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From the Guild


STICK IT IN YOUR EAR – AGAIN!

08/02/2010

Westone ES5.

 

STICK IT IN YOUR EAR –– AGAIN!

A Sound Editor Reviews the Latest IEMs

 

by Michael Hertlein, MPSE

 

It has been almost five years since I reviewed in-ear monitors (IEMs) in Editors Guild Magazine [https://www.editorsguild.com/Magazine.cfm?ArticleID=159], but I have kept an eye on custom in-ear monitors over that time, curious about the new developments.  There are over a dozen companies offering many different models, so in revisiting this topic, I’ve included an equal mix of newer and older companies.

 

My previous review included products from Ultimate Ears and Westone, and both companies were kind enough to provide their newest models for this one.  The new companies included ACS (Advanced Communication Solutions) from England, E.A.R.  Inc in Colorado and Florida’s JH Audio.  As a point of reference, JH Audio is owned by Jerry Harvey, who started––and subsequently sold––Ultimate Ears.

 

A quick recap of what’s involved with getting custom in-ear monitors: You need to get impressions made by an audiologist.  Expect to pay anywhere between $25 and $100, but remember to get them done by someone who has experience making them for IEMs.  Those impressions are sent off to the manufacturer and several weeks later you’ve got your custom-fit monitors.  The monitors are most frequently made of a hard acrylic but occasionally silicon is used.  Once you’ve gotten accustomed to having something in your ear, IEMs are quite comfortable, even over long periods. 

 

Ultimate Ears, JH Audio and E.A.R. Inc all use acrylic, while ACS uses medical-grade soft silicone.  Westone uses a hard acrylic for the main shell and a material somewhere between the hardness of acrylic and the softness of silicone (it actually softens as it warms to your body) for the stem.  I didn’t find a huge difference in comfort among them, but the soft ACS T1 was probably most comfortable––while also being to hardest to insert––with the Westone a close second.  The downside to the softer stems is that they can be harder to get into your ears as they tend to bend with any resistance. 

 

 

I was able to find someone locally who could do all of my impressions in one sitting and was highly recommended by each company.  Because fit is so important to getting the best sound, you don’t want to compromise potential fit issues just to save a few bucks.  All of my new IEMs fit perfectly the first time.

 

One huge benefit with custom IEMs is noise reduction.  All of them reduce outside noise by about 25 db.  This not only makes planes, trains and mix stages almost completely silent, but allows you to listen at a much lower level and yet still hear more detail than you’ve ever heard.  Having multiple drivers––literally millimeters from your eardrums––in an almost noiseless environment means that the subtlest nuances (or mistakes) are clearly heard.

 

So what else do these kind of headphones provide?  They’re certainly more versatile than your typical over-the-ear headphone.  They’re very small and extremely portable, but also easy to power, so they’ll play nicely with any iPod type device or laptop.  My Sennheiser HD-600 over-the-ear headphones, which with I edit, require quite a bit of juice, and I need to crank my iPhone or iPod up to get any kind of listening levels, which quickly sucks the battery dry.  In my first review, I used a portable headphone amp just to be able to hear what kind of difference it made, but it was better suited for my Sennheisers because it introduced some hiss with the easy-to-drive IEMs.  While an amp isn’t necessary with IEMs, there is a benefit from providing headphones (or speakers of any kind) with plenty of power.  This time around, I went with a really small amp/DAC (digital to analog converter) from Nuforce called the Icon Mobile (www.nuforce.com/hp/products/Iconmobile/index.php.  It definitely improved the sound and didn’t introduce any hiss.  It also plugs into a USB port to recharge, provides two headphone outputs, and becomes your headphone jack for your computer.

 

In my earlier review, I mentioned how important a proper seal is to performance, so I needed to verify that the sound wasn’t being compromised during my evaluation.  In the last five years, I’ve found a few different tests to verify that all of my IEMs were performing as they should.  My first test is to rub my fingers together all around both ears.  This subtle, yet distinct, sound will tell you if there are any leaks and where they exist.  My second test is from the website of a company from my previous article.  It plays 50 Hz and 500 Hz tones to verify that there is a proper seal.  The 50 Hz tone will be much lower in level if you don’t have a proper seal.  Finally, I used the signal generator plug-in in ProTools and swept back and for through the entire spectrum.  Nothing I heard during my evaluation indicated that anything was broken or not sealing properly on any of the models. 

 

In an effort to simplify my findings, I’ve broken down my ratings into different categories that give each IEM a rating of 1 to10 with the totals added to come up with the final scores.  The first category is Soundstage, which I usd to describe how well the left and right headphones worked together to create a seamless sound field, as opposed to it sounding like just a left and a right sound.  Did the sound have a solid phantom center (and areas in between), and was there depth to the sound or did it come across as flat?  It’s a difficult thing to put in words, but you just know it when you hear it.

 

JH Pro.

 

SOUNDSTAGE

 

Westone ES5:   8

Nice and wide, but a little less cohesive in the middle than JH’s.

 

Ultimate Ears 18:   7.5

A very good soundstage; just not quite as good as others.

 

JH 13:   10

Throws a wide and yet cohesive soundstage.

 

JH 16:   10

Throws a wide and yet cohesive soundstage.

 

ACS T1:   6.5

Decent soundstage.  Not bad, not great.

 

E.A.R. Inc Z5:   5

A distinctive left, right and center, but not as cohesive among them.

 

 

HIGH FREQUENCY DETAIL

 

Westone ES5:   9

Great detail, but occasionally approaching sibilant.

 

Ultimate Ears 18:   7

Roll off in upper frequencies means less air and sizzle; nice if you listen loud.

 

JH 13:   8.5

Despite the tendency to exhibit sibilance, the detail was great.

 

JH 16:   8.5

Despite the tendency to exhibit sibilance, the detail was great.

 

ACS T1:   6

No sibilance; not quite as rolled off as UE18, but lacks enough to rival the best.

 

E.A.R. Inc Z5:   6.5

Never exhibited sibilance but didn’t have the same sizzle as JH and Westone

 

 

MID RANGE

 

Westone ES5:   9

Very good detail, but not as much impact as UE18.

 

Ultimate Ears 18:   7

Visceral lower mids lead to tapered off upper mids.

 

JH 13:   8

Great punchiness; only slightly less detailed than ES5s.

 

JH 16:   8

Great punchiness; only slightly less detailed than ES5s.

 

ACS T1:   8

Punchy lower mids and visceral upper mids; vocals slightly recessed.

 

E.A.R. Inc Z5:   5

Doesn’t have the same visceral impact as others in lower mids, and vocals come across as forward.

 

LOW FREQUENCY 

 

Westone ES5:   7.5

While it doesn’t play as low as others, it plays low enough and handles it well.

 

Ultimate Ears 18:   10

Great bass.

 

JH 13:   9

Great bass, and may not need the extra drivers in the JH16s.

 

JH 16:   9.5

Great bass, but occasionally seems a little bloated (+4 db at 50 Hz more than JH13).

 

ACS T1:   8

For a single bass, driver this unit does bass very well.

 

E.A.R. Inc Z5:    6

There is some bass; it just is less refined and constrained.

 

 

BUILD QUALITY/ATTENTION TO DETAIL

 

Westone ES5:   10

Best build quality, which includes a seamless combination of two materials.

 

Ultimate Ears 18:   9

Excellent build quality, except for one stem longer than the other, and heavy cable.  Best carrying case. 

 

Ultimate Ears.

 

 

JH 13:   7

Plugs don’t fit all the way into IEMs; cheap carrying bag; pelican carrying case has no padding. 

 

JH 13.

 

 

JH 16:   7

 

Same as JH 13; on a positive note, the cable is very lightweight and flexible. 

 

 

Comparison of cables.

 

 

ACS T1:   9

Excellent build quality; no detachable cord, but bonus point for plug that fits iPhones and includes one-eighth- to one-quarter-inch adapter.

 

E.A.R. Inc Z5:   9.5

Unique cable design but no labeling as to which is left or right.  Shells have no bubbles or other flaws.

 

 

THE FINAL SCORE

 

Westone ES5:   43.5

I really like these IEMs and could easily make them everyday headphones.

 

Ultimate Ears 18:   40.5

The rolled off higher frequency detail was the main problem I had with these.  At lower volume, detail is missing.  Otherwise, a great IEM with a warm engaging sound, but also the most expensive.

 

JH 13:   42.5

The choice if you don’t need that extra little oomph in the bass that the 16s offer.

 

JH 16:   43

More bass than the 13s, but otherwise the same pros and cons.

 

ACS T1:   37.5

For being the only triple driver in the review, these are great all around IEMs.  Price is a little too high for having fewer drivers.

 

E.A.R. Inc Z5:   32

Using five drivers per side doesn’t mean they work well together; these need to be tweaked for better overall performance.  These didn’t seem as bad until I heard all the others.

 

 

TECHNICAL SPECS

 

Westone ES5 (www.westone.com)

5 drivers per side (single low, dual mid, dual high)

$950

 

Ultimate Ears UE18 Pro (http://ultimateears.com/) 

6 drivers per side (dual low, dual mid, dual high)

$1,350

 

JH Audio 13 Pro (www.jhaudio.com/promusic/)

6 drivers per side (dual low, dual mid, dual high)

$1,099

 

JH Audio 16 Pro (www.jhaudio.com/promusic/) 

8 drivers per side (4 low, dual mid, dual high)

$1,149

 

ACS T1 (www.hearingprotection.co.uk) 

3 drivers per side (single low, single mid, single high)

• £649 (approximately $1,000)

 

E.A.R. Inc Z5 (www.earinc.com/p2-music-z5.php)

5 Drivers per side (dual low, single mid, dual high)

• $1,000

 

 

Conclusion

 

Word of mouth is such an important aspect of custom in-ear monitor sales because it’s very difficult to audition such a specialized product.  I have read of these companies providing “universal” versions of their custom products through some dealers and at trade shows, but even that is still compromising the final product to a certain degree.  I honestly think that if I had blindly bought any of these products the deficiencies I noticed wouldn’t have been anywhere near as obvious to me.  Only with the ability to switch immediately from one product to another was I able to notice how they sounded differently. 

 

ACS T1.

 

 

The ACS T1, for instance, would be a great triple driver IEM––but at $1,000, I couldn’t recommend it over the Westone or JH 13s, which are similarly priced.  The price difference between the UE 18 Pro and JH 16 Pro is $200, which alone would buy you an excellent set of regular headphones.  Even with both JH models exhibiting more sibilance than the others, I still preferred their sound to the UE’s, which, while not exhibiting any sibilance, just didn’t have the sizzle and detail I had hoped they would.

 

When it comes to describing sound, there’s always this nebulous area between what some refer to as “neutral” and others call “bright.”  While I certainly wouldn’t describe both JHs or Westones as bright, they all exhibited more sibilance than any of the others.  For clarification, I’m not saying the JHs are introducing sibilance that isn’t there; they are just accurately reproducing that sibilance.  I understand when people describe that as being neutral or accurate, but I personally gravitate towards headphones or speakers that can mask that sibilance while maintaining clarity and detail.  If this means I prefer slightly colored headphones (those that introduce their own sound), so be it.  Coupled with this is the fact that they also extended higher in the frequency range than the others; having one without the other is very difficult.  At lower listening levels, this more neutral sound helps with clarity, while the darker UE 18s and ACS T1s are more pleasant when listening loudly. 

 

E.A.R. Inc Z5.

 

 

A reviewer’s bias towards whatever sound he prefers will always factor into a review such as this, and I’m not afraid to admit that.  For my work as a dialogue editor, I would go with the Westone ES5s or JHs.  If listening to music, I couldn’t rule out the UE 18s or ACS T1s.  One could make the argument that at almost $150 cheaper, the ES5 would be the way to go and I myself couldn’t diosagree.  Honestly, I couldn’t argue against the Westone ES5s, even if the price were the same as the JHs.  Despite their handling of sibilant material, the JHs are just an amazing sounding headphone. 

 

Let me also add that this round of IEMs is markedly improved over the previous ones.  Whereas before I wouldn’t have thought the earlier versions were as good as some top-tier, full-size headphones, I feel this current crop is real close.  See websites for ordering details and any other pertinent information or give them a call. 

 

I would like to thank Nuforce (www.nuforce.com) for providing their superb Icon Mobile portable headphone amplifier for use during my evaluation. 

 

Michael Hertlein, MPSE, is a dialogue/ADR editor who also occasionally cuts Foley.  He can be reached at dialedit (at) yahoo (dot) com.

 

   


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