The Bowers & Wilkins PX5 review in a sentence: the PX5 have emerged from the shadow of their bigger sibling and now make a great deal more sense. Isn’t it remarkable what a significant price cut can do?
When they first launched, the Bowers & Wilkins PX5 headphones seemed like a rather expensive answer to a question not too many people were asking. But now they’re available for around £200, their ‘premium headphones on a smaller scale’ shtick makes a lot more sense.
Bowers & Wilkins PX5: Price and battery life
Bowers & Wilkins PX5 are on sale now, at a new and much more attractive price of £199. They’re currently $299 in the United States and AU$440 in Australia, but we confidently anticipate those prices coming down in short order too.
Battery life is one of the most important aspects of wireless headphones’ specification, and it’s a measure of just how competitive this market is that 25 hours (which is how long the PX5 will last for from a single charge) looks pretty ordinary. Having said that, it should really be enough to see you through even the longest of long-haul flights - and a 15-minute blast via the USB-C input on the right earcup is enough for another five hours of playback.
Bowers & Wilkins PX5: Build quality and design
There’s something slightly awkward about the PX5. By the standards of wireless active noise-cancelling headphones they’re an unusual size - the earcups aren’t big enough to encircle the wearer’s ears, so they’re not, strictly speaking, ‘over-ear’ headphones. But the earcups are quite a bit larger than most ‘on-ear’ designs. Perhaps Bowers & Wilkins has invented a whole new category of headphones with the PX5. Atop-ear? Against-ear?
No matter the descriptor, though, there’s no debating the PX5 where the quality of design or construction is concerned. They’re built from a tactile combination of materials: firstly some hard-wearing fabric (on the outside of the headband and the second tier of the earcups) in either ‘space grey’ (which is how Bowers & Wilkins describes ‘grey’) or deep blue. Then pleather-covered memory foam on the inside of the headband and the earcups, for comfort and impressive rejection of body heat. The outer caps of the earcups are in a fairly shiny grey with some prominent ‘Bowers & Wilkins’ branding on them, and join the headband via woven carbon-fibre composite arms. This judicious use of materials has resulted in an overall weight of just 241g, though the comfort that light weight promises is compromised a little by the rather zealous way the PX5 clamp themselves to the wearer’s ears. Those customers blessed with a wider-than-average head might find the PX5 a little too snug in situ.
As far as build quality goes, though, the PX5 require no caveats. They’re sturdily constructed despite their winningly low weight, and feel more than ready to stand up to all kinds of commuter carelessness. There’s enough articulation in the earcups for the PX5 to fold flat, and from there they slip easily into their soft carry-case.
Unlike virtually every worthwhile rival, the PX5 don’t feature touch-controls or voice-assistant compatibility. There’s a clean and stable control app, it’s true, but the ‘control’ it allows is limited to finessing noise-cancellation and ‘ambient pass-though’ (which is the amount of external noise the PX5 allow in). No, if you want to interact with the PX5 it’s a strictly physical process.
The edge of the right earcup features a three-button sequence handling ‘play/pause’, ‘skip forward/backwards’, ‘volume up/down’ and ‘answer/end/reject call’. There’s also a ‘power on/off/Bluetooth pairing’ slider, a 3.5mm analogue input (should the worst happen in terms of battery life) and a USB-C input (to prevent the worst happening). On the left earcup, by way of contrast, there’s just a single lonely button handling active noise-cancellation (‘off/auto/low/high’). Each earcup also features perforated openings to mics governing call quality and monitoring ambient noise conditions on behalf of the noise-cancellation circuitry.
Wireless connectivity is via Bluetooth ‘aptX Adaptive’, which is unequivocally a good thing. It combines the aptX HD codec’s ability with hi-res digital audio with the aptX Low Latency codec’s ability to keep your audio and video information in sync. If you enjoy mobile gaming, or just bingeing on a box-set while on the move, your audio/video experience should be seamless; if you subscribe to one of the more expensive music streaming services, those full-on hi-res files can be streamed without problems.
No matter what you’re listening to or where you’re getting it from, though, it’s served up by a pair of 35.6mm full-range drivers. They’re designed and tuned by the same team that developed the company’s renowned Diamond 800 Series loudspeakers (which feature prominently at Abbey Road Studios).
Bowers & Wilkins PX5: Sound quality
Given that they feature no EQ adjustment, the PX5 stand or fall on their one, unalterable sound. So it’s just as well they’re an extremely enjoyable listen with an impeccably balanced sonic signature.
Their ability to handle hi-res files from the likes of Amazon, Tidal and Primephonic streaming services means the PX5 have every chance of sounding impressive - but what’s perhaps even more welcome is how non-judgemental these Bowers & Wilkins headphones are. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to a huge hi-res audio file or some absolutely standard stuff from Spotify’s free tier, their attitude is exactly the same. They’re a vibrant, energetic listen, giving every impression of being just as engaged by the music you enjoy as you are yourself.
Perhaps it’s their even-handedness that’s the single most enjoyable thing about the PX5. At the bottom of the frequency range they’re deep and textured, giving weight and momentum to bass sounds - but they don’t wallow and that bass, hefty as it is, never overstays its welcome. At the opposite end of the frequency range, treble sounds are bright and crisp, but never get splashy or hard - even if you’re listening to iffy recordings from an equally iffy source, nothing about the way the PX5 deliver the top end will have you wincing.
In between, the midrange is spacious and well-defined enough to allow a singer the space to do their thing - and there’s sufficient detail retrieved and revealed to pack that voice with nuance and character at the same time. Despite this relative isolation, though, there’s nothing detached or remote about the way the PX5 describe the midrange - in fact, the whole of the frequency range is knitted together with real skill. So there’s a decent sense of unity and interaction to the sound the Bowers & Wilkins make.
There’s enough dynamic headroom here to make the difference between ‘quiet and intimate’ and ‘full-on attack’ perfectly obvious, even if they occur immediately after each other. And even if at considerable volume, the PX5 never get shouty or lose the three-dimensionality of their presentation - they simply get louder.
About the only area of performance that deserves a less than fulsome mention is noise-cancelling. Even when set to ‘high’ the PX5 don’t exactly cocoon you - if a motorbike goes by you’ll know about it. And despite their generous padding, those slightly smaller-than-the-norm earbuds don’t offer the kind of physical isolation a larger ‘over-ear’ design tends to.
Bowers & Wilkins PX5: verdict
Despite everything, the Bowers & Wilkins PX5 are not quite a no-brainer. They’re not going to be comfortable enough for some heads, for starters. They don’t offer the degree of noise-cancelling many alternatives do. The lack of touch-controls, a fully featured control app or any EQ adjustment will turn some people off too.
But if you can live with these caveats, there’s nothing but good news to relate where the build, finish and - most crucially - sound of the PX5 are concerned. And now that they’ve got to just over the £200 mark, they make even more sense than before.