BOWERS & WILKINS PX wireless noise-cancelling headphones
+ Quality construction, haute couture styling that will age well; Bluetooth; up-to-date USB to USB-C charging cable; optional standard 3.5mm cable connectivity; magnetic ear cups for easy replacement; long battery life of 22 hours (wireless) and 33 hours (wired).
– Weighs a fair bit, may be uncomfortable for larger heads; average sound quality with noise-cancelling function, thin and boxy sounding without; balance is amiss and surprisingly not up to par with similar range cans; you could do better given the price point and noise cancellation objectives; no option to run the cans manually without powering up.
Design & features: 8.5/10
“ACOUSTICALLY perfect” was the first thing that caught my eye as my editor handed me the handsome white box emblazoned with the famous Bowers & Wilkins brand top centre. “That’s a big claim,” I uttered as my eye caught his, finger pointed to said advertising. Only one way to find out came our simultaneous chime.
The Bowers & Wilkins PX headphone is the company’s maiden foray into noise-cancelling. As a concept, active noise-cancelling (“ANC”) headphones lessen unwanted ambient sounds using active noise controls by feeding “anti-noise” to neutralise “noise”. When these surrounding sounds are eliminated, any piped in music can then be enjoyed in a near perfect, silent environment. Hey, what’s not to like?
Some complain the by-product of this solution manifests as a “pulling” or “sucking” effect one feels in the ear when ANC is activated. To a large extent, different brands produce this effect in varying degrees. Much like how some people will never wear IEMs because they just don’t like the feel, so it goes with noise-cancellation headphones. Personally, I’ve found ANC cans to be quite rewarding for the most part in that I can tolerate most negative physical effects should that patience be rewarded by equal amounts of listening pleasure. Once good quality music flood my senses, any slight physical discomfort tends to dissipate.
I’ll make a general statement at this juncture: logic would say one of the primary reasons why one would want the ANC function is for use in relatively busy environments which means you’d be using them when you’re out and about. With the PX, though, wearing spectacles whilst having them on proved problematic. More on this in our next section.
This review comes relatively late relative to the PX’s introduction to the world and you’d be able to read up on a plethora of online write-ups which already cover specs, gear and functions. So I’ll skip all that and touch on what my fortnight’s experience are with these cans: you can decide if it helps your decision.
First impressions of the build are that these headphones are clearly premium in terms of materials used and design language. They wouldn’t be out of fashion a decade from now and probably would still feel as sturdy because of the sculpted metal parts used to cocoon any wiring – very clever. I liked the navy blue and gold colour option which is a unique combo in the sea of silver-on-black cans.
The part of the headphone that will most likely fray after some years are usually the faux leather cups and B&W has them magnetically detachable for easy replacement. Again, quite an ingenious design move. The cans come with a premium looking slim black quilted carry pouch which the headphones fold flat in – stylish for walking around with but not like the robust carry cases some other brands include so I wouldn’t recommend chucking them in your check-in luggage without added protection.
Fit wise, I felt they were heavy on the head because of all that metal used which also clamped my noggin a little too much for comfort… literally (and I have a relatively narrow head as it is). If you wear spectacles, there’s even a caveat that it’ll mess with the seal of the ear-cups and thereby affect the sound quality… notwithstanding the fact that if you do try to put on your glasses anyway, it’ll be much too tight a fit.
So here’s where I go back to my general statement on the high probability you’d be using such headphones when you’re on the move: if you can’t have your glasses on whilst using the PX, then you won’t be able to use them when walking or just working on your laptop in a café. As such, portability is limited. Some reviews and user feedback also mention both the tightness of wear and less than satisfactory initial sound but say both get better with time. To be fair, I have not had enough wear time nor burn-in to comment if this is true.
Pairing the PX to my Samsung Note 8 needed a few tries with a restart of the phone thrown in the mix of actions I had to improvise on. My editor couldn’t succeed with his S7 Edge (actually, S6 Edge+… and I tried a few times across two sessions without success. – Editor). Connections on Apple products proved a smoother affair and once established, links were quite reliable and consistent. Nifty functions include the “wear sensor” which pauses the music when you take the headphones off. Music comes right back on when you wear the PX again. My experience was quite exact in terms of sensitivity but some reviewers have found it glitchy at times. On the wired side, you get a standard 3.5mm jack-to-jack as well as a charging cable that’s USB to USB-C (a welcome up-to-date move to ditch the micro USB port still seen in most makes).
What seemed an unnecessary complication was the need to install the B&W app for the more nuanced control of the noise-cancellation functions. When you do install the app, you get to toggle between having the ANC on or off – B&W calls this the “Environment Filter” (EF). But wait… you’ll have to turn both your location and Bluetooth on to enable the headphone’s use of the function. That can be a pain if you just want to get straight into your music without having to mess around with your phone settings. When switched on, there are three options for ANC – “Office”, “City” or “Flight” which are essentially the low, medium and high noise-cancelling settings respectively.
The app seems to almost advocate not turning the EF on where possible as it says “PX will not actively reduce noise when the EF is off, providing the purest delivery of audio. Leave this off when in low- or no-noise environments for the best sound”. I thought either way it was a Catch 22. On one hand, engaging the EF tends to colour the sound (which sonically is better than having it switched off) but having the ANC turned off results in a very unbalanced audio experience with hardly any bottom and a thin treble. More on this next.
Okay, I’m just gonna say this upfront – I don’’t get it.
A quick online search for the PX will yield plenty of reviews showering accolades and I’m acutely aware that what my ears are hearing buck this trend. From my test run, results greatly vary with the EF turned on and without. It’s almost as though you’re listening to two different headphones. Unfortunately both scenarios don’t get you leaping with excitement. For pure sonics, many cheaper cans without the ANC would outperform the PX.
Without the ANC turned on, the bass is largely missing and muddled, trebles and mids are forward but overall sound is rather “boxy” sounding: thin, lacking depth and fullness, generally smallish sounding. Playing Mr Big’s Promise Her The Moon, lower registers sound muddy as though someone’s placed the bassist and drummer much further than the usual distance from rest of the band; electric guitars are nicely to the forefront as with Eric Martin’s vocals.
So turning on the EF was a no-brainer on the PX. Bass immediately kicked in with the deep notes making their presence felt. Spatially things opened up to a wider soundstage. Friends by Led Zeppelin with its fairly straightforward instrumentation had better separation of the guitars, violins, vocals, bongo and preamble. Presentation was detailed and even. Between Flight and City modes, there wasn’t a discernible difference in sound.
I found the overall listening experience better with the ANC on but still rather average for headphones at this price point. The mids were standout but that was relative to the PX’s presentation and not because they were exceptional. Overall balance needed improvement as something felt amiss and the soundstage, although more open, was still too narrow for my liking. If you’re wondering which side of the fence the PX leans toward, it’ll be a forward “on-stage-with-the-band” as opposed to the “third-row-from-the-stage” experience.
I know the PX are closed cans, but a comparison to the first iteration of the Beats Studio which I had lying around, seemed to have the latter feeling wider and more airy. Things got better with Led Zep’s Whole Lotta Love as the PX showed off its dynamics and timing capabilities. Saving grace yes, but the overall traits of the sound are still amiss. My acid test for noise cancelling cans are always which pair you’d grab when rushing out the door to the train station and these babies would not be my go-to pair given other choices on the rack.
THE LAST WORD
“Acoustically perfect”? Not quite yet in my books I’m afraid. Given B&W’s audiophile pedigree, I feel the PX is a bit of a missed opportunity for what is a ready market for fans of the brand and those looking for a solid pair of noise-cancelling headphones for travel to invest in. The concept of noise-cancellation certainly isn’t new and there are standards aplenty in the real world to benchmark against.
On a price-performance ratio, there are other noteworthy options from AKG, Sony, Bose and Beats that do a better job on either noise-cancelling and/or audio performance, both qualities which the PX unfortunately still needs improving on to truly stand out from the pack.
Hardware: Samsung Note 8, Windows Surface Pro 4, iPad Air and mini, Chord Mojo / Music sources: Spotify, YouTube, wav files
– by JOHAN KHOO
I have been fascinated by noise cancellation for a long time, so it’s no surprise that I have experimented with quite a few different noise cancelling headphones – both in ear and over ear (I don’t like on-ear cans as much). Counting only the over ears, I have been an owner of Bose QC 15, QC25 and QC 35, Sony MDR 1000X and now the B&W PX.
With the Bose, there was always the feeling that the sound fidelity aspects were never the priority, and they were rather a tool – and very effective ones they were indeed. In fact perhaps a bit too good – as the noise cancellation gave you a bit of the “my brains have been sucked out of my ears” feeling. But to give credit where it is due, the sound quality has improved a lot since the QC15 and my wife currently enjoys the QC35s. The first pair which I thought worthy of being considered somewhat hi-fi were the Sony MDR 1000X, which were comfy, had great noise cancelling and sounded very good indeed. My only slight bug bear was a loose bass response and iffy touch controls.
When the B&W PX was announced, I was already predisposed to them as an owner of B&W P7s, I was keen to see if the easy to listen to house sound would be on offer with all our expected wireless and noise cancelling mod cons.
At first, the PX seemed not to fulfil this promise – sounding a bit relentless and harsh, but after a few solid days of running in, the house B&W sound came to the fore, with greater subtlety of touch, the bass becoming less obvious and more fluid. The mids also opened up considerably, affording much more insight into denser mixes.
As an experiment, I also ran them in wired mode from a Chord Mojo, and further gains of clarity were to be had – audible even through the over sampling ADC-DSP-DAC chain built into the PXs. Which indicated that as a transducer, it had a lot of potential. AptX HD over Bluetooth mode from an AK KANN also worked well, giving a touch more refinement over my usual AAC over Bluetooth connection to my iPhone. The USB DAC mode is also useful – you can plug in the PX into a USB port using the supplied USB to USB-C cable and it shows up as a 24/48 capable DAC – good for desktop Tidal streaming with a PC.
One piece of advice from the manual is correct though – switching off noise cancellation when surroundings are quiet affords much more clarity and transparency. Make no mistake that although this is the most “hi-fi” of noise cancellation headsets I have owned, they still come a distant second to dedicated wired headphones such as my Oppo PM-2s, Grado GH-1 and Focal Elex.
As such I can recommend the PXs, though I must give the Sonys and Bose the edge on comfort and with one caveat – more so than with speakers, I find that preferences for headphones is highly subjective and as the Americans will say: Your Mileage May Vary. Do audition a well run-in pair before deciding on any purchase.