Luxurious and very expensive, the B&W PI7 deliver superb sound and are capable of retransmitting audio from non-Bluetooth devices
- Fantastic audio quality
- Strong noise cancellation
- Innovative audio retransmission
- Very expensive
- Ambient mode is controlled via the app
It may have taken longer than planned, but esteemed UK audio manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins has finally made it to market with its first pair of true wireless earbuds, the B&W PI7.
Slated for release in November 2020, the PI7 and the PI5 they launched alongside were hit by delays that saw them pushed back to January this year and then again to April.
Without those hold-ups Bowers & Wilkins would have still been behind the curve – just about every other audio brand has had at least one pair of noise-cancelling earbuds in their range for a while now – but having additional time to assess the competition and carve out your own niche can be beneficial, and that’s certainly the case with the PI7.
Bowers & Wilkins’ debut earbuds hit all the right notes sonically, offer noise-cancellation to compete with their most capable rivals and bring something new to the table in the form of a charging case that lets you stream audio from non-Bluetooth sources. The only downside is a price tag likely to put off all but the most committed earbud enthusiasts.
Bowers & Wilkins PI7 review: What you need to know
The Bowers & Wilkins PI7 and their cheaper siblings the PI5 are Bowers and Wilkins’ first pairs of true wireless earbuds. They’re also among the priciest buds around, which should come as no real surprise given Bowers & Wilkins’ audio pedigree and premium product line-up.
The PI7 operate wirelessly over Bluetooth and make use of one of the newer iterations – version 5.0 – and can pair with three devices simultaneously. Codec support is extensive, with AAC, SBC, aptX, aptX HD, aptX Low Latency and aptX Adaptive all available to those with output devices that support them.
The inclusion of support for Qualcomm’s more advanced aptX codecs is particularly important as they allow the PI7 to stream 24-bit, hi-res audio from compatible services such as Tidal and Quboz. In addition to those impressive streaming credentials, the PI7 offer adaptive, automatic noise-cancellation, ambient sound passthrough and an IP54 rating for water and dust resistance.
Uniquely, the included wireless charging case can be connected to any non-Bluetooth output and retransmit audio to the earbuds or another pair of B&W headphones over Bluetooth. It’s an innovative feature the likes of which I’ve not seen before and one that has some very handy applications.
Aside from its retransmission capabilities, the charging case provides four full charges of the earbuds, which offer up to four hours of audio playback at moderate volume. That means you can expect roughly 20 hours of listening from the PI7, which is competitive without being anything particularly special.
Bowers & Wilkins PI7 review: Price and competition
The Bowers & Wilkins PI7 will set you back a whopping £350. That price positions them as the most expensive true wireless earbuds I’ve reviewed and is significantly higher than premium offerings from other audio industry big hitters.
If you’re lusting after B&W buds but don’t have the budget for the PI7, it’s worth considering the PI5 (£199). They look very similar to their stablemates but cut a number of the features that contribute to the PI7’s hefty price.
There’s no automatic noise-cancelling, which alters the level of cancellation based on your environment, the charging case can’t retransmit audio and Bluetooth codec support is limited to AAC, SBC and aptX. The PI5 also house one fewer microphone per earbud (two rather than three) and lack the Balanced Armature drivers that handle high-end frequencies for the PI7. They do, however, have slightly longer battery life at 4hrs 30mins per charge.
Cheaper still are Sony’s WF-1000XM3, once the kings of true wireless noise-cancelling and still a great value-for-money choice at £149. And, if you don’t mind sacrificing noise-cancelling effectiveness to save yourself some money, Huawei’s FreeBuds 4i, the Urbanista London and Panasonic RZ-S500W are all solid choices around the £100 mark.
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Bowers & Wilkins PI7 review: Design and comfort
You only have to take one look at the PI7 earbuds and their accompanying charging case to realise this is a premium product designed for audio connoisseurs and those with plenty of disposable income.
The buds weigh 8g apiece and have an unusual eye-catching design that sets them apart from most of the competition. Each bud comprises two distinct sections: a matte plastic housing and a metallic, touch-sensitive disc.
The housing is white or black depending on the version you buy, while the metallic discs are a dull gold, although they have more than a hint of gunmetal about them in certain lighting conditions. The luxurious aesthetic of the earbuds is mirrored by the charging case, which is all white (or black) save for a gold lid.
Three sets of different sized silicone eartips are included in the box, and using the largest pair I was able to achieve an extremely secure fit that provided impressive sound isolation. The fit proved comfortable for the most part, too. I say for the most part as, once in your ears, Bowers & Wilkins recommends you twist the buds to ensure their external microphones remain unobscured.
Doing so angled the eartips in such a way they started to feel a little uncomfortable after an hour or so, so I refrained from fully twisting them into a horizontal position. This meant the mics didn’t line up perfectly with the gaps in my ears, but call clarity didn’t seem to be affected.
It’s worth noting that the size and shape of the Bowers & Wilkins PI7 is likely to mean they’re not a great fit for everyone. If you have particularly small ears, the plastic housing may be too large to fit comfortably.
Bowers & Wilkins PI7 review: Pairing and features
Pairing the PI7 with smartphones and tablets running Android 6.0 and above couldn’t be easier thanks to support for Google Fast Pair. Simply pop open the lid, hold your earbuds near your Android device and you’ll receive a popup pairing prompt. Those unable to take advantage of this can put the PI7 in pairing mode by holding down a small button located inside the charging case for a couple of seconds.
While pairing is a breeze, I found the PI7’s Bluetooth connection a little patchy at times. It never dropped or stuttered while out and about but, in my flat, I experienced some cutting out when a couple of walls came between the earbuds and my smartphone. It’s not a huge deal but I was surprised to discover that Skullcandy’s Dime buds, which cost £30, maintained a stronger connection under the same conditions.
Once you’ve got your earbuds paired you’ll want to download the Bowers & Wilkins Headphones app (if you’ve not already got it) and add the PI7 to your list of devices. While not the most fully-featured companion app I’ve come across, it provides some handy customisation options. The key ones relate to the PI7’s noise-cancellation and ambient sound passthrough features, but there’s also an option to turn off the sensor that pauses audio when one or both of the buds are removed from your ears.
The app also provides you access to six soundscapes, relaxing ambient sounds from nature which you can use to unwind just before bed. Connecting the buds to the app upon taking them out of the case proved a little hit and miss, however; I’d occasionally be told they couldn’t be found despite being connected and in close proximity to my phone.
Those customisation options don’t cover the PI7’s touch controls, so you’ll have to make do with the default settings. One tap on either bud plays or pauses music and will accept an incoming call. A double tap on either bud skips to the next track and rejects calls, while a triple tap plays the previous track. Pressing and holding the touchpad on the left bud for one second toggles noise cancellation on and off, while the same action on the right bud summons your voice assistant (Siri and Google Assistant are both supported).
Touch controls are successfully implemented on the whole – they’re simple enough to not require customisation and responsive without ever feeling overly sensitive. I’d have loved to have seen volume controls included in some form, however.
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Bowers & Wilkins PI7 review: Audio retransmission
The PI7’s headline-grabbing feature is the charging case’s ability to function as a Bluetooth transmitter and broadcast audio from non-Bluetooth sources.
Plug the case into your output of choice using either of the supplied USB-C to USB-C or USB-C to 3.5mm cables and whatever audio is playing will automatically begin streaming through your earbuds over aptX Low Latency. I tested it with my Nintendo Switch and it worked wonderfully well, enabling me to enjoy wire- and lag-free audio with the console docked.
It will work with any analogue audio device, effectively adding Bluetooth functionality to old MP3 players, laptops and the in-flight entertainment systems found on aeroplanes. Throw a 1/4in headphone adapter jack on the end of the 3.5mm cable and the list of devices you can retransmit from grows even larger.
It’s an innovative feature and although I didn’t find myself using it a huge amount, it adds great flexibility to your listening options. But that’s not all. If you own another pair of B&W Bluetooth headphones such as the over-ear PX7 or neckband-style PI3, you can transmit audio to those, too. Sadly, the buds need to be in the case for you to do this, meaning you can’t retransmit audio and have two people listen simultaneously. It’s simple enough to set up, however. Connect the case to your chosen output via one of the cables and press the button on the front for three seconds to put it into pairing mode.
Put your other pair of headphones into pairing mode as well, press the front button again and you’re good to go. Without another pair of B&W headphones to hand I couldn’t test how well it works but the listening freedom it provides those invested in the B&W ecosystem is very welcome.
The charging case itself is larger than many on the market at 61 x 55 x 27mm (WHD) – presumably to help enable the retransmission feature – but is lightweight at 50g and has a flat lid that allows it to stand upright when the USB-C cable is plugged in.
Bowers & Wilkins PI7 review: Sound quality
As appealing as audio retransmission is, it’s not a feature that’s going to sell a pair of £350 earbuds on its own. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to, as it’s backed up by superb sound quality.
The PI7 use a hybrid driver setup, with each earbud housing a 9.2mm dynamic driver along with a balanced armature driver, with each powered by a separate amplifier. This arrangement, coupled with support for hi-res Bluetooth codecs and a frequency range of 10Hz to 20kHz, helps the PI7 deliver some of the best in-ear audio I’ve experienced.
Listening to various genre-specific Tidal Masters playlists over the aptX Adaptive codec was a delight and demonstrated the PI7’s capacity to handle any style of music thrown at them.
Bass and sub-bass reproduction across the Tidal Masters Hip-Hop playlist proved powerful yet controlled, without any hint of distortion when I pushed the volume to maximum. “Talkin’ Bout” by Loui featuring Saweetie possessed a rich low-end resonance that felt aurally enveloping but never sounded flabby.
Despite a warmth to the overall sound, the PI7 are nicely balanced. The potency and depth of the low end never gets in the way of the buds articulating other aspects of a musical arrangement.
Vocals on Diana Ross’s “Upside Down” were crisp, clean and silky smooth, while the PI7’s balanced armature drivers did a great job of communicating frequencies further up the audible spectrum on “I’m Coming Out”. At no stage did the iconic chorus sound harsh or piercing.
Those who favour a more neutral sound may turn their noses up at the way the PI7 artificially boost some frequencies, but personally I’m fine with a bit of tweaking here and there when the resulting audio hits home so effectively. That said, EQ adjustment wouldn’t have gone amiss and this is something the Bowers & Wilkins companion app lacks.
Bowers & Wilkins PI7 review: Noise cancellation
The PI7 can’t quite knock the Bose QC Earbuds off their perch as the most effective noise-cancelling earbuds available but they certainly give it a good shot.
Three microphones on each earbud handle ANC and their ability to reduce the impact of low-frequency sounds is excellent. Walking down my local high street, I was noticeably less aware of ambient sound, while on journeys to and from football the loud rumble of the train and tube was dampened to a faint hum.
Where the Bowers & Wilkins PI7 lose out to the Bose QC Earbuds is in their handling of higher-frequency sounds. Granted, no true wireless earbuds have really nailed this, but the Bose more effectively cancel out idle chatter, birds tweeting and the whistling emitting from a boiling kettle.
B&W’s buds do offer something the QC Earbuds don’t, however, and that’s automatic noise cancellation. When engaged via the companion app, the PI7’s noise cancellation will adjust depending on how much sound they detect in your environment. It’s similar to the tech used in Huawei’s FreeBuds Pro and the Sony WH-1000XM4 but, rather than automatically switching between different modes, the PI7 simply employ what they deem the appropriate level of cancellation at any given time.
You can’t see the different levels of noise-cancellation being applied, either, but while sitting in a quiet room and gradually increasing the amount of ambient noise I was able to pick up on the subtle shift in levels. I’m not entirely convinced how useful this is, however. In some situations, I felt that the auto mode didn’t offer quite enough noise cancellation so I found myself turning it off and simply using the default noise-cancelling setting.
In addition to noise cancellation, the PI7 have an ambient passthrough mode that lets in and enhances sounds from the outside world. It works very well when you need to tune in to what’s going on around you and can be used at the same time as ANC, which is unusual as most noise-cancelling earbuds force you to choose between one or the other. Unfortunately, there’s no way of controlling ambient passthrough without accessing the B&W app. Not being able to engage it via touch controls and quickly let sound in doesn’t render the feature completely redundant but certainly limits its usefulness.
Bowers & Wilkins PI7 review: Verdict
So, to the million-dollar (£350) question: should you buy the Bowers & Wilkins PI7? They’re the best-sounding noise-cancelling earbuds I’ve tested and although their ANC isn’t class-leading, it’s not far off. They also look great, fit comfortably (for me at least) and are well protected against dust and water.
On top of all of that you get audio retransmission, a clever feature no other earbuds I know of offer and one that opens up new listening options. If it’s something you’ll use regularly and you have the budget, I highly doubt you’ll experience any buyer’s remorse with the B&W PI7.
If you don’t see yourself taking advantage of audio retransmission, can live without hi-res audio or simply can’t justify the financial outlay, you’ll want to check out our pick of the best wireless earbuds and best noise-cancelling headphones for some great alternatives to the PI7.