Back in 2006, we reviewed and really liked Westone’s UM1, a $109 single-driver earphone designed to appeal to users who were looking for a slightly more bass-focused and slightly less treble-focused in-canal earphone than Etymotic’s then-strong low-end product ER-6i. This month, Westone released Westone 1 ($139), an updated model with similar single-driver audio technology inside, plus a host of refinements to the housings and pack-ins. Though we’re not as enamored with the sound of the new model for its higher price as we were with its less expensive predecessor, Westone 1 is a good earphone overall — albeit with a few caveats.
The single most impressive thing about Westone 1 is its almost crazy array of pack-ins. Westone ships each pair of the earphones with three sets of different-sized foam eartips, three sets each of gray and translucent white eartips, one set of rubber triple flanges, a cleaning brush, a volume attenuator, a 1/8” headphone adapter, and a zippered ballistic nylon carrying case with a two-sided clip. This represents a dramatic upgrade from the prior UM1, which came only with four sets of foam tips, a less impressive carrying case, and a cleaning brush; the new model accommodates the sound isolation and comfort needs of a wider variety of users, as well as providing adapters that will mostly help those who intend to use the earphones with something other than an iPod or iPhone.
Westone has also made some changes to the earphones themselves, ranging from arguably minor to potentially significant. Original iPhone users and fans of iPod or iPhone cases will be pleased with the new headphone plug, which retains an L shape but has the right thicknesses to connect to recessed headphone ports within both iPhone housings and third-party cases; the company has preserved the black glossy braided cables of the prior model, and transitioned the earpieces themselves from transparent to a matching black glossy design with green “1” labels on the sides. The housings have been resculpted as smaller, lighter versions of the 2008 Westone 3 model, using sleek curves that look like they’ve been polished and shrunk from the earlier UM2. We’re not fans of the green accents, but we otherwise liked the look of housings.
There were a couple of fit issues, however, that were really worth noting. First, while competitors such as Ultimate Ears have been shifting away from offering single-driver earphones in shapes that can only be worn with cables wrapped around the tops of your ears and the back of your neck, Westone has preserved that design, which feels unnecessarily inconvenient these days for anything less than audiophile-grade listening gear. Additionally, between the changes to the shape and the included foams, we found it harder to get a properly isolated fit with the Westone 1 than we had with the UM1. The small and medium foams, for the first time in our memory, were both too narrow to seal in our ears; we had to step up to the larges before we could get good isolation. This matters mostly because, as is the case with many multi-tip earphones, the sonics change depending on the tips you use, as does the comfort; we found the otherwise isolating rubber triple flanges to be a little too probing with the Westone 1, and hard to wear comfortably for any length of time.
With Westone 1’s best tips—its foams—in place, the earphones are again a somewhat differently-skewed rival for the latest similarly-priced Etymotics, the model called hf5. A devolution of its earlier, more expensive ER-4P rather than an evolution of the cheaper ER-6i, hf5 is $10 more expensive than Westone 1 and equipped with far fewer pack-ins—two sets of rubber tips, one set of foams, a cleaning tool and a carrying case—but the differences in detail and clarity are striking. Westone 1 comes across as a good but not great, midrange- and bass-tilted earphone much like UM1 and its many similar alternatives, presenting music with body but little dynamic punch in any particular department; there’s no edge to the bass or the treble, and the performance only steps up to its peak at a volume level that’s higher than we’d consider safe. It’s not much of an evolution in sound from the roughly three-year old model, while hf5 isn’t as warm, but reveals a considerable amount of extra treble and midrange detail at similar volume levels, with a cleaner overall signature.
In short, Westone’s approach with Westone 1 was to make a variety of physical changes to UM1 that might justify a higher price, while Etymotic and others have spent the past couple of years making significant sonic improvements to their lowest-priced models; the impact is that the same dollars today buy a better-sounding, more comfortable competing sub-$150 earphone than they did three years ago. While we like Westone 1, we don’t love it for the price, and feel as if it hasn’t stepped forward enough in the comfort and sound departments we consider most important. That said, it does feature certain pack-in advantages over similarly-priced peers, and makes up somewhat in the balance department for what it lacks in clarity relative to the hf5—the primary reasons it rated a B+ rather than a flat B overall. If you’re a fan of the Westone sound signature and want something newer than the UM1 at a similar price, this option has more to offer over its predecessors in pack-ins and device compatibility than anything else.
[Editor’s Note, 8/27/09: Westone notes that the prior UM1 model will remain available as a “pro audio” offering, as distinguished from the “just for personal listening” Westone 1; at press time, both are listed under the Personal Listening section of its web site.]
Company and Price
Model: Westone 1
Compatible: All iPods except iPod shuffle 3G, iPhones