Thanks to continuous improvements in technology, the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” maxim is hard to follow these days. Digital music players considered superb several years ago seem antiquated today despite continuing to perform wonderfully, so it’s no surprise that yesterday’s near-perfect music accessories are receiving updates to remain relevant. Bowers & Wilkins’ original C5 In-Ear Headphones were superb upon their release in 2011; this month, C5 Series 2 ($180) debuted as an enhanced replacement.
C5 previous impressed us with a collection of great core elements: substantial-feeling tube-shaped housings capped by sparkling metal micro filters and comfortable silicone ear tips on the ends, stabilized against accidental tugs using ingenious adjustable wire loops to provide outer ear support. While C5 had a warm sonic profile — extra rich in the bass department, with added emphasis on low notes — we enjoyed listening to virtually everything we tested with it. The presence of a three-button remote and microphone unit made C5 easy to use with any iPhone, iPod, or iPad, and a handsome quilted, zippered case was included for carrying the earphones around safely.
Cosmetically, C5 and C5 Series 2 have a single major difference that enables them to be easily recognized as separate models: C5 used translucent gray cables, while Series 2’s cabling is opaque black. You’d otherwise be hard-pressed to tell them apart, though there are a few other tiny tweaks to the newer model. The in-line remote and microphone unit now has central pinch points on both sides rather than just one, a little additional rubber strain relief has been added to the slender 3.5mm headphone plug housing, and the clam-shaped carrying case no longer has an earphone-managing tongue in the center. You still get four sets of silicone rubber ear tips in the package, but B&W no longer includes the two headphone plug adapters that came with the original model. None of these changes really matters much; apart from C5 Series 2’s darker overall look, which we prefer, everything else is a neutral to good modest evolution from before.
B&W’s biggest promised change to C5 Series 2 is in the audio department, and once again, this is a somewhat subtle but welcome improvement. The company explains that C5 Series 2 contains “redesigned drive units for enhanced sound quality,” a set of 9.2mm drivers which are said to deliver superior bass and more natural sound. Many companies have made similar “new and improved sound” claims when updating accessories, but they’re not necessarily true. This time, our testing found B&W’s claims to be exactly correct, though it’s worth explaining what the changes really mean.
When headphones are described as “warm” or “colored,” the phrases are meant to suggest that music isn’t being rendered “neutrally” or “naturally,” but rather with an added emphasis here or there — typically in the bass department. Pushing the bass level up in headphones is the equivalent of turning a subwoofer up on a speaker system, making you more aware of the low notes, generally at the expense of your perception of high notes, midrange detail, or both. Many people like extra bass in their music, but it’s not always preferable to a more finely-tuned sonic signature.
That’s what C5 Series 2 delivers: an audiophile-quality listening experience. In this model, the quantity of bass has been ratcheted down a little — it’s still obvious, but no longer on the fine edge of overwhelming — but it’s a superior quality of bass than before, noticeably more controlled and less likely to spill over into other parts of songs, reducing the sense that your ears are being flooded with sound. As such, C5 Series 2’s highs and mids sound cleaner and less dominated by bass, which appears precisely when needed and disappears quickly rather than lingering too long. This makes the sound more natural, as sound isn’t artificially present during what should be silences. We really liked the way C5 sounded; C5 Series 2 comes even closer to “love.”
Microphone performance between the two models is basically indistinguishable, as are the design and comfort factors we liked so much before. C5 Series 2’s tube-shaped earpieces continue to have a reassuring weight that’s nonetheless not heavy in the ear, and they’re quite stable thanks to the resizable ear loops. A gentle pull or push on the stem is all that’s needed to resize the loop to fit inside your outer ear canal, holding the earpieces firmly in place without the sort of obtrusive outer-ear memory wire loops used by many competitors. It’s a smart, elegant, and practical stabilizing design.
Three years after C5 launched, C5 Series 2 remains a really excellent earphone, and unique in the world of Apple accessories. At a time when in-ear headphones have taken a back seat to larger over-ear and on-ear models — particularly oversized, plasticky ones — C5 Series 2 is a sophisticated option for users who value class and sonic quality enough to pay a small premium for them. While we’ve tested a handful of since-discontinued double-driver models in this price range that we deeply loved on sonics, there’s no doubt that C5 Series 2 has a great balance of audio quality, aesthetics, and comfort. Like its predecessor, this model merits our A- rating and high recommendation. If you really prefer bassier sound, and are willing to give up a little sonic accuracy to get it, the original C5 remains an equally great but slightly different alternative.
Company and Price
Company: Bowers & Wilkins
Model: C5 Series 2
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones + iPods