If you're into high-end audio gear and especially custom solutions, you've probably heard of a company called Westone. In operation since 1959, the firm has decades of experience crafting in-ear headphones and audio gear, and it doesn't look like they're stopping any time soon. We had a chance to get our ears molded back at CES so we could check out the company's top-of-the-line model, the ES5, and now we've had some proper time to put them through the paces and see whether they live up to the hype -- head past the break for the nitty gritty.
ES5 custom in-ear monitors
Excellent sound performance
Custom fit provides great noise cancellation
Many personalization options
Inconvenient to insert / remove constantly
Molding & Customization
The ES5's are custom made in every sense of the word, and this process starts with your ears. We had our impressions done by a Westone audiologist on site at CES, but most customers will have to find an audiologist near them to get the molds done. It's one of the most important steps, however, because the custom plugs will be an exact replica of the molds you supply.
The process starts with a felt tip being placed into your ear canal to act as a stopper for the ear putty (our term, not theirs). The tip had a super fine plastic tube that was outside our ear while the canal was filled up, helping minimize the "cork from a wine bottle" effect that would've happened otherwise. After the tip was in place, two pink-and-white, silly-putty-esque gels were mixed and injected into our ears and allowed to cure for three minutes. We should mention that we were given a bite block for the duration of the molding process as the shape of the ear canal changes given the jaw's position. This small detail makes a major difference, especially when compared to other custom headphone solutions -- namely this one from Sonomax -- which doesn't instruct users to do so, and doesn't achieve as good of a fit as a result.
The ear molding process only comprises half of the customization aspect of the ES5 experience. Additionally, the company offers all custom molded products in over twenty colors, though we chose to stick with basic clear. For an additional premium, you can add custom artwork to bring your custom headphones to a new level. The graphics are embedded in the acrylic rather than just painted on top, adding another level of detail to the already finely-crafted cans. As you should be able to tell by now, we went with the Engadget logo -- don't they look hot?
Performance & Fit
Westone tells us that the whole process from when they receive your ear molds to when you receive a finished product should take around ten days start to finish. Once they do arrive, however, you're greeted with a heavy duty carrying case complete with 'automatic pressure purge' valve -- seriously. There's also a cleaning tool and bottle of lubricant should you find your ears excessively dry, in addition to some moisture-control beads. These are definitely meant to be handled with care and cared for over time, so we appreciate the attention to detail when it comes to things like this.
Come on, we've talked about everything at this point except for the most important thing of all: how they sound. Well, we're pleased -- and not all that surprised -- to report that the Westone ES5's sound quality is second to none. Virtually every song we listened to sounded vibrant and full, like we were in a huge arena listening to a live performance. There's something about listening to music through these that just sounds clean and smooth -- it's hard to explain in words, but it doesn't sound like you're listening to songs through your MP3 player or computer, there's more depth to the sound.
This pristine sound quality is a result of the balanced armature that puts five -- yes, five -- drivers into each tiny bud. There's a single low, along with dual mid and high frequency drivers that gives sound a noticeably full quality. Westone advertises these as being essentially tone-neutral, but we sensed a slight emphasis on the mids and lows, and bass performance in some of our favorite D&B songs was also excellent. The technical specs of these are an audiophile's dream -- 8Hz - 20 kHz frequency, 120 dB input sensitivity, 20 ohm impedance, and 25 dB of passive noise attenuation, though we'll be honest and say that we really evaluated these based on what we heard more than what we read. If these numbers are gibberish to you, know this: these headphones sound better than pretty much any other pair of headphones we've ever used, period.
We should take a moment to talk about fit, because a pair of headphones could have the best internals on earth but sound washed out if they aren't on properly. Westone includes a CD with some instructional videos about getting started with and caring for your new cans. The main body of the ES5 is acrylic, but the ear canal piece has enough give to allow for perfect insertion into the canal. You essentially line up the canal piece with the opening of your ear, and twist them until they're fully inserted and then angle them a bit to line up properly and maximize sound cancellation. You can definitely tell when they're in properly or not, and essentially all ambient noise is removed when you've got a solid fit. The cable loops over to the back of your ear for extra security and to help with the low-profile fit, which is better than just having the cable dangle freely. The first inch or so has a plastic covering you can shape yourself so you can tweak it to best fit your ear's shape.
For long periods of listening, the ES5's are definitely not uncomfortable, though there's a noticeable difference between having something in your ear canal and wearing big on-ear phones. If you're like us and have never used in-ear monitors, the sensation putting them on the first time is a bit odd but lessens over time. The only time we ever really noticed the presence of the buds in the canal was when we actually clenched our teeth or were chewing food (see how important that bite plate was?). Swallowing liquids is a bit awkward at first, but not like the constant chewing motion, and it's definitely not a deal breaker.
For us, the Westone ES5 certainly lives up to the hype in terms of sound quality and overall experience, and we had especially high expectations given the quite steep price of $950. Still, it's important to remember that these are targeted at the pro-audio crowd -- both enthusiasts who enjoy listening as well as performers who use this type of in-ear monitor for live performances. Westone has a great reputation in the industry as well, so you should feel secure purchasing a pair of these should you take the dive. The comfortable fit, extensive customization options, and phenomenal sound quality should definitely put ES5 right at the top when it comes to custom audio solutions.