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.
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).