Bowers & Wilkins P3 Portable Headphone/Headset Page 2

Sound Quality
It might just be random chance, but there seems to be a growing trend among headphone makers today to roll off the treble a bit, in addition to boosting the bass. To some extent I think these are legitimate alterations. In my review of the B&W P5, I came to the conclusion that headphones intended primarily for phone and tablet duties benefit from a warm tilt. Movies are a little more fun with some oomph in the bass, and phone calls, YouTube videos, and streaming audio can be a bit screwed up in the highs, so a laid-back treble can make for a more pleasant listening experience. I continue to enjoy the warm, laid-back sound of the P5 for portable applications.

With the P3, however, B&W has simply gone too far with these adjustments. I found them remarkably muffled sounding. At first, I thought the treble had just gone missing, but on continued listening I came to the conclusion that the mid-range and upper-bass is simply too loud. Fundamental notes are very forward and the overtones are lost as a result, making these headphones sound very closed in.

B&W seems to work pretty hard on the acoustics of their products, and they claim to have gone to significant efforts to design a good driver for the P3. From their website:

P3's drive units have been designed from the ground up to give the best possible sound from a small set of headphones. We've repositioned the terminals to make sure that airflow around the drive units is uniform, resulting in a more linear movement. And we've introduced a unique damping system that provides the optimum balance of stiffness and flexibility.

I scratched my head for a while, then I simply removed the pads and had a listen. I had to push in on my ears a bit to get enough seal to reinforce the bass, but, holy smokes, they sound really good without the pads! The little indexing pins hurt so you couldn't possibly use them like this, but I firmly believe B&W did do a very nice job on the driver...and then messed it up with the pads. I decided to delve a little deeper and I cut away the material that covers the pads to see if that would solve the problem, but only got a minor improvement. My guess is that the foam of the cushion is simply absorbing far too much high frequency information.

So close, and yet so far away.


Click on graphs image to download .pdf for closer inspection.

Raw frequency response measurements show significant variation in low frequency response with position changes. Compensated and averaged frequency response shows a headphone with a very strong "n" shaped response centered just above the transition between bass and mid-range at about 200-300Hz. This hump is over 15dB higher in level than the treble range response of these cans, and was clearly heard as an over accentuated mid-range during listening tests. I have to say I'm surprised the treble response is as high as it is given how lackluster they sound.

30Hz square wave shows a fairly tight bass response given the on-ear design of these headphones. The THD+noise measurements also show lower distortion in the bass than many headphones of this type. Though they do take a bit of fiddling to get the headphones properly positioned, I did hear the bass as fairly tight and clean.

The lack of transient responsiveness is clearly evident in the 300Hz square wave. While I was surprised to see the treble response as strong as it was in the frequency response measurements, I'm not at all surprised with the near complete lack of clean edges in the 300Hz square wave. This is a poor result, and seems quite characteristic of what I heard.

The isolation of the P3 was modest at 10dB broadband. With a fairly constant 37 Ohm impedance and 50mVrms needed to achieve 90dB SPL, the P3 will easily be driven to solid listening levels by portable players.

Man, I really want to love these little headphones. The B&W P3 is truly a beautifully designed piece of gear, and I would have heartily recommended it if only they didn't have a fatal flaw in the way they sound. With a very strong emphasis on the lower-mids and upper-bass, the fundamental tones simply overpower the overtones that gives sound its character, which resulted in a muffled and closed-in sound in this case.

In the $199 price range I'd recommend the V-Moda M-80 as an alternative, and if you're willing to jump up to $299 I'll gladly recommend the big brother to these headphones, the B&W P5--one of my favorite headphones.

Bowers & Wilkins P3 product page.
Steve Guttenberg's comparison of the P3, P5, and M-80.
Very few impressions on Head-Fi so far, but when they come they'll be in the threads here, here, and here.

Bowers & Wilkins
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA
(978) 664 2870

Phos's picture

A tighter seal usually results in more low frequency response, so I don't think that's the cause, so I suppose it'd either be the foam or the greater distance. I can't help but wonder about somehow coating or covering the operational part of the foam to reduce its absorption.

AaronJAnderson's picture

I heard these for the first time last night. I think this review is pretty spot-on. I LOVED the way they looked and there are supremely built.... But they kind of sound like beats by dre. :(

Username's picture

happy to see this review sad to read it :(

dalethorn's picture

Here's hoping that the increasing number of exclusives the Apple store has on these models is purely coincidental to the muffled sound.

stereopaul511's picture

I considered purchasing these. I wanted to wait for your review of the BlueAnt Embrace. Found them at Amazon for $99. Boy am I glad I purchased the Embrace! To my novice ears they sound great!

ultrabike's picture

While I think the P5 is very comfortable, I did not like it's sound that much. I found it too warm (specially at it's price point). From your review and measurements I can get an idea of how the P3s would sound, and more than likely would not be my cup of tea.

However, I found very interesting contrasting your review to Steve Guttenberg's one. Regarding the P5 I bluntly agree with your P5 impressions, but I cannot say I agree with Steve at all. When I heard the P5s I did not think their "soundstage depth brings out the best in the music..." among other things. To each it's own I guess.

I also noted your PortaPro comment. They are indeed not at the level of the P5 in looks and comfort... but that's where the buck stops in that comparison. Incredible sound for the price in my experience.

dalethorn's picture

Using the P3 on a laptop with the Audioengine D1 DAC/headphone amp, with Foobar2000 and a treble boost equivalent to the iTunes setting, it can actually sound very detailed, warm, and satisfying. But used on a ipod or iphone by itself (which apparently it was intended for) the treble boost doesn't help enough - it's still a bit murky.

Beagle's picture

I find it odd that there seems to be a trend among headphone manufacturers where they design and release headphones backwards. That is, for example, instead of issuing the P3 and P5 simultaneously (or the P3 first), they issue the better sounding can first, then follow up with something inferior (albeit cheaper). Witness also the HD700 after the HD800.

I (circa 1990) recall getting the Yamaha YHD-3 at $59, yet the YHD-2 and YHD-1 were also available for $79 and $99 respectively. I got the YHD-3 'cause it was what I could afford, but I had the option of waiting and saving up for the others, which I eventually did.

friedduck's picture

I actually preferred the design of these to the P5 and felt that they were more comfortable. Back-to-back, though, the sound wasn't close to the P5. Funny that I felt that the low end was muddy, or kind of one-dimensional, next to the P5s. 

Christo's picture

Have been looking for a set of travel 'phones to complement my old Sennheiser HD580s at home. Was leaning towards the original Momentum on-ears that are currently on run-out but ended up getting a good price on the P3s (P5s and original Momentum over-ears sounded great but don't fold and were out of my price-range).

OK, so first impressions were similar - not promising. Direct from an iPhone 5 the treble seemed muffled, the bass over-blown and not that well controlled. Normally avoid using any EQ but, as noted elsewhere, they do sound fine with the Treble Boost EQ setting and I was prepared to live with that given the design and price met my requirements.

BUT after only a few hours of burn-in with pink noise (17 so far) I can report that the bass is now way tighter and better quality, the highs more natural sounding and sweet and better balanced relative to the rest of the spectrum. Overall very noticeable improvement in SQ, and no EQ required.

Sure they're not 'high end' headphones but for their intended purpose they're fantastic and can really swing. Can't wait to hear whether another 30-odd hours of burn-in improves the experience.

Makes me wonder - was the review sample was burned-in?