Bowers & Wilkins Px8 Review & Px7 S2 Comparison: Which One’s Right For You?
Late in 2022 Bowers & Wilkins released its new flagship wireless headphones with Active Noise Cancelling, Px8. This isn’t Bowers & Wilkins first go-around launching either a flagship or a high-end wireless headphone, so you can bet its latest offering brings the company’s considerable experience to bear along with the consumer feedback its received along the way. The new headphones feature Active Noise Cancelling with an ambient pass-through mode, one-press smartphone assistant for voice commands and even has a built-in wear detection that pauses your music whenever you remove your headphones. Fortunately, for my fellow feature-curmudgeons, the Bowers & Wilkins Music app lets you disable any or all of these extra features, including noise cancelling for a lean rendition of the Px8 wireless listening experience without distractions. Using a compatible Android device, disabling ANC provides the raw sound quality of Px8 streaming through Qualcomms aptX Adaptive codec. Bowers & Wilkins is so confident in the experience that the company states quite simply:
A Worthy Upgrade? Bowers & Wilkins Px8 Headphone Review
Weve never made a better headphone than Px8. – Bowers and Wilkins Px8 product page.
Bowers & Wilkins latest wireless headphone was in development around the same time as Px7 S2 which launched only months prior. Comparisons are inevitable! I gave the Px7 S2 a stellar review because it’s a great rendition of todays high-end wireless Bluetooth technology. Considering Px7 S2 retails at $399 USD and Px8 at $699, B&W is well positioned as the lower-cost alternative to some of 2022’s great high-end wireless headphones that competitors have priced significantly closer to the $1K-mark or higher. As for intra-brand new headphone competition, is Px8 really worth the extra $300? I’ll give my subjective opinion in the Conclusion below, but this article aims to arm you with the details to help you decide.
At first glance the Px7 S2 and Px8 look quite similar, but the differences are in the finer details – and what fine details they are! Px8 promises to be an achievement in both luxurious esthetics and sound quality.
Design: Look and Feel
Its my humble opinion that Bowers & Wilkins Px8 is the most beautiful pair of headphones Ive ever seen. They wear small and light on the head with minimal presence, but their excellence comes through in the details that come together in a work of art and craftsmanship. While both standard color choices, black and tan narrowly avoid being loud or gaudy, the black model is a little more subdued where the tan model is brighter and will attract more attention. But both tactfully make a statement in high-end quality. Lightweight at only 320-grams, Px8 is effortlessly comfortable and its seamless stitch-free Nappa leather-wrapped memory foam ear-pads are breathable on the skin and feel great for long listening sessions.
Px8 basic retail color choices: Tan and Black. Not counting special edition varieties that retail for an $100
Bowers & Wilkins went all-in on luxury design for Px8. Die-cast aluminum arms connect to diamond-cut,brushed aluminum driver housings over each ear-cup with real Nappa leather accents. The raised Bowers & Wilkins brand mark catches light in a sparkle that speaks to a discriminating taste. The aluminum no-click arm extension through the headband feels solid with consistent resistance-levels all the way to your preferred fit. Even the fully tactile buttons around the ear-cups are aluminum and everything fits together in a detailed display of design and engineering.
Px8 fresh out of the box inside the included case awaiting first use.
The Px7 S2 look similar, at a distance you may not even tell them apart. The Px8’s less-costly brethren carries the same general shape and build quality but made with an uncomplicated durable plastic in a flat variant of your cholor choice with fabric accents around the earcup instead of leather. It is indeed indeed a well-made headphone with quality materials and it benefits from the same overall design, shape and fit of Px8. But up-close, Px8s luxury details emerge. Between the cut of the aluminum and sparkle in the highlights, one does not simply look at Px8 as much as peer into its design-craft. It’s like drinking-in the details of a finely crafted wristwatch.
Bowers & Wilkins Music App
One result of Bowers & Wilkins decade-long foray into wireless products has been the development of a sophisticated Music app. With the launch of Px7 S2, B&W finally brought its wireless headphones into the same Music app as its network-aware speakers and abandoned the dedicated Headphone app. Unfortunately, your new headphones will do without some of the Music app’s most slick features like multi-zone and Wi-Fi streaming. The Music app (iOS & Android) is your one download for all wireless B&W audio equipment including the Zeppelin Bluetooth speakers and Formation speaker systems. But unlike its wireless speakers, the wireless function is strictly Bluetooth. If one day Bowers & Wilkins brought Wi-Fi to its Bluetooth headphones, it could be a great way to differentiate itself from the Bluetooth headphone pack. At-home Wi-Fi with lossless/high-res streaming and Music app features, such as streaming to multiple devices and lossless Internet radio may attract attention away from competitors. American headphone manufacturer Koss pulled off a Wi-Fi headphone in its Striva Pro, a product that was so far ahead of its time in 2012 that neither the underlying technology nor the broader consumer market were prepared to fully adopt its revolutionary ideas. But for today, Bowers & Wilkins Music app is slowly evolving. At launch of Px7 S2 the in-app EQ was limited to a one-slider tone control that has now grown into separate bass & treble controls. Im hoping to see its evolution continue, perhaps into a multi-band EQ with savable profiles. And who knows, maybe a future Formation Duo-like wireless headphone with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Bluetooth ANC Modes:
ANC-On: Adds to the passive isolation of its closed-back design using mics to monitor outside frequencies and provide an opposing signal to neutralize ambient noise. Has a moderately effective intensity without hiss or much loss to your music’s frequency spectrum. But there is some loss to detail and depth of the sound. It’s fine for background music when you don’t want to be disturbed while flying, in a noisy office or coffee shop.
Pass Through: Activates the outward facing microphones to pass sound through your headphones in a second-hand sonic rendition of your environment. Its a good safety feature that you should keep on-the-ready with the left earcup’s programmable mode button when using these cans outdoors in the city.
Off: With ANC off, sonic isolation is strictly passive which is not bad with its thick earpads and closed-back design. This should be your go-to mode because it has the advantage of providing the best sound quality possible.
Microphone quality is good for calls and online chat. B&W upgraded mic positioning since the release of original Px7 that saw the new 6-mic layout in both Px7 S2 and Px8. Incoming calls are an easy one-press away and the clarity of my own voice through the phone has received no complaints.
We buy wireless headphones for Bluetooth, but Px8 includes alternate listening modes using the included cables so you can test it for yourself. While 99% of owners may never use a cable with Px8 outside of charging, it’s worth taking a look at how alternate listening modes perform by circumventing Bluetooth’s compression.
Bluetooth aptX Adaptive
Px8 does not use the LDAC codec, instead Bowers & Wilkins goes all-in with Qualcomms aptX suite of advanced codecs, alongside the defaults AAC for iOS and SBC for Android.
The Bluetooth codec Px8 will try to use once paired with Android 8 or higher devices is aptX Adaptive. Depending on your Android device you may find it using SBC due to compatibility issues with aptX Adaptive, even if your Android is compatible with aptX HD. Although aptX Adaptive & aptX HD are capable of hi-res bit/sample rates up to 24/96kHz, the stream is compressed by Bluetooth so its not a true lossless/hi-res stream. The Adaptive flavor of aptX automatically scales between 279-kbps and 420-kbps to achieve its dual priorities of sound quality and reliability, free of drop-outs in radio-noisy environments. It also brings a low-latency stream as the Adaptive codec is intended to replace aptX Low Latency, which should make Px8 serviceable for movie viewing and gaming. I played an online game session with my daughter who used the Px8 to keep us voice connected and she nor I noticed obvious delays to in-game audio cues. For serious competitive gaming you’ll want to use Px8 connected to a USB port for maximum reliability.
Although aptX Adaptive is capable of up to 24/96 resolution streams, Px8 appears to be capped at a bit/sample-rate of 24/48, which is fine for broad compatibility to multiple sources. However, even with an Adaptive-compatible Android device, your devices stock Bluetooth settings might just be robbing your digital audio stream of some of its brilliance. Smartphone manufacturers often err on the side of reliability to stave-off dropouts, delay and support calls. So, lets look at a couple of Android Bluetooth settings to ensure your device isnt introducing a sound quality bottleneck.
Android Bluetooth Settings to Check Before You Listen
Unlock your devices Developer Options to get into its Bluetooth settings. A quick search should provide easy instructions specific to your brand, it usually involves: Settings > About, tapping seven times. Once unlocked youll never have to do this again unless you factory reset.
When the headphones are paired to your device and playing back music, go to Developer Options, usually near the bottom of Settings.
1/ Scroll down to find various Bluetooth-related settings. DO NOT play around with other settings if youre not prepared to factory reset your phone, or worse.
2/ If you have an HD Audio toggle switch, ensure it’s enabled. Some devices may have this setting disabled out of the box.
3/ Check the active Bluetooth Audio Codec to ensure its using Qualcomm aptX Adaptive or aptX HD.
4/ Check that sample and bitrates are set to 24-bit/48-kHz. My OnePlus 8T phone shows all other sample/bitrates disabled, this is Bowers & Wilkins preference and not the full capability of the codec.
Px8 Cable Modes
Inside Px8s case youll find two cables beneath its magnetized trap-door, one USB-C-to-USB-C and the other a 3.5-mm-to-USB-C. One of these cables will let you hear Px8 with the best possible signal purity. The other, not so much.
USB-C-to-USB-C Cable: DAC Mode/Charging
A USB energy source and cable compatible with USB 3.0 or higher will take advantage of Px8s fast charge capability that provides 7-hrs of battery life in 15-minutes. Fully charged Px8 it will provide a theoretical 30-hours battery life. In practice battery life may be reduced by hours if youre working the amps through louder listening. In my humblest of opinions, the difference between a 30 or 25-hour battery life is trivial. Count me among the thoroughly impressed by a device’s battery life when its hours are counted deep into double digits. This should be long enough for anyone not to worry about recharging with every other use. The newer lightweight lithium-ion batteries are incredible!
The included USB-C-to-USB-C cable isnt just for charging. The included cable will connect Px8 to your phone but a USB-A-to-USB-C will let you connect directly to a computer. A USB digital audio source provides the best possible digital audio purity because it bypasses Bluetooth compression. The hard-wired digital audio stream goes directly to the DAC and DSP systems then to the headphone’s amplifiers for playback. This is God Mode for Px8! Because the electronics inside Px8 are pretty much identical to Px7 S2, all of the Bluetooth settings and DAC-mode and battery work the same way.
Bypassing Bluetooth with Px8’s DAC-mode is a theoretically high-res, lossless stream. However the DAC caps at 24-bit/48-kHz. Not even USB Audio Player Pro (UAPP), the audio Android app that lets you bypass your devices USB controller, will help you to achieve higher resolutions. Px8 will always up/down-sample incoming streams to exactly 24/48. Focal Bathys has a more complete USB DAC mode that works great with UAPP going all the way up to 24-bit/192-kHz.
This cable lets you connect an analog source directly to the Px8s USB-C port. Yes, it will playback sound but honestly, why would you? Like using DAC mode described above, Px8 will need to be powered on. The 3.5-mm jack is NOT activating a passive mode. Honestly, Id be concerned for the safety of the headphones electronics if using an amplified analog signal. This ludicrous listening mode takes an already questionable analog source signal through the USB-C port’s analog-to-digital converter before moving over to the Px8s DAC to playback at 24/48 audio. Its a messy process and I lack the imagination to see its use case. Perhaps its just a way for someone to let you hear a song from an unpaired device. Id avoid using Px8 this way.
Px8 Driver Technology, Upgraded From Px7 S2
If Bowers & Wilkins’ first flagship headphone is any indication, its possible that Px8 represents a new direction for its future wireless headphones for years to come. The P9 (2016) was the companys first anointed flagship headphone that introduced the reverse-angled drivers for improved imaging and has since become a mainstay in B&W headphones. It will be interesting to see what, if any elements from Px8 will live on in future releases.
The most significant upgrade on the inside of Px8 compared to Px7 S2 is in the driver. Both use 40-mm angled drivers backed-up by 20-mm voice coils. The most obvious difference between the two headphones drivers is in the diaphragm material. Px7 S2 is biocellulose where Px8 uses a new carbon cone. Bowers and Wilkins is getting creative with its experience working with carbon as a driver material. The company has even trademarked its Carbon Dome driver technology found in the 700-series and Formation Duo loudspeakers. Biocellulose on the other hand, is an interesting diaphragm choice.
Biocellulose Vs. Carbon Cone
Biocellulose gets an undeserved bad rap sometimes derided as simply “paper“. But biocellulose has found its way into many great headphones. Biocellulose diaphragm pictured right is from Denon’s AH-D2000. We have Sony to thank for first converting a membrane produced by micro-bacteria into a loudspeaker material. So, if there was any doubt that audio engineers will leave no stone unturned researching loudspeaker development now you knowtheyve experimented with bacteria!
Sony patented the process in the early 90s after making its debut in a $2500 headphone, the MDR-R10 in 1989. That price in ’89 would be $6,031.65 in todays money. That’s significantly more than Focals new Utopia! But its use hasn’t been relegated to the dustbin of headphone history. Biocellulose is still used in some of the finest headphones made today, outside of Bowers & Wilkins its found in great headphones by Denon, ZMF and one my personal favorites Fostex. While today its certainly cheaper to produce than beryllium and carbon, it shouldnt be dismissed as an ingredient in top-tier headphones.
For Px8, Bowers & Wilkins developed a new carbon cone driver that it says will bring added rigidity and less harmonic distortion. Unifying lightness and extreme strength gives carbon excellent potential for diaphragm material. Bowers & Wilkins also uses resin, presumably to aid in the shape and seal of the carbon cone.
Px8 Carbon Cone
Px8 Unique Sound Quality & Px7 S2 Comparisons
Px7 S2 ranked highly for me, I loved its sound and felt it would make a great travel headphone because it didnt always sound wireless and cost significantly less than any of the new luxury wireless headphones that hit the market in 2022. Px8 has a similar sonic profile as Px7 S2, with a little more cohesion under the most stressful conditions. Both will provide well-defined sonic imaging with a typical closed-back small soundstage that brings an intimate quality. Tracks that emphasize vocals and little instrumentation will come across warm and inside your head.
If I had to describe the overall sound of Px8 (and Px7 S2) in one word, Id call it – refined. Bowers & Wilkins has distinguished itself in the wireless headphone market by offering a more balanced sound than mainstream offerings by Sony or Bose, both of which tend to exaggerate mid-bass. Its a pleasantly balanced across the spectrum to bring versatility to a variety of musical styles while avoiding the flatness of a studio monitor. You’ll hear lush details in midrange vocals with an engaging flair in the highs, and a modest but authoritative bass shelf. It all comes together to create a refined experience, even when I’m listening to decidedly unrefined music choices. For anyone new to higher-end headphones, both Px8 and Px7 S2 will beckon you to open-up your playlist and explore new artists and new sounds.
Subjective Listening Test: Px8 vs. Px7 S2
Ramin Djawadi & Prague Philharmonic Orchestra | Light of the Seven
For a comparative listening test I decided to journey back to one of Game of Thrones last great seasons. Ramin Djawadi is widely considered the new Hans Zimmer for his thrilling and emotional compositions. This track might be the musical highlight of the show’s entire run by bringing several aspects of sound quality to light. Light of the Seven from GoT Season 6 is a veritable headphone/loudspeaker listening test in a bottle.
It begins quietly with wistful tones of a lone piano. A gentle tension rises as the cello makes an entrance before different sections of the orchestra take turns rising and falling through the pianos opening minutes. Px8 presented each instrument in uncomplicated detail and timbre.
Px7 S2 and Px8 demonstrated excellent dynamic range through the transition between subtle, intimate details all the way up to the bang and crash of the tracks bombastic climax. At about mid-track, what sounds like a childrens choir (actually female sopranos) brings an element of creepiness before the musics tension explodes into full orchestral power. The climax is accompanied by the deep pulse of organ and drum that bring rumble and weight to ground the bang and crash of violins, brass and woodwinds. Its a full-range aural spectacle and the most challenging section of this track to reproduce.
Both Px7 S2 and Px8 present excellent timbre during the intimate listening moments when the sonic spotlight is one instrument or one section. Both headphones present a sharpness in the upper-end detail, typical for Bluetooth. But Bowers & Wilkins does a great job of tempering that sharpness so as not to sound harsh, instead coming across as detailed. Presumably, this is accomplished with the help of the headphones DSPs that may let you forget youre hearing digital Bluetooth audio. Both headphones bring the little details in the tracks quieter moments, like the decay of a piano note as it hangs in the air. The transition between scant milliseconds of silence and the full orchestra’s dramatic fury sounded very similar between the two heaphones, but this is when I noticed distinct improvements in Px8.
Light of the Sevens crescendo would be complicated for any headphone, but the Px8 presented that little bit more in the details of the full orchestra where Px7 S2 could seem clustered at times, especially in the extreme lower and higher frequencies. The difference is subtle, but Px8 keeps its cohesion under stress, simultaneously presenting precision in the crash up high and boom down low. The worst I could say about Px7 S2s performance in those scant seconds of orchestral peak is some smearing of distinct separation between instrument sections. But it really only lasts a second here and there. Overall, both headphones give a refined listen.
Esthetic design is a matter of personal taste, but in my humble opinion the Px8 is the most subtly beautiful wireless headphone Ive seen. As beautiful as it is, the quality of its build is anything but skin deep. From the swivel of an ear-cup, press of any button to sliding headband adjustments, Px8s exudes sophistication and quality with no extraneous creaks or crackles. In sound quality Px8 provides a fine rendition of todays aptX Adaptive Bluetooth sound that stands up to all competitors in its price range. Apple iPhone users might be less incentivized to commit themselves to the Px8’s premium price since theyre limited to the AAC codec.
In comparison to Px7 S2 ($399), Px8 ($699) provides tangible improvements in both sound quality and design, but the differences are only slight. Px8 is an esthetic luxury feast in look and feel, where Px7 S2 is its plastic imitation. But it is imitating what I consider best-in-class design and that aint half bad. The overall sound-profile is similar in timbre and tonality, both could resolve engaging levels of detail and added enough lift in mid-bass to bring authority to aggressive tracks, but not enough to dominate. Both are suitably comfortable and lightweight enough to bring hours of enjoyment to an eclectic variety of music. Where Px7 S2 fails to live up to its counterpart is in Px8s cleaner rendition of finer details in only the most complex instants of certain tracks. However, one quantifiable advantage Px8 has over other competitors in the nascent luxury wireless headphone category is its price. Among new flagship wireless headphones out there, Px8 is priced below similar offerings from Focal and Mark Levinson.
Px7 S2 Goes Head-to-Head with Px8!
Px7 S2 vs Px8 – Which Would I Buy?
In my own cost/benefit analysis Im putting the clever money on Px7 S2. For me the job of wireless headphones is mobile listening, outdoors or away from home. Ill always prefer the majority of my at-home, stationary listening over passive headphones plugged into a DAC/Amp. This is why today in the opening 90-days of 2023, Id personally buy Px7 S2 over any in this market. Of course, selecting Px7 S2 is not a knock against Px8 or any of its pricier counterparts that bring their own strengths. However, between the arrival of Bowers & Wilkins new flagship and in my practical listening to what that extra $300 brings, only serves to make the price of Px7 S2 so much sweeter a deal.
In Px7 S2 youre sacrificing all that gorgeous brushed aluminum for plastic. But the build quality in Px7 S2 is quite similar, the electronics inside, app functionality, codec compatibility and DSPs are all pretty much identical. The slight sound quality improvements in Px8 are tangible, but just arent enough for me to pass-up the absolute bargain of Px7 S2 as the entry-level luxury wireless choice. Of course, were all of different means and situations, those willing to pay that little bit extra in Px8s added performance and style make an excellent choice. If I ever saw someone wearing either B&W headphones out in the wild, I’d give them my nod of approval as a listener with discriminating taste in quality and sound.
Unless otherwise indicated, this is a preview article for the featured product. A formal review may or may not follow in the future.