The weird thing about Phonak’s Audéo headphone line is that you can get a model with a single balanced armature for just $119, but a dual-armature model costs $599.
(For those who aren’t hip to balanced armatures, they use what looks like a tiny see-saw to move a diaphragm to produce sound. Conventional dynamic headphones employ what’s in essence a tiny version of an ordinary speaker driver. Generally speaking, balanced-armature IEMs are known for clear, extended high-frequency response, while dynamic IEMs are known for strong bass.)
The IEMs themselves look quite similar in design, but you do get a few extras when you spend more. The PFE 132 and PFE 232 both include inline mic/remote controls, although the PFE 012 is also available with the same features (as the PFE 022) for just $10 more. The more-expensive models also come with a nice little case that has two zippered compartments, plus some nice silicon guides that hook over your ears and keep the cables in place. But cases are cheap, and you can add the guides to the PFE 012 for $14.90. (The guides are a little fussy to deal with, but they do keep the cables in place better.) The higher-end models also come with Comply foam tips, but those, too, can be added to the PFE 012 for $19.90.
All of the Audéo models use tiny removable/replaceable filters in the tips of their sound tubes. The filters tailor the sound and also help prevent ear wax from clogging up the armatures. The PFE 132 and PFE 232 include extra filters of different types that let you adjust the sound. Both are factory-equipped with the gray filter, which emphasizes midrange, and both also include the black filter, which emphasizes bass and treble. The PFE 232 adds the green Perfect Bass filter, which boosts the bass. The PFE 012 has the green filter factory-installed, but you can substitute black or gray filters ($19.90 for a set of eight filters). A special tool for changing the filters is provided with the PFE 132, the PFE 232, and the aftermarket filter sets.
I initially resented having to swap out the minuscule filters in order to fine-tune the sound. After all, shouldn’t the manufacturer just get the sound right in the first place? But the filters turned out to be much easier to change than I expected, and their effects were dramatic (and in some cases performance-saving).
Thus, for about $55 plus maybe $6 for a cheap case on Amazon, you can fit out the PFE 012 with all the deluxe stuff that accompanies the PFE 132 and PFE 232.
However, Phonak sweetens the deal on the PFE 132 by throwing in $39.80 worth of extra filters and a set of extra tips. With the PFE 232, it gets even better: You get a free set of PFE 022s with your order.
So which one’s the best buy?
When I tried getting some of our regular headphone listening panel to check out the PFE 232, I got some negative reactions. Like me, they found that the unusual positioning of the Perfect Fit design in their ears took some getting used to. Unfortunately, the nature of our panel tests doesn’t give the panelists hours of time to get used to the products they’re trying. I did have that luxury, though, so I decided in this case to do all the testing myself.
I auditioned the various Audéo models in various casual settings using various sources, including my Dell Inspiron Mini 10 netbook, my Motorola Droid Pro smartphone, and a HiFiMan HM-602 high-end portable music player. For direct comparisons, I connected all the headphones to a Rane HC 6S professional headphone amp so I could make quick swaps.
I’ve already stated that I loved the sound and comfort of the PFE 232 in its stock configuration (with the gray midrange-emphasizing filters installed). What’s most notable about these IEMs is the huge sense of spaciousness. I’ve been in the church where one of my favorite Chesky CDs, The Coryells, was recorded, and the PFE 232 delivered one of the most realistic portrayals of the building’s natural ambience that I’ve ever heard from a set of headphones. I guessed that the frequency response might show a boost somewhere around 6 to 8 kHz that amps up the treble a bit to increase the ambience and apparent detail.
Not only did the PFE 232 sing the high notes beautifully, it reproduced voices with excellent realism and neutrality. The only coloration I noted was perhaps a slight emphasis in the lower treble, around 3 or 4 kHz, that made female singers such as Diana Krall and higher-pitched male singers such as Donald Fagen stand out a tad more than they normally might — but I never found this trait distracting and often thought it appealing.
I was surprised to find that the PFE 232’s bass is somewhat high in level relative to the mids and the treble. It’s rare that I find a more audiophile-oriented, high-end headphone that delivers all the kick-ass punch of “King Contrary Man” from The Cult’s Electric with the power I want, but the PFE 232 does it easily. However, on some material the PFE 232 sounds a tad too bassy. It’s a sound that home theater enthusiasts will probably dig, but guys who use electrostatic speakers and tube amps might find the PFE 232’s kicks a little too pumped-up.
Don’t even both trying the black and green filters with the PFE 232. They merely boost the bass to the point of overwhelming (with the black filter) and absurd (with the green filter). Stick with the gray. In fact, I wish Phonak would create a new filter that tames the PFE 232’s bass by about 3 dB.
Let’s work down the line. The PFE 132, played with the factory-installed gray filter, has a clinical sound that reminds me of my Grado SR225i over-ear headphones. The bass is not strong but it’s super-tight and well-defined. The treble, however, is strong and clear. Stringed instrument recordings like “’Ulili E” from Rev. Dennis Kamakahi’s Ohana reveal the PFE 132’s incredible high-frequency detail. Yet in the same recording, Kamakahi’s deep voice sounds thin because of the PFE 132’s lack of bass. And the cymbals in The Cult’s “King Contrary Man” sounded overly crisp, like they had cracks in them.
Changing to the black filter transformed the PFE 132. Suddenly, the tonal balance sounded far more natural. All the problems I cited above disappeared, without introducing any new flaws. Compared with the PFE 232, the PFE 132’s bass with the black filter installed sounded more in balance with the mids and treble, but a little too punchy. And its treble was still a little too strong and somewhat less smooth and refined.
The PFE 012 comes with the green Perfect Bass filter installed, and true to form, it sounds bassier right out of the box than its higher-priced brethren do. But still, it’s a great sound for the price. Although the emphasis on the bass makes the treble sound a little dull, the PFE 012 still has a lot of that airy, ambient sound that makes the PFE 232 such a joy to listen to. Compared with the TDK BA100, a single balanced armature IEM that lists for $199, the PFE 012 sounded considerably more robust, and proved a lot more fun to listen to with rock and pop.
As with the PFE 132, the PFE 012 is just a filter-change away from a better tonal balance. Swapping the greens out for the blacks gave the PFE 012 a sound similar to that of the PFE 132. The bass actually seemed slightly better — more melodic, without the PFE 132’s somewhat exaggerated punch — although that may be a psychoacoustic effect of the difference in treble response. The treble was a little more emphatic than the PFE 132’s, sounding a little too hot for my taste at times, but the sense of ambience was spectacular. Skip the gray filter, though, unless you like the super-defined but rather gutless sound I described with the gray filters installed on the PFE 032.