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WESTONE 3 HEADPHONES IN-DEPTH REVIEW BY LARRY THE HEADPHONEADDICT
Westone 3 - still my favorite universal IEM after a year!
By Larry the HeadphoneAddict from Colorado Springs, CO on December 4, 2009
My last review of Westone 3 in 12/2008 was short, with a copy of a link to the review on a forum, but the link is wrecked so I'm reposting it in it's entirety.
|I have no need to update the review from Dec 2008, they still rock! However, as proof that I stand by my original review - I will add that I lost my W3 this summer and at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest October 2009 I listened to the W3 and UM3X again, and I traded my Sennheiser IE8 for a second pair of W3 to replace them. I also have a new set of UM56 custom molded tips on order to use with them.|
First I am going to share some of my journey through the world of IEM before I move on to discussing the W3 sound. I started off with Shure E2c as my first IEM in Jan 07, and I loved them and used them for listening to music as I would fall asleep every night. I went through the usual upgrades of E3c, then E4c by the time I joined Head-Fi in August 2007. After that came the SE310 and Super.fi 5 Pro, and then SE500 series earphones by September 07. I also ordered Livewires customs about the same time and when they arrived I was thrilled. At that time (0907) I rated my Livewires customs as being slightly better than the Shure E500SE530, but I didn't have them with me for my 1st demo of the Westone 3 on 10307 because they were being re-dipped to make the fit tighter. The Livewires presented a clearer picture into the music with more detail and better frequency balance. With the Livewires there was a degree of transparency and realism that the Shure did not offer, although the SE530 had a big soundstage and could come close to the head-stage of the Livewires.
When I compared the SE530 directly to the Westone 3 that day, the side by side comparison left no question in my mind that the Westone 3 did EVERYthing much better. My reference or "control" at the time was my Senn HD600 and Ultrasone HFI-700, where I felt the SE530 were like an IEM version of the HD600, and the Denon C700 were like an IEM version of the HFI-700. But neither of those full size headphones were just right either, but that is another journey. The thing I loved about the SE530 the most was the rich mids and powerful bass but with black foam tips I was losing some highs, and with silicone tips I was losing bass in exchange for a plasticky sounding treble. The yellow foam tips sounded great but were itchy and would wear out in only 1-2 weeks of constant use. While the E500SE530 fit had been good with any of the tips, the Westone UM-56 tips helped the sound the most and I got to enjoy excellent sound in comfort for a whole week. After I fell asleep with the SE530 and UM-56 tips in my ears, and woke up to find that the sound tube snapped off the left earpiece, it convinced me to move the SE530 into a custom acrylic shell for a better frequency response (success, but a one of a kind and not to be repeated custom after a 4 month effort). That left me with only the C700 as my only decent universal IEM, and my search continued. I bought Altec Lansing IM716 but that didn't do it for me - bass mode was fun but lacked the detail I wanted, and the HD mode had no bass. I took a trip to San Francisco in December 2008 for my dad's funeral and unamped the IM716 were useless on the airplane with my iPod touch.
When the Westone 3 were delayed (and the IM716 didn't win me over) I decided to try some Triple.fi 10 pro around Xmas 07, while the SE530 were still out being converted into customs at the time. I found the Triple.fi to be a more refined version of the Denon C700 or HFI-700, and at first I liked them more than anything. But the more I used the Triple.fi the more I realized the sound was colored and they had problems. Within 2 weeks I was trading the Triple.fi plus cash for some Stax headphones. As far as sound signature was concerned, I felt the SE530 had been less "colored" than the Triple.fi 10 Pro which had a boxy acoustic suspension sound, where I felt like I was listening to a small bookshelf speaker trying to do big bass. The Triple.fi also did not feel as refined as my SE530 or HD600 (although they were very good and killed the Super.fi 5 Pro) - nor were they as transparent but instead they sounded more like a tiny high quality speaker next to my ear, rather than opening the window to the real instruments or performance. The second thing I hated about the Triple.fi was the fit - only with a Complys T400 (or T500) foam tip could I get any kind of a reasonable fit and isolation with the Triples. Yet, with the Shure I could get a good fit with black olive foam tips, yellow foam tips, single flange or modded triple flange cut into a bi-flange with shorter stalk, or my Westone UM-56 custom tips.
After I got my SE530 customs back in March 2008 (tuned for less bass and better treble), they were sounding very similar to my Livewires and became one of my favorites. While the SE530 customs have maybe 1-2 db less bass than the Livewires and some mild sibilance issues, they had a wider more enveloping soundstage, but otherwise are very similar. So I believe that the stock sound of the SE530 was simply how Shure decided to "tune" them. In addition to my two custom IEM, I'd had the Denon AH-C700 since May 2007 and liked them un-amped out of a 5.5 iPod video or 2G nano which tend to have a softer rolled off sound. But the C700 were like having a "pre-equalized" earphone that didn't quite sound right once plugged into a proper amplifier or upgraded source, and I wanted at least one universal IEM that sounded as good as my full size headphones (Edition 9 then being what I wanted in an IEM). I've always loved the C700 mids but plugged into a portable amp the C700 would become a little edgy or harsh in the highs, and bass would become a little too much, and sometimes a little sloppy with some amps. The C700's bass and treble boost was one of the reasons why I hated the bright yet punchy RSA Tomahawk amp with them, while I previously loved the Tomahawk with stock SE530. That disappointment in the TH prompted me to pick up a second pair of Super.fi 5 Pro, with which I quickly re-discovered why I had sold them in the first place - the midrange suckout and grainy treble made them even worse than the C700 to my ears. I then sold the Super.fi and bought q-JAYS, which at first I was thrilled with because they reminded me a lot of the stock SE530 sound - but over time I came to realize the problem with the q-JAYS was that they "sounded so much like the stock SE530" The highs would seem rolled off and dark if they were inserted deep into the ear canal, so the frequency balance was a little skewed despite the very refined and detailed sound, unless I barely pushed them into my ears.
Then a friend loaned me his Sleek SA6 and Klispch Image X10 summer 2008 to add to review, and while I thought the SA6 were just a little bland I fell in love with the Klipsch. I found they had powerful bass like the SE530 with rich warm mids but a better sparkly treble than the SE530 or q-JAYS, yet with no grain to the treble like the C700 or Super.fi 5 Pro. This was all while also maintaining a sense of transparency and realism that I only got from my Livewires and SE530 customs, even though the Klipsch X10 are a more forward sounding headphone. This prompted me to sell the q-JAYS right and Super.fi 5 pro, and buy the Image X10. Over the months I actually used the Klipsch X10 more often than my customs because they could be easily and quickly inserted with one hand, were comfortable, and could be quickly removed when I needed to hear someone talking to me (plus I tend to leave the SE530 customs at home since they cannot be replaced). Another issue I have that makes IEM choices so difficult is living with chronic tinnitus in my right ear, without hearing loss but with a form of "roaring crowd" distortion that plagues me when certain frequencies are enhanced or resonate within my right ear canal. This started after a life-saving course of Vancomycin antibiotic in 2002 which damaged my otic nerve or inner ear. My Freq Show customs (May 08) cause a big problem for me in this area, but the X10 also have just a slight boost in the lower mids where the bass encroaches on the lower-mids just a little, and then I can experience the distortion in my ear (mostly with piano and female vocals). While it is not as bad with the X10 as it is with the Freq Show, it can still interfere with the enjoyment sometimes. Heck, I even have to wear Ety music earplugs for the church worship band (with me on the back row) because of the right ear distortion problem. So one reason I use IEM a lot is so that I can get isolation and listen to music at normal volume levels and avoid the "roaring crowd" distortion (the need for low volume listening is why the Edition 9, D2000 and O2 Mk2 are so good for me).
So, until I got the Westone 3 the only universal IEM to come close to my ideal had been the Klipsch Image X10, which I sold within 24 hours after hearing the final production Westone 3 over Thansgiving 2008. I can actually turn up the volume with the W3 and have minimal problems with my right ear not sounding distorted. While I had planned to keep the Klispch and save my pennies to buy a new pair of W3 later, the Westone 3's auditory pleasures left me no choice but to start selling things to be able to keep the W3. After listening to the Westone 3 for an hour and then switching back to the the Klipsch, I actually felt the Klipsch sounded thin and bodyless vs the Westone 3. Once my ears acclimated to the Image X10 for 30 minutes, the Klipsch sounded very good again and made me wonder if I was out of my mind for thinking that they sounded thin and lacked substance. But switching from the X10 back to the Westone 3 again was simply striking, I dare say stunning. The Westone 3 have such a full body and a weighty presence to the sound that they are the one IEM that I have heard that comes anywhere close to the sense of space and power or authority of a full size headphone. It is the same feeling when listening to a piano on my Edition 9 or woodied re-cabled Denon D2000, O2 Mk2 or even balanced HD600 that gives you the sense that the piano is in the same room with you, and takes up floor space and air space. Yes, the size of the soundstage is smaller with the IEM, but the Westone 3 have such bass control, micro-detail and proper decay that the sense of instruments and singers being present in the room is no less substantial. When I switched from the Image to the W3 the sound opened up to a huge space, the bass and weight of the instruments struck me in full and everything sounded so much fuller and more real. A few IEM can offer some out of head soundstage, and that includes the Westone 3, SE530 (stock and customs), Livewires, NE-7M, depodded IM716 - but only the Westone 3 adds such body and substance to the instruments. This is what I have always imagined a UE11Pro must sound like.
The W3 bass has great texture, and is very detailed and quick. It has good presence and power at the proper or appropriate levels one expects with the particular music that is being played. If the bass is supposed to be loud in the music then it is loud with the W3, and if it is not then it isn't. In electronic music like Infected Mushroom "B.P. Empire" the bass is pervasive and pounding and beats you mercilessly while in music like Guinea Pig "Kool Cats" the string bass is tight and crisp, and totally believable with sharp attack and realistic decay. Comparing the Denon C700 bass to the Westone 3 makes the Denon C700 sound positively muddy, while the Klipsch Image X10 have very good bass but still lack the weight and punch of the Westone 3. Typically one does not describe bass in an IEM as "tactile" but these offer the illusion of a very "speaker-like bass response". I have made this same description of the Edition 9 bass response, and it is equally fitting for the Westone 3. This is just as helpful with classical music as with jazz, rock, or electronic, since the hall's resonance is a low deep echo that puts you right there in the audience in the front row (fortunately not on stage). Also, these play easily down to 20Hz with test tones, and don't seem to have any bass peaks or anomalies.
The midrange is tonally rich, and a little forward rather than recessed when compared to the Denon C700 and Super.fi 5 Pro, and therefore more engaging. Nonetheless, it does not make the venue sound smaller like some forward sounding headphones like the Grado RS-2. It is also very smooth in the mids, without grain but with good detail. So acoustic guitars are crisp, and electric guitars are crunchy but not boring into your head. You can easily hear a hand thump against the wood of the guitar along with the true tone of the string, and the sound of the fingers scratching against the string sounds right. Listening to violins presents the full range of sound from the low pitched woodiness to the rough draw of the bow across the string. Saxophones have the right balance of low resonant breathiness and higher frequency reediness, while the clackity sounds of the saxophone keys comes from the exact same location as the rest of the instrument - as opposed to sounding like my Stax Lambdas where the noise from the keys almost seems to came from a different point in space. Piano key strikes have all the resonant frequencies reach me at the same time, and don't seem to come at me from different heights like they used to with my old Super.fi 5 Pro and Triple.fi 10 Pro. The weight or thump of the piano keys and pedals can be heard behind the main melody being played, rather than going missing like with my C700. And, the pianos do not have an exaggerated low midrange that can cause my right inner ear resonance problem to surface. Vocals are full and believable, without sounding boxy or boomy. There are no exaggerated low mids to make any vocals sound close mic'd when they are not, while with the Klipsch X10 there is a hint of enhanced low-midrange vocals in Shelby Lynn "Just a Little Lovin'" that make her voice seem more like listening to an amplified voice than a natural one.
The highs are smooth and detailed, and crisp with a nice sparkle. On recordings with no sibilance there is none, and it adds nothing. Playing my test CD for sibilance, Diana Krall "Girl in the Other Room", does allow one to tell that the CD is mastered with some sibilance in there, but it doesn't rear it's ugly head and impede the enjoyment of the music like with my Denon C700 or my old HFI-780. The Image X10 also have very nice highs, but with a deep ear canal insertion some of the sparkle can be lost like with the q-JAYS, but the Westone 3 seem to be immune to that effect so far. The Denon C700 highs seem harsh in comparison, and more suited to a soft sounding MP3 player like 1st or 2nd Gen nano or 5.5G iPod video. And, although I don't have stock SE530 anymore, there is no doubt that the Westone 3 have better treble extension which may still be better than my custom tuned SE530 customs. My 46 year old hearing ends at about 16KHz, so take that with a grain of salt. It is my understanding that typical balanced armature drivers have around a 16Khz physical limit anyways.
One thing that struck me about the Westone 3 is how it all comes together in the end to make beautiful music - that the low, mid and high frequency ranges all have a cohesive solitary presentation that makes it sound like one single driver, without apparent overlap of the various drivers or gaps between each driver's covered range. With the Super.fi 5 Pro I always felt like I was listening to 2 separate drivers that didn't quite reach the other's limits, with the q-JAYS and SE530 I felt like the high-frequency driver didn't quite match the bass driver's higher efficiency, and with the Triple.fi I felt like there was too much overlap between the bass driver and the midrange driver or that something was doubled up near the upper low-end. The most impressive thing is that this results in a great image and headstage. Music doesn't seem to come from the back of my skull like with many IEM, but rather seems to be centered on my forehead and extends in front of and inside my head, and to each side or even to the outside of each ear sometimes (depending on the recording). Instruments and singers all have a place on the stage, and they are not squished together or fuzzy along the edges. I can almost tell which way the piano is angled on the stage or in the studio by how close or far away the high notes are vs the low notes. The soundstage is not as big or even as 3D as some of my full size circum-aural headphones, but the depth is at least as good as my supra-aural ATH-ESW10JPN which do NOT sound like closed headphones at all.
I have tried several different pairs of universal tips with the W3. I had two pair of tips that I previously had tried with the Shure SE530 - the Complys P-series foam tips, and some cut down triple flanges that I took off the smallest flange off the tip and shortened the stalk. I have also tried the stock triple flange and single flange soft grey silicone tips, as well as the T-series Complys and my Westone UM-56 custom fit tips (I don't care for the harder clear plastic tips). The tips do make a difference in sound, but that is a plus in the sense that you can use the tips to tune the Westone 3 to match your amp or source or music. At this point I have to say my favorite tip with the Westone 3 is my Westone UM-56 custom tips, followed by the medium single flange silicone tips. The longer P-series Complys cut a little more treble than I would like, but the detail remains intact and the sound is euphonic and romantic like a Stax O2 Mk2 (not euphoric). The T-Series Complys are better than the P-series, with less high end loss and are closer to the UM-56 and single flange silicone. The modded triple-flange cut to a bi-flange that I liked with the SE530 are not as good with the Westone 3 and cut some of the bass while boosting the treble slightly, and in the process become less romantic or euphonic sounding. The only tip to give me a problem was the stock triple flange, which make the W3 stick out of my ears too far. So I modded another pair of triple flange, but left them as a triple flange and only gave them a shorter stalk, and those sound about as good as the single flange tips with good frequency balance but are not as comfortable as the bi-flange (while sounding much better than the bi-flange).
So, I can get great sound out of the W3 with most of the tips that they come with, if I shorten the stalk of the triple flange to pull the W3 closer to my ears, and I can get them to sound even better with my Westone UM-56 custom tips. The Westone 3 sit nice and flush in my ears with the UM56, and they tuck-in 100% better than my SE530 did with the same UM-56 tips. The sound and fitisolation that I am getting with this IEMtip combo took away my desire to try some $1200 UE11pro customs. My W3 with EM-56 tips fit flawlessly - not loose or too tight of a seal, and isolation is tremendous.
In my case, I can honestly say at this point that the Westone 3 with my Westone UM-56 custom tips are THE BEST universal or custom IEM that I have ever heard for under $800. The frequency balance with the UM-56 tips could not be better, and it is like they were made for each other (they were actually). Simply put, the Westone 3 with my UM-56 custom tips beats them all with a fuller richer and more substantial sound signature that even makes the Image X10 and SE530 seem a little thin by comparison. It's like comparing a Stax O2 Mk2 to a Stax Lambda series headphone but not dark sounding like an O2, rather I just mean the jump in sound quality and detail and texture and weight. After getting the Stax O2 I sold my Lambda Signature, and likewise after only a few hours with the Westone 3 I sold my Image X10.
My next favorite universal IEM is still the Klipsch Image X10, which come very close to doing everything right, but in the end they just can't match the Westone 3 which is in a whole new league all by itself now. I do prefer the Livewires custom IEM over the Image X10, but the Westone 3 has taken it's place as my new #1, as Livewires are displaced to the #2 slot.
Can tune the sound with different tips as needed.
Full size headphone sound in an IEM.
Sometimes need to try every tip available to get the best sound.
Sound changes depending on the tips and how deep you insert them.
Sound tube is a little short.
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