Bowers & Wilkins PI7 review: Top-end true wireless earbuds

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(Pocket-lint) - Bowers & Wilkins is a long-established, highly respected audio brand, that has catered to audiophiles globally for many years. Because of this, it is not exactly the fastest out of the blocks when it comes to new technologies.

Every new product category that emerges in the audio-sphere is dealt with a considered approach, rather than rushed out to get something onto the market quick as possible. After all, a reputation is only as good as the last product.

Such is the case with true wireless headphones. In many respects, Bowers & Wilkins is late to the party. But, in the PI7 earbuds, it has brought the audio equivalent of a fine, matured bottle of wine.

That's because the PI7 is a product of hindsight. The manufacturer has seen - or, more to the point, heard - what its competition has delivered in the last couple of years and crafted a pair of wireless in-ears that can compete at the very top end, while adding a few bells and whistles of their own.

Unboxing

  • Case dimensions: 60 x 28 x 57mm / Weight: 61g
  • Small, medium, large eartips included
  • Audio retransmission function

That starts with the charging case. The PI7 earbuds come in a beautifully designed yet simple case. It's not the smallest we've seen, but will easily slip into a pocket and has a few surprises up its sleeve to justify any extra girth.

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Bowers and Wilkins PI7 review images photo 5

It comes with both a wired port (USB-C) and support for Qi wireless charging too. There is also a large Bluetooth button on the case itself, to enable pairing without the need to take the 'buds out first.

As well as store a decent amount of charge - a claimed 16 hours, enough to recharge the buds four times - the case can double as a Bluetooth transmitter. Using an included adapter, you can connect the case to an audio output, such as a 3.5mm port on a plane seat, and therefore get wireless sound from a wired source. This is a nifty trick and one that few peers have offered in the past. We've had to use a separate adapter in the past, such as the RHA Wireless Flight Adapter. The function will also work with other Bowers & Wilkins wireless headphones, such as the PX7, so you can stream usually wired-only connections to them too.

Design and fit

  • Touch controls
  • Weight: 7g (per earbud)
  • Finishes: White, Charcoal
  • IP54 dust- and water-resistant

The PI7 in-ears are very well designed - sleek and light, with smooth plastic used for the 'buds and brushed metal metallic elements on the outer tips. In all honesty, while supposedly gold, the metal segments look more like gunmetal in most lighting.

As well as the white version we tested, you can get them in charcoal - black, really. Either way, these are premium-looking true wireless earbuds that aren't quite as small as Apple's AirPods, but more tidy than other rivals we could mention.

The eartips are silicone, with extra sizes included in the box - small and large - that accompany the medium ones already in place. It's important you find the right fit as, on each earbud, there are capacitive sensors that can tell when you are wearing them or not.

This enables automatic play and pause functionality and, we found, a loose fit can result in music pausing and replaying when you are walking. It's annoying, although a better fit does eliminate that issue and, even if not, you can turn off the feature in the Bowers & Wilkins Headphones app. There are also touch controls on the earbuds, for pause and play.

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Bowers and Wilkins PI7 review images photo 17

The final design feature is water and dust proofing. It's only IP54 - similar to Apple's AirPods - so not suitable for submerging, but fine for a workout, say. In all honesty, it's unlikely you'll go for a run with these 'buds in as they aren't as stable in the ear as dedicated fitness earbuds.

Set-up and battery life

  • Bowers & Wilkins Headphones app
  • Fast-charging and wireless charging support
  • Battery life: 4 hours per charge, 16 additional hours from case

Setting up the Bowers & Wilkins PI7 in-ears is a doddle. For iPhone users, you just need to head to your Bluetooth settings screen and press the button inside the case for a couple of seconds. The headphones should then appear in your list for connection.

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Bowers and Wilkins PI7 review images photo 3

It's even easier on Android devices with Google Fast Pair enabled. Just place the case nearby and open the case lid. Then follow the instructions on your phone.

You also need to download the Bowers & Wilkins Headphones app to control a couple of the features and/or update the earbuds or their case. Once paired via Bluetooth, you can search for your in-ears through the app - this will bring up a dedicated settings section.

The app will also show you the battery status of each earbud and the case. It gives you control over the adaptive noise-cancellation (ANC) - switching it on or off, or choosing whether to have it automatically adjust depending on your surroundings. You can also change the strength of any ambient noise you'd like to admit via a transparency slider.

Battery life is claimed to be up to four hours of playback for each 'bud, with a further 16 hours from the case. In all our tests, including commutes and general travel, we found it to be there or thereabouts. With the wireless charging capability of the case, it's nice to just place it on a Qi charging mat when you get home anyway.

Those looking at various competitors will note this battery life is rather low by true wireless earbuds standards though.

Performance

  • 9.2mm dynamic drive unit with balanced armature drive unit
  • Frequency response: 10Hz - 20,000Hz
  • Active Noise Cancellation (ANC)
  • Bluetooth 5.0 (aptX Adaptive)
  • True 24-bit connectivity

There are two factors to consider when it comes to performance - audio and ANC.

We cannot fault the former. Bowers & Wilkins is a company founded on providing audiophile standard products and thus has applied all its expertise here. These are just earbuds, so are restricted by their size and purpose, but by Jiminy are they good ones.

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Bowers and Wilkins PI7 review images photo 16

We've been treated to some excellent true wireless 'buds in recent times - not least the Sony WF-1000XM4 - however, the PI7s are right up there in terms of musicality. All the boxes are ticked for spacing, bass response and clarity, while the sound signature is so neutral and natural that they suit any type of track.

That's almost entirely thanks to each ear containing a 9.2mm dynamic, balanced armature driver. It's considerably large for such small buds, so can shift more air. The end result is volume and crispness.

We tested them across multiple music genres and video playback - there was nothing they couldn't handle with aplomb. And, with aptX Adaptive support, including low-latency and aptX HD, they offer near lossless playback capabilities when streamed to from a compatible Android device.

We do love to use the Bond theme No Time to Die by Billie Eilish as a test track and her breathy delivery was rendered precisely by the PI7s.

Led Zeppelin's Bring it on Home (remastered) sounded deep, involving, and with excellent separation. As too did The Kink's Shangri-La. While it is weird writing about the imperfections in a recording, they are often what makes a certain version so good, and every squeaky guitar slide is picked out by these headphones.

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Low frequencies are great too - with the whomping bass lines of Leftfield's Afro Left giving any Beats in-ears a run for their money.

Let's face it though, these Bowers & Wilkins 'buds will be used for more than just music playback, so it's important to note they are equally capable for video viewing. Netflix's Altered Carbon has a superb soundmix across its two seasons and you get a real sense of breadth.

When it comes to noise cancellation, it must be remembered that Bowers & Wilkins is relatively new to the game, so don't expect the same quality of ANC you might find elsewhere. Like its already starting to prove with its over-ears, it needs time to get it right, but there's still a more-than decent blockage of ambient sounds without overly impacting the audio presentation.

In fact, we tested the PI7s while mowing the lawn - a considerably noisy pursuit at the best of times - and felt our musical accompaniment continued to be involving and relatively unobstructed. You probably won't want to wear them on a long haul flight, but the ANC is fine for a short hop, bus ride or train travel.

Verdict

So, while the ANC is not as mature as others on the market, the 'buds themselves are very easy to recommend - especially if you care about your music. Superlative sound quality is a Bowers & Wilkins trait and it has imparted its wisdom on these flagship in-ears.

As they cost almost double a pair of Apple AirPods Pro, there's no getting away from the fact that they are expensive - there's another model, the PI5 for those on a tighter budget - but they are very much housed in the premium category. And, as we've seen in other audio sectors, you really do get what you pay for when it comes to audiophile standard performance.

So, minor quibbles aside, Bowers & Wilkins' entry to the TWS earphones market in well received in these quarters. This is a highly impressive start.

Also consider

Sony WF-1000XM4

If you want epic active noise-cancelling (ANC) then the fourth-gen Sony in-ears are hard to beat.

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Writing by Rik Henderson. Editing by Mike Lowe. Originally published on 22 April 2021.

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