It’s amazing that in 2011, roughly 1,000 years after the earbud was originally created, a model could come along that’s actually innovative. But Bowers & Wilkins actually did it. The C5 in-ear headphones debuted several weeks back and I’ve been testing a pair for a while. In short: I’m in love. Oh, it’s not just that they sound great; they’re made by B&W so I would expect nothing less. It’s their design that makes me smile.
Bowers & Wilkins has long made some of the very best loudspeakers on the planet. A few years ago they dove into the world of iPod docks with the Zeppelin and then a short while later, the Zeppelin Mini. This move frightened some in the snobby world of audiophiles, but B&W did fine job maintaining their trademark high-end feel with their general consumer line. Enter the C5 in-ear headphones.
These in-ears are not the company’s first attempt at headphones, as they also sell the over-the-ear P5s. Those retro cans cost $299 and more than hold their own at that price point dominated by hip-hop-endorsed headphones.
The C5 in-ear headphones are more of the same. They’re a great value at $179 and can easily rival in-ears costing north of $200. They don’t sound as good as the P5s, but they feel great and are much more versatile than the over-the-ear set.
Most in-ears either just rest in your ear canal or have a sort of hook that wraps around your ear, but not the C5s. The headphone wire expands through the earbud itself into the inner ridge of your ear’s outer cartilage, providing a secure and surprisingly comfortable hold. This causes just the slightest amount of pressure, but it’s on the outside of your ear, rather than inside the ear canal. The tungsten earbud itself is weighted more towards the tip, which helps further anchor them in place.
You can’t knock these things out. They’ll likely withstand bouncing on a pogo stick during an earthquake — not that I tested it as such. Still, they stayed put during a quick test involving jumping jacks, running in place, and eventually lots of heavy breathing. Unlike other so-called athletic earbuds, the C5s don’t look like they’re a Nike design experiment from the year 2050, and they even work well with glasses.
B&W clearly designed these in-ears for digital media: there’s an in-line controller and the cable is appropriately short. I can’t test a B&W product with just Pandora though — these are Bee and Dubyas, man — so I broke out the ol’ Pioneer turntable and The Beatles’s classic White Album. Using the much more expensive Beats Pro over-the-ear cans as a reference, the B&W C5s held their own with solid mid-range response and a full sound. The clarity is surprising and the low-end sufficient but not overpowering — at least with The Beatles.
Circle of Animals’ Destroy The Light vinyl turned out to be too much for the C5s. The little earbuds simply couldn’t reproduce the sustained low-pass tones or the extremely tight electronic static resulting in a much flatter sound than I’m used to hearing.
It was clear after a few more vinyl records that the C5s aren’t designed for audiophiles — not that I’ll ever claim to be one — so I turned to Rdio and the C5s started to shine. B&W managed to pack an incredible amount of sound into these little guys. They light up once they’re fed music compressed for portability. The C5s even sounded better than the more expensive Shure SE315 in-ears. The sound was fuller even though the bass response wasn’t as powerful, while the highs were much sharper. Plus, the C5s are so much more comfy.
The C5s are excellent mid-range earphones for the digital medium. I wish they featured active noise canceling, as the soft tip only cuts out some ambient noise. Still, at $179, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better sounding or fitting earphones. Buy these.