Bowers & Wilkins C5 Review

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Reviewed Sep 2011

Details: First in-ear earphone from British hi-fi boutique B&W
MSRP: $179 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $180 from amazon.com / $180 from Apple.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 118 dB/V | Freq: 10-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug w/mic & 3-button remote
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes), right-angle adapter, airline adapter, and zippered velour carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The C5 shells are quite large and made entirely out of metal, which gives them an impressive heft. The angled housings and porous filter have the look and feel of quality but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the cable, which has a bit of memory and doesn’t feel all that upmarket. The caps on the end of the ‘memory wire’ section are not glued in place and came off on my pair after a day. Mild driver flex presents itself as well
Isolation (3.5/5) – Surprisingly good despite the ‘porous filter’ at the rear. Can be made better with aftermarket bi-flanges
Microphonics (4/5) – The earphones have to be worn cord-down but the earloop keeps the microphonics low
Comfort (3.5/5) – Though comfort is a major marketing push for the C5, the earloop design simply won’t work for some ears. The wire is pretty stiff at the top and pushes unpleasantly on the inside of the ear after a couple of hours and the earphones being large and heavy doesn’t help matters. Wearing the C5 over-the-ear is made impossible by the earloop and putting the earphones on correctly – annoyingly – often requires the use of both hands

Sound (7.6/10) – The C5 is Bowers & Wilkins’ second iPhone headset, following in the footsteps of last year’s supraaural P5. Like the P5, the C5 attempts to balance a relatively mainstream sound signature with audio quality that won’t offend the discerning listener. Most noticeable is the emphasized mid-bass – the C5 is a decidedly bass-heavy earphone and offers up tons of power and impact. The low end is not the tightest or the most controlled, lagging behind competitors such as the Sennhesier IE6, nor is it as deep and extended as that of the Future Sonics Atrios. It is a touch slower and thicker than I would have liked, too, giving the C5 a full and fleshed-out sound even next to similarly bass-heavy sets such as the Beyerdynamic DTX 101. Interestingly, both the sound signature and sound quality of the C5 bear remarkable similarity to Beyer’s flagship – the manufacturers clearly did their research on the type of sound consumers find appealing.

The midrange of the C5 is recessed next to the heavy bass – more so than that of the DTX 101, for example – and the low end seems to bleed up more noticeably as a result. The note thickness carries over as well, causing the C5 to sound a bit less clean and open than the DTX 101 and borderline muddy next to the HiFiMan RE-ZERO and VSonic GR07. Clarity and detail retrieval are decent but not on-level with some of the truly hi-fi sets in the price range. The overall tone is slightly warm and the sound remains smooth well into the treble. Harshness and sibilance are nowhere to be found and the overall treble curve is quite inoffensive, dipping off gently at the top. The top end is smooth and relaxed but again lacks the clarity and sparkle of earphones found near the top of the <$100 price bracket. As a result, much like the P5, the C5 falls just a touch on the darker side of neutral for me and lacks some air and transparency.

Also like the P5, the C5 has an average-sized soundstage with good imaging and decent instrument separation. It’s a well-rounded presentation that nevertheless doesn’t offer anything extraordinary among the more high-performing dynamic-driver earphones. The sound is not as open as I would like and positioning precision is not pinpoint-accurate. The somewhat constrained dynamics – an issue with the P5 headphone as well – is one of the limitations to be faulted. One upside of both the signature and presentation of the C5 is how forgiving it is of the contents of an average listener’s iPod. Audiophile-oriented sets such as the HiFiMan RE-ZERO do not take kindly to 128 kbps mp3s but the C5 chugs along just fine. Still, while the B&Ws do perform better than other fashion-forward high-end in-ears such as the Beats by Dre Tour and Munitio Teknines, next to Head-Fi favorites such as the Sony EX600, HiFiMan RE262, and VSonic GR07 their warm and mid-bassy antics leave me quite cold.

Value (6.5/10) – Despite its hefty price tag, the older P5 headphone is a reasonably good value in my book because – sound aside – very few sets can match its combination of portability, build quality, comfort, and isolation. The in-ear market, however, is flooded with sets that can compete with the B&W C5 in every way for a lot less money. Like the P5, the in-ear model treads no new ground whatsoever with its signature, either, sounding dry, colored, and a touch thick. The sound is clearly more consumer than audiophile and while the C5 does surpass mainstream models such as the Beats by Dre Tour and Klipsch Image S4 in fidelity, it seems content with stopping there. I have other complaints as well – the adjustable earloop, while able to provide a secure fit, can be time-consuming to put on and isn’t necessarily comfortable in the long run; the cylindrical remote unit is difficult to operate blindly; and the velour carrying case is monumentally frustrating to use. On the whole, the earphones are beautifully packaged, nice to look at, and surprisingly well-isolating but simply don’t perform as well as I’d have liked for the asking price.

Pros: 2 year warranty; secure fit; fairly inoffensive sound signature
Cons: Would be more comfortable without earloop; frustrating carrying case; sound quality on par with cheaper sets


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About Author

Living in the fast-paced city of Los Angeles, ljokerl has been using portable audio gear to deal with lengthy commutes for the better part of a decade. He spends much of his time listening to music and occasionally writes portable audio reviews across several enthusiast sites, focusing mostly on in-ear earphones.

8 Comments

  1. Arthur on

    Thank you Joker, you are a blessing and I am really glad that I found you and your earphone reviews, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from you and your reviews. Whatever my choice is, I know that I’m a lot more educated and informed than I was before. Sorry for bombarding you with so many questions and whenever I make my lasting decision, I’ll chime back in with another thank you :-)! I hope that whatever motivation you have for listening to and reviewing earphones stays strong because there aren’t many people as dedicated as you are to whatever they are doing!!

    • ljokerl on

      Thanks, I appreciate that and hope that you are pleased with whichever set you end up choosing. Whatever happens, one of the cool things about this hobby IMO is that you can always return/resell/regift and try again, with an extra data point to help zero in on your ideal sound.

  2. Arthur on

    Hi Joker, I have commented a few days ago on your IE8 post. How do you feel about the C5 S2? I read multiple reviews and most people see the new version as having an improvement in terms of sound over the previous model. I bought them for a test run and am ambivalent about them insofar due to the intermittent discomfort and the very boomy bass/receded highs and mids without EQ. I was wondering if I could get a better run for my money, such as perhaps a Fidue A81, or something similar which cost approximately the same price on Amazon and has a remote/earphone.

    • ljokerl on

      While I haven’t tried the C5 S2, your findings are very much inline with my feeling on the original C5. Just not as impressive as some of the similarly-priced sets we’ve seen from brands with less heritage.

      Unfortunately the A81 is not something I recommend either – I didn’t think it was good enough to review due to somewhat bloated bass. The pricier A83 and less expensive A71 have both impressed me more.

      If you need an iOS remote an RHA MA750i or even Klipsch X10i would be better options as far as audio quality goes. Neither is as bloated as an A81 or the original C5.

      • Arthur on

        I have had the X10’s as an RMA from a S4i, but felt that they didn’t really fit my music style that well due to the almost absence of bass (Rap, EDM, trance, D&B, jazz, classical). I have also tried the MA750i’s and the t10i’s and actually really liked the t10i’s primarily due to the amazing build construction and a more distinct separation between the highs, mids, and bass than the 750i (i am clearly not a professional lol) but also felt that the t10i was very bassy, regardless of what filter I used on it.

        Based on research, I am seriously considering purchasing a fidue a83, with an aftermarket remote wire, if it means I can buy a good, durable earphone that will prevent me from having to buy more earphones in the near future (3 years?). It seems that most reviewers, besides yourself, review it with some sort of amp. I would mainly be using it on the go in a city environment- in trains, buses, libraries, etc. It is a big purchase, and if I buy them, I’d want to make sure that there is absolutely nothing getting in between me and my music! If I like the t10i’s, should I just go on and buy them, or is the jump to the 300$ range of the a83 a better decision?

        • ljokerl on

          Bad seal with the X10s maybe? They aren’t as bassy as the S4s but they shouldn’t be totally lacking in bass: http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/KlipschX10.pdf . Bass should be pretty tight, too.

          I doubt you’ll be pleased with the A83 if that’s the case. It’s not as bass-heavy as the MA750 and of course the T10i. Definitely more on the balanced/Hi-Fi side. If you liked the T10s you should buy those because there’s nothing quite like them (for better or worse) on the market that I’ve heard.

          • Arthur on

            I’ve lost the X10’s, so if I were to try them with other tips, it’d have to be on a new pair :P. I enjoyed the t10i’s primarily for build quality and great warranty policy, but I felt like everything I played was veiled a bit due to its overall dark signature. I enjoyed the transparency and brightness of the etymotic hf3’s a lot more than I thought I would, but they were a bit too neutral for me. Despite my music tastes, I wouldn’t mind less bass at all and if a quality earphone sacrifices bass quantity for a better overall experience, it seems like a more sensible option.

            Bass aside, would the A83’s fare up to a typical NYC commuter in terms of durability, comfort and isolation? Or are they purely a stationary music enthusiast’s tool for discerning musical qualities… or would they satisfy either of the two? 🙂

          • ljokerl on

            Durability and comfort are good but the isolation is average. More on-par with an IE8 than an MA750/T10i. If you’re taking the subway I’d probably want more.

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