Review: B&W P3 Headphones

There are speaker companies better-known than B&W, but I doubt any has a more enviable reputation. B&Ws have been a fave of audiophiles and recording engineers for decades. But the best indicator of B&W’s rep would probably be a walk through an audio show in China, where you’ll see no other speaker brand so brazenly copied.

Nowadays, though, B&W seems focused on compact and portable products, such as its Zeppelin Air and P5 and C5 headphones. Can’t blame B&W for wanting to surf the market trends, but headphones, especially, are so different from speakers that a company’s expertise in one is little indicator of skill in the other.

All three of the products I just mentioned have received rave reviews, though. That praise gives us great hope for the P3, a smaller, more portable, $100-less-expensive version of the P5.

Although the P3 comes with a somewhat bulky hardshell case, the headphone itself is the size of the inexpensive little $29 set of headphones you’d buy your 12-year-old daughter for listening to whatever 12-year-old daughters listen to these days. But the $199 P3 really does look like it costs two bills. Like the P5, it’s an on-ear design rendered in large part from aluminum and rubber. The elegant, precise construction compares with that of other headphones this size much as a $50,000 Mercedes sedan compares with a $12,000 hatchback.

Of all the P3’s bits and pieces, B&W crows loudest about the new, more acoustically transparent earpads, designed for greater comfort (the P5’s Achilles’ heel, IMHO) and better sound. Memory foam pads also improve the feel. The P3 includes two interchangeable cables, one with an inline mic/remote made for iOS (Apple) products, the other with a straight connection. To change them, you simply pop off the magnetically attached earpads, unplug the cables, and plug in the other ones.

Powering up the P3

I tried the P3 with my iPod touch and my Motorola Droid Pro smartphone. Then I called in Lauren Dragan, an L.A.-based voice actress and frequent S+V headphone tester, to give me her opinion; she used her iPhone as a source. Even the not-so-great internal amplifier in my Droid Pro drove the P3 to levels loud enough for me, although some listeners might want more volume.

If you need isolation, these aren’t your headphones. As I write this, I’m listening to the P3 in Paso Robles, California’s bustling Amsterdam Coffee House, and much of the ambient sound — the conversation of the people at the next table, the chatter of the baristas, the strains of Billy Joel’s “My Life” — is intruding on my communion with Cannonball Adderley. That limits the P3’s utility a bit; it wouldn’t be my first choice for use on an airplane or the New York subway.

Lauren and I agreed that for an on-ear model, the P3 is quite comfortable. I’ve been listening in the coffee house for 90 minutes, and the earpieces are only just now starting to bug my ears. We both really liked the compact design, too, Lauren calling it “a neat alternative to the usual bulky over-ear and on-ear headphones.”