Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature Headphones Review
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Bowers & Wilkins was forged from the humble beginnings of a radio and electronics shop in a large seaside town in England, known as Worthing. Its founders, John Bowers and Roy Wilkins, met whilst serving in the Royal Corps of Signals during World War II.
When the shop began supplying public address equipment to schools and churches in Sussex, Bowers became increasingly involved in the design and assembly of loudspeakers. Eventually they’d set up a small production line behind the store, the remnants of which are still visible in that backyard to this day. B&W are mostly known for their HiFi and Home theatre loudspeakers, but since their release of the P5 headphones back in 2010, they’ve also become a strong contender in the Head-Fi market as well.
B&W have since had a smattering of headphone releases, ranging from the in-ear C5 to the on-ear P3. Eventually, a flagship landed in the form of the P7 in September 2013. Shortly after, a beefed-up Bluetooth version was released to critical acclaim.
When we heard on the grapevine that a new flagship was in the works, naturally we put our hand up for a sneak preview and shortly after, StereoNET was fortunate enough to receive a pre-release sample prior to the global announcement.
PACKAGING AND MATERIALS
The P9 Signature comes with:
- 1.2m headphone cable with remote
- 1.2m headphone cable without remote
- 5m headphone cable without remote
- 1/4” audio jack adapter plug
- Protective pouch
In a couple of words, absolutely stunning. Like walking into a upmarket European shoe store, removing the P9 Signature headphones from the box instantly gives a strong waft of leather. The entire assembly has heavy quantities of forged aluminium and Italian Saffiano leather.
The ear cups feature a unique gel suspension system, which will allow the cups to be gently rotated in any direction, and compensate for different head shapes.
The removable pads are described as “controlled acoustic air-leak cushions”, and at first are quite stiff. But considering they are genuine leather on the outside (with memory foam on the inside), I’m sure they will loosen up over time.
One striking physical feature is the way the yolk extends and recedes into the headband. There are no indications or markings of length or distance. Whilst this might serve as an inconvenience to those who absolutely must have accurate indications of length, the resulting clean look is absolutely worth it.
These are, without a doubt, some of the best looking closed-back headphones we’ve ever seen.
Coming in at 415 grams, they’re quite hefty. That’s not without good reason though as the P9 is incredibly solid and rigid, and is made entirely using premium materials.
All of the included cables are rather thin and transmit only very slight microphonic noise into the ear cup when tapped.
When folded, the assembly shows off its solid shiny hinges. This is the first time we’ve ever admired the way a headphone looks when it’s folded into its case! The headphones fold directly inward into their semicircle case (which appears to be made from Alcantara).
Changing the cable is a unique experience. At first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking that these headphones did not have a removable cable. But, look closer - the cable connector is concealed. The pads themselves are held on with magnets, and underneath the left one is a recessed right-angled plug, which fits snugly into the ear cup, feeding through a hole at the bottom.
This serves to give the headphone a clean look, hiding the connector whilst adding an extra bit of strength to the connection itself.
If you’re concerned about Apple’s recent decision to delete the headphone jack, have no fear. We’ve been reliably informed that B&W are developing a Lightning cable and P9 owners that have registered with B&W will be sent this free of charge early 2017.
The P9 signature utilises two 40mm dynamic drivers, with nylon damped cones with acoustic coating and a large surround diaphragm design. They are housed in a way that has quite a sharp angle inward which is a big change from previous B&W offerings.
The innovative gel suspension housing system works well; even slight movements and adjustments of the headphones or yolk will still ensure that the cups will still be aiming directly at the listener’s ear canal, and the rock-solid seal of the pads is never broken.
Speaking of which, the clamp is quite tight. We are happy to forgive this for two reasons. The forged aluminium will be able to bend into a more comfortable shape, and the leather pads will eventually soften with use. Only time will tell how much this is the case though.
Most of our listening tests were done using the Chord Electronics Mojo portable headphone amplifier and DAC, which drives the P9 headphones with ease and authority.
We also tested them on a range of other devices, including desktop amplification, dedicated portable DAPs and smartphones. It was quickly obvious that the P9 is both easy to drive, and not fussy with sources. With a very curious impedance of 22 ohms, users will have to note that devices with a high output impedance (such as OTL tube amps) will not pair very well with the P9 due to the damping factor.
It’s also worth pointing out that the isolation with these headphones is nothing short of remarkable, even for a closed-back. Forming a tight seal around the ears with stiff leather pads, and keeping a firm grip on the head, these will block out outside noise effectively. Whilst they aren’t active noise-cancelling, they will still block out ambient sound or the drone and annoying chatter on public transport or flights. Although, the P9 Signature headphones are so exquisite we’re not sure you’ll want to wear them outside!
A moderate amount of midbass elevation gives a good amount of punch and rumble for bass-heavy music. Whilst definitely not as bass-heavy as a lot of other closed back cans (for example, the Fostex TH900), the bass feels well balanced in the mix, and doesn’t intrude too far into the lower midrange. Bass is well defined, and whilst not being a total bass-head headphone, it is far from anaemic. A mixture of well-tuned drivers, a suspension system that keeps the cups clamped onto the ear, and a strong seal with the pads leads to excellent sub and midbass response.
The flat bass tuning is one of the main attractive qualities about the low-end. There aren’t any nasty drops, roll-offs, or peaks in the lower register. Bass slams at 80Hz sound roughly equal in volume to hits around the 150Hz mark as well.
Occasionally, closed-back headphones will emphasise a certain part of the frequency spectrum more than others. This can be due to either the driver itself, or the housing. In the case of the P9, it seems that B&W have done their research to eliminate resonating frequencies that will cause wonky response in the bass area.
To the listener, this comes across as a “smooth” bass experience. For example, transitioning bass lines won’t have certain notes sticking out and being much louder. Everything is kept under control and at a similar perceivable volume. Great balance.
The midrange is accurate, and neutral. It doesn’t come across as recessed and doesn’t take a backseat in the mix. It’s also worth noting that there are no offensive drops or peaks in the midrange either. Excellent soundstage for a closed-back can which is especially impressive, considering how strong the isolation is on the Controlled Acoustic Air-Leak cushions. Vocals are presented accurately, and instrument separation (as well as imaging) are both excellent.
The upper midrange demonstrates a little hint of bite, but that also contributes to the high levels of detail retrieval on these headphones. Despite this, there is no harsh sibilance or ringing up in the top end. Users can listen at moderate volume without having to constantly adjust volume to save their ears. In fact, one of the greatest strengths of these headphones is the detail when listening to quiet recordings. The strong isolation and excellent detail retrieval mean that quiet listening can be a real treat as none of the music or details are missed.
Using our trusty Mojo for comparisons, Hamish from Melbourne’s Klapp Audio Visual was generous enough to let us loose on their collection of B&W display model headphones in-store. To compare apples to apples, we used the wired version of the P7, rather than the Bluetooth model.
To summarise the sound signature of the Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature headphones; a slightly dark signature with elevated bass. Neutral midrange and highs, with an excellent soundstage for a closed-back headphone, with no offensive sibilance.
Bowers & Wilkins P7
The P7 is a smaller design in a few regards; lighter, thinner, the ear pads are smaller, and there is less padding on the headband assembly. Quite simply, the P9 feels a lot more like a serious, rigid flagship. The weight difference is a clear indicator of this at 290 grams on the P7, compared to 415 grams on the P9.
The construction of the P9 is far more solid and has a higher level of premium finish. The pads of the P9 are slightly wider and don’t touch our ears like the P7 pads do.
The P9 also has the suspension features on the ear cups that the P7 does not, allowing for further listening flexibility. The padding of the P7 was also softer, but this may just be due to it being a well-seasoned veteran demo model of Klapp Audio Visual, with a lot more use than our factory fresh P9.
Removing the pad reveals the same cable mechanism found on the P9, but with one important difference - the drivers on the P7 are not angled.
In terms of sound, the P9 keeps true to the house Bowers & Wilkins sound signature, but with some improvements.
The acoustic isolation is stronger with the P9 while the imaging is even more accurate. The entire bass region is elevated on the P9, but only ever-so-slightly. Vocals have a little less bite on the P7 and sound a little more coloured. In turn, this makes the P7 sound less realistic, in my opinion. The P9 also has clearer midrange and sounds less congested by comparison.
In regards to detail the P9 Signature also gets the clear nod here. The angled drivers go a long way to increasing the perceived soundstage by quite a margin on the P9.
We put the P9 against Sennheiser’s latest folding closed-back flagship to see how it matches up. For reference, we used the “Variable Bass Boost” on the lowest setting.
The P9 has a slightly stronger clamp, and as a result is slightly less comfortable. The removable cable on the P9 is also sorely missed on the 630VB.
As to the sound, the P9 has a darker signature and can be more comfortably listened to at higher volumes. The bass is stronger on the P9, and needs a whisker more grunt to drive. Vocals also sound a little more upfront and intimate on the P9, which also reveals more details in recordings.
Whilst the 630VB is not what we would consider an overly bright headphone, it definitely sounds that way when pitted against the P9.
If you’re a Bowers & Wilkins fan and looking for a direct upgrade to the P7, you’ve just found it.
Incredible build quality, workmanship and use of materials, with a beefed-up sound to boot. But we do hope that over time the unit loosens up to mould comfortably around the listener’s heads, because once it does this will be an absolutely divine luxury closed-back experience.
The Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature headphones are available from October 2016 from specialist outlets. They retail for $1399.95
Works by day in the live audio and lighting industry and during festival season will often be found on tour around the country. In his spare time he can be found cycling, training, or tending to his vast headphone collection.
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