is the PI7 another example of the company knowing what it wants to make and delivering it first time out? It’s time to find out.
Specification and Design
The PI7 is the first true wireless design from Bowers and Wilkins but the company has been turning out capable earphones for a few years now so it is perhaps not too surprising to find that the PI7 takes some of the thinking that has been in use there. At the same time, there are some tweaks to the design too that are the result in the change of philosophy that comes from the move to true wireless. The bit we’ve seen before is the presence of a 9.2mm dynamic driver in each housing, a variation of which has been seen in preceding designs.
In the PI7, this is joined by a balanced armature that handles upper frequencies. This is something we’ve seen on the PI3 (a more traditional ‘yoke’ type wireless earphone) and makes for a notionally ideal partnership, hefty bass from a large dynamic driver - relatively speaking of course - coupled with the high speed responsiveness of an armature for the upper registers. This being a self-contained device though, the key difference is that each driver is allocated its own amplifier and is effectively active. Frequency response is given at 10Hz-20kHz.
Bowers & Wilkins claims that it has held off from participating in this sector up until this point because the quality of wireless transmission generally on offer has not been of the standard required to meet their criteria (an interesting argument for a company with a fairly wide spread of wireless headphones in the field but there you go) and the PI7 arrives with a usefully extensive Bluetooth fitment to try and ensure the highest possible performance. It supports every flavour of aptX I’m aware of at the moment; Classic, HD, Low Latency and Adaptive. It also has AAC support as well as the default SBC codec (and also makes use of BLE to tell you battery levels and the like as well as allow control and configuration via the app). With a suitable transmitter (and don’t forget, without the same format support at both ends, any Bluetooth connection will default to the format supported on both devices) there are some impressive potential numbers.
What this means for aptX users is that, notionally at least, 24/48kHz is transferable via wireless connection. The two earbuds themselves also communicate at this sample rate. Personally, I feel this is something of a blow dealt for nothing; if you are really committed to Hi Res on the move, you’ll stick with the cable, but it is an extremely comprehensive fitment that should ensure that there’s no hint of compression across more normal use.
In further positive news, the PI7 comes complete with a version of the Bowers & Wilkins noise cancelling system. Now, since I have tested that on the PX7, other companies have been further pushing what ANC can do but, as a suite of features integrated together, the system in use here takes some beating. The PI7 uses six microphones to provide adaptive noise cancelling (adjustable within the app) with voice pass through (which has been emulated by other companies but none of them have come close to what Bowers can manage). There are some ambient soundscapes - not really my oeuvre but possibly handy for somebody - and the ability to turn it all off too. It’s perfectly legitimate to argue that this is the best all round noise cancelling suite in the market right now and shrinking it into a pair of buds is no mean feat.
With each enclosure full of drives, amps, microphones and the like, the space for batteries is not enormous. Bowers & Wilkins quotes the life at four hours and I think this is about right although it might be slightly optimistic depending on Bluetooth codec and volume. Like many designs of this type, the case of the PI7 comes to its aid here. The case has the means to charge the buds from flat four times before being charged itself and can give you two hours of playback from a 15 minute charge. This is possibly not the device I’d take on a flight to New Zealand but it’s more than up for a week of normal commuting.
So far, this is all good stuff but it might be best seen as a combination of reactive and evolutionary - looking at what everyone else is up to and trying to do it a bit better. The lightbulb moment for the PI7 is what else the case can do. At its base is a USB-C socket which recharges the case’s internal battery. What is also does is allow for audio transmission. You can connect the case via a USB or a 3.5mm jack to USB cable and send audio to the case. The case then pairs with the buds to send an aptX HD encoded signal to the buds. It means that the PI7 can communicate with systems that most rivals have no means of doing so and it is the little bit of innovation that lifts the PI7 over many rivals.
The other thing that the PI7 does is more traditional but useful nonetheless. Bower & Wilkins has managed to take a dinky wireless earbud and case and make it feel special. The PI7 is a materially different design and engineering proposition to a normal headphone, let alone a full size speaker but there is genuinely an overall similarity to how you perceive them. The brushed metal sections look superb and the overall shape and size of the PI7 is sufficiently compact to ensure it doesn’t look ridiculous hanging out of your ear. It’s comfortable too and Bowers Wilkins has done a good job with dome size and it doesn’t feel like an earbud is going to make a bid for freedom under normal use (with the standard proviso I didn’t try parkour or other high impact things under test because I’m a corpulent forty year old man).
You can connect the case via a USB or a 3.5mm jack to USB cable and send audio to the case. The case then pairs with the buds to send an aptX HD encoded signal to the buds
How was the PI7 tested?
The PI7 has done the bulk of listening with the Oppo Find X2 Neo which offers aptX Adaptive and HD for a reasonably high spec connection. Some testing also took place with the Astell & Kern Kann for reasons I will cover. Then an iPad Pro was used for AAC testing and a Lenovo T15P laptop supplied both USB and 3.5mm connections for testing via the case. Material used for testing has been almost exclusively Qobuz and Deezer but some on demand video has featured too.
The PI7 comes out the box giving the Bowers & Wilkins experience that I talked about in the Signature reviews but in miniature. Pairing with the Oppo worked first time and the prompts and app feedback makes the process very simple. Having made connection, the PI7 has been stable and able to reconnect flawlessly 19 times out of 20. Everything was going smoothly then Lidl intervened.
Simply put, with the Oppo as the connected source, the PI7 is very sensitive to certain types of interference. The door tag monitors at Lidl (other supermarkets are available but this is in walking distance for me) will cause the two devices to either break connection or skip a track. This was sufficiently weird that I took the Kann on one journey running over Bluetooth to see what would happen and… nothing, the connection was bombproof. Before the Oppo gets the full blame here though, no other Bluetooth device connected to it has been affected in the same way. It may be something worth taking into account when looking for a true wireless device.
Assuming you don’t have this issue though, the PI7 has impressed from the moment I started using them. First up, all the details that Bowers & Wilkins has mastered with the full size headphones have been carried over. The responsiveness of the PI7 to the tap controls, having one earbud removed (where it pauses) and replaced (where it restarts) and the integration of the noise cancelling are all superbly implemented. Call quality is reasonable so long as wind noise is not too high but this affects all designs of this nature. In practicality, the PI7 gives away nothing to any rival I’ve yet tested.
And then, it sounds good. Really good in fact. With all wireless headphones and earphones, the magic moment is forgetting you are running wireless, even when you are sat listening critically and the PI7 excels in this regard. Typhoons by Royal Blood is arguably not ‘Hi-Fi.’ What it is though is a massive but controlled explosion of sound that is fully intended to pin you in your seat. The PI7 manages to keep order among the chaos without losing the ballistic edge. Even running at high levels, the PI7 is unflappable. The clever bit is that this control is not bought at the expense of fun. The crunching opener Trouble’s Coming is still an absolute sonic riot, simply one where a modicum of control remains.
If you do want to enjoy something a little more audiophile though, it has you covered too. Wilted by Paris Jackson is a rich and luxuriant soundscape in which she and the supporting instrumentation are believable, rich and convincing. Even with the noise cancelling running hard, there’s little sense of processing or other unwanted artefacts and that same ability to listen through the hardware is entirely possible here as well. There remains some sublimely talented wired hardware in the house and the highest complement I can give the PI7 is that, even when the critical listening was done, I didn’t rush to take them off.
Switching to AAC via the iPad does take some of this effortless quality away because there’s simply less bandwidth to play with. Where with the Oppo, Qobuz and (lossy) Deezer sound different, that is lost with the iPad. It’s still good but, with the slight ambiguity of what Apple gets to do within its own ecosystem might lend the AirPod Pro an advantage but there isn’t a set here for side by side testing. In a travel context though, the performance is still more than good enough.
And what about the system of connecting via the case? It works and it works well. The USB connection is effectively imperceptible from the performance from the Oppo and makes using the PI7 with a laptop a doddle. The 3.5mm connection is noisier than the other connection options and does degrade performance somewhat but it’s still a unique selling point that I imagine rivals are busy *ahem* studying as we speak. How useful it will be to you is going to depend heavily on your use pattern but at the moment, the PI7 is the only game in town for it if it does sound useful.
With all wireless headphones and earphones, the magic moment is forgetting you are running wireless, even when you are sat listening critically and the PI7 excels in this regard
- Superb sound quality, particularly with higher quality Bluetooth codecs
- Excellent noise cancelling
- Comfortable and well made
- Bud battery life is fairly short
- Loses some sparkle via AAC
- One specific connectivity issue encountered
- Not cheap
Bowers & Wilkins PI7 True Wireless In-Ear Earphone Review
At the core of any debate as to the worth of the PI7 for many people is whether they justify costing £100 more over the AirPod Pro. There are two answers to this, one blindingly obvious, the other more nuanced. If you aren’t an iPhone user and you have a decent aptX implementation, it’s moot because you can’t use the AirPod and the bandwidth on offer to the PI7 is far superior. If you are an iOS user, the decision is more down to personal preference and whether you have that extra £100 but I do think the PI7 just about makes it work. The quality of the noise cancelling implementation, the build quality and the comfort levels on offer here are all pretty much at the top of the pack. Bowers & Wilkins hasn’t rushed into true wireless but the result is hugely impressive and an unquestionable Best Buy.
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