Expensive Sound

I haven’t heard much of Westone’s latest activity. I reviewed the W40 in 2014 and since then briefly tried the UM50Pro and W60 when they set up a display at Munich High End, both not leaving considerable impressions. I do know that depending on the product range the sound signature can really vary and that the W series is their consumer orientated sound versus the pro signature of their ES customs and UM series. I am aware that this led to them chasing a sound for music lovers with the W80 and after my time with them, I can say they have given the earphone a scrumptious low end/midrange with a treble response that comes across more reserved. Beyond that, it is a smooth and soft sound, one that doesn’t have the speed or energy of my favourite IEMs, both custom and universal. My biggest issue with the sound was that nothing majorly impressed me, the bass was a little elevated but didn’t have the texture or absolute low end like Campfire’s Andromeda to wow me, the midrange didn’t have the clarity or engagement of something like UERR and the treble had even less to talk bout. I don’t expect or even need a certain range to stand out as an obvious wow factor but what I am getting at is if someone asked me what is so good about the W80 I don’t know where I would start. It is not bad, it is coherent and clear, but that is not something you should have to pay £1200 for.

Making our way through the areas of the frequency response and the bass will, of course, dictate the direction of the sound to a degree. I would actually say this sits in the middle of the park for my collection of TOTL universals, not being as exaggerated in warmth as NG Audio’s Capricorn and Heir Audio’s IEM 8.0 but still giving more decay and weight than InEars ProPhile 8 (unless you use the switch) and Campfire’s Andromeda. I would say it is more akin to the Heir IEM 10.0 or in the world of customs perhaps 64 Audio’s A12. There is no doubt that most of the bass amasses within 100Hz-250Hz where it has a thick decay leading to quantity but not that satisfying rip when a big note hits. Perhaps a factor here is a small roll off after 100Hz. It is not a skydive or anything prevalent like that but there is an obvious reduction in this range when compared to something like Andromeda or Echobox’s $400 Nomad. I actually compared these to the Nomad when listening to Kanye’s Ultralight Beam and when there is an atmospheric sub bass rumble at around 4.30 the Nomad caused my hair to raise, a real significant moment in the song. With the W80 I would not even make a point of bringing up that part of the song as special. I also think they got their priorities in the bass a bit wrong, concentrating more on the mid bass than the sub bass, such as what Andromeda does. It leaves the Andromeda not sounding as weighty but the texture and tone to the bass are light years ahead.

The decay of the mid bass does take its self into the midrange and it loses probably 5 decibels from the lows all the way to around 1kHz but there is an even more notable decrease in presence as we go onwards from there. Initial impressions left me with de Ja Vu of the classic midrange veil of Sennheiser’s IE8 and while with time things have opened up either through burn in or my ears adjusting, the midrange does still shroud the upper mids a tad. Because of the thickness at the start of the midrange, guitars have a euphoric nature to them and there is a sophisticated layering of instruments and vocals that made The Nomad come across a little thin. By the time female vocals come around and hit the upper midrange these have depleted themselves a bit. They lack clarity it takes away from the timbre a bit, especially considering things are all a bit soft still. Maybe the more casual approach to sound is your thing and it isn’t as bad if you are listening to an instrumental, that being said it just makes Andromeda look super charged with details and then the flatter through the midrange ProPhile 8 seen scarily accurate (ok that is very true). Compared to these sort of monitors you just don’t have the separation or space that I feel makes an earphone top tier, regardless of the sound signature.

Highs have a similar mentality to the upper mids, being a more contained part of the sound. We have no spikes or peaks and no obvious notions of sparkle beyond a glimmer of hope coming in at around 10kHz. I also get the feeling the timbre is a bit stunted, with notes not ringing quite as long as with the incredibly natural InEar 8 driver. It doesn’t seem the most extended either but with the way its presented that seems neither here nor there. Watching some interviews with the Cartwright brothers who are responsible for the creation of the W80 and pretty much all other Westone IEMs and they seemed to be really driving home how hard they worked on making this have a bigger soundstage. This certainly isn’t a small sounding earphone but with the likes of JH Audio’s Roxanne, the A12, Andromeda & Jupiter it really is hard to stand out in this department. Width seemed impressive enough to me and by that I mean it stacked up pretty level to the Nomad. It didn’t, however, have the depth to add to the width to become truly holographic in its presentation and as I have said, without the speed of the more neutral earphone, placement of instruments just wasn’t as clean.

Ouch, My Wallet

I am well aware this market is getting more and more ridiculous in terms of price but I don’t think just accepting it is the right approach. Instead, I like to compliment people like Ultimate Ears for not upping the price of their UERM successor and also for not getting stuck in with more drivers. I watched a video with Cartwright brothers talking about the W80 at a show and they said how there is loads of new stuff going on inside at the high price. Instead of listening about this new revolution or approach to IEM building they had found, they instead just said it has 8 balanced armature drivers as if that was all the justification they needed. I mean fair enough they are working with a BA manufacture (likely Knowles, perhaps Sonion) to have custom made armatures for their use only and that’s a neat touch but not near enough as justification.

Being completely honest I loved the packaging and opening experience Westone provided here. The two cases is a great idea and I love the way I can store my DAP, amp and earphones in the big case for safety in my suitcase. I am also blown away with how they managed to get 8 drivers in such a tiny shell. It is much smaller than other 8+ drivers from the likes of Heir, NG and InEar. All that said this is still not enough for me to see any value, the sound doesn’t tantalise my preferences near as much as other offerings and even if this sound is more your thing, with tuning options such as the bass boost on the ProPhile 8 you can get the bassier more musical sound as well as a more neutral approach, this seems to just lack that bit of zing it needs to stand out. My only hope is that the custom fit, professional tuned ES80 is more to my liking because sadly the W80 just did not do it for me.

Sonny Trigg
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