Up until last year’s release of the six-driver-per-ear Ultimate Ears 18 Pro, even stuffing four speakers into an earphone was challenging — and mighty expensive. Ultimate Ears achieved the feat back in 2007 with its $1,150 UE 11 Pro, but no one — rivals or otherwise — managed to undercut that model on price, or deliver something equally powerful but smaller. Now that’s changing.
Hats off to Westone, which two years ago introduced the triple-driver model Westone 3, both for moving the industry forward, and for utter consistency of design. Three successor models have followed Westone 3 and used almost the exact same housings: Westone 1 and 2 were single- and double-driver versions, but Westone 4 ($449) now matches Ultimate Ears by packing four speakers into each of its glossy black plastic enclosures. From the outside, the only obvious differences between Westone’s earphones are in the colors of their markings: 1 is green, 2 is blue, 3 is red, and 4 is orange. But there are a variety of changes that make the new premium model a considerably different beast than what came before.
One of the tweaks is subtle but very much appreciated. While Westone uses the same non-detachable braided cables we’ve seen in past models, it has switched to a newly slimmed-down L-shaped headphone plug that’s far more case compatible than the ones in earlier Westone earphones, and most rivals, as well. Gone is the soft carrying case previously included with Westone 3, replaced with a hard-reinforced ballistic nylon version that zippers shut, and opens to reveal a mesh pocket for spare eartips. You probably won’t want to carry them all: the company again includes lots of rubber and foam eartips—eight different rubber and three sizes of foam tips—plus one cleaning tool, a detachable volume attenuator, and a 1/8” headphone adapter. It’s mostly the same stuff as we’ve seen before in Westone packages.
Though the real changes are inside the earphones, it’s worth discussing Westone’s pricing strategy first. Westone 3 has been dropped to $349, with Westone 4 becoming the company’s top-of-line model at $449—seemingly a high price by consumer headphone standards. But that’s a full $800 less than the quadruple-driver Ultimate Ears 11 Pro, and with Westone 4, there’s no need to get your ears measured by an audiologist, and you’re able to resell the earphones once you’re done with them, since they’ll fit anyone’s ears. Shure, which is perhaps Westone’s biggest competitor in this space, doesn’t even sell a quadruple-driver earphone; its current triple-driver model retails for $500. In other words, Westone would be in a price and performance sweet spot here, assuming that Westone 4 sounds great.
We wouldn’t go quite that far. While we respect what Westone decided to do with Westone 4, we’re not jumping up and down with excitement over the results. The speakers here are balanced armatures with a three-way crossover network, dedicating two drivers per ear to bass, one to mids, and one to highs, a configuration comparable to what’s found inside the aforementioned UE-11 Pro model. You’d think from the specs that Westone was trying to use the same strategy as Ultimate Ears, which made UE-11 into a bass-heavy version of the earlier triple-driver UE-10. But Westone has gone in a different direction.
Rather than using Westone 4 as an opportunity to dramatically enhance the bass performance of Westone 3, which was already a fairly warm earphone, the company instead improved the clarity of the bass in the new model while preserving the same general dynamic range. These tweaks reduce the mid-bass push heard in Westone 3 and enhance your ability to hear midrange details, lessening the sensation that your ears are being filled with sound; the volume level is just a little lower in Westone 4 than in Westone 3, as well. Taken together, the changes make Westone 4 sound like a more polished version of its predecessor with less aggressive low end, but in a manner audiophiles will appreciate for its increased accuracy and reduced harshness.
That having been said, Westone 4 isn’t the sort of big leap forward that we would have expected from a major step up in the Westone family—it’s more of a peer to the triple-driver earphones we’ve previously covered than a jump beyond them. Shure’s top-of-line model still bests Westone 4 in the high-frequency department, for instance, with cleaner highs, and requires less iPod/iPhone/iPad volume power to reach its performance peak; Westone 4 needs to be turned up to around 60% before it really sings. Similarly, if you’re willing to cough up a lot of extra cash for the UE-11 Pro, or forego the “quad-driver” concept in favor of other triple-driver solutions, you’ll find that other options have more oomph in the low-end department, as well. Westone 4 may be a little cleaner, but it’s unlikely to really wow you otherwise.
Overall, Westone 4 merits our B+ rating and strong general recommendation. Owing to the company’s heritage as a vendor to audio professionals—and perhaps its desire to avoid going hog wild in bass like some of its rivals—Westone has delivered a highly competent earpiece with a sound signature that’s closer to reference grade than heavily slanted. Westone 4 will appeal most to users looking for greater detail in the mids and mid-lows, while appealing least to users expecting sharp highs or deep lows; it will also thrill users looking for high-end headphones that are as case-compatible as Apple’s inexpensive earbuds. This is a good earphone, and a nice addition to the company’s range, though not a blockbuster.
Company and Price
Model: Westone 4
Compatible: All iPods except iPod shuffle 3G, iPhones, iPads