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B&W C5 headphones Listening and In-Use

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The packaging of the C5 monitors makes them look and feel like a premium product.  The outer box has a slick, sturdy feel to it and the presentation is eye candy.  The front flap opens to reveal a window frame like presentation of the headphones with a brief description of the loop design.

B&W C5 Packaging C5 Display Window

The packaging with the C5s offers a beautiful and premium presentation

Those of you who love the experience that comes with opening a new product in its packaging will enjoy the experience… that is until you actually need to pull the C5s out of the box.  The plastic clips are just way too tight, making it a bit of a chore to get the cords out.  If you end up purchasing a pair, my advice is to meter your excitement until you actually get them out from their plastic jail cell.

 C5 Plastic Housing Clips holding the C5s in place

The interior packaging of the C5 headphones.  Removing the headphones from the clips requires care.

When you lift up the plastic holding layer, you gain access to all the included accessories, which include different size silicone-style inserts, a velour case, user manual, and quick start guide.  The different sized inserts should accommodate just about every ear size so that you get a proper, snug fit with the C5s to block out ambient noise.

B&W C5 Accessories

Accessories included with the C5 headphones

The velour case is a semi-hard case and sports a curved design with a branded Bowers and Wilkins zipper.  While B&W tries to make the case stylish, it’s an utter waste at every practical level.  The sipper hangs loosely and will often get jammed in its loop socket.  You need to hold the very end of the zipper tab to be able to zip it closed; otherwise, there isn’t enough tension.  The space within the case is only just enough for you to fit the headphones. You need to be careful or you’ll kink the cord because it’s really not large enough to accommodate the headphones properly with the loop.  To be blunt, there is nothing redeeming about the experience of using this case.

 The C5 semi-hard case zipper detail

Attention to detail and branding is a hallmark of B&W as can be seen in this branded zipper.  Unfortunately, the zipper has a tendency to get jammed in its own loop.

I normally wouldn’t mention product registration in a review, but B&W gives you some real incentive to register your C5s.  Just by registering, you get a free, three-month subscription to B&W’s high-res music download service known as the “Society of Sound”. 

B&W's Society of Sound

B&W's Society of Sound includes access to some great albums

If you decide to continue your membership beyond the trial period, you get two new albums each month and access to a selection of their album catalog.  B&W touts that the albums are curated by Peter Gabriel, Real World Studios, and the London Symphony Orchestra.  If you’re a classical music lover, you will fall in love with the service.  There are also some hidden, exclusive gems like Peter Gabriel’s Live in Athens 1987 album.  Most files are generally available in FLAC and Apple Lossless formats, making this a great music resource.  My simple point is: don't pass up the free opportunity to sample this great music service.

First Impressions

The C5s have a wonderful, balanced, and weighted feel in your hands.  The word “cheap” and “C5” don’t go in the same sentence.  The cord is translucent and has a slight rubbery-teflon feel to it.  While it may look nice, I worry about the long-term coloration of this outer skin.  In particular, if the inner cable begins to oxidize, you’ll likely start seeing it turn green from the inside.

I had to change the silicone ear pad to a larger size to get a proper fit.  The process was very simple to do.  I simply pulled off the factory installed ones and plopped on the larger sized ones.  It took a bit of an extra tug to get them off, but it was very straight-forward.

B&W C5 Monitors without the ear pieces

B&W C5 Monitors without the ear pieces

When I put the C5s in my ears, I was immediately taken by three things: 
  • First, was how natural they felt in my ears.  These are some of the best balanced, forget they are there, in-ear monitors I’ve used.
  • Secondly, what a great job they did at reducing ambient noise.  I used these on several trips where I was on flights and trains.  In every instance, the C5s did a wonderful job of blocking out the outside noise.  In fact, I used the C5s for take off and landings just to cut down on the airplane engine nose.  
  • Third and perhaps most importantly, I never—not once—felt like they were going to fall out.  This third impression was uncanny.  The balance of the earphones was perfect and the loop design hugged my ears so naturally that I kept forgetting that it they were even there. 

Traditionally, one of my biggest problems with in-ear designs has been their inability to stay in my ears.  Sometimes, the attempted solutions to keep the earphones from falling out have been even worse problems than the ones they were trying to solve.  I own Bang and Olufsen (B&O) A1s and also a pair of Shure in-ear monitors.  The B&O A1s have a fantastic wrap around the ear design.  No matter how good the design, the A1s would always irritated the back of my ear if I did any extended listening.  Over a few days of constant listening, the back of my ears would be red and a bit raw.  The Sure monitors sounded great but they didn’t always stay in properly if I was doing something active.  I used some of the different attachments to try and get better seals and they would sometimes irritate the inside of my ears.  I felt like I just couldn't win.

None of these issues was the case with the C5s.  They never gave me ear fatigue. They never fell out unless I yanked them out.  And never—not even after using them every day for weeks—did they irritate my ears.  If you are an active user, you will rejoice with the C5s.  These are the most natural, comfortable, and stable in-ear solutions I’ve ever experienced.   

Another immediately positive impression I had with the C5s was the (almost) complete lack of sound transfer via the cord.  You know exactly what I'm referring to.  If you're using an in-ear design, oftentimes, if the earphone cord rubs up against your clothing or body you’ll instantly hear a transfer of the rubbing sound into your headphones.  Not so with the C5s.  They were wonderfully immune (though not 100% perfect) to transferring any residual sounds through the cord.  Once again, if you’re an active user, you’ll appreciate this aspect of the C5s design.

Sound Quality Tests

Because most will be using the C5s with portable devices, I did all my listening exclusively through an iPhone 4s, iPhone 5s, and an iPad.  When I first sat down to listen to the C5s, I wanted to kick off my listening with female vocalists I’m very familiar with. I decided to pick Lorrena McKennitt, a Canadian singer who has Celtic and middle eastern themes running through her music. 

Her 2009 live album, entitled, From Istanbul to Athens begins with the track “The Gates of Istanbul”.  It opens with the gradual roar of the audience.  The opening of the album conveys a wonderful sense of the venue in which the live track was recorded.  On a great stereo system, this opening is magical.  As with most in-ear designs, the sense of space and volume you’d normally get from free-standing speakers or over the ear headphones with an open back design wasn’t quite there.  Nevertheless, it was comparatively better than other in-ear monitors I’ve used.   I guess that Micro Porous Filter must be doing something.

The Micro Porous Filter

The Micro Porous Filter added a sense of depth and space I had not previously associated with in-ear monitors

The beginning of the song, “Gates of Istanbul”, is seductive with it’s middle eastern instruments and bass notes. At about 1:06 into the song, there’s a single, shimmering cymbal that lies almost dead center in a great-imaging system.  At first listen to this track, the crispness and decay of the cymbal seemed a bit understated when compared to excellent free-standing speakers.  The midrange was natural and well-balanced.  The bass notes were surprisingly deep and authoritative.   

Going to traditional rock, Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir from the remastered Mothership album is another favorite of mine that I played on the C5s.  Being intimately familiar with this song on a number of sound systems across a variety of price ranges, I knew right away that the presentation was as open and clear as I’ve heard on any in-ear monitors.  Instruments were clear and distinct without being overly bright.  The soundstage was spot on. 

Next, I turned to an extended listening session of U2.  Truly one of the great bands of any generation, U2 is one of my all-time favorites to listen to—especially when testing systems.  I started out my session with the classic Joshua Tree album and the cut "Where the Streets Have no Name".  U2 fans will easily recall this is the cut that U2 used to open many shows on their tours.

The opening synthesizer had great tonality and weight (as it should).  If I had any criticism of the C5s, it would be that the lower octaves seemed a bit loose and bloated, but only by a tiny bit.  On most monitors, you won’t get the level of great clean bass response that the C5s offered.   

Deeper notes from the synthesizer were clear throughout.  The song and remained wonderfully authoritative as the synthesizer notes blended with, yet remained distinct from, The Edge’s guitar riff.  Bono’s vocals were distinct and the timbre was pretty much spot on.  Let’s face it, if you don’t get Bono’s voice right, you’ll know it right away.  For those who absolutely need to have a classification of a speaker’s sonic signature, then I’d say the C5 monitors tended towards the warmer side of neutral.   

In almost every instance, my critical listening session turned into just a listening enjoyment session.  I continually found myself lost in the music.  If I wanted to focus in on a specific instrument or detail in a song, I could do that with relative ease.  The layering of instruments through the C5s made that easy.  Clearly, it wasn’t the same experience as sitting in front of a free-standing, high-end two-channel system, but it was thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.  

Perhaps a great example of this is “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” from Achtung Baby.  The opening was just freaky, in a good way, in the amount of detail and imaging that I got out of the C5s.  When the song started playing, it immediately caught my attention.  I’ve heard this album hundreds of times.  Yet, I was catching nuances and a presentation I hadn’t heard before.

In some ways, due to their sealed in-ear design, the C5s will reveal more detail and musical nuances than most are used to experiencing through their sound systems.  Why?  That’s because they block out such a good amount of distracting ambient noise.  

Speaking of the C5s ability to block out ambient sounds, I tested this out in a variety of environments.  I found the C5s to have just the right balance of sound isolation yet not complete isolation that you lose complete sense of where you are and can’t hear anything at all.  On several occasions I put them through the torture test of Starbucks where I was battling the hustle and bustle of the store plus the blaring in-store music.  While the outside world wasn’t blocked out 100%, I could still get lost in my music and environment in the midst of the commotion around me.  What more can you ask for?

The bass notes likewise had tremendous slam and weight.  If you’re a fan of bass, then you’ll really love the C5s.  Now, when I mean bass let me explain:  I found the overall presentation to be more towards the audiophile (and I’d say correct) bass tightness vs. the bass bloat and boominess that characterizes so many bad headphones.  “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” from Zooropa and  “God Part II” from Rattle and Hum were good examples where the drums had really good presence.  At the same time, they also lacked that ultimate bass control at the bottom end that you’ll be getting from much more expensive solutions.  

I know that some people just don’t like any type of headphones because of that “in your head” style imaging.  If you’re one of those, then there’s nothing in the C5s that will make you change your opinion.  They image like headphones, in your head.  That minor point aside, the imaging of the C5s was simply marvelous.  In fact, even if I would move one or both of the monitors, I didn’t experience any noticeable degradation of the soundstage and image placement. 

I concluded my critical listening sessions with a variety of orchestral works.  In keeping with the Led Zeppelin motif, I played the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Symphonic Led Zeppelin followed by Bach’s The Well-tempered Clavier played by Maurizio Pollini.  I rounded off the sessions with Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 ‘Choral’ by the LSO, and Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of Bach’s The Cello Suites.  I can only say that orchestral presentations sounded oh so good through the C5s.  Dynamics were as good as you’ll find in a portable design.  And Yo-Yo Ma’s mastery of the cello was warm, full-bodied, and emotive (as it should be in the hands of such a master).  If you like orchestral pieces, then you won’t be disappointed in the C5s.

 

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