Review: Bowers & Wilkins PI7 – Wireless earphones: Wireless earphones with noise canceling are currently very popular. And that is completely understandable, because they are very useful. Bowers & Wilkins is now also diving into the segment with a luxury device and proprietary high-level noise cancellation.
Bowers & Wilkins PI7
Bowers & Wilkins is not only one of the largest loudspeaker builders in the world, but also a respected headphone designer. That is why it was quite strange that the British brand did not yet have fully wireless earphones. Especially when you consider how many rival brands they just launched – it’s a very busy and popular segment right now. But Bowers & Wilkins is now easily catching up with two products, the PI5 and the PI7. Both models are completely wireless earphones (also: TWS) that connect both with your smartphones and each other via Bluetooth. Like all TWS devices, you get a case that plays a double role: it protects the earbuds when you’re not using them and it charges them.
In this review we look at the PI7, wireless earphones that use the latest technologies to compete with the very best in-ears on the market. An important feature of this top model is noise cancellation, making the Bowers & Wilkins PI7 even better suited for use on the road. Or if you work at home with noisy roommates or a manic handy neighbor.
These are without a doubt premium products, as evidenced by the price tag of 399 euros that dangles from the PI7s. This positions Bowers & Wilkins resolutely at the top of the segment, just like other luxury earphones from brands such as Bang & Olufsen or Devialet. However, most mainstream brands are a bit lower in price. However, Bowers & Wilkins has come up with a number of unique features that should convince the value seeker.
|What||Wireless earphones with noise canceling|
|Codecs||aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, AptX Low Latency, AAC, SBC|
|Weight||8 grams per ear|
|Extras||wireless charging, Quick Charge via USB, case as streamer|
Bowers & Wilkins PI7: Familiar, yet different
With wireless earphones it is a bit like with smartphones. Viewed from a distance, the different products generally look quite similar. You initially get that impression when you take the PI7s out of the packaging. The case is immediately reminiscent of other TWS boxes, although it is also slightly different at the same time. It is very compact and also more refined than is usually the case. No shiny pill box made of cheap plastic here, but a more elegant black case finished with a bronze-coloured lid. It’s certainly small and light enough to tuck in a jacket pocket or purse without creating a style-less bulge.
The two PI7 earphones are snug and secure in the case. They cannot fall out on the way and when you put the devices away after a music session, they click into the box correctly thanks to magnets. Charging starts immediately, from the case’s own battery. You can do that four times. The earphones themselves can last 4 to 4.5 hours on a battery charge, a rather average autonomy. In other words: once you have charged the case, you can continue for a long time without having to look for a socket.
A plus is that you can choose how to charge the case: via a USB-C cable or wirelessly. The latter is useful. If you have such a Qi charger on your desk, you can refuel the battery of the PI7 case without any hassle by simply putting the box down. If you work with a cable, you can quickly charge with a suitable charger. You can add two hours of battery life in 15 minutes.
Discreet and elegant
The PI7s themselves are small circles that stick very discreetly into your ears. They fit in your ear canal with tips or caps, which immediately provides good (passive) sound insulation. Some brands, such as Apple and Bose, prefer a bud design that hangs in your ear. But we think the approach of Bowers (and others) is better. True ‘in-ears’ stay in better when you walk and usually deliver a superior bass experience because the lowest bass tones are transferred directly to your skull.
Multiple pairs of tips are included; choose the right size and the PI7s will stay in place comfortably. A good fit is also necessary for a full sound. If earphones like these fit looser in your ear, some of the bass will be lost. Spending five minutes in the beginning looking for the right tips is therefore definitely worth it.
The PI7s are available in white or black, each with bronze accents. Both versions look elegant, thanks in part to small design elements that add the necessary refinement. The round surface on the outside of each cap is circular brushed for example. That gives a nice optical effect and a little bit of tactile texture – useful, because these circles are also touch buttons. This way you will immediately find the right surface by touch. So you press your ears to do certain things, such as pause music, take a call or turn the noise canceling on/off. You do have touch controls with more TWS earphones, but it often doesn’t work that well. It works well with the PI7, even if you’re wearing gloves. Ok, now summer is beckoning,
The PI7s are as easy to set up as any Bluetooth headset. Briefly press the button on the case and you will immediately see the Bowers & Wilkins earphones appear in the Bluetooth settings on your smartphone. Whether tablet, laptop or smart TV, that speaks.
There is an app from Bowers & Wilkins to make setup easy (iOS and Android), but using it is not a must. The app is especially useful for firmware updates and to set up the ambient pass-through feature. Where noise canceling blocks ambient noise, this function does let some sound through. So you can listen to music and still have an idea of what is happening around you. We ourselves rarely use such functions because we find the music reproduction too distorted and shrill, but we notice that some other people do appreciate it. It will probably be useful if you go back to working in an open office.
A nice feature in the app are the soundscapes. You can choose from various atmospheric soundscapes – a forest, waves crashing into rocks, a campfire – you get the picture. It seems like an ASMR-esque gimmick, but reading a book or late at night is still relaxing. The app has no equalizer or sound presets, which we think is a bit of a shame. With bad recordings (as with many eighties albums), it is nice if you can tweak the sound a bit.
Support for aptX
Listening to music on the go, that’s the main thing for which earphones like these are used. So we test the PI7s indoors at the computer but also in the garden – now that the sun is out, you have to take advantage of it, don’t you? The link with a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 is quickly made, through the developer options we see that the aptX codec has been automatically selected. Nice. Ultimately, the average music lover should not be so concerned with that; the aptX codec is primarily a guarantee that you will receive a certain quality wirelessly. The PI7s also support aptX Adaptive, a newer form of the codec.
Internally, the PI7s have a more sophisticated construction than typical TWS earphones. Instead of a single driver or loudspeaker per ear, Bowers & Wilkins combines a 9.2 mm dynamic driver with a balanced armature tweeter via a Dual Hybrid construction. You often find such a dual driver approach with wired earphones (and even with more drivers), it is rather rare with wireless earphones. The advantage of a dual driver design is that each driver can be better optimized for the frequencies it is each intended to produce.
The double driver design immediately gives the PI7s a lot of body, we notice when we tap ‘The Battle at Garden’s Gate’ by American rockers Greta van Fleet in Spotify. The bass drum is almost palpable, instruments come apart relatively well. There is nothing flimsy about tracks like ‘Built by Nations’ or ‘My Way, Soon’, you have the impression of being served a wall of sound as you would expect from rock music. A nice fat bass is also served on Mira’s ‘Broken Bridge’, as a beautiful, separate layer under the singer’s voice. While listening in the garden, that slightly thicker bass turns out to be an asset, because outside you do indeed need a little more power in the low end. The technically clever thing about the PI7s is that the finer details in the music are not drowned out by the bass. You can still hear the strings in the background and the softer background vocals on this Mira track. We would prefer a little more sparkle in the highs – and in that sense it’s a shame that there is no equalizer in the app – but with Mira’s intimate woman-with-piano track ‘In de Fleur’ we have to admit that it is simply sounds fine. Incidentally, this is with the noise reduction switched on, switched off the reproduction changes a bit towards a little more detail, a little less bass.
High level noise cancellation
The noise canceling of the PI7s is excellent in its class. The dual microphones per earphones will contribute to this. We were surprised to hear that Bowers & Wilkins has developed its own noise-cancelling algorithm, nowadays many manufacturers just quickly buy a ready-made solution from a party such as Sony or Qualcomm.
We always test noise cancellation in headphones by playing the same YouTube video of a train ride through a snowstorm as loud as possible, making it easy to compare. The PI7 already has good passive isolation to begin with. Without noise reduction turned on, a lot of sound is already blocked. With the NC function turned on (when the music is turned off) all that remains is the ticking of the wheels driving over the railway buttocks. As soon as we press play, the ambient noise disappears almost completely. A top result.
Great for binge watching
We then pair the PI7s with an iPad Air, which goes just as smoothly as with the Samsung phone. In this case, the AAC codec is used. After all, Apple doesn’t support aptX (unless on iMacs, oddly enough). That’s certainly not a problem if we watch two episodes of ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ via Disney+ afterwards, the AAC codec is good enough for that. The PI7s jump effortlessly over a first stumbling block: synchronization. Voices and effects perfectly follow the on-screen action. That was a bit different with the first wireless earphones that came on the market. By the way, Bowers & Wilkins’ tuning is perfect for viewing food such as this Marvel production. Intelligibility of dialogues is fine and explosions are still sufficiently spectacular, that’s how it should be. When we catch an episode of ‘For All Mankind’ on Apple TV+ at a later date, the PI7s prove equally suitable for this alternative history series in which well-known tracks from the sixties, seventies and eighties support the story. Catching a movie during your commute or when you go on a trip is therefore definitely an option and is even compelling enough that you forget about that train ride for a while. The fact that you can connect the case with a supplied cable (headphone output to USB-C) to, say, the headphone output of an in-flight media system or a TV is also clever. After all, you will never find a Bluetooth option on an airplane with the screen in the headrest. Lacking its own Boeing, we tested it with a Cowon music player that doesn’t have Bluetooth. You just plug the cable into the player and case, pull out the earphones and you can use it. Streaming from the case to the earphones happens with the aptX codec.
How does the PI7 compare to one of the best TWS sets of the moment, the Sony WF-1000XM3 ? Thanks to the Samsung smartphone, comparing is just that little bit easier. After all, with the Fold you can connect two headsets at the same time and stream to them, with separate volume control. You then use the SBC codec, which slightly reduces the audio quality. Two things immediately stand out: the Sony’s are a bit larger and with the WF-1000XM3 the background noise is slightly more noticeable. The PI7s are quieter. That noise is always there when the noise canceling is turned on with wireless earphones; it’s kind of an artifact of the algorithm. However, it should not be too loud and only really audible when the music stops for a while. Certainly not during the music itself.
In terms of sound it is not that one immediately comes across much better than the other, but the Bowers & Wilkins and Sony do sound different. On Lana Del Rey’s ‘Chemtrails Over The Country Club’ we found the vocals on the PI7 a lot more natural and full, the Sony is a bit more nasal and sometimes puts high detail in the foreground. Basses also seemed to run a little deeper with the Bowers & Wilkins, which gives the guitars and especially the drum kit with Greta van Fleet more balls. We should note, however, that at Sony you can completely adjust that sound via the accompanying app.
Bowers & Wilkins PI7 Conclusion
The Bowers & Wilkins PI7 are without a doubt one of the best wireless earphones you can buy. They offer a slightly warm reproduction that you can listen to for hours, a very good noise reduction and are also finished to a high standard. In addition, Bowers & Wilkins has provided a few extra handy features that you will rarely or not find elsewhere, such as wireless charging and the option to use the case as a transmitter. This means you can also use these earphones on an airplane or in combination with a music player without Bluetooth. You pay a premium for all that luxury and technology.
Pros of Bowers & Wilkins PI7
- Great sound quality
- Support for audiophile codecs
- Case is also a transmitter, useful during long flights
- Best in class noise canceling
- Wireless charging and Quick Charge via cable
Negatives of Bowers & Wilkins PI7
- Price tag
- No exceptional autonomy
- No EQ in app