It’s been a few years since we’ve seen something genuinely innovative in a pair of wireless earbuds that goes beyond improved battery life or better noise cancellation. But Bowers & Wilkins’ new PI7 earbuds allow you to stream audio from any device with a headphone jack using a neat trick, and while it’s a useful feature on an excellent set of headphones, it might not completely justify the steep $400 price tag.
The Bowers & Wilkins’ PI7s are also the latest wireless earbuds to broaden an ever-growing price gap for these kinds of devices. The PI7s are some of the most expensive wireless earbuds you can buy right now, while at the other end of the spectrum, companies like Skullcandy are releasing $25 alternatives that sound quite good given the price. With the PI7s, Bowers & Wilkins strives to justify that cost by including every premium feature a user could want in a pair of wireless earbuds, plus something new.
If there’s one thing I love about the PI7s, it’s that they’re some of the nicest looking earbuds I’ve ever tested. Available with either a black or white plastic base, both versions feature metal accents with an understated brass-like finish that looks quite nice.
The touch-sensitive button on the outside of each earbud features an engraved concentric circle pattern that adds to the premium look. However, I still tend to prefer physical buttons on wireless earbuds since I find that taps either uncomfortably push buds farther into my ears or dislodge them. But the touch buttons on the PI7s work just fine and are sensitive enough so that even gentle taps and presses can be used to control music playback, handle calls, or activate a smart assistant.
The PI7s are also very comfortable to wear, with the extended part of the earbud’s main body easily tucking into the folds of the ear for added grip. It’s a design approach that many headphone makers have been using with their wireless earbuds, including Master & Dynamic and its MW08s, and I much prefer it to the silicone grip accessories included with many sport earbuds. I had no trouble with these staying in my years while jogging on a treadmill.
The performance of wireless earbuds, how comfortable they are, and how well they stay in your ears is very much dependent on finding the perfect sized eartip for them, and I have to say I’m a little disappointed that Bowers & Wilkins includes just three sizes of silicone tips with the PI7s. Cheaper alternatives like the Klipsch T5 II True Wireless come with six different size options that ensure every user is going to be able to find the optimal fit, as well as a pair of memory foam alternatives. For $400, I feel the PI7s should have included a few additional size options.
The PI7's not-so-subtly branded charging case is an all-plastic affair, but that’s not necessarily something to complain about because it’s also lightweight and is compatible with wireless charging pads. If you’re pressed for time, a USB-C port on the bottom of the case can also be connected to a wall plug for a faster charge.
Wireless charging is convenient and I’m glad to see it included, but the PI7's charging case is one of the largest I’ve tested—and much larger than the AirPods Pro case, which can also be charged wirelessly. The added wireless transmission capabilities are partly to blame, but not the case’s rechargeable battery. The AirPods Pro promise five hours of playback on a charge and up to 24 hours with the charging case, but the Bowers & Wilkins muster just four hours on their own, or up to 20 hours in total with the case. Given their price tag, I put Bowers & Wilkins’ earbuds more in competition with Master & Dynamic’s. With 12 hours per charge and 42 in total with their charging case, the MW08s absolutely trash the PI7s on battery life—and cost $100 less.
Where the Bowers & Wilkins PI7s truly excel is with sound quality. They’re easily among the best-sounding wireless earbuds I’ve ever tested with excellent separation between the highs and lows and very satisfying bass reproduction. But after testing them for a week I don’t think they have quite as wide a frequency response as the Master & Dynamic MW08s do, which continue to impress me more and more as I pit them against pricier alternatives.
The PI7s also deliver some of the best active noise cancellation in a pair of wireless earbuds, easily besting the AirPods Pro but matching what the MW08s are capable of as both Master & Dynamic and Bowers & Wilkins managed to squeeze three microphones into each earbud. If I had to choose between the two, I’d say that the PI7s offer more aggressive noise cancellation, and did a slightly better job at masking the lower frequencies of simulated noises in an airplane cabin.
The microphone array in each earbud also powers the PI7s’ pass-through mode, which is used to boost surrounding sounds so that you’re not completely oblivious to the world around you when using them. And although the accompanying Bowers & Wilkins app is a little on the basic side, with no options for changing the earbuds’ sound profile or a tweakable EQ, it does offer an adjustable slider for that ambient pass-through mode so you can find the perfect balance between what you want to listen to and what you should be listening to, depending on where you’re using them.
The one feature that sets the PI7s apart from the competition is what Bowers & Wilkins calls “audio retransmission” which allows the charging case to stream audio to the earbuds from any device with a standard headphone jack, even one released 40 years ago. A button on the side of the case activates this feature, and being able to play the Nintendo Switch and the Nintendo Game Boy with wireless earbuds is truly a killer feature. That said, the feature is entirely dependent on a USB-C-to-3.5mm adapter cable, which you’re always going to have to remember to have on hand. It would have been nice to somehow have this cable integrated into the charging case to ensure it never went missing.
As great as it is to have this extra retransmission functionality built into the PI7s, it’s not exactly a new idea, and at this point you can get a cheap and compact Bluetooth transmitter that does the same thing for about $20. So as solid as Bowers & Wilkins’ PI7s are, the $400 price point is a really difficult hurdle to overcome. If they were the best sounding wireless earbuds I’d ever stuck in my ears, I’d be tempted to recommend them for anyone looking for a premium experience, but I don’t think they truly beat the Master & Dynamic MW08s on the features that are most important: sound quality and battery life. For what’s really important, there are better, cheaper alternatives.