Review: B&W P3 Headphones Page 2

P3 = B&W sound?

“Oh yeah,” I thought to myself when I played the first tune, Sonny Rollins’ “H.S.” (from the 1996 release Sonny Rollins +3) through the P3. It was immediately obvious that the P3 had no major tonal balance issues, no annoying resonances, and no screeching treble. Rollins — who in my opinion plays more lively and feisty in his old age than he did in his youth — sounded simultaneously lush and vibrant, a tough trick for any saxophonist and just as tough a trick for a speaker to reproduce. The band sounded spot-on, too, the piano stretching wide across an psychoacoustical soundstage in my head, and the subtleties of Al Foster’s great ride cymbal work on “Biji” coming through clearly without a trace of edge.

OK, I did notice one thing that sounded, to me at least, a tad amiss: Bob Cranshaw’s electric bass sounded fatter than it probably should, with an unnatural emphasis in the upper bass region from about 80 to 200 Hz. The bass isn’t boosted to the ridiculous levels you hear with some of those hip-hop-oriented headphones, but it’s certainly more prominent than you generally hear with headphones intended for serious listening. With the V-Moda Crossfade M-80 on-ear (at $230 a natural competitor for the P3), the bass seemed to be at about the same average level, but sounded more defined and had more rhythmic drive.

The characteristic I most enjoyed in the P3 is its presentation of ample treble detail and spaciousness without the edginess or brightness that makes some headphones hard to listen to after a while. I never found the sound fatiguing and never felt the need to take a quiet break.

I was especially impressed with the way the P3 reproduced the simmering sonic stew of Thomas Dybdahl’s “Something Real” (from Science). The mix of instruments on this tune is especially difficult for a set of headphones to reproduce. Check it out: a trio of drums, bass, and acoustic guitar, overlaid with various keyboards, vibraphone, flutes, what sounds like pots and pans being banged on, strummed piano strings (?), dueling bass clarinets, background vocals and, of course, Dybdahl’s lead vox. The P3 got it all perfect; I could easily hear the character of each instrument (and each non-instrument). Headphones with a messed-up tonal balance simply can’t do this.

Compared with the Crossfade M-80 and the AKG K490 NC, my favorite on-ear headphone, the P3’s midrange seems tame. Lauren noted this, too. With the K490 NC, Joni Mitchell’s voice on “Free Man in Paris” (from Court and Spark) jumps right out and grabs your attention. With the P3, it sounds a little mellower, pushed down in the mix by a few dB. This may be a psychoacoustic effect of that bass bump I was talking about. It’s also a “matter of taste” thing — you might prefer it, you might not. For me, it depends on what I’m listening to.

A run-through with my test CD showed that the P3 did a good job of reproducing even the toughest tracks. Only one major idiosyncrasy emerged: that bloated upper bass. On heavy metal tunes like Soundgarden’s “Louder Than Love” and hip-hop tunes like Kanye West’s “Theraflu,” the bass sounded fantastic, enhancing the groove and adding a nice extra kick. On everything else, it sounded a bit excessive. But a lot of headphone listeners prefer their bass with a little extra kick.

For Lauren, the bloated bass wasn’t a deal-breaker — “Yeah, I could see paying $200 for these,” she said — but she suspected the excess low end made the treble sound a little softer than she’d have preferred.


I measured the P3 using a G.R.A.S. Type 43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. I experimented with slight differences in position of the earpieces to get the best seal of the headphone on the cheek plate and the most representative frequency response curves. Unlike many on-ear models, the P3 produced a good seal on the rubber ears of the simulator without having to use the sim’s clamping mechanism — a sign that the P3 should deliver consistent sound without the user having to fuss much with positioning of the earpieces.

The frequency response measurements show that the P3 has a response pretty close to the typical target curve for headphones, with a midrange dip between 1 and 2 kHz, a response peaks at 3 and 5 kHz, and little response above 8 kHz. There seems to be a channel mismatch between 6 and 9 kHz; no matter how I positioned the headphones, it still appeared. The range around 200 Hz seems a bit more prominent than usual, so perhaps that’s the reason we perceived the bass as a bit bloated. Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can’s 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a low-quality headphone amp has a negligible effect on frequency response.

Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA is a little bit high, rising to 4% at 100 Hz and 16% at 20 Hz. Impedance is nearly flat, averaging 37 ohms.

You may notice from the chart that I’ve changed the way I measure isolation, in order to better conform to practices recommended in IEC 60268-7 — admittedly an inadequate standard but better than nothing. Rather than measuring isolation using swept tones with my Clio FW analyzer, I’ve switched to using uncorrelated pink noise played through Genelec recording monitors in opposite corners of the room, with results smoothed to 1/3rd octave. This provides a stimulus closer to that of actual environmental noise. (Thanks to Paul Barton of PSB for tipping me off on how to get TrueRTA audio spectrum analyzer software to do this.)

Anyway, as you can see, the P3 provides no isolation below 1 kHz; -15 to -17 dB of isolation between 2 and 7 kHz, and about -10 dB of isolation at higher frequencies.

I measured sensitivity in with a 1 mW signal (at the rated 34 ohms at 1 kHz) at 98.1 dB average from 300 Hz to 10 kHz, 100.5 dB average from 300 Hz to 6 kHz.

Bottom Line

B&W really nailed the design of the P3 — it’s comfortable, practical, and looks terrific. We also dig the sound; I’m sure I’ll be using these a lot just ’cause they’re so easy to listen to for long periods of time. But we recommend you give ’em a test drive before you lay down the credit card just to make sure you’re cool with that extra dollop of upper bass.