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Westone ES60 Custom-Fit In Ear Monitor

Westone ES60 Custom-Fit In Ear Monitor

When asking non-audiophile friends and colleagues for their impressions, if any, of Westone Laboratories, I have discovered many think the firm focuses primarily on selling components and supplies for the global hearing aid industry. This isn’t too surprising since Westone got its start many years ago by building custom-moulded earpiece shells for the famous hearing aid maker Beltone. Over time, of course, Westone has grown and evolved so that today the firm concentrates its efforts in five separate – but related – areas: custom ear-mould products; audiology supply products; military earpiece products (yes, many fighter pilots and aircraft carrier crewmen wear Westones); digital, industrial, and hearing protection products; and personal and professional music earphones.

Naturally, Westone’s music products division is the one that will most interest Hi-Fi+ readers most and for a very important reason: Westone is arguably the one company most responsible for launching the entire contemporary custom-fit in-ear music monitor movement in the first place. In fact, if you ask around a bit you will find that Westone alumni are now spread throughout the CIEM industry, so that it is fair to say the company has played a huge (albeit understated) role in shaping today’s high-end personal audio marketplace. Out of sheer respect for Westone’s contributions to the field, we felt it was time to review the firm’s flagship ES-60 custom-fit in-ear monitors.

The ES-60 is the brainchild of veteran Westone engineer Karl Cartwright, who has probably forgotten more about music monitoring applications and their specific requirements than most of us will ever know. For insights into Cartwright’s design philosophy, we refer you to an interview he did with Hi-Fi+ that is published in the Hi-Fi+ Guide to Headphones, Earphones & Related Electronics (download your free copy at http://www.hifiplus.com/buyers_guides/1/). If you read the interview you may find, as we have, that Cartwright appears to live right at the intersection of Expertise Avenue and Humility Lane. In other words, he knows an awful lot about the art and science of in-ear monitor design, but he hasn’t let it go to his head (or ego), which is a refreshing combination, to say the least.

The ES-60 design is based on six balanced armature-type drivers grouped as a three-way array, with two bass drivers, two midrange drivers, and two high-frequency drivers per earpiece, all linked via a passive three-way crossover. These drivers are housed in custom-moulded, mostly acrylic earpiece shells and they deliver sound to the wearer’s ears via dual bores (or sound outlet tubes) embedded within the earpiece. Of this dual bore arrangement Westone says, “high and low frequency sound components are channelled through separate passages in the sound port and sum within your ear canal instead of the earpiece. The result is audibly more natural and provides a more convincing transition between frequency ranges.”

More so than many CIEM manufacturers, Westone consistently ‘sweats the details’ of its products, whether large or small. Hence, the firm has paid considerable attention to the signal cables supplied with the ES-60: namely, a set of proprietary, user-replaceable EPIC cables that Westone says are, “constructed of bifurcated, high-flex, ultra-low resistance tinsel wire, reinforced with a special aramid fibre, and braided for ultimate durability, acoustic transparency, and isolation from mechanical cable noise.”

Of special significance are the distinctive construction materials and techniques Westone uses for the ES-60 earpieces. Most manufacturers choose just one material for their earpieces and stick with it (e.g., acrylic, silicone, stabilised hardwoods, or other materials). Westone, however, deliberately takes a different approach, building the outer portions of its earpiece enclosures from hard, tough, and resilient cold pour acrylic material, but then making the inner portions of the earpieces – those that actually fit into the wearer’s ear canals – from a special temperature-reactive material that is solid and rigid at room temperature, but that becomes flexible as it reaches body temperature. Westone claims the benefits of this ‘Flex Canal’ technology are that the initially firm earpieces are easy to insert, while the subsequent softening process allows “increased comfort and (a superior) acoustic seal for incredible noise isolation.” See what I mean about sweating the details?

This same thoroughness carries over into the accessories provided with the ES-60. The CIEMs ship in a watertight, internally padded carry case moulded of translucent thermoplastic material in Westone’s signature signal orange colour. Within the case are found an owner’s manual, a padded microfibre cleaning cloth, a cleaning tool/brush, a small vial of Oto-Ease fluid (a gentle lubricant users can apply to their earpiece shells), a translucent orange cable-winding spool to help keep signal cables from becoming snarled inside the case, and – get this – a user renewable pod filled with desiccant material to help prevent moisture damage to the CIEMs when they are in storage. Capping things off, the ES-60 case comes with a plastic, credit card-sized user ID card that lists the owner’s name, the model and serial number of the CIEMs, and the monitor’s original production date.

About the only thing missing is a feature some of Westone’s competitors have adopted; specifically, a clearly marked label on the case stating something along these lines: “If found, please return these custom in-ear monitors to the manufacturer for a reward.” I mention this point only because, if one’s prized and expensive CIEMs ever should go missing, it would be nice to have mechanisms in place to help the errant monitors find their way back to their rightful owners.

But now, let’s focus on the thing we all care about most: the ES-60’s sound. As a way of explaining the Westone’s signature sound, let me begin by relating the gist of a conversation with Westone’s Karl Cartwright where I asked about his voicing strategies for the ES-60. He replied that, and I am paraphrasing here, he had tried to give the ES-60 the voicing characteristics he admired in some of the finest studio monitor-type loudspeakers he had heard—especially the sorts of speakers that might be used in mixing facilities, where low colouration and faithfulness to the source material is essential. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect Cartwright might have had in mind something along the lines of a fine pair of upper-tier Bowers & Wilkins Diamond-series floorstanding speakers as heard in a room with good acoustics. I say this because I see sonic parallels between the sound of B&W’s top end models and the sound of Westone’s ES-60 CIEMs.

 

To expand on this point, let me say that I have generally found B&W’s top models to have qualities of natural and organic warmth, a full-bodied presentation, and a sound that manages to be neutral and transparent without becoming cold, bright, or edgy. It is a sound that is at once revealing and yet almost self-effacing, as if the transducer is bent on honestly and expressively rendering what the music has to offer, yet without drawing undue attention to itself. This description, in a nutshell, also nicely summarises how the ES‑60 CIEMs sound.

The ES-60s offer low-end performance, for instance, that can be deep, powerful, and beautifully weighted, yet that is also quick, agile, and well-defined – never overblown or flabby sounding. Just listen for example, to the punchy bass guitar and incisive kick drum thwacks found on Billy Idol’s iconic ‘Prodigal Blues’ [Prodigal Blues, Chrysalis, CD] through the Westones. The ES-60s manage to catch the weight and depth of these low-pitched instruments, but also to convey their sheer dynamic energy and immediacy, complete with plenty of pitch definition and transient detail. As a result, you both hear and feel the pulse of the song down deep in your bones and the effect is markedly like hearing real instruments performing nearby. The key is that the ES-60s supply just what the music demands, but not more (and certainly not less). With this said, though, I would observe that the Westones probably do incorporate a gentle touch of bass lift, but only insofar as that bass lift helps the monitors mimic the sound of very high quality monitor speakers as played in real-world rooms (where the loudspeakers would themselves have a touch of bass lift owing to the effects of room gain).

The midrange of the ES-60s is likewise evenly balanced, neutrally voiced, well detailed, and uncommonly smooth. As a result, the Westones are faithful conduits for the recordings you choose to play. In practice, this means the ES-60s can either sound as vivid and lifelike or as flat, dull, and lifeless as your recordings themselves do—this in sharp contrast to those sorts of monitors that struggle to make everything sound ‘intense’ or ‘exciting’, regardless of what’s actually captured in the recording. For this reason, the ES-60 is very much a bellwether listening tool; on fine recordings it rewards the listener with delightfully rich, expressive, and engaging sounds, but on severely compressed or crudely made recordings the ES-60s—ever faithful to the sources that feed them—can at times sound a bit diffuse and uninvolving. To be clear, though, the ES-60 happily does not punish the listener when mediocre records are played; rather, it makes the best of what’s at hand, though it typically can’t and won’t make the musical magic happen unless the source material is up to the job.

Ah, but what happens with good material? Then, the Westones serve up musical magic that would make Harry Potter envious. Two recordings that really drove home this point for me were ‘Poesia for Trumpet and Piano’ from classical trumpeter Brian Chin’s Universal Language [Origin Classical, CD] and ‘Timeless’ from John Abercrombie, Badi Assad, and Larry Coryell’s Three Guitars [Chesky, SACD].

On ‘Poesia’, Chin slowly and almost meditatively explores the expressive range of his horn, allowing the instrument to sound quiet, pure, and reflective at first, but then gradually pressing it forward into more powerful and full-throated territory. The Westones accurately and adroitly render these brass mood shifts, so that when Chin puts real force into his notes the burnished, glowing energy of the trumpet swells has real, visceral impact.

In ‘Timeless’, in turn, we hear three master guitarists create an intimate performance that constitutes a gentle, profoundly respectful, but also invigorating musical conversation. The ES-60s made child’s play of revealing subtle differences in texture and timbre between the performers’ guitars, while also rendering differences between the performers’ own senses of touch, technique, and tonality. The thrilling part is that with the revealing ES-60s in play, there is never any question of mistaking one guitarist for the others, so that it becomes comparatively easy to follow along as the threads of their musical conversation unfold. Finally, the Westone’s beautifully re-created the reverberant characteristics of the recording space, providing a believable, real-world acoustic context within which the music takes form.

 

The only small reservation I might express is that the ES‑60’s typically do not seem to convey quite as much upper midrange/treble ‘air’ and transient information as some other accuracy minded CIEMs I have heard (for example, the Noble Audio Savant or the Ultimate Ears Pro Reference Remastered models). This characteristic is minor enough that it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of perceived high-frequency roll off, but it does mean that, through the Westones, some recordings can sound slightly less transparent, airy, and spacious than one might expect. Still, I can’t help but think that this may be how the ES-60s manage to avoid punishing listeners when mediocre recordings are played. (There is, after all, a fine line between transducers that are revealing and those that are too revealing for their own good…)

Westone’s ES-60 is a beautifully and thoughtfully constructed custom-fit in-ear monitor—one that in every way inspires pride of ownership in those fortunate enough to own it. The ES-60 manages to sound natural and warm, yet uncoloured, revealing and expressive, yet not sterile or cold, and to tell the truth about recordings, yet without making less-than-ideal material become unbearable. In the end, it’s a product whose carefully judged mix of virtues reflects the many decades of hard won listening and design wisdom of the master craftsmen who’ve built it.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Multi-driver custom-fit in-ear monitor.

Driver complement: Six balanced armature-type drivers grouped as two bass drivers, two midrange drivers, and two high frequency drivers. A miniature passive 3-way crossover network is used.

Frequency response: 8 Hz – 20 kHz

Impedance: 46 Ohms @ 1 kHz

Sensitivity: 118 dB SPL @ 1mW

Weight: Not specified. Varies with earpiece materials chosen

Accessories: Watertight Monitor Vault II case, cleaning tool, EPIC MMCX user-replaceable signal cable, cable management right, desiccant pod, cleaning cloth, vial of Oto-Ease fluid (said to facilitate smoother insertion or removal of CIEM earpieces), and users manual.

Prices: £1,099 UK, $1,299 US

Warranty: two years

Manufacturer information: Westone Laboratories

2235 Executive Circle, Colorado Springs, CO 80906

Tel.: (800) 525-5071

URL: www.westone.com

Distributor Information: Custom IEM Company

64 The Maltings, Roydon Road, Stanstead Abbotts, Hertfordshire SG12 8HG, United Kingdom

Tel.: 033 772 0007

URL: www.custom-inearmonitors.co.uk

(The Custom IEM Company also has additional London and regional UK offices)

Tags: FEATURED

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