Pros: sonically great, top notch build quality, incredible sound
Cons: price is perhaps high
When PFE 232 was announced back in February, there was plenty of interest, at least until the price tag was revealed. At £400 ($600), Phonak’s new flagship IEM is the most expensive dual-BA universals, even beating some triple-driver IEM’s in price. Phonak’s Audeo PFE series have been known as great bang for the buck IEM’s, so let’s see if the PFE 232’s are worth their £400 price tag.
Drivers: Dual Balanced Armature
Color: Black / White
Weight: 16g, 0.5oz
Cable Length: 120cm, 3.8 ft Apple iPhone / iPod's mic supported
Three different types of acoustic filter
The PFE 232 came in a nicely packaged box with a good assortment of accessories. Even the box itself seems well designed, with a magnetic cover that opens to reveal a circular window, showing off the IEMs themselves. Upon opening the box, I found 6 instruction manuals, each in a different language. Out of the package the 232’s have an iphone remote cable installed. Included with the headphones is an additional cable without a remote. The remote works perfectly with the iphone as well as my Samsung galaxy S2. The earpiece connectors on the cables are colour-coded black and white to denote sides instead of the more common red and blue. The white plug connects to the white earpiece and black with black. Beneath the IEMs was a soft sided carry case with two zippered compartments and a belt loop. Within the case are 3 pairs of silicone tips (SML), 3 pairs of Comply foam tips (SML), 3 sets of acoustic filters, a cleaning tool, and silicone ear guides.
Upon picking up the PFE 232’s the first thing I noticed was how light they were. However, this in no way translates to a cheap build. The 232’s housing is plastic, but it feels sturdier than most IEMs I have used. On the front is a grey metal plate with a nonfunctional port with a black grill embedded. One thing to note here is that they are not made of titanium, as many early reviews had said. They are totally plastic. Overall the earpieces have a very solid feel to them while being extremely lightweight. Think of the 232’s lightweight as a sign of a well designed product, to rival the work put into emitting pristine sound. The cable seems to be designed for comfort rather than just to be durable. They have a “springy” feel to it when they are bent, which makes extremely tangle-resistant and gives it almost no memory effect. There are no microphonics while in use due to the cable’s texture, which is rubbery, but smooth, it makes for one of the better cables I have come across, again adding to the good value for money eve at such high prices. I have no complaints about the cable while in use, but there are two issues that could affect its durability. The bottom half of the cable has an adequate thickness of ~2.5mm, but the top halves above the Y-split are on the thin side at ~1.5mm per cable. The thinness on the top half reduces the weight of the cable, but I personally would prefer it to be thicker. A thin upper cable, along with no strain reliefs, leads me to worry about the durability of the cables. I am told that phonak will be selling spare cables on their site.
After wearing them, I think the 232’s live up to their name as Perfect Fit Earphones. As expected from a world class hearing aid company, the comfort of the PFE 232’s are top notch. The shape of the IEM’s fit perfectly against the ears and they’re light enough for me to forget they’re even there. I especially like the fit with their included tips, which Phonak spent as much time developing as the IEM’s themselves to provide synergy between the two. Usually I have a hard time getting a good seal with even the smallest sized tips, but I achieved perfect fit on the first try with both the small comply foam and silicone tips that came with the PFE 232’s. There is a slight difference in sound signature between the two types, but I prefer the included tips over other popular choices such as Monster Supertips or Sony Hybrids.
At a price of £400 the success almost solely depends on the sound quality out of the 232’s. One of the most notable parts of the PFE 232’s is the use of filter tips. In their own words they are made to;
"provide you with the best quality. Hearing differs significantly from one person to another, and unlike standard earphones, Audéo PFE allows you to select the filter that works best for you. When wearing Audéo PFE the ear canal is blocked and the function of the ear is changed. The amplification of the pinna disappears.”
Now I must say purely from reading this, it sounds like a little gimmick to drawn in the punters with a few fancy words, rather than a serious reason to buy the earphones, however, this is not the case at all. After testing it is obvious that a serious amount of time has gone into creating these filters. The scientists at phonak go on to say;
“The natural resonance of the ear canal disappears. That has to be compensated by the earphone, so the target curve is theoretically the open ear transfer function, which corresponds to a flat curve in the free field and diffuse field: The earphones must recreate these phenomena for the user to perceive a natural sound. Since each person has a different ear, the compensation curves should be different from one person to the other. Standard earphones do not take these factors into account, which makes Audéo PFE unique. Internal studies at Phonak have shown that most people are not comfortable with a sound from an earphone that reproduces exactly the curve of a standard open ear. The curves of Audéo PFE are a compromise between a frequency response that includes the full open ear gain compensation as well as one that has bass and treble predominance.”
You may wonder why I am spending so long talking about filters, however, I really can’t stress how significant they are. The 3 different filters change the sound so much you could be fooled into thinking they are 3 different earphones entirely. It gives the earphones 3 distinct sound signatures. The filters come in 3 different colours, Grey, Black and Green. The grey ones come preinstalled and the other 2 are inside a kit made to swap them out for other ones.
(Please note that Phonak themselves have said the perception of each filter is particular to each individual and the following is only my opinion, which whilst hopefully giving an insight into the differences, are still based on my personal preferences)
The Grey Filter (Preinstalled) – The grey filters from what I can tell where made to be used with the less demanding records. They hold back the sound a little and keep back the extra brightness poor quality seems to bring. They hold back the highs, and bring forward the lows a little keep the midrange slightly restrained also. This makes average recordings sound better than usual. On the downside they do feel a little constrained and in my opinion hold the earphones back a bit in the high ends taking away some of the sparkle and making it a tad dull. They have brought the best out of poorer quality sources from what I have heard. This makes it ideal for people using them with their mobile phones for convenience as well as quality.
The Black Filters – My favourite of the three is the black filter. This in my opinion is the clearest of the three giving the mot accurate presentation on well-recorded clips. Naturally the 232’s are already very revealing. These filters bring this characteristic out to its fullest, clearing out the low ends and bringing out the detail in the highs. However, one thing to be noted is that the revealing nature of these filters may make some recordings feel too bass heavy for those who like the lows taking a back seat. These are probably best for those who want the most clear and unchanged sound from a track, using a decent source as well. Personally this sound is as close to perfect as I have gotten from an IEM.
The Green Filters – These are said to offer the most bass of the three. Rather than anything else I think leaving the lows unfiltered and rolling off the mids and highs achieve this. They are particularly good when you either want to bring out the bass of a song more or hold back excessive highs. These filters really seem too bass heavy for me, aimed at those who would claim to be “bass-heads”. That being said, if the low ends is what you want most then these are the filters for you. They will definitely be a hit with those who enjoy RnB, Hip-Hop and other bass-inclined genres.
The filters, as you can see, are a very important part of the PFE 232’s selling point. They are the basis for the amazingly clear, descriptive and even seductive sound you get out of these earphones. The sound signature is similar to its predecessor the PFE 122 with obvious major improvements. One thing to note would be the source you use with the PFE 232. Whilst they are optimised to use with IPods, if the sole reason you get these is for use with an apple I-device, I would recommend sticking to the 122. You really do need to be carrying a fairly good portable amplifier to pair up with these amazing earphones. Using the ALO Rx Mk2 gave a level of detail I had not experienced prior to getting these earphones. Paired with other pieces of top equipment and high quality recordings, these give the opportunity to listen to the inner details of music and really appreciate the excellence of whatever you are listening to.
The question most people pose is weather or not the PFE 232’s are worth the extra approximate £300 over the 112’s. The answer to this really depends on how you look at it. If you are hoping to the 232’s to be three times “as good” then stop right there and forget about getting these. This is not in any way because the 232’s are no good, its is because of the amazing value for money the 112’s are coupled with the diminishing returns you get in products like this. In the same way that a £2 million diamond wont be twice as big and shiny as a £1 million one, but still beautiful beyond belief, the PFE 232’s are purely amazing, rivalling even some of the top custom models available at the moment. Personally I think this is as good a universal fit earphones can get. Without going custom, at least sound wise, there is nothing more the good people at Phonak can do. Which, therefore, justifies the seemingly massive price tag.
So what’s the final verdict on the PFE 232’s? Are they worth their asking price? It depends. While 232’s sound quality is the best I’ve heard, it has to be paired with other top end components to really make them not only worth the money but perhaps even a bargain. However if you are looking for one top tier to meet your headphone needs, which even anticipate a drastic change in your preference in music, these seriously will not be bested, at least not by anything available today. Probably the best universal IEM ever, even at £399, Phonak still manages to offer bang for your buck.
Ratings (out of 10):
Bass* – 9/9/10
Mids* – 9/10/9
Highs* – 10/10/9
Comfort – 10
Sensitivity – 8.5
Balance – 10
Clarity – 10
Value** – 9
Overall – 9.5
** The only reason for this not being a perfect 10 is the price tag being higher than any other universal IEM on the market.