I’m personally still very happy with my ultra-pocketable iPhone SE so I have no plans to buy the iPhone 7, but with Apple touting a brave new wireless future, I thought the launch would make an opportune moment to decide whether or not it was time for me to make the switch from a wired world.
Those who know me are often surprised to find that I wasn’t one of the first to switch to wireless headphones. I have a well-known aversion to wires, even going so far as commissioning a bespoke desk to hide them away out of sight. But while I’ve tried a few wireless headphones over the years, I’ve always come back to my wired Bowers & Wilkins P5 …
The reason? I absolutely love music, and have close to zero tolerance to anything which reduces the quality. I don’t mean that I’m an audiophile: I’ve always said that I have mid-range ears, and am grateful for that fact. I’m happy with high-bitrate mp3 and hifi kit that is relatively pricey but not eye-wateringly so.
But early Bluetooth headphones were just terrible, subject to interference and randomly-dropped audio. I tried a bunch of those first-generation ones and found listening to them almost physically painful.
Things have improved a lot over the years, of course, but I did still find myself returning to my trusty wired headphones each time.
I wasn’t tempted by Apple’s shiny new AirPods. All the reviews say that the audio quality is on a par with EarPods, and while I’d have saved a lot of money over the years if my ears were that cheap, they’re not. I also have a strong preference for on-ear rather than in-ear. As for Beats, let’s just say my ears are not compatible with their sound and leave it at that …
No, the obvious thing to do if I was going to have a proper go at a switch to wireless was to swap my B&W P5 wired headphones for … B&W P5 Wireless headphones. These are virtually identical to the Series 2 wired model, just without the wire. (Actually, that’s not quite true: B&W does include a wire in the box to provide the option of wired listening.)
I love my wired P5s for four reasons. First, B&W’s fantastic audio quality. Second, they have exactly the right degree of sound isolation. I love noise-cancelling headphones on planes, where the combined engine and wind noise is an annoying endless drone, but in other situations I prefer to retain some situational awareness. The P5s let in just enough ambient sound to hear what’s going on without spoiling my enjoyment of the music. Third, those beautifully soft leather earcups make them comfy even when worn for hours at a time. Finally, they fold flat for easy stowing in a bag when you’re done listening, as well as for greater comfort when leaving them slung around your neck.
I was expecting great things because B&W doesn’t go in for compromises, and because Jeremy gave them a glowing review last year – and I wasn’t disappointed. My first impression at home was that the sound was indistinguishable from the wired version.
The real test, though, was how they were going to fare out-and-about, with my iPhone tucked away in my pocket and surrounded by all the random wireless signals you find in a big city.
The controls – previously visible in a slim tube on the wire – had been relocated to the right earcup. Despite no longer being able to see them, my fingers found them easily enough. Similarly, moving the microphone for phone calls from below my chin to the side of my head seemed to have remarkably little impact on the sound quality.
The first time I experienced a random cutout, however, I was almost ready to end the experiment there and then. Did I mention my close-to-zero tolerance for random cutouts?
But that was on day two, and was long enough for one of the benefits of wirelessness to make itself felt. When I stopped listening, and slung the wired headphones around my neck, I’d always be conscious of the risk of the now lower-dangling wire snagging on something as I walked. I’d generally unplug it from the phone and sling the wire around my neck to keep it safe. With the wireless headphones, I no longer needed to do that.
Similarly, when packing the wired headphones away into their carrying pouch to put them into a bag, I’d be somewhat careful with the wire so that it didn’t get stressed. Again, the wireless ones just slipped right into the pouch.
I’d also been somewhat concerned about battery-life. I wasn’t overly keen on having yet another device to charge. In theory, the P5s allow you to carry the wire in a bag so you can plug them in if needed, but in practice doing so is non-trivial. You have to pull off one of the magnetic cups and thread the cable through a route designed to ensure it isn’t stressed. The design is great for wired headphones, where you’ll only swap the cable if you manage to break one, but it’s not convenient for switching between wired and wireless use.
But the P5 Wireless has a 17-hour battery-life. That’s enough to see them through the longest of days. Yes, charging them did strike me as a pain initially, but like any other gadget, I quickly got used to it.
One week in, I’d experienced exactly two audio dropouts, each for a second or so. I still found it mildly annoying, but I had to admit that, by that stage, the idea of going back to a wire also seemed mildly annoying. Could I trade off one annoyance against the other? I decided I could. I have been assimilated into Apple’s wireless world – just not with Apple kit.
I will, though, repeat one point I made a week ago. Apple is a company largely built on a music heritage, and is touting wireless headphones as the way to listen to it. It seems crazy to me to be limiting the W1 chip to Apple and Beats products, effectively asking people to choose between painless pairing and decent audio quality. C’mon, Apple, license that W1 chip to other headphone manufacturers …
Bowers & Wilkins P5 Wireless are available from the company’s Amazon store for $299.98, a $100 saving off list price. The company also offers recertified models (similar to Apple’s refurbished, with full warranty) for $239.99. You can also check out recommendations made by my colleagues.