I was shaken and stirred by the Bowers & Wilkins P5 on-ear headphones back in 2010. It set a new standard for sumptuous sound and build quality for very small, on-ear headphones. Designed with portable music players and phones in mind, the P5 was definitely a step up from most ear buds, and the sound was easy to listen to over the long haul. The P5 ($300) is still around, but B & W recently introduced a similar, but less expensive model, the P3 ($200).
When I unboxed the new one I decided to first judge it without directly comparing it with the P5. I liked what I heard from the P3, and thought it was a clearer, brighter-sounding headphone, which wouldn't be a bad thing. It looked great, not quite a clone of the P5, but the resemblance was there. The P3's ear pads are cloth covered, which are more comfortable than the P5's leather clad covers, which make my ears sweat in warm weather. I really liked the P3, and even thought it might be better than the P5!
Then I listened to the two headphones side by side, and found the P5 really is a better, in a more refined-sounding sort of way, headphone. It sounds like a more expensive version of the P3, and that's what it is. Those B & W engineers are a smart group, and my guess is the P3 represents their best shot at making a P5 that sells for $100 less. Mickey Hart's "Planet Drum" percussion album zeroed in on exactly what distinguishes one headphone from the other. The crisp smack of hand drums is more realistic over the P5, the P3 blunts the attack, distancing the listener from the music. The P3 sounds perfectly fine on its own, until you hear the P5. The big drums' thundering low end goes just as deep on both 'phones, but the P5's bass feels more controlled and defined. So if you can comfortably afford the P5, go for it. If that would be a stretch, get the P3 and enjoy it.
But hold on a second, what about the V-Moda M-80 Crossfade ($230)? It's another small, closed-back on-ear headphone, so how does it compare with the two B & Ws? Design-wise, the look is aimed at a younger demographic, and the build quality is on par with the more expensive P5. Sonically, it's not as open and spacious as either B & W, the sound is more "canned," but the M-80's bass has a solidity and kick that outclasses the other two headphones. I love the M-80's bottom end. It's the best I've heard from a small on-ear headphone in the M-80's price class.
Neil Young's recent "Love and War," with just Young's vocal and guitar, had tremendous presence and immediacy. It's an emotionally charged tune, and the M-80 makes it real. The P5 opens up the space, moves Young back a smidge, and I like that too, it's a slightly different perspective. Switching over to classical music, the P5 really comes into its own, orchestral strings sound fuller, and the headphone's soundstage depth brings out the best in the music. The M-80 sounds tonally thinner and I missed the P5's more expansive presentation, but the M-80 rocks harder than the B & Ws. Oh, and the P3 is the only one of the three headphones that folds for compact storage.
That's the way the three headphones sounded with my iPod Classic, but I had a feeling they might sound better plugged into a decent USB headphone amp, like FiiO's tiny E10 ($69). The P5 and P3's transparency and air showed significant improvement with the E10, and the M-80's already amazing bass was even better. The clarity and definition gains with all three headphones were impressive.