“You are what you hear.”
Sure, it’s a different sense than you’re used to hearing that phrase used in, but it’s no less true. For musicians, maybe it’s more like, “You play what you hear.” Musicians the world over learn more and more all the time about how to take advantage of everyday technology to tackle tasks more quickly and efficiently. Sometimes certain things get lost, though. It’s easy to tell when I get to rehearsal, for instance, that the keys player learned the songs using the built-in speakers in a laptop or phone. I can tell that because they didn’t hear that the chord in bar 5 of the verse is in first inversion because no one can tell on phone speakers that the bass is playing the 3rd of the chord instead of the root. Alright, maybe the saying goes, “You play what you enable yourself to hear.”
What I’ve led up to is trying to figure out exactly why I see so many pro-level (and yes, I mean as pro as you can get) musicians who listen to all their music through the factory-issue Apple EarPods that come with an iPhone. I’ve put worse on to hear music, but not much. So, why is this how people whose entire lives are dedicated to music choose to consume it. Let’s be honest, no musician wants to hear LESS when they simply listen for recreation. We spend endless dollars on molded in-ear monitors with a million drivers, but we drop down to factory white earbuds to consume for pleasure. Trust me, most people check to make sure they have their wallet/purse and their phone with them when they walk out the door. I add one thing; I make sure I have my wallet, phone, and something to listen with.
Knowing that the quality of universal in-ears have gone up exponentially in the past few years, I set out to find a set that I knew could deliver perfect monitoring on-stage, and comfortable, yet perfect reference quality for listening to tunes on my own time. I think I’ve settled here on the Westone UM Pro 50 Earphones.
Westone has been around for a long time (they boast 50+ years), making incredibly quality products. It always sounds to me like once someone has decided on Westone monitors, that’s where they stay, no matter what they have or will have tried. My own personal introduction to Westone was when the audiologist I went to so I could get molded earplugs ordered me (by default) Westone plugs. Those were, and still are (6 years later) a perfect fit and get the job done under heavy use. With that sort of personal endorsement under my belt, I was eager to get the UM Pro 50 buds happening as soon as possible.
The UM Pro 50 Earphones have, as you may guess, 5 balanced armature drivers and three-way crossover design for each side. As a refresher, with balanced armatures, you get an electric current passed through a coil that’s wrapped around the armature. Change to the current causes attraction between the coil and the magnets it is between. The armature is connected to the monitor’s diaphragm, and its vibration is what gives us the sound. One of the primary things that make balanced armatures unique is that they don’t need to displace air to produce sound. So, balanced armature monitors tend to provide some better isolation. The idea of the crossover is to split the input sound into the ranges appropriate for how each armature is tuned.
The bodies of the earbuds themselves are a clear plastic, with all of the guts pretty visible. That’s not important, but it’s always good when reviewing a product to see the quality under the hood. I certainly approve. The cable is a pretty rugged twist design which doesn’t ever get tangled as long as you’re not beating them up. The tightening slider is good quality too, easy to move around. The UM Pro 50 series comes with the Westone Mini Monitor Vault, which is made of a high impact plastic that you absolutely don’t need to worry about breaking on an everyday abuse level. Mini is definitely the word for it, though. I use the 3-finger approach to wrapping the cable up and the Pro 50’s fit in just fine. Included with the monitors are 10 different tip choices, 5 sizes each of their silicon dome tip, as well as 5 of the memory foam tip. It’s important to try each one, as the monitors definitely have an optimal sound with whichever size is best for your ear. There should be something for everyone with that many options to choose from where you’ll get a good, snug fit.
Yes, yes…all the features, but how do they SOUND and function for what I’m looking for? Well, after the mandatory burn-in (I just let music play through them 8 hours a day for 2 or 3 days after a quick “hey!” test run), I always go to the Dr. Chesky binaural albums, which are recorded to sound like an actual live setting of your ears, using all kinds of quick tests. Immediately I could feel the sound stage as being huge. The test track of an organ playing from low to high had every note played distinctly and the church that the track is recorded in felt perfectly represented in size. Everything from that test disc was great. So…I moved on to real tunes. I was astounded at how well the UM Pro 50’s delivered on some new Top 40 pop songs. The vocals and tiniest synth embellishments were crystal clear, yet they sat perfectly on top of the most defined yet earthquaking synth bass/drum thumps. On those kinds of tracks where there are endless amounts of tracks being used, being able to clearly identify them was exactly what I felt I needed out of analytical or leisurely listening sessions. Usually after trying to grasp something that’s at the cutting edge of sound design like that, I move on to something much more stripped down, like a piano ballad. Being able to hear the intended spacing intended for tracks so intimate to breathe makes songs like that much more alive than tiny. Putting on a live concert recording, you could feel the energy and precise dynamics of the music on stage and the distinct reactions of the crowd while still feeling them separated, yet in conversation with one another.
Now I needed to take the UM Pro 50’s to the other side, as monitors for my own performances. Luckily, unlike some bass players, I like to hear most of everything in my monitor, so I’d really know what the Pro 50’s could handle. In a well-known Nashville dance hall, which has a very large stage and demands minimal stage volume, I’m totally dependent on my monitor mix. With 3 vocals, guitar, keys, bass, drums, and talkbacks, there would be a lot to get into such a tiny, and universally fitted package. After a little bit of mandatory EQ and panning work (just because I like to have everything in the monitors), we were in serious business Now, I do like universal monitors in that I don’t have to be as precise about a drum mix because I’ll get a little bit of bleed. But balancing that against parts with zero stage volume like DI signals from keys is a different story. The UM Pro 50’s responded well to the best of the natural sounds with minimal editing needed from the engineer. The line signals sat really well just as they were. I never lost the lowest of my bass notes against a kick drum or against the hardest belting from any of the vocalists. It was truly a win all around.
Of course, in many instances, I could have just reviewed two entirely separate products. That’s not the case, though. Everything I’ve had to say about listening to recorded music and live stage monitoring came from the same earphones. If ear fatigue wasn’t a real issue, I could honestly say that I could listen to tunes on the way to the stage, play the gig, and put tunes right back on as I walk off, and feel 100% comfortable with doing it all on the same buds. Those buds are the Westone UM Pro 50 earphones, and they knocked it out of the park. If you are what you hear, then thankfully with these, I get to hear everything.