Bowers & Wilkins builds large speakers and handsome headphones. But in this review we may look at their smallest product: the PI3. They are Bluetooth earphones that marry the hi-fi roots of the British brand with a stylish, trendy design.
Bowers & Wilkins PI3
When Bowers & Wilkins recently renewed its headphones line the majority went from the attention to the top model with noise canceling (the PX7 ) and the slightly more compact PX5 version with smaller ear cushions that fit earlier on the ears. At the same time, the British hi-fi brand also released new wireless in-ears, with the PI3 as entry-level model. We must immediately nuance a word like “entry”. Bowers & Wilkins is aiming for the higher segment and even this model comes out with a luxurious finish and a better sound. That means that you have to place the 199-euro PI3 higher than wireless earphones from a mass brand. But what else do they offer?
Graceful and light
The PI3s are undeniably handsome ears, with metal housings for the drivers and a flexible bracket made of an almost organic-feeling plastic. Bowers & Wilkins provides three versions: space gray, blue and gold color. They all use the same materials, but somehow the golden PI3 is slightly more refined and chic than the other two. The use of the gold color is very tastefully done; actually it is more of a beige version with contrasting gold accents.
The PI3 is a wireless in-ear, with a thin bracket that runs from one ear to the other. It lies on the back of your neck, so that the ears do not suddenly fall on the floor if they would fall out of your ears as a result of walking (which does not happen soon). We are not usually a fan of this design because braces can be an annoying presence. A bit like a tricky clothing label that you forgot to remove with a new T-shirt. The British manufacturer fortunately opted for a soft plastic that rests subtly on your neck. We quickly forgot that the bracket was there – and that does not happen often.
On each side of the bracket you will find a bulge on which one or more buttons are placed. On one side is the power button (longer hold is putting the PI3 in pairing mode), on the other side there are three media keys. The middle one is play / pause and has a rougher finish, so that you identify quickly by touch. This is not all rocket science, but it works well.
But also cleverly seen
“Design is a matter of taste,” is often said. Yes and … no. Beautiful looks are one thing, but a product must also be practically designed. Bowers did not lose sight of that functional aspect. It's all about small things: for example, the back of the ears is magnetic. If you take them out, they will click against each other automatically. No dangling cords around your neck that get entangled while you bend down to release the lock on your bike, that can only be positive.
The design of the part that fits in your ear is also particularly ergonomic. Bowers & Wilkins is going a bit behind Bose by giving them small brackets that you optionally put on the ears. They are small silicone 'wings' or brackets that rest in the middle arch of your ear (for the queens among us: the concha) and the PI3 extra protection.
The hook shape provides stability , so that the PI3 ears stay in place when you move more strongly. We wore the ears, among other things, during a journey by train and plane to Scotland, and while we hurried through the departure hall from Schiphol to the changed gate, they remained neatly in place. As mentioned, the wings are optional and you can remove them to make the PI3 even more discreet. And yes, it could also be that you don't get much out of those brackets. Earcups are very personal things; according to some experts, they are as individual as fingerprints. We notice, for example, that on our left ear we can push the hook neatly into the concha, but it always came loose on our right ear. Without negatively influencing the fit, by the way, because the cap itself remained firmly in place in the ear canal. The caps that you receive are not standard things. They seem to be made of silicone, with a grid that prevents dirt from penetrating and may also be acoustically softened. Lovers of foam caps, such as Comply's, can use them, but the sound is a bit different after all.
Bowers & Wilkins has also taken the differences in ears into account. Like everyone else, it provides extra caps (in sizes S-M-L), but also three pairs of brackets in three sizes. Still in the box: a handy bag that – even more convenient when you travel – closes well.
Two drivers per ear
There are two areas that wireless earphones can use to offer better sound quality: support for Bluetooth codecs and the choice for a design with multiple drivers. The latter may sound crazy to you – sorry the pun – because it must all fit into the small holes in the side of your head. But no, the use of multiple speakers per earpiece is certainly not unseen. Moreover, there are relatively few (high-end) in-ears with only one driver. The reason for this is that you have to work with earphones with particularly small loudspeakers and they are not very good at reproducing all frequencies, from low to high. That is why you use several, each with its own frequency range. This is also the case with the PI3. owers & Wilkins opted for the PI3 for a double arrangement that is called Dual Driver Technology. In this case one driver takes care of the basses, the other for the medium and high tones. You can't help but wonder that these compact Bluetooth headphones also contain built-in amplifiers, with accompanying batteries. In the case of the PI3, an amplifier channel is provided per driver, so four in total.
The best codecs
With his over-ears, Bowers & Wilkins already showed themselves to be a pioneer in supporting better sound codecs over Bluetooth. So we are not surprised if our Huawei P30 Pro reports that the PI3 can handle aptX and aptX HD in addition to the inferior SBC codec and AAC (needed for iPhones and iPhones). Great, because newer Android smartphones (in principle from Android 8.0) have these codecs on board. Normally the best codec is chosen automatically.
These codecs determine the quality in which the music is transmitted wirelessly. The better the codec, the better the sound quality. And no, that is not unimportant if you listen to less good MP3s or music via YouTube. With audio in poorer quality you don't want to do anything to lower the quality even further. Who wants to discover the differences themselves: put your Android phone in developer mode and switch via the Options for developers that then become visible during playback of music from codec to codec. The jump from SBC to AptX HD is particularly audible.
Zen for a moment
The PI3 needs an app, but you don't really need it. The same app is also available for the other Bowers & Wilkins headphones, including the PI4 with noise canceling that shares many features with the earphones that we are viewing here. The app mainly contains practical matters. For example, you can see to which devices the PI3 is connected (two simultaneous connections are possible) and how full the battery is. Also fun: the app can also play continuous soundscapes, such as the crackling of a campfire or the soft sound of rain in the distance. Does that sound strange? However, some people will find that these soundscapes are very relaxing to play in the background.
Authentic Bowers sound
There are very many competitors for the PI3, but we only had one at home: the Bullets Wireless 2, a similar bracket set that smartphone challenger OnePlus brings on the market for 99 euros. For that price, these EISA Award winners are quite punishable, with a very good autonomy and also support for aptX HD. A strong challenger for the more expensive Bowers & Wilkins headset, except in two crucial areas: the sound and the fit. The PI3 sounds significantly better, less dull, more balanced and with more detail in the layer. Moreover, the ears of Bowers & Wilkins remain consistent, while the OnePlus-in-ears proved to be less stable during heavy movements.
But apart from the comparison with the Bullets Wireless 2, how does the PI3 perform? Overall we are pleasantly surprising with the authentic tuning of these ears. In the past we have been slightly critical of Bowers & Wilkins headphones because we found the headphone sound too bass-heavy compared to their speaker sound. And yes, there are indeed practical reasons to make mobile headphones more low, but sometimes it just wasn't right. The PI3 is much fairer and balanced in terms of tuning, a credit to those double drivers. The challenge with multiple drivers per earpiece is to ensure that they all match in terms of timing, so that all frequencies reach your eardrum at the right moment. The designers have handled that aspect well, because the PI3 sound very rhythmic. When a Spotify playlist brings us to the fast metal track “Fields of Verdun” from the Swedish power metallers Sabaton, we hear the double kick drum popping tightly and at full speed. No slowness. The pure energy in this track is perfectly transmitted by the ears.
The double driver arrangement gives a lot of body to the layer with 'Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun' by Neil Young-adepts Drive-By Truckers , while the melancholic guitar sounds linger for a long time. One does not detract from the other.
The good detail view is undoubtedly a plus when you watch video on your mobile device. You can really enjoy the many fine audio effects in “Roma” by director Alfonso Cuarón (nominated for an Oscar in the two audio categories in 2019). More importantly, we could not catch the PI3 on the dialogs when we caught an episode of Peaky Blinders during a train ride. Phew, because with Bluetooth headphones that can sometimes cause a lot of distraction.
The PI3 are wireless earphones that offer a first-class sound experience, rest comfortably in your ears and also look very handsome. The battery runtime of eight hours may not be groundbreaking, but it is also not exactly minus. The fast charging function also makes a lot of good. But in the end it is mainly the good sound quality that we fall for.