The Swiss firm Phonak is widely recognized as one of the world’s largest and most respected developers of hearing improvement technologies and devices, with decades of experience in the field. Lately, however, the firm’s strategic thinkers have reasoned that there are many possible roads to “hearing improvement” and that one of them involves expanding beyond building remedial hearing products to instead create extremely high-quality music-oriented earphones. Hence, the advent of Phonak’s rapidly-evolving family of Audéo Perfect Fit Earphones, which are now being offered in three different price classes.
In Playback 42 I favorably reviewed the $179 Audéo PFE 122, which was at the time Phonak’s top model—a model that immediately found favor with the Playback team and quickly earned a reputation as one of the best mid-priced earphones available. Now, however, Phonak has announced a new and much more ambitious flagship model called the Audéo PFE 232 ($599), which is the subject of this review. Given how good the 122 was and is, several questions spring to mind. First, are the PFE 232s really better than the 122s? (We don’t mean to sound skeptical, but the 122 set the performance bar awfully high.). Second, in what ways is the PFE 232 different from the 122, and why? Third, can the PFE 232 match the 122 in terms of offering great value for money? We’ll touch on all these questions in this review.
In a positioning statement on its Audéo world Web site (www.audeoworld.com), Phonak explains its transition into the world of earphones in this way:
“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.”
The key here, as I have learned through many conversations with Phonak representatives, is that the firm defines “an exceptional listening experience” in three specific ways: fit, flexibility, and sound quality.
Fit: Phonak understands in a profound way that wearer comfort and ease of use are—and should be—essential ingredients in any successful earphone design. With this thought in mind, the firm has leveraged its many years of experience in hearing aid design (and its extensive database on human ear sizes and shapes) in creating a light, compact and uncannily “right-sized” earpiece design that many listeners should find easy to handle and to wear. You would think these factors would be givens for all earphone makers, but they’re not; indeed, fit and feel are areas where many otherwise good earphone designs fail or fall short. But Phonak knows what it is doing and has paid careful attention to details, offering features as noted below:
•Light and compact earpiece body that is designed to fit an extremely wide range of ear sizes and shapes. By design, the earpiece body provides a just-right amount of offset between the sound outlet tube (the tube that directs sound into the wearer’s ear canals) and the outer housing of the earpiece. By design, the earpiece housing rests close to the folds of the outer ear, but typically does not chafe against them. Further, the shape of the earpiece is thin, gently curved, and easy to grasp, making it easy to insert the earphones or to adjust them on-the-fly.
•In the PFE 232, the earpiece housing provides click-fit sockets for the earphone’s detachable, user-replaceable signal cables (we’ll discuss these further under “Sound Quality,” below).
•The PFE 232 comes with two distinctly different types of ear tips: bell-shaped silicone ear tips (sizes S, M, and L) and dome-shaped Comply-brand compressible foam ear tips (sizes S, M, and L). 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.”
•The PFE 232 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 to ensure a “perfect fit and reduced cable noise.”
Flexibility: The influence of Phonak’s long experience in the hearing-aid field can be seen in one very interesting design detail: namely, the use of passive audio filters that help shape the earphone’s response curves to match user’s ear characteristics and also listening tastes. This is a feature the PFE 122 and 232 have in common along with other Phonak Audéo models. Phonak explains the purpose of its acoustic filters in this way:
“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).
Skeptics might at first think the filters are little more than sonic gimmicks designed to give undiscerning listeners the acoustic equivalent of “gongs and whistles” to play with, but that isn’t the case at all. The design thinking that has gone into the filter is much more serious and sophisticated than that, as this deeper explanation form Phonak makes clear:
“When wearing Audéo PFE the ear canal is blocked and the function of the ear is changed. The amplification of the pinna disappears.
1.The natural resonance of the ear canal disappears.
2.That has to be compensated by the earphone, so the target curve is theoretically the open ear transfer function, which corresponds to a flat curve in the free field and diffuse field:
The earphones must recreate these phenomena for the user to perceive a natural sound. Since each person has a different ear, the compensation curves should be different from one person to the other. Standard earphones do not take these factors into account, which makes Audéo PFE unique.
Internal studies at Phonak have shown that most people are not comfortable with a sound from an earphone that reproduces exactly the curve of a standard open ear. The curves of Audéo PFE are a compromise between a frequency response that includes the full open ear gain compensation as well as one that has bass and treble predominance.”
Accordingly, 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).
•Gray 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 232 ships with one set of Gray filters installed and comes with a filter changing tool and a filter pack that includes a spare set of Black and Green filters so that listeners can experiment with all three filter types to see which ones work best for them.
The theme of flexibility also carries over into more functional and practical day-to-day aspects of the earphone.
•The PFE 232 can be configured as an earphone/headset, complete with an included iPhone-compatible three-button mic/remote. The PFE 232 is fitted with this cable when it first arrives.
•However, with the needs and interests of sonic purists in mind, the PFE 232 can also be set up as a pure earphone (sans the inline mic/remote module) via an included straight-line signal cable.
•To address the fact that the PFE 232 comes with an extensive set of accessories, the earphone/headset comes with cleverly designed two-chamber, zipper-closure carrying pouch with one section for accessories and a separate section for the earphones themselves. This isn’t an entirely new idea, but Phonak has executed it beautifully; it’s great to have a secure place to keep all the “goodies” while still having easy access to the ‘phones.
Sound Quality: Here we see the area where the PFE 232 differs most sharply from the PFE 122. The PFE 232 features:
•A two-way design featuring dual balanced armature-type drivers, which are said to help improve overall sonic resolution, balance, nuance and detail.
•A choice of two high quality, detachable, user-replaceable signals cables—one fitted with a made-for-iPhone remote/mic module, and the other without. To be clear, the train of thought is that, under some circumstances, the presence of the mic/remote module might in some small ways negatively impact sonic clarity and purity, and that it therefore makes sense to give listeners a straight-line cable option.
The PFE 232 is similar in sonic character to already very good PFE 122, but not identical, as we’ll discuss below. As with the PFE 122 it is important to bear in mind that the PFE 232 doesn’t have just one set of voicing characteristics, but rather has three distinctly different characters—depending on which sets of passive audio filters are installed. I found that the PFE 232 responds to the various Phonak filter types in much the same way the PFE 122 did, though the 232’s underlying “core sound” is just enough different from the 122’s that it is worth doing a re-evaluation.
Below, I’ll provide observations on what I perceived as the effect of each of the filters on the PFE 232, though you should be aware that your own perceptions of the filters might differ from mine (which is precisely why Phonak offers you a choice).
Black filters: I found that Phonak’s Black filters yielded an extremely clear, revealing sound that placed emphasis on extended response at both the high and low frequency ends of the audio spectrum. On well-recorded material, I felt the Black filters enabled the PFE 232’s to achieve not only the most accurate, but also the most dramatic presentation possible.
My perception is that the PFE 232 offers more powerful and richly textured bass than the PFE 122, and that it also provide more delicate, expressive, and detailed upper mids and highs—facts that the black filters really help make clear. But with that said, let me add that the black filters can, when installed on the very revealing PFE 232s, become a double-edged sonic sword capable of making some records sound overly bright and perhaps slightly bass-heavy.
Gray filters: According to both Phonak’s description and to my ears, the optional Gray filters provide a broad and relatively restrained touch of midrange and upper midrange emphasis. When used on the PFE 122, I found this filter could sound a little too “midrange forward” for its own good, but with the PFE 232, which offers somewhat stronger bass and highs than the 122 can deliver, the gray filters give a more natural-sounding and pleasing result.
I found the gray filters seemed somewhat more forgiving than the black filter on less than ideal recordings, partly because they create the illusion of the PFE 232’s highs being rolled back just a touch (at least relative to midrange frequencies), which helps tame any overly sharp edges or excess brightness that might be present in the material being played, which can be beneficial.
The tradeoff, though, is that the gray filters can—at least to my ears—make the frequency response of the PFE 232 sound less fully extended than it actually is, especially in the treble region where the top-end can sound dulled just a bit. While I do think the gray has real merits, I preferred the sound of the PFE 232 with the black filters installed on the whole, though that preference is not as strong or clear-cut as it was when I used the gray filters with the PFE 122.
Green filters: Phonak’s Green filters are billed as offering “stronger bass,” but what I really think happens is that they leave bass pretty much untouched, while rolling off the PFE 232’s upper mids and highs. This response characteristic could conceivably be helpful in cases where listeners want a darker tonal balance (perhaps to help compensate for low-frequency background noises or to offset problems with excessive brightness). There is, too, the fact that some listeners just plain enjoy a sound that is, to be blunt, somewhat “bass-enriched.” Nevertheless, my thought is that most accuracy-minded listeners will find either Phonak’s black or gray filters to be a better all-around choice.
The “Core Sound” of the PFE 232: As I mentioned above, the core sound of the PFE 232 is similar to that of the PFE 122, though both deep bass and treble response are a bit stronger. But the bigger differences between the two earphones involve overall resolution and refinement—areas where the PFE 232 enjoys a clear-cut edge over its less expensive sibling. Like the PFE 122, the PFE 232 offers an open and transparent sound that is well focused and finely resolved, and like the PFE 122, the PFE 232 offers excellent transient speed and delicacy. But what sets the PFE 232 apart—especially on really great recordings—is its ability to dig much deeper into the inner details of music, and to capture considerably finer shadings of sonic nuance and expression.
The difference I am trying to describe is a bit like what happens if you listen to studio recordings through a good set of control room speakers, but then shift to using truly speakers—so that you suddenly feel almost as if your ears and brain have been directly hard-wired to the studio console. It isn’t a matter of the PFE 122s being somehow “not good enough,” because they are exceptionally good for their price. It’s just that on great material the PFE 232 can do even more, so that listeners are able to connect in a direct and immediate way with recordings, with nothing (or almost nothing) to stand between them and their music. Personally, I find this kind of “direct connection” is worth a lot, though I think the PFE 232’s deep resolution and refinement might register mores strongly with some listeners than others.
One important note I should also offer is that I found I needed to use a really first rate portable amplifier with the PFE 232 in order to fully appreciate what the earphones could do (for our tests we used the ALO Rx Mk2 amplifier and the Ray Samuels SR-71B Blackbird amps, both of which are excellent). If you listen straight from an iPod, you could potentially miss some of the sonic subtleties the PFE 232 brings to the party.
Are the sonic differences between the PFE 122 and the PFE 232 worth the more than $400 jump in price that’s involved? Only you can answer that question, and let’s concede up front that it is a really tough question to answer. On one hand, the PFE 122 is very, very good, and in my view offers exceptional value for money. On the other hand, the PFE 232 is one of the most focused, revealing, and finely resolved universal-fit earphones I’ve ever heard—one that in some respects rivals even today’s best custom-fit in-ear monitors, which is saying a mouthful. True excellence is never cheap, but if you want to dig down deep to get to the innermost elements of the music, then the PFE 232 could be a good choice for you,
Whether you do or don’t enjoy the music of Jack Johnson, there’s no denying that the man (with help from an obviously expert recording/production team) knows how to put together a beautifully made recording. To appreciate (deeply appreciate) what I mean, try listening to any or all of the tracks on Jack Johnson’s On and On (Universal) while playing close attention to the textures and timbres of the individual instruments you’ll hear. On this desk the PFE 232’s serve up a treasure trove on sonic riches and will, in pretty short order, have you asking deep philosophical questions along the lines of, “How high is up?” On the track “The Horizon Has Been Defeated”, for example, listen to the song’s loping, syncopated reggae-influenced bass line and note that—in keeping with the best reggae traditions—the bass sound deep, rich, and warm, but with a slightly softly focused character. At the same time and on the same track, note that the sounds of cymbals in general and of the high hats in particular, sound almost shockingly clear and pure, with high-frequency overtones that shimmer and linger on the air long after most competing earphones would have faded back to silence. If your amp is up to the task, the PFE 232s offers resolution and detail that just won’t quit, allowing you to pick up on subtle elements of the record that might go missing with other ‘phones.
Drawing a different example from the same album, check out the track “Taylor” and note the fact that Johnson’s voice is mic’d just a bit differently than on some of the other songs, conferring an especially up close, immediate, and even intimate quality that gives the lyrics extra impact. My point is that the PFE 232 invites you to listen back through the chain of playback (and recording) equipment to understand more clearly how the record was made, and why—almost as if you were looking over the shoulders of the mastering engineer or record producer to take notes on the decisions being made. With many earphones, even some pretty good ones, you may find you eventually run into a “glass ceiling” of sorts in terms of performance potential, where the transducer eventually come to a point where it sounds as good as it is ever going to, and that’s that. But with the PFE 232 in play, my sense was always that recordings themselves were the limiting factor, so that as put on better and better recordings the Phonaks just kept on revealing more and more potential. This “ceilings unlimited” quality is one the reasons to chose the PFE 232s, though you will—as mentioned above—need a very fine amplifier to hear what these ‘phones can do.
Yet another well-made recording that showcases the PFE 232’s strengths is the jazz group Floratone’s eponymous album (Blue Note), featuring Bill Frisell and Matt Chamberlain. Several things are noteworthy about the overall presentation. First, the eclectic Floratone ensemble uses unexpected and unorthodox combinations of acoustic instruments, electric instruments, with selectively applied touches of electronic processing adding extra sonic flavors. What the PFE 232s make crystal clear is which instruments are captured in an unprocessed way, which have had electronic embellishments applied, and which ones were captured in natural acoustic environments (or not). What’s really impressed is the manner in which the PFE 232s disentangle and make plain the multiple, dense layers of instrumentation, so that you are free to follow individual musical threads or to drink in the musical whole, just as you please. The listening experience through the Phonak 'phones is not cold or artificially “analytical” by any means, but they place so much musical information before you that—if you happen to be in an analytical or deeply contemplative mood—they’ll keep you engrossed for hours on end.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of the PFE 232’s worth comes when take them off and substitute lesser earphones. In most cases, you can’t help but feel an almost involuntary sense of disappointment or emotional letdown, because you realize—even if only in a subliminal way—that the sheer density of information you were enjoying only seconds ago has faded once you set the Phonaks aside. In short, taking off the PFE 232s in the middle of a listening session proves the truth of Joni Mitchell’s classic line: “…you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
Consider these earphones if: you want one of the great universal-fit earphones—and possibly the best ever. Consider the PFE 232, too, if you value lightweight earphones that offer easygoing comfort, and a design whose distinctive acoustic filters address the fact that different listeners may interpret sonic accuracy in different ways. Finally, note that the PFE 232 can be configured for convenience (as an iPhone-compatible headset), or for a purist listening experience (with no mic/remote).
Look further if: you are price sensitive; any way you slice it, the fact is that the PFE 232 is presently the world’s most expensive universal-fit earphone. Also look further if, down deep, you regard the idea of interchangeable acoustic filters as a gimmick (which they’re not) or as a feature that demands more manual dexterity than you bargained for (which is partly the case, at least for some users).
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced competition)
•Tonal Balance: 9.5
•Frequency Extremes: 9.5 (bass)/ 10 (treble)
•Value: 8.5 (only because $599 is a whole lot to pay for any universal-fit earphone)
Phonak’s PFE 232 is one of the finest universal fit earphones we’ve tried, and one of the very few to seriously rival the performance of today’s best custom-fit in-ear monitors. While the $599 price of entry is sobering, these ‘phones offer Swiss-influenced precision and a sound that is both revealing and thrilling.
SPECS & PRICING
Phonak Audéo PFE 232 In-Ear Headphone/Headset
Accessories: Three pairs of silicone ear tips (S, M, L), three pairs of Comply foam ear tips (S, M, L), one pair of silicone over-the-ear cable guides, filter changing tool and storage box containing one pair of black filters and one pair of green filters, bearing in mind that the PFE 232 come fitted as standard with a pair of gray filters), cleaning tool, carrying pouch, one detachable signal cable with iPhone-compatible three-button mic/remote module, one purist-oriented straight-line signal cable.
Drivers: dual balanced armature-type drivers
Frequency response: 5Hz – 17kHz
Weight: 16 grams?
•109 dB SP/1 mW, gray filters installed
•107 dB Sp/1 mW, black or green filters installed
Impedance: 47 ohms
Warranty: 2 years, part and labor