To appreciate what I mean, here, listen to the beautifully recorded title track from Paquito D’Rivera’s Portraits of Cuba [Chesky]. This lovely jazz recording features a sizzling Latin rhythm section where you’ll get a chance to savor the distinctive “thuuump” of congas, the bouncy snap of a wood block keeping time, the gentle shimmer of cymbals, soft backing chords from a piano, and the voices of a myriad of drums—all joining forces to establish a fast, energetic pulse for the song against which Rivera and his fellow horn section players can present solo lines or occasional soaring ensemble swells. What is impressive is the manner in which the Phonaks keep the timbres and dynamic envelopes of the various instruments separate and distinct—so that each instrumental voice sounds believable and true to itself.
What’s also fascinating is to hear how the PFE 122’s convey a sense of space within the soundstage, showing how some instruments are positioned more distantly from the microphone array (but perhaps closer to the walls of the recording venue), while others are obviously closer to the mic array and thus sound a bit more “alive” and immediate. And because the Phonaks offer such high levels of resolution, listeners can use the timing and tonal aspects of reverberant sounds, which are easily heard through these ‘phones, to judge the overall size and acoustic properties of the recording space, adding a heightened sense of realism.
These observations document desirable sonic qualities that would be welcome in earphones priced well above $300, but are really remarkable for a model that sells for a much more accessible $179, meaning that Phonak’s PFE 122 is a legitimate bargain. The value proposition of Phonak’s PFE 122’s is compounded further still by their clever passive audio filters, which give users three different voicing options to choose from—options few* if any other earphones offer.
* Granted, Sennheiser’s expensive IE8 flagship in-ear ‘phones do provide user-adjustable bass-level trimming controls, but I would say those controls offer a much narrower window of adjustment than Phonak’s versatile voicing filters do.
Consider this product if: you want a well thought out and carefully executed mid-priced earphone/headset that—in virtually every important way—sounds so refined and sophisticated that it seems to belong in a different and higher price class. Also consider the PFE 122 if you like the concept of an earphone that offers multiple, versatile voicing options—not just one “signature sound.”
Look further if: Hey, wait a minute; in this price class, we’re hard pressed to come up with reasons why you would look further (although Etymotic Research’s excellent hf2 does provide worthy competition, as does the Klipsch Image S4). To get decisively better performance, you’ll need to spend a lot more.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced competition):
• Tonal Balance: 9.5
• Frequency Extremes: 9.5 (bass)/ 9.5 (treble)
• Clarity: 10
• Dynamics: 9
• Comfort/Fit: 10
• Sensitivity: 7
• Value: 10
Summing Up: To say we are favorably impressed by the Phonak PFE 122 would be a gross understatement. This is one of the best mid-priced in-ear headphones we’ve ever heard, and one whose three versatile types of passive audio filters give you something no other headphone does; namely, voicing options that can be tailored to fit the characteristics of your ear and/or your personal listening tastes. Enthusiastically recommended.
Phonak Audéo PFE 122 In-Ear Headphone/Headset
Accessories: Three pairs of silicone eartips (S, M, L), one pair of Comply foam eartips, one pair of silicone over-the-ear cable guides, box of six audio filters (2 Grey filters/4 Black filters) with changing tool, cleaning tool, carrying pouch
Frequency response: 5Hz – 17kHz
Weight: 15 grams
Sensitivity: 107 dB SP/1 mW
Impedance: 32 ohms
Warranty: 2 years, part and labor