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.
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.