I debated between these two headphones for ages, before finally settling on the Bose. But then I had the opportunity to buy the P5s as well. I don’t dare call myself an audiophile; I’m just a guy that appreciates good design buying the best tool for the job. So here’s my view on the two of these, and the loser gets sold on Craigslist. Fight!
Intended purpose- It’s pretty clear when you look at the accessories that these two headphones both have Apple devices in mind for use, but approach their intended use environments differently. Both come with two interchangeable cables: one straight through and one with Apple’s 3-button in-line microphone for use with iPhones and other devices. But the Bose come with a 90-degree two prong adapter for use on airline in-flight entertainment, where Bowers & Wilkins include a 1/4″ adaptor suited for plugging into a high end home stereo. Oddly, B&W’s cord from the headset doesn’t seem long enough for this purpose. Advantage: draw. Different intents makes this dependent on the owner’s intended use.
Fit, finish and design- There’s nothing wrong with the Bose. Objectively, they’re easily an 8 or more likely 9 on a 10 point scale. They’ve got a modern, high-tech vibe to the look of them, the door to battery compartment for the required AAA is well designed (my electronic ear-pro for shooting should be so nice), and the jack for replacing the audio cable doesn’t look prone to wear. My only complaint is that they’re so light they don’t feel as if there’s any substance to them, but then, who wants to wear a heavy headset for hours on end during a flight? But if the Bose are 9/10, then the P5 goes to 11. Slightly heavier than the QC15, they feel solid and well built. The P5 ‘phones have a classic, retro look that is both minimal and gorgeous. The lamb skin on-ear pads are easily removable with a magnetic base and show a remarkable attention to detail in every aspect. The Bose can be had in an on-ear design as well with the QC3, while the B&W offering is on-ear only. On-ear vs. over-ear (like the QC15) is something for bespectacled to consider for long term comfort, but the comparatively tiny ear pads of the P5 fold flatter and are dramatically more comfortable and less awkward when pulled down around the neck between listening sessions. With the Bose you pay for tech; with B&W you pay for materials. Advantage: Bowers & Wilkins P5.
Storage case- The Bose come in a well-designed semi-rigid case that zips around it’s perimeter. It’s slim, hold everything securely, and zipped up looks to provide a fair amount of protection from crushing- but don’t be unreasonable in your expectations. They’ve also eliminated the neck lanyard, which I think was a good move. The case is clean, and I can slip it in and out of my carry-on without any extra snagging, hassle, or awkwardness. The P5s come in a soft, lightly padded bag that secures with a magnetic flap. It’s one length of material done tri-fold like a wallet, with little side walls stitched onto it. Velvety on the inside, with a quilted exterior it looks… Bad. Like a ladies purse or something now trying too hard for retro chic, I don’t expect it provides much, if any, protection for the pricey headphones inside. This highlights again the difference in intended use between home and travel use, but I can use a travel case at home better than I can use a soft bag for travel, so… Advantage: Bose.
Controlled environment listening- player used was an iPhone 4S with the EQ off. I know audiophiles will lament that iPods don’t sound that good anyway, but both devices are clearly aimed at iCustomers with the in-line mic and remote. However, the EQ settings made everything sound worse in my opinion, so we’re going neutral from the audio source and letting the headphones sound come through.
- Daft Punk, Human After All- The P5s are much louder at the same volume, even with the hi/lo switch flipped on the QC15s. The bass is more pronounced, and highs are cleaner… The P5s win this one easily.
- Deanna Carter, Strawberry Wine- The QC15s sound very natural, a little echo as if this was being played live. I can hear the bass and highs, but something’s off in the mids… The P5s sound a little bit better again, but not much. The bass and mids aren’t mixed well on this track- but both headphones betray the need for good source input.
- Lenny Kravitz, I’ll Be Waiting- Started with the P5s this time. You can hear the chain on a snare drum shaking slightly in the background when it’s not even being played. Amazing. It’s like I can hear the mic he’s singing through. The QC15s just don’t have the bass response of the P5 so far, but it’s adequate and when this track gets heavily layered later in the song the elements are more distinct. Bose wins this one handily.
- Nightwish, Dark Chest of Wonders- There’s nothing like a heavy metal band playing with a full symphony to really test frequency response and range, right? Metal needs to be loud, and the P5s win that once again. The QC15 lack of bass lets the vocal overpower the instruments, but I found I preferred that to her voice being slightly more lost in the P5. I’d call this one a draw- neither are quite as nice as I think they could be. 95-98%, but not quite perfect.
- Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Last DJ- Between the opening twanging guitar and Tom’s vocals this is a song heavy on highs that still has a strong bass line. The P5s sound amazing on this track. The layers sound great. I am in love. The QC15 seem to balance the bass a little more, it still sounds great, but it doesn’t quite sound as much like you’re there in the room as the P5 this time. It’s like they’re too perfect.
- Muse, Starlight- The Bose sounded like a scientific reproduction again. Good, but… The P5 volume and bass help a lot on this track, but once the vocals come in there’s no question these are the better headphones for this track. The hint of echo and distinct highs, plus the texture in mids I’ve never heard before despite listening to this song lots of times before gives B&W the edge here for the vocals, but the music sounds better on the QC15.
- Michael Franti & Spearhead, Say Hey (I Love You)- The highs stayed distinct on the P5, but the bass almost ventured into being muddy. As if it was overpowering or lingering, drawing in some frequencies that shouldn’t be there. The QC15 just don’t have the bass response or volume I’d like, but on this track it works in Bose’s favor.
- Mike Posner, Cooler Than Me- Let’s take a techno/dance turn here. The P5 make the vocals sound great, and the synthpop music has a nice fast response, with crisp detail. The QC15 makes it sound like a digital recording of a voice instead of a natural voice, but the technologic approach Bose takes to sound quality makes the music come out clean as well.
- MC Chris, Nrrrd Girl- The QC15 handle his high pitched voice and rapid fire rapping just fine, but I’m left with a feeling that I’m missing some of the fullness that may be there. That said, it’s easy to listen to on the Bose. The P5 give me the fullness I felt like I was missing (thank you, bass), and doesn’t impede Chris’ voice. Bowers & Wilkins walks away with this one.
- LMFAO, Party Rock Anthem- Starting out on the P5, I can’t imagine this sounding any better. The layers sound cleanly distinct, the vibey synth textures can be heard apart from the clean sounds, the voices are clear, and it’s full-bodied. The QC15 still sound nice of course, but they’re just missing something. It’s like listening through a screen: everything is still there and all the elements are identifiable, and if I’d never heard the P5 I would think the bass was good, but it’s like listening to a recording again instead of the real thing. P5 win again.
- Joan Osborne, One of Us- This song really exploits stereo, arguably too much, but it gives a good mix of layers from different sides. The QC15 sound too perfect, like a machine copy. The P5 sound natural, like I’m in the room with the band.
- Gnarls Barkley, Crazy- I wasn’t even going to bother with the QC15 after listening with the P5 because of the song’s heavy bass line, but I’m glad I did. There’s an analog scratching layered on this song like a record player when the needle is on a silent part of the vinyl. I can hear it on the P5, and still give the overall win to B&W, but I didn’t notice it until I listened through the Bose.
- Foster the People, Pumped Up Kicks; B.o.B., Magic; Goat Rodeo Sessions, Attaboy- from synthpop to rap/rock to classical the bass and volume of the P5 just give a more natural and full bodied sound than the QC15. It’s a trade off. The QC15 never achieve the fullness of sound the P5 do, but the P5 sometimes give a little too much bass and make the mids muddy. But since the B&W only get muddy about 5% of the time, and the Bose never get loud enough or full enough sounding, the P5 win.
- Star Trek (2009)- digital copy downloaded via the DVD in the BluRay retail pack. Imported to iTunes and playing on a MacBook Pro. From the orchestral score, to voices, to special effects and ambient sounds, the Bowers & Wilkins just plain sound better. Richer and more natural, due to volume and bass. I don’t know if that’s fair or if the P5 are cheating somewhat by being biased toward these frequencies, but even the pew! pew! of phasers sounds better.
- Gaming- The P5 universally sounded better on what I tested. Running a 2011 MacBook Pro 15″, with Windows 7 and Steam I tested Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Braid, Mass Effect and Portal 2. What was shocking was the biggest difference in sound quality was on the “lower res” games BC:R and Braid. It was noticeable on Mass Effect and Portal 2, but the gameplay and stories are so good they keep the sound from being too critical a feature (when both headsets are very good anyway).
In-flight listening- Here’s where the Bose QuietComfort were designed to be used, and it shows. The Bowers & Wilkins P5 are very, very good headsets, but very poor earmuffs. Spoken word podcasts were difficult to hear or irritating between words when the roar of the engine would intrude. They were only acceptable during a flight when listening to music as an alternative source of noise. The Bose, on the other hand, can be switched on for noise cancelling even when you’re not listening to anything at all. I always find myself wishing they even quieter still, but the fact remains they’re the best choice to quiet a noisy flight. From trying to sleep, read a book, and listen to spoken word podcasts or audiobooks the only real choice here is Bose.
Conclusion- So which should you buy? Honestly, it all goes back to the beginning of this comparison, the intended purpose paragraph; I’ve gone back on my original idea of selling the loser on Craigslist and am going to keep both, but that’s just me. The fact is, the Bowers & Wilkins P5 just plain sound better and don’t require batteries. For day-to-day listening and Apple white earbud replacement, they’re a better choice and that’s really the end of the discussion. But I travel, and as I’ve talked about, sometimes for long periods of time. There’s just no question that the Bose are superior for in-flight peace of mind. (Frankly, they were the only thing that kept me sane on an awful Delta flight I’ll talk about in the future.) The Bose would collect dust while I’m at home, if not for their wonderful case, but I’m going to keep them in my suitcase awaiting my next deployment.
The Bose sound about 85-90% as good as the Bowers & Wilkins, require a single AAA battery for operation, but can be used for simple peace and quiet and more applications when traveling. If I had to recommend just one, the Bose QuietComfort would be the winner. The Bowers & Wilkins P5 would be my recommendation if you fly less than once annually, and never more than 4-5 hours at a time. They’re comfortable for much longer stretches, but the constant noise (to drown out a flight) would drive me mad.
And not discussed here are Beats by Dr. Dre. They’re truly awful; another over-priced product from Monster, way too bass-heavy and unbalanced, and not recommended under any circumstance. (Despite the fact that I love their modern design.)