Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2 review: Excellent sound only goes so far
The company’s stellar audio isn’t enough to overcome key deficiencies.
Bowers & Wilkins is on a bit of a roll. The company debuted two stellar-sounding sets of headphones in 2022: the Px7 S2 and the Px8. To kick off 2023, it revealed revamped versions of its true wireless earbuds. The more premium Pi7 S2 sits above the Pi5 S2 in the company’s lineup, offering support for aptX Adaptive and 24-bit/48kHz streaming from compatible devices and services. The retooled Pi7 also packs in adaptive active noise cancellation (ANC) and a case capable audio retransmission to set itself apart from the new Pi5. However, the S2 variants of the company’s high-end model are considerably more expensive than the best wireless earbuds we’ve reviewed and they lack polish in several key areas.
Bowers & Wilkins didn’t reinvent the wheel when it came to the design of the Pi7 S2. The company stuck with the overall look from 2021’s Pi7, but it did change up the colors. Like the previous model, this IP54-rated S2 version comes in black and white options, but the previously copper-hued components are now silver. That change is primarily to the round exterior panel where the company’s branding and touch controls reside. There’s also a new third color – dark blue – which has gold accents. Bowers & Wilkins calls it Midnight Blue, but in person it’s more purple than blue to me.
All told, the Pi7 and Pi7 S2 have a unique shape that’s a flat oval with a circular touch panel on top. They aren’t the most comfortable earbuds to wear for long periods of time, but they stay in place when you move around. In terms of on-board controls, basic playback functions are here and they’re mirrored on both sides. A long press on the right side will summon your voice assistant, while doing the same on the left cycles between ANC and off. The Pi7 S2 does remember if you had the earbuds set to regular noise cancellation or the company’s auto-adjusting option. However, there’s no way to trigger transparency mode on the earbuds themselves and there’s no option for volume controls. Both are pretty big omissions for a $400 set.
Software and features
Like recent Bowers & Wilkins headphones, the Pi7 S2 settings are accessible inside the company’s Music app. Here, you can select your noise cancellation mode (on, auto or off), activate passthrough (transparency mode), manage connections (multipoint available for two devices), disable the wear sensor (automatic pausing) and determine streaming quality. The main view for the Pi7 S2 also displays battery life for the earbuds and the case separately, but you only get one number for the buds – not an individual percentage for each one. The app also lets you connect a handful of music services to use the software as your media player. Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer, TuneIn, SoundCloud and NTS are the supported options here.
And that’s really it. There’s no option to adjust EQ to select from presets the company made for the Pi7 S2. Even with its recent headphones, Bowers & Wilkins included treble and bass sliders so you could make adjustments. Sure, the changes from those controls are basic and fairly subtle, but the option is there. You also can’t switch up the on-board controls, like reassigning the long press action. Which means you’re stuck with the left side cycling between ANC on or off, with no quick access to transparency mode.
One feature that sets the Pi7 S2 apart from much of the competition is its wireless transmission case. You can take the included USB-C to 3.5mm cable and use the earbuds with devices where a straight Bluetooth connection isn’t possible – like an in-flight entertainment system. All you have to do is plug the cable into both the case and the other device and the earbuds will automatically connect. The charging/pairing indicator on the outside of the case will slowly blink white when everything is in sync. Bowers & Wilkins isn’t the only company to offer this and it included the tool on the Pi7 too. However, the feature is far from commonplace at this point though it is popping up more frequently on new models.
Bowers & Wilkins’ Px7 S2 headphones were some of the best we reviewed last year in terms of pure sound quality. The company took things a step further with its high-end Px8, continuing its track record of well-balanced tuning with outstanding clarity and detail. While the Pi7 S2 aren’t quite on par with the company’s headphones, the overall audio here is still very good. I wouldn’t put these earbuds ahead of Sennheiser’s premium true wireless option, but Bowers & Wilkins isn’t far off. In fact, when it comes to reproducing subtle details, I’d argue the Pi7 S2 is slightly better than the Momentum 3 – but only on that one specific criteria.
The stunning detail is apparent when you listen to Makaya McCraven’s In These Times and other jazz albums. Ditto for multi-instrumental bluegrass. These genres showcase what the Pi7 S2 is capable of when it comes to clarity and subtlety. In the case of McCraven, it’s not just a kick drum, you can hear the nuance that this is that trademark, kind of muffled bass drum that’s a mainstay of the musical style. Horns float on top of everything else when they’re present, giving the instrumental tracks a vocal cadence even when there isn’t one.
More chaotic genres like hard rock and metal are a mixed bag. Some tracks are open, airy and bombastic while others come across slightly muffled and subdued. There’s ample bass throughout though, which means the kick drum is tight and punchy no matter the rest. When it comes to hip hop and electronic music – anything with a constant, driving bass line – the Pi7 S2 does better. More specifically, these earbuds are among the few that allow you to almost feel the low-end tone in a rap track when it hits that certain frequency. Earl Sweatshirt’s SICK! exhibits this quality well. For synth-heavy styles, like Sylvan Esso’s electro-pop No Rules Sandy, the Pi7 S2 perfectly captures the oscillation in Nick Sanborn’s composition on songs like “Echo Party.” There’s a lot of finer synthesizer work here and the Pi7 S2 doesn’t miss a single detail.
One area where the Pi7 S2 is just OK is canceling out noise. The earbuds do an admirable job in most scenarios, combatting constant annoying sounds that could otherwise hinder productivity. Like many sets of true wireless buds, these aren’t the best with human voices and other sounds will occasionally pierce through. The Auto noise canceling setting does improve ANC performance over the default “on'' option, but the Pi7 S2 is nowhere close to what Sony, Bose and others at the top of the heap can muster. And, again, when you’re evaluating a set of $400 earbuds, adequate just isn’t good enough.
In terms of call quality, the Pi7 S2 is a capable option. They’re not the absolute best, and they don’t handle background noise well, but the earbuds won’t leave you sounding like you’re on speaker phone, which is the case with most of the competition. You’ll definitely want to activate transparency mode here, even though that setting isn’t as natural-sounding as it is on Apple’s AirPods Pro and others. Bowers & Wilkins allows you to hear what’s going on around you, so you won’t feel the need to shout to hear yourself. However, the earbuds don’t feed your voice back through, so it’s not nearly the pristine experience as using the AirPods Pro or AirPods Max for calls.
Bowers & Wilkins promises up to five hours of battery life on a charge on the Pi7 S2, up from four hours on the Pi7. You’ll also get an additional 16 hours in the case and the ability to charge wirelessly. During my tests, I was able to hit this mark reliably with ANC on even though the company’s estimate is based on it being turned off. However, unlike recent Bowers & Wilkins headphones I’ve tested, the Pi7 S2 didn’t surpass the stated figures. The company has also included a quick-charge feature that will give you two hours of use in 15 minutes.
Five hours is significantly less than much of the competition. Sony’s WF-1000XM4, for example, clocks in at eight hours with active noise cancellation. For a set of $400 earbuds, I’d expect at least that much or more.
Despite being nearly two years old, Sony’s WF-1000XM4 are still the best true wireless earbuds you can buy right now. Simply put, no other company comes close to offering the truckload of features Sony has crammed into its premium buds. On top of great sound quality and capable noise cancellation, the M4 can automatically pause when you start talking, is equipped with a quick attention mode and can change sound settings based on your activity or location. Currently $278, they’re a huge savings over the Pi7 S2 and you can typically catch them on sale for even less.
In terms of pure sound performance, the closest competition to the Pi7 S2 is Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 3. They’re available for half of what you’ll pay for the latest Bowers & Wilkins premium earbuds, the audio quality is very good and they pack in more battery life than the Pi7 S2 – seven hours on the earbuds with three full charges in the case. If you’re looking for the best noise-canceling chops, Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds II should be considered. They’re $100 less than the Pi7 S2 and do a much better job of blocking out distractions.
Bowers & Wilkins has established itself as one of the best audio companies in terms of pure audio performance. The company’s Px line of headphones are sonically among the best you can buy and that trend continues for its latest high-end earbuds. However, for a set of $400 earbuds, the Pi7 need to be nearly flawless to justify the premium price that’s over $100 more than some of the closest rivals. While the overall sound quality is great, these earbuds fall short in terms of battery life, customization and ANC performance. Bowers & Wilkins’ ability to consistently deliver pristine sound isn’t enough to make up for what the Pi7 S2 lacks, which is unfortunately quite a bit.