Well, here we have something just a little bit different. While most high-end in-ear headphones rely on mechanical noise reduction to block external sounds, the Phiaton PS 20 NC in-ears use electronic noise cancellation to do the job. This approach is the one typically used by larger over-the-ear headphones, of course, and it has also been applied on occasion with in-ear ‘phones, so it doesn’t seem particularly exceptional. But as a step off the beaten path, we might ask “why?” and—maybe even more to the point—“does it work?”
The “why?” question can be answered in a straightforward fashion. By relieving the earphones of the need for mechanical resistance to outside sounds, the PS 20s don’t have to have quite as tight a seal to the ear canal. This should allow the designer to create a more comfortable earphone, at least when compared with those models that create pressure points (a problem in my experience with some models in the excellent sounding Etymotic line). In our early testing, I’d say that the comfort level of the PS 20 is well above average. My comfort reference is the Klipsch Image X10i among earphones that actual seal against the interior of the ear canal, and I’d say the PS 20s are about 90% as comfortable. The oval shape of the Klipsch earpiece still distributes pressure more evenly, and the Klipsch is easier to insert.
There are two secondary benefits of the electronic noise cancellation approach. One is that the bass performance of the PS 20s is somewhat less dependent on the exact seal one achieves against the ear canal. This advantage varies with the earphone we’re comparing against, but it is there. I like being able to insert the earphone and not have to play around with it to get the seal right (both to achieve adequate bass and balanced sound between the left and right earpieces). The other benefit is that electronically one can reduce noise in a different frequency band than one does mechanically. Electronic reduction seems to work better at low frequencies, which may help depending on the environment.
All of this doesn’t matter much if the sound isn’t accurate, so let’s get down to the sonic character on offer here. I tested the PS 20s using an iPhone 4 loaded with tracks ripped from CD in Apple Lossless format, the Moon Audio Silver Dragon LOD (Line Out Dock) cable and a NuForce Icon Mobile amplifier. I tested them in flight on an American Airlines flight, as well as in an office setting.
In a way, the sound of the PS 20s is the kind of sound that gives the makers of high-end earphones fits. That’s because the PS 20s deliver very high sound quality. Spend extra money and you can get some small improvements (the way most people think about it). For example, if you gave the PS 20s and a pair of $500 earphones to a friend, I can imagine two reactions. First, they might say the two earphones basically sound the same. They might also say they’d like a more “exciting” sound, meaning they’d like some particular frequency band to be more emphasized.
If musical accuracy is what you’re after, though, the PS 20s will do quite nicely. From about 300 Hz to 8kHz they sound pretty flat, which is a much greater achievement than it might first appear. Female vocals, a particular challenge for headphones of all stripes, are presented by the PS 20s with an open but not shrill sound. Above and below this band the Phiatons seem to roll off slowly, but in a smooth and low distortion way. From the mid-bass up, there is enough energy that the PS 20s don’t sound too thin, though in absolute terms I’d like to have a bit more lower-mid-range. Cymbals and other high frequency instruments are presented with admirable detail, though I think you would sense that mid and upper treble could have a touch more energy. Overall this is what I’ve referred to in the past as an “n” shaped frequency response curve and it is desirable for those who find themselves wanting clarity and smoothness in equal doses. It also works for those who object to boom and sizzle.
Because of the noise reduction circuitry, the PS 20s are also rather good at resolving low-level detail. This is important for a sense of a real acoustic environment as well as for articulating the particular beauty of certain instruments. I wouldn’t say the PS 20s are state-of-the-art here, but in practical terms they do quite well. This strength is complimented by what sound like low-distortion drivers that don’t muddy the sound, yielding good separation between instrumental lines. The net result of all this is that the PS 20s give you a very good ability to really hear “into” the music.