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Hear them out: Bowers & Wilkins is not overcharging for these headphones

Review: The Bowers & Wilkins Px8 aren't gunning for headphones made by Sony, Bose, or Apple. Instead, they stake out their own territory with premium materials, rich sound, and a price to match.
Written by June Wan, Technology Editor on
Pros
  • Natural sound stage pays respect to artists and musicians
  • Luxurious look and feel yet lightweight
  • Wear detection is practical to have
Cons
  • Noise cancellation could be stronger
  • App controls/equalizer limited
  • They're $699 headphones

It's difficult enough to break through the mainstream trio that is the Sony WH-1000XM5, Bose 700, and Apple AirPods Max and get attention, let alone bring forth a pair of $699 headphones, but that's exactly what British audio company Bowers & Wilkins has done with the Px8

The latest headphones are in a class of their own -- in case the price didn't suggest that to you already -- with a blend of Nappa leather and cast aluminum fashioned throughout the headset, and a new carbon cone 40mm drive unit that ups the ante in the sound department. Together, you get an audio package that, after a week of evaluation and rigorous nitpicking, has proven its worth. 

Specifications

Weight320g

Noise-canceling

Digital and ambient sound

Headband material

Nappa leather

Battery life

30 hours

Connection

Bluetooth 5.2, USB-C, 3.5mm (via dongle)

CodecsAAC, AptX, AptX HD, AptX Adaptive, SBC

Compatibility

iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, Chrome

ColorsBlack and Tan

Price

$699


Design and fit

I reviewed Bowers & Wilkins's Px7 S2 earlier this year and had little to complain about in terms of the design, save for the fact that it wasn't trying to stand out in the crowded $300 to $400 market. That sentiment is carried over to the Px8, which reflects a similar design language but with fancier, higher-quality materials. Nappa leather, for one, can be felt across the ear cushioning, earcup trimming, and the headband that flexes just wide enough to rest on most head sizes. Diamond-cut metal etchings also make an appearance on the surface of each earcup, giving the Bowers & Wilkins branding a sophisticated yet tasteful sheen.

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 on a table

For $699, every bit of detail matters.   

June Wan/ZDNET

What impresses me the most about the headphones' design is how comfortable and lightweight they are. When you hear the words "Nappa leather," "carbon cones," and "cast aluminum," you likely wouldn't associate them with being lightweight. But that's very much the case with the Px8. At 320 grams, the headphones don't beat out the 255-gram Bose 700 headphones per se, but are much lighter than Apple's AirPods Max at 386 grams, a prime option for wireless headphones shoppers. 

More: The best wireless headphones compared

It certainly helps that the Px8 don't forcefully clamp on my head to stay put. My glasses-wearing self has never gotten along with the clamping force of over-ear headphones, and the immense side pressure that typically follows. Instead, the memory foam cushioning on the Px8 hugs my head and ears just enough for comfort. I'll have to see how the material holds up over time, though.

Side view showing the adjustable headband

The headband adjusts very smoothly, too. It's no clicking mechanism, but stays put when set. 

June Wan/ZDNET

Lastly, the Px8 comes with the same soft-touch carrying case as the Px7 S2. That means the earcups twist face-down instead of folding inward to store, and there's the same nifty compartment at the center of the case to stash things like your USB-C charging cable and 3.5mm dongle. I had no problem fitting the carrying case in my backpack alongside a 16-inch MacBook Pro, some notebooks, and an umbrella.

Review: Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2

Sound features

Before I get into the thick of things, there are several keys and switches lined up across the back of both ear cups that you should know about. The single button on the left can be set to toggle between active noise cancellation (ANC) and transparency mode, or even trigger your smartphone's voice assistant (by default, Siri on iPhone and Google Assistant on Android). On the right-side ear cup, you'll find a switch that turns the headphones on and off, and if you flick and hold long enough it procs the Bluetooth pairing. 

There's a good 3-second-long wait for the Bluetooth connectivity to kick in, but once it's on, you'll hear an audible cue -- typically a woman saying, "Ready to connect." Generally speaking, I had no trouble pairing the Px8 across all of my devices, including an iPhone, Android phone, Windows PC, and MacBook. 

Headphones showing thin buttons on the side

Each button has a unique, tactile feel for precise controls. 

June Wan/ZDNET

The rest of the button list includes volume up and down, with a texturized Play/Pause key splitting the two. This is the same array as what's on the Px7 S2 so, naturally, it required just as much muscle memory to know which button I was pressing behind my ears as it did months ago. Still, I said it months ago and I'll say it again, tactile buttons are the way to go with over-ear headphones, instead of going the touchpad route. With tactile buttons, mispresses are uncommon, and controlling the Px8 will only become easier when the winter gloves are out in a few months' time.

Review: Prefer touch controls? The Sony WH-1000XM5 are basically perfect

Performance

If the premium fit and finish of the Px8 haven't convinced you of the $699 asking price yet, then you'll want to hear the rest.

A key reason for the upcharge is the new carbon cone 40mm drive unit that Bowers & Wilkins has built into the headphones in place of the bio-cellulose driver in the Px7 S2. The company says the new component was inspired by the drive units used in its more expensive loudspeakers like the 700 Series. From what I've heard between the Px7 S2 and the Px8, the difference is loud and clear.

The new headphones deliver audio with an exceptionally accurate resolution and latency, two aspects that are foundational for wireless listening. I test-drove the Px8 through a series of genres and moods and ended with Travis Scott's "Highest in The Room."The song is grounded by a hard-hitting, heart-pumping bass that, even for the Sony WH-1000XM4 that I typically listen with, can easily drown out the rest of the instrumentals and vocals. That's why I was enamored on hearing the Px8 effectively reproducing the layers upon layers of audio masterfully. 

Even at higher volumes (60% to 70%), I was still able to hear Travis Scott's rather ambient vocal style, including the adlibs that he sprinkles throughout the track. By the end of it, the background piano slowly creeps up on you -- with notes that are sustained just enough to give an empowering effect.

More: How do the best portable speakers stack up?

Inside of earcups showing R and L

For great depth, the speakers are angled toward your ear canals.

June Wan/ZDNET

My general takeaway from the Px8 is that their soundstage is much more natural and lifelike than those of other headphones I've tried -- like the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Apple AirPods Max -- that tend to favor immersion at the expense of a veiled output. As a result, I'm able to discern instruments more clearly and really feel like they're being played in front of me. 

Intermission

There's a reason why I gave the Px8 an 8.7 and not a 10 out of 10, though. Actually, two reasons. Firstly, the ANC on the headphones is good, but not great. They can effectively block out the noise of my desktop's cooling fans or my neighbor's eternally dissatisfied dogs. But once I'm in an area with more engulfing sounds, like on my bus ride to work or on the subway when said bus decides to take a detour, then the rumbling of it all can certainly seep into the listening experience.

Ideally, I'd love the option to set ANC strength levels within the Bowers & Wilkins Music app. Don't get me wrong, minimal, easy-to-use software is the key to my consumer heart, but a little flexibility here would easily bring the Px8 from an 8.7 to the 9 range. The hit of complication would benefit the Music app's equalizer, too -- if you consider the existing layout as one. Currently, you're only able to dial between a treble and bass scale (see image below).

More: Best noise-canceling headphones

Bowers & Wilkins app on a phone

The app also integrates music streaming services like Tidal, Deezer, and SoundCloud.

June Wan/ZDNET

Battery life

On a single charge, the Px8 lasted me about a week, which is average for headphones of this size and in line with Bowers & Wilkins's 30-hour claim. At $699, I wish the endurance hit 40 to 50 hours like Senheisser's Momentum 4, but I also get that it's constrained by form factor and not the price. For what it's worth, the Px8 has wear detection -- audio will pause when you take the headphones off and resume when you put them back on -- which, from what I've tested, does help with battery life. 

Bottom line

With the Px8, Bowers & Wilkins isn't settling for a gift guide spot next to Bose, Sony, or Apple this holiday season. Instead, it wants the Px8 to be the headphones to buy if you want the very best -- and are willing to pay. 

The short-handed ANC is the kicker for me, but it's certainly forgivable if you just want to sit back, slip on the headphones, and enjoy some tunes. At $699, there are plenty of other headphones (listed below) that deliver similar technical features at more affordable price points. But if money is no object, then I can't think of a better audio package than this. 

Alternatives to consider

If you're a fan of the Px8's design but not the price, then check out Bowers & Wilkins's Px7 S2, also released this year. These headphones come with most of the same technical features, including noise cancellation and transparency mode, and also work with the Bowers & Wilkins Music app. 

Possibly the best at noise cancellation, Sony's WH-1000XM5 passed with flying colors when ZDNET's Matthew Miller tested them just recently. They're not as compact as the Px8, but they deliver a full and engulfing audio output that's hard to argue against. 

While Sennheiser may not be the first brand that comes to mind in this category, its Momentum 4 headphones have slowly crept up the popularity list for their crisp sound performance and even better battery life. Compared with the Px8's 30-hour estimate, the Momentum 4 can last upward of 60 hours. 

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