It’s amazing sometimes what one simple design tweak can do for a product. Case in point: Bowers & Wilkins’ elegant new C5 earphones.
As anyone with oddly-shaped auditory canals knows, most in-ear monitors rely on a dubious mix of proper tip/sleeve selection and getting the right seal. This can be harder than it seems, especially given that most earphones only come with three or four sleeve options. Even then, many are still prone to shift around or even pop out if you decide to do anything active with them.
The C5s all but eliminate this annoyance with a fancy little thing called…a loop. Yup, that’s it. Just an extra length of padded wire that extends up past the aluminum body and then back into it. And yet this simple solution makes a world of difference.
Were it not for dangling wires coming from each earpiece, you can easily forget you’ve got a tiny pair of speakers jammed in your external acoustic meatus.
Here’s how the system works: Each earpiece contains position-preserving memory wire attached to a groove on the side that then forms a customizable loop. This coil is meant to sit against the inner rim of your ear, aka the antihelix. By pulling up or down on the wire, you can adjust it to fit your uniquely-shaped cartilage.
All this engineering translates into some seriously comfy in-ear phones that feel both natural and secure. Were it not for dangling wires coming from each earpiece, you can easily forget you’ve got a tiny pair of speakers jammed in your external acoustic meatus. That loop also means the C5s are staying put, regardless of activity. I used them while running, walking, biking, and even while sleeping on a plane. Never once did they manage to creep out of my finicky ears.
Most importantly though, that reliable fit means uniform sound. Manufacturers don’t tell you this often enough, but getting secure and consistent fit is crucial to both the quality of bass response and really the entire sonic performance of your in-ears. An otherwise great pair of IEMs can sound excessively bright and boomy if jammed too far into the canal. Likewise, they can sound flaccid and bass-less if they’re not pushed in far enough. You, of course, want that elusive Goldilocks solution.
This being B&W, there are other fancy feats of engineering that help you get very close. There’s a tungsten sound tube in each earpiece that’s purposefully weighted towards your inner ear (again, to keep the earphones in place) and also something called a Micro Porous Filter. The latter is made up of hundreds of microscopic steel balls that supposedly act as a kind of sonic diffuser, opening up the sound. Whether it was those tiny balls or something else, the C5s do in fact have a glorious soundstage.
They also come with four different tips. I found the smallest worked best for me, but I experimented with all of them. Despite the incorporation of the loop system, the tips still played a big role, not only with regard to proper positioning but also overall sound signature.
B&W says the goal was to make the C5s as natural-sounding as possible. That’s not a horrible way of describing them I suppose, as long as you don’t confuse natural with neutral. There’s still a good deal of bass favoring going on, although it’s never overpowering. I found them to be overly bright at times, particularly with classical music (Ravel’s “Boléro”). In general though, the C5s exude a luxuriously warm and surprisingly open sound that will handle almost every genre with aplomb, particularly rock.
Had B&W simply released a mediocre pair of earphones with this “Secure Loop” system, it would’ve been enough to satisfy plenty of people. It just so happens the C5s also sound pretty spectacular for a $180 pair of earphones. Yes, like everything else the company makes, that’s not exactly cheap. But you can easily spend twice as much on a pair of in-ear monitors and get considerably worse performance.
Boiled down to their essence, the C5s are really earphones for people who hate earphones, but love and appreciate music. They not only deliver surprisingly lush and open sound, but they do so with a level of comfort that no other IEMs can match.
WIRED Wonderfully rich and open sound. Includes in-line mic with media controls. Exquisite build-quality. As beautiful to look at as they are to hear. Block out/isolate just enough sound to make them great for the outdoors.
TIRED A perfect fit in your ears and yet a horrible fit in the case — the taco-shaped, chintzy cloth carrier comes with a perplexing (and unnecessary) internal cutout mount. Slightly confusing and unintuitive MFI controls. Hit the center button twice for next song? Careful with the tips! The ones the come already affixed really don’t want to come off (I tore one of them).
Photo courtesy of Bowers & Wilkins