In just a few short years, wireless noise-cancelling headphones have turned from a niche sideshow into the flagship product of most audio brands.
Models like the Bose QC35, the Sony MDR-1000X and the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless are the top-flight offerings from the three audio brands, and represent the peak of their technological innovation as they attempt to balance sound quality with noise-cancellation, wireless connectivity and, ultimately, price.
For a premium audio brand Bowers and Wilkins has been surprisingly late to the wireless noise-cancelling game after having chosen to focus its efforts on purely wireless headphones like the B&W P5 Wireless and P7 Wireless.
So the Bowers and Wilkins PX Wireless ($400 / £330) are a big jump for the company. It finally has a pair of headphones that can compete in the increasingly feature-rich headphone market.
We’ll need to use the headphones for a while longer before we pass our final judgement, but first impressions suggest that while the company has done well on the noise-cancelling front, it’s done so at the expense of that classic rich, detailed, B&W sound.
It’s not just internally that the PX Wireless are different from what the company has done before, the entire design language of the headphones is completely different.
Gone is the black leather and silver accenting that has become the company’s signature look, and it’s been replaced by a more matte finish that’s a little more plastic in appearance (which is a shame since, we hasten to add, they still feature lots of metal in their construction).
The PX Wireless are available in two color schemes, ‘Space Grey’ or ‘Soft Gold’, and we think the design suits the latter much more than the former. The grey color scheme might be understated, but it feels a little drab compared to the company’s previous efforts.
Automating the little things
The PX Wireless feature a neat little feature that sees them turn on and off automatically when you take them off your head. Raising one earcup off your ear will pause the music, and taking the headphones off entirely will turn the headphones off after a couple of seconds. Put them back on your head and the music will resume playing exactly where it left off. It’s a feature that’s worked well for us in practice.
Thankfully while the look might look a little more understated, the build quality is anything but, with a chunky-yet-sleek construction that feels sturdy in the hand and on the head.
The feature-set of the headphones is a master-class in covering all the bases of a modern pair of headphones. Charging by USB-C? Check. A non-proprietary 3.5mm jack? Check. A complete set of physical button controls? Check. A respectable 22 hours of battery life? Check. Bluetooth aptX HD support? Check.
At this point, every pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones should embrace this standard checklist of features. They’re small touches, but they’ll go a long way to making the headphones as easy to use as possible.
Considering it’s Bowers and Wilkins’ first attempt at noise-cancellation, it’s perhaps not surprising that this functionality is the most impressive part of the headphones.
We tried the PX Wireless on a noisy subway train during rush hour using their default noise-cancellation settings and they performed admirably, with a level of cancellation that’s up there with the likes of Bose and Sony.
For those who want a more granular level of control, a companion app allows you to choose between three different noise-cancelling modes, with each designed to cancel and let through certain frequencies more than others.
‘City’, for example, is designed to let through traffic noise so that you can walk the streets while safely wearing the headphones, while ‘Office’ lets through higher-frequency voices so colleagues can talk to you. Finally, ‘Flight’ is focussed on eliminating the low rumble of a plane’s engines.
It’s impressive that the company’s debut pair of noise-cancelling headphones is as feature-rich as the PX Wireless are, but first impressions suggest that focussing on this tech has come at the expense of the underlying sound quality that has defined the company.
Mids and trebles lack the crispness and detailing that we would have hoped for, and the overall impression this creates is of a mushy sound that lacks definition.
Bass still has a reassuring punch to it with drive and rhythm aplenty, but throw a complex, noisy track at these headphones and the mix becomes crowded and a little messy.
With the PX Wireless coming in at the same price as the P7 Wireless it would be naive to think noise-cancellation technology could be added without any impact on sound quality, and the compromise is obvious.
Consumer technology is always filled with compromises, and it’s rare to find headphones that are able to offer a rich feature list without compromising on sound quality or becoming exceptionally expensive.
So far, it feels like the PX Wireless hasn’t managed to overcome these compromises. The spec sheet is impressive, with a laundry list of features that we hope more headphone manufacturers adopt as standard.
So too does the noise-cancellation technology seem fundamentally solid, and on par with companies that have been playing with the tech for much longer than B&W.
But early impressions suggest this hasn’t been achieved without compromise, with a level of sound quality that falls short of what the B&W logo has traditionally promised.
That said, we’ll be testing the B&W PX Wireless more in the coming weeks before coming to our full conclusion, so stay tuned for our full review.