There hasn’t been a lot of good news out of the United Kingdom over the past few months with the passing of HRH Queen Elizabeth II, two resignations at 10 Downing Street, and the collapse of the British Pound.
Innovation has proven to be the one bright spot as British Hi-Fi brands have managed to navigate some rather choppy seas with a rather impressive selection of new products that have caught the attention of consumers on both sides of the pond. Bowers & Wilkins have certainly done their part with some of the best new loudspeakers of 2022 and two category leading ANC wireless headphones.
It might surprise some to learn that Bowers & Wilkins have been manufacturing loudspeakers for almost 60 years and there is no question that the brand is in much steadier hands in 2022 under the ownership of Masimo / Sound United.
Listening to the Px7 S2 and Bowers & Wilkins Px8 Wireless ANC Headphones over the past few weeks, I was reminded of its storied history.
Over the past 12 months, we have reviewed the Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 and wireless Px7 S2; both have earned spots on our “Best of…” lists for this year. The Px7 S2 is most certainly one of the most impressive ANC wireless headphones we’ve seen yet from any of the high-end manufacturers.
The flagship Px8 (which many thought would be the Px9) were released around the same time in October as the Focal Bathys; the friendly competition between the French and British manufacturers has been deemed the “Battle Across the Channel” and there is no question that both have pushed the envelope in the ANC wireless category.
Placed next to one another on a table, the Px8 and Px7 S2 do share similar industrial design features. The actual differences point to the Bowers & Wilkins Px8 offering superior build quality and a higher level of performance in a category with some excellent headphones from Focal, Mark Levinson, and Master & Dynamic.
The Px8 have to be better to stand out and it’s clear from our time spent around town and traveling with them — Bowers & Wilkins have no desire to be the “King Consort.”
Bowers & Wilkins didn’t go crazy on the packaging and we think the absence of fancy trimmings was rather intentional; for those who think that they were just trying to save some money.
The cloth-covered oval hard case is more about durability and functionality for the high-end business traveler or commuter. That they have already introduced a 007 branded model just proves our point. Classy. Tough. Stiff upper lip.
The case houses the headphones and a pair of cables; one USB Type-C for charging and the other a USB type-C to 3.5mm for wired use. The two cables fit neatly in an internal compartment to prevent scratches.
Bowers & Wilkins have done an admirable job keeping the weight of the Px8 to only 320 grams and one is immediately impressed with the heft and construction quality when you remove them from their case; the all-metal build should reassure purchasers that these are designed to last.
The industrial design is the same as the Px7s with the stepped cup design with the raised center oval and the larger rectangular body and cup beneath.
One aspect of the design that explains the higher price tag is that the ear cups are wrapped in leather (versus cloth on the Px7); either black or tan depending on which color frame one selects.
The metal surfaces are a mix of both matte and highly polished surfaces that contrast well with the headband and ear cups.
The headband is leather with memory foam on the underside for added comfort; on the black model, the headband is wrapped in black leather with memory foam only on the underside to improve comfort.
The tan version sports a headband with a tan top and a cream underside so it matches the cups and pads. Both are attractive but I suspect that the tan finish will appeal to a wider range of customers.
Height adjustment is by friction fit tubes that extend from the headband and each has a swivel in the final inch that allows a full 180° rotation on the vertical axis. Rather than attaching at the top (which is how Sony builds their ANC wireless headphones), there is a single sided gimbal that attaches just above the center of the cup on the rear face.
This allows roughly 20° of pivot on the horizontal axis. The arms and gimbals are polished aluminum (another upgrade over the polymer used on the Px7 S2). The other nice touch is the matching gold or silver raised Bowers & Wilkins logo across the face of the cups
There is a moderate degree of clamping force and the headphones did not cause my eye glasses to shift during 2-3 hour listening sessions. The long-term comfort level will likely prove to be very high for most users who will wear these while commuting or traveling for business.
The ear pads snap on/off rather easily and reveal the angled driver housing that hides beneath.
The higher price tag would not make sense if Bowers & Wilkins had stuck with the same drivers used in the Px7; the flagship uses a 40mm carbon diaphragm for improved speed and rigidity and a newly designed basket and voice coil to take full advantage of the carbon diaphragm.
When asked, Bowers & Wilkins representatives told me that the technology used in the drivers was first explored for some of their high-end loudspeakers and they hinted that this likely wouldn’t be the last time we see the carbon diaphragm used over the next few months,
The majority of the Bowers & Wilkins headphones integrate a configuration where the drivers are mounted at an angle with the forward most portion of the driver closer to the ear than the rear portion.
This helps sound from both edges of the driver to enter the ear in “a more natural way” (according to the company).
The Px8 are always on; the company has proven to be rather tight lipped when it comes to divulging the impedance or sensitivity specifications and only shared that the THD+N <0.1%.
The microphones have been updated as well with 2 dedicated to voice calls (visible on the left cup with one each on the outer and inner cup sections) and 4 used for ANC (these are hidden behind the perforations on the edge of the outer cup and inside the cups).
The Px7 S2 and Px8 are very similar from an operational perspective; there is a single button on the left cup to control ANC and a power slider and 3 buttons on the right cup for volume control, play/pause, and forward back.
The power slider also serves as the pairing button if pressed upward and held rather than push and released. The USB Type-C port for charging and wired use is on the bottom of the right cup.
The 3.5mm to USB cable requires that the headphones be turned on to operate and will impact battery life while the USB to USB cable can charge the unit during playback based on our testing.
Pairing was straight forward with the Px8 supporting aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, AAC, and SBC. Some will bemoan the lack of LDAC but the list of protocols offer broad compatibility with a rather wide range of sources.
Like my previous experience with the Px7 S2, there is the issue of the two Bowers & Wilkins’ apps. Older models in the lineup use the Bowers & Wilkins Headphone Control app while newer models like the Px8 (and Px7 S2) connect using the new Bowers & Wilkins Music app instead.
The B&W Music app offers treble and bass controls, ANC tabs, and the ability to swap the ANC button function to control virtual assistants instead for those that use that function more frequently.
The menu is compact with all the controls available from a single screen and reliable information on battery life is provided. The Px8 does support Bluetooth multipoint via the app as well.
There are a few areas where the app could be improved; Bowers & Wilkins should add (at a minimum) a 5-band EQ and perhaps even a PEQ on a headphone this expensive.
Secondly, the wear/proximity sensors need some work and I’m hoping that a firmware update fixes some of the issues that I had; the operation proved to be rather finicky and not as responsive as it could be.
As per Bowers & Wilkins instructions:
PX series headphones incorporate proximity sensing, meaning that they will know when they are being worn, when to switch on and connect via Bluetooth, and when to play audio.
When your headphones are placed on your head, they will automatically wake from standby mode, attempt to connect to the last connected Bluetooth device, and if successful try to play audio from the device.
When removed from your head and placed around your neck or to one side, the headphones will pause audio, and resume play when you wear them again.
If your headphones are not replaced on your head before the standby timer elapses (adjustable via the Bowers & Wilkins Headphones app), they will automatically power off and disconnect from Bluetooth.
If your headphones are not waking, playing, or pausing automatically when on your head, you can alter the headphones sensitivity to accommodate. This can be done via the Bowers & Wilkins Headphones app. Using the app you can increase or decrease the wear sensor’s sensitivity, or disable it entirely.
Bowers & Wilkins
One of the surprising highlights of the Px7 S2 was its ANC performance; it failed to deliver the category leading isolation of the Sony and Bose models but it came very close.
Could the Px8 improve on that ANC performance or does it offer the same level of both passive and active noise cancellation?
The Px8 have an integrated DSP function that helps remove both high and low frequency noise without adversely impacting the sound quality. While not as effective as blocking out noise as the Sony XM5s, it certainly matches the Bose QuietComfort 45 and that changes the dynamic in a significant way.
The Px8’s ANC also has less impact on the sound quality which only adds to their overall value proposition.
The ambient listening mode does a very good job of allowing conversations through and the situational awareness is more than adequate for hearing motorists, buses, and pedestrians on the sidewalk or a path with you. Situational awareness is a very important aspect of the experience and it is encouraging to see the manufacturers pay greater attention to this.
Battery life performance has experienced a significant uptick with most mid-tier and high-end ANC wireless headphones and the Px8 come very close to their published specifications.
Bowers & Wilkins claim that the Px8 will offer 30 hours of battery life on a full charge that should take users between 2-3 hours to accomplish. There is also a quick charge feature that promises 7 hours of playback time after 15 minutes of charging.
Those claims don’t differ from the Px7 S2 but the results on the Px8 were slightly different.
We run our battery tests multiple times (at different volume levels) and the average charge yielded 27 hours versus 30. The charge time was also closer to 3 hours.
The Px8 sound more engaging with the volume at around 75-80dB, so it’s quite possible that if the average listener sticks to around 70dB for most of their listening sessions, the 30 hour result might be more reasonable.
Based on the performance of the Px7 S2, we had very high hopes for the Px8 and wondered how competitive they would be with the Focal Bathys.
The Px8 prefer slightly more volume to really show off what they can do; those who prefer a headphone that they can listen to at low volume levels might find them slightly lacking in dynamic performance.
Push them harder and a different headphone shows up in that regard.
Operational Tip: If you use the USB to USB cable to connect the Px8 to a source device, the volume is controlled at the source and not the headphone.
The bass range has some added emphasis which delivers impact, texture, and a strong degree of detail. The Px8 are not anemic sounding headphones in the low end; bass is well controlled and and proved to be rather strong with both music and movies.
Watching a number of action films during my commute, I was quite impressed by how the Px8 handled car crashes and explosions without turning the bass information into a jumbled mess.
The mid-bass demonstrated a similar degree of texture, speed, and overall definition with a mild decrease in overall emphasis. There is no thickening of the sound or bleed from the upper bass into the lower midrange.
The midrange performance is the best we have experienced from any wireless headphone to this point — and that includes the Focal Bathys and Mark Levinson No. 5909 Headphones.
Male vocals are clean sounding with excellent timbre and detail; the slightly forward presentation pushes them slightly ahead of the instrumentation but it never overpowers the rest of the range.
Guitar notes have a nice sharp growl and excellent timbre; sustain is very natural sounding and this was also the case with the cello. I listen to a lot of classical music and it’s rare that a ANC wireless headphone is capable of natural sounding strings that have enough energy and decay to keep me focused.
The Px8 are remarkably good with classical music in that regard; piano notes have the right amount of weight and were very accurate sounding. One of my biggest complaints about the Px7 S2 was its reproduction of the violin and how strings came across as quite thin sounding — the Px8 excels in that regard recreating chamber and quartet selections with excellent timbre, detail, texture, and space.
There is some added emphasis in the upper midrange and lower treble that brings female vocals forward in the mix and also benefitted the accuracy of upper strings. Female vocals are definitely more forward sounding overall compared to their male counterparts but nothing about it sounded artificial.
The added emphasis also helps sharpen percussion snap. Snare rattle is tight and cymbals have good energy without getting metallic or tizzy. There is enough air at the top to sound fairly open (this is a closed back ANC model so don’t expect miracles) and I never felt any sense of fatigue during 3-4 hour listening sessions at work. Bowers & Wilkins have struck the right balance in that regard.
Closed-back headphones are not renown for their soundstage depth or width but the Px8 does a better job than most at recreating a realistic sounding stage that allows music to open up. Musicians don’t feel clumped together between your ears and the stereo separation is very good.
The imaging is very good for this type of headphone; movements are easily tracked and musicians are tightly defined in their respective space. The Px8 are also very adept at reproducing complex tracks at higher levels without any form of compression.
Geting on my flak vest first.
The Px7 S2 are unquestionably the best sounding pair of ANC headphones below $400 USD. They might not offer the ANC performance of the Sony and Bose flagships but they offer superior build and sound quality.
The Px8 double down on that performance for more money but it is money well spent.
The Sony XM5 might still offer superior ANC performance but there is no comparison when it comes to build quality, comfort, or sound quality.
The Px8 joins the Focal Bathys as true high-end audiophile wireless ANC headphones.
But how do they compare?
This might ruffle a few feathers in France but the Bowers & Wilkins Px8 might be the better buy at $100 less than the Focal Bathys.
Having just reviewed the Bathys which we thought were the best wireless headphones we’ve ever had the opportunity to listen to — the Bowers & Wilkins Px8 are a superb alternative.
They are equal to the French headphones in the sound quality department and offer similar levels (if not marginally better) of build quality, battery life, ANC performance, and comfort. The Px8 are more engaging in some respects and we were not expecting that.
The difference in price might be the single biggest point of differentiation and a huge advantage for the Px8.
The Bathys are superior at lower listening levels and are more flexible when it comes to connectivity. Those are not insignificant differences for some people.
The Bowers & Wilkins Px8 just might be the Rocky Balboa of the ANC wireless category which is quite an achievement to say the least.