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.