I really thought my long term reference headphones were safe from the new kid on the block, the Bowers & Wilkins P7. Sometimes safety is an illusion.
I was prepared to be impressed by the P7, don’t get me wrong. The truth is I’ve never heard a B&W product that wasn’t impressive. But, headphones can be very tricky. Those little drivers are just so dang close to the ears. Plus, you’re literally wearing an entire speaker system on your head.
Face it. There’s a lot that can go wrong. It’s easy to build headphones that sound impressive, but it’s very difficult to create headphones that sound musical. Impressive is easy because headphones always enjoy two advantages. First, the amount of air the transducers have to move is very small. Second, that small air space is defined by the designers of the headphones who know if the resulting product will be an open, closed or in-ear design. Contrast this with the designer of a speaker system who has no idea about the size, shape or construction of the room where the system will be used. All of this makes it easy to build headphones that sound impressive.
The problem is that it’s music that we’re after. And, because the system is on our heads, comfort. At first, the P7 reminded me the sport seats in a BMW M3. They felt snug and a little constricting. After a while they became more comfortable as the leather ear cups broke in. I do wish the cable were longer (without the extension), that it didn’t have controls wired into it, and was based soley on a quarter inch TRS connector (or something even better…hint). Indeed, reviewers are always wanting more and better. It’s a universal constant.
The musical presentation of the P7 is exceptionally tidy. They are stunningly and totally neutral from top to bottom and this can create an initial impression that they’re slightly airless. They’re not. They are dazzlingly revealing of source material which makes them as musical as any headphone I’ve ever heard. They are part reviewer’s reference and part trusted friend to music lovers. Let’s get down to some examples. “I feel like going home” is an old Charlie Rich song (yes, Charlie Rich). The song got new life and a superb treatment by Brendan Croker on the 1990cult-favorite, Missing…Presumed Having a Good Time. It is a classic country song with the vocal front and center. The P7 conveys the fullness of Croker’s strong yet plaintive voice and retrieves every detail of Mark Knopfler’s superb guitar accompaniment. Songs like these that are not too densely produced and feature a voice and a single guitar yet have a powerful bass line can sound congested. The P7 let the track breathe effortlessly; with the lingering sound of both voice and guitar so clearly and delicately captured. The bass is tight, pitch-perfect and wonderfully extended.
Again, simply dazzling.
Recreation of acoustic space is always a challenge for headphone simply because there’s so little space inside the ear pieces. Of course, acoustic space is actually a product of the recording process and it’s something that is not always there to be retrieved. Many times analog recordings of days gone by captured more of that space and sometimes the magic survived the transfer to CD. That is surely the case with Celedonio Romero’s sublime version of “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” from his CD An Evening of Guitar Music. This hard-to-find Delos CD was recorded in analog in 1986. The last days of analog lead to some very good CD transfers. The analog recordists knew the room was a part of the music and so they made sure the listener could experience it. Acoustic space is fragile and easy lost. The P7s convey that sense of space perfectly and it can be heard in the transients that come with the plucking of the strings and the sustained, woody resonance of the guitar. As an aside, I always advise listeners to choose one recording that features a solo stringed instrument as their first evaluation tool. Choose music you love and that’s recorded sensibly and learn its sound and magic. There’s no better way to check for essential musicality and essential musicality is what the Bowers & Wilkins P7 are all about.
I confess I had my doubts B&W could hit the ball out of the park especially at such a modest price point, but they have. Ever the audiophile, I can’t help but wonder if they have their sights on something even more ambitious, that perhaps the P7 is a kind of warning shot for something even better? While I await for that inspiration to take hold at B&W, I’ll be enjoying my P7s. It’s quite hard for me to imagine headphones I would enjoy more than the P7 but I still hope Bowers & Wilkins is busy working on it.