The B&W lineup of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers is one of the largest on the market, with a model for just about every possible situation. For home theater use, we like to break built-in speakers into three categories: in-wall, in-ceiling, and purpose-built LCR speakers. If you look at all of the B&W models, just picking ones within ...
BOWERS & WILKINS
PI7 & PI5
Noise-Canceling In-Ear Headphones Review
Company and Product Overview
Bowers & Wilkins, the iconic high-end speaker manufacturer from England, just released two True Wireless in-ear headphone models with Active Noise Canceling technology — B&W PI7 and PI5 True Wireless in-ear headphones — and after an extensive period of research and development, we were one of the first to receive the new models from Bowers & Wilkins to write this review before the official launch.
With True Wireless (TWS) In-Ear Headphones becoming increasingly more popular today, many of these compromise on the sound quality for wireless convenience — so, B&W knew this issue would need to be addressed before they could consider launching a True Wireless in-ear headphone capable of delivering the world-class sound quality and technology the brand is so well-known for.
We will talk about the flagship model, the B&W PI7 with adaptive active noise-canceling throughout this review — but bear in mind — much of the build quality, performance, and tech are similar to the PI5, so if you are considering any of the PI series in-ear headphones by Bowers & Wilkins, the features and specs will differ slightly, but performance is similar.
Packaging, Design and Build Quality
In the box, Bowers & Wilkins includes a smart charging case that stores and recharges the earphones for you while offering some minimal protection. We like how each earphone slides into place inside the case and magnetically locks into their charging ports to make storage and charging simple, quick, and easy.
On the front panel of the smart case, a large LED indicator light will illuminate green, blue, or red to show the status of the battery or Bluetooth pairing mode. When you open the lid on the top panel, there is a small round button that activates Bluetooth pairing mode so you can pair it up with your smartphone. Below the LED indicator light, a large oval-shaped button will connect the earphones to the Bowers & Wilkins Headphones app when pressed.
The smart case has a cool trick hiding up its sleeve. When you want to switch to music playing from a laptop or another audio source, the smart case can function as a wireless retransmission device that will transmit high-resolution audio up to 24-bit/48 kHz to your PI7 in-ear headphones.
There’s a USB Type-C digital audio input on the bottom of the charging case, and this allows you to connect a laptop using the USB-C audio cable that comes included in the box. Making this connection allows you to playback high-resolution audio up to 24-bit/48 kHz. This is a really cool feature that makes this setup ideal for both on-the-go listening but also for your use at your desk — very cool! For laptops or any audio source with a headphone jack, Bowers & Wilkins also included a USB-C to stereo miniplug cable to accomplish the same application.
Both the PI7 and PI5 have similar high-end hard metal enclosures that just look fantastic. For less than $400, the flagship model PI7 is available in a charcoal and silver finish or a gloss white and silver finish. For less than $300, the PI5 comes in an all-black design or in white and silver finishes. Overall, we really like the high-end look of these in-ears. Their classic, understated designs incorporated well with just about any wardrobe we chose, and they come with three pairs of ear tips that helped us tailor the fit just right.
There’s a fit for just about everyone. The PI7 and PI5 metal enclosures are compact enough to fit comfortably in the ear, and come with three soft silicone ear tips for small, medium, and large ear canals. In our testing, the fits were extremely comfortable to wear for all-day use — however, we found the ear tips were more suitable for everyday listening and lighter exercise routines.
Like almost all in-ear headphones, when we increase the intensity of our workout with rapid motions, we noticed the great tight-fitting seal did loosen up just a bit, and we’d occasionally find ourselves touching them to make sure the seal was tight. Having said that, when seated stationary at our desks or going on a walk around town or normal activities, the soft silicone tips did an excellent job reducing ear fatigue and lasted for hours on end without the need for a break to remove the earphones. Once you find the right tips for your ears, these are some of the most comfortable in-ears on the market.
Features and Technology
While the enclosures of both models are compact enough to fit comfortably in the ears, each earphone has a specification that is remarkably close to that of B&W’s advanced conventional loudspeakers.
Premium Sound Quality
Both models feature Bowers & Wilkins 9.2mm bespoke dynamic drivers for the bass and mid-range frequencies in each earphone, so both will produce an impressive frequency response from 10Hz to 20kHz — but it’s the flagship PI7 that has the high-frequency balanced armature tweeters in each earphone, so you hear more dynamic details hiding in the music — and this makes the 20kHz top-extension really come alive.
The PI7 has four drive units in the system (two in each earbud) which are actively driven by their own amplifier compared to only two in the PI5. In the PI7, the dual-driver units in this configuration are powered by dedicated amplifiers per earphone to ensure exceptional control, superlative dynamics, and deep, accurate bass.
Bluetooth with High-Resolution aptX Audio
In terms of Bluetooth, both support Bluetooth 5.0 with Qualcomm’s aptX™ for high-resolution playback with better than CD-quality music from streaming services like Qobuz. Multiple source devices can be wirelessly paired to either model, and this allowed us to reconnect easily and conveniently to each source as needed – such as quickly switching from music on a phone to an online conference call on a laptop.
When you choose the PI7, you will get a higher resolution capability with 24-bit/48 kHz wireless transmission between each earbud compared to 16-bit/48 kHz with the PI5. The PI7 will also support more hi-res aptX codecs compared to the PI5. You still get aptX with the PI5, but the range of aptX compatibility is extended when you step up to the PI7. The PI7 gives you aptX, aptX Adaptive, aptX HD, aptX Low Latency, and aptX Classic.
Smart Case with Wireless Transmission Super Powers
We think the PI7 offers a really unique feature that will make longer journeys easier to cope with. The Smart charging case that comes with the PI7 will also connect to an external audio source – such as an in-flight entertainment system using a 3.5mm or USB cable to wirelessly retransmit audio from that source to the earbuds — all in outstanding quality. This one extra feature is really cool making these the only headphones you need for daily use, flights, and even desktop listening. When we add it all up, we think the technologies in the PI7 make it one of very few True Wireless headphones able to support High-Resolution audio all the way from your music source to your ears.
Adaptive Active Noise Cancellation
The PI5 gives you access to twin built-in microphones for high-quality phone calls, noise-canceling features plus an ambient pass-through mode. The PI7 steps up the noise-canceling tech to Adaptive Noise Canceling technology that will automatically monitor and adapt to your surroundings in real-time so you can block out the external world and focus on the music. The ANC tech is driven by six microphones in the PI7 – three in each earphone – for crystal-clear sound quality with every phone call. Holding the intuitive, one-touch user interface will activate the ANC and this can also be further refined in the app.
Both the PI5 & PI7 can be configured with the Bowers & Wilkins companion Headphone App and both have a simple one-button touch interface – a single touch-capacitive button on each earphone that will perform multiple tasks simply and elegantly – coupled to support with popular voice assistants like Siri or Google Assistant, depending on the connected device.
Charging & Battery-Life
Finally, the smart case that comes with both models will recharge each earbud once the built-in battery life is exhausted. PI5 will operate for four and a half hours before it requires a recharge and four hours for the PI7. The PI7 case will provide 20 hours of battery life while in the case with standby mode and the PI5 will give you 25 hours in the case. Both smart cases will give you 1 hour of charge with just a 15-minute quick charge. Both will then offer up to four full recharges for their respective earbuds – so we think this will be enough to give most users plenty of battery life and playtime to entertain longer road trips.
We tested the PI7 in a variety of scenarios like riding in the car, crossing a busy street, and taking calls at the office. Since audio quality is something that’s typically overlooked in a lot of other wireless earphones, we listened to a lot of different styles of music with the new PI7.
Compared to most earphones on the market, the B&W PI7 presents a much wider soundstage with deep bass across a wide range of frequencies from 10Hz to 20kHz. Like B&W’s PX line of noise-canceling over-ear headphones, B&W utilized the same engineers as the team that was behind their prestigious 800 Series Diamond speakers. These are the same speakers used at Abbey Road Studios, and we think this is what sets both the PI7 and the PI5 apart from other in-ear headphones.
When you step up to the flagship PI7, you get the added bonus of the high-frequency balanced armature tweeters in each earphone, and we liked how this really allowed us to experience more dynamic details popping out in hi-res music files. The 20kHz top-extension you get from both models really came alive with the PI7, especially on music with a lot of natural acoustic instruments such as horns, violins, guitars, and voices. If you want to experience the extra dynamics that almost pop out right in front of you, Liro Rantala’s “Helsinki,” is a really good track to hear this natural presentation of details popping out in the mid to high frequencies, a rhythm, and pacing that got our feet tapping along to the music.
Next, we tested the noise cancellation. In terms of lower frequencies like the low-end “hum” of a car or the sound of a train passing by, the PI7 did not block out noises as well as larger over-ear headphones like the B&W PX7 Noise-Canceling headphones -- but, having said that, the performance was comparable to the best noise-canceling in-ear headphones on the market.
We were impressed by how effective the Active Noise-Canceling tech in the PI7 was at automatically adapting to the ambient noise in our changing environments. It did a great job automatically analyzing and canceling out the higher frequency sounds. When we were out and about in a noisy street with honking cars, sirens, and people talking, the PI7 performed well at reducing all the distractions so we could focus on the music. When we wanted to hear the sounds in our environment, the PI7’s Ambient Pass-Through feature came in handy when it was time to pause the music and have a conversation without taking out the earbuds.
In terms of noise-canceling on phone calls, we tested them in the car, walking across the street while taking business calls, and in the office. In all of these scenarios, people on the other end consistently told us the reduction of background noises was substantially better, especially when we were walking around in a busy downtown environment. People told us our voices sounded clear during the call, and on conference calls, fewer people were asking us to mute if there was wind or other noises in the background.
We think your ears will appreciate the level of comfort you get with these in-ears. Even though we wouldn’t recommend the PI7 or PI5 for overly aggressive workouts where you have rapid head movements, we do think they work extremely well if you enjoy in-ear headphones for long power walks, a light jog, or any activity where you don’t have to move your head around too quickly or too frequently.
If you like using in-ear headphones with noise-canceling to help you stay in the zone, then either the PI7 or PI5 will be a nice improvement for anyone wanting to use them for less extreme fitness activities. As a bonus, the more stable fit from the soft silicone ear tips created a better sealing experience compared to all the plastic options flooding the market. The sound stayed locked in and the ear tips did a great job preventing outside noise from entering the ear canal. Not only did this improve the listening experience, but the tight sealing condition improved the passive noise isolation with both models as well.
Overall, the PI7 and PI5 are for everyday use and not for intense running or biking. We would recommend going with a sweat-resistant option with over-the-ear loops or a neckband design if you are considering an in-ear headphone for highly active workouts where normal in-ears would risk falling out. The PI 3 portable in-ear headphones would be perfect for workouts. Having said that, there is no question the PI7 and PI5 look way more premium than all of the cheaply-made plastic earphones out there from everyone else.
If you want a really comfortable in-ear headphone to use for listening to music all day at work, or on the go, then we think the Bowers and Wilkins PI7 and PI5 will provide a good sealing condition with excellent noise isolation that does a great job blocking out the ambient noises all around you even with the active noise canceling feature disabled. Compared to almost everything else out there, the PI7 and PI5 look and sound fantastic, plus their flawless connection with smartphones and computers makes them ideal for quick and easy everyday use. We also think the ability to play through the case itself is super cutting edge and this is a real differentiator for an in-ear headphone at this price point.
If you're making the investment, and you have an appreciation for beautiful design, and the best sound quality available, you might as well get a great-looking pair with premium, classic and understated aesthetics that will look great with any style or wardrobe. We also think that if you are going to invest in a premium pair of in-ears with the great look and sound of Bowers and Wilkins, if you can afford the extra dollars to get the PI7s, you should. Even though they are more expensive we think they are the better value and certainly will bring a unique and high-end look compared to every teenager wearing Apple Airpods.
Either way, you’ll be really happy you made the choice with an in-ear headphone from Bowers & Wilkins. We hope you’ve enjoyed this review, but if you have any questions about the new PI7 or PI5 in-ear noise-canceling headphones from Bowers & Wilkins, feel free to give us a call, chat with one of our experts at audioadvice.com, or stop into one of our Raleigh or Charlotte North Carolina showrooms.
Features Comparison Between the PI7 and PI5
|Drivers||9.2mm Dynamic Driver (mid/bass) Balanced armature (tweeter)||9.2mm Dynamic Driver|
|Dedicated Amplifiers||✔️ 4 total||✔️ 2 total|
|Dedicated External DSP||✔️ Advanced DSP||✖️|
|Noise Cancellation||✔️ Proprietary ANC Design||✔️|
|Adaptive Noise Cancellation||✔️||✖️|
|Smartcase with Retransmission||✔️||✖️|
|True Wireless Sync||24-bit connection||TWS|
|Total Battery Life||20 hours||25 hours|
|Quick Charge||15 minutes = 1 hour||15 minutes = 1 hour|
|Playback Time (single charge)||4 hours||4.5 hours|
|Hands Free Calling||✔️ 2 mics - cVc2||✔️ 1 mic - cvc|
|Voice Assistant||✔️ Push to Talk||✔️ Push to Talk|
|Ambient Pass Through||✔️||✔️|
|Multiple Device Connection||✔️||✔️|
|Intuitive Touch Controls||✔️||✔️|
|Wear Detection Sensors||✔️||✔️|
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Premium Look with a Comfortable Feel
The choice of two high-end metal finishes and three different sizes of comfortable silicone ear tips offer a nice level of customization and will make you want to wear these headphones all day.
Focus on the Music with Outstanding Sound Quality and ANC
With B&W’s signature 9.2mm dynamic drivers, high-res Bluetooth aptX audio, and impressive active noise cancellation, we really felt the music come alive, free of any distractions from the outside world.
Cutting-Edge Features Maximize Ease of Use
Bowers & Wilkins really packed a lot of great features into these small headphones! With support for both wireless and USB-C quick charging, an intuitive and simple UI, and industry-first wireless retransmitting case with the PI7, we feel like these will be on the cutting edge for years to come.
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