Great new ear buds from Bowers and Wilkins truly rock
By Jim Bray
Earbuds are a dime a dozen these days, and wireless ones are really charging into the marketplace. But is there a way to find a great noise-cancelling set of wireless buds that actually sound great?
Well, I haven't tried nearly all of the offerings out there, but I've tried several and these new P15's from Bowers and Wilkins are easily the best I've tried. They ain't cheap, but it does appear to be a case of one getting what one pays for.
Bowers and Wilkins also introduced the P17's, which take what's great about the P15's and adds even more goodness. I haven't tried them, but if my experience with the P15's is any indication, they're undoubtedly even more terrific.
Click on the image to open a slideshow.
Developed by the same team behind the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers, which they claim are found in Abbey Road Studios (and I assume, used there as well, otherwise what's the point?), they feature "industry-leading sound quality, immersive Adaptive Noise Cancellation, intuitive Wireless Audio Transmission, and wireless charging to benefit an on-the-go lifestyle," according to their press materials.
The P15's, and their "big brother" P17's, let you stream tunes from your Bluetooth-enabled source, whether it be your cell phone, tablet, computer or whatever. You can also use them to receive calls on your cell phone and, get this, they've also added Adaptive Noise Cancellation to the mix.
Another handy feature is "Ambient Pass-Through, which lets you hear conversations around you – or involving you – without having to take them off. It's great when the folks around you are gossiping about you. And "Wear Sensing Technology" lets you pause/resume music if you take one of the buds out for some reason. And you can play/pause and skip tracks by tapping on whichever of the buds handles that particular function.
If that isn't enough, there's an app (iOS and Android) with which you can access Siri or its Go Ogle equivalent and also offers some ambient sound environments for the times you just want to kick back with audio that reminds me of the stuff they inflict on you during visits to the doctors' office.
I didn't have much use for the app and tended to only use it to see if it works (it does). My needs are much more simple: I don't even care if you can answer the phone with it, I just want it for streaming tunes. Obviously, Bowers and Wilkins is trying to offer the most stuff to the most people, and it's hard to complain about that.
The P15's come in a really cool "smartcase" that not only does a fine job of keeping and protecting the buds, it also acts as their wireless charger. The company says it will provide enough juice for to 20 hours of streaming, with the noise cancellation enabled, and even if you only charge 'em for 15 minutes you can still get up to two hours playing time. The Smartcase is also what you use when pairing to your Bluetooth devices.
There was one kind of silly thing about the case and that's that Bowers and Wilkins didn't include a wall plug adapter, instead opting to put in the box only a USB-C cable that has USB-C on both ends. This meant I couldn't charge them with the cable they included, because I didn't have an adapter that would fit. When queried, Bowers and Wilkins responded with "The majority of brands in our space either have or are going to USB–C chargers, including Apple computers and most modern PCs. It's an industry-wide transition from USB-A to USB-C. We decided to avoid unnecessary waste and cost and opted for what is increasingly the default cable connection."
Meaning "Get with the modern era, Luddite!". Except that if you don't – or your devices don't – have USB-C capability you're going to have to find an adapter. Seems like a strange oversight, but what can you do?
Fortunately, I have a USB-C to USB-A cable that fits my AC adapters so I could charge the P15's with that, and I think the overall goodness of the P15's makes it worthwhile acquiring such an interface if you don't have one already. They're worth it.
In the box there are also some alternate-sized tips for your ears, though after having tried them, I went back to the default ones, which worked fine once I got comfortable twisting them into my ears for proper seating.
The ear buds appear to be made very carefully and very well. They ooze class. And the fact that tapping on them can let you turn on/off the noise cancellation, play/pause, etc., is a real bonus.
I had some issues operating the P15's this way, though. Sometimes I'd tap once and the buds thought I tapped twice (or such and such) – and sometimes they'd go into pause apparently because I'd moved my head. I think these are examples of operator error, though, because I forced a friend to try the P15's and he had no such issues. In fact, he wanted to buy them off me right there and then.
My best success came from controlling the buds from the source device's app (music player, Accuradio, whatever), and I was perfectly happy with that, if only because I didn't have to remember how many taps does what (hey, I'm old!).
As for the noise cancelling, it's very good. I took them on a flight from Calgary to Ottawa and the cancelling worked nearly as well as the best such buds I've tried (which, alas, aren't wireless). When I fired them up most of the rumbling from the 737 Max's engines went away, though as usual with such devices that I've tried, they didn't cancel the noise of the damn little kid who kept whining – and kicking the back of my chair – all the way there.
This is typical, though, so as much as I'd have liked them to make the kid go away (in every way possible), I believe this is more a generic noise cancelling thing than a Bowers and Wilkins one because my "reference" noise cancellers don't do that, either.
And in the case of the P15's, I think that any limitations of noise cancelling ability compared to my "reference buds" is more than made up for by the added flexibility of their wirelessness.
They were also quite comfortable for the four-hour flight, never prompting me to remove them to rest my ears. I had one interesting experience when I did remove one for a moment, when my wife was speaking to me (I could've used the ambient pass through, but that particular time I forgot about it). I pulled the right bud from my right ear, and to my horror it flew from my hand and lodged itself firmly between my wife's seat and that of the fat oaf sitting by in the window seat. So, watch out for such a situation!
This isn't a dig at the Bowers and Wilkins', either, because it was more an issue of a clumsy oaf of a reviewer than it was a flaw in their design: it could have happened regardless of the wireless buds I was using.
Who knew a case could be made for wires?
Noise cancelling and oafish handling by the user aside, the main thing I was interested in with the P15's was their sound quality – all the other features are gravy as far as I'm concerned. And I sure wasn't disappointed! They are quite simply splendid!
The bass response blew me away in particular. These tiny little devices rumble just as they should, reminding me of my big audio system at home. They offer deep and balanced bass that belies the size of the drivers, similarly great midranges and highs and you have a true audiophile device and good quality audio files you can enjoy them just like you can larger and less portable headphones.
The soundstage is also wide and involving (depending on the source material, of course). In all, the P15's offer a very immersive and enjoyable listening experience, which to me is exactly the point behind buying from such a high-end brand. Every time I fired them up I was impressed with just how great they sound.
To sum up, Bowers and Wilkins' new P15 "true wireless headphones" offer outstanding audio quality – heck, I didn't think you could get this level of fidelity from dinky little ear buds. They are easily the best buds I've tried to date, and the fact that they offer noise cancelling, passthrough, and a nifty charger/carrying case are bonuses.
The P15's are available in Charcoal or White, and I recommend them highly.
On an unrelated, but somehow related note, if you have issues using iTunes to get your music onto your iOS device, the folks behind Waltr2 – Softorino – have upped the ante in a major way with Waltr Pro.
With this handy app, you can drag and drop virtually any file into it, and it'll sniff out the file format and convert it to a compatible one before delivering it over to your destination device. It's really quite easy and, for $30 USD, can not only be a time saver but a frustration preventer as well.
I don't know how many times I've cussed iTunes for its unhelpful interface and annoying performance. Yet when I loaded Waltr Pro onto my system and fired it up all was well with the world. Heck, I dragged and dropped gigabytes worth of my tunes – which are in about as many file formats as there are file formats – and walked away. And when I came back the next day, my iPhone was full of music!
A lot of my music is in the FLAC format, but Waltr Pro converted the files into Apple Music format with no apparent loss of quality (remembering "Garbage in, garbage out" still applies).
But wait, there's more (sorry, Ron P!). Waltr Pro also gives you the ability to edit cover art and metadata manually, but merely dragging & dropping the files while holding the "Ctrl" key, giving you control of the way your media looks.
And if that isn't enough, you can also transfer documents, pictures, comics, Microsoft Word documents and more, simply by dragging & dropping the files while holding the "Alt" key and selecting the target app for the transfer.
It's a great product!
Copyright 2021 Jim Bray