It’s not exactly a game of two halves, but there’s a definite and obvious difference between the success Bowers & Wilkins has been enjoying with its ranges of over-ear and in-ear wireless headphones. The former are expensive, but get so much right that the asking price seems fair enough. The latter are expensive, but struggle a little to justify it in a market that’s beyond saturated.
Naturally, this situation doesn’t sit well with Bowers & Wilkins. So here is the second generation of its range-topping Pi7 true wireless in-ear headphones, designed to make the premium nature of their price seem absolutely fair enough.
One aspect of the Pi7 that required little-or-no attention, despite the lofty asking price, was sound quality. So the company has (understandably) basically left well enough alone.
The Pi7 S2 are supremely unconcerned about the sort of music you like to listen to. They’re not even all that picky about the quality of the audio files you select (although naturally they do their best work with appropriately chunky file sizes). What they are, though, in virtually every circumstance, is an energetic and entertaining listen.
Low frequencies, for example, are deep and hard-hitting - but they’re loaded with fine detail at the same time, and enjoy plenty of tonal variation. Attack and decay are managed well, which helps the Pi7 S2 express rhythms with real authority. The transition into the midrange is managed with aplomb, and once up there the B&W give voices all the nuance, all the character and all the attitude they demand. And because the earbuds create such a large and convincing soundstage, a singer gets all the space they require to communicate with real immediacy and eloquence. The top end, too, is lavishly detailed and confidently described - but it doesn’t sound entirely of a piece with all the stuff going on beneath it. It has a slightly different tonal emphasis and attitude - but it’s not so far removed from the rest of the frequency information that the timing or the togetherness of the sound is affected.
The Pi7 S2 are brilliantly alert to small harmonic variations, and equally adept at putting their foot to the floor when big dynamic shifts occur in a recording. But while they can make the difference between ‘very quiet’ and ‘prodigiously loud’ in a recording apparent, they’re not especially fond of playing at prodigiously loud levels themselves. Some listeners may hanker after greater out-and-out volume.
The active noise-cancellation is pretty good, too - although you should bear in mind that ‘pretty good’ is a bit of a distance off the pace when compared to the best noise-cancelling earbuds around (which are, inevitably, more affordable than this too). The Pi7 S2 can minimise external sounds, for sure, and they can do so without altering their sonic characteristics - but there’s a strong suggestion of ‘noise reduction’ rather than outright ‘cancellation’ here.
Differences between this new S2 version and the product it replaces aren’t immediately obvious. In fact, they’re not all that obvious even if you squint. The biggest changes, in fact, centre around battery life and wireless connectivity - both were no better than humdrum in the original Pi7, and both were ripe for improvement.
So the Pi7 S2, like the outgoing Pi7, use Bluetooth 5.0 (with aptX Adaptive compatibility) for wireless connectivity. This means the earbuds can handle the wireless transmission of hi-res digital audio files - transmission between earbuds happens at 24bit/48kHz standard. But thanks to a redesigned and repositioned antenna in each earbud’s endcap (and a more transparent material for the endcap itself), wireless stability is improved and the Bluetooth range is now 25 metres, double that of its predecessor.
Battery life is up to a better-but-still-nothing-special five hours from the earbuds, within another 16 hours or so in the charging case. A quick 15-minute blast of power should be good for another couple of hours of playback, and the charging case remains a retransmission device, able to turn any source that can plug into its USB-C socket into a wireless source. When the Pi7 launched, this was a unique feature - it’s not any longer, but it’s still rare and still eminently worthwhile.
After that, though, it’s ‘as you were’. That means a 9.2mm dynamic driver plus high-frequency balanced armature in each earbud, and a total of four independent blocks of amplification. Each earbud has a three-mic array taking care of call quality, the adaptive active noise-cancellation, and voice-assistant interaction.
As well as your source player’s native voice assistant, control is available via a capacitive touch-surface on each earcap - ‘play/pause’, ‘skip forwards/backwards’, ‘summon voice assistant’ and ‘answer/end/reject call’ are all available. Volume adjustment, though, is conspicuous by its absence.
Or there’s the Bowers & Wilkins ‘Music’ app, free for iOS and Android. Here’s where you can fiddle with the sort of ANC you get (‘on’, ‘off’ or ‘auto’, which most other brands call ‘adaptive’), or integrate your favourite music streaming service(s), or - praise be! - adjust volume levels. It’s not an especially extensive or especially tidy app, but it’s stable and useful as far as it goes.
A premium price like this demands premium performance - and in many ways that’s exactly what the Pi7 S2 provide. They’re a lively and entertaining listen, if not as downright loud as they might be, and their wireless performance is much improved over the model they replace. The retransmission case remains a lovely feature, and the look and feel of the overall package goes a long way to justifying the asking price. They don’t quite have what it takes to make them a default choice at the money, but they need - demand, even - to be on your shortlist.
Roots Manuva Baptism
A skeletal recording with some absolutely seismic bass activity, this is a stern test of low-frequency extension and soundstaging. Plus the midrange has a lot of explicit South London invective to hand over at the same time.
Sparks Dick Around
By our calculations, this is at least four songs welded together in the manner of a cut ’n’ shut. Dynamism, scale and midrange fidelity all get a proper workout here, as do control of attack and decay. ‘Control’ can’t be at the expense of ‘entertainment’, though, because this is a thoroughly giddy recording that needs to sound it.
Wet Leg Loving You
One of the few reflective moments on a mostly hectic debut album, Loving You is simultaneously intimate and detached, potty-mouthed and desperately needy. Tonal fidelity and variation is what’s required here, if only to make the differences in the numerous percussive elements apparent.
You buy Pi7 S2 because you like nice things, you like a brand with a flawless reputation, and you like to be able to listen wirelessly to sources of music that ordinarily require a wire or two.