Review: B&W C5 Headphones

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by Josh Ray on December 08 '11


Ear-audio is in a golden era. Everything from Skullcandy's neon spray paint graffiti buds to those Beats By Dr. Dre (or, more accurately, the George Foreman of the headphone world), earbuds and classic cans are easily the biggest money-maker in all of hi-fi.

Makes sense, more people with iPhones than dedicated listening rooms.
Of course, the classic a'phile isn't new to any of this. Sennheiser, Beyerdynamics, Shure, Grado and the crazies like Stax have been around for ages so it shouldn't come as a surprise that venerable brand B&W is jumping into the portable music game. After their tremendous success of the Zeppelin sound system -- and the subsequent spawn of hi-fi iPod docks -- B&W is using their luxe hi-fi credentials to beef up their consumer gadgets. Worked for Bang and Olufsen, should work here.
And it does. Enter the Bowers and Wilkins C5.
First, the most important part of any audio review: looks. We've traveled a long way from the black Sony and white Apple buds of yore. Head-audio has gone main stream. That said, most of us wouldn't be caught dead in the aforementioned Skullcandy and hundreds of neon knockoffs.
The B&W C5 goes in a classy direction. A little silver, a little black, and one mighty unique cord-ear interface. I find the Bowers/Wilkins C5 to be a more pleasing and better designed product than the Bang/Olufsen A8 buds. My only gripe is the cord color should be black rather than transparent, it's just one too many design elements, adding a more industrial pro-user look to what is, overall, probably one of the better-looking "in-ear sound tubes" (as B&W calls them) out there.
Overall, the B&W C5s enhance my steeze, whether at the gym or trying to look cool at Starbucks. I once rocked a pair of full size Sony mastering headphones in public. Bad idea.
Now that we have the important part out of the way, what do the B&Ws sound like? A little surprisingly, much like B&W speakers. I was half expecting them to have that generic grown-up iPod sound. But they lean closer to their Kevlar-clad siblings. You're not going to hear diamond tweets or Nautilus sound here, but they were clearly designed to fit into the B&W sonic family.
For comparison, I find them more mellow than Sony buds (which I'm a fan of) and, to my ears, better tuned than most Sennheisers. The C5s seem to fall more in the middle.
B&W claims to have a "Micro Porous Filter" which "...acts as a diffuser, enabling C5 to deliver pristine, natural audio, while also providing a more spacious performance than previously possible from in-ear headphones." And then "Hundreds of microscopic steel balls act as a sonic diffuser, opening up the sound and making music feel remarkably rich and expansive."
I have no idea if this is true or not, and it feels a little heavy-handed on the marketing lingo. Headphones come in sealed and open variety, so is B&W claiming the first open-back free-air earbud? Not exactly, since this is of the noise-isolating variety, sealing your ear with the traditional rubbery mushroom.
Now, specs are said to be 10hz-20khz. No rating of +/-3db so it could very well be -40db at 10hz. Buds can play the deep bass and you can actually hear it (through the neat trick of pressurizing your inner ear), but there's no way to hear/feel inaudible 10Hz-19Hz frequencies without serious subwoofers. I have an 18" sub EQed flat to 10Hz and the C5 just doesn't compete. You can't hear 10hz, you can only feel it, and the C5 is limited by the same limitations as all earbuds: maths and sciences.
That said, 10hz really doesn't matter. The only important quality here is the sound, and the B&W team did a solid job making this guy sound good in the range that really matters 50hz-10khz.
The C5's Secure Loop feature is one of the smarter design touches to hit the ear-bud world in years. Someone deserves a pint, because this thing rocks. Where most buds require their fat little rubber nubs to be jammed into your ears to keep them secure, the Bowers and Wilkins gives you a second securing mechanism in the form of the standard wire snuggling the inside of your ear. Why did it take so long for someone to figure this out? This Secure Loop design takes the pressure off of your inner ear, providing a more pleasurable listening experience. And it's easy to futz into place. Brilliant.
Wrapping up this little adventure, the B&Ws are respectable buds and sonic comrades to their big brother speakers. If you're looking for an easy no-questions purchase that sounds good, fits well and doesn't make you look like a anime character, the B&W C5 is it.