Review: Bowers & Wilkins C5 In-Ear Headphones
Our review last year of Bowers & Wilkins' P5 headphones was truly one of the most difficult we've ever had to write. At the time, we noted that the legendary audio company had designed one of the most beautiful and comfortable pairs of headphones we'd ever seen, but despite marketing to the contrary, P5 just wasn't sonically optimized for Apple's devices. So it's with great joy that we report today that Bowers & Wilkins has a huge winner in its new C5 In-Ear Headphones ($180), considerably smaller and more affordable canalphones that were designed to appeal to a somewhat different market, but are every bit as smart and cool as P5 -- this time, with properly optimized sound.
C5 makes a great first impression, in part because B&W has taken canalphone design in some new directions. They start with the glossy black tungsten housing tubes, which have been angled with steel “micro porous filter” caps made from microscopic balls on their outward-facing ends, and handsome gray-black silicone ear tips on the insides. Considered on their own, these tubes manage to look and feel unique in the world of earphones—not completely different from earlier rivals, but solid, clean, and beautiful in their own way. You can swap the silicone tips with three other sizes that are included in the package; thanks to their thick black cores, each feels durable, and the initially installed pair were perfectly comfortable in our ears. A quilted, half-moon-shaped cloth carrying case with a fancy metal zipper pull is also included, and capable of holding C5, the eartips, and two different airline adapters, though they’re a tight squeeze if you try to stuff them all into the case together. Thankfully, C5’s sharp-looking retail box has plenty of room inside, and it’s nice enough to keep around.
On a related note, we almost never quote language used on a product’s packaging, but we make an exception here because C5’s box correctly describes the earphones’ signature design feature as “brilliant.” Rather than merely mimicking the most common canalphone cable designs by either dangling cords directly down from your ears or wrapping the cords around the tops of your ears, B&W has done something that both looks cool and works well: C5 uses position-preserving memory wire to create size-adjustable loops that secure the tubes within your outer ears—an innovation that not only legitimately enhances their stability, but feels completely natural. It is indeed brilliant, doing away with the need for separate ear stabilizers and making better use of an existing cabling component; C5 would have been impressive if it had done nothing more than introduce this idea.
C5 thankfully doesn’t slouch in the audio department, either. The best way we can describe these earphones is to call them direct descendants of the company’s well-established Zeppelin speaker: powerful, particularly in the bass department, though the low end is respectably tight and reasonably controlled rather than bloated or fatiguing. Though C5 leans warm and adds some emphasis to low notes—akin to the resonance you hear in a cello—we really liked the sound the first time we heard it, something that we don’t always say about bassy earphones. Our positive impressions continued with every additional track and genre of music we tested: instruments consistently felt rich, while voices sounded lifelike and distinct from their backgrounds without feeling artificially separated.
During comparative testing, we noted that C5’s treble isn’t as sharp as in some roughly peer-priced rivals, such as Ultimate Ears’ wonderful UE700s, though it doesn’t feel absent, either, just a little less pronounced in the highest frequencies. In sum, we’d say that C5 has been designed to create a sense of sonic comfort, and succeeds.
It’s also worth mentioning that C5 has something that previously-developed competitors such as UE700 and Jays’ q-JAYS lack: full three-button remote and microphone integration, capable of working with iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches. Moreover, Bowers & Wilkins has somehow managed to completely hide C5’s microphone inside the glossy black remote control tube, rather than leaving an obvious hole like the earlier P5’s, or using a metal grille similar to Apple’s own remote and mic-laden earphones. Yet the audio quality on B&W’s microphone is basically indistinguishable from Apple’s, a neat trick that Cupertino might want to borrow save that C5’s remote capsule is longer than the ones Apple makes. Otherwise, C5 incorporates a similarly thin headphone plug, and translucent gray cables that look really cool, though are thin enough in places to seem just a little too fragile.
That and the treble levels are only modest criticisms of otherwise excellent earphones: with C5, B&W has truly nailed virtually everything else, combining a visually striking and functionally novel design with great sound and reasonable pricing. Even at the sub-$200 price point, the canalphone field is fairly crowded, but for $180, C5 stands out from the pack by incorporating a very nice three-button remote and mic, as well as delivering an overall listening and aesthetic experience worthy of the Bowers & Wilkins name. If you’ve been looking for a pair of premium but moderately priced earphones, C5 should be at or near the top of your short list; it’s highly recommended.