I’m torn about the PFE 232 Earphones from Phonak Audeo. They are about the best sounding universal-fit earphones I’ve yet heard. They are well made, extremely comfortable, customizable (more on that later), and have replaceable cables.
But wow, are they expensive. There is no getting around that. It’s an elephant in the room you can’t ignore. And when the price of universal-fit earphones approach, and sometimes even surpass the cost of custom fit earphones, they better have something unique to offer. Let’s find out.
Phonak Sounds AG is a Swiss maker of hearing aids that got into the audio market because many of the components in modern hearing aids are also used in high quality earphones. It’s a natural symmetry.
Phonak’s first earphone was the PFE 111/112 which won raves for both its design as well as sound. They became a favorite among those wanting topnotch quality at a reasonable price. Even with one armature, the PFE 111/112s were favorably compared with earphones costing more.
Well, as they say, that was then; this is now. Many competing brands of earphones have come out since the PFE 111/112 and have been reviewed at The Gadgeteer. Today, there are a lot of good sounding earphones covering many price ranges.
Phonak has released the Perfect Fit (PFE) 232 with two balanced armatures instead of the single armature used in the 111/112s. They didn’t change the shape, since the original worked so well, and only did subtle exterior design changes. They are a gun-metal gray with black plastic. At first glance, you may think that at this price, they should have either aluminum or wood accents. But plastic is extremely light in weight and moldable to a more ergonomic shape. These earphones weigh almost nothing.
Let’s look at the ergonomics of the PFE 232. It is an unusual shape. No other earphones look like them. Yet when they are worn, it makes sense. They’re called Perfect Fit for good reason. They wrap around and behind the ear, much like Westone and Shure earphones. You can also wear them with the cable down if you’re willing to swap left for right, and the audio may be compromised. While they may not be the most comfortable universal earphones I’ve used – the Klipsch X10s own that crown – the 232s are very comfortable, and I can wear them for hours without ear pain or irritation. Being able to wear earphones comfortably for hours is not as common as you may think.
The PFE 232s come with a decent array of accessories. Included are two sets of cables; one with a mic for smartphones and one without. To be truthful, I hardly ever use earphones on my iPhone. The iPod Classic is my primary music device. So whether earphones have a mic or not is irrelevant to me. However, I know many people use a smartphone exclusively for music and the mic feature is essential. The multifunction button on the PFE 232 works as advertised. You can adjust volume, pause, forward, reverse, take calls… all the usual stuff. Note that the multifunction button only works on Apple devices.
Also included are six pairs of eartips; three different sizes of foam and silicone. There are also silicone ear-shaped guides which help keep the wires in place behind the ears. Eyeglass wearers can just tuck the wires behind the eyeglass earpiece without the guides. Since I wear glasses, I prefer this method. The ear guides are comfortable, but cumbersome to use.
One of the common problems with earphones in any price range is the durability of the thin cords. No one wants to replace a pair of expensive earphones just because of issues with the wires. Phonak has equipped the PFE 232s with removable cables. What that means is that no matter what happens to your earphone cables – worn, torn, chewed by your dog; whatever – you just disconnect the wires and reconnect new ones. It makes you wonder why everyone isn’t doing this.
The included accessory that matters more than the others and accounts for some of the cost are the three color-coded acoustic filters with included case and changing tool. These filters are tiny and difficult to change, but they can dramatically alter the sound depending on your tastes. The green filter promotes bass at the expense of mids and treble. Using the green filters makes the PFE 232s sound like $50 earphones marketed to teenagers. The bass may be cleaner than cheap earphones, but I don’t understand the logic. The black filters boost bass and treble much more accurately and could be considered the closest to a traditional earphone sound signature. The black filters do sound good, but on some songs, there is a harshness in the treble that bothers me. I prefer the gray filters for their overall neutral and balanced sound, but then, I lean toward that type of sound anyway. Phonak packages the PFE 232s with the gray filters already installed and supply an extra gray set along with the black and green filters. My advice is to live with the gray filters until you are familiar with the sound and then change to the black or green filter to decide what you like.
In my listening tests, I decided to try old and new music. The song, “Roads to Moscow,” from Al Stewart’s “Past, Present and Future” album features just about everything to test headphone quality. It begins with a high, flamenco-styled guitar overlaying some purposeful acoustic strumming followed by a choral bridge. The PFE 232s effortlessly pick up the squeakiness of the guitar strings, the different vocal ranges of the choir and the excellent soundstage of the song delivering a complete audio treat.
A new song, “Colors,” by April Smith and the Great Picture Show is a joyful romp complete with accordion, hand clapping and a thumping bass drum. The attack and recovery of the drum hits in this song allow the visceral kick of the drum to be felt without letting it bleed into the other frequencies. That’s the mark of good headphones and earphones. That means any aural muddiness heard in a particular song would be the result of the recording and not the earphone speaker.
Roxy Music’s ode to Texas, “Prairie Rose,” is one of the harshest songs I have in my collection. I don’t know if it was intentional, but the recording quality leaves a lot to be desired, despite how good the song is. That actually makes it a perfect test song. Here the high frequencies were not brittle or painful, so I could listen to the whole song without wanting to rip the earphones from my head. Conversely, Honeyroot’s song, “Falling” has deep, deep bass that can buzz and distort cheaper speakers. The PFE 232s don’t seem to care. The bass is musical and rich without any boominess or buzzing of any kind.
The PFE 232s don’t have what I would call a jaw-dropping sound – unless you are migrating from Apple’s earbuds or other cheap buds. But what the PFE 232s do have is what you should be hearing; accurate sound as the musicians intended it to be heard.
The PFE 232s are unfazed by whatever style of music I throw at them. I have heard and reviewed many earphones – custom and universal – and very few have a sound signature as balanced and easy to listen to as the PFE 232s. There are many earphones that excel in reproducing bass, vocals, or the higher frequencies. But the ability to handle the entire frequency range and still keep the clarity and power in the music is difficult to achieve. I commend Phonak for this and can highly recommend the PFE 232s if you have the means. But their high cost holds me back from making my recommendation unconditional.