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Bowers & Wilkins PI7 Review: Top-End True Wireless Earbuds
Earbuds have existed in some form since the 1980s but it wasn’t until Apple launched the iPod in 2001 that the technology really came into its own. Music enthusiasts have long appreciated the heightened sound quality when listening through traditional headphones. Not only does it cut off the outside world, it also seems to put you right inside the music.
When earbuds were developed, they promised something similar. As the speakers are so close to the listener’s eardrums, the sound waves are directed straight into the ear canal. The design of the earbud makes it fit so snugly that it forms a kind of seal to shut out external noise. In this way, the conventional over-ear headphones and the compact modern earbuds achieve similar results. The advantage of earbuds is that they are small enough to carry in a pocket or their charging case and compact enough to wear discreetly in virtually any environment, from public transport to the gym.
Today’s earbuds have reached a level of sound quality and technological sophistication unimaginable 20 years ago. The range of makes and models available is vast and you can pick up a pair for just a few dollars. We wouldn’t advise it because the sound will be pretty dreadful, but in an emergency, the option is there. It would have to be a REAL emergency though.
At the other end of the scale are the high price tag models such as the Sony WF-1000XM4, or Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. You can find links on our site to these and other options. Joining them in the top flight is the item we’re looking at in detail today: B&W PI7 earbuds.
We seem to have been waiting forever for Bowers & Wilkins to give us a pair of active noise cancelling anc true wireless earbuds. As you’d expect, now that they’ve taken this step, it turns out they’ve come up with something special. Expensive, but special. They’re one of just two models in B&W’s debut offering - the other, cheaper alternative is the PI5 - and they carry a price tag that screams exclusivity and confidently exceeds the pricing levels of their competitors including Bose, Sennheiser and Sony. At almost double the price of a pair of Apple Airpods Pro we expect something very special.
Bowers & Wilkins is one of the most respected audio brands in the world. Founded in 1966 in the back room of a radio and TV shop in the English seaside town of Worthing, B&W rapidly established itself as the speaker makers of choice to some of the recording industry’s most successful and influential record producers. Although it has been a market leader for decades, it has always been careful not to dive headfirst into new technologies. Instead, its designers and engineers take the time to assess the extent of new capabilities and develop their own take on what’s possible. So what we have here may seem like a late addition, but the B&W reputation is such that they don’t need to be first in order to be the best. In creating the PI7 they’ve had the advantage of being able to analyse the competition and, at least in some areas, to beat it.
The B&W PI7 earbuds are of the larger variety, shaped more like a capsule than a teardrop. This means you need the three choices of ear tips to find the best fit and people with smaller ears might be slightly disadvantaged. Nevertheless, they look very impressive, with brushed gold accents on both the earbuds and the charging case. Each earpiece has a dual-driver arrangement that processes high frequencies separately from the mids and lows. Each piece has its own amplifier.
This is very simple. If you have an iPhone, then the process is the same as for any Bluetooth connection. Just select ‘Settings’ and ‘Bluetooth’, press the button inside the charging case for a few seconds and your iPhone will discover them and enable you to connect.
If you have an Android device with the Google Fast Pair function, it’s even easier. All you have to do is place the earbuds in their case next to the phone, open the case lid and follow the instructions on the phone.
The other thing you’ll need to do is to download the Bowers & Wilkins Headphones app because there are certain features you can only control this way. We’ll talk more about the app a little later.
Bluetooth 5.0 and Call Capability
The PI7 earbuds support the aptX Adaptive codec for Bluetooth 5.0 which means they are enabled for aptX HD and aptX Low Latency, with lag times as short as 50ms and improved quality of phone calls. The transmission between the earbuds supports a 24-bit/48kHz resolution and they are also very easy to pair. AptX HD isn’t compatible with iPhone but because the earbuds also support AAC, they can be used with Apple devices. You can also use the standard SBC Bluetooth codec. One welcome feature is its Bluetooth repeater functionality which means you can share whatever you’re listening to with a second device.
B&W have fitted the PI7 with three mics per earpiece, which makes it simple for you to take phone calls and give instructions to the voice assistants (Google or Siri for the time being), while the earbuds assess the ambient conditions in order to set the active noise cancelling anc function to the correct level.
One of the PI7’s unique selling points is its audio transmitter which enables it to transmit audio from any source to the earbuds when you connect that source to the charging case using the 3.5mm cable supplied. This turns the PI7 into a virtually universal solution and eliminates the need in most circumstances for a separate pair of wired earbuds, giving you access to any analog source. The audio transmission will also work with other B&W wireless headphones including the PX7. This is an impressive innovation.
The battery life isn’t as impressive as some of the competition but you can keep it topped up with the charging case. B&W specifies 20 hours of battery life, but after 4 hours you’ll need to put the earbuds in the case to recharge. The case holds enough charge for you to do this several times, which is where the 20-hour figure comes from. Luckily PI7 supports wireless and USB-C charging which means that just 10-15 minutes of fast charging will get you an additional two hours of playback via Bluetooth.
The touch controls are very responsive and cover all the essential functions such as play and pause, skipping tracks, accessing the voice assistant and selecting noise cancelling modes. If you prefer, you can choose the auto option which means the mics will analyse the noise levels of your surroundings and activate the appropriate cancellation setting. Playback volume is controlled via the voice assistants rather than manual controls, and you won’t be able to adjust the tonality. As is common with most earbuds and many headphones, if you take the PI7s out of your ears, playback will pause automatically.
The Bowers & Wilkins headphone app is available for both iOS and Android. It doesn’t have a huge number of extra features but it does perform a few important functions beyond what the touch controls allow you to do, so you’ll definitely want to download it. One thing it does is to display the battery level for both the earbuds and the charging case. It has a facility to toggle noise cancelling on or off as well as letting you put it into auto mode so it will respond and adapt to the environment you’re in. A very useful feature of the app is its ambient passthrough toggle control. This lets you hear certain types of environmental noise so you can respond to what someone says directly to you or listen to things like train or airport announcements. The app also enables firmware updates, so you’ll have access to any upgrades.
We’d like to see most or all of these features incorporated into the earbuds themselves and that may happen in future versions, but for now, the app is perfectly adequate.
How Good is the Noise Cancellation?
The PI7 compares well for noise cancellation with its nearest rivals the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds and the Sony WF-1000XM4. It does a good job of blocking external noise, and in fact, the ear tips themselves have a passive isolation capacity which reduces sounds even without using the noise cancelling function. The anc adds a further 10dB reduction to low-frequency sounds.
How Does it Sound?
This is the most important consideration of course. Style, comfort and functionality are all important, but you want true wireless earbuds that do justice to the music. We’ve heard others comment on what they see as the PI7’s prioritisation of high frequencies and low frequencies over the mid-range but we have to say we didn’t find this ourselves. In our tests, we found there’s was plenty of space in the sound, with crisp definition between guitars, keyboards and percussion and plenty of detail in the vocal. Bowers & Wilkins suggest some songs to try out and one of them is Everything I Wanted by Billie Eilish. The PI7s certainly do a good job of presenting the subdued but dominant vocal at the front of the mix while the layering of instruments is sharp and balanced.
In our view, the sound clarity of B&W’s premium ear headphones is at the top of its class, its particular strengths being detail and neutrality, as well as an impressive bass range. We found that it suits tracks from pretty much any genre, from heavy Dub Reggae to acoustic folk and everything in between. B&W have achieved this by building into each earpiece a 9.2mm dynamics, balanced armature driver which is unusually large for small buds and accounts for the excellent volume and crispness. We tested various types of music as well as video playback and are happy to report that with their low-latency and aptX HD, they provide virtually lossless playback when you stream from a compatible Android device.
The inclusion of a charging case that can transmit audio is an excellent feature, not simply for its convenience but because there’s really no appreciable drop in sound quality. The source device itself may have its limitations, but the PI7 earbuds will make the very best of the sound they’re fed.
Although we wouldn’t describe the PI7 as perfection, these earbuds are extremely impressive. They out-perform their nearest rivals in many if not all aspects. They look fantastic, they sound superb and they have the innovative audio transmission feature which means you can use them to stream from all kinds of sources. The price tag may be an issue for some enthusiasts and there’s no way of getting around this. There are links on our site to cheaper options, of course, but here we are in the realms of true luxury products and that has to be taken into consideration. We’re sure you won’t have cause to regret the investment.