Ask an audiophile for a list of iconic speaker brands, and Britain’s Bowers & Wilkins is likely to be at or near the top. Since its founding in the 1960s, B&W has produced a range of loudspeakers offering truly exceptional performance at their various price points. Their flagship 800 series delivers a world-class listening experience for what is, in high-end-audio terms, a relatively reasonable price. Use of B&W monitors in many of the world’s preeminent studios makes them a literal reference for how recordings are supposed to sound.
In recent years, B&W has targeted the lifestyle market. Their one-piece Zeppelin iPod dock and speaker system introduced the brand to a new group of consumers who may never have considered venturing into a hi-fi shop. In addition to an updated version of the Zeppelin, B&W has expanded its lifestyle offerings to include a computer speaker system and two headphone designs. The in-ear C5 earphones ($179 USD) -- with their built-in microphone and control for iPods and iPhones -- are squarely aimed at the mobile user rather than the studio professional.
The marketing literature for the C5s claims a few features that separate them from the very crowded earphone marketplace. One is that they are “tungsten balanced” to distribute the weight toward your inner ear, to help them stay in place. At first I thought tungsten had been chosen because B&W’s marketing team thought it sounded cool. But when I looked up the density of tungsten, I found it nearly the same as that of gold. If you’re going to use a small bit of material to affect the weight distribution of an earphone, tungsten is actually a very sensible choice. The second feature, also related to fit, is B&W’s Secure Loop design: coated wires that nestle into the convolutions of the outer ear, or pinna, to help secure the earphones. I suppose they may not work equally well for everyone -- every person’s pinnae are unique -- but I found that they held the C5s firmly in place, even when I tugged fairly hard on the cable. The third feature is B&W’s Micro Porous Filter, a “sonic diffuser” that’s supposed to result in a more spacious sound than is typical from in-ear earphones. (I discuss the effect below.)
The industrial designers who worked on this project deserve much credit. The packaging is dark, heavyweight cardboard and plastic with a very high-end look and feel for this relatively affordable price. The earphones themselves are the coolest things that I, or anyone else to whom I showed them, has seen in this type of device. The all-aluminum housings are mostly black, with a silver-colored fine mesh or grille facing outward. (I presume this mesh is the Micro Porous Filter.) Also in the box is a nice quilted carrying pouch, and replacement silicone sleeves in multiple sizes.
Although B&W calls the C5s an in-ear design, they’re not inserted deep into the ear canal, like the models from Etymotic Research and Shure. Instead, there is a very pliant bit of silicone that is inserted only a little way into the ear canal, relying on the aforementioned coated wires to hold the transducers in place. I suspect that many listeners will find this arrangement far more comfortable, and less off-putting, than inserting foreign objects deep into their ears. The combination of minimal insertion, stabilizing wires, and weight distribution makes the C5s among the most comfortable and secure earphones I’ve ever worn.
As with any other in-ear design, forming a proper seal is crucial to achieving high isolation from ambient noise and the best possible bass reproduction. I found that occasionally wiping off the silicone sleeves with a damp cloth helped restore their initial stickiness and make an excellent seal. While a true in-ear monitor will provide a greater degree of isolation, I was still impressed with how much ambient noise the C5s managed to block.
Like the tungsten balancing and Secure Loop, the C5s’ Micro Porous Filter turned out to be not mere marketing hype. It really worked. While it didn’t fully reproduce the spatial effect of listening to loudspeakers -- none of these headphone tricks, in my experience, actually manages that task -- it did move the perceived sonic vista much farther outside my cranium than any other earphones I’ve ever used, and more than many full-sized headphones. The effect worked with all types of recordings, but I found it particularly copacetic with live albums, such as Eva Cassidy’s Live at Blues Alley (CD, Blix Street G2-10046), where I felt as if I were in the audience, and Cassidy and her band were out in front of me. The effect also lent a more natural perspective to many orchestral recordings, making me feel as if I were sitting somewhere in the middle of the hall.
The C5s had an excellent vocal range: saturated but articulate. The upper frequencies were pretty well down in level, which compensated for the very bright sound of the vast majority of commercial pop and rock recordings. Audiophile classics, on the other hand, lost much of their air and sparkle. The timbres of individual instruments were also somewhat homogenized -- one violin sounded like any other -- but the C5s were free from the hollowness that plagues many small earphones.
The aspect of the C5s’ sound that most will either love or hate is its bass. B&W loudspeakers are well known for a robust bottom end, and the C5s continue that tradition. Abundant bass is not a quality usually associated with small earphones -- but the SoundStage! Network’s publisher, Doug Schneider, who also heard the C5s, commented that they sounded as if B&W had somehow squeezed a subwoofer in there. If lack of bass is what’s been keeping you away from earphones, it looks as if B&W has the answer.
I found that the quality and articulation of that bass varied widely, depending on what I used to drive the C5s. Plugged directly into my iPod -- which is how I expect they’ll usually be used -- they sounded a bit on the murky side. When I drove the C5s with HeadRoom’s portable Total BitHead headphone amplifier, I heard a marked improvement in quality and articulation. By the time I’d moved up to my Grace Design m902 headphone amplifier, the little C5s were delivering driving electric bass and punchy kick drum to rival some moderately sized sealed-back headphones. Most full-size headphones benefit from improvements in amplification, but never before had I heard such a profound difference with a pair of small earphones. You could get decent performance from the C5s when you’re out and about with your iPhone, and then, at home, a high-quality listening experience with the C5s plugged into a real headphone amp.
I recently reviewed Etymotic Research’s hf5 earphones ($149). That model lacks a microphone or controls for iDevices, but the hf2 earphones ($179) don’t, and are acoustically identical to the hf5s. The Etymotic models are available in a choice of three colors, but next to the stunning B&W C5s they look ordinary. Some people like their earphones to be unobtrusive; others like to show them off. In which group you place yourself will influence your perception of these designs.
Unlike the C5s, the hf5s are inserted all the way into the ear canal, using one of a variety of included tips. This design offers superior isolation from ambient noise to that provided by the C5s. I’ve been using true in-ear earphones for many years; I’m used to inserting them, and find them extremely comfortable, even for extended use. But I think many people will find the shallower insertion depth required by the C5s extremely comfortable from the first time they put them in. And, unlike any other shallow-insertion design I know of, the C5s stay in place. For those new to in-ear earphones, those are advantages not to be overlooked.
Etymotic Research is deeply rooted in the field of audiology. Their stated goal for their earphones is strict accuracy, and they go a long way toward delivering it, producing quite good instrumental timbres and very clear, focused sound. Their ’phones’ frequency response seems slightly weighted toward the vocal region, which makes sung melodies very easy to follow. I can also follow bass lines and hear the kick of bass drums with the hf5s, but the lower frequencies do lack a little weight and impact.
The soundstage created by the hf5s is fairly precise but entirely inside the head, something I’d long accepted as a characteristic of the sound of small earphones. The B&W C5s shifted that paradigm: They really did sound like much larger headphones. I think many companies will soon be trying to copy this aspect of their performance.
Bowers & Wilkins’ C5 earphones have a particular sonic signature: abundant bass, a full midrange, and forgiving high frequencies. Some will love them for precisely that balance, while others will find the bass overwhelming and the upper frequencies too recessed. You might also wish to try them with a variety of sources other than your iPhone or iPod. High-quality, low-priced headphone amplifiers are in abundance today, and they can substantially improve the sound of the C5s, particularly in the bass. But the one thing on which I think all listeners will agree is that the C5s present a much greater sense of space than do the Etymotic Research hf5s -- or any other earphones. As much as I listened to them, I could never quite get over how big they sounded.
The C5s’ high-tech yet classy appearance is just as distinctive as their sound. Thanks to the weight distribution, the Secure Loop, and the minimal insertion of the eartips, their fit is immediately comfortable and rock solid. The combination of all these features makes the Bowers &Wilkins C5 a unique product definitely worth an audition.
. . . S. Andrea Sundaram
- Headphone amplifiers -- Grace Design m902, HeadRoom Total BitHead
- Headphones/earphones -- Ultrasone Pro 2900, Shure e3c, Etymotic Research hf5
- Digital sources -- Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP universal stereo disc player, Apple iPod (fifth generation)
- Computer -- Laptop computer running Windows Vista, Realtek HD audio ALC 272, foobar2000, via coaxial digital output
- Analog source -- Michell Tecnodec turntable with HR power supply, modified Rega RB300 tonearm, Shure V15X cartridge, Trigon Audio Vanguard II phono stage with Volcano power supply
- Interconnects -- DH Labs Revelation, QED Silver Spiral, JPS Superconductor
- Power Conditioning -- Equi=Tech Son of Q
B&W C5 Earphones
Price: $179 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
B&W Group North America
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864
Phone: (978) 664-2870
Fax: (978) 664-4109