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Phonak Audeo PFE 232 Perfect fit review: Phonak Audeo PFE 232 Perfect fit

Phonak Audeo PFE 232 Perfect fit

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Steve Guttenberg
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Steve Guttenberg

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

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4 min read

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 Audeo PFE 232 Perfect fit Earphones
8.3

Phonak Audeo PFE 232 Perfect fit

The Good

The supremely comfortable <b>Phonak Audeo PFE 232 earphones</b> come with three "acoustic filters" that alter tonal balance for exceptional clarity and a wide-open soundstage.

The Bad

The headphones lack the luxury look and feel we'd expect at this price, and they let in more external noise than they should.

The Bottom Line

The Phonak Audeo PFE 232 aren't cheap, but critical listeners may well find their swappable Acoustic Filters (for fine-tuning the headphones' already excellent sound quality) to more than justify the $600 asking price.

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET
As for the "Perfect Fit" aspect of the design, the PFE 232 includes two separate sets of ear tips: three sizes of silicone and three sizes of Comply foam tips. There's nothing unique or special about the fit and Audeo hasn't made a breakthrough in that area, but the array of tips should let virtually any listener achieve the tight seal necessary to get the best sonic performance out of the headphones.

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).

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Performance
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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Conclusion
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.

Phonak Audeo PFE 232 Perfect fit Earphones
8.3

Phonak Audeo PFE 232 Perfect fit

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 9
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