Bowers & Wilkins PX review: wireless noise-canceling nirvana

Wednesday, 18 October 2017, 08:48:25 PM. These headphones have no right to sound as good as they do while being as practical as they are

Trade-offs.

Every purchase of consumer tech is defined by the choices we make about what we value more. In the world of over-ear headphones, the question has up until now been a three-way tug-of-war between the contradictory desires for wireless and noise-canceling tech, lightweight and compact design, and the best possible sound quality. Up until now.

The wireless Bowers & Wilkins PX are the first pair of noise-canceling headphones from the well-respected British audio brand. They cost $400 in the US, come in a choice of demure space grey or a more flamboyant soft gold, and they sound phenomenal. I have had a PX pair since their launch in London two weeks ago, and they’ve quickly become as essential to my life as my wallet, keys, and phone. I don’t leave the house without them.

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A year ago, I reviewed the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless, and I opined that they were bass-rich headphones that sounded and felt at their best when used on the move rather than while sitting in a quiet room at home. This is no less true of the B&W PX today. The ideal usage scenario for these new headphones is while walking and traveling around metropolises like London and New York, using their noise canceling to shelter you from the exterior hubbub and their superior audio quality to transport your soul away from the endless underground tunnels of your commute.

London in October is the wrong time and place for anyone looking to escape autumnal feelings of sadness or ennui. It’s just a bleak place, beset by an extra dose of Brexit bleakness. But the PX just neutered all of that sadness for me; they anesthetized the exterior and left me all alone with my music. That’s what noise-canceling headphones do, after all, and if you ask B&W (like I did), the company would tell you that it doesn’t have the world’s best noise canceling. But where the PX difference really comes in is when I put some music on.

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No other noise-canceling headphones come even close to rivaling the pure exhilaration and joy of listening to music on the B&W PX. Never mind making you tap your foot or nod your head, these cans will make you dance in the street. (Note: dancing in the street is generally frowned upon here in the UK, please maintain your decorum).

The PX have a wide soundstage that makes their sound feel much more free and expansive than other good noise-canceling alternatives such as the Sony 1000X. More than once, I’ve heard distant sounds on the PX and wondered whether they were coming from within the headphones or outside — obviously, with their noise canceling being on, I knew it was part of the music, but that little moment of doubt is impressive. I get a very realistic sense of the music with these Bowers & Wilkins headphones, and even though they’re obviously bass-heavy, that extra serving of low-end power is downright perfect in outdoor environments.

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Maybe it’s the genres of music that I favor, which are modern electronic, hip hop, and pop productions, but I just can’t find fault with anything the B&W PX do. Lorde’s Melodrama and Marian Hill’s ACT ONE both exhibit engaging, melodic female vocals that contrast fantastically well with the deep bass rumble of these headphones. Bass is something that can very easily be overdone, but Bowers & Wilkins has balanced it beautifully. The mid-range is a bit less prominent, owing to how rich and (pleasantly) exaggerated the bass is, but that’s no great loss to me. If you’re a classical music fan or you appreciate acoustic instrument productions more, you’ll probably be better served by something closer to the Audio-Technica DSR9BT — the PX are decidedly modern headphones designed for modern music tastes.

The PX sonic performance in short: vocals are wonderfully defined and always emotive, the bass response is deep and deeply satisfying, and the overall impact and pleasure of the music is never lost. These headphones might not have the best noise-canceling tech, but they deliver the best sensation of noise canceling by filling the void of sound with truly outstanding music reproduction.

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The hidden secret of how that’s done technically is that B&W took the same angled drivers it uses in its flagship P9 Signature wired headphones and simply strapped them into the PX. The sound is definitely not the same, the bass is less brutally overwhelming here than on the P9, but I actually favor the PX when it comes to listening while out and about. Their sound balance is rather imperfect for use in quiet environments, however, and the noise canceling starts to feel weird, so I tend to switch it off. In a quiet room, the PX feel a bit edgy, like they’re overeager to please, and so I’d definitely not recommend them as the headphones to wear if you just want to zone out your coworkers in the office.

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Bowers & Wilkins calls these its first “smart” headphones, which is a label I can’t really endorse. This is frankly the weakest area of the PX design: B&W has cooked up an app to let you tweak noise-reduction levels and it has also put some sensors into the headphones themselves to make them automatically pause in situations where they detect you’ll want that. The app is not essential to use, as I don’t see much point in half-hearted noise canceling — I just flip between on and off with the physical button on the right ear cup — and I’ve not been impressed with the speed of the app’s operation or the fact it doesn’t consistently recognize the headphones. As to the automatic pause, it’s cool in some circumstances, but weak in others.

Lifting one ear cup to hear someone nearby automatically pauses my music, which is neat. Putting the ear cup back down resumes the music. Seamless. Taking the entire pair of headphones off my head also pauses the music, but the sensors aren’t refined enough to tell the difference between putting the PX back on or resting them on my neck, so I often have music resuming shortly after I want it to stop. Not seamless. One of the especially arcane forms of punishment with this system shows up when I’ve got the PX hooked up to my Mac. While listening to Tidal, I take them off briefly to take a call and they pause; then they turn back on when they land on my neck, but they don’t just resume Tidal, they also launch iTunes and play the first track in my alphabetically sorted list. Hello, Aesop Rock, I wasn’t expecting you!

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Since I’m airing grievances, it also merits mentioning that Bluetooth pairing and syncing with these PX cans is exactly as torturous as every other pair of wireless headphones that doesn’t have Apple’s W1 chip. It takes time and patience.

But once I’ve set these headphones up with my favored devices, and ignored the unnecessary app, and learned how to avoid triggering automatic playback resumption, I still find myself more than a little in love with them. All of the small foibles I’ve mentioned are indeed small, and B&W has a very solid set of physical controls on the right ear cup that let me handle everything I care to do. The important things, which are the noise reduction, the sonic characteristics, and the reliability of the wireless signal once established, are all great.

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On the more mundane side of things, it’s worth acknowledging that Bowers & Wilkins has moved to a USB-C connector for the charging port on its PX headphones. I really like that. I can now charge my headphones with the same charger that I use for my phone and laptop, and if I want to extend the PX battery life, I can also hook them up via a digital connection to any phone that lacks a regular 3.5mm headphone jack. The battery life itself is rated at 22 hours when the headphones are used wirelessly and with noise canceling on, and in my testing I was able to achieve close to 18 while blasting them at loud volumes. In real world terms, that’s a battery life that comfortably exceeds a week of regular listening. I’ve got no worries or complaints on this front.

The build quality of the PX lives up to Bowers & Wilkins’ high standards. Soft leather pads gently wrap around your ears, and an aluminum frame blends nicely into a patterned ballistic nylon enclosure. It’s classy stuff that also feels like it will last and last. Many noise-canceling headphones seem to neglect design and materials, much as they are slightly behind on sound quality, and that’s part of what makes these PX cans so exceptional and noteworthy.

The only thing I would caution about with the Bowers & Wilkins PX is their long-term listening comfort. The B&W P7 Wireless were a pretty wonderful listen, and their construction was attractive and sturdy, but they caused a sore spot to develop at the top of my head if I listened to them for longer than an hour. The new PX have an all-new headband, however it too is susceptible to developing a hot spot of pressure at the top of the head. Funnily enough, I don’t get that while walking — maybe it’s because there are tiny movements shifting the headphones back and forth with my gait — but I do when sat at my desk for extended periods. Once again, these are headphones designed for motion rather than static listening. I’ve even run with the PX on, and they still retain a very good fit and never feel like they’re going to fall off. They just might not be the best choice for your next intercontinental flight.

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Bowers & Wilkins was a late arrival to the growing noise-canceling competition, but the wait has absolutely been worth it. These PX headphones are more than just good looks and nice materials, more than just the latest tech in a pretty package. With generous battery life, deeply immersive and emotive sound, and a compact enough shape to be carried everywhere, I now consider them essential.

Before the B&W PX, Sony’s 1000X were the headphones that I could most readily and casually grab on my way out the door. There were never any worries with those headphones about the sound or the fit proving fatiguing over the course of a full day. I can’t say exactly the same about the PX, I’m still wary about their comfort, but given the choice, I would still take them with me first just because I love their sound. It’s not what I hear, but what I feel while wearing these headphones, and that’s the simple pleasure of music. To my mind, that’s the whole point of using headphones, which is why I consider the B&W PX utterly essential.

9 Verge Score

Bowers & Wilkins PX

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Good Stuff

  • Best sound from noise-canceling headphones
  • Plentiful battery life
  • USB-C charging and connection versatility
  • Durable and attractive design
  • Headphones pause automatically when you take them off

Bad Stuff

  • Sound can be a bit too edgy and forward for listening at home
  • More comfortable when worn on the move than sat in front of a desk
  • Automatic pause can be finicky
  • Bluetooth pairing is as nightmarish as most other wireless cans

Buy for $399.99 from Amazon

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