Bowers & Wilkins’ first pair of true wireless earbuds has been a long time in the making, so we’re looking forward to hearing exactly what the B&W PI7 can do. They're the firm’s flagship offering in a two-model debut range and are ambitiously priced, well above the level of obvious rivals from the likes of Sony, Sennheiser and Bose. The pressure is on Bowers to justify the hefty £350 ($399, AU$599) price tag.
At this sort of price for a pair of true wireless earbuds, we’d expect sonic prowess, effective noise-cancelling, high levels of comfort and battery life, a fully fledged app, portability and possibly even a few extras thrown in for good measure. So, has the British brand succeeded at the first time of asking?
Build and comfort
Battery life 20 hours (4 hours, plus four charges from the case)
Bluetooth version 5.0 with aptX HD
Weight 8g (each)
Considering the size of the buds, B&W has done well to make the PI7’s charging case small enough to fit in your pocket. With the slender case shut, you might imagine it contains an AirPods-type ‘toothbrush head’ design, but the elliptical buds are nicely nestled inside.
The buds themselves are on the larger side, similar in shape to the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 but more capsule-shaped rather than teardrop – and not quite so ergonomic or comfortable. Beautifully finished with brushed gold accents on the mics and on the circular capacitive control pad above the driver housing, they look more premium than the Sennheisers.
Those with smaller ears may struggle to achieve a good fit, an issue that is compounded by the fact that you only get three ear tip options in total to achieve a decent seal. Using the ‘twist and lock’ technique inherent in such designs, we manage to get a secure fit. However, over a longer listening session, the 8g buds feel less comfortable than we’re used to owing to their straight-edged shape.
Under the hood, each earpiece features a dual-driver arrangement: a balanced armature for the high-frequencies, with mids and lows handled by a 9.2mm dynamic driver. Each has its own individual amplifier.
Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX Adaptive means aptX HD and aptX Low Latency are all onboard from your source player, and the transmission between the buds themselves supports a 24-bit/48kHz resolution. Pairing is a breeze, but unfortunately in our testing, we experience occasional drop-outs, where playback cuts out for a split second, then resumes. We try a second review sample and unfortunately struggle with the same issue again.
The PI7 have a total of three mics per earpiece to take care of call handling, chatting to your voice assistant (currently either Siri or Google Assistant), and analysing ambient conditions for the adaptive active noise-cancellation tech.
The battery life with the PI7 earbuds fully juiced up is an underwhelming four hours. The case holds a further four charges, meaning it’ll be 20 hours before you need a power source or Qi wireless charging mat. That's acceptable, but hardly class-leading – and the PI7 are certainly billed and priced as such. On the plus side, ten minutes of quick-charge via the case's USB-C socket gives you two hours of playtime.
The buds are rated IP54, which means they are splash-proof. The case itself, however, shouldn’t go anywhere near a drink.
The touch-capacitive controls on each earpiece work well with rapid response times. The most obvious functions, including play/pause, skipping tracks, accessing your device’s voice assistant and switching between noise-cancelling modes, can be done here. The ‘auto’ option means that the PI7’s mics will assess your surroundings and adjust the level of noise-cancellation accordingly.
To unlock more features, you will need to download the Bowers & Wilkins Headphones app. It is not the most useful app we’ve seen, but here you can switch the wear sensor on or off. By default, the earbuds will pause playback when you take them out of your ears.
The app is also the only way to access the slider for ambient pass-through, which allows a degree of external sounds in, such as voices or station announcements. It also includes a selection of six different, but rather unnecessary, ‘soundscapes’.
But there are two significant feature omissions. First, you can’t adjust the volume using the PI7’s on-ear controls. The only way to control playback volume is to ask your voice assistant to handle it, or to dig out your source device. Secondly, you can’t tweak the PI7’s tonality.
While we could overlook these omissions on a budget pair of in-ears, they're a big hole in the spec sheet at this premium level. Bowers & Wilkins says these features could be added as expansions in the future, based on customer feedback, so we’ll be first in line to say that volume control would be especially useful.
Although the ambient pass-through slider is effective for being able to hear conversations while wearing the earphones, the noise-cancelling function is rather basic. It fails to successfully eliminate a great deal of extraneous low-level constant noise such as the AC unit in our office, or the tumble-dryer when we’re listening at home. In direct comparison, it is beaten for efficacy by the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2.
However, Bowers & Wilkins at least partially atones for these absences with one unique addition to its feature set: the PI7’s case can act as a ‘retransmitter’. In the box, there is a USB-C to USB-C cable and a 3.5mm to USB-C one. Connect the USB-C end of either cable to the PI7’s charging case and the other end to a music source, such as your laptop, and the case streams the audio playing to the in-ears, at aptX Low Latency standard.
It’s an impressive USP and brings simple wireless connectivity to in-flight entertainment systems, games consoles and more. The earbuds also boast Bluetooth repeater functionality, so they can share sound with a second Bluetooth device. Both features make the PI7 an interesting proposition, but whereas the latter is useful, the former is an industry first.
We cue up Waitin’ Guilty by The Black Crowes, a Tidal Master file, and there’s considerable separation between each guitar as one ‘talks’ to the other in the intro, before a central, precise and three-dimensional Wurlitzer joins. There’s an extra dollop of detail through the keys in our left ear as Christopher Mark Robinson’s vocal arrives slap-bang in the middle of this cohesive mix.
We select one of B&W’s suggested tracks, Billie Eilish’s Everything I Wanted on Qobuz, and Eilish’s vocal is as nuanced and breathy as the artist intended within the PI7’s neutral presentation. The PI7 betters the competition when it comes to the layering of instruments and extra vocals, which join the mix with a modicum of extra space around them to shine. However, the intense rise and fall of this unique beat treatment is marginally more zealous and emotive through the Sennheisers.
B&W has served up a decisively transparent and detailed listen in the PI7, and one that will appeal to many listeners. It’s just that in aiming squarely at precision and clarity, the sound occasionally lacks an extra injection of dynamic excitement. The Sennheisers’ presentation is slightly richer and more full-bodied, making rhythmic musical passages and vocals through the low mids more impactful, without negatively affecting detail.
Any dynamic shortfall is not huge – the sound alone is easily five-star in both products, albeit for different reasons. That said, in direct comparison, we’d opt to reach for our Award-winners, because listening to good quality music should be an emotionally engaging experience, and that’s something we don’t quite get with the B&W PI7 to the same extent.
The sound clarity offered by the B&W PI7 is class-leading in terms of detail and neutrality, and the novelty of a case that transmits audio to the headphones is a definite plus.
As an overall proposition though, we expect more from a set of true wireless earbuds priced at the high end of the market. The battery life is easily beaten by lesser-priced rivals, as is the comfort, fit, on-ear and in-app feature set – and we also experience some unwelcome drop-outs during our time with them.
This handsome set of wireless in-ears costs a fair bit more than many of its closest rivals and, despite an impressive sound presentation, we cannot currently justify that extra spend.
- Sound 5
- Comfort 3
- Build 3