The Next Gen at its Best!
PROS: retuned sig with more clarity and higher resolution, despite more drivers the shell size remains the same, premium ALO 8-braid hybrid cable, new accessories and a travel/organizer case.
CONS: price, new cable has some microphonics.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to introduce new earphone models or to refresh their current lineup at least once a year. But this doesn’t always apply to TOTL flagships where sometimes on the surface it might not even look like a big update, but under the hood you will find years of research and development. In the last few years I have tested and reviewed many different Westone products and continued to inquire if Cartwright brothers (the force behind Westone sound tuning) are cooking anything new to keep up with driver wars. The mere fact that until now W60 and ES60 flagships maxed out at 6 drivers shows Westone priority of sound tuning over the driver count while still keeping the ergonomics of their slim bean shape universal fit design (W-series).
I never got a confirmation or a denial if we are going to see the next flagship with more drivers, so it came as a surprise when out of the blue I heard about W80 model. 2016 has been a busy year for Westone with introduction of a new AM Pro series and then BT Wireless Cable. I was almost certain that if new flagship is in the works, we won’t find out until CES, but glad to be proven wrong after spending the last few months with W80 review unit. This is a big release for Westone, a step forward outside of their typical sound signature comfort zone, a release with all new packaging and accessories, including a premium aftermarket cable. A release that could have been worthy of company’s 60th anniversary which is a few years away, but I’m glad they let us have it now, so let’s check it out!
When it comes to the packaging, I always found Westone to have a premium presentation, but it was the same for every model from the entry level to the flagship. I’m sure Westone received plenty of feedback about it, and as a result the new W80 packaging was redesigned from a ground up. Furthermore, it doesn’t just carry the Signature Series name, but also has Karl Cartwright actual signature all over it – like personalized autographed collectible memorabilia.
Instead of the usual sleeve cover, here you will find a top and a bottom cardboard box halves with a narrow gap at the joint in the front where the “light” of the inner orange box shines through, the Westone signature color. But before peeling the onion layer of the outer box, there is plenty of info about the product to get yourself acknowledged with. From the bold silver Signature Series W80 and Westone logo on the front, to a detailed description of the design, the key features, the accessories, and the comprehensive tech spec – you can get all this info from the outer box shell. There is also a Frequency Response curve, though it’s probably a compensated graph rather than a raw measurement.
With the outer shell off, get your sunglasses before you gaze at the bright orange box personalized with Karl Cartwright signature and a quote: “The quality of the sound is the most important consideration. Without that first priority met, no other consideration is relevant”. If you want to learn more about this legendary sound engineer who has been with Westone for over 25 years, read his interview with HiFiPlus from last year: http://www.hifiplus.com/articles/interview-karl-cartwright-westone/ – a very interesting read.
While reading about included accessories I saw a mentioning of Premium Deluxe Carrying case, so when I flipped the cover of the inner orange box open I was expecting to find a fancy leather case. Instead, sitting tight in a foam cutout there was a rather large (8″ x 5.5″ x 2.5″) black case covered in a rugged ballistic material. After unzipping it and spending a few minutes looking inside, I quickly realized the premium functionality of this deluxe carrying case. I think many of us have expectation of “premium” when referring to luxurious materials, while in this case, no pun intended, it was all about the premium deluxe functionality.
One side of the case has 3 fixed partitions with an elastic nylon cover to keep the stored content secure. The partitions itself are large enough to store your IEM with a cable (enough room for W80 w/Ref8), maybe an extra cable, and even all the provided eartips. In the middle you will find a divider/partition, which you can flip over, with a soft felt material on one side and a storage pocket and elastic band on the other side. I found it to be convenient for storage of uSD/SD cards, or credit cards and a few bills. The other side of the case had one large opening with a small removable case for IEMs (the same ballistic material shell), and 2 Velcro divider strips to make custom partitions for your DAP/DAC/amp.
This is a clever design for those who are on the go and want to have one highly functional storage case. I was able to customize partitions to fit two of my smaller DAPs side-by-side (AK120ii and LPG) and still had enough room for eartips. Another partition arrangement had plenty of room for a larger DAP (Opus#2) and a roomy pocket for W80 with Ref8 cable. I do like this case, very functional, but just wish it would have a handle to carry it around.
There was also a removable foam spool where W80 was stored. Not sure if anybody would continue using it after the unboxing, but it was good for a secure storage with a nice presentation of IEMs once you open the box. Inside of the flip divider I found a premium piece of soft cloth, the same one Westone includes with their ES series, intended to wipe IEM shell. And of course, there was a full set of Westone traditional eartips.
It’s a comprehensive set of custom eartips Westone includes with all of their universal IEMs. With their roots in Professional Hearing earpiece design, Westone put years of their research experience into design of these patented Star and True-Fit tips. Included were 5 pairs of Star silicone tips that conform naturally to any ear anatomy, with each pair distinguished by a different core color for an easy pair up. Also, you get 5 pairs of True-Fit memory foam eartips with a medium recovery property, not too soft or too springy to ensure the maximum seal and comfort when they expand inside of your ear canal. Earwax remover was included as well.
Also included were interchangeable faceplates to customize the look of Westone universal shell. At some point after the initial introduction, Westone improved their faceplates with a more robust design while keeping the same overall exterior shape, but W80 took it to the next level with all new updated slimmer shape. You get 4 different color pairs (red, blue, grey, and copper), and they still require a screw in order to secure them to a shell with a provided tool. The big difference now, these faceplates are slimmer and shorter which makes them more flush while hugging the shell tighter with a less chance of a flex around the edges. In my opinion, it does look even more robust and sturdier.
Those familiar with Westone product line are now have come to expect two sets of Epic cables with every pair of their IEMs: one audio only and another with in-line remote. W80 still includes both, Epic G2 cable with in-line remote and audio only which is now a premium aftermarket cable from ALO Audio ($300 bonus).
Epic G2 cable has a robust rounded rubbery shielding, still soft and flexible, and comes with in-line remote/mic. The headphone connector is right angled with a nice rubbery housing mold, and mmcx connector is their Next Gen “MMCX Audio” type which they already introduced in AM Pro and BT Cable – a more robust and secure attachment to the connector socket of the shell. Though multi-function button on remote is OS independent and can be used for Play/Pause/Call, the volume up/down is for iOS only. Westone also offers a similar optional cable (Android version) with universal remote where volume buttons are removed to eliminate the confusion. I have mentioned before that in my opinion the remote could have been smaller by using only a single multi-function button for universal operation. But either way, those who want to use their W80 with a smartphone will find it convenient.
Without a doubt, one of the highlights of W80 release is a bundled ALO Audio premium hybrid cable. This cable has 8-braid design with 4 high purity silver plated copper (SPC) conductors and 4 OCC copper conductors in FEP jackets keeping wires sealed and protected from oxidation. Despite 8 braided conductors, the cable is still relatively thin and supple, but not as soft and has some memory effect where the wires become a little springy after being wrapped for storage. Also, expect some microphonics, where shirt clip can come handy. The cable has a rubbery right angle gold plated connector with a nice grip, and I found it to be tall enough to work with any DAP or smartphone in a case. Y-splitter looks like a slim metal capsule with a rubber chin-slider which slides right into the splitter. Housing of mmcx connector is plastic, but not slippery, and it has Red/Blue id dots along with R/L marking. There is a memory wire surrounded by shrink-wrapped tube which could be shaped into an earhook.
The Ref8 cable definitely looks great and very comfortable to wear, but that wasn’t the only reason why Westone choose to feature it with their new flagship design. The main reasoning behind using this cable was due to its sonic capability which really comes alive after about 100hrs of burn in. I will talk in more details about the actual sound in Sound Analysis section of the review, but to demonstrate what Ref8 brings to the table, I compared it to a few other cables in my collection, including Westone’s original Epic audio cable.
Ref8 vs Epic (OFC) – With Ref8 you can hear a lift throughout lows and mids, while treble remains the same. The first big noticeable change is the expansion of soundstage width, the sound becomes wider, wrapping around you. Both sub-bass and mid-bass gets lifted and become more energetic and better defined. If you want a more neutral sound, better stay with Epic cable since it keeps the overall frequency spectrum more balanced, while Ref8 lifts both sub- and mid-bass up with more rumble and tighter and faster punch. It does the same to the mids, from lower mids to upper mids, giving more body to the sound and a little more clarity to the vocals. With bass slightly elevated, you get vocals pushed a little back while with Epic cable the bass and the mids are more balanced, but not as energetic.
Ref8 vs BaX (SPC Litz) – BaX has a more balanced signature and a more neutral sub-bass and mid-bass, but the sound is a little less transparent and not as much in your face. Ref8 adds more energy to the sound, with a noticeable lift of the low end and a wider soundstage expansion. Ref8 lifts up a shade of veil from the sound, but at the same time, due to lower resistance which results in higher volume, the hissing is also a bit higher.
Ref8 vs Super BaX (SPC Litz) – Ref8 soundstage is a little wider, also mids and treble are nearly identical, the difference is in sub-/mid-bass where Ref8 is better defined, tighter, more articulate, and has a little more quantity.
Ref8 vs ALO (SPC Litz) – The soundstage expansion is almost the same, but ALO SPC sound is a little more balanced while Ref8 has more sub-bass and mid-bass quantity, the bass is more articulate, and lower mids have more body.
Ref8 vs TWag v3 (Pure silver) – TWag soundstage width is a little narrower; TWag adds a little more sub-bass in comparison to Ref8, while both have a similar mid-bass quantity lift. With Ref8 the bass is faster and more articulate. Also, TWag v3 lower mids are a little thicker with more body. Overall, I heard sound being a little more transparent and slightly more detailed with Ref8.
Bottom line, after hearing the sound potential of W80 with Ref8 cable, it’s hard to go back to any other cable. Just keep in mind, this cable does benefit from a burn in, so wait before you start evaluating the sound. Another important point I brought up in my previous Westone reviews, their Epic cables with MMCX audio connector have a slightly shorter profile so it won’t fit other universal mmcx connector shells, but ANY universal mmcx connector cable will work with Westone IEMs. As an example, ALO Ref8 cable has universal mmcx connectors which you can use with any IEM/CIEM, not just Westone.
When it comes to a design, you can’t help but to compare it to their previous W60 flagship. It still has a small bean shape shell that goes flush in your ears and comfortable enough to wear even when you put your head on the pillow with ear facing down. The construction is very similar too, all plastic (in black), durable build, and similar idea behind interchangeable faceplate to personalize the appearance. As a matter of fact, I have it with Red faceplate on the right side and Blue on the left side for a quick id. Obviously shells are not symmetric where you can confuse them by jamming the wrong earpiece in, but visual color ID never hurts. And just like with previous W-models, you get a thin extended plastic nozzle which might look fragile from a distance but feels sturdy in your hands.
Actually, when you put W60 and W80 side-by-side, W80 looks a little slimmer with a flatter surface facing toward the ear. With an exception of faceplate, it looks and shaped nearly the same as W60, until you realize a big difference – two more drivers stuffed inside of it! Having a small W60 shell with 6 drivers was impressive, but now you got 8 Balanced Armature drivers, partitioned into Dual bass, Dual mids, and Quad highs along with a 3-way crossover all stuffed inside a tiny shell. I have reviewed many IEMs, and can say with certainty this is the smallest and one of the most comfortable shells considering the amount of drivers stuffed inside of it.
Another interesting observation when it comes to a difference between W60 and W80 design is the seam joint around mmcx connector socket. In W60 and other W-series models that seam wasn’t straight and instead overlapped and angled which generated a confusion with people who assumed there was a crack. W80 eliminated this confusion by having a straight non-overlapping joint. Also, on the inner side of the shell there is a clear bold L and R marking with a circle, so it’s clear as night’n’day which side is which. And as I mentioned before, you can take it a step further by using different color faceplates.
The topic of plastic shell material always comes up in many discussions on Head-fi as well as messages I receive from my readers. Many people feel that flagship IEM should have premium type of material, similar to how many will expect a Premium case to have “luxury material”. I don’t know the exact thinking that went behind Westone decisions about W80 design and packaging, but it’s clear to me they had a higher priority to continue with a lightweight small rounded shells instead of adding the weight of premium material or changing the shell size. If you want something fancy, you could look into customizable design of ES60 CIEM. W80 is not going to have the appeal of flashy TOTL design, but it’s the smallest and the most comfortable 8-driver universal IEM you will come across, and that is not a subjective but actually an objective opinion.
W60 vs W80 shell “joint” (W60 on the left, W80 on the right).