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Westone W4R: Orange on Black - [Review] 🇬🇧

Prolog:

Meine deutsche Übersetzung dieses Reviews ist hier abrufbar: http://kopfhoerer-lounge.blogspot.com/2016/05/W4R.html


Preamble:

Westone doesn’t need any further introduction – it is one of the major brands and international big players. Nonetheless, let me drop a few lines about the American company: founded in 1959 with the main market being listening protection and in-ear monitoring, they also designed and manufactured the E1 plus E5 for Shure and co-developed and manufactured Ultimate Ears’ first products when Jerry Harvey was still UE’s leader before he sold the company to Logitech years later, but that is another story of a different brand that belongs in a different place. But that little information should give you the idea that Westone is and has ever been a very important name in the game. In the more recent days, their tradition continues and they are still making listening protection, military earpieces, custom earmoulds, custom moulded in-ear monitors for live musicians as well as universal fit in-ear monitors for professional and private use.



Their quad-driver three-way BA in-ear W4/4R (/40) got quite a lot of attention in the German community years back and was said to be one of the technically best universal fit in-ears at that time – while I would mostly agree to that, I wouldn’t say it is for everyone because of its tonality and soundstage, but more about that later on.
I know that I bought the W4R, the removable cable version of the W4 with 2-pin connectors and new carrying case, right at the time when it first came out. I don’t know where I bought it (it could have been a German shop, but also a British or any other online shop in Europe; I honestly don’t remember it anymore), but what I still know though is that I paid exactly €439.

As the W4 and W40 are said to be tonally very similar, this write-up might also be helpful for those who are eyeing a used W4 or new W40.


Technical Specifications:

Sensitivity: 118 dB SPL @ 1Mw
Frequency Response: 10Hz - 18kHz
Impedance: 31 ohms @ 1kHz
Drivers: Four balanced armature drivers, three way crossover design (2x lows, 1x mids, 1x highs)


Delivery Content:

The in-ears arrive in a cardboard box with “dark brushed aluminium” design and a large 4R logo below a picture of the in-ears of whose one side’s cable is disconnected to show the new feature of the removable cables with 2-pin connectors. The back shows the in-ears’ features along with a picture; the left side shows some possible fields of application plus the technical specifications and the right one displays the included accessories.




The actual container box can then be slid out and opened up like a book (it is kept closed by Velcro dots on the right hand side), then the in-ears and carrying case can be seen. In the carrying case are these accessories: a cleaning tool with integrated brush, a 6.3 to 3.5 mm adapter, a volume attenuator adapter and many ear tips (three pairs of foam tips, three pairs of dark grey silicone tips, three pairs of thick white silicone tips, one pair of triple-flange tips). Inside the box are also a product manual as well as a product information CD-ROM and a small QC paper that states when the in-ears were manufactured, along with a signature of the person who did the quality control.





Looks, Feels, Build Quality:

The in-ear bodies are made of very durable and robust plastic, feature a two-piece mould design and are very well glued together. The outer side shows a “4R” logo. As the “R” indicates, the in-ears feature removable cables with standard 2-pin connectors.




Over the years, the cables have slightly hardened near the earpieces (maybe due to sweat as I sometimes used the Westone for sports) but are still very flexible on most parts. It is a professional, very lightweight cable with twisted litzes. The low profile is also reached due to the presence of only three single wires below the y-split which therefore contains a solder-point but is pretty small in profile as well and not unnecessarily thick. The angled 3.5 mm connector as well as the strain relief appear to be good, however the memory wire ear guides are a bit too short (more about that in the “Comfort, Isolation” section).




The small, black, waterproof Otterbox with orange clasp is nicely padded on the inside and also features a small loop that can be used to attach a snap hook.





Comfort, Isolation:

The shells’ shape is quite similar to Shure’s and will be extremely comfortable for most people, including myself. The nozzle angle is a bit different though and some will therefore find Shure’s IEMs more comfortable while others Westone’s (I personally find Shure’s nozzle angle to be very slightly more comfortable, but it is a close call). Wearing the in-ears for a long period of time works very well, especially with my large ears.
What’s not so well made though is the memory wire at the cable: I know that many people don’t like memory wire and that the W-non-R series with permanent cable had no memory wire at all. I personally like memory wire. The W4R has got memory wire, but it is kind of a fail in my opinion, as it is very short and stops about at the top of my ear, which feels kind of strange. I really think it would have been better if they went for a memory wire-free cable or longer, traditional memory wire instead of this kind that is rather there to just guide the cable into the right direction in the front part instead of really being helpful – but that’s just me.



There are no microphonics when the cable cinch is used and isolation is excellent, just as with the majority of closed shell multi-BA in-ears


Sound:

For listening, I used the largest included single-flange silicone tips. Sources I ever used the W4R with always had around or less than 1 Ohm output impedance.

Tonality:

Tonality-wise, the W4R is a rather full sounding, midbass/upper bass/lower root focussed in-ear with smooth but non-recessed midrange.

At around 800 Hz, the lows’ emphasis starts extending and forms the climax quite early at already 200 Hz, hence lower (plus also middle) root and upper bass are full and the bass has got a good kick. Compared to the UERM, the emphasis is about 4.5 dB; compared to the even flatter Etymotic ER-4S it is about 7 dB (typically for BA drivers though, it surely won’t have the impact and tactility of a dynamic driver’s bass – the W4R is far from being a basshead model). That level is kept upright until about 60 Hz, then it rolls off down to 20 Hz where the level is still above zero but sub-bass clearly takes a step back compared to the midbass. Because of the early starting lower frequency emphasis, the bass is quite warm and full. Although the root doesn’t spill too much into the lower mids, they are audibly affected and on the somewhat darker and warmer side, though I would still say they are not too coloured and with a plausible timbre, however the general timbre is a bit off because of the full lower root that makes many instruments’ fundamentals sound a bit too warm.
Level between 800 Hz and 1.5 kHz is flat; from there on in the upper mids/presence area, it takes a step back, making female vocals somewhat lack air, which is also actually caused by the evenly following, quite deep dip around 5 kHz that is mainly responsible for the midrange to sound smooth and relaxed, as its overtones are tamed.
At 8 kHz, there is a peak that is just at the same level as the midrange and not harsh, bright or piercing at all (wherefore it totally lacks the TWFK’s typical character that many perceive as too sharp). Super treble extension is still good up to around 13 kHz although a bit less subtly sparkling than with brighter in-ears.

That 5 kHz dip in the middle treble is responsible for the smoothness and relaxedness in the midrange. It is actually just a matter of preference. For many it will provide good fatigue-free long-term listenability. For my preference, it is a bit too distinctive with the W4R and I miss some countervailing brightness, but that’s just a subjective thing.

Resolution:

The W4R is definitely no slouch here and the claims from years back in the German community of it being one of the best universal fit in-ears on the market with the most expensive UIEMs being priced around half a grand at that time hold true: models at twice or three times the price do some things better, but not by that much – it’s the law of diminishing returns that kicks in and for some things that are different or (in comparison) a rather small difference, one has to pay an exponentially increasing price – whether it’s worth paying the higher price for a little upgrade or not is a totally personal decision (for some headphones, it was worth it for me).
The bass is quick, arid and detailed (not as quick as my UERM’s but quick nonetheless), the (upper) treble is very smooth, without any hint of sharpness, and has got an easy-going presentation of minute details although the middle treble takes a step back in terms of level. Although I would personally wish a bit more graininess in the midrange (it is that smooth because of the 5 kHz dip), it is very detailed as well but moderately lacks behind the vocal resolution of my UERM or Shure SE846 – overall though, it comes very very close to the level of details of those two in-ears.
Compared to some other triple- and quad-driver in-ears I own and have on hand like the UE900, FA-4E XB and DN-2000J, the W4R is also the overall (sometimes more and sometimes less slight) winner (W4R > DN-2000J ~ UE900 > FA-4E XB).

Soundstage:

Three words: super friggin’ wide. Not yet as wide as HD 800’s stage, but very close and very wide for in-ear levels. Wide enough that it clearly goes out of the head and not by just a bit but is actually quite noticeable. Displaying instruments precisely separated is therefore very easy for the in-ear and it has no problems at all separating even very small tonal elements from each other, even if they are yet so small. Where it lacks though is spatial depth – there is just about none. Yes, if there is reverb on the track it is audible, but not perceived as depth – just as reverb. It is kind of like a billboard: plenty of width and even if there is a photo displayed on the advertisement, depth is visible on it, but it is no real depth and the billboard will always be flat when you stand in front of it. Hence intimacy is also not really present but everything seems like seen from one or two rows back. Using an EQ doesn’t change the perception of soundstage at all for me with the Westone.

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In Comparison with other In-Ears:

Logitech UE900:
The UE is a subjectively clearly more balanced sounding in-ear with lower (and much flatter extending) bass quantity. Speed is about similar. While the W4R sounds full and with thick midbass as well as lower root, the UE900 sounds leaner; overall UE900’s timbre is a bit more natural. UE900’s mids are a bit on the dark side, W4R’s sound somewhat warmer and thicker due to the emphasised lower root. The middle treble of the UE is a bit more on the relaxed side as well (but more broad-banded), though not nearly as much as the Westone.
Regarding soundstage, the UE’s is narrower (but not congested at all) albeit with a bit more spatial depth. Instrument separation is a bit better on the Westone’s side, but it fails at displaying any real depth at all where the UE has some (but still sounds rather flat than three-dimensional; I’d say UE900’s soundstage is about average).
Both are not too far apart when it is about detail retrieval, nonetheless the W4R is more detailed sounding. While there is no major difference in the treble and bass, it becomes audible in the midrange where the UE unfortunately sounds somewhat blunt and not as detailed as in the upper and lower frequencies (on its own, UE900’s midrange would be relatively good, but it just can’t keep up with the bass and treble).

Shure SE846:
Using the blue “reference” filters, the SE846 has got an about similar 5 kHz dip, making its mids about similarly smooth, however the Shure is better resolving in the midrange department. Switching to the white “treble” filters, the dip is clearly not as present anymore, so the mids are definitely not as smooth and relaxed (not to be confused with “recessed” as they are even a bit forward) anymore, while still being a bit on the smoother side.
The Shure is a sub-bassy in-ear whereas the Westone a mid-bassy one, sounding fuller. W4R’s lower root/lower mids are also fuller and thicker although the Shure isn’t thin sounding here by any means at all. In the super treble above 10 kHz, W4R’s extension is somewhat better.
In terms of resolution, both are pretty much on-par, but what makes the SE846 the overall better in-ear are its more rounded and deeper (but smaller) soundstage with better portrayal of emptiness and sharper instrument separation, its somewhat higher midrange resolution and overall more naturalness – it’s the law of diminishing returns that kicks in and for rather small improvements, the price increases exponentially, and at less than half of the price of the SE846, the W4R already offers 90-95% of the Shure’s sound quality. Bass speed is about comparable.

ORIVETI PRIMACY:
Why am I including this in-ear as it is quite different and such comparisons (Hybrid vs. BA) don’t make much sense to me? Mainly just for tonality comparisons, as the PRIMACY shows some similarities (smoothness and relaxedness) but is subjectively a bit better tuned to my personal preference in many areas.
PRIMACY’s bass is less of a hump and extends flat down into the sub-bass where the W4R shows a roll-off compared to the midbass. The ORIVETI’s bass emphasis also starts lower, making the in-ear sound less full in the lower root. The PRIMACY also has a “relaxed gene dip” around 5 kHz, however it is slightly less distinct than W4R’s, hence it doesn’t sound as relaxed and smooth in the mids. As the PRIMACY has a hump between 1 and 2 kHz, its mids are present enough despite the smoothness, and the slight preference of brighter vocals also makes up a bit for the 5 kHz dip. In the upper treble, the PRIMACY has got a more distinct peak (strangely it is only really audible with sine sweeps but with music, the ORIVETI sounds very even and without any edginess in the upper highs), hence it has the better perception of “air”. For my preference, the PRIMACY’s got the better “relaxed and smooth” tuning out of the two, as its lower root is less present, the bass extends flat down to the sub-bass and the upper middle mids and upper highs somewhat make up for the relaxed dip.
Tuning aside, the Westone has the higher resolution and more precise and wider but much flatter soundstage.


Conclusion:


On a subjective end-note, while I really value W4R’s technical capabilities and always like it in the beginning after having kept it in the drawer for some time, I also always found myself finding the in-ear to be a bit annoying over longer periods of time. For my preference, the midbass/upper bass/lower root hump is too much, is not as present in the sub-bass and too present in the lower root. While it doesn’t spill too much into the upper root/lower mids, there is an undeniable fullness to the sound and the 5 kHz dip is a bit too much for me, making the mids appear too smooth and relaxed (for me). While the soundstage is super wide, it could also have clearly more spatial depth to sound rounded and spatially balanced – but that’s just me and your preference may and likely will vary. I can even see that many people will be really enjoying this in-ear, as it really is very good on the technical side, though it isn’t really my kind of sound (nonetheless I’ve still got this in-ear and haven’t sold it yet, which is kind of weird, huh? I guess I have kept it because of its technical strengths, although I just use it very rarely as it doesn’t fully hit my spot of preference).

Objectively regarded I’d say the W4R is a 4.3 out of 5 stars product – its resolution is very good, probably still among the very best in-ears below a grand. Its soundstage is super wide and well separated. And last but not least, its sound is full, very smooth and without any edginess, with relaxed but not at all recessed mids. If that is your thing, you will love the Westone.

Who would I recommend this in-ear to? Mainly those who are into that kind of tonality, as that is the most important thing, but I think especially many Pop and mainstream listeners will be diggin’ the W4R, its predecessor and successor.


Bonus Round – Frequency Response Chart:



Orange: W4R│Blue: UE900│White: SE846 @Treble Filters
(About the Measurements)