REVIEW: BOWERS & WILKINS PX NOISE CANCELLING HEADPHONES
Bowers & Wilkins' first noise-cancelling headphones tick a lot of boxes on paper, but how do its PX headphones that were designed by the very same engineers that worked on the brand's 800 Series D3 flagship speakers really sound? Read on.
Bowers & Wilkins
PX Noise-Cancelling Bluetooth Headphones
Being the resident headphone nerd to my friends and family, I am often asked “which are the best noise cancelling headphones to buy? It’s Bose, right?”
It’s not a tough question to answer because, in my experience, there's only a handful of brands and models worth considering.
Emirates airlines recently teamed up with Bowers & Wilkins to create the purpose-built B&W E1 headphones - specially designed for first-class flyers.
Having never released a noise cancelling headphone prior, they certainly did plenty of homework in this new arena. Apparently, they sent a team of engineers onboard several flights to tune and tweak the noise cancelling settings to perfection.
I reviewed the B&W P7 wireless headphones in 2017, and while overall they received a great wrap from me, the lack of noise cancelling, and some minor sound issues held them back from being an essential travel companion.
B&W have now removed the P7 wireless from the portable headphone line-up, and have replaced it with its much sexier successor, the new B&W PX.
Despite being $51 cheaper than its predecessor ($549 for the PX, vs. $600 for the P7 wireless), the PX boasts some fantastic tech features and packs a pair of drivers derived from B&W's flagship P9 Signature headphones.
So not only do they tick plenty of boxes on paper, but they've also been designed and tuned with audio quality in mind; by the very same acoustic engineers that worked on the 800 Series D3 flagship loudspeakers.
It seems clear to me that Bowers & Wilkins have not only made a splash in the noise-cancelling headphone market, but they're diving headfirst into the deep end of the pool.
What’s the catch? Is it possible that a device can not only look good but also sound great and be packed with gadgets - all for under $600?
It's ambitious, and B&W are nothing short of confident.
When it comes to B&W, its build quality is always a treat to behold. Absolutely no details are spared when it comes to material choice, and the fit and finish are second to none.
The PX is absolutely no exception to this. The inside of the headband is covered in soft leather, the ear cups are wrapped in protective ballistic nylon, and the assembly consists of an armour made from aluminium (not plastic).
Aside from premium build materials, the PX is an entirely new beast physically, and unlike any other headphone from B&W.
For starters, it’s the only headphone I’ve ever seen that features a USB type C charging port. It also comes not only in the traditional black finish but also a “soft gold” colour.
The yolk assembly has been reworked, and while it still retains the exposed cabling look, it now adopts a much sturdier single large contoured cable guard, instead of two smaller arms holding the cup.
Weighing only 335g, the PX is lighter than the P9 Signature (413g) and almost on par with the P7 Wireless (323 grams). Much like its siblings, the firm leather pads are held on tight with magnets, and the cable is entirely removable.
Despite being a reliable travel partner, the PX, unfortunately, doesn’t fold completely inwards like the P7 that came before it. Instead, the cups can swivel 90 degrees for storage, but it will still take up slightly more bag space.
Inside the headphone
There has been much debate online about the 40mm full range drivers used for B&W's PX. Some listeners believe they are the same drivers as the P9 Signature headphones, while others think they're reworked P7 Wireless drivers.
Some clarification eventually came from B&W's official Twitter page:
The PX use an angled 40mm driver derived from that used with the P9's. It's not exactly the same driver.
These drivers sit at quite a steep angle toward the listener - which is reminiscent of the configuration of the P9 Signature headphones.
Perhaps most impressive though is the ton of tech and gadgetry inside the PX headphones. This includes a full range of movement sensors, and a smorgasbord of Bluetooth profiles (including A2DP 1.3, AVRCP V1.6, SDAP, and DIP).
Surprisingly, NFC is absent from this release, and pairing must be performed manually.
As for codecs, the whole gang is here including AAC, SBC, and amazingly, the top of the line aptX HD.
There’s also two options if you prefer to use a cable. You can use either the included 3.5mm cable, or any USB type C cable.
Using the headphone
For a noise-cancelling headphone, there are a few welcome surprises here.
Firstly, the pads are surprisingly comfortable. They're firm and fit all the way around the ears, but are soft enough to avoid the build-up of heat after extended wearing time. Similarly, the weight is more than bearable, allowing them to be comfortably worn for several hours at a time.
The battery life is downright insane! They are rated for 22 hours with Bluetooth and ANC switched on, and 29 hours with these features turned off. The numbers seem to add up, as I have only charged them once in the time I’ve had my hands on them, and I’ve put in almost 35 hours of listening.
The inclusion of a USB type C connector is also welcome. It allows me to use the same charger for my phone, Nintendo and now, headphones. I really hope more manufacturers take note of this and follow suit.
While wearing the headphones, there's an array of sensors that cleverly attempt to detect what the user is doing. Lifting an ear cup away from the ear (as if to speak to someone), will briefly pause the music. Removing the headphones completely and placing them on a desk will switch them off. Putting them back on your head will not only turn them back on but also resume the music.
These sensors not only have adjustable sensitivity, but they can also be switched off completely for a more traditional listening session.
The companion B&W phone app allows for fine tuning of the noise-cancelling settings and enables the user to store one pre-set into the headphones themselves that can be recalled at any time.
It comes with three preset levels (“Office”, “City” and “Flight”) and allows for a custom level of “pass-through” audio, allowing outside and ambient noise to filter into the headphones.
I found this feature particularly useful, as I have one setting for flights and another for around the office. My flight setting is a complete blocking of all outside noise, whereas my office setting is only very mild, and has plenty of pass-through audio in case anyone wants to speak to me.
There the sound signature clearly shows that these drivers derive from the mighty B&W P9 Signature headphones.
While the PX doesn't retain the same balanced tonal tuning of the P9 headphones, its sound signature seems to be tuned ever-so-slightly more bellicose. There's a bit of punch in the midbass and some bite in the upper-mids.
In comparison, the P9 sounded more neutral and flat in the mid and higher frequencies, whereas the PX prefers to be a little more upfront with the vocal presentation and kicks.
The bass response of the PX has a healthy dollop of thump around the 120Hz mark and feels like it gently rolls off further down. The bass response is forward and energetic and makes punchy electronic music a very engaging and enjoyable experience.
Considering the bass pressure that these can generate I was surprised when I read that the drivers were only 40mm. I was expecting them to be larger.
The mids do feel ever-so-slightly recessed, and there is a well-defined “V” shape to the sound signature. It’s not to say that the midrange is muddy, difficult to hear or lost - it’s just that the midbass and upper mids are the stars of the show here.
The signature is slightly dark and warm, with no hints of sibilance or sharpness. In other words, nothing painful will stick out when using these headphones at generous volume levels.
When it comes to noise-cancelling, these two are neck and neck. It was tough to pick a clear winner here, even when going back and forth constantly between the two.
When it comes to sound, however, the PX has a darker, richer signature compared to the lively QC35. The Bose has a brighter, top-end heavy signature, and the mids are further recessed. In comparison, the PX just has a more neutral, flatter sound.
The build quality and materials are no-contest. While the Bose is almost 100 grams lighter, the build quality just isn’t the same. The QC35 has a relatively thin plastic build, paired with its soft, squishy ear pads, and just feels like a toy in comparison.
Sennheiser PXC 550
The B&W PX headphones clamp tighter on your head compared to the gentler and more forgiving Sennheiser headband.
While the sound presentation is similar between the two, the soundstage on Sennheiser's PXC is slightly smaller. The B&W PX's sound marginally warmer and offer a touch more midbass. Sennheiser's PXC 550 are a little more toppy in the upper-mids.
When it comes to noise-cancellation, just like with the Bose, it's similar here. You would have to be listening very intently to discern any major point of difference between all three flagships in this department.
Bowers & Wilkins' PX headphones present a smooth, detailed and mildly dark sound signature, and excellent build quality.
With noise-cancelling ability equal to the long-standing Bose benchmark, along with competitive pricing, I now have the answer to the original question.
When friends and family ask me which noise-cancelling headphones are the best buy, I can now quite easily recommend the B&W PX headphones.
In fact, I put my money where my mouth is and purchased a pair for myself. Yes, they are that good.
For more information visit Bowers & Wilkins.
Further reading: Headphones Discussion Forum
Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.
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