Review: Phonak Audeo Perfect Bass PFE 022 + Mic Earphones
Thanks to decades of marketing, many people consider bass -- the rich, thumping portion of songs -- to be a proxy for overall sound quality in headphones and speakers, such that salespeople routinely demonstrated audio products by pointing out how warm they were or how much they rumbled. But there's definitely such a thing as too much and low-quality bass, as low-frequency sounds can easily overwhelm mid-frequency voices and instruments, and even distract from high-frequency treble. So the quality-obsessed Swiss hearing aid company Phonak had a relatively daunting challenge on its hands when producing new consumer earphones: how to compete in a marketplace filled with deliberately bass-skewed, overbearing alternatives?
The answer: rather than trying to outdo rivals on quantity of bass or sex appeal in design, Phonak is selling what it calls “Perfect” earphones—Audéo “Perfect Fit” is the family, and “Perfect Bass” is the name for its PFE 022 + Mic Earphones ($119). Unusually L-shaped, the matte and glossy black earpieces are designed to have their cables worn above and behind your ears, using silicone rubber tips in your choice of three sizes to seal out ambient noise. They also include a squat little in-line microphone and single-button remote control that’s compatible with iPhones for song pausing, playback, and call answering/ending. Unlike many same-priced rivals, no carrying case or other frills are in the package; a less expensive version drops the microphone and remote to shave the price down to $99.
There’s largely good—and only a little bad—news to report with Perfect Bass. First and most important is this: by $100 earphone standards, they really sound great. We had no idea what to expect when we popped them in for the first time, and we feared for the worst because of the word “bass,” which too often signals muddy, distorted sound. But from track to track, we continued to enjoy Phonak’s neutral, balanced presentation of tracks, which had a surprisingly strong combination of highs, mids, lows, and really lows, the latter important to let you enjoy the heavy beats in songs such as the Beastie Boys’ Make Some Noise without preventing you from hearing the vocals or other instruments.
We found stark differences between the Perfect Bass and, say, fellow hearing aid developer Etymotic’s mc5/mc3-series, which sounds comparatively bass-anemic, as well as V-Moda’s Vibrato, which uses tricks to fill your ears with a “club” sound that sounds comparatively forced and artificial. From the highs to the deep bass, Perfect Bass sounds natural, appropriately clean for the asking price, and frankly just enjoyable. It should be noted that they perform ideally at around the 55% volume mark on Apple’s devices—a little more required volume than some other options we’ve seen, but forgivable because of the sonic quality of what you get at that level.
Additional good news comes from the microphone performance, which also surprised us a little. Though Phonak’s hearing aid background suggests that it should be completely competent in all the technical aspects of audio performance, we were concerned because the company’s consumer earphone design experience is limited—and this shows in the way Perfect Bass has integrated its microphone and remote unit into the cabling. Like many other companies, Phonak has placed the capsule in the middle of the right earphone cable, but this turns out to be really awkward because its earphones require that the cables wrap around the tops of your ears. Consequently, the microphone and remote hang oddly off to the side of your neck, nearly behind your head.
This is a major design flaw—enough to drop the rating well below what it would otherwise be—but there are two offsets. First, the aforementioned $99 version of Perfect Bass doesn’t include the remote and mic at all, so you can save $20 and avoid the awkwardness if you’re willing to give up that functionality. Second, the mic’s performance was solid in our testing despite its odd location, sounding nearly identical to Apple’s own mic-equipped Earphones. While Phonak really needs to relocate the remote portion to be accessible at or below the Y-split in the cable, something that might help the in-line cable manager to properly bind the earphones behind your ears, having the mic closer to your mouth works just fine—something we’ve seen in other earphones.
Perfect Bass’s L-shaped earpieces and straight, thin headphone plug design are largely non-controversial. The earphones fit comfortably into our ears immediately, providing good passive noise isolation, and we appreciated how light they were. They’ll only be an issue for users who dislike over-the-ear cabling, and for users who need even more eartip options—many rivals include more sizes and/or foam tips, which are left out here. Phonak’s headphone plug is small enough to work with even generally plug-intolerant iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad cases, which we also liked.
Overall, the Audéo Perfect Bass PFE 022 + Mic Earphones offer users some major plusses and only a couple of minuses: we were very impressed by their sound quality, weight, and comfortable earpiece design, but their cabling—particularly the location of the mic and remote controls—really needs to be rethought, and their lack of pack-ins puts them at one noteworthy disadvantage relative to peer-priced alternatives. For the sub-$120 asking price, if the modest frills, cable-over-ear styling, and odd mic/remote placement aren’t major issues for you, we’d recommend that you put these somewhere on your short list of options; the only reason they fall short of our high recommendation is the cabling.