Bowers & Wilkins PI3 full review
Bowers & Wilkins has once again updated its line of headphones, this time including wireless in-ears which feature dual drivers and quick charging. We've put the sports PI3 neckbuds to the test in our full review.
The cheapest wireless headphones in the B&W range might not be what you might consider cheap at £169/$199. But these are well worth considering if you’re in a market for a pair of in-ear wireless headphones that have good battery life, great build quality and are among the best sounding earphones we’ve heard at this price.
Design & Features
There are plenty of people that don’t want to carry large over-ear headphones around with them on trips, commutes and even to the gym. But they don’t want to sacrifice the sound quality, and especially the bass, of their larger brethren. Bowers & Wilkins has introduced two very capable in-ear headphones that try to give us that full-bodied sound, but in a much smaller package, at just 31g in fact.
The PI3s are the entry-level model from the world-renowned speaker manufacturer. They are the only non-noise cancelling models in the latest 'PI' lineup so look to the PI4 if that's a feature you need.
The earphones use the neckband design, often called neckbuds, and are solidly made of metal, soft coated silicon and rubber in either space grey, gold or blue. On the left side of the band you will only find the power button. On the right are volume up and down, and a centre multi-function button for play/stop, next and previous track.
There is also a very welcome USB C port for charging and a small LED which can provide information on the status of the battery life, charging, Bluetooth pairing, and incoming calls. A tiny mic is also present, for said calls. Call quality was fine.
The earbuds come with small, medium and large silicone tips and stabiliser fins for precise fitting in your ear. This is crucial as you need a good seal between your ear canal and the earpieces to get the best sound quality. It’s advised to try them all, until you find the right fit, as otherwise the earpieces are loose and can, and will, fall out.
Once we found a good fit, the earbuds stayed in place quite well. Even using them while doing a 5km run was fine. Unfortunately, they can become a little uncomfortable to have in your ears for a prolonged period of time.
The PI3s use the latest Bluetooth 5.0 technology with aptX-Adaptive, AptX-HD, AptX-Classic, and AAC. They also support SBC if your device is that old - However, you will probably not benefit from their sound reproduction if using these old technologies.
Battery life is quite good, and it should be. There is space in the neckband for a decent size battery. Bowers claims eight hours on a full charge and we managed to use the PI3 on a single charge for four days, commuting one hour each way totalling the eight hours.
The headphones also feature a fast charge option where you can get about two hours of usage from a 15 minute charge. Handy if you’ve just realised your headphones are dead and you need to rush out the door.
Lastly, although they have a sporty design, the PI3s are not weather-sealed or waterproof. So you need to keep that in mind and take care when cleaning them. An included storage pouch should provide adequate protection when they’re not in your ears, or clipped together, by magnets, around your neck.
The PI3 sports two custom designed Hybrid Dynamic-Balanced Armature drive units in each earpiece. One for the highs and mids, and a separate driver for bass. This is highly unusual with most headphones offering a single driver per earbud.
Each unit is then powered by its own dedicated amplifier, four in total then. This is what B&W refers to as “World-first fully active 2-way wireless earbuds”. It’s pretty impressive and is the reason the PI3s can reproduce a wide and accurate soundstage.
After a few days of burning them in, the PI3 started to really shine with punchy and very detailed sound. Vocals are especially pronounced and are quite forward, compared to our old reference Sennheiser IE80 wired in-ears which we use daily.
Using Qobuz to stream CD quality FLAC files we first listen to Nirvana’s The man who sold the world, the PI3s bring Kobain’s voice right in front of you, much more so than the IE80 do, which are a bit more laid back.
Changing to a more pop oriented sound, we then listened to Charlotte Day Willson’s Work - from her debut EP album. This is where we really notice that slam you usually get from much bigger drivers in over-ear headphones. Having a dedicated bass driver does make a difference.
Again detail here is very good, however it can sometimes become a little harsh. This, however, could be down to the mastering and compression used in pop song to make them sound louder and more exiting. The IE80’s seem to do a little better here as they have a nicer high-end roll-off which makes them easier to listen to over time. But it’s nothing to really worry about, and unless you’re very sensitive. These will be more then good enough.
Finally going to Thomas Newman’s Dead Already track from the American Beauty soundtrack, we experience outstanding bass reproduction. The PI3s are very impressive here, and we have no doubt, if you’re into your heavy bass, you will not be disappointed. So don’t dismiss them just because they’re in-ear headphones. Separation is also very good here, and you can easily place individual instruments around you. Soundstage is good, but our Sennheiser’s just seem to lift voices a little more.
We thought we’d also try our wireless Samsung Galaxy Buds as a comparison. The Buds are tiny and cost £139. While good, they have nothing on the Bowers & Wilkins PI3. The detail is gone and the bass seems all but lost. Quickly going back to the PI3s and the music is back. These 9.2mm drive units really do produce a high-end sound, and having two of them in each earpiece just makes you realised how much of the sound you were missing.
Bowers & Wilkins has created an interesting pair of in-ear headphones with the PI3.
Sure, they’re not the cheapest, compared to other similar pairs, and they are a neckband design which will not suit everyone's taste but you do get what you pay for here. And although “budget” for the company, these are still very much a premium product.
If you don’t like to compromise on sound quality, they are in fact great value and come highly recommended from us. If however, you’re after a noise-cancelling pair, you will need to look higher up the product portfolio, to the PI4, which do offer that feature.
Our main complaint is the lack of waterproofing despite being aimed for sports use.
Bowers & Wilkins PI3: Specs
- Dual Drivers (9.2mm, Balanced Armature)
- Soft, Coated Silicone & Rubber Wires
- 8 Hours battery life, 15 min quick charge for 2 hours playback
- Space Grey, Blue, Gold