I have been the typical more casual listener, having purchased several IEMs in the sub $100 range looking for the most bang for the buck and achieving a good sound. Some of these have included the V-Moda Vibe (original) and warranty replacements (originals were much better than the replacements) due to cable failures. I’ve also owned the SkullCandy FMJs and Rockford Fosgate Punch Plugs. I’ve recently been spending a lot more time traveling for my job, which has me listening to my mobile gear in airplanes and away from home so I decided to go on a hunt for a top tier IEM that provides better balanced sound and isolation.
I have been a long time lurker here and started my search by reading the vast amount of reviews available - thank you Head-fi for the tremendous amount of knowledge shared here! Without being able to demo any of the IEMs, I took a leap of faith based on other folks’ experience and purchased the Shure SE535s (clear). While I haven’t listened to a vast amount of IEMs as others here have, I wanted to share my experience for others that may be considering the Shure 535’s, Westone 3 or Westone 4. This is my first review, and one of my first few posts here, so please have patience w/my descriptions
I listen mostly to Rock/Alternative through either my Windows Phone 7 (Zune) or via Zune on my PC, mostly w/a collection of lower bitrate material than audiophile quality (MP3’s, Zune downloads). I know some folks would probably say I’m stupid for buying a higher end IEM for listening to this material, but I appreciate the convenience and do notice significant differences b/w IEMs, and purchase CDs to rip to lossless for a limited number of albums and want an IEM that can be a “utility” player w/different source quality.
After receiving the Shures I was almost immediately put off by the mid presentation with these IEMs either because of the genres of music I listen to, or because I have a sensitivity to a certain frequency range in the upper midrange – I’ve seen the frequency response graphs which show the 535s completely flat so I was very surprised. This is something I haven’t experienced w/other IEMs or home equipment, so I’m not sure what to chalk it up to. I’ve read that the Shure mid presentation is something one either loves or hates, and unfortunately I’m on the latter side. I had a cable go bad on the initial pair that I received, but received a replacement cable under warranty and the sound was the same. On some songs these IEMs sounded absolutely incredible, but on others during certain vocals or guitar riffs the only way I can describe it as is overpowering and way too forward… the only thought going through my mind was to reduce the volume ASAP instead of being able to enjoy the music. The 535’s were somewhat of a Jeckyll & Hyde for me in the midrange – on the songs that sounded good, the bass was very good and provided great impact and I didn’t get a sense that the treble was rolled off at all. I knew that I needed to continue my search. I know that a lot of folks really enjoy these IEMs and I’m not saying that they’re bad at all, but for me personally and the music I listen to they weren’t the “utility” IEM I was looking for. I was able to borrow a pair of both the Westone 3 and the newly released Westone 4 to compare.
The Westone 3 definitely had more of a house sound (a U shaped frequency response curve) with a phenomenal amount of bass, specifically in the mid bass region. The bass on these IEMs carries both a lot of impact and weight that just wasn’t there in the SE535. They are an extremely fun IEM to listen to though! Some have reported hearing sibilance on these IEMs – I didn’t notice this at all, but the mid presentation was definitely recessed compared to the SE535 and the soundstage was more compressed, which I noticed immediately in comparison. After listening for a while and adjusting to their sound, I really enjoyed these IEMs and if given the choice between these and the SE535s I would definitely choose the Westone 3, if I hadn’t had the 3rdset of IEMs to compare to…more on that in a minute. If you’re looking for a completely balanced sound, the Westone 3 likely isn’t it – its bass is definitely “in your face” and carries a lot of punch with a mid-bass emphasis. The mids are somewhat recessed, and the treble is crisp and not overemphasized (though on some material it seems like it a bit due to the recessed mids). If you’re a basshead I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Westone 3 – it has a really fun sound and doesn’t do much wrong.
The 4 is Westone’s newest offering, and unfortunately not much was out about it when I purchased my SE535s for me to compare. The 4 appears to share the same housing as the 3. Based on the current reviews in the impressions thread, it seems as though I have had a similar experience to others. The presentation of the 4s is very different than the 3’s, providing a much more balanced sound and losing the mid-bass emphasis. The soundstage is vastly more open than the 3’s and I have constantly been finding myself going back to these, as they simply do nothing wrong with the music I have listened to and I am finding details in music that the other two seem to miss. No particular part of the W4’s presentation stands out to me, but as a whole it just blends together extremely well and I’ve found that I can truly enjoy the music and they're more laid back than the 3’s for extended listening sessions. That, to me, makes them stand out compared to the other two. The bass, while not as impactful or “in your face” as the W3s, is definitely there and presented in a way that provides the tactile feel and weight of the 3’s (though less of it). Its bass is on par w/the SE535s, but provides a better weight and impact, as I found the 535s to sound a bit off or shallow on some content such as kick drums in comparison. The mids are phenomenal, and much more forward than the 3s, though I never found them to sound overpowering or painful as I did with the SE535s regardless of the material that I threw at them. They were also very tolerant of the various quality of content that I threw at them (as were the 3’s). The highs are very well presented as well, and never seemed rolled off or unbalanced. The 4 was a little harder to drive than the 3 or the SE535, taking a few more clicks on my phone than either the SE535 or the Westone 3. I wouldn’t consider this to be a negative however, as both my laptop and phone were able to drive them sufficiently well.
I’ll be placing an order shortly for the Westone 4s, as they are exactly what I was looking for – a well-balanced IEM that sounds phenomenal and provides a great amount of isolation for the airplane (all 3 here isolate extremely well). They are very comfortable, and along with the sound signature provide a great experience for longer term listening sessions. While I could definitely enjoy the W3s as well, as the bass impact is REALLY good, my money’s going with the fuller sound and better soundstage that the W4 provides.
One of the major attractions of the SE535 for me, as well as others, is the detachable cable. Its rock solid, and I think it’s been compared to a bike lock and I’d have to agree. At the end of the day though, if I don’t enjoy the sound it doesn’t matter. I haven’t heard of complaints of cable issues on the 3 (the 4 appears to use the same cable). I do wish the Westone had detachable cables as well, but for me it isn’t a deal killer.