Audiophiles have professional musicians to thank for custom in-ear monitors. Originally created so that players on stage and in studios could hear themselves while delivering maximum isolation, custom in-ear monitors have become ubiquitous. Watch any program with musicians playing live and you’ll see “earwigs,” as they are often called, in the vocalist’s ears. On the popular TV show The Voice, after the contestants were reduced to twelve, each semi-finalist had his or her own pair of custom in-ears made.
Westone pioneered in-ear monitors, introducing its first hearing product in 1959. During the 1980s when the idea of in-ears monitors was pioneered, Westone designed and manufactured in-ear monitors for Etymotic, Shure (the E1 and E5) and Ultimate Ears. Since then Westone has expanded its product line to include in-ear solutions for music lovers as well as professional musicians. All Westone custom products are assembled in the U.S. at a factory in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
What’s Custom in a Custom In-Ear?
In-ear monitors require a good fit to work properly. If the seal is not complete, not only will bass response diminish drastically, but also the in-ear’s ability to attenuate outside noise will be seriously compromised. Universal-fit non-custom in-ear monitors usually come with a variety of replaceable tips from which the end-user can choose to attain a complete seal and comfortable fit. The Westone UM PRO30 ($479) universal-fit in-ear monitors, for example, come with ten different tip options.
With custom in-ear monitors, making an impression of your ear canal optimizes your eartip fit. A trained audiologist injects a flexible, fast-setting, silicone-like substance into your ears and then removes the “impressions” once the material has hardened into the shape of your ear canals. These impressions are used to make a positive form, which is then used as a mold to make your custom ear tips. Keep in mind that custom in-ears are more than fancy tips—the entire monitor is a molded form that, if done properly, fits in your ear exactly with not only a customized canal shape but also a custom earbud that will fit snugly and comfortably into the hollows of your ear.
Westone can make custom ear tips for any “universal-fit” monitor it markets. And you can, if you wish, have custom ear tips, called the Westone UM 56 “Custom Fit Adapter,” made from impressions you or your audiologist supplies. I had a set made for a pair of Westone universal-fit UM PRO30 in-ear monitors. The results were a better fit with the UM PRO30s than I could get from soft silicone, foam, or even triple-flange tips.
Although some custom in-ear monitors, such as the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitors ($1999), are supplied with frequency alterations based on listener preferences, the ES5s under review were created to be reference-quality, wide-range, flat-response transducers.
Inside the ES5
The ES5 is Westone’s top-of-the-line, personal in-ear monitor. It contains five drivers (one bass, two midrange, and two upper-frequency) and three crossovers (the crossover points are kept secret).
Available in a myriad of colors, with custom finishes and graphics, the body of the ES5 is constructed of cold-pour acrylic material, which, according to Westone, “results in a thicker, more resilient and solid acoustic enclosure.” You can see the level of customization by logging onto Westone’s Web site (westoneaudio.com/index.php/products/custom-series/es5.html). You can also initiate the ordering process by activating the “Customize Now” box without actually committing to buying an ES5 until the final screen; you can even print and share your design, get feedback, and further refine it before purchasing your ES5s. For my review pair I opted for a dark-smoke body color and a bright red overlay on the right enclosure and a bright blue overlay on the left one. I like to be able to quickly identify which earbud goes in which ear, and with this color scheme I can.
While the body of the ES5 is a hard acrylic material, the tips are made of a different, softer stuff. This “temperature reactive” tip material softens as it warms up from contact with your ears, making for a more comfortable seal than a hard material. Westone calls this its “Flex canal” design.