Bowers & Wilkins C5 Earphone/Headset (Playback 49)

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Bowers & Wilkins C5 Earphone/Headset (Playback 49)

The C5 ($179.95) is the first ever in-ear, noise-isolating headphone from the British firm Bowers & Wilkins, which is of course best known for its high performance loudspeakers. Firms such as B&W enjoy a hard won reputation for knowing how high performance transducers ought to sound, so it will be interesting to see how they apply their accumulated experience and know-how in the world of headphones and earphones. As I approached this review, one goal I set for myself was to try to discover the true identity of the C5. Is it simply a ‘me too’ product designed to fill a product category slot, or does it offer something more in the form of meaningful innovations and design features that set it apart from other products currently on the market?

Having logged a fair amount of time listening to the C5’s and looking into their design, I’m inclined to think that this little earphone really does offer a solution that is—in several subtle but worthwhile respects—different from and better than many of its like-priced competitors.

 

FEATURES/PRODUCT CONCEPT

B&W’s elegantly simple three-word mission statement for the C5 claims that it is an earphone designed to provide a “Concert For One.” I suppose this same claim could perhaps be made for any aspirational, high-performance earphone, but somehow it carries a bit more weight coming from a firm whose high-end speakers can be found in upscale recording studio control rooms around the globe.

Specifically, B&W says the C5 is capable of “providing a more spacious performance than previously possible from in-ear headphones,” which is a very strong claim, while also contending that its design offers superior “comfort and quality of fit.” Finally, in keeping with prevailing market trends, the C5 is configured to serve as a “Made For iPhone”-compatible headset.

Below, I offer a summary some of the specific design features that set the C5 apart from many of its direct competitors.

Aluminum earpiece housing the tungsten sound tube: Many high-quality earphones use solid metal earpiece housings, as do the C5 ‘s, but with a significant twist. The outer shell or casing of the C5 is made of aluminum, but the innermost portion of the sound tube (the part that fits within the wearer’s ear canal_ is made of high-mass tungsten—which B&W calls a “Tungsten Balanced design.” Several benefits accrue from this arrangement. First, the center of mass for the earphone is inside the ear canal, not outside the ear, so that the “C5’s inner casing is … balanced toward the ear so they stay securely inside your ears.” Second, B&W says, the high-mass ear tube helps provide “an improved seal for better sound and noise isolation.”

Thin, ultra-light drivers: The C5 features drivers that are 9mm in diameter but just 9μm thick. The driver motors feature neodymium magnets and CCAW coils.

Secure loop design: Many earphone makers fit their earpiece hook-shaped signal cable guides designed to loop up and over the tops of the wearers’ ears, but B&W take a radically different approach. Thus the C5 features a tightly coiled, adjustable signal cable loop that—please note—fits inside the folds of the outer ear, not up and over the ear. This seemingly unorthodox approach offers several key benefits, some of which are subtle and surprising. First, the loop helps keep the C5 “comfortably in place,” just as B&W promises. But frankly, it does more than that. The loop also takes over primary responsibility for holding the earpiece in place within the ear canal, thus freeing in the earphone’s rubber ear tips from this task. Is this a big deal? I think it is, and here’s why.

Many in-ear headphones sound good when they are first inserted and properly aligned with your ear canals, but sound quality is often degraded over time as the weight of the earpiece housings tugs downward, gradually pulling the earpiece out of alignment with the ear canal, and in some cases disrupting the seal between the rubber ear tips and the ear canal. But thanks to the C5’s secure loop design, this problem never comes up in the first place; the sound you get when you first insert the C5’s is the sound you’ll continue to enjoy throughout the listening session.

Finally, I found that the C5’s secure loop design gave me the freedom to use exactly the right size of ear tip (rather than having to use oversize ear tips to hold the ‘phones in place). In practice, this meant I could experiment with using slightly smaller ear tips than I would typically use with other earphones, while still achieving a good in-ear seal. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but for me the C5’s design meant I could choose ear tips purely on the basis of sound quality, without having to worry about whether the earpiece would fall out. What is more, I found that right-sized ear tips not only made the C5’s sound better (as in more open, transparent, and better balanced), but also made them more comfortable for long-term wear.

Micro-porous filters: The C5 is an open-back earphone, but one whose earpiece housings are significantly different from competing designs that often provide tiny pencil-point-sized vents or ports. The C5 earpieces feature relatively big rear openings, where the “port” is nearly as large in diameter as the barrel of the earpiece housing itself, and where the port opening is fitted with a special “micro-porous filter”. At first glance, the filter appears to be made of a foam material, but that turn out to be made—check this out—from “hundreds of microscopic steel balls” (the tiny metal spheres are just barely visible to the naked eye).

As a general rule, open-back designs are though to offer superior sonic openness, transparency, thus enabling the earphone to “breathe” with the music. B&W makes similar claims for its open-back design, but goes even further, stating that its distinctive filter “acts as a sonic diffuser, opening up the sound and making music feel remarkably rich and expansive.” What B&W doesn’t say, though I suspect that it is true, is that the filter not only acts as a diffuser, but also adds a just-right amount of acoustic loading that helps control back waves from the earphone driver.

Noise-isolation design: Like most earphone makers, B&W claims that the C5 offers good noise isolation, but also makes this surprising claim: “…these in-ear headphones let in just enough ambient noise to allow you to retain your sense of place” (italics are mine). It appears, then, that B&W is trying for a best-of-two-worlds design, where the C5 provides quiet backgrounds, yet invites listeners to maintain at least some measure of “situational awareness”—a balancing act that’s tricky to pull off.

Accessories:

•Four sizes of rubber ear tips. Note that each ear tip appears to feature two different compositions of rubber, with a relatively firm inner sleeve made of black rubber, and a dome-shaped outer made of a softer, translucent gray rubber-like material.

•A carrying pouch made of a suede-like synthetic material. The interior of the pouch provides a somewhat inscrutably designed headphone holder that is also meant to serve as a winding spool for the signal cables. (Hint: Read the online manual and look at the provided illustration to see how to fit the C5’s onto the headphone holder for best results.).

•The C5 signal cable features and inline three-button “Made for iPhone” remote control/microphone module.

EASE OF USE/COMFORT FACTOR

I personally found the C5’s extremely easy to use and very comfortable to wear—even for long listening sessions. But with that said, a few tips are in order.

Getting the most out of the C5’s Secure Loop system: When used properly, the C5’s secure loop system works beautifully and feels great. But the key to optimal performance is to start out with the secure loop set to a small size and then to slowly expand the loop until it fits comfortably against the folds of your ear. Remember: when the C5 is properly fitted, the secure loops—and not the rubber ear tips—are what holds the earpieces in place.

Hint: The “Features” page of the C5 section of the B&W website features an animated presentation that will show you how to fit and adjust the secure loop.

Use right-size ear tips—not oversize ear tips: With the C5 as with any earphone, it pays to try different sizes of ear tips to see what works best. But bear in mind that with the C5—unlike many of its competitors—you don’t need to resort to using oversize ear tips to hold the ‘phones in place. Take advantage of this fact and be sure to experiment with smaller tips than you might normally use, just to see what actually sounds best.

Hint: I found oversize ear tips tended to make the C5 sound overly bass-heavy, so exercise patience and choose ear tips carefully for best results.

Manual: By far the best manual for the C5 is the one found online at this link. Note that the PDF manual at the B&W site is different from and better than the printed manual that ships with these earphones.

Caveats: While I had no usability complaints with the C5 at all, I am aware that some reviewers have expressed concerns in the following areas.

Signal cable length: Some reviewers feel the C5’s signal cable is too short—comments that frankly make no sense to me. The signal cable on my review samples measured approximately 44” from mini-jack to earpieces, which is plenty long enough to allow even tall listeners to connect the C5 to an iPhone carried in pants pockets, etc., with ample slack in the cable left over.

Fit: Some reviewers have found the C5 difficult to fit and have argued that it could benefit from a broader range of ear tips. Obviously there are significant individual differences in ear canal size and shape, so that one man’s “ideal fit” could be another man’s “not-so-good fit.” Even so, I would point out that the C5 already comes with four sizes of ear tips, rather than the usual three sizes many manufacturers provide. Bear in mind, though, that the only way to get an optimal fit with the C5 is to use the secure loop system properly.

Noise isolation: The C5 is not the last word in noise isolation, nor does it try to be. With the C5, noise isolation is good, but by design the earphone does allow some ambient noise to pass through. If you require extreme levels of noise isolation, you’ll want to look further.

Tonal balance: Reviewers’ comments on the C5’s tonal balance have been mixed, some finding that it has a bass-forward sound, while other finding it to be more lightly balanced. My take on the matter is that the C5 is quite sensitive to overall fit and ear tip sizing, meaning that even fairly small adjustments in positioning of the secure loop (or changes in ear tips) can a surprisingly big impact on the C5’s overall sound. Thus, users will discover they can “fine tune” the C5’s tonal balance to achieve a presentation that is reasonably neutrally balanced and that offers very, very good measures of openness and expressiveness

SONIC CHARACTER

Heard at its best, the B&W C5’s sound is pleasingly expressive, open, and transparent—especially in the vital midrange and upper midrange regions. More so than many competitors, the C5 is good at revealing subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) shifts in dynamic emphasis in the music, which give the earphone that desirable ability to “breathe” and respond to the ebb and flow of energy in the music. By comparison, many ‘phones sound a bit compressed, almost as if they are persistently “throttling” the dynamic range of the music. Not so the C5; when instrumentalists or vocalists choose to emphasize a particular note or phrase, the B&W’s will let you know what’s happening right away and in no uncertain terms. In short, the C5’s manage to sound appropriately vivid, yet unexaggerated.

The C5’s highs offer a combination of good clarity and natural warmth, though they may sound just a touch dry. But with that said, let me also point out that the C5’s treble response is also blessedly free from edginess or glare. As a result, the C5 sounds quite transparent and nicely extended, yet without ever becoming sterile, aggressively piercing, or analytical.

The bass of the C5 is always clear, well defined, and well-controlled, though overall bass balance can and does vary as a function of fit in general and ear tip sizing in particular. I tried the C5’s both with large ear tips (the size I would normally use with most earphones) and with the next smaller size of ear tips (which is something the C5’s inventive secure loop system allowed me to do while still getting a good seal).

With the larger ear tips in place, bass was clean and powerful, but pushed forward in the mix somewhat, making midrange frequencies sound slightly recessed by comparison. I frankly think that many listeners—and especially those who favor bass-centric styles of music—would love this sound at first listen, even though it might not offer maximum levels of accuracy. One small drawback, though, was that the larger ear tips seemed to suppress some of the C5’s delightful ability to “breathe” and flow with the music.

With the next smaller size of ear tips in place, however, tonal balance arguably became more accurate, albeit at the expense of somewhat diminished bass weighting and mids that were perhaps just a touch too forward-sounding. On the whole, though, I think most accuracy-oriented purists would prefer the sort of sound I enjoyed with the smaller ear tips installed. Bass remained punchy, articulate and well extended, while mids were better-proportioned relative to the low end. What is more, the C5’s midrange really bloomed with the smaller ear tips installed, sounding noticeably more nuanced and dynamically alive. This, I feel, is really the true sound of the C5—the sound that makes this headphone special within its class. Indeed, the C5 reminded me more than a little of the sound of one of Playback’s favorite earphones in this price bracket: namely, Phonak’s superb PFE 122. Both ‘phones are characterized by a more nuanced and sophisticated sound than you might expect for the money, although their voicing is by no means identical. The key point to bear in mind, however, is that the C5 may require experimentation with fit and ear tip sizing in order to deliver its full sonic potential.

MUSICAL EXAMPLE

To see what the C5 could do with vigorous yet well recorded material rich in dynamic and textural details, I put one of my favorite live records: Long John Hunter’s “Let’s Set the Time” from the Untapped Blues Festival 2004 [Bluestopia]. The track leverages the sound of Hunter’s smokin’ band, whose rhythm section sounds fantastic on this track. For about the first minute and a half, the band establishes a rock-solid, propulsive groove anchored by the effortless lithe sound of a bass guitar, a lovely minimalist percussion figure carried by the snare drum, cymbals and a cowbell, billowing chords from a Hammond organ, and sharp, piquant accent chords strummed on an electric guitar. Instrumental separation is just terrific through the C5’s and is made even more engaging by the earphone’s ability to capture the distinctive dynamic envelopes of each of the instruments. In particular, the C5’s offer more than enough detail to hear sounds from onstage reverberating within the performance venue, giving the song even more of a “you are there” live feel.

But when Hunter’s vocals begin, the song really takes off, in large part because the C5 lets you hear and feel Hunter’s masterful control of inflections and other points of vocal emphasis, such as words or phrase punctuated by deliciously prolonged howls, which the C5 takes right in stride. Through the B&W’s, it is immediately apparent that Hunter and his band have worked together for a long time and know each others moves perfectly. You can hear the band, for example, subtly throttling back its output to make space for Hunter’s vocal lines, then throttling back up again during pauses between verses or phrases, almost as if to add commentary. It’s a masterful performance, but one that can easily be dragged down by earphones that lack sufficient dynamic moxie and subtlety to show the crafty back-and-forth interplay between the instrumentalist and the singer. Happily, the C5 has no such problems—it gets the textural details and the dynamic shadings right.

Small but powerful details abound, and the C5 really does them justice. One of my personal favorites, for example, occurs about six and a half minutes into the song, just before the final vamp begins, as the guitarist strums a meaty chord that momentarily saturates—and then overdrives—his obviously tube-powered guitar amp. Even though this small detail erupts and then disappears within a split second, it sounds so real that you just can help but be pulled into the moment and thus into the song. Many headphones inadvertently quash details like these (or underplay them), but the C5 gives them their full due and brings them alive.

For any C5 listener, a choice will have to be made between going with ear tips that have the sort of traditionally tight fit one might expect to use with most other earphones, or to opt for ear tips that have a less tight fit while still providing a good in-ear seal; this choice will have sonic consequences. I listened to “Lets Set the Time” several times in a row, using different sizes of ear tips and found that with tight-fitting tips the C5 gave the song’s bass guitar licks and kick drum thwacks greater weight and drive, while at the same time taming some of the “bark” of the rhythm guitar. With less tight-fitting tips, the C5 exhibited lighter bass balance (though providing a bass sound that still had plenty of “pop” and “snap”), while the guitar (and vocals) opened up a bit and thus sounded more real. My point is that the C5 gives listeners tuning options, though it may take some time and experimentation to choose among them.

CONCLUSION

Consider this product if: you want one of the better performing mid-priced earphone/headsets on today’s market, and one whose core sound centers around a midrange that is unusually expressive and dynamically alive. Also consider the C5 if you like the idea of an earphone whose clever Secure Loop design helps hold earpieces in place, so that the rubber ear tips don’t have to shoulder the workload all by themselves. Fit and finish are exquisite, too.

Look further if: You favor plug’n’play earphones that don’t require much if any tweaking. The C5 can be pretty sensitive both to overall fit and (especially) to ear tip sizing, so a bit of judicious fine-tuning of fit can potentially yield big sonic dividends. Note, too, that the C5 offers good but not great noise isolation (a deliberate design choice so that you can still hear some ambient sounds).

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced competition):

•Tonal Balance: 8-9 (highly dependent on fit, ear tip sizing)
•Frequency Extremes: 8-9 (bass)/ 8-9 (treble)
•Clarity: 9
•Dynamics: 9
•Comfort/Fit: 10 (the Secure Loop system is ingenious)
•Sensitivity: 7
•Value: 8.5

BOTTOM LINE

The C5 has become one of our favorite mid-priced earphones, partly because it sounds so good, but partly because the C5’s cool Secure Loop system makes the headphone comfortable to wear for long listening sessions (and keeps the earpiece from feeling as if they might pull free from your ears).

 

SPECS & PRICING

Bowers & Wilkins C5 In-Ear Headphone/Headset
Accessories: As described under “FEATURES/PRODUCT CONCEPT”, above.
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 20kHz
Weight: 20 grams
Sensitivity: 118 dB
Impedance: 32 Ohms
Warranty: 2 years, parts and labor
Price: $179.95

B&W Group Ltd.
(978) 664-2870
www.bowers-wilkins.com

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