Westone started out in the late 1950s making custom molds for hearing aids and ear protection devices. Once I learned that little factoid I wasn't surprised to hear Westone was the first to introduce custom-molded in-ear headphones in 1993.
This is my first Westone review, so I'm starting with its best headphone, the Elite Series ES5 Musicians' Monitor ($950). The company offers a range of more affordable universal-fit in-ear headphones, like the UM-1 ($109).
I hope to soon do a follow-up review with a universal-fit Westone to better describe the sonic differences between universal and custom-molded in-ear designs.
For now I will say that no universal in-ear headphone from Etymotic, Monster, Shure, Ultimate Ears, etc. has anywhere near the sound-isolating capabilities of custom-fit designs. I always hear more detail, overall clarity, and upper treble air and delicacy with custom-fitted in-ear headphones because those sounds aren't masked by noise. The ES5 is handcrafted at Westone's factory in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Custom molded in-ear headphones all share a similar blob look. They all require that the buyer have custom ear "impressions" made by an audiologist, and Westone's Web site can direct you to an audiologist near you. The ES5's outer ear pieces are very different from the other custom in-ear sets I've tested.
The ES5 headphones are made from two pieces of plastic, and the ear canal portion is a "body heat"-activated material that softens (a little) in your ear to ensure a better, tighter fit. The rest of the earpiece is made from acrylic, same as the other brands of in-ears. The ES5's unique approach did yield the best ear seal of any in-ear headphone I've tried. The better the seal, the better the isolation from external sound and noise. That's great, and when you're not trying to play music loud enough to overcome the background noise, you can actually listen at a significantly lower volume. So in the real world, custom in-ear designs are safer to use than other types of headphones.
The ES5 is a three-way design; each earpiece has one bass driver, two midrange drivers, and two high-frequency drivers. All are the preferred balanced armature type units, rather than the more common dynamic drivers found in most in-ear headphones. Westone offers a vast range of color options for the ES5.
The ES5 is one of the more dynamically alive in-ear headphones I've heard. Play a dynamically uncompressed recording, like jazz trumpeter Red Rodney's "Then and Now" and listen to the way the ES5 nails the sound of a swinging jazz drummer. You hear the entire drum kit like never before; the cymbals, snare, toms, and bass drum, and you feel the intensity of each hit. Rodney's trumpet and Chris Potter's sax each have tremendous presence, without overbearing edge or glare. Every note from the extra-nimble stand-up bass was easy to follow, even when the rest of the band was going for the gusto.
Robert Plant's new "Band of Joy" album's mixes are thick with reverb and can sound like too much of a good thing on some headphones. The ES5 clarified the mixes so the instruments and vocals sounded separate from the reverberation--nice! Sure, there are lots of great-sounding universal-fit headphones, but they can't match the ES5's sound. My Monster Turbine Copper in-ear headphones, for example, suppressed the recording's ambient space, pushed Plant's vocals forward in the soundstage, and added a bit of sibilance, compared to the more refined ES5. The Copper is no slouch, and its bass was ample and clear, until I heard the ES5's more visceral power and higher-definition bass.
The brass and wind instruments on "Life in a Glass House" from Radiohead's "Amnesiac" sounded lovely over the ES5, and Thom Yorke's vocal was more humanly present than I remember. That sort of rich tonality was rendered with a cooler balance over the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors, which I think are more accurate-sounding. In the end I came to prefer the Ultimate Ears because I think they sounded more lifelike. That said, the ES5 has a fuller, richer bass/midrange sound, which I'm guessing many listeners will prefer. I could happily live with either headphone.
As I've said before in recent high-end headphone reviews, you should be able to get 5 to 10 years of use out of these things. Westone customs are used by working musicians year-in and year-out. True, they might have to replace a cable, and they are the only part that might "wear out." No problem; Westone sells user-replaceable cables for $32, and they simply plug in. Westone's Doug Leavy pointed out that your major weight gains or losses can affect the ear piece fit, and in those cases Westone can modify the ear pieces or supply do-it-yourself fixes. In worst case situations you might have to have new impressions made.
Summing up: the Westone ES5 provides slightly better isolation from external noise than other custom 'phones. It's exceptional-sounding, but it didn't dethrone the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors as my favorite in-ear headphone.