Review: Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor and Westone ES5 Custom In-Ear Headphones Page 3

Westone ES5

The ES5 ($950) is Westone's top-of-the-line multiple balanced armature model. Westone's been making custom in-ear products for as long as anyone, beginning with hearing aids way back in the 1950s, and they built Jerry Harvey's original in-ear monitor line in the mid-1990s. Suffice it to say that they know about as much about the product category as anyone, and they offer a wide range of universal-fit and custom in-ears and communications earpieces for everyone from musicians and live sound engineers to professional cycling teams.

By virtue of the fact that many stage performers lately have been interested in a bedazzled look rather that the fleshtoned or transparent models popular in years past (an approach taken to its fullest by JH Audio, I'd have to say), Westone offers the ES series in a range of colors and body cap patterns (29 colors, with 35 standard faceplate designs or custom art and reflective finishes, as well as any one of 12 exotic abalone shell faceplates, available at additional cost), which - given the way in which headphones have found acceptance as fashion accessories - should appeal to regular folks as well.

But this ES5's appeal is more than skin deep. While it competes with Ultimate Ears's three-driver Reference Monitor ($999), it punches above its weight on specs. With five balanced armature drivers (1 bass, 2 midrange, 2 treble) around a three-way passive crossover, it's a very similar configuration to the Personal Reference Monitor. It's a 21 Ohm phone, where the PRM his spec'd at 20 Ohms. With a claimed sensitivity of 120 dB @ 1mW, it's perceptively more efficient than the PRM, which dishes out 115 dB with the same input. Lots of similarities, for sure. And the value proposition (yes, yes, I know - I mean by comparison with the PRM) is quite appealing. Westone's construction is slightly different from UE's; the hard acrylic shell terminates in a silicone canal mold, making for a flexible connection akin to models from Sensaphonics and ACS.

Setup

My fitting was done by Westone technical marketing specialist Skylar Gray, a pro audio vet with many years of experience. Like the UE, this was an open-mouth fitting with a bite block in place. I opted for a relatively sedate smoked-gray finish, with a carbon-fiber-weave body cap. Nothing too ostentatious. Then, the wait. No nail-biting personal tuning session - but then again, I'd be getting what Westone felt was right. They should know, no?

Packed in a highly useful Pelican case, the ES5 showed up here at the office. The case includes a socket for a tub of desiccant, handy for those who put their gear away wet, along with the usual cleaning tool and tube of lubricant.

But on to the headphones. They looked much as I'd imagined - solid construction, a bit more workmanlike than the UE 'phones, but of obvious quality. The carbon fiber faceplate is nicely integrated into the plastic shell; the cable is the familiar EPIC model also included with Westone's high-end universal fits - thus easily and inexpensively replaceable, if not as luxurious as the Ultimate Ears offering. The shells aren't as heavily shaped sculpted as the PRM's; as a result they're a bit bigger in the ear and weigh just a tad more, though like the more expensive units they're also extremely comfortable - they take a little more doing to slip into the ear, but once they're in there, the silicone canal section is quite comfortable, especially after it gets warmed up following a few minutes of wear.

Overall, fit and finish may not be as perfect as the UE PRM, but then again these cost half as much. And they're pretty close to perfect already.

Performance

And they sound…well, I'd say they are certainly different in voicing from the PRM, but they' re in no way a step down.

The ES5 is a subjectively flatter-sounding headphone than the Ultimate Ears PRM (as voiced by me, at least). That'll mean "thinner" to some listeners; there's not the abundantly full-bodied bass that I'd dialed in for my PRM testers, but the low end is very tight, well defined, and in no way lacking, if a bit less rich than the Ultimate Ears 'phones. Given the thinner bass, midrange sounds relatively more forward on the ES5, if only ever so slightly, and there's plenty of detail and air up top.

Listening to my well-worn FLAC of Roxy Music's Avalon, bass and low-end synths are more restrained during the intro to "Take a Chance With Me"; Bryan Ferry's voice is more front and center as represented by they ES5 than I'd found with the PRMs - apparent soundstage is a little narrower hear, but that's not necessarily a downside given the artificiality of the concept with IEMs of any sort.

On Crosby, Stills & Nash's "49 Bye-Byes" (from the FLAC release of the self-titled album), I felt again that the Westones placed the vocals more forward and center than the Ultimate Ears; the PRMs, on the other hand, created a better sense of acoustic space - both were impactful and appealing; which sonic and performance characteristic seems right for you is really a matter of personal taste.

I'd give the nod for pop and rock vocal representation to the ES5 and it's somewhat more forward midrange; the PRM wins out for acoustic ensemble recordings, by a nose.

Bottom Line

$950 is expensive, certainly, and well beyond what any reasonable person would ever consider spending on headphones. But put it in context: These things sound nearly as good as the Ultimate Ears PRM, for half the price.

Sure, the fit and finish of the ES5 isn't quite as perfect as the PRM - the cable attachment isn't as polished and attractive as that used by UE; the integration of the decorative body cap isn't as smooth, and the shells overall don't have the degree of sculpting, so getting them seated in your ears can be a bit demanding if you're in a hurry. But those ineffables aside, the Westones perform amazingly well. When it comes down to sonics, the ES5 is a very strong performer; every bit as good-sounding as the PRM, if with a somewhat different sound signature.

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