First things first: I think most in-ear headphone designs are pretty uninspired-looking things. Sure, ear-canal headphones are so tiny there's not a lot to work with, but I have to say Bowers & Wilkins' new C5 is a stunning piece of industrial design. The tungsten and aluminum headphone is the prettiest in-ear design I've seen to date.
The headphones' proprietary Secure Loop cable is a unique design element and can be adjusted to fit in the inner ridge of your ear to help secure the tip in place. My ear canals are bigger than average, so I don't always get a good fit with in-ear headphones, but the C5 was fine. The Apple approved cable has an in-line remote control and microphone. A quilted pouch for easy storage is also included.
The sound is clear and clean, but most remarkably it's more "open" and less stuck inside my head than I hear from other in-ear headphones. In that sense the sound is more like full-size headphones. The C5 revealed the "spatial ambiance" on DJ Krush's "Jaku" and Eno's "On Land" albums, so I could hear sound that appeared to come from outside my head. The C5 easily resolved quiet details, like the bells and reverberation cues on those two recordings.
The strings and percussion on Arcade Fire's "Keep the Car Running" were spread far left and right on the C5's earpieces; switching over to the Monster Turbine in-ear headphones, the sound balance was much leaner and more inside my head. The C5's fuller bass and midrange were extremely satisfying, and though the Turbine might strike some listeners as more detailed, I never felt the C5's rich tonality forfeited any resolution. The generous bass was never overblown or excessive. I knew it wasn't necessarily accurate, but it never seemed like too much of a good thing.
Vocals were natural, not too thin or overly rich, and Peter Gabriel's unprocessed vocals on his "Scratch My Back" album were right on the money.
Next, I compared the C5 with Etymotic's HF5 ($149) in-ear 'phones while listening to Neil Young's "Live at the Fillmore East" album. The raw electric guitars, bass, and drums were totally rocking out, and the C5 didn't hold anything back. The HF5 had less treble air and detail so it sounded more laid back. Some listeners might prefer that balance, but in the end I just enjoyed the C5 more with a wide range of musical styles. I found the C5's wide-open soundstage hugely appealing, and switching back to other comparably priced headphones was a disappointment. That said, the Etymotic HF5's flange-style ear-tips delivered the most secure fit and sealed out external noise better than the C5 and Turbine headphones.
The C5 earphones are available for $179.95 in the U.S. & Canada.