PROS: retuned sig with a more neutral-reference audiophile sound, excellent soundstage expansion, multi-driver coherency, premium ALO 8-braid hybrid cable.
CONS: custom only, new cable has some microphonics.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
Manufacturer website: Westone.
Call it a deja vu, but after Westone ES80 announcement I got flooded with the same type of questions I received back in ES60 days (asking to compare it to W60), now with many wanting to find out about ES80 vs W80. Due to a custom fit nature of the design, it’s not as easy to test and to compare Westone Elite Series (ES) like you would do with their other universal W-series and UM Pro-series IEMs. And quite often people make an erroneous assumption that ES is a CIEM version of corresponding W model. ES80 and W80 do share the same drivers, but tuning is different. As a matter of fact, I think ES80 is the first Westone model to take a serious step toward the audiophile tuning, away from their well-known lush laidback musically tuned house sound.
For some manufacturers, a change in sound signature could be a risky step, especially when it comes to a flagship release. In my opinion, for Westone it was an opportunity to open doors and welcome new audio enthusiasts and audiophiles, those who want a more neutral and revealing sound signature. I still consider W60, W80, ES60, and the latest ES80 to share the Westone flagship status which is going to appeal to different people, depending on their sound preference. And that’s the whole point of my review, not to push one model as a “must-have” flagship, but rather to describe in detail how they sound and compare so you can pick your own flagship which suites your personal taste. So, let’s take a closer look at what Cartwright brothers delivered this time!
Unboxing and Accessories.
I decided to combine Unboxing and Accessories sections together since ES-series unboxing experience is limited to opening the Monitor Vault III storage case. It’s understandable there is nothing to print as a cover picture on a box since CIEM will look according to your customization, and you can get detailed spec from Additional Info tab under a product listing on Westone site. But I was already spoiled by W80 unboxing experience, and will be lying if I say I didn’t miss it here.
But taking Vault III out of the shipping box was still a bit of a surprise to me. Anybody familiar with Westone IEMs should also be aware of their bright orange Vault cases. Like a miniature Pelican case, though these are custom, with an exception of W80, the rest of the universal Westone iems all come with this little compact orange Vault. ES60 introduced a super sized large orange Vault II case. ES80 stepped up to Vault III case which is no longer orange, but larger in size and has foam cutout partitioning for accessories, cables, and CIEMs.
Inside you will find a complete set of accessories with Owner’s Manual, Cleaning cloth (high quality thicker piece of cloth to wipe fingerprints off the shells), a standard cleaning tool with a brush, a small bottle of Oto-Ease lubricant for custom shells, and a desiccant pod used as dehumidifier inside of the case. The Vault III case has separate foam cutouts for the cleaning tool and Oto-Ease lubricant bottle to make sure these accessories are not rolling inside the case, and a special holder for desiccant pod to turn the case into a dehumidifier when you place ES80 inside. There is also an area in the middle, large enough for 2 sets of slimmer cables.
Those familiar with Westone product line, now come to expect two sets of Epic cables with every pair of their IEMs: one audio only and another with in-line remote. W80 included both, Epic G2 cable with in-line remote and audio only which replaced Epic with a premium aftermarket cable from ALO Audio.
At least to me, one of the highlights of W80 release was a bundled ALO Audio Ref8 premium hybrid cable, which is also featured stock with ES80, along with their standard Epic audio only cable. This Ref8 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 springy after being wrapped for storage. Also, expect some microphonics, thus a shirt clip can come handy. The cable has a rubbery right-angled 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 included original Epic cable is thin, lightweight, and flexible, with ultra low resistance tensile wire design reinforced with aramid fiber.
The Ref8 cable looks nice and comfortable to wear with ES80, but that wasn’t the only reason why Westone choose to feature it with their next flagship design. The main reasoning behind using this cable was due to its sonic capability which starts to shine after about 100hrs of burn in. I will talk in more details about the actual sound in Sound Analysis section of the review, but I also wanted to compare Ref8 against other aftermarket cables in my collection, and here is what I found.
Ref8 -> TWag v3 pure silver – a touch more bass rumble, similar impact, upper mids are a touch smoother and so does the treble.
Ref8 -> CB13 hybrid – the same bass rumble, a little more forward and a touch more revealing upper mids, treble has the same sparkle and airiness.
Ref8 -> Affinity hybrid – soundstage is wider, more sub-bass rumble, upper mids are a touch more forward, a little more organic. Overall sound is more neutral-balanced.
Ref8 -> Pristine Pure copper – a little less bass rumble, and little more forward upper mids, and a touch smoother treble.
Ref8 -> Epic – soundstage is very similar, bass has a little more sub-bass rumble and a stronger impact of mid-bass, upper mids are a bit smoother, just a little less transparent and a touch warmer.
While I didn’t find any cable to stand out with a significant improvement in sound, I still think Oriveti Affinity cable has a nice pair up synergy, especially when it comes to soundstage width expansion.
ES60 was one of my first Custom IEMs (though, not the first), and it set a high bar with a positive experience. Afterwards, most of the CIEMs I reviewed were pure acrylic, and even one was all silicone. But I still haven’t come across another hybrid-material design like Westone where you have acrylic body with a Flex Canal silicone nozzle – a reactive material which under a body temperature provides a better comfort and improved acoustic seal. Its dual bore has a very interesting property of Deep Open bore design which combines/mixes the sound from each bore at the tip of the nozzle before it enters the earcanal. Plus, the acrylic shell earpieces are manufactured using Cold Pour method for a thicker and more robust enclosure which also increases durability (from a firsthand experience, ES80 did survive an accidental drop on concrete titles at home).
Of course, the whole idea of Custom IEM is the ability to make an earpiece designed specific to your ears (from impressions taken by audiologist) and customized to your liking. Westone on-line Design Customization tool is very easy to navigate and has a clear visual feedback to show you exactly the color and the finish you select. You start by choosing a body color type which has 7 different options (ice, metallic, opaque, precious metals, sparkles, swirl, translucent) and then select from a variety of the actual body colors corresponding to that specific type.
Then you go through the same with a faceplate customization, selecting one of 7 faceplate types (carbon fiber, es exotics, granite series, house art, reflections, wood, or none) and the actual faceplate finish and material with a ton of available choices, especially when it comes to exotic type. Every step of the selection is reflected dynamically in the design tool. After you select the faceplate, you also have a choice of Logo art with many available options. To make your life easier, you can duplicate the design to the other earpiece (left vs right), or you can go to the next screen and start with a design of Right earpiece where you can, as an example, choose a different color to distinguish the left/right sides.
My ES80 finished earpiece arrived looking exactly how I selected it in the design tools, there were no surprises. The shell was very smooth, no bubbles, no joints/edges I can feel, and with a very smooth fusion of acrylic shell and silicone nozzle. That’s something I still can’t get over, especially when you brush your finger against it. You can see and feel the difference between two distinct materials, but I can’t feel the joint where it transitions from acrylic to silicone. It’s very important, otherwise it will hurt your ear going in. Also, I can see a line between the shell and the faceplate, but I don’t feel it when brush my finger against it. Another example of great workmanship.
You have a full control over the shell design, unlike Universal W-series which comes only with a shell-customization kit that has different color removable clips. Inside ES80 shell, mirroring W80, you get 8 Balanced Armature drivers, partitioned into Dual bass, Dual mids, and Quad highs along with a 3-way crossover. As mentioned before, though the drivers between W80 and ES80 are similar and even have the same Sensitivity of 111 dB and Frequency Response of 5Hz-22kHz, they are tuned differently and have a different impedance of 5 ohms (W80) vs 80 ohms (ES80).