Review: Westone ADV Alpha

The companies that have most benefitted from the headphone boom are the ones who are great at marketing but don't know much about audio engineering. (Yet.) Two of the hottest brands in the biz are Beats and Skullcandy, companies that didn't even exist when the iPod debuted. Stalwarts like AKG, Beyerdynamic, and Sennheiser-companies that made headphones before headphones were cool-seem lost in the ever-increasing noise of new companies and products.

Lump Westone in with the latter group. The 54-year-old company's custom-molded, in-ear monitors for stage use have earned it a stellar rep among touring musicians, but its universal-fit IEMs have been too expensive and exotic to appeal to any but the most hardcore enthusiasts.

Maybe the Adventure ADV Alpha will change things. The Alpha is Westone's most "normal" headphone yet. It's the company's first use of a dynamic driver-basically just a miniaturized version of the drivers in a regular speaker. Westone's other headphones use balanced-armature drivers, which are revered for clear, extended highs.

Why go dynamic? It's because of that "Adventure" tag. According to Westone's John Lowrey, whom I spoke with at CES, the balanced armatures can't survive the moisture, dirt, and rough handling that accompanies outdoor adventures. The ADV Alpha's magnesium driver enclosures help, too, as does the over-ear cable routing, which allows your pinnae to work as strain reliefs if the cable is accidentally tugged.

The ADV Alpha increases its adventure cred with IPX3 water resistance, which means it'll survive sprayed water. Good to know if you have one of those spray bottles with a fan attached, although if you do own one of those it seems unlikely that adventure is on your schedule. Presumably the ADV Alpha will survive sweat and rain pretty well, too, although probably not being dropped from a kayak into a raging stream.

Two more "adventure" features: a rugged but rather bulky waterproof, twist-top case, and reflective material woven into the headphone cable.

Westone includes a feature that will likely make more of a performance difference than any fancy drivers or materials: 10 different pairs of interchangeable ear tips. That's five silicone pairs and five Comply-style foam tips, all of Westone's own design. With IEMs, good fit is a must for good sound; I'd rather have $10 truck stop in-ears that fit than $1,000 in-ears that don't. If you can't get a good fit with one of the tips Westone supplies, you must be a Ferengi.

In search of adventure

Thanks to a too-busy travel schedule, I didn't have a chance to put the ADV Alpha through any adventures rougher than a tame hike through the woods on a clear day. Although I did take them on a trip to the East Coast that involved four flights, six legs of regional transit trains, and several rides on the New York Subway. Granted, that would have been a hell of an adventure for 16-year-old me, but for 51-year-old me, it's about as exciting as watching a Two and a Half Men rerun.

But the ADV Alpha easily survived this "ordeal," and the fantastic fit I got with the largest of the foam tips helped me survive it, too. The foam tips work like foam hearing protectors-just mash them down, shove 'em into your ear canals, and let them expand. It was cool to hear the loud noise of the rear-mounted engines on one of American Airlines' Reagan-era MD-80 jets practically vanish as the foam expanded in my ears. On two of my flights, I wore the ADV Alpha from takeoff to touchdown. It never got uncomfortable, and the noise isolation was among the very best I've experienced with any headphone.

So what do they sound like? I'd describe them as "flat," meaning having a smooth, even response from the bass through the mids to the treble. It's much like the sound of my Genelec recording monitors, which are designed as much as possible not to have an identifiable sound.

I spent much of my morning flight from PHL to DFW listening to Yessongs, sourced from my Samsung Galaxy S III phone. Yessongs isn't a great recording compared to today's live recordings, and on top of that the very nature of the group-trebly bass guitar, ephemeral drumming, alto vocals, and fast-fingered guitarist and keyboardist in a race to finish the song-makes Yessongs grating on headphones with strong highs, and muffled on headphones with strong lows. Through the ADV Alpha, the tonal balance on Yessongs sounded absolutely ideal, which is why I listened to it all the way through.

Yessongs doesn't have much bass, but The Cult's "Love Removal Machine" has plenty-and the ADV Alpha reproduced it pretty darned close to perfectly. The vocals sounded clear and smooth with no sibilance; I could make every different instrument in the drum kit perfectly, along with the guitar; and yeah, the bass did that tough trick of sounding full and tight at the same time. Switching to various tunes by Led Zeppelin, Mötley Crüe, and Celtic Frost gave me the same surprising result: This little IEM, with its tiny 6.5mm drivers, is one of the best rock headphones I've heard.

It does delicate just as well as it does destruction, too. Listening to "Freight Train," from Julian Lage's Gladwell, played off my iPod touch, I was struck by how the ADV Alpha captured the subtlest touch of Lage's fingers on the strings of his Manzer acoustic archtop guitar. The slightly choked character of his guitar-very different from the free-breathing, boisterous sound of a flat-top acoustic with a round soundhole-was easy to distinguish. I noticed for the first time, too, that Lage didn't appear to be using fresh strings for this recording. Pretty amazing that I could hear such minute details with just $500 worth of audio gear.

Frequent S&V West Coast headphone tester Will Hull also got to listen to the ADV Alpha, and he also described the sound ADV Alpha's sound as "flat"-but in this case, he meant uninvolving. "There was nothing special about the sound," he said. To each his own, I guess, but he does raise an excellent point. The ADV Alpha doesn't have a lot of sonic personality or character, so there's nothing to excite you except the music itself. This means it can fall a little flat in a short-term, A/B comparison with other in-ear monitors. Much as Coke, America's #1 soft drink, loses to Pepsi in blind taste tests because Pepsi is sweeter. Long-term, people prefer Coke, and I think long-term, serious listeners will warm to the ADV Alpha's sound.

For example, I compared it to the $180 B&W C5, a fave of S&V's headphone geeks, and the difference was obvious. The C5 simply sounded more lively, with much more powerful bass and a crisper lower treble. Yet I preferred the ADV Alpha. The C5's bass gets overwhelming for me at times, its upper mids sound just a bit exaggerated and "headphoney" to me, and I still find its unique cable routing cumbersome.

Measurements

I measured the technical performance of the ADV Alpha using a G.R.A.S. RA0045 ear simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, a laptop computer running TrueRTA software with an M-Audio MobilePre USB audio interface, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. Measurements were calibrated for coupler reference point, a point equivalent to slightly inside the ear canal, and slightly closer to the eardrum (and the measurement mike) than ear entrance point (EEP). I used one of Westone's medium-sized silicone tips-the one that fit the coupler best-then inserted it, measured, reinserted it, measured again, and repeated the process until I was certain I was getting a good seal and the most characteristic result overall.

As happens sometimes with headphones, the frequency response measurements don't square well with our subjective impressions. The response looks like it should be bassy and dull, with a broad bass boost centered at 65 Hz and only a slight treble emphasis peak at 5 kHz. (Normally we'd expect to see a larger peak, maybe +4 or +5 dB higher, and at a lower frequency around 3 kHz where it'd be more noticeable. Yet no one would describe the ADV Alpha as sounding bassy and dull. Channel matching is above-average, suggesting that the drivers are manufactured to tight tolerances. Thanks to the flat impedance, adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can's 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a typical low-quality headphone amp has no effect at all on the ADV Alpha's frequency response.

With the silicone tips installed, I measured outstanding isolation is excellent for a pair of over-ear headphones: dropping from a worst-case of -4 dB at 60 Hz (still very good for that frequency) to a minimum of -44 dB (the best I can recall measuring) at 4 kHz.

Except for a curious little peak at 1.5 kHz (possibly indicating a resonance of some sort), total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA is very low, never rising to even 2%.

Impedance is dead flat at 20 ohms. Average sensitivity from 300 Hz to 6 kHz at the rated 21 ohms is 101.7 dB.

Bottom line

Given Westone's rep and the tastes I've had of the company's other products, I expected to be impressed by the ADV Alpha. Considering how many great <$100 IEMs are out there, though, I wondered if the $199* ADV Alpha could deliver an extra $100 worth of sound. But I does, and maybe then some. This headphone doesn't impress you on first listen. It doesn't dazzle you with boosted bass or pumped-up highs. It just sounds natural, neutral, and detailed. And it looks like it'll keep doing so for at least a few seasons of jogging or kayaking or whatever you like to do outdoors.

*This review originally cited a price at $249, which conformed to the original press release, but we were informed shortly after the review posted that the price is actually $199.

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