Phonak is one of the world's largest hearing aid manufacturers, so it's safe to say it knows more about sound than your average startup or celebrity-endorsed manufacturer that's just now dipping their toes into the lucrative headphone market.
Phonak launched the Audeo brand four years ago, and its headphones are now widely distributed in Europe, but the U.S. ramp up has been slow. The company offers a complete line of earphones, with prices starting at $119 for the PFE 012 all the way up to $599 for the PFE 232.
All Audeo earphones are exceptionally comfortable, but the PFE 232's excellent sound to boot earns it a solid recommendation that competes with the very best in-ear models.
Design and features
I expected lavish build quality from this $599 headphone, with something special like pure titanium earpieces or silver cables, but the PFE 232 is just a black and gray plastic headphone.
The headphone doesn't come with ear tips preinstalled, so you should try them all and see which creates the best seal -- that's standard fare for in-ear designs, but this is where it gets interesting: Audeo headphones use proprietary Acoustic Filters that change the sound of the earphones (the filters are extremely small discs that fit in the nozzle of each earpiece).
You get three sets of color-coded filters: gray, black, and green. The gray filters are installed when you unbox the earphones and they emphasize midrange frequencies, but sound the most neutral to me. The black filter boosts the bass and highs and the green filter pushes only the bass frequencies up.
The filters are packed in a small travel case, which comes with a special tool used to install and remove the filters in the earphones. Few headphones allow this sort of fine-tuning.
The PFE 232 comes with a 48-inch-long, tangle-resistant cable with an inline microphone and volume control compatible with iPods, iPads, iPhones, and most smartphones using a 4-pole 3.5mm jack. You also get a standard cable without the microphone and volume control. Both cables are user replaceable, so when they eventually break you can pop on a new one.
The thin, flexible earphone cables are designed to loop back behind your ears, and Audeo supplies curved silicone "ear guides" that slip onto the cables to help secure the earpieces in place. The guides helped, but the earpieces sometimes lost the seal and would require some fiddling to re-establish the tips' seal in my ears to get the best possible sound.
Additionally, the tiny "L" and "R" markings on the inside lobe of the earpieces aren't easily legible in low-light situations.
On a more positive note: the earpieces are very light, and I found the PFE 232 comfortable to wear for hours on end.
The PFE 232 is a proprietary Audeo balanced armature design (most headphone manufacturers using balanced armatures buy them from outside suppliers). This type of driver produces more-accurate sound than standard in-ear headphone drivers, that are, in essence, tiny speaker drivers. The PFE 232 has two balanced armatures in each earpiece.
You also get a small zippered carry case. The earphones come with a generous two-year warranty.
To its credit, I don't need to AB test the PFE 232 to hear that this is a great sounding earphone. The clarity is truly remarkable, and it has the sort of open, out of the head imaging I find hugely appealing.
The PFE 232's bass is deep and extremely well defined while the treble is vivid, but never harsh or bright. I also felt the sound was more open and less "canned" than what you get from so many in-ear headphones, including Sony's new $400 balanced armature XBA-4.
Acoustic jazz and classical music were particularly well served by the PFE 232. They turned up the heat on Rapheal Saadiq's funk, highlighting the drums' attack with impressive power. In fact, the PFE 232's spacious sound is on par with some full-size on-ear headphones like the $299 Philips Fidelo L1.
Switching over from the gray to the black Acoustic Filters adds bass, but the overall sound is still crisp and clean. I'm very happy with the tonal balance with the black filters, and would recommend their use with rock or any electric music.
The green Acoustic Filters elevated the bass even more, but also dulled the treble. The green filter is too much of a "good thing," and in my opinion it sacrificed the best qualities of the PFE 232's sound. As always, sound balance is a matter of taste, but the PFE 232 offers the chance to nudge the balance closer to what you want.
Up to this point I was listening to the PFE 232 with an iPod Classic, but considering its $599 price, I was curious to see if the sound would improve when I plugged them into a $140 FiiO E17 USB digital-to-analog converter/headphone amp. That actually made a big difference, with significant gains in transparency and detailing over the iPod Classic, but the PFE 232's noise isolation capabilities sound below par, even for universal fit in-ear headphones.
The Phonak Audeo PFE 232 is expensive, but the universal fit Shure SE535 runs $499, so the PFE 232 isn't so far out of line with other flagship earphones. It's an awesome-sounding universal fit earphone, and the Acoustic Filters offer buyers a degree of fine-tuning not available from the Shure and other headphones.