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Published on September 1st, 2011 | by Greg

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Bowers and Wilkins C5s: Best In-Ear Headphones Yet?

We have many, many au­dio gear re­views com­ing soon- ev­ery­thing from high-end am­pli­fiers to DACs and even a mi­cro­phone or two. But to­day, we’re hap­py to re­port a clear win­ner to our ears in at least one bat­tle. If you are look­ing for in-ear head­phones in the $200 price range, you can keep look­ing, but are like­ly to end up ex­act­ly where we are- star­ing straight at Bow­ers and Wilkins.

We’re not over­ly fond of su­perla­tives- even de­vices that we re­al­ly like, but are over-fea­tured or per­haps too pricey, tend to gar­ner mixed re­views on our pages. But two of our top re­views have gone to Bow­ers and Wilkins, for their P5 over-ear head­phones, and the orig­i­nal Zep­pelin- to our ears, still the best dock on the mar­ket. The Zep­pelin Mi­ni was, and still is, an ex­cel­lent prod­uct, but didn’t quite live up to our (ad­mit­ted­ly high) hope. When word got out about the C5s, B&W’s en­trance in­to the com­pet­i­tive world of “ear­buds” and in-ear head­phones, we were cu­ri­ous if they’d fit in­to our pic­ture of the au­dio qual­i­ty we’ve come to ex­pect.

Good news: they did. The new C5s are prob­a­bly the best over­all pair of in-ear head­phones we’ve tried. They are big­ger than ear­buds, to be sure, but small­er and more portable than over-the-ear cans. They might not have quite the bass of some com­peti­tors, but they def­i­nite­ly sound bet­ter on most tracks than the Ul­ti­mate Ears. On triphop tracks, vo­cals were still nice­ly bal­anced, and the “son­ic stage” was broad in­stead of con­strained- ba­si­cal­ly, the stereo sep­a­ra­tion was wider and helped draw you fur­ther in­to the mu­sic. Two re­view­ers com­ment­ed that they felt much more nat­u­ral- more ac­cu­rate on bass, but with more pres­ence and less flat than some oth­ers that can sound a bit more clin­i­cal. They bal­ance ac­cu­ra­cy with a pleas­ing punch, es­pe­cial­ly on acous­tic tracks where they shine. Part of this ex­cel­lence like­ly stems from one of the key fea­tures of the C5s, the son­ic dif­fus­er that can spread sound out­ward a bit.

The oth­er im­por­tant fea­ture is what they call a “se­cure loop de­sign”, and we call sim­ply a re­al­ly sol­id fit thanks to the odd and ex­treme­ly ad­justable in­ner-ear loop. Of­ten, head­phones can have a nice ex­tra point award­ed for the num­ber and va­ri­ety of ear­bud tips in­clud­ed- these in­clude four pairs, if not as many as com­peti­tors then per­fect­ly ad­e­quate. But we were pleased to see that the C5s al­so lived up the promise of a “fit­ter fit”- they felt snug with­out be­ing tight or un­com­fort­able. And they stayed that way, de­spite some tugs on the ca­ble, and even dur­ing jog­ging.

An Ap­ple-com­pat­i­ble re­mote gives you the same con­trols you might be used to, but of course these can be used with most any mi­ni-jack de­vice. Al­so, this pair in­cludes a mi­cro­phone- alone among the fea­tures, it wasn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly im­pres­sive. Sev­er­al deemed it “fine”, and folks on the oth­er end didn’t seem im­pressed or let down- clar­i­ty was sol­id, noise can­celling dur­ing calls was on­ly so-so. On that top­ic though, the snug fit of the C5s and the gen­er­al de­sign meant that it blocked noise quite ef­fec­tive­ly. There isn’t ac­tive noise can­cel­la­tion, but we didn’t re­al­ly feel the need ex­cept on the air­plane at a few mo­ments.

With a sol­id ca­ble, and an ex­treme­ly at­trac­tive fin­ish, these are prob­a­bly not the head­phones for the av­er­age kid or mom who don’t much care about fre­quen­cy re­sponse and are fine with Ap­ple’s lit­tle white buds. For ev­ery­one else who can af­ford the $180 pric­etag, we give these our strongest rec­om­men­da­tion. They aren’t per­fect- the in­clud­ed pouch is more or less an af­terthought, and they are a tiny bit heavy, like­ly due to the tung­sten core which helps keep them in place. But the de­sign is sharp in so many ways that it gives B&W a def­i­nite leg up on most com­peti­tors, and they are priced ex­treme­ly com­pet­i­tive­ly.

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.



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