Westone Adventure Series ADV Alpha Review - A Thing That Goes Thump in the Night
This is a review of the new Westone ADV Alpha's. I was tremendously curious about the ADV's when I first read the press release, given Westone's pedigree and this being their first foray into dynamic drivers.
Incidentally, it seems like everyone is testing the waters with the micro-drivers these days, from the Shure SE215, Sennheiser IE800, Audio Technica CKN70 - and, well, JVC's entire lineup. I am a big fan of micro drivers because I think they can deliver the same miniaturization advantages of a single balanced armature, deliver better frequency bandwidth at both ends, as well as avoiding all the phase / coherency issues of BA setups. Every single BA I have heard (SE215, CKN70, FXD80, CC51P) has delivered some startling (and seemingly uniformly bassy) signatures.
Now Westone joins the micro-driver party with a specially tuned micro driver and an earphone body that is crafted out of a single piece of magnesium metal. The ADV is targeted towards 'active' users, but it would seem at first glance that everything is aligned for the ADV to be an audiophile gem with some extra goodies. Metal body to reduce distortion? Check. Thin nozzle with high isolation? Check. Detachable cables? Check.
So do they deliver? This is a two part review. The first part is actually my Youtube review which will give you a good sense of the build of the ADV and some overall sound comparisons. If you want to know more about how I feel about the sound, the second part of this review has some listening notes and some more detailed thoughts on the ADV.
This is my video review of the ADV. If you like the video please check out my channel :)
All listening was done on an Objective 2 + ODAC or on an iPhone 5.
In terms of physical construction the ADV is great. I would go so far as to say that the ADV is the strongest combination of comfort, isolation and durability in a bass-heavy IEM on the market today. The ADV's driver is also fast and focused. It is the complete package for bassheads. That designation alone should tell you whether or not the ADV right for you.
Overall sound is very thick, with a strong emphasis on bass and mid-bass. Interestingly, it is possible to vary the amount of bass by varying the insertion depth of the ADV. This seems to be the case for a variety of in-ears as found by Rin's measurements of earphones at different insertion depths over at http://rinchoi.blogspot.com
Bass on the ADV is exceptionally tight and reaches very deep. Sub-bass is rumbly, taut and immensely authoritative. Audible driver action starts at 10hz and there is no discernible roll off. The bass is clearly the strongest and most impressive part of the signature.
Vocals are not anything to write home about. They are there, but the ADV has a tendency to make vocals sound distant and dull.
Treble roll-off is pronounced and depending on insertion depth the ADV sounds anything between 'rolled off' and 'swampy'. There is slight emphasis on the treble that comes out as a "sh" rather than "ss" emphasis.
Overall soundstaging is very intimate because of the lack of sparkle or air. Definition within the soundstage is decent, particularly on low frequency instruments that have a strong sense of physical presence.
When listening to an IEM like this, a question arises: does the IEM sound inarticulate or congested because the treble shelf is making high frequency information / detail hard to hear, or is the driver itself poor quality and smearing the high frequency transients? Given Westone's expertise and the quality of the materials used throughout the ADV you would very much expect the former to be true. By applying an EQ to the ADV you can confirm this.
With the iTunes bass reducer EQ the ADV sounds very good. The bass reducer is a gradual EQ of -1.5 hz at 500hz all the way down to -6db at 32hz. With the bass tuned down, you can turn the overall volume up and then the ADV transforms into a nice, smooth and articulate listen that the average Head-Fier might be happy to pop $200 bucks on. Clearly the driver is good but the tuning is intensely dark.
With the ADV's tuning, the timbre is completely unnatural since all natural instruments (particularly strings) sound somewhat lifeless. On the flip side the quality driver means that for synthetic instruments where we have no natural references, the ADV sounds good.
The ADV's kind of tuning works really well in noisy environments because you do not have to turn up the volume very high to preserve a sense of rhythm. As suggested by other members, the bass beat is also quite motivating during workouts. The ADV is the kind of earphone that encourages you to turn up the volume higher because the high frequencies our ears are most sensitive to are de-emphasised, and the driver does not distort at higher volumes. This may or may not be a good thing.
These are tracks that sound good on the ADV. If even the thought of listening to some of this music is laughable, the ADV is NOT FOR YOU. Noticeably, almost every single track listed has been mastered quite hot.
I am not going to list tracks that sound bad on the ADV, though you can probably use your imagination to guess what those might be.
New York Is Killing Me - Gil Scott-Heron
This is the most hotly mastered track that I have ever heard. Amazingly on the ADV it still manages to still sound somewhat spitty and aggressive. However this is probably the best earphone to be listening to this kind of track.
Power - Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has obviously been mastered 'hot' and is an example of an album that sounds great on the ADV. The machine drums are given a great sense of scale and aggression because of the bass emphasis, and the rolled off highs on the ADV nicely complements how raw and aggressive the vocals have been tuned throughout the album.
Reach for the Dead - Boards of Canada
There are layered bass textures / drones in this track that are downright chilling, and the way the ADV brings out their effect is fantastic. The track sounds insistent, foreboding, dreadful.
I AM THE BEST - 2NE1
Again, the aggressive tuning of this track works well with the ADV's signature. The machine drums and synths really pop, while the vocals are articulate without sounding raw. The result is fun.
Hurt - Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash's cover of Reznor's track is absolutely fantastic, but perhaps mastered just a little hot. On the ADV the bass brings out the tremendous gravelly authority of Cash's voice, and the ADV's driver brings out the guitar plucking with brilliant articulation.
If you have read this far I think you can tell if the ADV is right for you. If you are after a bassy IEM, you do a lot of travelling in noisy environments, you value wearing comfort and durability, you want to be more visible in the dark - and you have $200 to spare - the ADV is right for you.
As a workout IEM (not necessarily an adventure IEM) I actually prefer the XBA-C10, because the fit is just as stable as the ADV and you can literally buy 4 or 5 pairs of the C10 from Japan before you start losing money.
I don't love the sound of the ADV, I don't hate it. I think the Sony XBA-40 and JVC FXD80-Z do a better job of delivering a dark IEM that doesn't gum up vocals so much. In particular I think the FXD80-Z is an excellent comparison, being a micro-driver IEM that also has a full metal construction.
The ADV is not a critical listening earphone, but if you are very (very) sensitive to sibilance or listen exclusively to albums where the treble has been mastered 'hot' I can imagine they would be a godsend. Alternatively, if you don't mind using EQ the ADV is also very simple to turn into a great sounding earphone.
My suspicion is that the ADV sounds the way it does both because of a) the target market and b) the water resistant coating used on the driver filter (which seems to be a thick white membrane) is causing the sound to become very dark.
This means that Westone is probably just around the corner from releasing a 'audiophile' version of the ADV with the same or similar driver, similar or better build quality - and a more neutral tuning. I'd watch this space.
That isn't to say that the ADV as is wouldn't be a fantastic recommendation to bassheads or to people who are after a thoughtfully designed earphone and who listen to a lot of modern studio recordings. I think for a lot of consumers the ADV is likely a near perfect, nigh indestructible package. With an application of EQ it is also a great listen. I would recommend it to accident prone / gym bunny friends on that basis.
Independance Day Update! (4 Jul)
Tyll over at Innerfidelity has posted up measurements of the ADV.
The graphs confirm pretty much what everyone has been saying about the ADV's, with one caveat - insertion depth seems to matter greatly for an IEM like this, and to my ears high frequency roll off does not seem as severe as the graph would indicate.
Rin Choi over at his blog rinchoi.blogspot.com has begun measuring earphones at various distances from a reference plane precisely because some earphones seem to exhibit significant variances in high frequency extension when inserted at different depths in the ear canal. I think this is something important that the community should be aware of and I encourage you to visit his blog.
This also points to how much the shape of individual ear canals affect the perceived frequency response of any in-ear. So as much as graphs are nice, clearly your mileage may vary.
Edited by a_recording - 7/4/13 at 2:17am