It’s ludicrous but true: How headphones look can be nearly as important as how they sound. Luckily for anybody who slides a pair of Bowers & Wilkins P7s over their ears, these high-end headphones do double duty. They will bamboozle your ears as well as your eyes.
With a stylish design and sturdy construction of gleaming metal and luxurious sheepskin leather, these aren’t a pair of big, cartoon-like plastic puffballs for your head. The P7s whisper quiet refinement rather than screaming “look at me.” If Beats Electronics’ brightly colored models are like those candy-colored iMac G3s from the ’90s, the P7s are like this year’s stunning iMac with Retina 5K display.
But really, looks are only skin deep. When it comes to music at its most intimate — when the sounds are piped straight from the source and directly penetrate your ear canals — it’s the quality of the audio that matters most.
The P7s deliver superior sound, with clear highs, tight bass and plenty of separation to ensure you’ll get that tingly sensation that comes from pristine audio reproduction.
While sitting on a runway, I listened to Steely Dan’s creamy ’70s hit “Black Cow” and noticed instrumental parts I’d never heard before. At first I thought it might be the Manhattan I downed at the airport lounge, but no — listening to it later, I got the same tickle down the back of my neck that comes from truly immersive listening.
It’s the kind of treat for your ears that can suck you into a recording, exposing the nuances of an intricate guitar part or the breathy realism of a well-sung lyric.
I can listen to music like that for hours, and the P7s make that a welcome possibility. Lightweight and appropriately padded, they are wear-all-day comfortable. The only drawback from a wearability perspective is that these are not wireless headphones: You’ll be leashed to your sound source. That’s not a huge deal, although a Bluetooth connection can be totally liberating.
Those cords — the P7s come with two, one of which boasts a microphone/volume switch that works with iDevices — are thick and grippy with a muscular feel, although an angled end would be appreciated (especially when you’re sitting on an aisle seat).
The first time I tried the Bowers & Wilkins headphones was on an airplane, using a splitter so my wife and I could listen to the same video. At first I thought I had to hold the button on the cord to get any sound. Luckily, I brought the instruction card. After a few minutes of squinting at the tiny directives, I figured out that the splitter meant I had to use the other cord. Then, even with the Ikea-style instructions, I had a hell of a time figuring out how to get the earpad off to swap out the cords. Once I did it was easy as pie and I felt like a moron, but until then — maddening. I guess we can chalk that one up to user error.
The P7s retail for $399, which is pretty pricey considering these fancy cans lack Bluetooth. They also don’t boast noise-cancellation technology, which you may or may not care about, depending on how distracting you find background noise. To be fair, these ear-cradling headphones cut out a fair amount of exterior sound and I found them to be more than adequate at 30,000 feet with the roar of the jets just outside my window.
The P7s fold down into a fairly small semicircle, and come with a half-moon-shaped, padded leatherette bag that doesn’t really seal — a magnet holds it shut, but there’s no zipper or anything like that. The bag offers no easy storage solution for whichever cord you’re not using at the time, but that’s not really a big deal unless you’re traveling and using multiple devices.
All these little quibbles would seem to indicate the P7s were designed for lounging in the living room or sitting at the desk. And while they would be perfect for listening to some Count Basie in your dimly lit den while enjoying an expensive cigar and a snifter of scotch, it would be a shame if you never wore them out in public for the plebes to see.
You can blame Apple at least partially for this era’s emphasis on style over sonic substance when it comes to headphones. Ever since those iPod commercials showing silhouettes of people with little white music machines piping music directly into their ears, our culture has been nearly as obsessed with how your ear gear looks as how it sounds.
In the grand scheme of things, sound quality and comfort trump fashion, despite the efforts of headphone makers, from Beats to BaubleBar, to put fashion at the forefront.
Still, it’s strangely satisfying to be seen wearing something as subtly refined as the Bowers & Wilkins P7s while sipping a cocktail in the airport lounge. Your fellow travelers will assume you’ll be flying first-class — and your ears will be, even if your ass is planted in coach.