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.