According to a company background document, Westone was founded in 1959 by the late Ronald Morgan, Sr. (and his wife Mickey), when Mr. Morgan first sought to create “better fitting custom-fit earpieces for the hearing instruments he sold as a Beltone representative.” In a very pragmatic sense Westone has been focused on building custom-fit in-ear products from the very beginning, though the company’s business has expanded over the past 51 years to embrace several distinct (though inter-related) families of products including hearing care and protection products, ultra high-isolation earpiece systems created for the U.S. military, and a broad range universal-fit and custom-fit in-ear headphone designed for personal and professional audio applications.
Plainly, Westone is a company that offers serious know-how involving “all things ear,” but their greatest strengths may be in the area of custom-fit in-ear monitors. Indeed, a company representative recently pointed out to me that many key designers who now work for some of Westone’s best-known competitors actually got their starts in the industry while working with Westone (talk about having a long and influential history!).
This past summer, I met with the Westone team at the Can-Jam Chicago 2010 event and asked them which model stood out as the company’s most accurate and most neutrally voiced in-ear headphones for critical music listening. Without hesitation the Westone team members pointed me towards the then newly-released, top-of-the-line professional Elite Series ES5 monitor, which—though billed as a “monitor for performing artists”—is also said to be the firm’s premier high-end offering for critical listeners who prize “well-balanced” sound. Thinking that the ES5’s would make a review subject of interest to Playback readers, I immediately requested a pair for review.
The ambitious ES5 ($950) is a three-way design that uses five balanced armature-type drivers and that promises to “deliver sound quality, clarity and response comparable to monitors with more drivers—at a much more affordable price” (an indirect reference, I think, to the eight driver-equipped, $1149 JH Audio JH16 Pro, which has caught the attention of a lot of listeners of late).
Interestingly, and unlike many other custom-fit monitors I have seen, the ES5 offers earpieces that are constructed of two quite different materials. Westone uses solid acrylic for the outer shells of the earpieces, but then molds the inner ear canal sections of the earpieces from a thermally-sensitive, “soft-feel” plastic material. Frankly, the inner ear-canal sections of the ES5’s don’t feel particularly soft when you first handle them (at room temperature), but once they warm up the earpieces tips soften considerably, conforming to the exact contours of your ear canals to create a highly effective and comfortable seal.
All of this sounds promising on paper, but how do the ES5’s work out in practice? Based on my experience with the ES5’s over the past several months, I would say they are a product audiophiles will like right off the bat, but will come to love over time. Why is this? I think it has much to do with the fact that while the ES5’s may not be spectacular class leaders in any one performance area, they offer—in terms of sound quality and wearer comfort—one of the most balanced combination of virtues you are ever likely to find.
Consider this custom-fit in-ear monitor if: you would like in-ear monitors that offer high sensitivity, very good overall accuracy with near-neutral tonal balance, and plenty of resolution and textural delicacy. Also consider the ES5 if you like the idea of a “best of two world’s” earpiece design that is easy to handle and insert, yet offers excellent noise-isolation thanks to inner ear-canal section that is molded of a thermally sensitive, soft-feel plastic material. What is the ES5 best at? The answer is balanced performance across all areas—a quality that fosters higher level of user satisfaction over time.
Look further if: you require absolutely dead-neutral tonal balance (where the JH Audio JH16 Pros enjoy a narrow edge), or the highest degree of noise-isolation possible (where the Sensaphonics 2MAX is the undisputed class leader). But consider this: the ES5 offers significantly better noise isolation than the ultra-neutral JH Audio JH16 Pro, and somewhat smoother and more neutral voicing than the ultra-quiet Sensaphonics 2MAX. Again, the ES5 is all about delivering a balanced mix of virtues, so that it does all things well.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones)
•Tonal Balance: 9.5
•Clarity: 9.5-10 (too close to call, really, but definitely “in the hunt” with the best of the best)
•Dynamics: 9.5 (would be a 10, but when/if pushed too hard on treble transients, a very slightly “spitty” sound can result)
•Comfort/Fit: 10 (the best all-around combination of ease of use/handling and noise-isolation we’ve yet found.).
• Custom-fit, earpieces feature outer shells molded from solid acrylic and inner ear canal sections molded from a thermally sensitive soft-feel plastic material. The result is ease of handling and insertion (thanks to the firm acrylic outer shells) and excellent noise isolation and long-term comfort (thanks to the soft-feel ear-canal sections).
• High-quality, field-replaceable 50” signal cable fitted with a gold-plated mini-jack.
• Passive three-way crossover.
• Five high-quality miniature balanced-armature type drivers.
• Comes packed in a hard shell road case whose interior provides well-padded chambers both for the monitors and for accessories.
• Interestingly, the road case also includes a molded chamber that holds a pod of desiccant material designed to keep the drivers of the earphones from being damaged by moisture. Better still, the desiccant pod can be restored to as-new condition through a procedure described in the included instruction booklet.
• Accessories include a cleaning tool (for removing ear wax from the monitor’s bore tubes), a vial of Westone Oto-Ease fluid, a cleaning cloth for wiping down the ES5’s after use, and the aforementioned desiccant pod.
The tonal balance of the ES5 come very close to achieving neutrality, exhibiting only a touch of mid-to-low bass emphasis coupled with a broad hint of upper midrange/lower treble emphasis. Both these characteristics are so subtle in nature that they never register as “colorations” at all, but just seem to shed a little more sonic “light” on their respective parts of the audio spectrum.
Deep bass is very powerful, yet tightly controlled through the ES5, making this monitor a delight when exploring recordings that simultaneously require low-end weight, finesse, and nuance (acoustic bass, well-recorded synth bass, low percussion etc.). Where some in-ear headphones run out of steam down low, the ES5’s never do; instead, they stick right with the music down when bass content becomes demanding, never skipping a beat.
Highs are beautifully extended, and have a distinctly delicate, “silvery” quality that sounds very beautiful and refined (making other in-ear headphones sound a little bit coarse or even rolled-off by comparison). Well-recorded high percussion instruments sound breathtakingly gorgeous through the ES5, with treble extension that shows how the high harmonics of percussion instruments tend to linger and float on the air before they gradually decay back to silence. The one downside of the ES5’s treble prowess, however, is that the monitors can, when pushed hard, show a subtly “spitty” quality on hard-edged upper midrange/lower treble transients (though I suspect this might largely be a matter of the ES5 revealing flaws inherent in recordings).
With custom-fit monitors, “fit” is not just a matter of physical comfort for the wearer; it is an essential element of the monitor’s sound, ideally contributing ultra-low noise floors that make it easy to hear what the drivers are really doing. Thanks to its dual-material earpieces, the ES5 is a very quiet monitor (one that comes in second only to the Sensaphonics 2MAX in this respect, and then not by a very big margin). As a result, the ES5 confers—as does the Sensaphonics monitor—a desirable quality of intimacy and focus to every listening session.
Note, however, that the ES5’s dual-material earpieces take some getting used to, in part because their thermally-sensitive, “soft feel” ear canal sections take a while to warm up and become flexible. But Westone’s Doug Leavy passed along a very helpful tip that can make the ES5 easier to use in this respect; when you are ready to insert the ES5’s, try cupping their earpieces in your hands, and then blowing on them (as you might do to warm up your hands on a cold morning) to warm them up just before placing them in your ears. After you’ve worn the ES5 for a few minutes, you’ll notice the fit gets better and better, while back noise seems to melt away.
To experience the treble delicacy I mentioned above, try listening to “Remote Stories” from Christopher Roberts’ Last Cicada Singing [Cold Blue]—a recording of solo performances by Roberts on a Chinese fretless instrument called the Qin. I’m told that one of the standing conventions for music performed on the Qin is that all elements of the sound—including fingering and plucking noises, string squeaks, and even seemingly accidental harmonic overtones—are regarded as part of the music. So it is with Roberts’ performance on “Remote Stories” where the ES5’s reveal each small nuance of the sound, doing an extraordinarily good job at moments where Roberts slides or bends notes in order to make the instrument “sing” in an almost human way.
But the Qin is also a deceptively large instrument that, for all its apparent treble delicacy and refinement, can also produce a surprisingly deep, rich, full-bodied sound when the occasion arises. The ES5’s capture this aspect of the instrument, too, letting you hear the deep, dark fundamentals of the Qin’s lower-register notes, even as they expose the subtler nuances of the instrument’s upper register (and associated high harmonics). Listen, in particular, to the powerful, resonant voice of the Qin when Roberts sharply bends notes downward in pitch, where the ES5’s treat you to what feels like the sonic equivalent of a roller-coaster ride when you come to that first big drop.
For a different take on the ES5’s sonic themes of delicacy, richness, and power, put on “River Blues” from Eric Bibb’s Get On Board [Telarc Blues]. On one hand, the song is built primarily around the warm, richly textured sound of Bibb’s voice, which the ES5’s capture vividly and intimately, yet without exaggeration. But the musical “spices” that really help drive the track forward are a simple yet evocative acoustic guitar, a powerful but minimalist acoustic bass, and the crystal clear sound of a kick drum, snare drum, and high-hats keeping time.
The guitar, as the ES5’s show very clearly, serves as both counterpoint to Bibb’s voice, and as a contrasting backdrop, so that the dark, richness of Bibb’s voice stands out in sharp relief when heard alongside the much higher-pitched guitar lines floating above. But if the guitar and voice supply welcome contrasts, the acoustic bass and percussion instruments are what give the song its living, breathing pulse. The ES5’s do a great job with the authoritative but not overblown thump of the kick drum, the rounder and more woody-sounding thrum of the acoustic bass, the crisp snap of snare drum rim shots, and the quiet shimmer of the high-hats opening and closing. Though the instrumentation is minimalist, the overall sound of the ensemble creates an overarching impression of just-right richness and completeness—an impression the ES5’s convey beautifully.
With the ES5, no one aspect of the sound dominates over the others; instead, balance—and the sonic richness and diversity it can express—is this monitor’s greatest strength.
To show you how the ES5 compares to other top-tier custom-fit in-ear monitors, I’ve chosen to compare its performance with that of two leading competitors: the JH Audio JH16 Pro ($1149) and the Sensaphonics 2MAX ($850).
Westone ES5 vs. JH Audio JH16 Pro ($1149)
• The ES5 costs $199 less than the JH16 Pro.
•The ES5 is a three-way, 5-driver design, whereas the JH16 Pro is a three-way, 8-driver design.
•Both monitors are quite accurate in overall tonal balance. However, as mentioned above, the ES5 offers very subtle touches of tonal emphasis both in the mid-to-low bass and in the upper midrange/lower treble regions, whereas the JH16 Pro is arguably more neutrally balanced (neutrality is arguably the JH16 Pro’s greatest strength).
•Resolution levels between the two monitors are very closely matched, though in an absolute sense the JH16 Pro’s may enjoy a very narrow edge. However, the ES5’s superior noise isolation provides offsetting benefits, giving a noticeably more focused sound (especially when listening in any but the quietest environments).
•One of the biggest differentiators between the ES5 and the JH16 Pro involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. Westone uses dual materials for the ES5 earpieces (solid acrylic outer shells with thermally-sensitive, soft feel material for the ear-canal section), while JH Audio uses solid acrylic earpieces. The difference in feel and overall functionality is significant.
•Both the ES5 and JH 16 Pro earpieces afford a simple, straightforward insertion process where you gently rotate the earpieces until they seem almost to “snap” into position, achieving a very good seal and a comfortable fit in the process. What differentiates the ES5 and the JH16 Pro are the ES5’s soft-feel ear-canal sections, which—once they warm up—conform to exact shape of the wearer’s ear canal, yielding significantly better noise isolation and quieter backgrounds that the JH16 Pro can provide.
Westone ES5 vs. Sensaphonics 2MAX ($850)
•The ES5 costs $100 more than the 2MAX.
•The ES5 is a three-way, 5-driver design, while the 2MAX is a two-way, 2-driver design.
•At first glance, the voicing of the ES5 and 2MAX seems similar, but careful listening reveals certain key differences.
•First, the 2MAX offers two regions of mild sonic emphasis: a mild rise in the upper bass region and an also a mild rise in the upper-midrange and lower-treble region.
By comparison, the ES5 also offers some emphasis in similar (though not identical) frequency bands—but a notably lighter touch of emphasis in both cases.
•The ES5 also offers arguable superior low bass performance than the 2MAX and noticeably clearer and more extended treble response. As a result, the ES5 but a strong bass foundation beneath the music, while exhibiting exquisite, “silvery” highs, which sound terrific. The only drawback I observed is that the ES5, when pushed hard, can show an occasionally “spotty” sound on hard-edged upper midrange/treble transients.
•The bottom line is that the ES5 is the more accurate monitor and one that offers a certain pristine purity and clarity—especially at higher frequencies, while the 2MAX offers a somewhat warmer, perhaps more dramatic sound that is highly engaging.
•Resolution levels between the 2MAX’s and ES5’s are comparable, though I would give the edge to the ES5.
•Both monitors offer very quiet backgrounds and better noise isolation than models that use solid acrylic earpiece, but at the end of the day the 2MAX’s are Playback’s reigning noise isolation champs. The 2MAX’s ultra-quiet backgrounds give the Sensaphonics’ monitors qualities of intimacy and focus that are tough to beat.
•One of the biggest differentiators between the ES5 and the 2MAX involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. As above, the Westone earpieces use a combination of solid acrylic material coupled with a separate, thermally sensitive, “soft-feel” material for the portion of the earpiece that inserts into the ear canal. It can take a few minutes for the Westone earpieces come up to temperature, at which point they achieve a better seal and a more comfortable fit.
•By contrast, the 2MAX features Sensaphonics’ signature cold-cure, soft-gel silicone earpieces, which are supremely flexible and achieve an incredibly effective noise-isolation. One catch, however, is that it can be tricky at first to learn how to properly insert to somewhat rubbery-feeling Sensaphonic’s earpieces.
•The ES-5 earpieces in a sense “split the difference” between the Sensaphonics and JH Audio earpiece designs. On the one hand, the Westones have the easy-to-insert, “snap-into-position” qualities of the all-acrylic JH Audio earpieces, while also offering some (though not all) of the superior noise isolation characteristics that the Sensaphonics’ soft-gel silicone earpieces provide.
Westone’s ES5 is a remarkably well-balanced performer that offers near-neutral tonal balance, excellent focus and resolution, comfortable fit and very high levels of noise isolation. Though not necessarily a spectacular, best-in-class performer in any one area, the ES5’s broad and well-judged combination of virtues is what makes it so appealing.
SPECS & PRICING
Westone ES5 custom-fit in-ear monitor
Type: Three-way, 5-driver (balanced armature), custom-fit in-ear monitors
Accessories: Hard shell road case custom labeled with a padded interior), desiccant pod (to keep the monitors dry), cleaning tool, and vial of Oto-Ease fluid.
Frequency response: 8Hz – 20 kHz
Weight: Not specified.
Sensitivity: 120 dB/mW
Impedance: 20 ohms, minimum
Warranty: 1 year, parts and labor.
WESTONE LABORATORIES INC.