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

Over the past several months I've repeatedly had goo poured into my ear canalsFor you, gentle readers - all in the interest of finding out whether custom in-ear monitors make as much sense for serious listeners as they do for musicians and sound engineers.

You'd be hard pressed to find a major touring act using anything but in-ear monitors on stage these days (when it's critical to hear yourself, nothing beats a custom seal), but we've lately been seeing the major players in the industry pitching their multiple driver custom fit headphones to audiophiles for everyday use.

Are they crazy? Let's look at the latest luxury offerings from Westone and Ultimate Ears to find out.

While much of the recent excitement around high-end (and high-priced) headphones has been around difficult-to-drive full-size models such as the HiFiMan HE-6, we checked out recently (and an entire secondary headphone amplifier industry has evolved around those products), dollar-for-dollar it's easy to see where custom in-ears can make a lot more sense.

Sure, once you get offstage customs may seem like out-of-place little luxury items, but they've got a lot going for them. CIEMs are designed to take abuse; they're portable (obviously) enough to take anywhere, and perhaps most importantly they're intended to be used without dedicated headphone amps. By virtue of having been designed to function with the belt-pack receiver units worn by professional musicians, actors, and other performers, they play very nicely with most consumer portable devices' onboard headphone amps. No need for pricey or bulky hardware to get decent performance out of your portable source.

Having already spent some time with ACS' A2 (marketed to consumers in the US by Altec Lansing), I took a long listen (well, a whole lot of long and short listens) to one of the most luxurious offerings on the market, the unique Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor; a model that offers not only custom fit but custom voicing, and another unit with a strong professional heritage, the ES5 - the current top-of-the-line from category innovator Westone.