B&W P9 Signature review: Beautiful sound for 900 bucks – Mashable

As you move towards the high-end spectrum of hi-fi, features on gadgets typically disappear. It’s not uncommon to see a power amplifier, priced like a family car, with a single button, while amps that cost a few hundred bucks come with a bazillion knobs and switches. The idea is that everything that’s not strictly necessary just gets in the way of that perfect sound — and perfect sound is the ultimate goal of expensive hi-fi equipment. 

It’s no wonder, then that B&W’s latest pair of headphones, the P9 Signature, doesn’t have wireless connectivity, noise cancellation, or even a single button. The company’s top-of-the-line headphones cost $900, and they promise just one thing: stellar sound. 

Judging from the week or so I’ve spent with them, the P9 Signature delivers, but that price tag might not be justifiable to everyone. 

Reviewing the P9 Signature, whose launch has been timed to celebrate Bowers & Wilkins’ 50 years of existence, was fairly simple, as I’ve just finished reviewing the company’s P7 Wireless headphones, B&W’s priciest, best sounding headphones before the P9 came along. The two sets of cans share a similar design and sound (I was able to compare them directly), so my primary task was to figure out whether the price jump from $500 to $900 is worth it. 

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

Luxurious, comfortable and focused on the music

Let’s start with this: If features are what you’re after, you’re looking at the wrong set of headphones. The P9 Signature comes with three cables (one with included volume and play/pause controls) of varying length, and an adaptor to the larger, 6.35mm audio jack (a must if you have serious hi-fi equipment at home), but that’s it. There’s no Lightning cable either, a must for owners of iPhone 7 (which has no audio headphone jack) though it will be shipped with the P9s starting early 2017, and those who buy them now can ask B&W for a free cable when it becomes available. 

These headphones are not meant to amuse you with gesture-based operation, smart sensors and similar shenanigans. They’re meant to be the link between you and beautiful sounding music. 

Design-wise, the P9s look like a fancier version of the P7s. Brown, Italian Saffiano leather on the earcups, an Alcantara carrying case and an aluminum headband (which is, thankfully, foldable) give the headphones a distinctive, luxurious look. The P7 Wireless looks good, but when you place them next to the P9 Signature, they’re just not in the same league. 

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

The P9s also have a hidden headphone jack — to replace a cable, you need to remove the magnetically-fastened earcup. The solution works better than it did with the P7 Wireless; you’re not going to change the cables on these very often, if ever, and it keeps the headphone jack safely (and nicely) tucked away. 

Thanks to the premium materials and slightly bigger earcups, the P9 Signature are also more comfortable than the P7 Wireless — and generally very head-friendly, even though they’re quite heavy at 413 grams. Both sets of headphones tend to become a bit heavy on the top of my head — uncomfortably so after an hour and a half of listening — but the effect is less pronounced with the P9s. 

A deepness in the bass

We’ve established that the singular goal of these headphones is great sound, but is it nine-hundred-bucks good? While the figure might sound outrageous to some, it’s not uncommon in the world of high-end headphones; in fact, the world’s best sounding headphones often cost several thousand dollars, which would make the B&W P9 Signature entry-level high-end hi-fi (yes, that’s a lot of dashes). 

The verdict is not an easy one to give. On a technical level, the P9 Signature have slightly better specifications: their 40mm drivers have a larger frequency range (from 2Hz to 30KHz; good luck trying to hear sounds at the end of that range) and a lower distortion level, but are otherwise the same. They’re also angled to provide a sound stage that’s in front of you, not on the sides. And the earcups have been decoupled from the headband with a nifty little gimbal system to remove unwanted vibrations. 

But can you actually hear those differences?

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

The answer is yes, but it really depends on what type of listener you are. The P9 Signature headphones offer an extremely detailed sound. The bass is rich and precise, but slightly toned down compared to the P7s; it won’t jump at you at every occasion, but if you focus, you’ll hear it’s fuller and more detailed. 

It’s not just the bass; the sound of the P9s can generally be described as extremely precise, if a little dark. You’ll hear it all; the hint of cold in the singer’s voice, and the droning of an electric guitar left plugged in on stage at the end of a concert.  

The sound stage is moved a little to the front as promised by the angled drivers, but not vastly. In fact, if I were to point out one flaw (and that’s only if I compare the sound with high-end equipment), the sound stage always sounds like a tiny club; you’ll never get the feeling of being in a huge arena. 

But to hear all this, I’ve had to listen to CDs or flac files. And I used a 24-bit DAC audio module to connect to my MacBook Air. I’ve listened mostly to amazingly well-recorded music: Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Ryan Adams’ Live at Carnegie Hall and Nick Cave’s Live from KCRW. This is where the P9s shine; put any of these on, and you’ll instinctively close your eyes and lean back into the chair to listen to the song through to the end. 

If you just slap on a 128kbps mp3 of Kruder and Dorfmeister’s K&D Sessions, it will still sound great (in fact, it’s amazing how much these headphones can squeeze out of those compressed files), but the P7 Wireless won’t lag too far behind.  

Image: Stan schroeder/Mashable

Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything like the Sennheiser HD800 or the Audio Technica ATH-W5000, which fall roughly in the same price range, to compare with the P9s directly. Working from memory, the P9s are not as transparent as some of the high-end headphones I’ve heard; they flirt with high-end but still remain a great option for folks that just like a good dose of pop, electronic or dance music.

For long, home listening sessions

The P9 Signature headphones are beautiful, luxurious, comfortable and they sound great. The price point, while high, is still below the level of most flagship headphones from renowned hi-fi companies. Could they be a little cheaper? Probably, but they’re aimed at the person who wants the best and can afford it. 

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

You can’t have it all, though. These headphones are not the everyday workhorse cans you’ll throw in your backpack and use on commutes and plane rides. They’re a bit too heavy and bulky for that. Furthermore, they don’t have wireless connectivity, noise cancellation, an attention button or any of the latest bells and whistles you can now get in the $200-$400 price range. If you want all that, you’ll need to look elsewhere. But if curling up with some great-sounding recordings is your thing, the P9 Signature are nearly perfect. 

Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature

The Good

Comfortable • Luxurious • Amazing sound

The Bad

Pricey

The Bottom Line

The B&W P9 Signature won’t dazzle you with bells and whistles, but they offer supreme comfort, a very luxurious finish and amazing sound.

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