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.
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.
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.
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.
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.