First of all, i apologize for any incorrect grammar or limited vocabulary. I'm not natively English. So please let me know if there are errors or poorly written parts.
I just purchased the Phonak Audeo PFE-232 and i already own a Shure SE535 for some time and Sennheiser Precision CX400 II.
Before i had numerous cheap/midrange Sennheiser's and Sony's, but i've no idea about the models.
But these aren't even close to the first 2 named headphones, so i won't include these in this review. It's just to get an idea of my "portable history" and credibility.
Aside from my portable experience i've been an audio buff for many years now with my home setup. Owning a Emotiva & Monitor Audio RX series setup currently and a Marantz & KEF iQ series setup before.
It's been these last 2 years that i'm trying to achieve a more similar quality sound for my portable setup, which seemed to be harder then i thought. It wasn't bad, but just not at the same level somehow.
Anyway, lets get to it.
I've tested both headphones on:
- iPod Nano G6
- Sandisk Sansaclip+ (Rockboxed)
- Samsung Galaxy S2
- iAudio J3
First of all: I never liked the Nano sound at all using the SE535's. And since the EQ is really poor there's not much to do to tune it a little. It only gets worse when fiddling with it.
When i received this after owning the low/midrange Sennheiser i was blown away. The difference was huge. The Shures were much more open, clear and live like sounding. Like you'd expect from buying a €400 headphone.
Owning the J3 i was very happy with my new setup. But after some time there were some things that did make me think it wasn't everything i was looking for.
Especially when my J3 died and tried using my Nano i was just plain unhappy. I couldn't believe the difference in sound quality. The highs were hissing, and the lows weren't there supporting the sound like it should do. And i'm no basshead at all. I do like a bit of bass, but i prefer it rather thin with some punch and agility instead of too present, overpowering, boomy or lazy. The mids were alright though, but that's not enough. Also, the Nano not supporting Flac is quite a downer to me.
Then i started to think. On the J3's i wasn't that happy at first too, until i start using the BBE+ and Jet Effect tricks the iAudio brings along. This really is a unique feature of the iAudio's. It made the music sound like never before. Loads of ways to make it sound to your likings. But by default, some things were off with the Shure's on some parts.
A forum member here told me it was worth a try to use my Galaxy S2 with the Shure's and installing the Poweramp app, because he was loving it. The default Galaxy player is pretty poor. So i was a bit skeptical. But after trying it i was pretty impressed. It was much richer and fuller sounding compared to the Nano. The bass was there, the mids were much more in balance with the rest and the soundstage was huge, very 3D like. Only the highs were a bit of a problem. Again the hissing and sharpness - the thing i hate most.
So i figured the SE535's were pretty hiss prone. To give myself a better picture i decided to find a new headphone with a bit of a different sound signature. After reading loads of reviews i decided to purchase the Audeo PFE-232. Quite an investment. But i thought, if i don't like them, i'll just return it.
Since the Sansa got quite a bit of positive reviews here i decided to give this one a try too (it's cheap anyway).
So here it goes:
Phonak Audeo PFE-232
Unpacking the Phonak i was impressed with the amount of accessories. Like some of you probably already know it even comes with different filters to change the sound to your taste. I haven't had the time yet to play around with it, so i'll update it later once i know more. But it's a nifty feature.
It also comes with 2 cables, one with mic, the other without, which is nice. Having a backup is always a nice thing :) Also included are clips you can mount to the wire so you can put it back your ear (like the Shure's work by default). Aside from that there's just the regular amount of tips you can expect of a high-end headphone. 1 set of L/M/S silicone tips and 1 set of L/M/S Comfy foam tips. Ow, and a clean tool and pouch to keep your things in.
Compared to the Shure SE535 the Audeo looks a bit more vulnerable. The cable is a bit thinner and the IEM is much smaller which makes it feel a little less solid as the Shure.
But looking at the design i love the Audeo's much more. They are just more elegant and stylish. The Shure's are quite big for IEM's. Only looking at the Audeo i had the impression they would wear much more comfortably.
The first thing i did was plugging the Audeo into the Nano, just to see if it was the Shure's or the Nano which really is a piece of ****. And i was surprised how well composed this combo was vs the SE535. It was much more balanced and natural. With the Shures i felt it was a little distorted with all the hisses. Also the lack of bass i had with the Shure was no issue on the Audeo, the Audeo delivered the bass full and with depth, making the mids less forward/intrusive and in balance. And the hissing highs? Gone.
So up next was the Galaxy S2. And again the highs were much more rounded, with even more detail and no hisses. Even better sounding then on the Nano, still surprised about this. This was when i started to become aware about some big differences though, but I'll get back on this later on.
Next was the Sansaclip+ with the Audeo plugged in. When i turned up the volume i found out i was already to the max and still nowhere near my preferred listening level. That was surprising too. Time to install Rockbox to see what happens.
Starting up Rockbox i was pretty impressed with all the features and settings. And happily i discovered that the lack of power issue was solved :)
And men! This was a bit of a WOW moment. Rockbox definitely rocks :) The Audeo was just rocking it as well. But changing back to the Shure's i started to hear more clear differences. And in general both sounded, in their own way, much more close to each other as with the other sources.
EDIT: My iAudio J3 was broken, but i now got a new one returned after RMA - so time to review. I was pretty curious if the J3 would match the Rockboxed Sansa. But once plugged in the Audeo it became clear the J3 is just a tad more dynamic in presentation. Just that little bit more attention to detail and depth. And where i had to tune a lot with the EQ (BBE+ & JetEffect) on the Shure SE535's to get it better, the Audeo's just shined without any tweaking. Actually, using BBE+/JetEffect didn't improve the sound. It only made it sound more artificial. This again confirmed my opinion. The Shure SE535's just sound very artificial by default. And because they lack depth and warmth you really need the EQ settings to get more out of it. The J3 is my default player again. It's just the best of the mentioned options. The only thing is that with noisy surroundings i reach the volume limit, so i might need an amp for these situations.
Shure SE535 vs Phonak Audeo PFE-232
Listening to the Audeo's for a while i just had no annoyances at all. I was just really listening to music with much detail and a clear and open sound without losing it's warmth and musicality. The bass is a bit more up forward compared to the Shure's which seem to be like a layer below the mids and more to the sides, supporting the music, but because of that it never gave me that punch/depth the Audeo's were delivering. This comes at a price though - well, price, it's just what you prefer. After some switching back and forth i started to notice why i experienced the bass so differently.
In general the soundstage of the Shure is much more wider then the Audeo. The Audeo on it's turn delivers much more depth. Listening to the differences in placement of instruments i found out that the Shure's push almost everything to the sides. There's nearly no center point, like it's floating more. Even voices never seem to really center but are experienced separated over the 2 channels. This gives a very wide 3D like soundstage, but it does feel a bit artificial. To me the Audeo gives a more natural soundstage, with more layers in depth instead of to the sides. And it's not even that it's not there. It's just more naturally positioned, voices in the center, the bass aside from that and highs like hihats aside from that.
I had a much harder time defining it like this on the Shure's. It's just all a bit more undefined. And the thing is, sometimes you suddenly hear instruments all the way to the sides on the Audeo, like a bell or plucking of a guitar in some more atmospheric tracks where they should be. This makes me believe it's more natural, fun and interesting, where the Shure, again, sounds a bit artificial, not having room left for defining these subtleties.
Like i said, the bass is more defined and up forward on the Audeo. It has more punch, without losing it's agility and not boomy at all. It's possibly more solid then fluid, but delivers more dynamics in general compared to the Shures. Also when a bass comes up to support a climax for instance it's much more intense on the Audeo where it's more hidden behind the mids and separated in the 3D soundstage on the Shure's. Also strings seem to give more warmth on the Audeo, without sounding veiled at all.
The mids are more up forward on the Shure's. On the Audeo it feels more as a whole and in balance, although i'm sure that if you love mids you'd prefer the Shure's in this area. The Audeo still delivers a clear, very well detailed and beautiful mid, but it's just not so much in your face. But to me it, again, sounds much more natural. This also makes the Shure's generally more tiring to listen to on the longer run.
The highs aren't even a contest in my book. This is what bothered me about the Shure's the most. It's not only the hissing, it's the way it delivers the highs in general. It somehow sounded a little metal / mechanical like and a little harsh/rough. On the Audeo this is more revealing, calm and in control. I can hear just as much or maybe even more details, but it's just delivered more subtle, soft and rounded. Not every hihat sounds like something hammering your brain. There's just more definition to it and doesn't sound metal/mechanical like at all, so that's def. a Shure thing .
The treble is a bit of a hard one. When turning on the Shure's coming from the Audeo, and turning down the volume a bit because the Shure has lower impedance, it's definitely more in you face sounding. It's much wider, definitely more open and mid centered. It's not the treble per se, it's just less subtle in presentation. It's like you open a box full of stuff and once you open it slightly it all pops out.
The Audeo is probably just a little more veiled, although this can be tweaked with the supplied filters which i'll play with later on. But i don't experience it as veiled. It's just more subtle. A build-up in a track really builds up, things come together, hearing a instrument coming from the deep coming forward, from the side to the center. And then it all comes together and feels more harmonic to me. It just makes music sound more layered and composed. I've had more goosebumps on the Audeo as the Shure. And i had more WOW impact switching from the Audeo to the Shure.
Another slight annoyance i had with the Shure's. They aren't wearing badly, but there are just a few areas on my ear that got irritated after longer use. It's very hard, since it's such a big IEM, to make it fit for many people. For some it will fit perfectly, for some not. It has a form that suits your ear in general of course, it's just the size that makes it hard not to hit some parts of your ear.
The Audeo is much smaller and doesn't have much hit areas. Especially with the over your ear clips on there's almost no part that's able to hit your ear somewhere to create irritations. After using it for a few hours i have no irritations at all. Only the Comply foam a little after a while because it presses a little inside your ear canal. The Audeo is also lighter.
Also the IEM doesn't stick out of your ear, which is much more comfortable when falling asleep in a plane or so. The Shure's don't stick out that much either, but presses on your ear much stronger. When i wake up from such a situation, my ear is totally ruined :)
I can't say i'm noticing much difference between the two. Following the Shure website they claim up to 37 dB of isolation and Audeo up to 23 dB, but i really can't say there's much difference. Actually the Audeo gives a bigger sense of being locked of from the world because of the higher comfort and lightness of the IEM. You easily forget having them on. With both i feel totally locked of from general surrounding sound. Even in the plane i didn't hear any of the rumor or engine noise with the Shure's. I'm fairly sure it's the same with the Audeo, although further experimenting will be needed.
EDIT: Tested it on the plane. I was in a noisy area (near engine) and not the biggest plane (more noisy) and i had some isolation issues with the Audeo's. Also because on the J3 i had to max out the volume to overcome the surrounding noise and found the limit, so probably need an amp. The Shure's, with lowere impedance, go more loud, but also isolate better, having the big IEM on your ear does increase isolation. With just common surroundings, like in the city, bus, train etc i didn't notice isolation issues with the Audeo.
Summary & conclusion
I think it's not really a surprise which headphone i prefer. And it's not even to flame or bash the Shure's. I'm really trying to judge it as objective as i can, although every personal experience is of course subjective.
The thing is, when i switch to the Shure it gives a bigger "Wow" effect. The wide soundstage is the first to notice. It's just so more open and upfront in general. The mids are great, but just a bit out of balance with the lows. The highs aren't that great though. They are quite harsh and have some kind of metallic sound to it. This also results in hissing, although it's definitely less the case on a better source - so it's pretty hard to match. The Nano just isn't that great. The same with the Galaxy. But on the Rockboxed Sansa it's much better. The Shure's are really great IEM's. They are revealing, open, clear and full of detail. With more calm music, like singer songwriter stuff or atmospheric (classical) music they are absolutely amazing. Voices really shine and have an almost 3D like effect. But with more complex and full music, like rock etc, it has a hard time to keep composed and definition. It becomes a little chaotic. This is also because, even though the instruments are presented very wide, it feels a little artificial in placement. Voices, or instruments, never seem to be able to find a central position and always seem to come from 2 places (channels). It's like elements start to float. This also, together with the more harsh highs, makes you a little tired and annoyed after listening for a while, wanting to put them off for a break.
The Audeo is just a little more laid back. Has more depth and comes forward more when needed giving it just that feeling of subtlety and layers. It also has the width, but by default it's smaller and more centered and logically defined to me. It gives it a much more peaceful sound to listen to. And sometimes you're suddenly surprised with an instrument going wider then you'd expect, out of the range you think it has, and seems to fit perfectly with that part of the song. The bass is better defined, really enriches the music with some warmth and is there in every layer i can think of. The mids are less forward as the Shure's but do feel more natural to me. I think it's mainly because voices are actually centered (like it should be). With more calm music the mid seem to be. although less upfront, even more revealing, clear and open as the Shure, i experience less noise. Over the whole range the Audeo is just more subtle in presentation, making it more suspenseful and easy to listen to. The highs are just lovely and sweet. It's not lacking any detail and there's no hissing at all. They are just more fluid/rounded compared to the Shures. Vivid yet soft. It stays composed all the time, even with more complex music - even starts to open up more and delivering build-ups with much more dynamics and definition. I can just easily listen with the Audeos for hours without getting tired. Also the fit and comfort helps in this regard.
Below an overview of ratings from 1 (poor) to 10 (excellent). I don't easily give 10's.
|Lows||7||Lacks a little punch, tad lazy and lost behind mids.||9||Full, rich, depth. Maybe just a tad towards solid vs fluid.|
|Mids||8||Forward, clean and rich. But not centered.||8||Clean, great positioning. Maybe push a tiny bit more up front.|
|Highs||6||Well detailed, metal like/harsh sound. Hiss prone.||9||Detailed, natural, soft, vivid, no hissing.|
|Treble||8||Open and live like, but can become a little tiring.||9||Sweet, calm and easy to listen to.|
|Balance||7||Mids overpowering. Lows lost in wide soundstage.||9||Everything comes together nicely.|
|Width||9||Very wide 3D like soundstage.||8||More subtle and natural width.|
|Depth||7||In your face sounding, lacks bit of layers/suspense.||9||Subtle and layered.|
|Positioning||7||3D like, but a bit artificial positioning and separation.||9||Very natural sounding and great separation.|
|Composure||7||Lost with more complex music.||9||Calm and collected, no matter what genre.|
|Comfort||7||Some irritations after longer use. Heavy & big.||10||No irritations at all. Light & small.|
|Isolation||9||Pretty much completely cut of from the world.||7||Not the greatest isolation, but only noticable in really noisy surroundings.|
Worth the extra bucks?
The Audeo comes at a higher price. It's about €100 (or $100 or so) more expensive. So is the Audeo worth it's price?
Well, it depends on what you like ofcourse. If my description of the Shure's, which has a more straight forward, wide and mid centered sound, suits your style more, i guess: no.
But to me personally i would even pay €200 more. It's just that at this price point you're looking for the best and not looking for just some nice music for on the road, the Audeo is simply better, also technically speaking imo, for the reasons i tried to describe as good as possible at this time. It even allows you to tweak the music to your taste with the enclosed filters, although i didn't tested the effect yet. So more about that later.
But in the end, all audio is subjective and everybody hears differently. So i can't say this or that other then my own experience and opinion. But i hope this review gives a clearer picture with these two IEM's compared.
Hope this is of any use to someone. And please let me know if there are things wrong in this review :)
Edited by Xstream - 6/9/12 at 4:21am