Westone ES5 vs Heir Audio 8.A (5 driver vs 8 driver shootout!)
by bloodaddict(HWZ), underhysteria (Headfi)
Special thanks to Wizard, the helpful folks at hardwarezone and headfi
Previous IEMs owned/tried for long durations: UM3x, Westone 4, Shure SE535, Shure SE535red
CIEMs tried (universals): UM merlin, Miracle, JH 16
I got my ES5 sometime in December 2011 and was immediately blown away by its musicality and clarity something in which i have yet to achieve in any of the universal IEMs out there. Then I came across Heir Audio and alongside the positive first impressions that came along with it. Truth of the fact that is I was only drawn to its craftsma[I]nship and my first thought was that everything else was an exaggeration. "The Heir Audio 8.A has been described by professional drummers and sound engineers, as the "perfect" blend of accuracy and bass response". This is pretty a bold statement from a company who has just started out. Then came project 86 and kira's reviews and the many assumption/observations that the 8.A sounds simillar to the ES5. "The combination of a very lush sound which still has excellent detail (without putting it at the expense of musicality) is perhaps the 8.A. This sounds very like the ES5s and it peeks my curiosity even more to know how much balance between the musicality and clarity that the wizard has managed to implement on his flagship product. I finally the took the plunge and the wait begins.
I received my 8.As a month later and oh boy I was disappointed. Firstly the fit was bad and the treble was nowhere close to 'non-fatiguing, well-controlled' as pointed out by the reviews out there. Despite the shortcomings, i could already see the potential the 8.A has particularly in the lows and mids region. After a couple of thoughts, I believe that the poor set of impressions were the main culprit (and i had doubts of the lady who served me, she didnt give me a biting block so my jaw probably moved during the process). I switched audiologist, sent in a new pair of impressions and requested for a musical fit for a deeper insert.
Both CIEMs have already burnt a hole in my wallet so i have already since decided to only choose one to keep. It has taken months for me to make my decision and only one will turn out victorious!
Built Quality and Aesthetics
Both acrylic shells are solidly build but the 8.A edges the westone for its craftsmanship. Upon very close inspection of my ES5s, i noticed very tiny bubbles and remnants of glue on its socket (perhaps I'm an unlucky westone customer). On the other hand, the Heir Audio feels well crafted and the 'handpicked' wood is simply top notch. The only vibe I have with my 8.A is that the connectors of my ES cable doesnt go all the way into the socket leaving a very small 0.5mm gap in between.
Comfort and Isolation
Westone ES5: Default fit
Heir Audio 8.A: Musician fit
I requested for the musician fit for my 8.A refits as the default tips were simply too short compared to the ES5. And surprisingly enough the musician fit I received has canals of the same length as the default tips of the ES5! So it's either Westone screwed up by giving me a musician fit or both have different standards in their fits. Either way it makes comparison a breeze as both tips are of equal length.
The ES5 tips are made of vinyl (the only class of its kind) in which its nozzles are supposed to change and mould into your ears over time. This deformable tips allows the ES5 to sit deeply into your ears resulting in a much more secure fit than the 8.A. However, it takes quite some time to get used to the comfort of the westone which I find to be very uncomfortable at first.
The acrylic built of the 8.A on the other hand sits more comfortably and you could go on hours without noticing it on your ears. It is really comfortable and light on your ears but I feel the westone provides a better isolation especially in outdoors.
Reference Equipment: Sony Walkman NW- Z1000, Fiio E11, Pico Slim
Sound Quality: 320kbps or flac lossless
Elton John, The Beatles, Michael Learns to Rock (classic rock/pop)
Beethoven, Richard Clayderman, Vanessa Mae , Vivaldi (instrumental)
Sarah Brightman, Yiruma, Era (new age)
Akcent, Basshunter, Edward Maya (dance)
Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum (modern country)
The Killers, Hedley, Coldplay, One Republic (mordern alt/rock)
Demi Lovato, Christina Perri, Chris Medina, David Archuleta (modern pop)
Regina Spektor, Sara Bareilles, Norah Jones (acoustic)
Norther, Kalmah (melodic death metal)
These are the songs that run through most of the time so i already have the idea how the different genres would perform under the 2 CIEMs by now.
I have purposely omitted out the soundstage/imaging as these are very subjective variables which are indeed very hard to put into words. Well the good news is that both the ES5 and 8.A perform very similar in this category. Both provides good coherency throughout the range of instruments and there is nothing to complain about.
I was told that the 8.A possess the same type of low frequency production drivers as the ES5 but double the quantity. Upon listening, both are similar in the sense that they do not 'overamplify' the bass and hence coming in only when necessary. You wont hear a prominent bass in country tracks but when it comes to genres with demanding lows, both will deliver them according the way they are intended to be heard. I would say accuracy is the main priority here unlike the merlins and JH16.
Now here comes the part where the 8.A will start to shine. Unlike the ES5, there is plenty of detail in the bass and yet it doesnt bleed into the other regions. The sound runs deep into you with plenty of room for the treble and vocals to go along with! Dance, jazz or bassy tracks will be a joy to listen to for all users (im not a basshead to begin with). Listen to the 8.A and you will have a whole new benchmark of what a bass production should be like in an IEM.
Dont get me wrong here.. the ES5 bass has plenty of character and depth (in fact both bears a similar resemblance to each other) but the 8.A has the extra detail and magic that will make you wanna be on the dancefloor.
Good news for shure and westone users here.. either way i am sure you will be pleased with the mids that both ES5 and 8.A are able to produce which is a step up to the universals. Similarities wise are that both are warm and rich providing the right level of depth and clarity unlike the SE535 which i find it too forward and 'mushy'. I would say that the westone and heir audio CIEMs are the only ones out there with a very lush mid representation without sacrificing the accuracy of other regions.
The difference lies in the presentation of the mids. The 8.A is slightly laidback and more transparent making it more versatile for vocal orientated songs with heavy instrumental background (nightwish for example). John actually did the trick here by finding the the right balance between clarity and the lush sound some people would both crave for. Upon the first few hours of listening with the 8.A, I actually enjoyed listening to the ES5 much more since its mids reproduction sings well with vocal tracks (Taylor Swift, Norah Jones, Regina Spektor and etc) and as you can see the westone is rather tuned to work well with female vocals. However you will only see the true capabilities of the 8.A when the different genres start to kick in. From opera to death metal the 8.A is able to match its sound with the atmosphere of these complex genres. The ES5 has a fuller and a more enjoyable midrange representation but it can be too textured or coloured when paired with the kind of genres stated.
No matter how many times I listen with the 8.A and despite its excellent balance between warmth and clarity, I still miss the kind of vocal 'synergy' the ES5 is able to provide and this is particularly due to a large portion of my tracks being female vocal related . The mids of the westone has simply lots of character to it and it brings yourself closer to the singer. On the other hand, the 8.A remains lushful with tons of accuracy with a more 'modest' signature than the ES5.
This is finally the part which draws a distinctive line between the two.
Compared to the 8.A, the ES5 produces much tamer highs while maintaining a good clarity. Cymbal reproduction is top notch and are reproduced the way they are intended to be heard (good but not perfect of course). The decay here is faster making it less aggressive than the 8.A.
The 8.A provides a more neutral approach and you wont find the slight coloration which the westone possess. You would find more airiness and details here but i still feel that its drum resonance is the weak area. It's good but i feel that the westone does a better job making the cymbals more deep and reveberating.
The 8.A has more to offer in the string department . Strings feel so real and compared to the westone, you could actually 'feel' the plucking of guitar and notice the additional details upon the different strings played. Perhaps the difference is subtle but noticeable upon close listening. The transition between guitar chords could actually be felt making it a great combination with the added warmth of the midrange.
Both aren't perfect but they each do have their strong points. The ES5 being able to create a sense of space and knowing when how deep the cymbals should be struck while the 8.A provides much more detail and extends nicely but lacks 'character' and timbre unlike the westone.
Instrument: Digital Piano
No doubt the 8.A triumphs the ES5 in this area. To put it bluntly, this is the part which impresses me the most and it is when you could gauge the accuracy of the 8.A. All the keys from the different octaves are accurately portrayed with good depth without any form of coloration which the ES5 has during monitoring. The sound reproduction of the decay between the depression of the keys feels close to actual playing.
FYI, pianists often use headphones to get the most out of their instrument but the 8.A makes you feel like you're wearing one! It is still isnt perfect by any means (space and depth is still lacking compared to full sized headphone) but the 8.A is very close to becoming one.
There is indeed no clear winner here especially when both the ES5 and 8.A have very similar traits. One of them has definitely to go as I do not see the point of keeping both.
It took very long for me to decide as there are things that i like in both of the CIEMs. I was in fact leaning towards the ES5 due to its excellent midrange presentation which works really well with my favourite female vocalists. The westone is definitely not neutral but it has this musical sweetness that makes music more enjoyable. The vinyl tips also make the ES5 much more secure in your ears than the 8.A. In fact I don't have any worries moving around with my westone in my ears. The fit of my 8.A is good but at times there are still some annoying quirks with the left fit (it's less tighter than the right so it takes a very long time for me to drill it into my ears). I cannot afford to send it for another refit as the 30-day period is over so this basically affects my decision. I have not encountered any fitting problems with the ES5 so I'll see what I am able to compromise with heir audio.
Heir Audio has done a good job in striking the fine balance between musicality and accuracy in its 8.A making it even more enjoyable for a wider range of genres. The extra services its provide is by far the most innovative in the industry and these are in fact the factors which will make the difference. So I would say both deserve a point each by now.
Well the deal breaker lies with the monitoring capabilities of the 8.A. It is just many levels ahead of the ES5 and having played the piano for quite some time, i would say it is a strong contender to many of the reference headphones out there. The 8.A will join me in my musical journey and I hope that i will be able to sort out with the minor issues i have with it.
The 8 driver wins by a slight victory.. the extra 3 drivers may not have a dramatic impact but it does make the 8.A special :)