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Westone W10 earphones

Westone W10 earphones

Over the past year or so, the Colorado Springs, CO-based firm Westone has worked steadily and methodically to revise, update, and improve its several ranges of universal-fit earphones and custom-fit in-ear monitors. For those unfamiliar with the brand, Westone is one of the pioneers of high-performance custom-fit in-ear monitors—the type now used by many professional musicians for on-stage monitoring of live performances. Apart from custom-fit in-ear monitors, the firm also makes three ranges of universal-fit earphones—the UM-series, geared for “onstage use in live sound applications as in-ear musicians monitors,” the W-series, meant for “personal listening” to recorded music, and the Adventure Series, which are quasi-ruggedised earphones featuring water-resistant technologies. For audiophiles Westone’s W-series ‘phones obviously will be the models of choice.

The most accessibly priced W-series model is the W10, which sells for $249 (US) or about £199 (UK), though actual ‘street prices’ may vary. Even though the W10 is the simplest, least costly W-series model, I would hesitate to call it an ‘entry-level’ earphone, because it is every inch a real Westone, meaning its design reflects a certain sonic seriousness of purpose that is part and parcel of the firm’s corporate DNA.

The W10 is based on single, balanced armature drivers—the same type Westone uses with great success in its ES-series custom-fit in-ear monitors. By comparison, many earphones in the W10’s price range use dynamic-type drivers that—like the drivers found in most loudspeakers—employ traditional voice coils to drive diaphragms in order to produce sound.

In contrast, balanced armature drivers are typically packaged in small canister-like enclosures and use miniature, ‘seesaw-like’ armatures that are driven from one end and feature tiny diaphragm actuators at the other. The small, low-mass armatures are balanced when at rest (hence the term “balanced armature”), but when driven the seesaw-like mechanisms swings back and forth to drive the very small diaphragms, thus producing sound. Sound waves exit the driver enclosures via small sound outlet tubes (known as “bores”), which direct sound outward through the earpiece enclosures and into the wearer’s ears.

 

Both driver types have ardent proponents, but the appeal of balanced armature drivers involves the fact that they generally have lower moving mass than dynamic types, promising potentially superior transient speed and resolution of low-level sonic details. The only catch is that it can be difficult to build balanced armature drivers that offer true full-range frequency response while also providing adequate dynamic range. Coming into this review, I hope to answer two questions: first, does the W10 offer superior transient response and resolution as hoped, and second, does it offer sufficient dynamic range to be musically satisfying? For the answers, read on.

The W10 features single, full-range, balanced armature drivers and earpieces of molded thermoplastic. Through 50+ years of experience, Westone has developed its now familiar True-Fit earpiece shape, which is light, compact, easy to handle, and easy to insert into the wearer’s ear canals. In short, it works beautifully for almost all users, nearly all of the time. The W10 earpieces are moulded in basic black, but feature detachable, screw-mounted faceplates that come in black, red, or blue (all three colours are included), enabling users to personalise their ‘phones if desired.

User feedback has also taught Westone the value of building earphones with user-replaceable signal cables. Accordingly, the W10’s provide small, gold-plated, snap-fit cable connectors that allow cable replacement and enable the cables to swivel for greater comfort. This importance of this feature looms large when you consider that the majority of earphone failures involve faulty and/or broken signal cables. If something goes wrong, it’s far better to replace damaged cables, than to replace the entire earphone.

The detachable cable feature also enables Westone to supply the W10 with two sets of signal cables. One is Westone’s audiophile-orientated EPIC cable, while the other is a convenience-minded, round-jacketed EPIC G2 cable with MFI that is compatible with Apple devices and that provides volume, mic, and Siri controls. Both cables use Westone’s cool new EPIC (Earphone Precision Interface Cable) design, which features “bifurcated, high-flexibility, ultra-low resistance tinsel wire … reinforced by aramid fibre.” Westone claims these next-generation cables are “second to none in audio quality, comfort, and durability.”

Convenience touches abound. Thus, the W10 comes with a wax removal tool, a miniature screwdriver for swapping out faceplates, a beefy and weather resistant ‘Monitor Vault’ hard-shell carrying case, and one of the better sets of ear-tips offered with any earphone on today’s market. Westone’s ear-tip set includes five pairs of compressible, closed-cell foam tips (sized S, MS, M, ML, and L), plus five pairs of the firm’s patented ‘Star’ tips (provided in the same sizes). The ‘Star’ tips feature subtly fluted inner surfaces that better enable the tips to flex to accommodate the irregularly shaped curves and contours of human ear canals.

 

Now, let’s look into the W10’s sound quality. After a short initial run-in time, the W10s almost instantly began to deliver an accomplished sound centered on a well balanced, finely resolved, dynamically expressive, and ultra-agile midrange and upper midrange. I have heard single balanced armatures designs in the past that, while generally good, sounded a bit overtaxed or thin when pressed to deliver full-throated dynamics. Happily, the W10 is not one of them; on the contrary, it takes dynamic demands (at least in the midrange and upper midrange) in its stride and plays music like it means business. Still, it’s the sheer turn-on-a-sixpence agility of this little earphone that impresses at first and continues to impress over time. By “agility,” I am referring to the W10’s ability simply to nail the leading and trailing edges of notes with accuracy and authority. There is no blurring, no hesitancy, and no stumbling at the starting gate; sharped-edged notes come along and the W10 just tracks with them step for step. In this respect, in particular, the Westone sounds like a far more expensive earphone than it actually is.

Astute readers will notice that, while I praised the W10’s midrange and upper midrange, I haven’t said anything about its treble or bass response (yet). This is not because there is anything wrong with the W10’s highs; in fact, if the W10 is your first taste of better-than-Apple-earbud-grade ‘phones, my prediction is that you will be delighted by its treble performance. The W10’s top end is smooth, gracious, and rich in textural detail, though perhaps a touch reticent. Thus, if you have heard Westone’s top-tier W-series earphones (e.g., the W40) or the firm’s better custom-fit in-ear monitors (e.g., the ES50), you will know that, way up high, there’s a little more high frequency “air” and openness to be had than the W10’s are able to supply. I don’t consider this a shortcoming in the W10 given its price and astonishingly good midrange, but it does help explain why Westone (and others) build even higher priced models that, as you might expect, can do even more than the W10’s can.

The bass of the W10’s is highly articulate and well defined, and it even offers a decent measure of mid-bass weight, but in the transition region between mid-bass and low bass, output levels do seem a touch subdued. On good recordings, which by definition tend to have ample low-end output in the first place, you might never notice any lack of low-end weight or warmth at all, but on run-of-the-mill recordings the W10’s overall bass balance can occasionally seem a little light.  Another way of stating this would be to say the W10 can be slightly reticent at both frequency extremes, meaning that it sometimes exhibits a subtly midrange forward character. Candidly, many listeners highly prize precisely this sort of voicing curve, in part because it makes the midrange—where the lion’s share of musical content truly lives—easier to hear, focus upon, and appreciate. For those listeners, the W10 might be nearly ideal. For those who crave full-range frequency extension with plenty of punch at the extremes of the audio spectrum, however, the W10 will likely seem good, but might leave them wanting for more (a craving, please note, that the more costly Westone models can easily satisfy).

To hear how the W10’s sonic qualities coalesce on real-world music, let’s look first at how it handles the once enormously popular pop/rock album Jagged Little Pill [Maverick CD] from Alanis Morissette. The track ‘You Oughta Know’ has long been a personal favourite, in part because I enjoy its funky, syncopated rhythms and the electric bass and percussion performances that drive those rhythms forward, but especially because Morissette’s evocative (provocative?) voice does such a fierce job of expressing both the despair and the anger that come in the aftermath of rejection. The W10 captures a great deal of what this track has to offer, expressing the snap and sizzle of the drums and cymbals, the aggressive “bounce and pounce” of the bass line, and—most importantly—the biting, angular, and at times raw timbre of Morissette’s voice. What the W10 misses, or at least underplays, is a bit of the kick drum wallop and bass guitar depth one should ideally hear, plus some of the high frequency air and shimmer on the cymbals that should be present.

 

I found, too, that while the W10 sounded reasonably dynamic on ‘You Oughta Know’ it did seem to miss out on the fullest measure of dynamic expression of which I know the track is capable.  I was also struck by the fact that—in a very subtle way—the W10’s shifted the perceived ‘shape’ of Morissette’s voice, giving it a touch of extra upper midrange emphasis whilst reining in its lower registers. The resulting sound didn’t strike me as being overtly coloured, but its voicing was noticeably different to that served up by some of the more costly top-tier earphones I’ve tried.

Next, let’s see how the W10 performed on a well made classical recording; namely, the Michael Tilson Thomas/Paul Jacobs/San Francisco Symphony rendition of Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony [SFS Media, SACD]. Unlike many other Organ Symphonies, Copland’s treats the pipe organ more as an integral part of the orchestra rather than as a showcased solo instrument. As a result, the Copland piece takes more of a pensive, measured look at the inner voices of the organ, rather than bowling listeners over with the instrument’s sheer acoustic firepower. As the Organ Symphony unfolded, the W10 was in its element, leveraging its subtlety, fine resolution, and agility to give each orchestral voice its own distinct tonal colours. On this piece in particular, it became plain as day that the W10 is not so much a really good ‘entry-level earphone,’ but rather a really affordable ‘upper-tier earphone.’

I do have some practical suggestions for those considering a W10 purchase. First, though you can easily power these ‘phones directly from a smarthphone or tablet, do consider using them with a good portable amplifier (the W10 plus iFi’s new Nano iCAN makes for a fine combo). I say this because the finer, subtler aspects of the Westone’s sound only seem to come alive with a good amp pushing them. Second, be aware that the W10 is revealing enough to show you in no uncertain terms why lossless files (and preferably high-res files) really do sound better than compressed material. In short, you could play mp3 material, but the W10’s will make you ask, “Why would I want to do that?”

I’m impressed by Westone’s W10. It is well thought out, well executed, and comes with a cool and genuinely useful set of accessories.  More importantly, as I suggested above, it doesn’t cost all that much more than an entry-level model, though its sound gives you a generous taste of what upper tier earphones are all about. One point to note, however, is that if you enjoy the W10, you might find you’ll like Westone’s more costly W-series models even better.

Technical Specifications

Driver type: Single, full-range, balanced armature-type driver

Frequency response: 20Hz – 16kHz

Impedance: 27 Ohms

Sensitivity: Not specified

Cables: one low-resistance, Aramid-reinforced, braid Epic cable, one G2 cable with MFI that is compatible with Apple devices and provides mic, volume, and Siri controls

Weight: Not specified

Price: $249 MSRP (US), or £199 MSRP (UK); real-world ‘street’ prices may vary.

Manufacturer: Westone Laboratories, Inc., Colorado Springs, CO 80935 USA

URL: www.westone.com

Tel: (800) 525-5071

UK Distribution: In the UK, Westone products are distributed and sold through five channels.

Variphone: www.variphone.com

Hand Held Audio Ltd.: www.handheldaudio.co.uk

iHeadphones: www.iheadphones.co.uk

The MP3 Company Ltd.: www.themp3company.co.uk

DAQ Online: www.daqonline.co.uk

Tags: FEATURED

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