Bowers & Wilkins PX review: A stylish, understated alternative to Bose

For most of us, peace and quiet is a rarified commodity. Cities throng with static noise, offices are abuzz with chatter, and even empty homes are filled with the hum of fridges, extractor fans and washing machines. Right now, though, all I can hear is music drifting in and out, the occasional deep rumble of a bus passing outside, and the faint hiss of the Bowers & Wilkins PX’s noise-cancelling circuitry. Everything else is quiet.

Bowers & Wilkins PX review: What you need to know

The PX are B&W’s latest addition to its headphone family. They’re wireless, naturally, and support all the standard Bluetooth audio codecs including SBC, Apple’s AAC, and the very latest AptX HD standard, which promises hi-def audio quality without the wires. And yes, they’re also equipped with an in-built microphone for headset duties. Active noise cancellation is the big news here, though (in fact these are Bowers & Wilkins’ first ever ANC headphones) and as the internal 850mAh lithium polymer battery promises 22 hours of playtime, you should be able to remain in a little bubble of zen-like calm for the longest of flights.

Bowers & Wilkins PX review: Price & competition

The PX’s suggested retail price of £330 puts them up against the usual noise-cancelling contenders. They’re faced with Bose’s recently updated QC 35 II (£330), which we’ll be reviewing shortly, and are also stepping toe-to-toe with the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless (£330), as well as Sony’s lush-sounding MDR-1000X (£290). Not sure which is best for you? Then click the link alongside and have a read of our guide to the best noise-cancelling headphones.

Bowers & Wilkins PX review: Design and features

Given how good they look, you may not want to put the PX’s on straight away. You can take your pick of Space Grey or Soft Gold depending on your tastes, or which phone you have in your pocket, but whichever you choose it’s safe to say that the PX’s are B&W’s most attractively modern headphone yet.

Sumptuous-looking black leather skims the inside of the headband and covers the earpieces, textured fabric runs around the outside of the earpieces and across the top of the headband, and curves of metal pin the whole affair together. The PX manage that rare feat of being both striking and understated at the same time.

Thankfully, they’re equally elegant in operation. The sliding power switch powers them on, a longer press of the same button readies them for pairing, and the switch alongside toggles the ANC circuit on and off. Three buttons above allow you to adjust the volume, skip tracks or accept and reject calls with double and triple taps. On the underside of the right cup, a USB Type-C connection charges the internal battery and can be used as a direct digital audio connection to your smartphone or laptop, and a 3.5mm jack allows you to use the PX’s in wired mode.

Bear in mind, though, that once the PX’s battery expires, you’ll need to resort to the USB-C connection to charge while listening. While the PX provide a claimed 22 hours in wireless noise-cancelling mode, and up to 29 hours of wireless listening with ANC off, resorting to the 3.5mm connection simply boosts runtime to 33 hours with ANC and 50 hours without. In other words, make sure you take that USB-C cable with you if you’re heading out on longer trips.

Bowers & Wilkins PX review: Sound quality

The PX’s sound exactly as they look: refined, solid, detailed, perhaps a little too understated for their own good. Unlike their rivals from Beats and Bose, Bowers & Wilkins’ engineers have clearly opted for a more even-handed sound signature; one that’s free from exaggerated lows and artificially sculpted highs.

This is, by and large, a very good thing. Attempting to wrongfoot them with everything from the charging, visceral noise of Metz, through to the lyrical meanderings of James Blake, right through to a spot of Celibidache’s interpretation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, reveals only one thing: the Bowers & Wilkins sound consistently good, if not exceptional. They have the same honeyed, rolled-off highs of peers such as Sennheiser’s Momentum 2.0 Wireless but the expressive, midrange, tight bass and smooth treble make for a sound that’s very pleasant to listen to.

Personally, I prefer a slightly sharper, brighter presentation, but I did warm to the PX’s way of doing things. If you’re looking for a more natural, honest presentation than that of the Bose QuietComfort 35, and you’re not taken by the more bass-heavy presentation of the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless, then the PX mark a fine middle ground between the two.

Bowers & Wilkins PX review: App and noise cancellation

B&W has paired the PX’s noise-cancelling abilities with a mobile app. Unlike many ANC headphones which only permit you to turn the noise-defeating circuit on or off, B&W’s app lets you select from the three Environment Filter settings: Office, City, and Flight.

Each of these adjusts the amount of noise cancellation applied, in addition to how much you can hear of the outside world. The Flight and City modes have the most aggressive amount of noise cancellation, so you can hear more of the tell-tale hiss, but in each mode you can tailor the amount of outside noise picked up by the PX’s microphones. The on-screen slider goes all the way from off, right up to an amplified setting which lets you hear conversations (or nearby traffic) without taking off your headphones.

Admittedly, the PX still can’t produce the same kind of magical noise-defeating silence as its Bose rivals, but it’s still very good. Outside noise is dulled and replaced with a very soft, unintrusive hiss in the City and Flight modes, and although activating ANC does add a noticeable veil to the upper frequencies, the PX’s still produce a very listenable sound. I haven’t flown with these headphones yet, but if they can make navigating the London Underground at rush hour a peaceful experience, I have high hopes that they’ll perform equally well at 30,000ft.

I have only one criticism of the PX: these headphones are not as immediately comfortable as Bose’s iconic QC35. The PX’s memory foam-filled leather earpieces don’t draw attention to themselves, but I found the headband a little uncomfortable after two or three hours of constant listening. Shuffling the headband forwards or backwards slightly did serve to reduce the problem, but that’s not ideal. I’m hoping that the PX’s headband will soften a little and wear in over time, though, so I’ll report back once I’ve had more time with them.

Bowers & Wilkins PX review: The first ‘smart’ headphones?

The PX isn’t just B&W’s first noise-cancelling headphone, it’s also their first ‘smart’ model. Pick the PX’s up, and they turn on automatically and resume playing your music where you left off. Lift an earcup to speak to someone, and the music pauses automatically, resuming as you place them back over your ear. Put them down, and they turn themselves off. For anyone that’s ever forgotten to turn off their ANC headphones and returned to find them dead just before heading out the door, it’s a handy failsafe. 

The reality, however, is that the feature proves pretty annoying in use – even if it’s not entirely B&W’s fault. For instance, pick up the PX’s while they’re connected to a Mac, and OS X helpfully fires up iTunes and starts playing your library. The decidedly dumb thing is that it does this even if you’re listening to music via a different app, such as Spotify or Tidal, which then forces you to quit iTunes to stop both playing at the same time.

The same goes for an iPhone, where the PX’s trigger iOS to start playing from your music library, which then in turn means you can no longer simply tap play in iOS’s Control Centre – you have to stop Apple’s app from playing, fire up your streaming app of choice, and then press play to resume playback. 

Granted, this annoyance is largely due to Apple’s insistence on firing up iTunes (or its own music app) at the slightest provocation, but the ability to switch this feature off in the app is welcome. Particularly so as the auto-resume function can also be a tad too sensitive: on a few occasions, simply adjusting the PX’s headband saw iTunes spring into action and start playing at the same time as my Tidal playlist. Not so smart after all, then.

Bowers & Wilkins PX review: Verdict

There is no shortage of great noise-cancelling headphones out there, but B&W has positioned the PX perfectly. There’s plenty of demand for a wireless, noise-cancelling headphone that doesn’t provide hyped-up bass or highs, and which delivers it in a package which is lovely to look at, to hold, and to listen to.

The PX delivers just that, and its combination of good sound quality, capable noise-cancelling circuitry and attractive design are marred only by those qualms about long-term comfort. Right now, I like the PX a great deal. If the comfort issues dissipate with use, that liking may well turn to love.

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