B&W C5 Series 2: Once More, With Feeling!

Bowers&Wilkins have become known for their innovative takes on aesthetic design. (Remember the Zeppelin?) Sometimes weird, and often wonderful, B&W have a love-it-or-hate-it style that is distinctly their own. No exception is the C5: in-ear headphones with a bullet-like shape and a unique stabilizing loop that have been recently revamped and released this week. The C5 Series 2 have a few deviations from the originals, while still keeping a similar form factor. I sat down to compare version one to Series 2 to get a better sense of what’s new.

Before we go any further, let’s get this point out of the way: the stabilizing “secure loop” isn’t going to be everyone’s favorite thing. (Remember what I just said about love-it-or-hate-it?) While the loop is quite customizable to the shape of the ear, some people just won’t like the feeling of something pushing against the rim of their ears. But for those who don’t mind it, the loop design is very successful at keeping the C5’s earpieces in place. The loops aren’t just a gimmick; they’re actually necessary. The bullet-shaped earbud design sticks out of the ear canal far enough that without the loop, the earpieces would most certainly fall out frequently. This is especially true for those of us who are walking or hustling to catch a train. Like them or not, the loops keep the C5 secure in your ears. These headphones are not falling out.

So now that we’ve cleared the air, let’s talk about what’s new! First up, the overall feel of the cord is greatly improved over the original. Where version one’s cable was stiff and awkward, Series 2 is silky, light, and supple, in a nice matte black. The iPhone remote with volume and play/pause is still the same, but the more flexible cord design will hopefully alleviate the connection-point breakage issues that the first version was plagued with.

While both the original and the new version of the C5 have the same unique micro-ball-bearing-looking outer filter, the Series 2 have updated drivers. The original had two 9mm drivers, whereas the Series 2 has added 0.2 mm to that diameter, making the two drivers in the S2 9.2mm each. According to B&W’s claimed specs, this changes the sensitivity from 118 dB/V at 1 kHz in the original to 115dB/V at 1 kHz in Series 2. The other claimed specs remain the same: from frequency range, to impedance, to weight. So while on paper, it’s a slight change, the voicing on these new drivers has caused the sound profile to be notably altered.

The original C5 had a surprisingly spacious sound for in-ears, with a clear high end and intensely boosted bass. The low frequencies on the Series 2 is still very heavily featured, however the boosted range seems to be narrower than the original, while the intensity of the boost is increased. The original C5’s bass bump sounded as though it extended into the lower mids, which could lead to bass-heavy song selections slipping into muddy territory. Series 2 seems to have a specifically selected peak somewhere around 160-190 Hz. What this means is that the Series 2’s bass line is distinctly tighter sounding, although it feels louder in the mix than the originals. Both versions have clean, delicate, and dexterous highs, which is truly lovely on acoustic guitar, piano, and vocals. However, if a song with already bumped-up bass (some rock, definitely hip-hop and pop) kicks in, the high-frequency clarity begins to suffer, and details like consonants on vocals and some hi-hat hits can sound less pronounced.

Because of the more selective bass boost, the Series 2’s mids can sound anywhere from relatively neutral to slightly recessed, depending on the type of music you’re enjoying. For bass lovers, the sound profile won’t be a perceived flaw; but those who like more neutral-sounding headphones will want to take the lower boost into account when making purchasing decisions. That said, the Series 2 still have the impressive C5 sense of space that is lacking in many in-ears, even at this price range.

Overall, the re-design is definitely a plus in terms of construction, and, depending on your preference, a more lateral move in terms of sound. Personally, I prefer the new sound profile over the old. Although the intensity of the bass is a bit much for me on dance and hip-hop, it’s a worthy trade off to avoid the slight muddiness on other musical styles that the original C5 exhibited. If you want some extra bass, spacious depth, and in-ears that feel secure, the C5 S2 is definitely worth your consideration.

The Bowers&Wilkins C5 S2 are currently available for $180.