Interview with Karl Cartwright – Westone Laboratories

We at earphonia.com are privileged to be interviewing Karl Cartwright from Westone Laboratories.

Karl Cartwright, Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with earphonia.com


Question:

        How did you become interested in earphones and portable audio? Was there a specific moment that took you in this direction? What inspired/ directed you on this path that has been a large part of your life so far. You have been in the audio industry for a very long time now, revolutionising many aspects of the earphone industry. Please give us a summary of your history from the early days up to present day. Including some milestone achievements and also some of the struggles faced (if any).

Answer :

        I have loved music for a very long time, my father also was into music and recording and I clearly remember him having a very large console stereo that I am sure he bought on the payment plan, I can only imagine that at the time this was a very serious investment. He also had reel to reel recording equipment and put together his own mix tapes. These would range from orchestral and choral works to Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, or Jim Reeves and the Sons of the Pioneers.

        There were different periods in my life, as an Army brat (my father was career military) that our families’ main entertainment was listening to music instead watching T.V. This led me also to want to play music instead of just listening to it. Being involved in live music also led me to an interest in not only how my amp sounded, but also how the whole band sounded to the audience, you could say this was kind of my training ground for what a good and balanced mix should sound like.

        In the mid-80’s when the Sony Walkman revolution hit, the way that people listened to music dramatically changed, and as a result, made the entire experience much more personal. People started listening to music where they could never have enjoyed music before, like when jogging, biking, and walking on the beach, etc. This was great except for one major hitch (besides having to carry all those cassette tapes); the earpieces just would not stay in the ear. By this time, Westone was a well-established company in the hearing healthcare industry that provided custom ear-molds for hearing instruments, communications, and hearing protection devices. It wasn’t long before people were asking us for a solution to the portable-music problem and we started making custom earpieces that would accept the Walkman style ear buds. Westone created a custom-fit earpiece that was designed to accept the ear-bud and used the natural retentive features of the ear to help keep the earpiece in place.

        A while after we started making earpieces for the walkman style earbud we were approached by a factory that needed communications on the assembly line, they had tried some non-occluding designs with very little success on the very noisy production floor. We basically took a fully occluding hearing protection earpiece and put a hearing-aid speaker in it. By using this little balanced armature speaker we were able to combine maximum hearing protection and very clear communications.

        Shortly after that, ’90 or ‘91, Bill Chrysler, who was working with Def Leppard and Rush as they were preparing for their world tours, approached me. They each had a unique problem that they were trying to solve before the tour started. With Def Leppard the volume on stage had grown to such a level that it was becoming extremely difficult for lead singer Joe Elliot to hear the vocal monitors over the guitar amplifiers on stage. With Rush, the issue revolved around the milliseconds of delay caused by all the various signal sources on stage like floor monitors, drums, guitar amps, and side-fills. Using the same principals as we learned in the factory, we were able to sufficiently reduce the level of ambient sound in the ear to a level that the earpiece became the primary listening source. For Joe Elliot, his voice could be turned up enough in his ears that it could compete safely with the volume of the guitar amplifiers simply because the stage volume in his ears was reduced by 25 to 30 dB! For Rush, the monitor signal provided a clear and precise listening experience as opposed to a smear from all the different signal sources on stage.

        A few years later a stage-monitoring gear company, called Leabody Systems, approached me to work with them to help solve some problems Van Halen was having as they were preparing for their 1995 world-tour. Leabody introduced me to the monitor engineer for the tour, Jerry Harvey. The problem was that Alex Van Halen was using earbud style monitors and was consistently blowing them up as he cranked up the volume to compete with the stage monitors. After describing the solutions that I had developed for Def Leppard and Rush, we decided to give it a try. We built Alex some earpieces that used balanced armature drivers and featured removable faceplates so that if a driver did fail, it could be replaced in the field. It was from this early first collaboration that Ultimate Ears by Westone was born!

        Originally we offered both moving coil and balanced armature driver earpieces. However, once we had introduced the UE5 Dual Driver earpiece, the balanced armature driver had proven itself as the ideal source to use in  the demanding on-stage environment. A few years later we worked with Shure to create the first fully occluding universal fit in-ear monitor that was primarily planned to be used in the launch of the PSM 600 wireless monitor system.

        All of this leads us to the first what I would consider a milestone achievement which I would consider the first multi-driver in ear monitor, working with Jerry we created the 1st dual driver IEM and in ear monitoring would never be the same. The balanced armature driver quickly became the tool that survived and excelled in the pro touring environment. Not only was the dual-driver monitor accepted in the pro touring world, within a few years audiophiles had become interested in the product as well.       

        Another thing that I am very proud of is the shape and fit of our universal-fit products, both my brother, Kris and I worked making custom-fit earpieces and between he and I we had created probably over half a million earpieces by the time we were starting to work on a universal-fit product. I believe that he created probably one of the most copied designs for a universal-fit earpiece. It is based on the knowledge of human anatomy he acquired working on custom-fit products for hearing aids and hearing protection. Even today he continues to refine these designs as is evidenced by the W80 which is the most comfortable and smallest earpiece on the planet containing 8 Drivers.


Question:

        Do you have a brand vision/philosophy – could you share this with us please.

Answer :

        Having grown up in a time when most equipment was still tube based I have an affinity to that smooth warm sound, I always want our earpieces to be able to be enjoyed for a long period of time, never harsh or abrasive in their presentation of music. I want the clarity and space that was in the original recording to be reproduced as faithfully as I can get  without any peaks that for a short period of time feel like “wow there is a lot of high-end here” but eventually become both tiring or irritating to the listeners ears.


Question:

       You have worked with many musicians in the past – Def Leppard, Rush, Van Halen, Jerry Harvey to name a few. Do you still collaborate with musicians and do they contribute to the design process in terms of real world use/feedback?

Answer :

        I am always interested in the feedback I get from both audiophiles and musicians; as a matter of fact one of our more recent product introductions, the AM Series Universal-fit earpieces and the EAS Ambient Custom-fit earpieces was highly encouraged by the voice of the musician. We have for many years considered that for musicians on stage the ability to hear other instruments, to hear their audience, and to more easily be able to communicate with band members and crew a very important consideration when performing live. Additionally, other environments where you may be listening to music, for example travelling, also require a better way to hear what is going on around you, the boarding announcement, the sound of a horn or the ability to communicate with someone with out taking your earpiece from your ear drive us towards new solutions.


Question:

     Tell us a bit about the man behind – Westone. Do you have other passions outside the audio world, or is it still all consuming?

Answer :

        I am a person with way to many hobbies, I like motorcycling and building RC air planes and boats. But my main passions still revolve around music, either playing live which I still do or that thrill when I feel the emotion and intent of the song when it was  recorded has really come through to me.


Question:

    When you look to create a new earphone – do you have a particular approach you take? Do the product ranges get inspired by certain concepts/visions/inspirations or do you start with a target FR curve that you aim for or is it driven from a consumer need? Please tell us a little about the new product creation process.

Answer :

        This will be the answer that every interviewer hates, but it is some of all of the above. Most recently I have been working really intently on improving the harmonic content of our newer earpieces as that has a large influence on our perceptions of tone and time. Sometimes the inspiration comes from a conversation with someone as mentioned a few questions ago, these types of questions may get you to start questioning an assumption that you have and then as you work through it you discover that the kernel of something new is there. I generally first like to hear something I am working on to see if I like it, and then I will measure it to see why I like it.  I will then question my sanity. After that I will begin the long and laborious process of trying to understand that if the frequency response is not what I expected I ask myself, what is it about a part of that sound that I like and I begin the process of trying to understand that.


Question:

    A number of companies are using ADEL technology to protect the ear from possible harmful pressures. Do Westone have something similar or are you looking to implement ADEL also into your products?

Answer :

        For me the Jury is still out on this concept. The drivers/speakers used in balanced armature IEMs are dealing with very small volumes of air in comparison to the volume of air that is in the ear canal, additionally the drivers themselves are typically sealed so they are not continually pulling air from the outside of the earpiece and pumping more and more air/pressure into the ear canal. So first I have to ask where is the additional air to pressurise the ear canal coming from? Balanced armature drivers move just like a conventional speaker they have a push and then a pull motion, it would seem logical to me that when the diaphragm retracts the air will flow back into the case of the driver as the volume in the case expands. I still have additional research to do on this subject.


Question:

    Which players/sources do you use as reference for your earphones when listening and when your engineers are tuning/testing.

Answer :

        I have several sources that I use when I am working on a new earpiece, for many years I have used a Ray Samuels Apache, I am very comfortable with this desktop system. I also use an Astell & Kern 240 quite a lot I also have a Fiio player that I use. In addition I use both iPod’s and iPhone’s, various generations, and several portable amps from other manufacturers.


Question:       

        Out of all the earphones you have released over the years, is there one or two specific items that you have a personal affinity towards and the reasons why they are special to you.

Answer :

        As a musician the Ambient products work extremely well in the live environment, the ability to hear what is going on around you (as long as it is not masked by the monitor mix) allows for a more interactive performance, as you can hear the crowd react. For listening to music I am particularly enamoured of the W80, the small size and the big sound, specifically the sound stage make me like this one the most. I need to add that most likely the next high-end design that I work on will become my new favourite, if that isn’t happening in the development process I am not doing something right.

earphonia.com Westone W80 earphone Review


Question:       

        Tell us what your ideal earphone would be irrespective of price. How would you describe your ideal signature ‘FR curve’ for that ‘dream’ earphone?

Answer :

        I thought about this question a bit to try and come up with a very complex and involved answer but truth be told, all I am shooting for is that it sound REAL if we can  achieve this we have really done something.


Question:       

        What technology changes do you see in the industry that could shake up/influence the way earphones sound and are created in the near future? 3d metal printing? Home 3d printing? New materials (graphene)? New patents/technology that you are creating? Component miniaturisation? wireless communication?

Answer :

        All of the above are possibilities for the future, the ability to seamlessly integrate communications, biofeedback and music into our lives will be the thrust of a lot of future development, and as a matter of fact this is currently taking place. Some aspects of this development will be that communications is the most important aspect of the design and that will cause compromise possibly in the earpieces capability to reproduce sound, as we see future miniaturisation more and more of these capabilities will improve until the next level of performance is achieved.


Question:       

        What is your home listening set up – NOS? Tubes? Vinyl? Digital/DSD? Streaming? Also, what are your top 3 tracks that you visit time and time again.

Answer :

       Most of the time that I listen to music at home I am either wearing earpieces or I am in my little recording studio in the basement, in my studio I have an older set of Mackie 824’s which serve me quite well in that capacity. I also have a very large collection of vinyl and CD’s that I have collected over a lifetime.

       I will listen to quite a few different things when I am working on earpieces to name just a few is kind of difficult, there are two cuts from Lyle Lovett, Joshua Judges Ruth, produced by George Massenburg, Church and North Dakota are two songs that I love for realism in spatial imaging. I Can See Clearly Now by the Holly Cole Trio and  I Could Be The One by the Hatters really put me inside the band,  The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is really great for its combination of both Lo Fi and Hi Fi sounds. Some Miles Davis, Birth Of Cool and TuTu can be thrown in there as well as other classically recorded Jazz albums, and I haven’t even mentioned Black Sabbath Itzahak Pearlman or Cinncinati Pops, Pictures at an Exhibition. Wow this list could get really long so I will stop here.


Question:       

        Tell us about any new exciting products/technologies we have to look forward to from Westone soon.

Answer :

      We have just released our custom versions of the Ambient in ear monitors for musicians as well as our ES80 as I am writing this, I hope that these products resonate with musicians and music lovers the world over. As for the rest we will have to wait and see.

earphonia.com_Westone_Interview_ES80

Thanks again Karl for sharing your/Westone’s journey so far and doing this interview with earphonia.com

Written By
More from earphonia.com

Mitchell and Johnson – MJ2 Headphone – Electrostatic Elevation

Mitchell & Johnson - MJ2 GBP499 8.9 Sound Signature 9/10 Build Quality...
Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *