One important note I should also offer is that I found I needed to use a really first rate portable amplifier with the PFE 232 in order to fully appreciate what the earphones could do (for our tests we used the ALO Rx Mk2 amplifier and the Ray Samuels SR-71B Blackbird amps, both of which are excellent). If you listen straight from an iPod, you could potentially miss some of the sonic subtleties the PFE 232 brings to the party.
Are the sonic differences between the PFE 122 and the PFE 232 worth the more than $400 jump in price that’s involved? Only you can answer that question, and let’s concede up front that it is a really tough question to answer. On one hand, the PFE 122 is very, very good, and in my view offers exceptional value for money. On the other hand, the PFE 232 is one of the most focused, revealing, and finely resolved universal-fit earphones I’ve ever heard—one that in some respects rivals even today’s best custom-fit in-ear monitors, which is saying a mouthful. True excellence is never cheap, but if you want to dig down deep to get to the innermost elements of the music, then the PFE 232 could be a good choice for you,
Whether you do or don’t enjoy the music of Jack Johnson, there’s no denying that the man (with help from an obviously expert recording/production team) knows how to put together a beautifully made recording. To appreciate (deeply appreciate) what I mean, try listening to any or all of the tracks on Jack Johnson’s On and On (Universal) while playing close attention to the textures and timbres of the individual instruments you’ll hear. On this desk the PFE 232’s serve up a treasure trove on sonic riches and will, in pretty short order, have you asking deep philosophical questions along the lines of, “How high is up?” On the track “The Horizon Has Been Defeated”, for example, listen to the song’s loping, syncopated reggae-influenced bass line and note that—in keeping with the best reggae traditions—the bass sound deep, rich, and warm, but with a slightly softly focused character. At the same time and on the same track, note that the sounds of cymbals in general and of the high hats in particular, sound almost shockingly clear and pure, with high-frequency overtones that shimmer and linger on the air long after most competing earphones would have faded back to silence. If your amp is up to the task, the PFE 232s offers resolution and detail that just won’t quit, allowing you to pick up on subtle elements of the record that might go missing with other ‘phones.
Drawing a different example from the same album, check out the track “Taylor” and note the fact that Johnson’s voice is mic’d just a bit differently than on some of the other songs, conferring an especially up close, immediate, and even intimate quality that gives the lyrics extra impact. My point is that the PFE 232 invites you to listen back through the chain of playback (and recording) equipment to understand more clearly how the record was made, and why—almost as if you were looking over the shoulders of the mastering engineer or record producer to take notes on the decisions being made. With many earphones, even some pretty good ones, you may find you eventually run into a “glass ceiling” of sorts in terms of performance potential, where the transducer eventually come to a point where it sounds as good as it is ever going to, and that’s that. But with the PFE 232 in play, my sense was always that recordings themselves were the limiting factor, so that as put on better and better recordings the Phonaks just kept on revealing more and more potential. This “ceilings unlimited” quality is one the reasons to chose the PFE 232s, though you will—as mentioned above—need a very fine amplifier to hear what these ‘phones can do.
Yet another well-made recording that showcases the PFE 232’s strengths is the jazz group Floratone’s eponymous album (Blue Note), featuring Bill Frisell and Matt Chamberlain. Several things are noteworthy about the overall presentation. First, the eclectic Floratone ensemble uses unexpected and unorthodox combinations of acoustic instruments, electric instruments, with selectively applied touches of electronic processing adding extra sonic flavors. What the PFE 232s make crystal clear is which instruments are captured in an unprocessed way, which have had electronic embellishments applied, and which ones were captured in natural acoustic environments (or not). What’s really impressed is the manner in which the PFE 232s disentangle and make plain the multiple, dense layers of instrumentation, so that you are free to follow individual musical threads or to drink in the musical whole, just as you please. The listening experience through the Phonak 'phones is not cold or artificially “analytical” by any means, but they place so much musical information before you that—if you happen to be in an analytical or deeply contemplative mood—they’ll keep you engrossed for hours on end.