First it was iPod docks. Then it was computer speakers and over-the-ear headphones. Now, Bowers & Wilkins, a brand once known for expensive high-end speakers, expands its product offering into the mainstream with the $179.95 C5 in-ear headphones.
Along with touting the C5s' "pristine, natural audio," B&W is highlighting its signature Secure Loop, "an ingenious innovation where a cushioned loop fixes quickly and comfortably in the inner ridge of the user's ear." The company adds that the Loop is "infinitely adjustable, so it works perfectly with anyone's ears."
That part about it being "perfect" for everyone's ears is open to debate, but what's not is that if you can achieve a snug fit, these earphones offer excellent, well-balanced sound, and perform as well as any earphones we've tested in this price class.
Design and features
Kudos to the designers behind the C5s. The earphones exude a high-end quality of design with an artful tungsten/aluminum finish and feature a seemingly sturdy build quality, though we prefer an L-shaped plug to the standard slim one found at the end of the C5s, as the slim nature of the plug makes it easy to use with smartphones covered by a protective case.
The first thing you think when you look at that Secure Loop design is "Wow, that's pretty cool." What makes it cool? Well, it looks so simple that if it indeed works, you wonder why someone didn't think of it sooner.
As the company says, you can adjust the loop, adding or taking away from its size by simply pulling or pushing on the cord.
With most earbuds, you simply pick a tip (most earphones come with a few different sized tips) and jam it into your ear until you get a tight seal. It works a little differently with the Secure Loop--first, you get the Loop to tuck properly into your ear, then you have to get the tip jammed inside.
The issue is that because of the way the Loop fits into your ear, it actually restrains the tip from entering your ear canal. As a result, we found ourselves forgoing the medium silicon tip that usually fits with other headphones for the largest size that Bowers & Wilkins offers. Still, we're thankful that B&W ships them with small, medium, and large silicon tips along with a stiff "quilted" protective pouch. Luckily, the large tip allowed us a tight seal, which is crucial for sound quality and deep bass tones.
Other CNET editors in our anecdotal fit testing complained about the lower part of the loop pressing uncomfortably against the ridge on the lower, inside portion of the ear (the anti-tragus, for all you "Gray's Anatomy" readers). However, this reviewer didn't experience this, and found that the earphones live up to their billing as being comfortable, with an appropriately secure fit.
As for additional features, the C5 headphones come with an iPhone-compatible cable that allows you to make and end phone calls. The remote also allows you to control volume as well as jump tracks forward and back by double- or triple-clicking on the call answer/end button, while the integrated in-line mic and remote are designed for use with iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch), it also works with Android smartphones. The caveat is that you won't be able to control the volume unless you download a third-party music player. Note: if you have an older iPhone such as the 3G, you also lose the ability to skip tracks forward and back.
A few words about that carrying pouch: it works fine, we have our gripes--its quilted, half-moon design gives off a strange fashionista vibe, and we ended up using a simple pouch that came with another set of earphones instead. Not a deal breaker, and your mileage may vary.
We tend to prefer earphones that carry a neutral, balanced sound and work well with all kinds of music, and the C5s are right up our alley. What's nice about them is you get rich, detailed, natural sound that delivers deep bass without over accentuating the low-end like some competing earphones.
One of the attributes of good headphones is that the sound doesn't seem stuck inside your head and feels more "open." These guys flaunt that open sound, and as CNET contributor Steve Guttenberg said, "they sound more like full-size headphones." He, too, noted their clear, clean sound, and said the C5s "revealed the 'spatial ambiance' on DJ Krush's 'Jaku' and Eno's 'On Land' albums" and "easily resolved quiet details, like the bells and reverberation cues on those two recordings."
Etymotic is another headphone manufacturer known for offering "neutral" or natural-sounding earphones and we compared the C5s to Etymotic's HF5 ($149) in-ears. Overall, the C5s are a bit more aggressive in their tones, with more detail and sizzle, while the Etymotics are more laid back. While we preferred the sound on the C5s, we also found it easier to get a seal with HF5s. The C5s are just a little more finicky in that regard.
As far as making calls with these earphones go, it works quite well--no complaints there. With a tight seal, you block out a lot of sound; people didn't seem to have a problem hearing us through the integrated mic, even when we were talking on the streets of New York where there's a lot of traffic noise.
One warning: This product bears the Made for iPod/iPhone/iPad stamp and the inline remote is designed for use only with Apple's iOS devices. In testing it with an Android smartphone, for example, the volume control on the remote did not work.
As you can tell from our review, we really like the detailed, rich sound of the C5s and our only hesitation from unequivocally recommending these earphones is the potential fit issues some people may experience.
With three different sized eartips to choose from, you should be able to get a tight seal from one set, and most users shouldn't have a problem with the Secure Loop design. But ears come in all different shapes and sizes, which is why we have to temper our praise and say that the Bowers & Wilkins C5s are wonderfully designed earphones with excellent sound quality--but they may not be perfect for everybody.