We could see this when Apple launched its Airpods Max just before Christmas with a price tag that was on the north side of the politically correct limit for wireless headphones, not to mention when B&O presented its flagship H95 which was about double what good wireless premium over-ear headphones usually cost. Many audio enthusiasts stuck their morning coffee across, although they have often paid the price for wired HighEnd headphones many times more than this.
And here's a fun phenomenon going on. The stronger a de facto price limit on a product category is manifested via repetition from many products, the more violently it is eased on the eyebrows when someone bursts this limit. And that's exactly what B&W has done with their new PI7. They have an obviously higher in price than most TWS models on the market, although there are some very few exceptions. And then the main purpose of this review is exposed: Have Bowers & Wilkins gone a little banana with the calculator, or have they achieved something you do not get if you spend a thousand bucks or two less when you buy completely wireless earplugs. Or, are all the cases mentioned examples of the wireless bluetooth products also leaving the mainstream terrain, and taking over the domain of the audiophile enthusiasts?
A little B&W history
Before we immerse ourselves completely in the B&W PI7, we`d like to have a look at where they come from. When Sound United acquired Bowers & Wilkins last year, it was 54 years since John Bowers started the English company on the south coast, which has been at the forefront of speaker production in everything from budget models to voluminous HighEnd constrictions. And just over ten years ago, B&W entered the arena with their first P5 headphones, an iPod-adapted model.
In 2013, B&W launched the P7 model, and around the same time as when Apple announced that they would cut out analog 3.5mm outputs from their iPhone models, the P7 came in a Wireless version. Four years ago, B&W introduced its first wireless Bluetooth model in the PX series, and has eventually been replaced by two new models.
2019 seems to be the year when Bowers & Wilkins took seriously the fact that wireless sound is an important part of the future, and focused on a major breakthrough in the wireless sector. In addition to the fresh investment in B&W's all-new Formation series that featured HighEnd wireless multi-room audio components that could scare the guts out of any of their competitors, they launched both the two new cordless headphones PX5 and PX7. But also the wireless In-ear models PI3 and PI4, which are of the concept with a hoop behind the neck.
PI5 and PI7
This spring, B&W launched their two very first completely wireless In-ear models, which is undeniably the segment that has gained a dominance alongside wireless over-ear models. The smallest model PI5 is in a price segment where it competes with a number of other top models, while the top model PI7 has a price tag which means that it should preferably assert itself above all these competitors. Then, of course, the interesting topic in this test will be whether PI7 meets the expectations.
Design and finish
The design of the earplugs themselves is quite characterful. It is dominated by the protruding part which is a short cylinder in what is close to assuming is aluminum, and with the touch-based trackpad on top. Inside this cylinder there is an extension formed by a fairly distinctive shelf, which also serves as a kind of wing when you screw the earplugs in place. A rather functionalist design then, and this shelf is the element that most clearly distinguishes the PI7 in terms of design from what for me is the closest competitor and the basis for comparison outside B&W's ranks - Sennheiser Momentum TW 2.
The case, on the other hand, does not have much in common with TW 2, but has clear common features with the case of another of the sharpest competitors. For the case of Sony's brand new WH-1000XM4 has some obvioous similarities with the design of the PI7-case, so one might be tempted to think that they are a bit inspired by the PI7 case, if it wouldn`t be for the fact that its predecessor WH-1000XM3 had a case with an even greater resemblance to the PI7's case.
The use of materials in the case is unmistakably plastic, and although the design is good, you do not get an extravagant exclusive feeling triggered by close contact with the case. But the color choice on the review sample, which is Charcoal, outweighs the lack of exclusivity in material use. At this point, the case of Sennheiser's top models stands out with the victory, with a very exclusive case. Both of these models have for some the objection that the case towers more in the pocket than many of the competitors' cases.
But when it comes to the functionality of the case, Bowers & Wilkins outclass both Sennheiser and most other competitors. And then it is not primarily the compatibility with QI charger I hint to, although this is also a victory in favor of PI7 over TW 2. Wireless QI charger definitely belongs in this class, and makes charging unabashedly easy.
Case as Bluetooth transmitter - Audio Retransmission
No, what really sets the case of the PI7 apart from about all other TWS models is that it has a Bluetooth transmitter on board. B&W calls this Audio Retransmission. If you connect the case to almost any other audio component, you may pass the signal on to both the PI7 and to over-head models in B&W's PX series. And it may even send the Bluetooth signal to two devices simultaneously. It comes with both a USB-C to USB-C cable, and a 3.5mm to USB-C cable. And everything that is sent out the cable to the charging case is also retransmitted via Bluetooth. I have not been able to find out if there is a miniature ADC in 3.5 for the USB cable, but there are hardly any other options, since I do not expect a USB-C terminal being able to handle an analog signal.
Audio Retransmission is a feature that may be a complete game changer for many, while others will place less emphasis on this feature. And you have to buy the flagship model PI7 to get Audio Retransmission - PI5 does not support this. A current application may be to plug the 3.5mm cable to the headphone output on the PC or AV receiver. Although many AV receivers have a Bluetooth receiver, it is more exceptional that they have a transmitter. It started to appear a year or two ago. My AV receiver has a bluetooth sender, but it's pretty cumbersome to use on that model.
All wireless communication takes place via Bluetooth 5.0.
In addition to the codecs SBC and AAC, we find four variants of AptX. aptX Adaptive, AptX HD, aptX Low Latency and aptX Classic. If you have an iPhone, then AAC is what you need, Apple have never supported aptX. But with a fairly new Android mobile, you also have access to aptX. And with aptX HD, you can also get a kind of HighRes, if you stream from a streaming service that supports HighRes. That is, the resolution is limited to 24 bit and 48kHz. And don't be fooled - this is not Lossless HighRes, but still better than more low-resolution bluetooth. Bluetooth is never Lossless, at least not yet.
Bluetooth 5.0 should normally ensure good range and high stability. I still found that the transmission range was not very impressive. This applies both with normal use, and especially via Audio Retransmission from the case. If I went to the opposite end of the summerhouse I could experience instability, and sometimes even drop-outs. Now a range of just under 15 meters as long as we have a fairly clear view is not particularly weak for Bluetooth, but with Bluetooth 5 I have experienced it somewhat better.
Battery and charging
The battery life is stated at 4 hours, which is half an hour less than what little brother PI5 delivers. It is also just below the average for TWS, but is somewhat offset by the fact that you get a total of 20 hours by means of re-charging in the case. 15 minutes fast charging gives two hours of playing time. And if you are to fully charge from a flat battery in both earplugs and a case, it takes three hours.
The extremely moderate service life of the battery is somewhat offset by the fact that PI7 supports QI charger.
One of the elements that distinguishes PI7 from then or most other completely wireless earplugs including PI5 is that they are a two-way construction. In addition to a 9.2mm dynamic drivers, they have Balanced Armature Drivers that take care of the treble. And this is actually an active two-way construction, where each driver has its own amplifier - that is, two amplifiers in each earplug. And there are DSPs that take care of crossover, although no very detailed information on this topic has been provided by B&W.
It is an extremely interesting element that B&W here has gone for an active two-way construction. It is possible that someone else has gone under my radar, but I have only observed that Samsung has introduced two-way constructions on their latest models with completely wireless earplugs next to B&W. And what significance this has for sound, it is really difficult to know for sure, although it may be very tempting to guess that this issue is an important mainstay for the observations I will present later….
PI7 has an IP54 certification. This means that it is protected against dust, and that it is also splash-proof. In other words, it is a good idea to take them off before you take a dive, but on the other hand, it should be well suited to use them as training partners, also since they sit fairly tight during use.
Comfort is a fairly individual exercise, and includes how well they fit your ears. For me, comfort was a bit of a medium experience. It was above average before I replaced the included ear adapters from Medium to Large, but at the same time it provided an optimal seal. And then ultimate comfort must give way - sound first!
The previously mentioned sort-of fins help to keep the plugs very stable in my ears, but at the same time help to moderate the comfort. But like I said, this is individual. My personal preferences regarding comfort go in the direction of open constructions similar to Airpods and Huawei FreeBuds 3 and 4, but it will be a very different concept.
Bowers & Wilkins has created a separate menu for their Bluetooth units. It has some clear limitations, but also some clear advantages. Let`s start with the limitations.
There is no EQ in the B&W menu. This may in many cases be critical, as in the example Senneheiser Momentum TW 2 which in my ears literally depends on a little marked EQ tweaking to perform optimally. But for me, B&W PI7 has no challenges in the sound balance, so the omission is of more academic interest. Of course, it could be nice to experiment a bit with giving the midrange a little push, just to hear what happens if you even out the careful v-characteristic, and then maybe reset it all.
Then there is a slightly greater need that you can not adapt the operation on the touch surfaces. And here are two features I miss. Firstly, there is no volume control, so here it is an advantage to have a good apple watch or similar android-based smartwatch that can give you a simple volume control without having to find your phone.
The other shortcoming is that you have to enter the menu to switch Ambient Pass-through on and off. Here you will find both an on / off button and a wireless level adjustment. But no remote control of this on the touch surfaces unlike the ANC which you can turn on and off by holding the left plug. And then it's a bit confusing that both ANC and Ambient Pass-through can be switched on at the same time. An option to configure the touch controls had solved all this. Maybe in the next software update?
I also experienced that the menu was not always eager to get in touch with me. Nothing personal, I hope...
But there are also a few positive surprises in the menu. One of them is that you will find a Connection Center, where you can choose which of the mobile devices or other Bluetooth sources you want to be connected to. This is a news that I have also experienced on FreeBuds 4, which is a little behind in the test track and will be published in August.
And then we have another fun thing - you have access to 6 different Sundscapes. These are nature sounds that go in a loop, and can actually be useful as a sleeping thing. I usually use to fall asleep to music, but tried to put on some brook noise one night and fell asleep fine to that. Not for everyone, but an interesting offer. These nature sounds are played in a kind of loop with an envelope.
With this move, PI7 takes up the competition with Bose and Amazfit, with their models Sleepbuds 2 and Zenbuds. These are specially developed sleep earplugs, which do not play music, only sounds that are downloaded to the earplugs, and which are intended to mask ambient noise, and to have a calming effect. Neither Bose Sleepbuds 2 nor Amazfit Zenbuds have ANC. But in return, they have a battery life that lasts all night, and a geometry that is created to work even if you lie on your side. These models from Amazfit and Bose cost 150-250 USD, on the PI7 you get this feature with the purchase.
ANC in PI7 works well, although it is not quite in the top tier. It is an advanced adaptive ANC, in contrast to a slightly simpler ANC that sits in PI5. An Auto mode can be activated in the menu, and it will adapt the noise cancellation to the noise picture around you.
Like some other models, the ANC in PI7 affects the frequency response. With the ANC switched on, the bass and lower midrange are a little markedly emphasized, and since I prefer a slightly dark tone in earplugs, it suits me well. This means that you can use the ANC as a kind of EQ setting if it otherwise suits.
Also in the phone sector, PI7 is more advanced than little brother PI5. It has 3 microphones per pod - 6 in total. And four of these are for receiving voices, while the last two are for noise cancellation.
To judge the quality of the telephone voice, I was just as happy to call my writer colleague Stig Arne - few persons in Voss are probably more qualified to judge telephone sound than he, the most audiophile Vossing I know. And the speech quality from my iPhone 11 got the characteristics highly approved, almost as good as from the phone's microphone directly. Background noise from TV was slightly weakened with the ANC, but not by far.
B&W has such an extraordinary performance that these earplugs deserve to have the entire mandatory test track reproduced, which for the occasion has been expanded with some new tracks.
Played with AAC on iPhone 11:
The first 21 tracks were played with the AAC codec on the iPhone 11
- Kari Bremnes. Syk Pike - Detachment
There will be a lot of talk about bass in this report, but even though Syk Pike is primarily about everything other than bass, it is inevitable to be set out by the authoritarian rendition of Bjørn Kjellemyr's bass already in the intro. Otherwise nice and well-balanced reproduction of this track.
- Keith Jarret. For Miles - Bye Bye The Blackbird
Track opens with a more airy and more detailed rendition of Jack DeJohnette's fables than I've experienced for a while. Gary Peacock's double bass stays in the background while Jarrett's piano has a nice balance in the sound.
- Kolbjørn Falkeid. Alt - Solskinnsdypet
On this gem of a release by Kolbjørn Falkeid which unfortunately passed away earlier this summer, I think Arve Henriksen's fabulous trumpet in the background comes out extra clearly. It illustrates PI7's ability to distinguish events from each other.
- Leonard Cohen. Happens To The Heart - Thanks For The Dance
I almost gasp when Leonard Cohen suddenly enters the soundscape of this release produced after his death. Authoritarian and skinless.
- Øyvind Kristiansen, Jonas Kilmork Vemøy. Forsaken - Hymns of Compassion
Great soundscape. No annoying sibilants from Bete S. Lech's vocals, which I have experienced with other setups. Also very good bass reproduction
- Siri Svale Band. Don`t Explain - Blackbird The
double bass of Bjørn Alterhaug stands out very distinctly, and with a sound balance. The same applies to Carl Haakon Waadeland
- Frank Zappa. Rubber Shirt - Sheik Yerbouti
Still impressive bass, and fantastic microdynamics.
- Greatful Dead. Death Don`t Have No Mercy - Live / Dead
This track literally has a slightly variable track record when it comes to sound quality. PI7 manages to reproduce this slightly demanding track excellently, and the distortion on PigPen's organ appears as a natural ingredient. The same is true from time to time on Jerry Garcia's distinctive guitar.
- Odin Staveland. Parade - Sillajass
Nice sound balance on a track that is often otherwise characterized by a slightly pointed sound. This without compromising openness and perspective.
- Erik Friedlander. Bohemia After Dark - Oscalypso
A rendering full of detail and perspective.
- Nigel Kennedy. Vivaldi: The New Four Seasons: Summer: 8 Fear - Vivldi: The New Four Seasons
The essence of PI7 is that they manage to keep track of events in Kennedy's crescendos as well. And at the same time a nice and almost romantic sound is reproduced in the more authentic passages in this baroque piece by the master from Venice
- Louis Armstrong. St. James Infirmary - Satchmo Plays King Oliver
Incredibly good perspective, which few other earplugs are near.
- Arild Andersen. Patch of Light - Hyperborean
Fine and balanced warmth in the string passage, while the instruments are well separated.
- Arild Andersen. Hyperborean - Hyperborean
Very good reproduction of both Arild Andersen's bass, and of the late Paola Vinaccia's drums
- Frank Zappa. Debra Kadabra - Bongo Fury
This is a bit like Death Have No Mercy - a track that does not sound very good on all setups. PI7 excels here, and it must be assumed that it is the great resolution that has the credit for it
- Frank Zappa. The Purple Lagoon - Zappa In New York
From the very first note, the great clarity and ability to distinguish the instruments from each other is demonstrated, along with a distinct microdynamics.
- David and Susanna Wallumrød. Chelsea Hotel - Chelsea Hotel (Live)
No problems with Susanna's vocals, as some other setups have.
- Gyda Valtysdottir. Unfold - Epicycle II
Here it is important that the strings are separated so that these musical walks will appear as more than a slightly gray mass. PI7 masters this very well.
- Helene Grimaud. Silvestrov: Bagatelles I - XIII: Bagatelle I - Memory
Nice space presentation of this great recording with Helene Grimaud.
- Kleive, Reiersrud, Dissing. Chimes In Watches - The Signed Day
In addition to all the other qualities, there is a great three-dimensional rendering. The bass tones of Iver Kleive's organ playing are impressive.
- Reiersrud, Kleive. Track 12 - Skyship
Very airy and well-balanced reproduction, where the details come out well.
aptX on Samsung Galaxy S10:
The remaining tracks were played with aptX on the Samsung Galaxy S10
- Jan Garbarek. Mission: To Be Where I Am - It`s OK To Listen To The Gray Voice
The bass of Eberhard Weber dominates in a well-resolved sound image
- Jethro Tull. My God (Live) - Nothing Is Easy
Here Ian Anderson's acoustic guitar in the intro gets more body than usual. But a little surprisingly, the same Anderson's vocals are not always quite up to the mark. And the bass can almost appear a little too much in the full blast occurs at exactly 2:00. It is also further illustrated that this track is not an audiophile parade march.
- Jimi Hendrix. Red House - Hendrix In The West
It's a pleasure to listen to Noel Redding's bass with such a rock solid foundation, at the same time as the bass is rendered crystal clear and musical. It also adds an extra dimension to Jimi Hendrix's brilliant guitar playing.
- John Abercrombie. Red And Orange - Timeless
Jan Hammer's synth bass comes even more to the fore than it usually does reproduced by PI7.
- John McLaughlin. Every Tear From Every Eye - Electric Guitarist
What stands out about the eminent Alphonso Johnson's bass is not primarily how deep it goes, but how distinct and at the same time melodic it is reproduced. Good air around McLaughlin's electric guitar
- Joni Mitchell. Overture / Cotton Avenue - Don Juan`s Reckless Daughter
It is inevitable that through the intro I look forward to the moment when Jaco's fretless enters the arena at 1:45 in this test track. PI7 has so far excelled extra in bass reproduction. And Jaco does not disappoint, but again it is as much about precision and detail as depth. Joni Mitchell's vocals (and guitar?) Stand out with a pleasant sound balance, and it is more the exception than the rule when this track in the test track is played. But it does not come at the expense of air in the rendering.
- Kari Bremnes. Maybe - What We Have
Great and powerful bass is a bit on the verge of overdose here, but fortunately it is well balanced by an exquisite rendition of Kari's vocals
- Kari Bremnes. Just Before The Day Goes Down - And Then The Rest Of Life Came
A little On the even
- Kari Bremnes. Children Of Blue Jar - Blue Jar
Great rendering, which at the same time is a bit characterized by highlighting the frequency range's extremes at the top and bottom with PI7.
- Kari Bremnes. A Lover In Berlin - Norwegian Moods
This is a joy to listen to, not least with the airy top combined with a vocal with a body and a basement deep bass.
- Kari Bremnes. You've Seen Them - Moonstone
B&W PI7 is excellently able to convey the somewhat uncomfortable atmosphere of this track, but without the discomfort regarding sound quality and sound balance.
- Ketil Bjørnstad. The Mother - Sunrise
Exquisite and detailed. Great depth in the sound, and the reproduction of Kari Bremnes' vocals gives almost direct access to the vocal cords.
- Ketil Bjørnstad. Land - Odyssey
Nice balance in Ketil Bjørnstad's piano in this creative recomposition of Myllargutens Bruremarsj
- Ketil Bjørnstad. Sylvelines Hus - Berget Det Blå
PI7 excels on this track which so often is otherwise dominated by a slightly sharp sound.
- Leonard Cohen. The Story Of Isac - Songs From A Room
This classic track can often seem distant and uninteresting acoustically. Not this time around.
- Lynni Treekrem. Jealous Type - Storm
B&W manages to deliver just as much bass as it takes to give this great and creative interpretation of Lennon's classic the little extra this version needs.
- Lynni Treekrem. Veslemøy - Haugtussa
This track is largely about reproducing the details in Lynni's vocals. And PI7 delivers.
- Mari Boine. Chasing Myself Into Reality - See The Woman
This track may often struggle with not measuring the wall of precision in bass reproduction. Or by giving a small overdose of bass. PI7 masters both.
- Marianne Baudouin Lie. Many Thousands Gone - Atlantis, Utopia And Wolf Dreams
As expected, Marianne's cello has a nice body.
- Mats Eilertsen. Endless - Reveries and Revelations
Wow - say no more…
- Mats Eilertsen. Signal - Reveries and Revelations
A creative music off the beaten track that PI7 serves almost intravenously.
- Norwegian excursion. Another Blues in November - Honor & Dignity
Very good and close rendering of Lars Saabye Christensen's poetry reading over Norsk Utflukt's music
- Ralph Peterson. Raise up off Me! - Raise up of Me
Nice story, without this track being where PI7 excels the most.
- Beyoncè. DONT HURT YOURSELF - LEMONADE
This should sound a bit brutal, in places with a dose of twist in the vocals. And so it does.
- Dupp - Tvuru
Nice contrast between percussive chatter and a bass with authority
- Talk Talk. The Rainbow - Spirit of Eden
PI7 masters the depth of this beautiful late 80's track
- Radka Toneff. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Fairyytailes
Not much "resin" in the rendering of this exquisite track. And the grand piano is reproduced wonderfully.
- Erlend Apnaseth Trio. Vake - Lid
Adventurously exciting and beautifully rendered
- Angermanlandsmorgon - Past Present Future
A lyrical and singing bass has an important role in this track. Beautifully reproduced in good balance with drums and electric guitar
- Maria Joao - Mario laginha. Horn Please - Cor.
It is the airiness and the urban morning mood that fascinates me in this song. Masterfully reproduced by B&W
- Maria Joao. We`ll Be Just Begining - Undercovers.
Basically not a distinctly audiophile track. But I just had to bring it along because of the outstanding lyricst and the images it creates. And PI7 keeps up
- Lill Lindfors. Arrival - Till Hades
A fascinating addition to Ketil Bjørnstad's numerous releases in collaboration with prominent vocalists where music is set to poetry. Nice reproduction of PI7, although it is not among the best.
- Piano - Live in Oslo.
A very nice and airy live recording. Nice sound balance from PI7, and with good ability to separate the instruments.
It is obvious in the report from the test track that Bowers & Wilkins' new top models of wireless earplugs deliver something very special. And we start with the frequency response, which can be characterized as having a gentle v-shape, although the lift in the bass is rather more obvious than the equivalent in the treble. And really, this is quite clearly closer to a typical preferred Harman target curve than it is to a completely flat frequency response.
And at the same time, it is not really the depth in the bass that is the most interesting here, but the high quality in the bassreproduction. Real deep bass is combined with a precise and melodic bass reproduction that is quite unique for true wireless earpods.
Up in the register we are served a great midrange with a lot of body and warmth, and which in theory should be a bit in contradiction to the weak v-shaped frequency response I have just described, but that's how things are. Few other headphones or full layouts serve as good warmth in the voices of Kari Bremnes or Joni Mitchell.
The treble is perhaps the real highlight of Bowers & Wilkins' PI7. It serves extremely airy and at the same time precise and detailed treble reproductions, which stand out strongly from what can otherwise be an inflated treble. Here it is quality, not just quantity.
On top of this, a very good perspective and depth is also served. This is some of the most demanding exercise for both earplugs / IEM and overhead headphones, but PI7 delivers this atypically good.
My three favorites in the exercise sound reproduction among completely wireless earplugs have been the LG Tone Free HBS FN7 , Huawei FreeBuds Pro and Sennheiser Momentum TW 2 , where the latter has been in charge. Now Bowers & Wilkins have taken the lead in this field, and although TW 2 is doing very well with the help of EQ, PI7 outperforms Sennheiser by a very good margin without resorting to EQ. It's tempting to call the PI7 by far the most well-sounding wireless earbuds on the market, but it's going to be a little overly frivolous as long as I have not yet heard the top competitors from Sony, Devialet and Kef. But I would be very surprised if they sound as good or better.
If anyone is going to compete on the sound of the models I have heard, we have to switch to wired models. Sennheiser's IE 300 has both a sound balance that is very reminiscent of PI7, at least when I replaced the included ear adapters with a third-party solution that provided good closure. The bass is also at about the same level, and there is also air and richness of detail in the treble. And IE 300 also delivers atypically good perspective properties in a segment that struggles with In Your Head experiences. But this is a wired In Ear Monitor that benefits from a wired analog connection, and played with quality DAC and headphone amplifier from Topping, more specifically the D50S and A50. The PI7 achieves approximately the same quality of reproduction using Bluetooth AAC and aptX and built-in DACs and amplifiers. That's a bit of a feat!
If you have read the whole test, you have noticed that B&W is not outstanding in all exercises, although they clearly cost more than other wireless earppods I have reviewed. And it is especially in the exercises stable bluetooth coverage and battery life that there is an obvious potential for improvement. But also the menu and management have some clear limitations.
But there are three areas that make PI7 particularly interesting. A charging case that may retransmit incomming analog and digital signals via Bluetooth is quite unique, and is called Audio Retransmission in B&W's book. And also a real two-way construction is also particularly interesting, although the real value of this feature depends on what significance it has for the sound quality.
And that brings us to the third and most important area that makes PI7 particularly interesting, to say the least. They sound unashamedly good, and clearly much better than any other completely wireless earplug I have reviewed. Ultimately, this is a crucial factor for us with audiophile tendencies, and then it becomes almost insignificant that they cost a thousand bucks or so more than Sennheiser TW 2. Bowers & Wilkins is for me a new lonely king on the mound for wireless earplugs.
Recommended price for B&W PI7 is NOK 4.298, -
Bowers & Wilkins are imported to Norway by Hifiklubben
Read more about PI7 at Bowers & Wilkins