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Bowers & Wilkins’ Pi7 S2 are music to my ears, but there’s a catch

Holding up the Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2 in black.

June Wan/ZDNET

I’ll cut right to the chase: The Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2 earbuds are pricey at $399, not as slim-fit as your typical earpieces, and probably won’t make the cut for best active noise-canceling buds on the market. 

But for what they are and not what they can be, these are some of the best audio headphones that I’ve listened to, period.

The Pi7 S2 are the second coming of Bowers & Wilkin’s flagship earbuds, retaining the hi-res audio output of its Pi7 predecessor thanks to Qualcomm aptX Adaptive and the company’s own 9.2mm bespoke drive unit in each earbud. 

Together with the high-frequency balanced armature driver and a bit of back-end tuning, the Pi7 S2 earbuds deliver audio masterfully, keeping underlying instruments resonant and distinct while vocals remain clear-sounding.

Also: The best earbuds you can buy right now

I tested the earbuds across several genres and even found myself in an estranged 1970s for Perry Como’s “And I Love You So.” That turned out to be the perfect track to evaluate the Pi7 S2’s soundstage, which proved very capable. From the rhythmic chordophones that filled the background to the ever-increasing presence of the trumpets, the Pi7 S2 was able to reproduce the layers upon layers of audio in a harmonious manner. No musician was overpowering the other.

This V-shaped sound signature isn’t the easiest to achieve, especially before you’ve even touched an equalizer or assigned a sound profile. In fact, you couldn’t tweak the Pi7 S2’s audio settings even if you wanted to, not within the Bowers & Wilkins Music app, at least. The companion app only allows you to toggle between noise-canceling modes and other, more minor playback settings.

Also: The best cheap wireless earbuds, starting at $36

What’s new with the Pi7 S2 this year is the improved battery life — the earbuds are now rated for 5 hours of playback (up from 4 hours) per charge — and an increased Bluetooth range of up to 25 meters. Together, you’re getting upgrades that are not as flashy as expected from a next-gen model but genuinely bring quality-of-life improvements to the day-to-day experience.

The Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2 earbuds outside of the case.

The Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2 have a bulkier fit than most earbuds. It helps that smaller ear tips are included in the box.

June Wan/ZDNET

The rest of the Pi7 S2 experience is a replay of what the Pi7 was, and I’m not complaining. Putting the earbuds in still requires a twist-and-lock mechanic; and the charging case with its rounded corners, while taller than other cradles, slides easily into a jeans pocket, backpack sleeve, or carrying pouch, and it retains its dual purpose of being an audio transmitter. 

Also: How to boost your Bluetooth signal to cover your entire home or office

That’s right — besides keeping the buds powered and ready, the charging case doubles as a wireless adapter, like a dongle that you’d connect to your Nintendo Switch or in-flight entertainment system so that you can pair your earbuds to it. I found the feature particularly useful when connecting the Pi7 S2 to my gaming PC, which suffers from the occasional wireless audio loss when the system expends its bandwidth on graphics processing above all else. Why don’t more wireless earbuds have this feature?

The Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2 in black on a desk.

The Pi7 S2 (left) in black and the Pi5 S2 (right) in Cloud Gray.

June Wan/ZDNET

As I mentioned in the beginning, the Pi7 S2’s $399 price point is what’s mainly holding the Pi7 S2 back from being an impulse purchase. Don’t get me wrong, they sound fantastic, besting the output from Apple’s $250 AirPods Pro and the $230 Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 Pro that I typically use. But are they $150 better? I don’t think so, unless you value raw, high-quality audio playback above better active noise cancellation and have a use for the charging case’s audio transmitter function.

To Bowers & Wilkins’ credit, it’s also now offering a Pi5 S2 model, which ZDNET’s Christina Darby tested. The earbuds are $100 less than the Pi7 S2, don’t have the audio transmitter function, and rely on a single driver instead of a dual one. From what Christina has heard, the sound coming from the Pi5 S2 is crisp as a fall day. Every guitar string is pronounced and she’s been able to hear background vocals that went unnoticed for dozens of previous listens. From what I’m hearing, the Pi5 S2 might be the better buy of the two for most users.

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