Bowers & Wilkins C5 Series 2 Headphone Review

PRICE $180

Bright and clear sound
All-new 9.2mm drivers
Bowers & Wilkins design flair
The C5 S2’s cable may rub against your ears

Bowers & Wilkins’ engineers revised and tweaked C5 Series 2 in-ear headphone sounds better than ever.

I doubt the original Bowers & Wilkins C5 that debuted in 2011 was ever confused for any other headphone. I loved its sharply angled, cylindrical aluminum earpieces and looped cables: They marked the C5 as a true original. The new C5 Series 2 doesn’t look much different. The biggest change is one you can’t see: The 9.2mm drivers are all new. The headphones’ silicone ear tips now provide a snugger fit, and the old silver/gray cable has been replaced with a black one. The new inline mic/remote has a better tactile feel. You can take calls on Androids and iPhones, but the remote only works with iPhones. Bowers & Wilkins’ headphone carry cases are classier than most, and the suede-like one that comes with the C5 S2 looks sharp.

Bowers & Wilkins calls the C5 S2 a semi-open design, implying that the driver vents through the gray “Micro Porous Filters” fitted to the beveled end of the earpieces. In-ear headphones can sound a little claustrophobic or stuck inside my head, but the C5 S2’s imaging is more open than that of most in-ears.

The earpieces’ looped cable dressing is no styling gimmick. The loop stabilizes the C5 S2’s fit by gently resting against the folds of your outer ear. There is one catch to the unusual cable orientation: The cable exits the earpiece body heading straight down, and you may find the cable pressing against your earlobes. However, ear shapes vary—a lot. Most folks won’t have a problem, but one of my friends experienced some discomfort. On the upside, the C5 S2 does a good job keeping outside noise at bay.

I had a set of original C5 in-ears on hand for this review, and I was taken aback by how different the new C5 S2 sounded. The original is sweet and warmly balanced, so even harsh MP3s were easy on the ears. The C5 S2 is more transparent, clear, and accurate, so the best recordings reveal more of their true sound. Take trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s Dreams of New Orleans CD. The original C5 adds considerable weight to the bass drum and tuba, making it a little too rich for my taste. The C5 S2’s bottom-end oomph is still strong, but it’s tighter, so it clarifies the sound of the drums. There’s less fullness, but the bass is more accurate and better balanced. That tonal shift frees up the midrange; it’s a more neutral sound.

Brian Eno & Karl Hyde’s recent Someday World album has been in constant rotation in my house for the last few months, so I was curious to see how the C5 S2 would unravel its dense mixes. The interplay of jittery rhythms and spiky electronics lit up my eardrums, and the low, pulsing beats were flab free. To put the C5 S2’s sound in context, I popped on my Hifiman RE-600 in-ear headphones ($200), and the RE-600 had an even tighter, more accurate low end, stronger dynamics, and retrieved more of the subtlest details of my recordings. The downside to the RE-600’s extra detail is that bright recordings can sound strident; the mellower C5 S2 softens the edge.

Up to this point, all of my listening tests were done with my iPod classic, but just as I was finishing up, I plugged the C5 S2 into Sony’s extraordinary PHA-3 portable headphone amp/DAC. Oh, boy! The C5 S2’s soundstage blossomed, and transparency and low-end authority bumped up a couple of notches. Feed this headphone well, and it just gets better and better.

The Bowers & Wilkins C5 S2’s sound consistently riveted my attention. That, more than anything, is what separates the great from merely good headphones.

ellenmona's picture

I really enjoy when i was reading article thx for it.