Bowers & Wilkins’ foray into more affordable, portable, digital electronics has been an interesting one from where I sit. The company’s P5 Mobile Headphone, as you may remember from my review, kinda blew me away with superior styling and excellent sound quality. I didn’t quite love the company’s MM-1 computer speakers as much, mostly due to the fact that, as lovely as they sound with more laid back music, and as lovely as they look, they simply aren’t capable rocking. At all. The C5 in-ear monitor—which my friends and colleagues Brent Butterworth and Geoffrey Morrison positively adore—is a bit of a strange case, because I absolutely want to adore it, but the high-frequencies hurt my ears so badly that I can’t bear to wear them for long, so I left that review on the cutting room floor.
And then we have the P3 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphone, a model I’ve mistakenly referred to as the “P5’s little brother” on more than a few occasions. It’s an easy mistake to make, though, because on paper, the P3 does appear to be a budget P5. It’s less expensive, for one obvious thing. It’s smaller. Its materials aren’t as luxurious-sounding, with fabric replacing the poor fluffy sheep that had to die for the earpads and headband cushioning of the P5.
In many ways, though, I find myself actually liking the P3 better. Ethical concerns completely aside, its cloth fabric is simply more comfortable on the ears, remaining cooler and less head-squeezy for much longer periods of time. Amazingly enough, its construction feels even more solid, more refined, better engineered than the already amazing P5. Its folding design is also more portable, and its carrying case more durable. It also features the same great replaceable cables, with the connection hidden behind the magnetic earpad in the same ingenious way.
This may be a less expensive on-ear offering from B&W, but you surely wouldn’t know that from looking at it.
Nor listening to it. Since I still listen to the P5 quite frequently, my original intention for this review was to do an extensive compare-and-contrast between the two models. A bit of listening, though, and that idea went completely out the window. Because while it’s obvious that the P5 and P3 both climbed out of the same gene pool, and both undoubtedly deserve to wear the B&W badge, they really sound quite strikingly different.
The P3’s treble is, to these ears, more laid back for one thing. That’s good for me, since I tend to prefer a headphone that’s less bright. The P3 suffers not in the slightest for this in terms of detail, imagine, and spaciousness, though. There’s a moment, right near the beginning of Part IV of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” where a maniacal laugh cuts across the left channel, and I positively adore how it pops out of the mix via the P3. It’s indicative of the level of dimensionality delivered by the headphone, which also stands out quick prominently when listening to “classical” music. And I put “classical” in mocking air quotes there, because the symphonic music that’s dominating my listening sessions at the moment is the FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague’s score for Sid Meier’s Civilization V. Questionable prestige aside, the score is incredibly well-recorded, and with the right headphone you really get the sense that you’re transported directly to the conductor’s podium. The P3 is such a headphone, delivering cuts like the peacetime version of Washington’s Theme, a riff on “America the Beautiful,” with such stunning spaciousness that you almost feel like you can pick the first chair violin from the third in three-dimensional space.
At the opposite end of the scale, the bass is also a little more subdued. I know you guys have to be sick of reading me talk about Beastie Boys’ “Hey Ladies” by now, but it’s a great all-around headphone stress test, with deliciously low lows, and a neat phase shift in the intro that truly pops with a good set of cans. The P3 nails the latter, but struggles a little to recreate the ultra-lowest of the low frequencies in the track. If you’re not listening to a lot of hip hop, it’s probably something you won’t notice at all, but it’s worth pointing out.
What you might notice, though, is a weensy bit of weirdness a little further up the frequency range. I could have gotten through 80% of my music collection and not really been bothered by this, but there’s a bit of sloppiness at pretty much exactly the range of the loping bassline of Imelda May’s “Johnny Got a Boom Boom” that would knock half of a point or so off of the P3s final score if I were the type who put any stock in final scores. And I’m probably giving it much more ink than it deserves, but with a headphone that does so much so well, a little mar like that stands out.
As I said of the P5 in that review, the P3 isn’t the perfect headphone, whatever the heck that means. Its noise isolation is virtually non-existent (which really isn’t as much of an issue as I anticipated, owing to the fact that these babies sound way better when cranked, so despite the fact that I only took them on a flight to prove to myself how much they would suck in the friendly skies, I ended up quite liking them when the music was playing. Not so much when all personal electronics had to be turned to their off positions and only the P3 on its own stood between me and the roar of the engine, though). But a headphone this gorgeous, this well made, that sounds this good deserves your attention. If I had $299 (the cost of the P5) to spend on a set of portable headphones today, I have to admit, I would probably opt for the cheaper P3 ($199) and spend the remainder on music. Which isn’t a knock on the P5 at all. I think it’s still very much worth the asking price, if only for the luxury of its materials. But the P3 is more comfortable on my ears, easier to carry with me on the road, and although I wouldn’t categorize its sound as quantifiably better or worse than the P5, it’s certainly different, and it’s definitely more to my preference.
Bowers & Wilkins