I’ve been hard on Westone lately. Innovation just does not seem to be on their minds. They have been obsessed with face-lifting themselves, however. They’ve re-hauled their entire product lineup, from low to high end.
Most of what they did was cosmetic, but admittedly they also made improvements to ergonomics. The new shells were not only better built than before, but were also substantially more comfortable, no small feat for the company that put the modern over-ear, universal IEM design on the map.
Still, I’ve not been thrilled by the seeming complacency that has come down on the Colorado-based company. In recent years, they’ve undoubtedly had an injection of VC funding that has given them the ability to refresh their somewhat stodgy image, but has also handicapped them in the ability to move quickly. This is what happens to all companies when they grow to the point of corporate stagnation. They start tippy-toeing around, afraid to make mistakes. Unfortunately, the in-ear industry is still in an ‘innovate or die‘ scenario, and Westone seems to be falling behind.
They’ve tried to atone for their slowness by announcing some “new” products — the W50 and W60 for the consumer line, and the UM Pro 50 for the prosumer line.
The UM Pro 50 has already come out in select markets, and I happened to get a quick look at them. It so happens that if you only look at them, you would not be able to really tell the difference between it and the UM Pro 30 that it displaces at the top of the UM Pro heap. The only difference would be that there’s an extra TWFK driver squeezed into these thin, low profile shells, but lest you’re squinting your eyes and straining yourself peering through that frosted, translucent plastic, you wouldn’t even know the difference.
Thus, with regard to user ergonomics, the UM Pro 50 feels identical to the rest of the UM Pro line — thin, lightweight, and comfortable. The new age EPIC cables are still very good, but the MMCX connector is, as expected, still very swivel-y. I really like the new STAR tips — in concept. They feel great when I squeeze them down with my fingers, though I’ve had mixed results getting a perfect fit. Luckily, today was a good day.
Sound-wise, I was delighted to find that the Pro 50 provides very good low bass quality. It’s textured and rumbles as well as can be expected out of a balanced armature driver. Mid-bass quantity is increased over the other UM Pro models — I think (didn’t get to hear the others side-by-side), but the increase is not substantial.
Here’s where I start to have very mixed feelings about the UM Pro 50, however. It’s warm, very warm. It’s so warm that I had to take off a few articles of clothing while listening to it — no joke. It feels like the kind of earphone your curl up with to read a good book and sip on a cup of hot cocoa, while mother nature piles on ten inches of snowfall outside of your door.
Apart from the overwhelming warmth, I found nothing else special about the UM Pro 50 — not the detail retrieval, not the imaging, and not the soundstage. Perhaps it was always going to be this way — Westone takes pride in their “signature warmth” and will likely continue to tune their earphones this way for all posterity. I didn’t remember the custom ES5 being like this, though. While it too was a very rich-sounding earphone, it had significantly more transparent sounding mids. It’s a little premature to call out Westone for “lazy engineering” or anything of that sort, but I think they can do a little better than this.
Sure, the stage performer’s ears deserve to be pampered a bit, but the UM Pro 50 gives me the impression that it’s not going to really give anyone a definitive edge in performance. It might also be that I’ve never had to make it through a snow storm before, but if you’re considering the UM Pro 50 for personal listening, there are probably better options out there that will deliver superior transparency in music reproduction, but will still wrap your ears cozily with a proverbial wool blanket.
Now excuse me while I go make some hot chocolate.
Mr. T signing out.