I recently graduated from the universal fit to the custom fit version of Westone’s ES3X ear monitors. For years, I have been putting off going with customs because they’re expensive and there’s no trial process.
Talking with other musicians, and reading reviews, will help get you started and will narrow your choices, but it’s not until you commit to the process will you truly discover the many benefits of cusoms.
My first experience with Westone was in 1991 when I got my first set of molded musicians earplugs. Over the years, I have had several pairs and have found that the attenuation on a loud stage far outweighs my internal acoustic dynamic perceptions. Singers and horn players are uniquely affected when their ears are “plugged.” It modifies their physical perceptions of timbre, tone, and dynamic output and taxes their awareness of blending with others voices and instruments. As a result, most leave their ears exposed to damaging volumes, sacrificing long term hearing health for what we believe to be more immediate and familiar musical results.
It takes some time to get used to how you sound on in-ears, but once you do, a new learning process begins where you refine your listening skills in concert to adapt to the gear. The fit of the customs ensures consistent sound placement to your ears whereas universals frequently tend to need some degree of manipulation to seal and aim properly. On universals, some slight bumps to the earpieces cause the loss of high frequencies, lose the airtight seal and bass frequencies are gone.
As Westone is one of the world’s leaders in hearing technology, there’s absolutely no universal fit that compares to having a trained Westone audiologist cast molds of your uniquely shaped ear canal. The fit of the finished monitor is perfect. Due to that perfect fit, Westone gives you up to 25db of attenuation, a huge amount of hearing protection on a loud stage. Along with this great fit, comes a monitoring challenge. My first use of the ES3X’s was with a receiver that did not have a mic pass-through to pick up my band members’ conversations. I couldn’t hear a word that anyone was saying on stage that didn’t come directly through the mics to my monitor mix. The fix is to set up a stereo pair of mics on stage to pick up talk or be equipped with a receiver that has a microphone pass-through. Once I made the change, there was no need to unplug to hear conversation.
The ES3X is a stellar speaker system. Clarity is accurate and linear. After getting a good basic mix, I experienced a clean separation of vocals, keyboards, guitars, and drums, and was able to set my individual vocal and saxophone levels to my preferences. I found myself singing and playing at optimal exertion levels, more relaxed and no less intense, as opposed to over compensating and forcing while trying to match volumes with traditional speaker wedges, amps, and loud electronic instruments. Playing on stage now feels more like recording in a studio with a great headphone mix. The ES3X monitors allow me to express flutes, clarinets, saxophones, and vocals with greater pitch accuracy, rhythmic clarity (less cacophony due to the attenuation of stage levels), and finesse.
Spatial orientation and sound pressure levels (spl) feel as good as a great pair of over the ear headphones. I hear clearly without uncomfortable sound pressure to my ears. I generally do not use earphones at loud levels and have not ever had the ES3X’s punch at my ears. With a good mix I never feel as if my ears are “blocked.” A new user of in-ear monitors need not be afraid of going the custom route as you can always do the one ear open and one ear monitored method until familiarity is gained. If you are going for in-ears, you can save time and money by going straight to customs. After taking baby steps myself with the universal fits, I now realize that I could have gone directly to customs. If you know the switch to ears from wedges is firm, take the plunge to the customs.
If you make a living out in front with consoles in the house, you need to go with a custom fit high quality set of ears like the ES3X’s. Realize the risk to you hearing health and take action to protect your ears. Attenuating 25db is no joke! And you will still be able to do great mixes. Furthermore, hearing aids can run up to $10,000 down the road. Just go ask your audiologist or ENT specialist.
The ES3X is Westone’s flagship 3-driver model and, at about $800 a pair, they require a major budgetary decision. The initial cost of the product, though, has some tangible benefits. Along with great sound, you get superior technology, hearing protection, custom fit, replaceable high quality cables, a custom flight case, and the ability to customize your monitors with your choice of colors and designs. I enjoyed the purchasing experience from the initial visit to the Westone audiologist, to selecting custom artwork, and on to discovering the many uses I have for the ES3X’s. I am using them in the studio now for tracking parts, using the ES3X’s with my Akai EWI for practice, and they are amazing on airplanes and tour buses with the old IPOD.