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Westone Laboratories W80 universal-fit earphone

Westone Laboratories W80 universal-fit earphone

Long-term Hi-Fi+ readers will know that Westone Laboratories, a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based firm, is a quiet giant in the world of hearing and music-related in-ear devices and technologies. With good reason the company’s slogan is, “Westone: The In-Ear Experts.” Unlike the many small ‘boutique’ firms common in the high-end audio industry, Westone is a large company with five distinct divisions focusing on custom ear-mould products; audiology supply products; digital, industrial, and personal hearing protection products; military earpieces; and—last but certainly not least, professional and personal music earphones.

One key point to note is that each of these five divisions has developed specialised information databases and specific types of technical know-how that can be shared with any of the firm’s sibling divisions. If, for example, the custom earmould division learns something important and new about making custom earpieces for the hearing aid industry, that new knowledge is also available to help the earphone division make better music products. In short, there are deep and powerful synergies at work within Westone so that when new music products are created their designs are not purely the result of careful measurements and good musical intuition, but also are the result of a wealth of data on how human ears really work and on the requirements in-ear devices must meet.

Many Westone products (musical and otherwise) draw upon the wealth of experience brought to the table by twin brothers Kris and Karl Cartwright, who together have helped develop more world-class earphones and CIEMs than any other two-person team in the industry. The general pattern is that Karl takes the lead role in designing new earphones and monitors, while Kris figures out the ways and means necessary to build them. Then, working together with members of an ad hoc expert listening panel, the brothers carefully verify the sonic capabilities of each new design before releasing it for full production.

The latest product to go through this process is Westone’s new flagship universal-fit earphone: the Signature Series W80, which sells for £1,199.99 in the UK, or $1,499.99 in the US. The Signature Series W80 is the first Westone model so labelled and for this reason principal designer Karl Cartwright’s signature is embossed on the outside of the box. Westone doesn’t launch new flagship products very often, so the W80 is a special model indeed and one the Cartwright brothers approached with all the care and commitment to excellence that a top-of-the-range effort demands. Naturally, a big question for Karl Cartwright was to ask how, if at all, the basic voicing of the W80 ought to differ from the baseline sound of the firm’s already excellent W60 earphone and its sibling ES60 CIEM model.

 

When I reviewed the ES60 in Hi-Fi+ 139 I praised its admirably neutral, monitoring-orientated voicing, but offered the minor criticism that the ES60 did not provide, “quite as much upper midrange/treble ‘air’ and transient information as some other accuracy minded CIEMs I have heard.” Apparently Karl Cartwright had similar observations so that in tackling the W80 design he sought to preserve the neutrality of the W60 while deftly dialing in just a touch more upper midrange/treble ‘air’, extension, definition, and speed. The trickiest part of this balancing act, however, was to implement the desired voicing changes without making the W80 either overtly bright-sounding or overly midrange/treble forward in its presentation—something easier said than done. Having now heard the W80 in action, however, my sense is that Westone has threaded the voicing ‘needle’ perfectly to create one of the most accomplished universal-fit earphones I’ve yet heard.

The W80 uses eight balanced armature-type drivers configured as a three-way array (consisting of dual bass, dual mid, and quad high frequency drivers), with drivers housed within a compact, lozenge-shaped moulded thermoplastic earpiece. Every detail, curve, and dimension of the earpieces was evaluated in light of Westone’s extensive database on human ear sizes and shapes—all with an eye toward making the W80, “the most comfortable, ergonomically designed earphone on the market.”

For stylistic purposes, each earpiece incorporates a small, user replaceable, wraparound faceplate that bears the ‘W80’ name. The earphones come with extra faceplates finished in four matt-metallic hues: blue-grey, silver-grey, red, or champagne gold. The earpieces in turn are fitted with MMCX signal cable sockets, which allow the use of a variety of MMCX-compatible cables. Importantly, MMCX sockets allow simple but reliable push-to-connect/pull-to-disconnect cable fitments, while also allowing cables (especially those with over-the-ear hooks) to swivel to accommodate wearers’ comfort preferences.

The W80 ships with two sets of signal cables: a Westone MFi cable fitted with an inline three-button mic/remote module, plus a more audiophile-orientated ALO Audio Reference 8 Westone Edition IEM signal cable featuring eight braided silver-plated copper and OCC copper wires, said to “deliver intense musical resolution and fine inner detail.” The W80 package also includes extensive sets of ear tips including five colour-coded sizes of patented silicone Star™ tips and five similarly colour-coded sizes of Westone’s True-Fit™ compressible foam tips.

Completing the accessories kit is a large, ballistic nylon-covered premium deluxe carry case (with chambers for the earphones plus all of their accessories and manuals), a mesh storage pouch for whichever of the two signal cables is not presently in use, an ear wax removal/cleaning tool, a microfibre cleaning cloth, a tool for installing the aforementioned earpiece faceplates, and a ballistic nylon-covered premium small carry case that is about the size of a deck of playing cards.

Westone specifies the frequency response of the W80 as 5Hz-22kHz (as compared to 20 Hz to 20kHz for the W60 model), with sensitivity of 111dB SPL @ 1mW (as compared to 117dB SPL @ 1mW for the W60). Perhaps of even greater significance is that the W80’s rated impedance is an extremely low 5 Ohms (as compared to 25 Ohms for the W60). The upshot of these specifications, I think, is that the W80 offers more extended high and low frequency response than any other Westone earphone, but is also somewhat more demanding to drive (meaning the W80s really want to be driven by high quality digital audio players or portable amp/DACs). In a pinch, you could drive the W80s from smartphones or tablets, but my listening tests suggested that such devices really could not reveal all that the W80s can do.

 

During my listening tests, I drove the W80s from two reference-quality DAPs (the Questyle QP1r and the Lotoo Pro Gold) and from my reference Chord Hugo and Mojo portable amp/DACs. Other high-quality earphones and CIEMs I had on hand for comparison included the JH Audio Layla and Roxanne CIEMs; the Noble Audio Katana, Kaiser 10, and Savant CIEMs; and the Westone W60 earphones and ES60 CIEMs.

From the outset, the W80s impressed me with their deep and solid (though never unduly enriched) bass, their wide-open midrange, and their profoundly extended and almost ethereally delicate highs. To be candid, my experience with typical high-end in-ear transducers is that they can do many things right, but that they have some difficulty in achieving the highest levels of midrange and treble openness and transparency of which today’s best loudspeakers and full-size over-the-ear headphones are capable.

But the W80 is different; from the first track to the last, the W80 consistently reproduces spatial cues in recordings so effectively that the listener experiences a greatly heightened sense of three-dimensionality—a sense of the free-flowing ‘air’ and ‘space’ surrounding instruments and voices—that is terrifically gratifying. On a conscious level, the listener of course realises he or she is listening to an in-ear device, but the W80’s sonic presentation convincingly pulls one’s attention out of a purely ‘in-head’ experience and into a much broader and more expansive listening environment. This, first and foremost, is what the W80 does better than any other Westone model to date and better than most other high-end earphones on the market.

For a good concrete example of the W80’s sonic spaciousness and three-dimensionality in action, try listening to ‘Zapateados’ from Pepe Romero’s Flamenco [Philips/K2HD CD]—an FIM remastered-from-master-tape reissue of an acknowledged audiophile classic. ‘Zapateados’ not only captures Romero’s evocative, articulate, and blazingly fast flamenco guitar work, but also the accompanying sounds of an expert flamenco dancer performing within the same highly reverberant recording space. Through the W80s the overall effect was spellbinding. Frankly, Romero’s fleet fingerings on the guitar would have been more than enough to hold my attention, producing a flow of notes that combined, in roughly equal parts, elements of tonal purity, moments of dynamic expression by turns bold and delicate, and almost incomprehensible speed and agility. But then, add to the mix the forceful hand claps, heel/toe taps, and occasional fiery foot stamps of an adept flamenco dancer and the track explodes with energy. Through it all, one essential ingredient turns out to be the reverberant acoustic of the recording space itself, which contributes a wealth of ambient spatial cues and also gives the harmonics of Romero’s guitar and the dancer’s footfalls plenty of room to expand and to ‘breathe’. Naturally, results like these can only be achieved if the earphone is up to the task, and the W80s gave a masterful performance.

But even though midrange transparency, high-frequency extension, and detail are the W80’s sonic ‘calling cards’, the factor that really makes this earphone ‘click’ is its beautifully judged top-to-bottom tonal balance. Karl Cartwright laboured long and hard to give the W80 a response curve that is for the most part admirably neutral, but that adds just the lightest touch of both upper midrange/treble lift coupled with a just right touch of subtle mid bass emphasis (and, to a limited degree, lower bass emphasis). The key is that these characteristics are extremely subtle so that the listener hears neutrality overall, but at the same time enjoys newfound midrange/treble openness balanced by mid-bass weight and warmth and lower bass clarity, power, and gravitas. It’s one of those magic combinations of frequency response characteristics that serve virtually all types of music well.

To appreciate how these characteristics work out in actual practice, try listening to the track ‘Lil’ Victa’ from Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten’s album Thunder [Heads Up, 16/44.1]. The track reflects the skills, playing styles, and voicing preferences of three master bass guitarists, some of whom prefer to use 5-string basses capable of extremely low fundamentals, but all of whom possess a dizzying array of slapping, popping, tapping, and harmonic techniques that exploit the astonishing high frequency capabilities of the electric bass. The result is a rich, varied, and simultaneous exploration not only of the sonic ‘lowlands’, but also of the much higher frequency ‘mountaintops’ nearby. When players chose to sound the low B-strings of 5-string basses, the W80 responded with potent but well-controlled low-end thunder, yet when chime-like harmonics and fiercely percussive thumb slaps and pull-offs presented themselves, the Westones responded with appropriate upper midrange/treble clarity, definition, and dynamic energy. The overarching sense is of an earphone that is well balanced, but also powerful and very articulate at both frequency extremes.

 

There is very little to criticise in Westone’s W80. Perhaps the only ‘downsides’ involve the fact that the earphone is (not surprisingly) extremely sensitive to the quality of associated amplifiers and source components and is noticeably harder to drive than Westone’s W60/ES60 models. The only other minor critique I would offer is that the ALO Reference 8 Westone Edition cables (which sound very good, by the way), use jackets that are relatively stiff and therefore transmit a fair amount of mechanical noise when they brush against garments or desktop objects. Apart from those minor points, though, the W80 is a world-class winner, pure and simple.

I’m tempted to say that with the W80 Westone’s talented Cartwright brothers may well have painted their sonic ‘masterpiece’. Then again, if you know Westone and the Cartwrights, there’s every reason to think they will keep right on pushing the limits of earphone performance for many years to come. Either way, I encourage listeners to go hear the W80, even if they are not presently in the market for such transducers, simply to hear how powerful, expressive, and refined one of today’s finest top-tier earphones can truly be.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Multi-driver universal-fit earphone

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

Frequency response: 5 Hz – 22 kHz

Impedance: 5 Ohms @ 1kHz

Sensitivity: 111 dB SPL @ 1mW

Weight: Not specified

Accessories: Exchangeable silver, gold, red, and new blue color faceplates are included with secure attachment. Five sizes of patented STAR™ silicone ear tips and five sizes of premium True‑Fit™ comfort foam ear tips, MFi three button cable, an ALO Audio Reference 8 Westone Edition signal cable, Premium Deluxe Carrying Case, Premium Small Carrying Case, cleaning tool, and cleaning cloth.

Prices: £1,199.99 UK, $1,499.99 US

Warranty: two years

Manufacturer: Westone Laboratories
Tel: (800) 525-5071

URL: www.westone.com

Distributor: Custom IEM Company
Tel: +44(0)33 772 0007

URL: www.custom-inearmonitors.co.uk

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

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