Make no mistake the W50 is a dark and bass dominant IEM. I have always been reluctant to speak about balanced armature in the context of bass performance but the W50 is a bit of a monster when it comes to putting its best bass foot forward. This is not just some over exaggerated mid-bass hump designed for a cheap thrill resonating from the W50. There is plenty of clean sub-bass extension going much deeper than I assumed it would. I remember that was the one criticism I had of the Knowles BA drivers and to some extent the old UM3X from Westone themselves, this distinctly bass light approach. In some ways, I felt the Alpha series from Westone was their response to a conveyor belt of BAs with a shallow bass extension. The Alpha’s dynamic driver setup though had a very dark and bass dominant sound signature with little else above the lower midrange. It basically had no headroom whatsoever. Thankfully the W50 is much more expansive in the midrange than the Alphas but it does still have some work to do to convey any sparkle in the top end.
Tapering the highs
Compared to the 4-driver UE900 the W50 does roll up a bit short in the upper range. It lacks the same sparkle and articulation that makes the UE900 sound a lot more coherent and balanced in comparison. For those looking for an EDM IEM king though I would stop short of saying the W50 is the best simply because EDM often needs a lot of lower end treble energy and sparkle to accompany heavy hitting bass lines. In a way, the W50 reminds me of the original TMA-1 headphone from Aiaiai and it’s own dark signature, impressive bassline, and attenuated treble response. The key difference though is the W50 is a notch or two higher in terms of detail and control in the midrange. The W50 has a lot more flexibility once you take the bass response out of the equation with laid-back genres such as acoustics and jazz.
In contrast to the UM Merlins, the Merlins are a bit more laid back than the UE900 but have a much deeper bass response and bigger soundstage than the UE900. The W50 competed very well for slam and extension against the Merlins but the Merlins mid and upper range felt more present and clearer even when pushed hard on EDM. The Merlin has just enough headroom and sparkle to sound more coherent and warm than the dark and brooding W50.
Do not underestimate the mids
You would be mistaken though if you thought that the W50 is a bit of a one trick pony given the dark tonality and the forward deep bass signature I am describing. Take the W50 away from heavy hitting genres and the quality of that 5-driver BA setup does indeed shine through. It is not quite as sharp in the attack as the UE900 but the W50 midrange is quite smooth and clear, particularly on female vocals exhibiting excellent control and zero sibilance. The slightly deeper husky vocals of Spanish vocalist Concha Buika combined with the phonetics of singing in Spanish is a hard vocal to capture perfectly with headphones. Any hint of a slow decay or a harsh attack or a peaky lower treble and it just comes across as a set of nails running down a blackboard. There is also often little or no bass in Buika tracks and plenty of space between the notes for the vocal to shine. Despite it’s darkish tonality the W50 does a really excellent job with Buika’s vocal range never sounding too dull or too sharp and with just the right amount of texture and emotion. The intro to “Culpa Mia” from the Nina De Fuego album with its simple multiple clap rhythm and vocal is buttery smooth and detailed on the W50.
Soundstage and matching
The W50’s soundstage is reasonably wide and imaging is pretty accurate but the attenuated or rolled off high just flattens it a bit too much for me meaning the W50 is never going to be the king of classical or soundtracks genres and looses out to the likes of the IE800, the K3003 and even the UE900 for dynamic headroom. Thankfully it is much more expansive than the Alpha series and the UM10 Pro and by all accounts, it would seem the UM50 Pro also. I do personally prefer a much airier soundstage for an IEM especially if there is bass dominant signature just to balance things out.
In terms of matching, I tried the W50 with 2 DAPs – the Fiio X5 and the Ibasso DX90. The Fiio X5’s smooth and balanced sound signature didn’t gel really that well with the already dark and smooth W50. It just sounded a bit too muted and flat for my own personal preferences. The dynamics and crystal clear detail of the Ibasso DX90 really suited the W50 for me personally. Its slam was a bit tighter and had a bit more speed and articulation than the FiiO X5. Both DAP’s had no problems powering the W50 and it is certainly more efficient than the UE900 using a similar setup.
The Westone W50 is perhaps one of the hardest hitting bass signatures I have yet to hear from a universal BA IEM. It is leaps and bounds ahead of the older UM3X, perhaps even a little snappier and more forward than my UM Merlin’s and leaves the UE900 in its rear view mirror. Gone are the days when BA IEM’s are avoided when matching with beat-heavy genres. Westone nailed this one and the W50 is anything but boring. Yet at the same time, the slightly recessed mids and highs suffer from that kind of focus on the bass and it’s inherently dark tonality. It lacks dynamic headroom and top end articulation to really compete with some of the similarly priced heavyweight audiophile customs and IEM’s from AKG and Sennheiser.
I cannot assume that was the intention but at $799 its right in the line of fire as a possible IEM that audiophiles would care to listen to. Those who want a really coherent and clean sound signature with a very wide range will not get that from the W50, you might be better off saving another $200 and trying out the W60 which by all accounts has a more balanced and detailed profile. It is though wonderfully smooth and takes it away from anything with slamming bass reveals a mids section that is very well controlled with great vocals (female in particular).
SENSITIVITY: 118 dB SPL @ 1 mW
FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 20 Hz – 20 kHz
IMPEDANCE: 25 ohms @ 1 kHz
PASSIVE NOISE ATTENUATION: 25 dB
DRIVER: 5 balanced armature drivers with a 3-way crossover.