Newspapers seem to be full of ads from manufacturers touting highly sophisticated hearing aid products, yet it has been rare to see such firms leverage their considerable technical expertise to create headphones for music lovers—until now. The Swiss firm Phonak, one of the world’s largest and most respected developers of hearing aid technologies and devices, has taken the plunge into our world, offering its family of Audéo Perfect Fit Earphones, which promise extremely high sound quality at mid-tier prices. As a case in point, consider Phonak’s flagship Audéo PFE 122 in-ear headphone/headset ($179), which is the subject of this review.
On its Web site, Phonak poses a rhetorical question that may be on many of your minds: “Why is Phonak producing earphones?” The company’s simple answer is this:
“Thanks to decades of experience, Phonak has extensive knowledge of the ear in terms of acoustics and of comfort. With our Audéo Perfect Fit Earphones, our extensive knowledge now helps music lovers enjoy an exceptional listening experience.”
Phonak has addressed the comfort part of this equation in three specific ways. First, the PFE 122 earpiece is designed to be easy to handle and to insert, so that wearers can quickly achieve a good seal between the PFE 122’s eartip and their ear canals; the earpiece is also sized and shaped to comfortably fit a very wide range of users. Second, Phonak ships the PFE 122 with three sizes of silicone eartips along with a set of Comply-brand compressible foam eartips. Phonak points out that the silicone tips “are washable and better for use during exercise,” while the Comply tips “are better at filtering out ambient noise, making them the best choice for travel or use in noisy environments.” Finally, the PFE 122 also ships with a set of silicone ear guides that route the earphone’s signal cables up and over the wearer’s ears, and are said ensure a “perfect fit and reduced cable noise.”
With an eye toward addressing the “acoustics” part of the equation, Phonak says the PFE 122 is indirectly based on its most advanced “digital hearing aid technology, which gives Swiss-precision sound with the greatest comfort” (although the PFE 122 is a purely passive earphone—not a self-powered, digitally-controlled transducer). But the influence of Phonak’s long experience in the hearing-aid marketplace can most definitely be seen in one very interesting design detail: namely, the PFE 122’s use of passive audio filters that help shape the earphone’s response curves to match user’s tastes or ear characteristics. As Phonak points out,
“The purpose of this filter is to provide you with the best quality sound that matches what you would hear naturally when not wearing ear tips. Hearing differs significantly from one person to another, and unlike standard earphones, Audéo PFE allows you to select the filter that works best for you.” (Italics are mine).
Phonak offers three color-coded types of passive audio filters:
•Black filters, which are said to “provide stronger bass and treble” (and that, on paper, offer what may be the most accurate tonal balance overall).
•Grey filters, which are said to “provide stronger middle tones” (and that vie with the Black filters for most accurate sound overall).
•Green filters, which are said to “provide stronger bass while still maintaining high-quality midrange.”
The PFE 122 ships with a set of Grey filters installed, but also comes with a filter changing tool and a filter pack that includes a spare set of Grey filters, plus two pairs of Black filters. For purposes of this review, Phonak also provided a pack of Green filters so that I could evaluate all three types on a side-by-side basis. The key point to bear in mind is that, unlike any other earphone, Phonak’s PFE 122 gives you three different, well-documented, and highly repeatable voicing options. Cool.
EASE OF USE
I found that, exactly as advertised, the PFE 122 is unusually easy to handle and to insert, so that fitting the earphones to my ears was a snap. One design touch that really helps here is the “leg”-shaped outer section of the Phonak earpiece, which provides a just-right amount of offset from the eartips (a point many designers overlook), and that gives you a convenient structure to grasp as you snug the earphones into a comfortable position. The only question users will need to settle for themselves is which of the PFE 122’s four different eartip options give the best overall fit and seal. I preferred the silicone eartips overall, though the Comply foam tips can also give excellent results (if, of course, they fit your ear canals well).
The next question to settle is which of Phonak’s three available passive audio filter options best matches the characteristics of your ears (and personal tastes). I describe the effects of each of Phonak’s PFE filters under SONIC CHARACTER, below.
Then, users need to decide whether or not to use Phonak’s included silicone ear guides for the PFE 122’s signal cables. Normally I find such cable guides to be more of a bother than a benefit, but Phonak’s ear guides proved an exception to this rule. They helped to keep potentially unruly signal cables under control while at the same time providing a flexible and silky-smooth fit. Good work, Phonak.
Finally, the Phonak’s handy built-in mic with call send/end switch enables the earphone to work beautifully as what is essentially a high-fidelity headset. Office mates who assisted me in testing this aspect of the PFE 122 told me that the Phonak mic reproduced the sound of my voice far more accurately and naturally than ordinary desk phone (or cell phone) handsets do.
One of the first points to bear in mind about the PFE 122 is that, in terms of tonal balance, it doesn’t have just one “sonic character,” but three distinctly different characters—depending on which sets of passive audio filters you choose to install. Below, I’ll offer my observations on the sonic effects of each of the three available types of filters (though you should be aware, as always, that your perception of their sound might differ from mine).
Black filters: I found that Phonak’s Black filters yielded an extremely clear, well-balanced and neutral sound—one I found very musically satisfying and suitable for enjoying many different types of musical material.
Grey filters: Although these were not my personal preference, I could see how a case might also be made for Phonak’s optional Grey filters, because they provided a relatively restrained touch of midrange-emphasis—one that many listeners might find to give a more vivid, intense, or “up close” musical presentation overall.
Green filters: Phonak’s Green filters, contrary to what I expected on the basis of the description provided on the firm’s Web site, didn’t so much provide “stronger bass,” but rather rolled off the PFE 122’s highs (and to some extent trimmed midrange response, too), thus yielding a considerably darker sound overall. The Green filters might be appropriate in cases where listeners seek to use darker tonal balance as a means of compensating for low-frequency background noises or, perhaps, as a way of solving problems with recordings that sound excessively bright or edgy.
My description of other key aspects of the PFE 122’s sound is based on use of my preferred set of Black acoustic filters, so that the results you might achieve with these earphones could vary depending on which sets of filters you decide to use. Note, however, that many of core elements of the “Phonak sound” come shining through no matter which filters you choose—though the filters do of course influence the shape of the earphone’s frequency response curve.
Clarity, focus, and resolution: Phonak’s PFE 122 offers a remarkably open, transparent, and fine-grained sound—sort of like the sonic equivalent of stepping up from a low- or medium-resolution digital camera to a very high-resolution model. Indeed, I felt the Phonak sounded much more like an earphone from the $300-and-above price class than it did a model selling for well under $200. What I mean by this is that the PFE 122 effortlessly reproduced small, fine, low-level textural details that tend to “fly beneath the radar” for most mid-$100 ‘phones. But what is important is not just that the PFE 122 captures these details, but the way in which it handles them. Some ‘phones create a false sense of detail through the expedient of exaggerated treble response, but that isn’t what the Phonaks do at all. On the contrary, the PFE 122’s let sonic details unfold in a perfectly natural, comfortable, and almost self-effacing way, without any hyper-dramatic “spotlighting” at all.
Transient speed and delicacy: Transient response is another area where the PFE 122 sounds more expensive and sophisticated than its actual pricing would suggest. So much vital information is (or at least should be) found at the beginnings and endings of individual notes, because transient sounds enable us to tell whether notes are played softly or aggressively, presented with a smooth or more vigorous touch, and left to ring out and sustain or deftly damped and quieted. And when sophisticated combinations of transient sounds come along in the music, the Phonak consistently surpasses expectations by rendering transients with speed and cat-quick agility, yet also with an effortless and unforced quality that tells you the PFE 122’s aren’t having to work hard to deliver their transient magic. Can really expensive universal-fit in-ear headphones surpass the PFE 122 in this area of performance? They can, but typically they do so only at much higher price points (think in terms of models costing nearly twice what the Phonaks do, or even more).
To appreciate what I mean, here, listen to the beautifully recorded title track from Paquito D’Rivera’s Portraits of Cuba [Chesky]. This lovely jazz recording features a sizzling Latin rhythm section where you’ll get a chance to savor the distinctive “thuuump” of congas, the bouncy snap of a wood block keeping time, the gentle shimmer of cymbals, soft backing chords from a piano, and the voices of a myriad of drums—all joining forces to establish a fast, energetic pulse for the song against which Rivera and his fellow horn section players can present solo lines or occasional soaring ensemble swells. What is impressive is the manner in which the Phonaks keep the timbres and dynamic envelopes of the various instruments separate and distinct—so that each instrumental voice sounds believable and true to itself.
What’s also fascinating is to hear how the PFE 122’s convey a sense of space within the soundstage, showing how some instruments are positioned more distantly from the microphone array (but perhaps closer to the walls of the recording venue), while others are obviously closer to the mic array and thus sound a bit more “alive” and immediate. And because the Phonaks offer such high levels of resolution, listeners can use the timing and tonal aspects of reverberant sounds, which are easily heard through these ‘phones, to judge the overall size and acoustic properties of the recording space, adding a heightened sense of realism.
These observations document desirable sonic qualities that would be welcome in earphones priced well above $300, but are really remarkable for a model that sells for a much more accessible $179, meaning that Phonak’s PFE 122 is a legitimate bargain. The value proposition of Phonak’s PFE 122’s is compounded further still by their clever passive audio filters, which give users three different voicing options to choose from—options few* if any other earphones offer.
* Granted, Sennheiser’s expensive IE8 flagship in-ear ‘phones do provide user-adjustable bass-level trimming controls, but I would say those controls offer a much narrower window of adjustment than Phonak’s versatile voicing filters do.
Consider this product if: you want a well thought out and carefully executed mid-priced earphone/headset that—in virtually every important way—sounds so refined and sophisticated that it seems to belong in a different and higher price class. Also consider the PFE 122 if you like the concept of an earphone that offers multiple, versatile voicing options—not just one “signature sound.”
Look further if: Hey, wait a minute; in this price class, we’re hard pressed to come up with reasons why you would look further (although Etymotic Research’s excellent hf2 does provide worthy competition, as does the Klipsch Image S4). To get decisively better performance, you’ll need to spend a lot more.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced competition):
•Tonal Balance: 9.5
•Frequency Extremes: 9.5 (bass)/ 9.5 (treble)
• Comfort/Fit: 10
Summing Up: To say we are favorably impressed by the Phonak PFE 122 would be a gross understatement. This is one of the best mid-priced in-ear headphones we’ve ever heard, and one whose three versatile types of passive audio filters give you something no other headphone does; namely, voicing options that can be tailored to fit the characteristics of your ear and/or your personal listening tastes. Enthusiastically recommended.
SPECS & PRICING
Phonak Audéo PFE 122 In-Ear Headphone/Headset
Accessories: Three pairs of silicone eartips (S, M, L), one pair of Comply foam eartips, one pair of silicone over-the-ear cable guides, box of six audio filters (2 Grey filters/4 Black filters) with changing tool, cleaning tool, carrying pouch
Frequency response: 5Hz – 17kHz
Weight: 15 grams?
Sensitivity: 107 dB SP/1 mW
Impedance: 32 ohms
Warranty: 2 years, part and labor