Review: Westone Westone 3 Three-Way Speaker Earphones
January, 2007 will be remembered as one of the most exciting times in Apple history. That was when the world got its first look at the iPhone; when iPod sales were surging; when the Apple accessory market was bursting at the seams. And it was also when Westone unveiled Westone 3 ($400), its entry into the triple-driver canalphone space. With an estimated price back then of $379, Westone touted 3 as the first true "three-way driver" in-ear headphone, with each earpiece containing separate drivers specifically dedicated to lows, mids, and highs respectively. This, the company said, was a contrast with prior triple-driver solutions that typically featured two bass drivers and a high-end driver.
Thanks to manufacturing difficulties, nearly two years passed between the announcement and the first shipments of Westone 3, which commenced in the past month. Yet the world of triple-driver earphones hasn’t changed that much. It is still dominated by the popular Shure SE530, previously known as the E500, which carries an MSRP of $500. There are still competitors from Ultimate Ears, most notably the Triple.Fi 10 Pro, which sell for as little as $400, and custom-fit options such as the UE-10 Pro that sell for over $900. All that’s really changed is that there’s now a quadruple-driver option, the UE-11 Pro, which sells for the insane price of $1,150. Thus, Westone 3 enters the market today largely as it would have two years ago: at the lower end of the high end’s pricing spectrum.
What you get from Westone for $400 is markedly different than what Ultimate Ears offers in its Triple.Fi package. Westone packs Westone 3 with 11 different ear tips, including eight sets of rubber tips in various sizes—even triple-flanges—plus three different sizes of Comply-style foam tips, which we’ve come to really prefer over alternatives. There’s also a carrying case just like the ones Etymotic uses, a cleaning tool, a headphone plug adapter and volume attenuating cable. Apart from UE’s metal carrying case, which we prefer, and the fact that Westone just gives you too many parts to store without keeping the original packaging around, we really liked what 3 had to offer; the Comply tips here are particularly better than what Ultimate Ears packaged with the Triple.Fis, and similar to what Shure now includes with SE530s.
The canalphones themselves are at least somewhat different from each other. UE’s earphones are large and Frankenstein-like in your ears, while Westone’s take after Shure’s designs, nestling into your outer ears without substantially protruding. While the Westone 3 glossy black, red-numbered bodies look cheaper and more generic than their triple-driver competitors, they feel good—as good as the SE530s—and provide equivalent isolation. Additionally, while Ultimate Ears went with detachable, rubbery cables, and Shure used a non-detachable but two-sectioned cable that could be attached to optional accessories, Westone picked thinner braided cords with an L-shaped headphone plug. None of these cords strikes us as ideal, but Westone’s have the advantage of feeling light, UE’s have memory wire to keep their shape after insertion and removal, and Shure’s offer expandability.
Sonically, Westone 3 takes a path that isn’t surprising. Back when we received prototypes of 3 almost two years ago, we told Westone that the sound was bass heavy, a characteristic that made the relatively expensive earpieces sound more like lower-priced options we had tested. Flash forward to today and the final version of Westone 3 is essentially the same as what we heard back then, a fact that will endear it to a certain type of listener, but not to others.
Understanding Westone 3’s sound signature by comparison with other triple-driver earphones was relatively straightforward, as we had the competitors on hand to directly compare them against the new model’s sound. Ultimate Ears was the first with triple-driver earpieces, and its UE-10 Pro set a standard for neutrality: though extremely expensive, the UE-10 Pro let you hear virtually every detail in your music, save for really low bass. Then Ultimate Ears released two sequels, the Triple.fi 10 Pro—a smaller, less expensive repackaging of the UE-10—and the UE-11 Pro, a four-driver solution with an extra, overwhelming bass driver. We weren’t as fond of the UE-11 Pro as its predecessors, not only given its $1,150 price tag, but also its tendency to let the bass wash out high- and midrange details; it seemed like a step backwards rather than forwards, geared towards people whose wallets were more impressive than their ears. Shure, with its E500/SE530, seemed to have nailed the right combination of features, developing a triple-driver solution that was physically smaller than Ultimate Ears’ designs, and offered a better balance of highs and lows, though at a price premium.
Westone 3 sonically takes the UE-11 Pro approach, but critically, without the insane price tag. Despite the concept of its three-way design, in practice, it strongly accentuates the bass and mid-bass, trading the tight, detailed sound of the SE530 for the sort of warm, soft sound we’ve come to expect from Bose. Unlike a Bose earpiece, however, more careful listening reveals that 3 sounds like other triple drivers, only with its bass driver cranked up like a good subwoofer a step or two shy of its max. With Westone 3, your ear is drawn to the bass and mid-bass in a song before you can focus on the highs and mids, and it’s obvious that the SE530 has a small edge in the treble department.
This isn’t as much of a negative as it may seem. First, because of the three-way speaker design, Westone 3’s aggressive bass doesn’t substantially compromise its ability to reveal treble and midrange detail, so the same sorts of hidden sounds—subtle layers, unintentional flaws, and compression artifacts alike—can still be heard when you’re listening to 3, albeit with a layer of overlapping warmth that isn’t in the SE530. Second, unlike the UE-11 Pro, which cost $650 more than the more balanced SE530, you’re not paying any premium to get the bassier Westone 3’s sound. In fact, Westone’s price—like Ultimate Ears’, with the Triple.Fi 10 Pro—is $100 lower. Thus, while we prefer the sound balance of the SE530, it’s entirely reasonable to pick the Westone 3 instead given that it’s cheaper.
It’s also worth noting that Westone fans will notice differences between the 3 and its lower-priced predecessors, UM1 and UM2. We loved both headphones, calling the UM1 a slightly more bassy, less treble-heavy alternative to Etymotic’s ER-6i, and describing the UM2 back in November, 2006 as amongst the strongest double-driver earphones we’d then tested, similarly offering more warmth and less treble than Ultimate Ears’ rival Super.Fi 5 Pro. In comparisons, Westone 3 unquestionably adds treble and midrange definition to UM2, does a better job of controlling its bass, and comes across overall as a cleaner-sounding, but still warm headphone. UM2 delivers quite a bit of bang for the buck, but 3 offers obvious value to those looking for more detail.
For audiophiles, the choice between Westone’s, Shure’s, and UE’s highest-end in-canal earphones is pretty clear. If you’re looking for neutral triple-driver canalphones, Ultimate Ears’ Triple.fi 10 Pro offers that, at the lowest current entry price point of $400. Bass fans will find that the same dollars can buy the warmer Westone 3, which has physical size and a better array of eartips as advantages, or can consider upgrading to the custom-fit UE-11 Pro, which packs more low-end power but is frankly too expensive for what it offers. Our top pick in this category remains the Shure SE530, which sells for a little more than 3, but makes more judicious use of its three drivers, while Westone 3 is a strong alternative to that and the Triple.fi 10 Pro if you want a great combination of warmth, pricing, and comfort. We’d rate it above the Triple.Fi 10 Pro overall—despite the delays and its decidedly slanted sound signature, it is certainly one of the best premium canalphone options out there.