B&W’s C5 In-Ear Phones

The iPod is often a bright spot for those that commute via mass transit. When the London Tube was part of my daily regimen, it seemed everyone wore headphones. However, bulky, noise-canceling ‘phones feel like winter earmuffs in the summer; too hot and sweaty for my taste.  And yet, swapping them for in-ear phones always presented too much of a sonic compromise. That is, until I experienced the B&W C5s.

At first glance, I thought the loop attached to the C5s went over the ear. Nope. The rubber loop, or “Secure Loop” as Bowers & Wilkins calls it, goes into your ear and curls around the inner rim to help hold the headphones in place. Each loop adjusts to suit different-sized ears and ensures a snug fit for all users. To help further ensure the headphones stay secure, each inner casing on the C5 is lined with Tungsten and weighted toward the ear. On the end of the headphones, you’ll find a “Micro Porous Filter” that contains hundreds of tiny steel balls that act as a diffuser. It is designed to help open up the sound and make the C5s more lifelike.

Build quality is excellent. The aluminum casing is high quality, and the gloss-black finish adds a sexy look. While they haven’t any active noise-canceling technology, the supplied earpieces do an adequate job of keeping out ambient noise. Bowers & Wilkins also included an Apple-approved cable with its own volume control. It even contains a microphone so you can make phone calls.

From the start, I could tell these headphones were good. The C5s possess an almost-organic sound quality. Listening to Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” from Live Bullet showcases a tangible vocal realism that further draws me into the music. The opening saxophone solo sounds clear and smooth, as well as extended and airy. This passage sounds harsh on some speakers, but the C5s provide a great window into the information.

The C5s don’t miss a beat on the title track from Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, either. Nothing seems lost, and I clearly hear the piano in the background. The track also features great contrasts between the deep bass and piano highs. Splendidly, the C5s put both characteristics in perspective, never interfering with another—a difficult task. Midrange is open, pure, and balanced. No, the C5s aren’t entirely neutral, as a slight mid-bass boost makes the sound fuller. But the coloration suits my personal taste given that it allows music to sound more realistic and less like a plain recording.

Ke$ha’s “Blow,” from Cannibal, acts as a bass test. Here, the low-end is articulate and deep—attributes often missing from in-ear headphones. Moreover, the bass doesn’t interfere with Ke$ha’s vocals. And while not amongst my highest-quality files, it still sounded very good through the C5s. These headphones are very revealing, but not in a ruthless way, meaning that low-quality MP3s sound okay. Yes, there’s a noticeable drop in fidelity, but not enough to make songs sound atrocious.

Keep in mind that the C5s aren’t designed as ultra-revealing, studio-quality headphones that let you hear every blemish of a track. Instead, they reveal what’s on each recording without placing it under a sterile microscope. And that’s a fresh approach any in-ear headphone fan can welcome.

B&W’s Zeppelin Air

B&W began a revolution of sound, style and function in 2008 with the original Zeppelin. Competing with a plethora of cheapo iPod docks that sounded dreadful, B&W created an aural and visual tour de force, functioning much more than an iPod dock, with multiple inputs (line level, USB, Toslink and S-Video) to make the Zeppelin a true compact hifi system.

Past and present models look virtually identical, with only subtle differences between them.  The first generation Zeppelin has a polished aluminum rear face, where the Air sports black.  Around front, the iPod cradle now says “Bowers and Wilkins” where it said “B&W” before, but you won’t really need that cradle anymore.  The cradle indicator LED now glows purple, meaning you are connected wirelessly to your iPhone, iPod or iPad, once you’ve taken a few minutes to enable AirPlay.

While our original Zeppelin survived teenager torture for four years, everyone sighed a huge sigh of relief thanks to AirPlay, knowing there would be no more rough and tumble with the dock.  The wireless connectivity also makes for a ton of fun when friends visit – now everyone can play their music through the Zeppelin Air.

And What a Sound it Makes

The original Zeppelin redefined tabletop possibilities with its 2.1 speaker system, consisting of a centrally located woofer (powered by a 50 watt amplifiers) with a pair of Kevlar midrange drivers and dome tweeters (powered by a 25 watt amplifier per channel) derived from B&Ws 800 series of home speakers.

Those wanting to peruse some cool video clips with in-depth technology assessments can click here:

Everything in the Zeppelin Air has been upgraded.  The internal DAC is now able to play 24/96 files native (through the digital line input) and upsamples everything else to this resolution, along with the ability to grab the digital bitstream straight from the iPod, instead of merely using the line level output as the original model did.

Side by side, comparing the new and old Zeppelin is like comparing the Jaguar XK and XKR – most of the differences are under the hood. The speakers have been upgraded and now each one of the four drivers has its own 25 watt amplifier, rather than each midrange and tweeter pair sharing one.  This is evident the minute the volume climbs above a whisper – and much like the two Jags, you don’t realize how handy that extra power is until you climb back into the lesser car.  The Zeppelin always did an excellent job with heavy music, but now when playing hard rock or heavy hip hop, it provides a thunderous presentation.

The sublime seperaration between the bass line and guitars when playing Tool now makes the Zeppelin a serious metal machine.  With a tiny bit of room reinforcement on the kitchen countertop, “Intolerance” (from the Undertow album) fooled a few dinner guests into thinking the theater system in the other room was on.  And yes, I play metal when I’m cooking.  The increased bass response and power will appeal to those in the latter category as well, the deep synth bass pervading MIDIval PunditZ “Atomizer” had the cutlery rattling in a way the original never could.

Horsepower without finesse is uninteresting (or perhaps a Dodge Viper) and again the Zeppelin Air glides through effortlessly. The piano solo on Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” from the self titled album was brilliant and hung in the air well in front of the speakers possessing exceptional timbral accuracy.  Whatever secrets lurk in the DSP processing, the engineers in charge should get a pay raise.  If I only had $600 to spend on a system, I wouldn’t even bother with separates.  Those in a compact space will find that the Zeppelin Air makes a great addition to your flat screen TV for a lot less than any number of soundbars now available.

To Dock or Not to Dock

Handy as Air Play is, if the music on your iPod has been stored in Apple Lossless or uncompressed format, there’s a real advantage to plugging in – the new DAC takes the digital bitstream directly from the player, bypassing the one in the iPod.

It will only take a second to make you a believer in the cause of higher resolution.  The Zeppelin Air sounds deflated when you go back to MP3’s – it’s that performance thing again.  Should you be a real digital audio geek, you can import 24/96 files via the optical input and Mac Mini.  The Zeppelin has enough resolution to showcase high res files, and some of my favorite downloads from HD Tracks and the B&W Society of Sound websites were even more exciting than playing from the iPod in 16/44.1 mode.  Miles Davis’ horn on the title track from Tutu, exploded from the Zep, full of life and resonance.

Having both wired and wireless modes available makes the Zeppelin Air easily adaptable to however you’d like to listen.  AirPlay is perfect for casual listening, yet you can achieve substantially higher quality plugging your device directly in.

I’m Neither Dazed nor Confused

I’ve made it all the way through this review without making any reference to that great band with the same name, but my Anti-Zeppelin muscles can only stay flexed for so long.  I wound up the evaluation with “Stairway to Heaven.”  I couldn’t resist, and it was awesome.

Kidding aside, we are proud to award the B&W Zeppelin Air one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.  The worlds best iPod dock goes from marvelous to monstrous and in four years, the price has stayed the same, at $599.  The Zeppelin Air rules.

The B&W Zeppelin Air

MSRP:  $599


B&W’s MM-1 Portable Speakers:

“Where’s the sub?” Those were the first words out of my mouth as I entered Danny Haikin’s office at B&W in London earlier this year. He just smiled and said, “There isn’t one. That’s just coming from the two desktop speakers.” Then we spent the better part of the next hour talking about music while I got a proper demo of B&W’s latest masterpiece, built upon the technology incorporated in its Zeppelin models.

Indeed, a few years ago, B&W wowed the desktop/iPod world with its original Zeppelin and built on that success with the Zeppelin Mini and recently, an upgraded Zeppelin model. My tour of the B&W factory (full article to follow in a future issue of TONE) revealed a substantial amount of brain trust devoted to the Zeppelin line. The forward-thinking mindset has paid off handsomely for B&W, which now sells the Zeppelin and MM-1s through Apple stores as well as its own dealer network.

Like the rest of the B&W range, the MM-1s possess the understated elegance for which the marquee is known. While the $499 price might initially catch you off guard, the first listen proves reassuring. Incorporating a version of the Zeppelin’s DSP (digital signal processing) engine, the MM-1s are a two-way active speaker system that uses a tube-loaded tweeter—just like those in the company’s higher-end models—and a long-throw bass driver. The brochure claims that the MM-1 “is a true hi-fi speaker, shrunk to fit on your desktop,” and is absolutely correct.

Each of the MM-1s only takes up a 3.9 inch (100mm) x 3.9 inch square on your desktop and stands a mere 6.6 inches tall (170mm). The enclosures are wrapped in black textured grille cloth that is similar to B&W’s larger speakers, and trimmed with a brushed aluminum band and top plate. Our art director’s design sense immediately piqued during the photo shoot.

Quick Setup

The MM-1s looked like so much fun that I resisted the urge to read the instruction manual. I’m happy to report that the average computer user can be rocking in a matter of minutes. Three essential connections need to be made: The 4-pin umbilical from the left speaker to the right, the USB port from the right speaker to your computer, and the power supply to the right speaker.

I had to sneak inside my iMac’s sound control panel to direct sound output to the MM-1s via USB, but that was about it. The only glitch in the operation came when using the Control:Mac software with my Sooloos music server. For those accessing a Sooloos, you will have to use the supplied AUX cable to go between your Mac’s headphone output and the MM-1’s AUX input. The Mac will not send audio output from the Sooloos back out via USB. iTunes and Rhapsody users will have no trouble.

Once connected, volume can be controlled via the chrome band on the right speaker, the control panel on your computer, or with the egg-shaped volume control that is standard issue for the Zeppelin series. This is incredibly handy, should you utilize the MM-1s outside of an immediate desktop region. They actually worked quite well in my kitchen, fed via a nearby Apple Airport Express.

Verifying Initial Observations

To be sure I wasn’t brainwashed at B&W’s HQ with a tarted-up prototype, I began my listening sessions with tracks containing some bass.  First up, Thomas Dolby’s “Pulp Culture” from Aliens Ate My Buick. Then, after auditioning a few quick cuts from Tone Loc’s Loc-Ed After Dark, I was firmly convinced that the MM-1s had enough bass on tap. The warm sound I remembered from my London visit confirmed that these are serious desktop loudspeakers.

The B&W DSP engine works wonders, allowing the MM-1s to disappear on your desktop in an almost uncanny way. Prince’s One Nite Alone perfectly played to this strength, creating a soundfield that went well beyond the desktop’s borders. While not always convenient in an office environment, spend 30 minutes with the MM-1s, and you’ll never want to listen to headphones again.

With rock, rap, and funk checked off, time spent with acoustic music confirmed the speakers’ versatility and shared heritage with top-line B&W models. The Sooloos made it incredibly easy to switch between the desktop system with the MM-1s and my reference system built around B&W 805Ds. Both pairs of speakers had a similar, airy character, especially with piano and violin. Listening to Keith Jarrett’s Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 equated to a spectacular experience on the desktop; with my eyes closed, it seemed like a piano was floating on my desk.

Serious Resolution

An uncanny level of resolution sets the MM-1s apart from many of the other powered computer speakers I’ve experienced. They reproduce spatial cues and create a three-dimensional soundfield in a way I’ve yet to experience with this type of product.

Even the most inexperienced listeners are easily able to hear the difference between low-res MP3 files and standard 16bit/44.1khz files of the Rolling Stones’ Through the Past Darkly. Yet the variation became more stunning when playing back the HD Tracks’ 24 bit/176khz versions. My friends were not only amazed by how much more information surfaced, but how effortless it was to discern such detail on a pair of $500 desktop speakers. For example, the texture in Mick Jagger’s voice on “Ruby Tuesday” proved staggering.  The only way I could get my desk back was to blast Steel Dragon’s “Death to All But Metal.” And while this deejaying change helped me regain my personal space, the MM-1s were still clearly up to task.

No Need to Fear High-End Sound

If you’ve been on the sidelines or fearing the complex world of high-end sound, jump in with a pair of B&W MM-1s. You won’t need any special cables or know how. And the speakers won’t leave a huge dent in your wallet.  Just plug them in and enjoy your music in a much more immersive way than you did before. Who knows, you might even be tempted to head to your B&W dealer for a pair of 800s one day. Good sound is contagious. This is truly a product you will wonder how you ever lived without.

Click here to visit the MM-1 site.