Published on September 1st, 2011 | by Greg0
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.