Westone W40 review

Westone’s W40 offer supreme clarity, ravishing detail, and astonishing dynamic expression, placing them in meager company within the hi-fi landscape.
Westone’s W40 offer supreme clarity, ravishing detail, and astonishing dynamic expression, placing them in meager company within the hi-fi landscape.
Westone’s W40 offer supreme clarity, ravishing detail, and astonishing dynamic expression, placing them in meager company within the hi-fi landscape.

Highs

  • Astonishing clarity
  • Immense detail
  • Expansive dynamic expression
  • Excellent balance across the spectrum
  • Impressive warmth for balanced armatures

Lows

  • A little bright on some tracks
  • Expensive

Storied audio company Westone boasts an expansive auditory catalog, supplying everything from in-ear monitors for musicians to custom made noise-attenuating earpieces for jet pilots. But it’s Westone’s impressive new line-up of consumer in-ear headphones that’s been catching our attention lately – including the top-tier W60, which packs a ridiculous six-armature arsenal into each tiny earpiece. We got our first listen to the W60 at CES 2014, and it offered one of the most incredible portable audio experiences we’ve ever had, handily winning our Best of CES 2014 award in the headphones category. But the W60’s premium tones also fetch a seriously premium price; $1000, actually, which places them in a very narrow niche.

Inciting slightly less sticker shock, though still pretty pricey, are the $500 Westone W40. That princely price tag gets you a spoil of goodies, including 25 dB of passive noise attenuation and a still-absurd array of four balanced armatures. We recently took a luxury ride on the W40 express to find out what a $500 in-ear headphone could do for our portable music catalog, and in the interest of brevity, we’ll tell you now: It can do a hell of a lot.

Out of the box

The W40 come in a premium package that gives their owner some immediate consolation for spending half a grand on a pair of in-ear headphones. Coaxing the inner package from its cardboard shell was a bit of a chore, but once we did we were rewarded with a smooth, charcoal-grey box with a magnetically-sealed cover that opens like a hardcopy book.

Westone W40 contents

Inside, a layer of thick foam held the black buds in place, with a detachable cable running in ribbons around the top of each bud before disappearing into the bottom layer. Beneath the earpieces we discovered two hard-shell jackets in red and blue that clip over the W40’s glossy ‘W’ logo to give the buds a touch of color. Below the phones we found a seriously heavy-duty plastic carrying case in orange that Westone calls a Monitor Vault. The ‘vault’ comes with a pressure release valve, heavy plastic clamps and is built tough enough to survive a direct hit from a scud missile.

Packed tightly into the orange case we found a baggy loaded to the gills with silicone and Comply foam ear tips, a tiny hex screwdriver, and an ear-wax cleaner. Beneath that was a second removable cable, this one braided. A small packet of instructions at the very bottom of the W40’s box rounds out the package.

Video Review

Features and design

The W40 are sleek, lightweight buds, simple in form and built for utility. Their matte-black finish looks remarkably unassuming considering their lofty price tag. In other words, wearing them in public won’t provide you with any bling to show off – only you will know you’re an audiophile baller.

Beneath each bud’s innocuous plastic frame rests a mighty four-pack of razor-thin balanced-armature drivers.

Inserting the buds into the ear is done in the same fashion as professional in-ear monitors: by circling the cable over the top of the ear and flipping the bud around to fill the entire canal for a snug and secure fit. The earpieces come equipped with silicone eartips preinstalled, but they can easily be swapped out for one of the many Comply foam tips. The foam tips will add a bit more noise attenuation, but they also sprinkle some cloud cover over the sound signature.

The ‘phones come attached with a straight iOS-compatible cable, complete with a slim three-button mic piece that rests about six inches down from the right earpiece. The secondary cable is braided, and does not include a microphone, but sports an adjustable ring to bind the forked extensions together. The cables attach to the buds at an arm that extends from the top of each, snapping into the small gold input via tiny gold insertion pegs.

As mentioned, the W40 also includes small faceplates in blue and red, which screw into a small hex input at the back of each earpiece. To be honest, we had no real interest in adding color to the buds in the first place, but we think users who do will find the process fairly simple, as long as they remember to remove the original black faceplate first, instead of capping the colored plates over the top as we’ve seen in similar configurations.

Beneath each bud’s innocuous plastic frame rests a mighty four pack of razor-thin balanced-armature drivers. The drivers are separated by three crossover points for bass, midrange, and treble, with a claimed frequency range of 10Hz to 18kHz.

Comfort

The W40 fit very snugly, and that helps them achieve their impressive amount of passive noise attenuation. Westone claims the W40 knock off 25 db of noise, and we’re inclined to agree. Comfort will obviously vary for each person, but once we found the right ear tip for us, the W40 were as comfortable as any bud we’ve evaluated. Fortunately, the included accessory pouch offers just about every size imaginable. The foam tips were harder to insert and more invasive, but they also stayed put with an iron grip, which could come in handy in more tumultuous environments.

Audio performance

While the W40 could be used in a number of scenarios involving premium electronics and high-quality source material, we think many folks will use them with their smartphones to play back MP3s. So that’s how we tested them: MP3s via an iPhone 5. Having done so, we can honestly say that, degraded source file or no, the W40 provided unbridled clarity, vivid definition, and miles of dynamic expression, reminding this reviewer, once again, that he truly does have the best job on the planet.

Serenely ringing sweeps of an acoustic guitar, or swelling bows from a set of violins often surprised us with their sheer beauty.

The W40’s detailed sound is so supremely refined that it provided fresh explorations into some of our favorite tracks, creating that sought-after “new discovery” experience that makes old classics sound brand new again. The W40’s provide professional mixing-level clarity, and you could certainly use the W40 in that capacity, or as a live in-ear monitor. Every nuance, muttering vocal, double-tracked guitar, or fluttering sweep of dissipating reverb was laid out in nimble, pristinely separated corridors of the sound stage.

But the W40 aren’t just accurate. We also found the word “beautiful” riddled throughout our evaluation notes. Serenely ringing sweeps of an acoustic guitar, or swelling bows from a set of violins often surprised us with their sheer beauty. When you’re enamored with the applause at the end of The Beatles’ “Bungalow Bill,” you know you’re dealing with an impressive set of headphones. The W40 also did well tracing the roots of each instrument in every recording, digging up the inherent colors within and reproducing them, albeit with a taste of the lighter, laser-sharp touch for which balanced-armature drivers are known.

Not surprisingly, the W40 really only showcased their full potential on works with extremely complex, richly-layered dimensions from bands like Radiohead, Depeche Mode, and Stevie Wonder. For example, “Before Your Very Eyes” by Atoms for Peace sounded almost like a different track altogether. Brand new details came to life, and others that had only been a ghost of a sound, like the wave effect that whirls behind the top layers towards the end of the song, were pulled from the background and aired for the first time in the light of day.

Of course, we do have a couple of nits to pick. As is common in an armature-driver system, the bass wasn’t always as potent as we wanted it, and occasionally there was just a shade too much sibilance up top, evidenced by an ‘s’ or ‘t’ in a vocal line, or a sharp snap on a snare. But those issues tended to occur only on our lightest or poorest recordings, and the W40 do an excellent job coaxing warmth and fluidity from a design that is often accused of sounding clinical or sterile.

Westone W40 earbud

Also, with due appreciation for the W40’s superb sound quality, we think most folks will think they are priced a little high for an in-ear. Still, if you can swing it, they absolutely deliver. The W40 provided us with excellent noise isolation and brilliant portable audio compatibility, with sound quality that will only improve for those who do splurge on a premium playback device. After all, and if you’ve already thrown down $500 for premium electronics, why not go for the gold with the headphones, too?

Conclusion

Westone’s W40 offer supreme clarity, ravishing detail, and astonishing dynamic expression, placing them in meager company within the hi-fi landscape. Their $500 price tag has a lot of bite, but then again, the work that goes into cramming four drivers into a tiny bud doesn’t come cheap.

These are professional headphones, designed for serious audiophiles and musicians – casual listeners need not apply. But if you want an in-ear that gives you a whole new way to explore your aging audio collection, Westone’s W40 may be the set you’ve been waiting for.

Highs

  • Astonishing clarity
  • Immense detail
  • Expansive dynamic expression
  • Excellent balance across the spectrum
  • Impressive warmth for balanced armatures

Lows

  • A little bright on some tracks
  • Expensive
Home Theater

Puro’s kids headphones don’t just sound great, they help prevent hearing damage

Puro Sound Labs' PuroQuiet headphones are a pair of noise-canceling over-ears that are designed for young listeners, allowing them to jam out to their favorite tunes, but limiting volume to avoid long-term hearing damage.
Home Theater

Throw away those EarPods -- we dug up the best headphones in every style

Trolling the internet for hours to find headphones is no way to live. Instead, leverage our expertise and experience to find the best headphones for you. Here are our favorites, with all the features you want.
Trash

The best noise-canceling headphones paint your music on a cleaner canvas

Drowning out the sound of babies, jet engines, and the outside world isn't as difficult as it seems. Here are the best noise-canceling headphones, whether you're concerned with style, comfort, or sound.
Trash

Block the outside world, tune into your own with the best in-ear headphones

Over-the-ear headphones offer top-flight sound, but they're not so easy to take along with you. If you're looking to upgrade your portable sound, check out our favorite in-ear headphones -- there's a model for every user and every budget.
Home Theater

Run to the beat of your favorite music with the best running headphones

Running is a great source of exercise but isn't always the most thrilling, especially when you're fiddling to keep your headphones in place. Check out our picks for the best headphones for running, so you never have to miss a beat again.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.
Product Review

Now that every speaker has Alexa, don't you want the best? Get the Sonos One

To compete in smart speaker space, Sonos could have just made a better-sounding Alexa speaker, but the company has a reputation to uphold, and went much further. Our Sonos One Review reveals how Sonos does Alexa better than Amazon.
Home Theater

The best TVs you can buy right now, from budget to big screen

Looking for a new television? In an oversaturated market, buying power is at an all-time high, but you'll need to cut through the rough to find a diamond. We're here to help with our picks for the best TVs of 2019.
Home Theater

Still listening on tinny, muffled TV speakers? Try one of our favorite soundbars

You no longer have to sacrifice sound for size when selecting home audio equipment. Check out our picks for the best soundbars, whether you're looking for budget options, pure power, smarts, or tons of features.
Home Theater

Amazon’s free Spotify competitor is here. Just ask Alexa

Just ask Alexa to play your favorite song. Amazon has launched a free, ad-based music streaming service to compete with Spotify's free tier on its popular Echo devices, aiming to bolster subscriptions to Amazon Music Unlimited.
Deals

Walmart deal drops the price of the 55-inch TCL 4K Roku smart TV to just $338

Was last weekend's Game of Thrones streaming experience lacking? Look no further than this 55-inch TCL TV, which features built-in Roku functionality, and can be had at Walmart for just $338.
Music

YouTube Red is now YouTube Premium. What's changed, and should you subscribe?

Thanks to Google, YouTube Red is now YouTube Premium. We explain what exactly a YouTube Premium subscription gets you, how much it costs, and break down if it's a good choice for you.
Product Review

It sounds like a Sonos, but the Beam pulls one trick none of its siblings can

Sonos makes really good surround sound speakers for home theaters, but they’re expensive. A cheaper model with great sound would be a win. The Sonos Beam is that speaker, but were too many corners cut to make a more affordable product?
Deals

Take a gander at the best deals on 4K TVs for April 2019

There's no doubt that a good 4K smart TV is the best way to take your home entertainment setup to the next level to enjoy all your favorite shows, movies, and games in glorious Ultra HD. We've got the best 4K TV deals right here.