Three years have passed since we reviewed Westone’s UM2 earphones, a pair of transparent universal-fit earphones that were impossible to dislike: putting aside their unique bodies, which let you see the miniature audio driver boxes inside — something otherwise reserved for Ultimate Ears’ far more expensive custom-fit earphones — UM2 benefitted from a warm, musician-friendly sound signature that we really enjoyed at a time when clinical earphones were more common. Now Westone has introduced a new version called Westone 2 ($249), which fills the gap between its late-2008 triple-driver release Westone 3 and its mid-2009 single-driver product Westone 1. Like UM2, Westone 2’s earpieces each contain two miniature speakers, which are paired here to deliver more detailed sound than Westone 1, but less aggressive bass performance than Westone 3.
To say that Westone has considerably enhanced its collection of pack-ins from the days of UM2 would be an understatement. The original earphones came with four total sets of foam eartips, a carrying case, and a cleaning tool—nothing more. Like Westone 1 and Westone 3, Westone 2 includes six pairs of standard rubber tips in various sizes, plus a set of triple-flanges for superior isolation, and three sets of foam tips in small, medium, and large sizes. You still get a cleaning tool and a carrying case—notably, the newer one bundled with Westone 1, complete with a double hook for easy carrying—plus a volume attenuator and a headphone port adapter for large receivers, which makes Westone 2 basically identical in pack-ins to Westone 1, and down by only one inconsequential set of rubber ear tips from Westone 3. It’s a nice set, apart from the challenge you’ll face in keeping all the parts together if you actually plan to use the carrying case for both the tips and earphones.
The similarities between Westone 2 and Westone 1 continue to the earphones themselves, which share black plastic housings, twisted pair cables, and headphone plugs that are similar to Westone 3’s, but a little more svelte: the plug is compatible with iPhones and encased iPods, whereas Westone 3 and its predecessors used larger plastic moldings that were less device- and case-friendly, and the earpieces have Westone 1’s curves, placing the green number “1” with a blue number “2” as the only conspicuous design change. Westone 2 is noticeably smaller than UM2 in every dimension, shaving height, thickness, and depth from the prior design, which was amongst the most comfortable dual-driver earphones we’d tested three years ago, but now looks huge by contrast with Jays’ q-JAYS and Ultimate Ears 700, which brought double-driver technology into thinner-than-pencil-sized housings.
Notably, these earphones, as well as a far less impressive but also considerably less expensive double-driver headset from Apple, have led us to wonder there’s any need for bigger earpieces any more, particularly when the big earpieces—including Westone 2—require you to wrap their cords around the tops of your ears, dangling down from the back of your neck. It’s an inconvenience that has become less worthwhile over time, and we frankly much prefer double-driver earphones that are easier to put in and take out.
A major justification for larger earpieces, of course, would be superior sound, and so we put Westone 2 to the test against a number of other earphones—including all of the models mentioned above. Worth mentioning up front is its performance relative to Westone 3, which sells at a $150 premium and includes three drivers per ear rather than two—it’s not the best triple-driver earphone we’ve tested, but uses strong, subwoofer-like bass to offer a warmth that even otherwise more impressive rivals don’t match. Westone 2 substantially loses that bass, which wasn’t terribly surprising, but we were really stunned to note that it was also less warm than the UM2—a headphone we noted in the Westone 3 review was similar, but less controlled in the bass department. To state this in another way, Westone 2 has less low-end presence than both Westone 3 and UM2, and actually sounds like a more controlled, cleaner version of Westone 1: the midrange has better definition and there’s a little more treble, but there were times when we were surprised by how light the low-end sounded—the UM2 might be chunkier in the bass department, but Westone fans will find it more engrossing for that reason. UM2 also remains $50 more expensive than Westone 2.
Though we include those details for Westone fans who might be trying to figure out where Westone 2 sits in the company’s lineup, the more important benchmark, in our view, is where it rests by comparison with excellent competitors from other developers. JAYS’ dual-driver q-JAYS started life as a $179 pair of earphones, but substantial currency fluctuations have seen its price vault to $250—a little less if you shop around—while the Ultimate Ears 700 started out at $230 and now has an MSRP of $200, tilting the value equation in its favor. Again, both of these earphones are considerably smaller than Westone 2 and dangle down from your ears; they also have differences in carrying cases and pack-ins that some users will find more important than others.
Westone 2’s performance is on par with these competitors, but to our ears, not quite as impressive. Both q-JAYS and UE700 offer comparable detail, but with richer-sounding bass and slightly different sonic balances: the UE700 sparkles a little more, with little boosts at both the high and low ends of the range, while q-JAYS is a little flatter, and Westone 2 sounds like it’s emphasizing the treble and mid-treble—a choice that brings vocalists forward and moves the rest of the band further into the background. Given Westone’s bassy history, the difference was so noticeable that we changed eartips and kept playing with the Westone 2 earpieces to see if there was something wrong with their positions in our ears; it was the earphones, for sure.
Overall, we’d call Westone 2 a good but not great pair of earphones: a little more controlled than the more expensive UM2, but not as warm, and similarly not as proficient in the bass department as similarly-priced peers or its earlier Westone brethren. If anything, it looks and sounds as if it was designed not to step on any toes in the existing Westone lineup, a decision that somewhat compromises its competitiveness with impressive and comparatively miniaturized dual-driver earphones that we’ve come to love over the past couple of years. That having been said, it has one of the most impressive eartip and accessory kits around, its clinical sound will benefit some users—not Westone’s typical crowd, perhaps—and the overall experience of listening to music with Westone 2 is a step up in detail, if not in richness, from any single-driver earphone out there. At a lower price, it would be a stronger rival to q-JAYS and the UE700, and a more compelling alternative to the UM2.
Company and Price
Model: Westone 2
Compatible: All iPods except iPod shuffle 3G, iPhones