Over the past year, one of Playback’s favorite earphone discoveries was the mid-priced Audéo PFE 121/122-series earphone/headset from the giant Swiss hearing technology specialist Phonak (yes, the very same Phonak that builds some of the world’s most highly respected hearing aid devices). The Phonak people have spent decades working to understand the intricacies of human hearing and striving to develop advanced technologies for the betterment of hearing, so the move into the world of high-performance, music-oriented earphones seemed like a logical “next step” to them.
Background: The Audéo PFE 121/122 Started Things Off
Sure enough, we saw clear evidence of the depth of Phonak’s expertise in the PFE 121/122. Not only did that earphone sound good, but it also felt good to wear—in part because the Phonak team had sufficient data on human ear sizes and shapes to be able to create what many people regarded as a perfectly “right-sized” earpiece. What is more, the PFE 121/122 (the numbers denote differences in color only, as near as we can tell) also offered a distinctive sonic feature: namely, a series of passive, in-line acoustic filters that allow listeners to dial in different (and highly repeatable) voicing curves to suit both personal preferences and individual differences in hearing perception.
You’ve Got (Sonic) Options
The filters are color-coded to help users understand which filter is which, with the coding scheme going something like this:
Grey Filters: Provide what many audiophiles might find to be the most evenly balanced, “neutral” voicing curve—a curve that some listeners, however, might perceive as being slightly midrange centric.
Black Filters: Provide a variation on what some musicians might call a “smiley face”-voicing voicing curve, where bass and highs are subtly emphasized and mids are subtly recessed or “scooped.” This is, quite frankly, a type of curve that many headphones and, for that matter, many high-end loudspeakers attempt to provide, in part because the resulting sound is typically quite dramatic and exciting. Also, listeners who tend to find the Grey Filter curve a bit too midrange centric are apt to be more comfortable with the Black Filter curve.
Green Filters: Ostensibly the Green Filter curve provides enhanced bass, though what we felt was that it actually does is to leave bass alone while gently rolling off upper mids and highs. This curve is, in our view, least suitable for purist audiophiles, though it might work for listeners who have a strong aversion to upper midrange/treble brightness.
The cool point, though, is that Phonak technology gives listeners clear-cut voicing options in ways that no other earphones do.
Meet the New Boss: The flagship Audéo PFE 232
Just before Can Jam-RMAF, we were surprised and delighted to receive word that Phonak would soon be launching a new, more ambitious flagship earphone called the Audéo PFE 232 (MSRP $599). Reasoning that since the PFE 121/122 was very good, and therefore the new PFE 232 might be even better, Playback requested a review sample, which has just arrived. I thought I would frame up a brief blog to walk readers through the unboxing process and to offer first impressions.
What’s In the Box?
The PFE ships with the following elements in its packing carton:
•One set of PFE 232 earphones fitted with Phonak’s Grey acoustic filters as a default, and also fitted with an iPhone-compatible mic/remote module.
•Three sets (S, M, and L) of bell-shaped silicone ear tips.
•Three sets (S, M, and L) of Comply™ foam ear tips.
•One pair of soft rubber over-the-ear cable guides.
•One set each of Phonak’s Grey, Black, and Green in-line acoustic filters with a small carrying tray and filter installation/removal tool.
•One cleaning tool.
•One high quality, detachable signal cable that deliberately omits the mic/remote module (Phonak envisions that purists might prefer this cable to the standard mic/remote-equipped cable).
•Users Manual in six different languages.
•A belt-loop-style, padded, fabric-covered carrying pouch that (and we can’t begin to tell you how much we dig this feature) provides two separate, zipper-closure pockets—one for the earphones, the other for all of the accessories.
What Makes the PFE 232 Different/Better?
Let me provide a brief list of highlights
•Drivers: For starters, the PFE 232 is—unlike the PFE 121/122—based on dual balanced armature drivers. This alone is a huge upgrade.
•Better, and now detachable, signal cables: The PFE 232 appears to come with even higher quality signal cables than the PFE 121/122, and the cables are detachable and user replaceable. Though it might seem a small point, it’s not; better cables = better sound.
•Headset or earphone only—you make the call: Unlike the PFE 121/122, the PFE 232 can be run sans microphone module with purist-oriented straightline signal cables, or you can leave the standard mic-equipped headset cable installed. The point is that the PFE 232 lets you establish your own priorities.
•All the acoustic filters at your fingertips: Unlike the PFE 121/122, the PFE 232 comes with a full set of all the types of acoustic filters that Phonak offers, meaning you can experiment to your heart’s content until you find the just-right voicing curve that works for you.
I’ve only had very brief listening time with the PFE 232, but at this stage I like what I hear. I configured the PFE 232 with my preferred filter choice (the Phonak Grey Filters) and ear tip choice (the Phonak silicone ear tips, size L), and gave the ‘phones a brief sonic “shakedown cruise.” What I discovered, in very simple terms, is that the PFE 232 sounded very much like the PFE 121/122 (not a bad thing at all, in my book), but with the imaginary sonic “Refinement” and “Resolution” control knobs both dialed up to “12.” And that’s what makes this earphone so cool. It builds upon the established strengths of the PFE 121/122, but then pushes that core sound to a fundamentally higher level. The changes aren’t radical, nor would you want them to be (when something ain’t broke in the first place, you want to be very, very careful about how you make improvements), but they are immediately audible and musically rewarding.
Stay tuned for an upcoming full-length review in Playback. Until then, happy listening.