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Review: Westone 2 Universal IEM

post #1 of 86
Thread Starter 
I've had a long history of infatuation with IEMs and earphones, and while I am happy with the high-end universal and custom IEM that I currently own, I am always interested in new models that come out and with trying out new gear. For over a year I have had an infatuation with my Westone 3 with UM56 custom tips as my favorite universal IEM, and I also like the UM3X when I tested them at CanJam and RMAF. But since I have the Westone ES3X custom IEM I didn't feel like I needed that same flavor in a universal IEM too.

After the W3 and UM3X, Westone introduced the W1 which I enjoyed a good amount as a relatively neutral to warm single balanced armature IEM, beating my Phonak Audeo PFE in overall balance but not in detail or low/hi extension. The W1's biggest fault was the lack of deep bass below 30Hz and slightly soft muted highs and details; but they are a very musical and enjoyable earphone to me, especially when amped. In their price range they became one of my favorites. With the introduction of the W2, Westone has addressed all my concerns with the W1, and more. The difference between the W1 and W2 is actually a bit bigger than the upgrade from W2 to W3.

GEAR: I have been listening most with portable DAC/amps like Headamp Pico, RSA Predator, iBasso D4 or Nuforce uDAC via my Macbook Pro. I also used my 3G Nano and iPhone 3GS. And, I listened to them on my higher end desktop rig with PS Audio Digital Link III DAC feeding Woo WA6 and Single Power Square Wave XL. I listened to a wide variety of jazz, classical, electronic, acoustic folk, and rock music, all in Apple Lossless Codec, with one brief stint testing how they handled low quality 128K MP3. I also compared the W2 to a wide variety of other IEM, as mentioned below. If I didn't mention an IEM in my lists further in the review, then I don't have it in hand to compare to the W2.

PACKAGING: The pack-in list of accessories with the W2 is better than most other companies, and you get a nice firm but pocketable zipper case, a Westone volume attenuator to tame loud sources or to cut hiss, an airline volume attenuator (not in photo), a 1/8" to 1/4" adapter, a wax cleaning tool; and you get a wide assortment of silicone, vinyl and Complys foam tips for a proper fit and sound. It makes spending $249 on the W2 hurt less when you feel like royalty, even if the pack-ins probably don't cost Westone that much. (UM3X don't come with all the extras and you only save $20). To me, the extras are worth it, just for the extra tips and volume attenuator.


BASS: The W2's bass is good and plays deeper and harder than the W1's. It's probably close to what I remember from the pair of UM3X that I last heard 4 months ago, but certainly there is less bass presence and impact than the W3. Still, most people who would call these IEM bass-lite either don't have a good fit, they are using the wrong tips/amp, or they're a bass-head. The W2 play down deeper than W1 and are clearly stronger at 25Hz than W1, but it does become hard to hear 20Hz test tones without adjusting the volume (unlike my TF 10vi pro and W3 which are still strong at 16Hz). Still, the very deep bass notes in Bella Sonus "Enamored" are not missing, which is an improvement over the W1. The bass impact with W2 on my un-amped iPhone 3GS is good and will not disappoint, and it will not disappoint those who don't like too much bass either. And it's even stronger with some amps. As a bonus, it's not as easy to over-drive the bass with an amp as with the W1 or competing RE252. Bass impact and depth is slightly less than my Triple.fi 10vi Pro. In compensation for that, I thought the W2 bass was slightly faster, and the W2 don't have the TF 10vi Pro's mid/upper bass coloration/bump.

MIDS: The mids are nice, clear and present, and while not recessed they are not too forward. They remind me a little of how I remember the UM3X mids sounding, although not quite as refined sounding as I recall the UM3X sounded. The W2 mids are more forward and present sounding in comparison to the W3, and bring the action to the foreground just a little more than W3; but the W2 are not nearly as mid-centric as the W1 due to the lows and highs keeping up with the mids better. The W2 mids are probably also on a similar level as the Triple.fi 10vi Pro that I have here, but often the W2 mids actually seem a little more revealing or look deeper into the music than the TF 10vi Pro. The improved detail can be a blessing and a curse, as I will discuss later.

Treble: The highs are similar to the W3 and are nice and crisp, with good detail. I'd say that the W2 mids/treble combined actually border on offering the same great detail that the Phonak Audeo PFE offered; but without any of the sibilance that came with the Phonak, or having the mids at a higher level than the bass. The Phonak's sibilance could be tamed by changing the grey sound-tube filters to black ones, but then they would not be as detailed and vibrant as the W2. With the wrong amp and/or wrong tips on the W3 it was possible to accentuate sibilance (but also easy to fix with tips and/or amp). To me the W2 can behave similarly with the wrong tip/amp choice, but in no way do they accentuate sibilance on their own; at least not any more than the UM3X or any other IEM that reveals what is in the recording. So, I think that detractors of the W3 treble will be more satisfied with the W2 or UM3X. It's still possible to change the W2 sound a lot by changes of position/depth in the ear canal or changes in tips, as discussed below.

SOUNDSTAGE: The W2 soundstage is very respectable vs other IEM, and I think it puts you in a slightly bigger venue than Triple.fi 10 Pro, but a smaller one than with the W3 (or IE8 which was similar to W3 in that arena). The W2 tend to back-out of the way and their sound usually does not appear to be coming from little speakers inside the ear canal. If I had to guess, I would say the W2 falls between the UM3X soundstage and the W3, which is not small nor huge - but I hate to do that without being to directly compare them.

EAR TIPS: There are some times when the W2 or W3 sound better with my custom UM56 tips, and other times where I prefer the silicone single flange tips or modded triple-flange tips, depending on source or amp. The Complys foam tips are not bad, and there are times when they are useful. With my Westone 1 I always use a modded triple flange, which strikes the best balance for me (this was before I replaced my UM56 tips that I lost with the W3 last summer). Like the W3, I can find some combinations of ear tips and amp that don't suit the W2. For instance, W2 with single flange silicone tip on a Nuforce uDAC was sometimes too bright/thin and enhanced sibilance in certain female vocals known for that issue (Diana krall, Eva Cassidy), but with other music that was not an issue at all. With the sibilant recordings I can switch to the UM56 tips and it's a great combo. But then just the opposite occurs with the iBasso D4 with upgraded opamps, and if I used the W2 with UM56 tips on the D4 amp it became a little thick sounding and lost some of the crispness. A simple witch to the single flange silicone tips brought the sound to be much more balanced and more open. And here is the crazy part, if I use the W3 with those two amps, then I have to use the opposite tips as the W2 to correct those very same issues. Where the W2 sound good with single flange silicone tips the W3 required me to switch to the UM56, and visa versa.

HOW DO I LIKE THEM: On a more emotional level, the W2 are as good as everyone else on Head-Fi forums says they are. I can spend a whole evening listening to the W2 with stock silicone single flange tips, and not feel that creeping urge to grab my Westone ES3X or JH Audio 13 Pro. Overall the W2 seem to be a fairly dynamic sounding IEM, whether used with an amp or right out of my iPhone 3GS headphone out. They don't require an amplifier to sound good, and I may listen to them at anywhere from 40% to 80% on the 3G Nano or iPhone 3GS volume control, with 90% being pretty loud. With my upgraded iBasso D4 amp the W2 can play extremely loud without distorting, and with Anthony Wilson "Jacks of Hearts" jazz CD the W2 don't distort until the amp volume knob is past 3 o'clock at earsplitting volumes; which I'm guessing were in the 115-120 dB neighborhood (don't worry, I didn't do this for even half a minute). Their high sensitivity does predispose them to revealing background hiss in some noisier sources or amps, but using the included volume attenuator and rolling back it's volume knob by 2-4 mm will cut the hiss out. This is an issue with many other very sensitive IEM as well. I do think they reveal the hiss a little less than the ES3X, and closer to the amount that the W3 will pick up. Since I wear the cable over my ears, cable micro-phonics are not a problem for me.

Knowing that the W2 fell just below my W3 in terms of total immersion in the music, soundstage, presence and bass impact, I spent a lot of time comparing the W2 to the TF 10vi Pro which were my next best universal IEM (better than the IE8 that I got rid of after 500-600 hours of use). I owned the TF 10vi Pro for a short period in early 2008 and preferred my Livewires T1 custom IEM, so I didn't keep them. But this last Christmas I acquired another pair of the iPhone model for my daughter, but she didn't like the fit. I ended up with them for my iPhone, since I had previously returned the Phonak Audeo PFE iPhone headset. I still say the TF 10vi Pro are not neutral nor uncolored, and with some of my amps like uDAC or iBasso T3 I found that the TF 10vi Pro are a little too forward in the mids for my tastes. Yet that extra bit of midrange presence doesn't seem to increase their clarity. Compared to the W2, I feel that the TF 10vi Pro are slightly less revealing; but in return they do a better job of smoothing out sibilant program material or making 128K MP3 listenable. I think the W2 are more crisp, detailed and fairly accurate in representing what is on the recording. The neutrality and transparency of the W2 is refreshing after switching from listening to the TF10vi Pro; and although the TF have plenty of detail it just doesn't seem quite as apparent. And as I said before, the W2 bass is also almost as good as the TF 10vi Pro with a dedicated bass driver, and a lot better than the W1 without being too much; but the TF does extend deeper and hits slightly harder.

So, I feel the W2 is less colored than many other universal IEM, while still retaining a sense of warmth, and I would take them over most universal IEM except for the W3 or UM3X (maybe over UM3X but I have to compare them 1st). The W2 is probably less colored or more balanced sounding than the W3 where the extra bass power and impact are hard to miss, but without losing the fun side that I like. When I compared the W3 to the UM3X at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October '08, after loosing my first pair of W3, I enjoyed the W3 just a little more and went home with another W3. The UM3X might actually be technically better, but there is something about the W3 that draws me in every time. In that sense, the W2 do a similar thing for me when comparing them to the TF 10vi Pro, and the W2 just draw me into the performance a little better. I'll be listening to the "Dark Knight" with the W2 and forget to change IEM to another for comparisons until after the album is done playing. How can you get any work done when that happens?

Basically, with W2 you get the clarity of the Phonak without too much mids or sibilance. You wont be wishing for more bass like with the Phonak, RE252 or ER6i. You wont hear a slightly boosted mid/upper bass like with TF 10vi Pro or Image X10, wont feel the bass slightly intrudes into the mids like X10, and you wont feel the treble is slightly rolled off like in the SE530 or X10. I can tune the W2's sound easily to match my source or amp just by changing the various ear tips or adjusting how deeply I insert them. Due to the smaller shell of the W2 they tuck in tighter and are more comfortable, and they don't rub the wrong way if I fall asleep wearing them.

IN SUMMARY: In direct comparisons to other IEM that I have on hand, the W2 beat the head-direct RE2, RE3 and RE252, Nuforce NE-6 NE-7M and NE-8, Maximo iP-5HS, depodded Altec Lansing IM716, and Denon AH-C700. They beat their W1 sibling by extending the bass and treble and raising those levels to be more even with the mids. So far I enjoy the W2 slightly more than the Triple.fi 10 Pro that I have here, but it is more of a different kind of sound and dependent on what one's preferences are. Some will prefer one, and others will like the other. The Triple.fi are a little smoother or more refined sounding, and have deeper bass than W2; but the W2 have better clarity/transparency, and present a bigger soundstage to seat you in. The W2 seem to sound good with most of my sources and amps, while the TF 10vi Pro are more sensitive to the amp I choose and can be too forward sometimes with the wrong one. My TF 10vi Pro have the advantage of being an iPhone headset, but Griffin makes a microphone headset adapter that allows you to make phone calls with the W2 on the iPhone.

Just a week or two ago I'd have put the W2 and Triple.fi 10 Pro on a similar level of performance, without these two IEM actually sounding anything like each other - but after a couple more weeks of dedicated listening I currently give the nod to the W2 as the one that I enjoy more. I find myself drawn into the music better, and having more fun listening. I think they are very good IEM, and belong in the company of other well regarded IEM like TF 10vi Pro, Image X10, or SE530, where the W3 and UM3X could be considered the pinnacle (or ACME). If you can't afford the UM3X or Westone 3, you wont be losing much if you choose the Westone 2, and I think most people could be happy with them for a long time.
post #2 of 86
Larry, excellent review. I agree that W2 is more revealing than TF10 and I prefer it as well.

Now I want a comparison with CK-10.
post #3 of 86
Another impressive review.
post #4 of 86
Great review! I agree with your description of the sound.

I actually sold my UM3X to fund the purchase of the W2, and I am glad I did.
post #5 of 86
Exact same here. Only difference is I am completely happy with the UM56 tips and the W2 combo, never really feeling the need to switch to universal tips, which is good for me I guess. CK10s arrive late today, but won't get to them until tomorrow.

And thanks for you hard work Larry.
post #6 of 86
tried W2 with UM56 tips last weekend. they are pretty good, more enjoyable than my UM3X.
post #7 of 86
Great review, but I didn't like my UM2 at all.
post #8 of 86
As always a very informative comparison!

By the way how does the W2 perform in terms of imaging and instrument seperation compared to the others high-end?
post #9 of 86
Thanks HPA for the great review!

That helps me a little bit in my next audio adventure. Been choosing among IE8, W3 and UM3x. WIth your review, I'll definitely include the W2, especially with your comparisons with the TF10s, which I own (the non-vi version).
post #10 of 86
Originally Posted by sidewinder View Post
Great review, but I didn't like my UM2 at all.
W2 is quite different from UM2. W2 is more airy and more transparent sounding with a larger soundstge....all improvements IMHO.
post #11 of 86
The improved detail can be a blessing and a curse, as I will discuss later.

You said a mouth full there. It seems to (as I have said before) reveals distortion in less than fair recordings. Well recorded music sounds much better, and poorly recorded music sounds much worse to me.

Should also add on how well the W2's really work with EQ'ing, way above average. So if you want to add some color, don't hesitate to play with your settings with the W2's.

Strangely, my previous thread, this review, and my pay check all inspired to make an appointment to get my ear impressions for the UM56.
post #12 of 86
Great read! I imagine they're a better bang for the buck compared to the W3...really didn't like the sibilance on those.
post #13 of 86
dam nice review, now i so want to try how does the westone 2 sounds like, u mentioning that its better than triplefi 10 makes me more want to try it!
post #14 of 86
If money does not matter W3 is still the way to go.

The W3 presentation is B I G G E R and sort of has this underlying canvas of a subwoofer. It's pretty big and awesome but there is something about W2 being a bit lighter sounding that really sounds more balanced and even a bit more transparent sounding. That's the best way I can describe it.

But I prefer W2 over UM3X which is saying a lot. I also prefer it over TF10 Pro and SE530, both of which I have high regard for. Like HeadphoneAddict, I consider W3 the best universal on the market which would logically say that W2 can still compete with the other big boys even though it is technically a step down from W3.
post #15 of 86
HPA, what do you think of the W2's with UM56's unamped?
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