The true wireless earbud market is on fire right now, at almost every budget level. But according to reviewers (ours included), Sony is the king of the ultra-premium hill. A smaller audiophile brand, Bowers & Wilkins, aims to usurp the throne with its very first set of TWEs, the PI7.
How did he do? Well, not great. While the earbuds are super comfy, stylish, and the Bluetooth transmitter case is a brilliant add-on, the active noise cancellation isn’t top of the line (or even mid-range) at all. That makes these otherwise insignificant gems a tough sell at their $ 400 price point.
Design, hardware and what’s in the box
The PI7 set has a rather standard design, with a case that closely resembles Sony’s XF-1000XM3. The buds are quite unique, though: stiff white cylinders with golden tops and accents. There’s even a darker gold-on-black pattern if that’s more your style. It’s a minimalist shape that I found to fit my ears, despite being bigger and heavier for true wireless earbuds.
On each bud you’ll find two microphones, sensors that detect ear positioning, and the large flat circle on the outside for touch controls. The smooth, flattened surfaces are more resistant to oil and wax pickup than others I’ve tried. The fit isn’t as good as my comfortable earbuds, the Galaxy Buds +, but I’ve found them much easier to wear for longer periods of time than Sony’s latest models. For a product that literally touches you the entire time you use it, this is a big plus.
The case is pretty much what you’d expect: a little larger than Samsung and Apple’s small designs, but not burdensome in any way. Magnets secure both the lid of the case and the buds themselves, and I never feared that the case would inadvertently open. Notice the two different pairing buttons: one inside and one outside. The latter has to do with the Bluetooth functionality of the case’s audio jack, which we’ll talk about later.
Included in the box are the earphones and the case, two alternative sizes of silicone tips (for a total of three), a USB-CaC charging cable (without brick) and the USB-Ca-headphone adapter cable.
Sound quality and extra features
It’s a shame that some of the less tangible aspects of these headphones are missing because the sound is great. While the profile is pretty heavy and lacks some depth in the highs, I know it’s not a problem for many listeners with their favorite genres.
The PI7’s drivers are 9.5mm wide, larger than most TWEs by a significant margin, which I suspect is what provides those full-bodied bass. It’s not surprising for my listening habits (mostly spoken word), but the sound is undeniably good. And that boosted bass is one of the points where the PI7 excels over the competition.
The other points? Not so much. The Bowers & Wilkins app doesn’t include a built-in equalizer, so I couldn’t judge the buds in a wider capacity. And their active noise cancellation feature is, sadly, almost non-existent. I had to strain my ears to detect a lot of difference between modes with the ANC on or off, ditto with audio pass-through enabled.
On a budget or mid-range gem set, this would be a shame. On a set that costs $ 400, it must be a headache for most users. The market has simply advanced too far to be competitive.
The distinguishing feature of the PI7, compared to the competition and B&W’s cheaper PI5 set, is its case’s ability to double as a Bluetooth transmitter. If you’d like to hear audio from a gadget that doesn’t have Bluetooth, like an old-school CD player, connect the case to the source via the included USB-C to 3.5mm cable. Use the big button on the case to connect it to the buds and you are good to go.
This is a brilliant feature, especially for a brand that deals with classic hi-fi equipment. Unfortunately, I have found that fidelity is where it fails. The case does a poor job of translating analog audio to digital for Bluetooth playback; I’m not an audiophile, but I guess its built-in DAC isn’t up to par. Audio heard in this mode is tinny and lacks the depth it gets from a solid connection with my phone or computer.
And speaking of connections: it’s not great. The PI7 will start stammering about fifteen feet from the source, less than half the range I get from other true wireless earbuds. This is especially true when using the case as a Bluetooth adapter; in this mode I often find one bud or the other that struggles to maintain its connection even when I was close. I think anyone interested in this feature would be better served by a high quality dedicated Bluetooth adapter.
The only other advantage the PI7 has over the competition is a collection of relaxing soundscapes in the app. Six sets of “white noise”, from ocean waves to rustling leaves to crackling fire, can be played with a sleep timer. Even if you often fall asleep with earphones (and I don’t), you can replicate it with any number of free apps or websites. Not bad, but not a clear advantage either.
Battery life and controls
With ANC active, I have found that PI7 gains around 4-5 hours of life on buds, although this drops rapidly if you are on call. The case can handle three to four charges, which means the combo should get you through a weekend of travel, although you may find yourself completing it if you’re a heavy user. To help with this, the case uses USB-C wired and Qi wireless charging.
While the PI7’s large, flat touchpads are great for finding by finger touch – something too many manufacturers overlook for a product you can’t actually see while in use – I found their actual options lacking. The app (again clearly inspired by Sony) doesn’t offer any options for tweaking the controls themselves.
It’s the usual mix of touches and waits for calls and music. But there is no option to change the volume, which I would have preferred over switching between ANC and pass-through, which I never intentionally used. A missed opportunity.
Should you buy it?
Bowser & Wilkins PI7 earphones
No, sorry. The B&W PI7 sounds great, is comfortable, and has an eye-catching feature in its Bluetooth transmitter. It’s too damn expensive to justify its poor noise cancellation, connection issues, and lack of options.
Audiophiles might be intrigued by the Bowers & Wilkins brand, but these buds are a first-generation product. Those looking for exquisite audio quality should take a look at the alternatives from Apple or Sony. Even at the full recommended price, you can add a dedicated Bluetooth adapter for the same price.
There is a lot of promise in this design, but to compete, B&W will have to drastically improve its noise-canceling chops and work on stabilizing the Bluetooth connection. Or if not, drastically reduce the price. I look forward to seeing further efforts from the company in this direction.
Buy it if …
- You value great sound (especially bass) and comfort above all else.
- You really, really want a Bluetooth audio adapter without carrying an extra gadget with you.
Don’t buy it if …
- You think $ 400 is too much for earphones.
- Listen in loud environments and you want good noise cancellation.