Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) used to be one of those hi-end speaker companies that was best known by wealthy audiophiles and a small cadre of speaker-geeks who could be periodically found at their local audio boutique, standing in awe, jaws dropped, at the sheer audacity of a speaker like the B&W Nautilus. B&W speakers can be found at the famed Abbey Road studios where the B&W 801 is considered by many to be one of the most legendary speakers ever; the company is just plain on top of the high-end audio game and has been sitting in that position quite comfortably for decades now. So, it probably came as a big surprise to audio enthusiasts all over the world that B&W had decided to get into the iPod speaker dock market and, by doing so, expose its name to a huge new audience while potentially likening its name and reputation to that of companies like Bose. Oh, the horror!
As it turns out, though, creating the Zeppelin and Zeppelin mini iPod speaker docks was a really great move for B&W. Not only have these docks been met with some solid reviews (including our own) but their success has managed to expose the brand to a much broader audience without tarnishing their good name.
Should we really be surprised then, that B&W decided to press on with its more commercially oriented endeavors by coming out with a $180 pair of in-ear headphones? Probably not, but we still were anyway. The fact is that getting an in-ear headphone (here-to-forward referred to as a canalphone) to sound just right is a dicey proposition because achieving the desired result relies heavily on how the canalphone fits into the ear and since everyone’s ears are different, anticipating every variation is a nearly impossible code to crack. Risky business, indeed. So, how did B&W do with their rather uniquely designed C5 canalphones? Surprisingly well.
Out of the Box
B&W is nothing if not classy and the packaging for the C5 is further evidence of that fact. The front of the high-quality, matte-black box opens like a door to expose the C5 sitting artfully arranged behind a clear plastic window.
We also found that the C5 were lashed down by no fewer than 12 security straps. Really, guys? We can get behind theft deterrent efforts, but this was some egregious overkill.
Features and Design
The real commotion over the C5’s design are their “security loops”. In fact, we’ve seen terms from other reviewers like “innovative”, “ground-breaking” and “game-changing” being thrown around in reference to B&W’s take on a security solution for these canalphones. Folks, the loops are cool, but let’s calm down a bit, ok? The idea of using a loop that sits within the inner rim of the ear for security purposes has been used by the Bluetooth headset industry for quite a while now and it’s certainly not new. With that said, we will concede that B&W does appear to be the first company to take this well-established approach and apply it to earphones, so we applaud them for finally thinking about what really should have been done several years ago.
The security loop is actually a multi-tasker since it doubles as the signal cable for the canalphones themselves. At the loop end, the translucent cable is just stiff enough to hold its shape the way it needs to. Below each ear-piece the cables are a little less rigidly shielded until they merge together into a single, pliable cable that is terminated with a ⅛-inch mini plug.
Along the left-side cable we find the glossy black, very trim, surprisingly light iPod/iPhone control microphone. Props to B&W for keeping the control light enough that it can’t be felt weighing down the left ‘phone. Unfortunately, we’re not big fans of how the control buttons feel. The rocking plastic piece lacks tactile feedback and had us concerned it might break after being pressed too many times.
If the C5 were headphones, we’d call them “open backed” because, rather than having an airtight enclosure, these earphones have a perforated metallic gill of sorts that allows sound pressure to escape rather than be pumped at the listener’s eardrum. More on why this is a spectacularly genius design point a little later.
Want some techy specs? Here ya go: Each driver unit is 9mm. B&W says the C5 have a frequency response of 10Hz-20kHz and are rated to produce less than 1% THD. The C5 are one of the more sensitive earphones we’ve seen with a rated sensitivity of 118db/v at 1kHz. The cable is 1.2 meters long or just under 4 feet for you anti-metrics out there.
Before we did any listening at all, we broke the B&W C5 in for about 60 hours. With our break-in period out of the way, we got to listening. Our test-bench of equipment for this review included a HeadRoom Micro DAC, HeadRoom Micro amp, Marantz SR6005 A/V receiver, Pioneer PL-25 Turntable with OM5E cartridge, Bellari Phono Pre, Dell N5110 laptop, Samsung Galaxy Tab (7-inch) and iPhone 4.
We’d love to just launch into how the C5 performed with our various sources and test tracks, but it just isn’t that simple. Bear with us, because we need to talk about how these babies fit first.
The security loops B&W has integrated into the C5 gave us pause at first. It took us some time to size the loop such that it did a good job of keeping the earphones secure without causing undue pressure on the ear. We think part of the issue is that, while the loop’s size can be adjusted, its shape cannot. That means that for some folks, there may not be a comfortable setting – it could end up exerting pressure somewhere undesirable, no matter its size. We initially thought that we were going to be among that crowd, but with some experimentation, we were able to rotate the C5 so that the loop sat comfortably on the inner rim of our ear without annoying us.
We tested the effectiveness of the loops and found they did a great job. No amount of jumping-jacks, running in place or other foolish looking calisthenics and head bobbing shook the C5 loose. It took a pretty solid tug at the cable to dislodge the C5 from their snug position in our ear and even then, the earphones didn’t drop from our ear completely. So, the C5 are no doubt capable of staying put when in place, but how do they fit when they are inserted in the ear?
We wrestled with the C5 for a while before we found the right combination of eartips, placement depth and pitch. The problem wasn’t a matter of making the C5 comfortable; it was blending comfort and sound quality that was such a challenge. We’ve mentioned before in previous canalphone reviews that getting the eartip depth and seal just right is pretty important. With the C5, it is crucially important.
When we first began listening to the C5, we had the slightly longer silicone eartips installed. These seemed to have the right diameter for our ears and the depth seemed appropriate, plus they were comfortable, so we surmised that we had the right tips installed. Then we listened to the C5.
The sound we got was light on bass, which wasn’t such a big deal since we had imagined that B&W might choose transparency and balance over beefy bass, assuming that was a necessary trade-off. The midrange sounded very good and the upper treble band sounded good, but not as refined as we had expected. It was the upper midrange/lower treble region that had us freaked out. At times, the earphones were unlistenably harsh and abrasive. Not a single snare drum sounded anything remotely like a snare drum should and vocal sibilance was off the charts. This couldn’t be right!
As it turns out, it wasn’t right. Not even close. We turned to the other three sets of eartips and tried them out. Of the three, one set was unacceptably small and was tossed to the side. Of the two left, we found that one in particular made the C5 sound its best. This experience showed us that finding the right eartip and, therefore, fit, is absolutely crucial for getting the proper sound from the C5. Will everyone who buys the C5 be successful? We think not and, for that reason, you can expect some may have some negative things to say about their experience.
With that said, we’re here to tell you that if you get things dialed in just right, the C5 are an absolutely amazing sounding pair of earphones and certainly worthy of their $180 asking price.
We feel like B&W’s “Micro Porous Filter” (that perforated metal portion we mentioned earlier) does a great job of allowing the C5 to produce deep, taught bass without any unwanted resonances. It’s remarkably even bass that is simultaneously delicate and punchy.
Midrange production was open, deep and rich. Vocals had body with plenty of air around them and, thankfully, sibilance was tamed to a more realistic level, though we could still do with a little less. Tone was restored to the snare drum instead of the piercing snap that we had experienced before and, though we felt like some brass instruments were a little too forward, in the upper midrange area, the highly musical overtones we got in the upper treble region made up for it. This characteristic also lent a good deal of weight to percussion instruments and gave some sweet detail to string transients, too.
We found the C5 provided a fair amount of noise isolation, though the world still managed to creep in on our listening sessions, even with music playing at robust volumes. Likewise, some sound managed to bleed through the C5’s perforated backing but, again, this is to be expected due to their design. Besides, the volume level of what did come through was negligible. We don’t think the folks sitting next to you on the bus, plane or train will have cause to complain.
Compared to the sound of the popular Klipsch S4 or S4i, we’d have to say the B&W sound a bit more open and natural. We wouldn’t go so far as to say that they sound better, since in this case which one prefers is a subjective issue, but we can say that the bass response is not as punchy, the mids a bit more open and highs a bit more detailed.
Our complaints: We were never able to forget that the C5 were in our ears. We simply “felt” them all the time and, to be honest, we felt a mild sense of relief when they were pulled from our ears. It’s not as if they were painful or even uncomfortable, there’s just a persistent pressure and sense of presence from the ear canal that can’t be ignored. For those who value supreme sound over supreme comfort, we think the C5 will be a great match.
We found the C5 didn’t hold up well at loud volumes when being run directly off of our iPhone or Galaxy tab. The use of a higher powered headphone amplifiers such as those in our Marantz receiver and HeadRoom MicroAmp allowed them to play to healthy volumes with more integrity but even then, we heard harshness creeping in in the upper mid/lower treble region again.
We wish the cable were a little longer-maybe six to seven feet instead of four- and, as we mentioned before, we’re a little concerned that getting the right fit and feel with the C5 will either scare off or frustrate some listeners.
We think B&W did a pretty great job with their first venture into the world of earphones. These canalphones have class, style and a sound that is consistent with B&W’s standard of excellence. Be prepared to wrestle with the security loop and provided eartips to get the right fit and feel but, above all else, buyers must be careful to ensure a proper fit in order to get the best sound the C5 have to offer. For fantastic (if not hassle free) sound, secure fit, a good selection of accessories and integrated iPhone control in a classily styled earphone under $200, we would recommend the B&W C5 for experience earphone users.
- Revealing, open sound
- Uniquely Secure Fit
- Lightweight with resilient Cable
- Two included adapters
- Security wire may cause comfort issues for some ears
- Achieving proper fit is somewhat involved
- Poor tactile feedback on iPhone control