Review - Bowers and Wilkins P9 signature headphones - 2Hz-30KHz - 2Hz??!!??!

I realize that headphones seldom get discussed here, but with so many owners of their speakers here, I thought I might share my impressions rather than posting over in Head-Fi.

I'm been a long time Bowers and Wilkins fanboy, so keep this in mind.  

After owning nearly every floor standing speakers across their range, I eventually settled on a pair of 800s for my mains and 803's for my surrounds (overkill, I know).

I picked up the P7s when they first came out and had been remarkably impressed with how they sounded almost exactly like the 800s without the room - I've thoroughly enjoyed them running through a dedicated headphone DAC/AMP.

Yesterday on a whim I decided that I would pick up a set of the P9s since the reviews were generally good and also that my local dealer is in the process of moving and offered them to me at an unheard of price.

Using my typical setup w/ AMP/DAC, they sounded absolutely strange out of the box.  The experience was unnerving - very unpleasant - there was so much going on that it made my brain hurt, I was dizzy and a little nauseated.  The central image and vocals were so far removed from the mix that in trying to bring the vocals up to realistic volumes, all other frequencies and instrument were so exaggerated that it was basically impossible to listen to.  First thought was "these are definitely going back tomorrow".

But I decided to let them play over night and today they are a completely different animal - Glad I was patient.

If there is one thing that I find the most shocking about these headphones is the immense amount of detail that they dig up - I know that gets tossed around a lot but seriously - the detail that these things surface is just unbelievable.  So much so that it can be exhausting listening to music that I'm very familiar with - there's just so much information on tap, that I'm a bit overwhelmed with the amount of processing my ears and brain have to do in order to keep up.

Next up is the bass - the claim that these headphones are nearly flat down to 2Hz - 2Hz - Really?  Yeah really.

I don't have any scientific way to prove it but with upright acoustic bass, deep analogue synths (think: Roland Jupiter 800) I'm able to hear low level frequencies that appear to be only limited by the recording medium itself.  These headphones remind my of why a live performance always sounds better the through a sound system.  In delivering such a massive frequency response, these things come closer to delivering a "live experience" than anything I've ever heard - by a long shot.

Considering the broad frequency range and live performance sound, the staging of these things is beyond what I have ever heard, or expected to hear from closed-back headphones.  Rather than to describe their staging capabilities in typical terms (wide, deep, airy, etc.) here's what I think some of the differentiators are that set these headphones apart from their predecessor.

For one thing the placement of instruments is so precise that it's easy to hear reflections coming from all directions, even behind you - What's more, is that you can literally visualize the exact distance between you and every sonic detail in the mix whether in yards or in inches.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by just how much data these things pump out, I thought I would briefly switch back to their predecessors - the P7s - for a quick comparison.  Unexpectedly, I found the once-LOVED P7s nearly intolerable.  By comparison, they sounded dull, flat, lifeless, boring, anemic, fake, colored - YUK!  That was a big surprise for me since I always thought that the P7s were awesome (and they really are) - but there is just no comparing the two.

Anyone that is a B&W loudspeaker owner will absolutely love these things - they have that trademark B&W sound that we are all familiar with, but where their top-line speakers roll off around 30Hz, these things are absolutely bottomless and serve up so much uncluttered detail that they are quickly addicting.

What I don't like about them?

Well, they are completely impractical for use in everyday life.  Due to their size and weight, you won't be going out in public after wearing these things unless you're a fan of that "hat hair" look.

And as for their awesome quality and appearance they just scream "hey look at me and how expensive I am!" - I live in a city where everyone has their headphones on but I wouldn't take these out in public - I can easily see being targeted and, since I haven't been mugged in the last four years (knock on wood) I wouldn't want to attract that kind of attention either. 

Are they worth their $899 asking price? 

That's kind of subjective - I would say that if you like their sound, align with Bowers & Wilkins sound signature and will use them regularly and properly, then definitely yes - I would highly recommend them.

If however, you're more the type to plug your headphones into a smartphone and head out the door, these are not for you.  They love being driven hard and with a good DAC to prove their worth, and based on my comments above, I just can't see walking out the door with these.  While the P7s were borderline acceptable for public use, these are absolutely not - They would be kind of the equivalent of walking around snapping tourist shots with a 400mm f/2.8 telephoto lens.

If you're a current P7 (or lower) owner and/or are a fan of B&W loudspeakers, go grab a pair.  If you're not, find a dealer and give them a listen.

Happy listening!