Sunday, 27 October 2013

Bowers & Wilkins C5
Review By Martin Pearman

Part 1: What to buy?
When looking for a pair of headphones I don’t really pay much attention to how a pair looks in terms of logos, size or glitzy colours. I look for functional design power ratings and pedigree. I’ve owned a fair few pairs of headphones from Shure, Grado to cheap Sony. One thing that while listening to my favourite music is how each pair adds and detracts from each song.

So in my opinion what makes a good pair of headphones and what makes a great pair? Well if you can get something that is comfortable and can be worn for a couple of hours without causing your ears or surrounding area to ache, or make your neck ache from being heavy, couple this with lovely well balanced sound or various sources (you don’t want a pair that sounds garbage on an iPod but sounds great on your home HiFi only).

The above statement may sound obvious (pardon the pun) but it can be tricky to get the balance just right. Now some people will just be happy with the ear pods they got free with their iPhone / iPod and this is just fine because they will probably be listening to poor quality streams or low quality encoded MP3’s. If this is you then this review may not be for you but you may want to keep reading to see what spending a little more money on a decent pair of headphones can do.

So the reason I decided to purchase the Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) C5 in-ear monitors (IEM’s) is because I was using a pair of RHA MA450 and while for £40 they sounded stella and had great build on the body of the phones the 3.5mm jack plug decided to break laving me with intermittent sound problems. Now I could have settled for another pair but I was brought up with the old adage “You get what you pay for” and I have found this to be mostly true in life. I also don’t abuse things I buy and I tend to have things a long time so after having the RHA’s for less than a year and only using them for maybe 30 hours of listening, having them break left a sour taste and I decided to spend a little more money.

 I wanted to find a pair of Shure IEM’s but I also didn't want to have to spend a full day looking around. Well I’m glad to report I didn't and the first place I visited, the Trinity Apple Store Leeds was the last place I visited, they stocked a huge range of Can’s and IEM’s ranging from cheap and nasty to the more exotic. After looking at what was on offer I found two pairs of phones both at £150 the NAD Viso HP20 IEM and B&W C5 IEM. Both have in-line volume and mic and both looked interesting.

After looking at the packaging and using my iPhone to check what people had to say I chose the B&W over the NAD, simply because the NAD’s were not reviewed much. Now the B&W had some once reviews but nothing that suggested they were the best of the best, I was a little worried about style over substance but I know B&W build some of the best loudspeakers in the world and their history and pedigree helped alleviate any fears I had.

Part 2: Packaging & unboxing
The B&W’s come in a very attractive and quite heavy card box that has a magnetic front flap that opens and reveals a small window showing the headphones in all their glory. There is some basic information on the outside of the box, sadly some info I always look for was missing, this is the frequency and impedance details. I always look for this and it helps in deciding if they will match your equipment at home or in your pocket, but as B&W make a great iPod dock I didn't think they would make a product that wouldn't play nice with an iPod or iPhone.

Opening the box your greeted by a separate box/enclosure that has a material tag you pull on sliding the insides from the heavy card outer. siting atop another heavy card box is a moulded plastic holder for the headphones and you can tell that they have aimed this at the Apple lover as its got a very similar look and sensation when opening your new headphones. Under the plastic lid are two other back boxes made from thin card, a word of warning when pulling these out. Be very careful as  its easy to tear the pull tags as its a very tight fit. The smaller box houses the booklets containing your usual guarantee and marketing fluff. Nothing worthy of note. The bigger of the two boxes hold your faux sued carry case and inside this are the spare silicone tips.

Be careful when removing the headphones from the plastic holder as its a bit finickity and you don’t want to damage your new shiny IEM’s. Overall the packaging is nice and good change from what is usually a dull experience, you can defiantly tell you hold a product from a premium company. If Apple ever wanted to team up with an audio company to work on headphones or other audio projects they should team up with B&W as they both have a acute eye for detail and quality.

Part 3: Fit and finish
So what about the IEM’s themselves? Well I have to mention the weight, being made from tungsten these are no featherweights, the weight only adds to the quality feel but I was a little worried they maybe too heavy for my ears to cope with and lead to pressure pain. On the side you have the Bowers & Wilkins moniker in case you were worried people wouldn't know you had a high-end pair of IEM’s in. Speaking of which the one thing you do notice when these are in situ is the large round metal cap like area on the end, this is made from micro perforated material allowing the driver to breathe like an open-backed can. This is designed to give a more open and specious sound.

Another striking thing you may have notice so far from the images used in this review are the looped wire over the top of each bud. This is an odd looking thing to behold and really sits in an awkward juxtaposition to what is a generally clean design. Its also a little bit of genius as this wire sits inside your ear and acts as part of the whole to make sure they are seated inside your ears correctly, they  also adjust to make sure a perfect fitment. So far I’ve found this to be generally comfortable but after a very long time 3 hours or so it does become a little sore, but pull them out and give your ears a rest and you’ll be fine, I guess after a while you’ll get used to them. One thing this will help with is the flexing of the cable and stop it from breaking at the top near the bud (hopefully).

The cable is also a nice thing to behold as is thin and flexible, so wont be prone to kinking in a specific place and lead to breaking the wire inside. The 3.5mm jack on the end looks like a professionally finished banana plug of a high end speaker cable. Also attached to the top of the wire on the left hand side is the volume control and mic. It’s a simple affair and nothing special, it works and looks part of the package.

One thing I had read from web reviews are that the silicone ear pieces were prone to tearing due to being made from two types of silicone, a stiff black centre that attaches to the bud and a clear outer that goes into your ear canal. apparently where the seam is they tear here and a quite costly to replace. I found that the best way to get around this is to unfold the clear outer and take hold of the back part and pull straight out without wobbling them or moving side to side etc, they should just pull off and this has worked for me while trying the different sizes.

The overall feel is that these are built with the same care and dedication as their loudspeakers and should last quite some time.

Part 4: Wall of sound

So the part allot of you have been waiting for, how do they sound? Well this is a mixed and delicate subject. For one we all love a different sound some like clear crisp mids other like sharp yet delicate highs and some like thunderous deep bass. It’s difficult to find a loudspeaker that can get all three spot on let alone a pair of IEM’s.

These IEM’s don’t disappoint when paired with HiFi but lack when paired with an iPhone. Before you go an head off to another review let me explain. As I type this review I’m sat with the C5’s attached to an Arcam Alpha 8 amp with an Arcam Alpha 7 CD. I’ve listened to Alison Krauss & Union Station - Paper Airplane, The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac 2 CD & now The Orb Metallic Spheres. These IEM’s are beyond outstanding, they are considerate and delicate with intricate guitars and vocals but bombastic when fed deep bass electronic or otherwise, these can dig as deep as the best closed back cans but be as light and airy as the best pair of Grado’s.

They truly are a sonic treat. 

So what goes wrong when paired with an iPhone? Well they seem to get bogged down and loose that special fidelity they shine with when on the Arcam. They get muddy in the mids and the highs seem to be cut off and the bass seems to come to the forefront and take control.

I haven’t had the chance to try a dedicated headphone amp (portable or otherwise) but I think this could make a difference when using a source like the iPhone or iPod. Now it may sound like I’m being overly critical of these headphones and maybe I am but you’d expect when looking at a product from B&W, nothing but specific & thorough judgment is worthy of such a company and not doing it this way would be an injustice to such a great pear of IEM’s.

Now don’t get me wrong I’ve heard worse performances from phones more expensive and only the most critical ears would be picky and disregard such a great sound. I’ll still use these are my daily walkabout pair and that is saying something.

Other aspects of these IEM’s is the external noise is kept to a very minimum, plus I have a very delicate ears and the sound leaked from outside might not be heard by others. The mic works well and the conversation I had on my iPhone was heard by the other party just fine, and the voice of said person to me was very clear and much better than the earpiece of the phone itself.

Part 5: Conclusion
So what can I say to sum up these In Ear Monitors? Well if paired with a full HiFi (possibly with a portable amp) they really shine and across the board they don’t disappoint. Not to my ears anyway. The problem lies with their intended job, providing sound to someone out and about rather than in a recliner at home. In this respect they falter slightly and could have been a little better. Its not that they are horrid, far from it. I don’t know what changes B&W could make to remedy this slight bass overdose when coupled with inferior hardware but I’d like to hear their improvements. Plus we have to remember one thing here. This is B&W’s first foray into the IEM’s market and if I were Shure, Logitech or Sennheiser who are the market leaders for IEM’s I’d be worried.

If you want a pair of IEM’s that are going to give you an un-skewed sound when attached to home equipment then these are for you, if your looking for a dedicated pair just for iPhone/iPod only listening and you’re not going to use a portable amp then I’d look at the class leaders as for the money you may get a more rounded sound.

Disclaimer: The images used in this review are from B&W's own site, I didn't hotlink to the images to stop bandwidth issues for them. For more info please visit their site at I've also uploaded a PDF version of this review here.