It was not that long ago–less than a year–that I swore off personally reviewing in-ear personal monitors.

I have done so many reviews that I have multiple units from most of the major players. I have not heard/used the stuff made by JH Audio or Fidelity but have or have used multiple models by Future Sonics, Sensaphonics, Ultimate Ears and Westone. When I made what I intended to be my exit to reviewing personal monitors, I said that all of the pro units had progressed to the point where it came down to “what do you like?” Totally subjective. I like vanilla bean ice cream and you may like French vanilla. Both are good. Just two variations on the same basic flavor. That’s how I felt about IEMs and when I backed out of reviews, I meant it. For the past year, when there was a review like this to do, I paired a performer with an engineer and had them work together. (Added bonus:As a bandleader i got to ensure that most of the people I work with regularly wad good custom IEMs…)

That was my intention when Westone released the ES5–the upgrade from the ES3X which is the unit that put me on this “no mas” road to begin with. But when i gave my boys at Westone the contact info for my intended reviewer–Andrea Bensmiller an L2P regular who is a working bass player with a studio background and really good ears–they said they wanted me to hear them too so… Off to the audiologist for a new set of impressions.

The ES5s have five separate armature drivers–two for the highs, two for the midsand one for the low end–with a three-way crossover. Like the ES3X the main shell is made of a high-impact plastic and the part that actually inserts into the ear canal is a softer material which makes these much more comfortable than some I have used that are made 100% of the shell material.

Some side stuff here. IEMs are basically one of two basic designs or variations on them. Most use armatures–vibrating rods originally developed for hearing aids–to produce sound. A couple of companies use some form of dynamic driver–a kind of “micro-mini” speaker. I have said in the past that I prefer–by a lot–the low end of a dynamic driver. But like so many things in this industry, tech advances and better design can make us rethink previous assumptions.

Like all of the Westone custom products I have seen, the ES5s arrive in a Pelican-style black case that is pretty much indestructible. I’ve thrown them agains a wall and have not been able to damage the case or contents. In addition to the cleaning tool that is standard issue among IEM makers, Westone includes a tube of lube which can make them easier to insert for those with sensitive ears and help guarantee a good seal. Like every other custom in-ear product I haver ever used, fit is crucial. That “seal” both guarantees the 26 dB drop in ambient sound and helps with low-end extension.

The cable on the ES5s is easily and quickly field-replaceable and compared side by side with the ES3X they seem a bit beefier. Important stuff cuz, as we all know, the most likely thing to fail on this kind of gear is the cable.

And for the fashionistas… The ES5s are available in a bunch of colors and they do graphics. Mine sport the L2P logo so i get to fly the colors on each and every gig. Very cool.

Before I took these out live, I wanted to get an idea of how they sounded in comparison to the ES3Xs and to another top-of-the-line product from another manufacturer. OK, twist my arm why don’t you? It was the new ones from Ultimate Ears.

I hate listening to MP3s so I have huge storage. Two TB at home and the office and a 160GB iPod for the car. I only use uncompressed, full-range AIFF files. The UEs arrived first and I “lived” with them for about two weeks using them at the gym every day. And i liked them. When the E5s arrived, I threw them into the bag with the intention of doing the same thing–listening to them for about a week before going out to do a gig. I hooked up the ES5s for a casual listen and my planned workout was out the window. I spent the next couple hours just going back and forth between the two sets and then threw the ES3Xs in just for kicks.

My first impression was out and out shock. There was no way there could be this much difference between tow high-end pro products, could there? I went back and forth on recordings I know very well and that were recorded in the days of yore before mastering engineers started squashing the hell out of everything. The only thing I can compare it to is the first time I heard Adam monitors. I was hearing parts i did not know existed in recordings I thought I knew.

Andrea summed it up best…

Okay…for the first time today, I got to listen through a bunch of stuff that I either love like crazy, know intricately because I mixed it, or just needed to listen to for bass parts, and I can honestly say, these things are seriously badass.

The stuff I know best from working on it is just as faithful a representation as hearing it during mastering at Ocean Way. Totally shocking. Bass is absolutely clear – bottom and mids. Guitar and keys are meatily present and highs just sit sweetly on top of everything. I keep waiting for something to jump out and hurt me and nope – not a once.

I absolutely love them. And I’m going to somehow cram them into my best friend’s ears in London in October, so she can hear how incredibly awesome her voice sounds coming through them.

It is important to note that Andrea’s ears are really good and not nearly as damaged as mine. (One of my ears is pretty much undamaged and the other starts to fall off of “normal” at about 6K.) What came across as a huge amount of air and detail on the high end for me could have been too much for someone a decade younger with much better ears who has hated in-ears before because the high-end actually hurt.

On gigs the difference was if anything more notable. As a performer, I did a gig with a very loud metal band and walked off the stage with none of the “volume hangover” typical of this kind of gig. The biggest difference between the ES5s and anything else I have used is that they sound the same at a reasonable “middle” volume as they do cranked up. The isolation cut three Marshalls and a great but crazy loud drummer down to a whisper at most.

This is important. One reason for getting off wedges and sidefills and onto personal monitors is to save your hearing and voice and give you more years of work. And it does not help anything if you have to crank up the in-ears or pull one out in order to get the detail in the sound that you want. The monitor engineer and i did find that I needed a lot less hat and ride cymbal with the ES5s. Be prepared to adjust your mix and TURN DOWN your belt pack..

Oh, and with the “control” pair, I made many requests for mix adjustments through the show. With the ES5s it was “a little less hat, please” and God forbid, “A little less of my vocal, please.” And that was it. Did not touch the mix again throughout the show.

Now that this is done, I will likely return to my previous policy of assigning out these kind of reviews but I am glad I backed down in this case. The Westone ES5s literally destroy any other personal monitor I have ever used.

What It Is: IEM ear molds
Who It’s For: Performers and engineers looking for a true full range experience with IEMs

Pros: Well-built. Nice, solid case. Sound @%#$ing amazing. Same sound quality at lower levels.

Cons: None

How Much: 999