Some audio brands are renowned for offering style over substance - relying on clever marketing and a stand-out design rather than good audio quality. Bowers & Wilkins tends to offer the style of these image-obsessed brands and great sound, with a price tag that - while reassuringly expensive - isn't stratospheric. The B&W C5 earphones are its first attempt at an in-ear set. Let's find out if they're worth the £150 asking price.
Like the brilliant Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin, probably the company's best-known product, the C5 earphones are striking. Few high-end earphones really strive for style, and consequently they make rivals like the Sennheiser IE8i and Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 look downright ugly.
Their black-suited bodies are armoured with thick metal, topped with a semi-porous "Micro filter" that looks like one of those needle toys it's very difficult to avoid rendering your face in. They offer greater strength than many expensive sets, and a sense of style that's makes them almost valid as a piece of jewellery. We'll grant the look won't be for everyone, though.
A loop of flexible plastic winds around the earpiece, forming the letter P as it sweeps around and back into a little groove in the metal shell. It's a bit provocative - a bit The Fifth Element - when matched with the stark diagonal angles of the buds - but it's not just there for show. This loop fits into the curve of your ear, just above your ear canal, to give a more secure fit. Initially, this seemed to us to be a recipe for earache, but it's remarkably comfortable.
The loop is fully adjustable, enlarged or made smaller with a quick pull, yet the grip the groove in the earbud supplies is strong enough to stop it from moving about in normal use. It is a rather brilliant design, and one that would almost certainly fall apart, perhaps literally, in less capable hands. Bowers & Wilkins also claims that an internal tungsten sound tube means the earphones are weighted towards your ear rather than away from it in normal use, making them even less willing to fall out.
There is one minor strength concern. Like most IEM earphones, the Bowers & Wilkins C5 come bundled with rubber tips, design to block out external noise. Unlike most tips, though, these are not made of a single piece of rubber. Presumably another style point, the "mushroom" that enters you ear canal is colourless and translucent while the part that interfaces with the earbud is black. If you're not careful enough about removing the tips from the earbud, you may rip them along the seam where the two parts join. As we did.
Four sizes of tip are included, but there are no spares so be careful how you yank 'em. A very neat little half-moon carry case is included, clad in luxurious suede.
If that handy reflection wasn't there, you'd hardly be able to see the remote's markings
The stand-out accessory feature of the lot is the in-line mic/remote housing - because it doesn't stand out much at all. Although it doesn't try to blend-in with the silvery look of the earphone cable, the black housing of this unit is one of the subtlest we've seen. The volume up/down symbols on it are incredibly discreet, but the dip between the two buttons makes blind operation a cinch. This remote-come-handsfree kit is compatible with iPhones and iPod Touch devices. Predictably, it refused to play ball with our test Android phones.
But what of sound quality and noise isolation?