Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) C5 In-Ear Headphones
Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) has long been a respected name in high-end audio, producing jaw-dropping “statement” products such as the Nautlius loudspeaker, applying new materials to speaker design such as diamond-coated tweeters, and placing its speakers in well-respected studios such as Abbey Road. Over the past few years, the company has expanded its focus from perfectionist, high-end audio to the general consumer electronics market—and Apple accessories in particular—with docking speaker systems such as the Zeppelin Air ( ), computer speakers such as the MM-1 ( ), and the company’s first headphone/headset, the P5 ( ). B&W recently released a second headset model—the company’s first in-ear design—the $180 C5 In-Ear Headphones. Given B&W’s history and the accolades its other Apple-focused products have received, the C5 has a lot to live up to.
Emphasis on design
With the C5, B&W opted for a canalbud-style design. Canalbuds split the difference between traditional earbuds and in-ear-canal (“canalphone”) models. They’re also usually less expensive than canalphones, but the C5 is an exception, falling squarely in canalphone price range. Since they fit partially in the ear canal, canalbuds block some external noise and aim to form an acoustic seal that improves bass performance. However, they don’t block as much sound as true in-ear-canal models, and, as with those models, getting a proper fit can be tricky, the cord can produce unwanted microphonic noise in a listener’s ear, and using the headset function can be weird due to the occlusion effect of having your ears plugged while talking. (See our in-ear-canal headphone primer for more details.)
Given B&W’s tradition of striking-but-functional design and exotic or luxurious (but, again, functional) materials, it’s not surprising to find some clever touches in the C5. Each earpiece is primarily a gloss-black cylinder, with one end capped by a tungsten nozzle with a silicone eartip attached. (B&W includes one pair each of extra-small, small, medium, and large eartips.) The tips are made with a double-shot-molding process—similar to those on models from Apple, Moshi, and V-moda—that produces a thick inner core that’s easier to fit on the earpieces and keeps the tips secure. The nozzle itself is the external portion of a tube that balances the earpieces toward the ear for a more secure fit.
The opposite end of each cylinder is filled with what B&W calls a micro porous filter, a feature the company says tunes bass response, like a traditional bass port, but also enhances the spaciousness of audio. True or not, it gives the C5 a unique and stylish appearance. But the C5’s most distinctive design feature is the stiff portion of cable that exits the earpieces at a 9 o’clock position and then curves around to route through a shallow notch on the opposite side, forming a p-shaped loop. The cable is stiff but flexible, letting you resize it to fit firmly within your ear to stabilize the earpiece. If you prefer, the cable can be removed from the notch and routed downward or up and over the ear.
The C5’s silver-colored wiring is visible through transparent cables insulation, with the view interrupted only by gloss-black plastic housings for the headphone plug; the place where the left and right earpiece cables join; and the inline module containing a microphone and an Apple-style, three-button (volume up, volume down, play/call) remote. This last item is located on the left-earpiece cable and is also cylindrical, but for a notch that indicates the location of the central play button button. (I could find no visible evidence of the microphone, though it’s definitely there somewhere.)
While these are thoughtful design touches, in practice they resulted in a somewhat less-ergonomic headphone than I expected—at least for my ears. If you’ve had issues with in-ear headphones falling out, the P-loops and earpiece weighting might benefit you, but I found the earpieces’ wide diameter made it more difficult to get an optimal seal compared to some other models. The cord is also stiff enough to suffer from a memory effect, so it didn’t always hang straight down in my testing. And due to the mostly uniform shape of the remote and microphone module, its buttons can be difficult to locate and activate.
B&W also includes a suede, semi-circular case that’s both attractive and sturdy. The case contains an insert for managing the headphone cable, but I found the cable-management feature to be inconvenient in practice, and I wish the case was a bit bigger, as it can’t comfortably hold the headphones and several eartips.
The question of sound
Given our reviews of B&W’s other Apple-centric products, I expected the C5 to be voiced with warm bass and a little bit of high-frequency emphasis, yielding a pleasant, if not completely accurate, sound that should appeal to a broad range of listeners. Indeed, the C5’s high frequencies have good musical detail, but I found them to lack a bit of depth: cymbals shimmer but lack the effect of a physical object being hit. Midrange performance is also good, though the C5 seems to lack the magic, if you will, that I expect from $180 headphones—the something that takes headphones from “that’s a good rendition of a piano” to “that sounds like a real piano.” However, I’m being admittedly picky here due to the B&W’s price—overall, the C5 is a solid performer.
The one area I did take issue with the C5’s audio quality is in the lower registers. Upper bass is tight and relatively balanced with good detail—in music with limited bass content or with mostly upper bass, I found the C5 pleasant. But as soon as deeper bass showed up, the lower frequencies had a tendency to overwhelm. I admit that there are listeners out there who really want this level of bass volume, but to me, it detracts from the C5’s overall performance. (Interestingly, covering the C5’s filters with my fingers tightened up the bass enough that it no longer obscured the midrange and treble, giving the headphones a more-even balance.)
On the surface, Future Sonics’s Atrio m5 ( ) has a lot in common with the C5. While the Atrio lacks headset functionality, and doesn’t match B&W’s design prowess, at $200 it’s in roughly the same price range, and Future Sonics similarly places an emphasis on bass performance. Comparing the two, I found the C5 to have better high-frequency body than the Atrio, but I preferred the Atrio over the C5 across lower frequencies, thanks to the aforementioned extra bit of midrange realism, and, more importantly, strong and confident bass that, while perhaps a bit too much for my tastes, doesn’t get in the way of the music.
I also compared the C5 to my bang-for-the-buck canalbud favorite, the $80 Maximo iP-595 ( ). The Maximo’s bass response isn’t balanced, either, but I found it to be more so than that of the C5. The C5, on the other hand, has a clear edge in high-frequency and midrange reproduction, but I can’t say that it’s one that justifies the price disparity between the two models—at least not based on audio performance alone.
The C5’s microphone performance didn’t disappoint. While voices captured by the microphone lacked the richness of the very best microphones I’ve tested, they were distinct and easy to understand.
Macworld’s buying advice
The problem with having wildly successful older siblings is that you’re often judged by their successes. Indeed, it’s for that very reason that I had high expectations for the C5, and while it’s a solid product, it doesn’t quite live up to the precedent established by the company’s previous Apple-focused products. Whereas those products similarly sell for a premium, their combinations of very good sound quality and standout design give them compelling appeal. With the C5, sound quality is good, but bass is emphasized enough to detract from the overall performance, and the attractive and well-intentioned design is not enough to keep me from feeling that the C5 should deliver more given its price and heritage. Still, if you like C5’s design, have had trouble with in-ear canal headphones falling out, or want good sound with an abundance of bass—a category that surely includes many on-the-go music listeners—the C5 is worth a look.
[R. Matthew Ward lives in St. Louis and enjoys the finer things in life: food, drink, Apple products, and well-reproduced music. You can find his thoughts on these and other subjects on his personal blog.]
Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) C5 In-Ear Headphones