The Swiss firm Phonak is widely recognized as one of the world’s largest and most respected developers of hearing improvement technologies and devices, with decades of experience in the field. Lately, however, the firm’s strategic thinkers have reasoned that there are many possible roads to “hearing improvement” and that one of them involves expanding beyond building remedial hearing products to instead create extremely high-quality music-oriented earphones. Hence, the advent of Phonak’s rapidly-evolving family of Audéo Perfect Fit Earphones, which are now being offered in three different price classes.
In Playback 42 I favorably reviewed the $179 Audéo PFE 122, which was at the time Phonak’s top model—a model that immediately found favor with the Playback team and quickly earned a reputation as one of the best mid-priced earphones available. Now, however, Phonak has announced a new and much more ambitious flagship model called the Audéo PFE 232 ($599), which is the subject of this review. Given how good the 122 was and is, several questions spring to mind. First, are the PFE 232s really better than the 122s? (We don’t mean to sound skeptical, but the 122 set the performance bar awfully high.). Second, in what ways is the PFE 232 different from the 122, and why? Third, can the PFE 232 match the 122 in terms of offering great value for money? We’ll touch on all these questions in this review.
In a positioning statement on its Audéo world Web site (www.audeoworld.com), Phonak explains its transition into the world of earphones in this way:
“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.”
The key here, as I have learned through many conversations with Phonak representatives, is that the firm defines “an exceptional listening experience” in three specific ways: fit, flexibility, and sound quality.
Fit: Phonak understands in a profound way that wearer comfort and ease of use are—and should be—essential ingredients in any successful earphone design. With this thought in mind, the firm has leveraged its many years of experience in hearing aid design (and its extensive database on human ear sizes and shapes) in creating a light, compact and uncannily “right-sized” earpiece design that many listeners should find easy to handle and to wear. You would think these factors would be givens for all earphone makers, but they’re not; indeed, fit and feel are areas where many otherwise good earphone designs fail or fall short. But Phonak knows what it is doing and has paid careful attention to details, offering features as noted below:
• Light and compact earpiece body that is designed to fit an extremely wide range of ear sizes and shapes. By design, the earpiece body provides a just-right amount of offset between the sound outlet tube (the tube that directs sound into the wearer’s ear canals) and the outer housing of the earpiece. By design, the earpiece housing rests close to the folds of the outer ear, but typically does not chafe against them. Further, the shape of the earpiece is thin, gently curved, and easy to grasp, making it easy to insert the earphones or to adjust them on-the-fly.
• In the PFE 232, the earpiece housing provides click-fit sockets for the earphone’s detachable, user-replaceable signal cables (we’ll discuss these further under “Sound Quality,” below).
• The PFE 232 comes with two distinctly different types of ear tips: bell-shaped silicone ear tips (sizes S, M, and L) and dome-shaped Comply-brand compressible foam ear tips (sizes S, M, and L). 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.”
• The PFE 232 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 to ensure a “perfect fit and reduced cable noise.”
Flexibility: The influence of Phonak’s long experience in the hearing-aid field can be seen in one very interesting design detail: namely, the use of passive audio filters that help shape the earphone’s response curves to match user’s ear characteristics and also listening tastes. This is a feature the PFE 122 and 232 have in common along with other Phonak Audéo models. Phonak explains the purpose of its acoustic filters in this way: