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.).
• Sensitivity: 10
• Value: 9.5
• 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.