Bowers & Wilkins’ first noise-cancelling headphones are the real deal.
Bowers & Wilkins’ performance in the headphone market is the sporting equivalent of a Gaelic footballer arriving in the Premier League and picking up the Golden Boot in their first season.
Sure, there are similarities, but essentially it’s a different game with different opposition, different rules and different demands.
But ever since B&W’s first pair arrived on the scene in 2009, the company hasn’t looked back. Some of its headphones have had as much impact as B&W’s traditional loudspeakers.
The new Bowers & Wilkins PX – the company’s first wireless headphones with built-in noise-cancelling – are the latest in a long line.
To anyone acquainted with B&W’s line of on- and over-ear headphones, the PXs will look familiar. But while they share some of their DNA, they’re also quite distinct in their own right.
The Space Grey finish of our review sample may look like an attempt to appeal to Apple fans, but it also highlights the PXs’ more industrial design.
That’s not to say the headphones don’t have shelf-appeal, but the optional (and much more flamboyant) Soft Gold finish shows off your PXs better.
The headphones are constructed predominantly from lightweight aluminium and use what B&W refers to as “ballistic nylon shell” to cover the outer earpads and the top of the headband.
This means the PXs feel both reassuringly solid yet perfectly portable.
Subtle details like the way the headphone cables run down their carefully machined channels and into each earpiece, the smoothness with which the earpads rotate, and even the texture of the Bowers & Wilkins logos all give the impression of a quality product.
The elliptical earpads are quite narrow compared to those offered by some rivals and we were a little concerned comfort could be compromised. But once in place, they actually do an excellent job of surrounding your ear and creating a seal with the outside world.
The PXs exert more pressure than rivals such as the Sony WH-1000XM2s and the pads aren’t quite as soft, but we don’t find our lengthy listening sessions any less enjoyable.
The only slight compromise is that you can’t completely fold them up. Instead, the earpads fold flat so you can slide them into the snazzy, quilted carry pouch.
Pull away the magnetic pads and you get a better look idea of the PX driver design. The headphones use a 40mm full-range driver, which is based on technology developed for B&W’s high-end P9 Signature headphones.
Like the P9s, the drivers inside the PXs are angled to fire directly into your ears. B&W claims this helps you get more of a traditional stereo image.
“The PX’s are one of the first pairs of Bluetooth headphones we’ve seen with a USB-C connector”
As wireless noise-cancelling headphones have become more common and desirable, increased emphasis been placed on the user experience – issues such as the pairing process, the reliability of the Bluetooth connection, ease of controlling audio playback and the performance of the noise-cancelling.
We’re pleased to report that the B&W PXs fare extremely well across the board. Pairing is achieved through the slider-cum-button on the edge of the right earpiece. A row of three slimline buttons controls volume and playback. The middle play/pause button has a slight bump to help you feel your way around.
The noise-cancelling for the PXs comes courtesy of B&W’s own algorithm. There’s no automatic test tone and measurement-taking like there is with the Sony WH-1000XM2’s but the B&Ws still do a great job of cutting out office chatter and the drone of your daily commute.
A proximity sensor in each earpiece allows you to play and pause music automatically”
Fire up the B&W Headphone app and you can fine-tune the PXs’ Environment Filters. Labelled Office, City and Flight, each one tweaks the noise-cancelling and amount of external audio allowed through.
Set it to Flight and the noise-cancelling is at its most potent with no audio pass-through. When you’re walking through town, switch to City and you’ll still get the benefits of noise-cancelling, but with a greater awareness of your surroundings.
It’s similar to the system used by the Sony WH-100XM2s with the exception the Sony app can switch modes automatically, depending on your activity, while the PX’s require you to open the app and switch manually.
Built into each enclosure is a proximity sensor that B&W has used to supercharge the PX user experience. Lift the headphones off your head and the music pauses automatically. Put them back on and the music kicks back in.
If you leave them on a desk or round your neck for a couple of minutes, the headphones will go into standby or what B&W refers to as a “low-power state”, which should help conserve some of the claimed 22-hour battery life.
Come back after a couple of minutes, put them on your head and the headphones ping out a couple of tones to signify they’ve woken up and they’ll start playing without you having to press a single button. Very slick.
We were surprised by just how well this feature worked in practice and how often we used it. But there’s more.
Lifting just one of the earpads can also pause the music, which is ideal if you need to have a quick chat with a work colleague or order another gin and tonic from your friendly flight attendant.
It’s a smart and neatly executed feature that helps the PXs stand out from the current crowd.
So, the B&W PX appear to be making all the right noises so far (and cancelling a few out), but how do they actually sound?
Those of you who want transparency, detail and an even tonal balance from their headphones won’t be disappointed.
In fact, it’s difficult to call the PXs out on any aspect of their audio. Their presentation is different to the Sony WH-1000XM2s and Bose QC35s, but it’s just as appealing.
They paint music in a clear and clean manner, which helps where resolution and detail retrieval are concerned. Poorer quality recordings sound just that, but that’s the trade-off you get for the PX’s honest approach.
Music sounds like it’s coming at you head-on rather from the sides, which seems to validate the design of those angled drivers.
The PXs upscale all audio to 768kHz – B&W claims doing this helps improve noise-cancelling and DSP performance”
The B&Ws follow the melancholic melody of Linkin Park’s Leave Out All The Rest with expert precision. The shift from fragile and emotional verse to explosive chorus is delivered with both finesse and purpose.
The big bass kick that hugs the track as it moves along has a nice heft to it, without overpowering the track. The PX’s punch and precision ensure an impeccable sense of timing.
We switch to the London Symphony Orchestra’s adaptation of Swan Lake and the PXs reveal a sophisticated, elegant side. As the track reaches its climax, they do a great job of balancing the impact of the powerful rumblings on the percussion section.
All the individual elements such as the harp, violins and oboe are exquisitely rendered and track has no trouble captivating the listener.
In a world dominated by Beats and EarPods, a pair of quality headphones like the PXs only serves to enhances B&W’s reputation.
Excellent wireless sound quality, impressive noise-cancelling and a rewarding user experience make the Bowers & Wilkins PX a fantastic audio package.