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).