Several years ago, the premium canalphone market turned into a miniature arms race — literally — as leading companies such as Shure, Westone, and Ultimate Ears found new ways to stuff multiple armature speakers into tiny earpieces: older double-driver earphones gave way to impressively small triple- and quadruple-driver versions, while larger and more expensive canalphones became capable of holding staggering six- or eight-speaker arrays per ear. While the high-end models remained out of reach for most listeners, double- and triple-driver earphones fell in price, offering users two clear steps up from sub-$100 options: spend around $200 for a double-driver earphone to get dramatically cleaner, more dynamic sound, or spend $400+ for a triple-driver model for even more detail and sometimes superior bass.
While the aforementioned companies were establishing themselves as multi-driver earphone creators, Phonak—a company that was better-known for hearing aids than headphones—instead followed the model of Etymotic, focusing on precisely-tuned single-driver solutions. Phonak’s earlier Audeo “Perfect Bass” and “Perfect Fit” earphones featured L-shaped housings with one speaker per ear, bucking most trends by wrapping their cables around the tops and backs of ears rather than dangling downwards. Now Phonak has caught the multi-driver bug: late last year, the company released a new model called Audeo PFE 232 + Mic ($599) as its first dual-armature earphone. Not surprisingly, Audeo PFE 232 + Mic is in fact better-sounding, fancier-looking, and more feature-laden than Phonak’s lower-end predecessors. However, PFE 232 + Mic is also staggeringly expensive by comparison with dual-driver rivals from Ultimate Ears, Westone, and Shure, which can be had today for $150-$250 without frills. When questioned about the price, Phonak emphasized the new model’s audio quality and unusually modular design as justifications for its premium.
If we had to sum up PFE 232 + Mic’s actual appeal in a nutshell, the word we’d focus on is “customization.” In addition to the attractive gunmetal gray and black plastic L-shaped earpieces, Phonak’s box contains nested compartments filled with instruction manuals—one for each of six languages—plus a dual-compartment zippered carrying case, a pair of optional rubber ear stabilizers, two different types of cables, three pairs of rubber ear tips, three pairs of foam Comply ear tips, a cleaning tool, and an odd little filter box with a blue plastic filter tool. While you can pop PFE 232 + Mic out of the box, attach your preferred size and style of ear tips, then start listening without a hassle, Phonak encourages users to dive deeper by changing the filters to affect the earphones’ sound signature, consider swapping the three-button remote and mic cable for a plain one, and determine whether the optional stabilizers make the earpieces more comfortable. If you’ve ever purchased a pair of earphones only to discover that they don’t sound great or stay perfectly in your ears, it’s obvious why PFE 232 + Mic would be attractive in concept: Phonak gives you the means to make fit, stability, and sonic changes on your own.
As is often the case, though, the practical value of all this customization is somewhat outweighed by the challenges the parts will create for some users, and after playing with the pieces, we would have preferred a more simply designed, less expensive alternative. Start with the four sets of included filters, tiny colored plastic caps that you must use a miniature screwdriver-like tool to remove and install in one earphone at a time. This process requires gentle, slow movements and enough precision to avoid losing parts—something no mainstream user is going to want to go through more than once, if at all. And from our perspective, changing filters doesn’t really improve the sound; it just skews it.
The earpieces come with one set of gray filters installed, plus a spare set in the filter box, both described as designed to enhance midrange frequencies. We’d refer to these gray filters as “neutral,” as they provide the most balanced highs, mids, and lows in the set. With these filters installed, PFE 232 + Mic sounds a little better than the excellent double-driver Ultimate Ears 700, adding just enough bass to sound different, without radically compromising on the nice balance or details in highs and mids that the aforementioned mid-2009 model achieved. Yet even though it has modestly better frequency response, Phonak is not achieving miracles in clarity with its double drivers: PFE 232 seems to be controlling the distortion as much as is possible when two little speakers need to divide responsibility for handling highs, mids, and lows, but at this price point, other companies use more than two speakers to handle the same task. For instance, Westone’s $450 four-driver earphone Westone 4 delivers superior detail across roughly the same frequency range as PFE 232 + Mic, and there are a dozen or so other models that similarly offer comparable or superior performance at lower prices. Thus, it’s only faint praise to say that PFE 232 + Mic is strong by twin-driver earphone standards; it doesn’t have the obvious bass deficiencies exhibited by Apple’s double-driver In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, but that $79 model has room for excuses, while a $599 model does not.
Phonak’s extra filters are there to satisfy people who demand “mega bass” or “punchier highs and lows” from their earphones, and they succeed to the extent that a user is willing to give up performance in one dimension to hear more emphasis in another. One set of black filters is designed to emphasize both bass and treble, and does so with relatively sharp spikes that are akin to activating a “rock” equalizer. A separate set of green filters are designed solely to deliver extra bass, and do that in part by reducing the presence of highs and mids; both the black and green filters flood your ear canals with bass, the latter with less restraint. While we understand the conceptual appeal of a “have it your way” sonic solution, we’d have to believe that most people with this sort of money to spend on earphones would want to use the gray ones, as they do the best job of letting PFE 232 + Mic perform across its range. If you want seriously bassy or otherwise skewed earphones, you can easily find comparable sounding options for $150 or less.
Cable customization and functionality are other areas in which Audeo PFE 232 + Mic differs from the other options we’ve mentioned above. Unlike most of its rivals, Phonak includes two separate cables: one includes an integrated Apple three-button microphone and remote control, while the other has none, and you can swap the cables by detaching and attaching color-coded connectors on each earpiece. Historically, the ability to switch cables has appealed to some people, particularly when the cable materials or designs are substantially different, or if there’s a fear that the cables will wear out before the earphones do. But apart from the mic and remote, Phonak’s cables are the same, and both quite nice—jet black with a thin, nicely curved headphone plug on one end, plus a common adjustable cord manager above the mid-cable Y-split.
As with nearly all of the three-button remote and mic units we’ve tested, Phonak’s is virtually indistinguishable from the ones in Apple’s inexpensive earphones, as the parts are sourced by Apple itself; callers couldn’t tell the difference between PFE 232 + Mic’s microphone and the one in Apple’s In-Ear Headphones. The most notable differences users will notice are in the buttons, which are uniquely pressable +, circle, and – shapes, and the position of the remote and mic unit. Because Phonak continues to run its earphone cables above and behind the user’s ears—a design choice that we still aren’t fond of due to its comparative discomfort—the remote capsule dangles from your right ear, a less than optimal place to interact with the controls. A neck-mounted capsule would have worked better here.
We had one other issue with the cabling: our initial review unit had a problem of some sort that made the audio connection unstable. Phonak noted that it wasn’t aware of similar problems in other production units, and replaced this unit with a fully working one that had no apparent issues. While we’re glad that the second unit performed properly, cable problems—and swappable cables themselves—are so rare in earphones we test that it’s hard to really see this feature as a benefit. Unless you’re using a device that has problems with Apple’s remote and mic hardware, or you really hate having the capsule hanging under your ear, the extra cable won’t be of much value to you.
In the final analysis, Audeo PFE 232 + Mic strikes us as worthy of only a limited recommendation, and then only to audiophiles who also happen to be tinkerers—it’s a solid earphone at a seriously crazy price, offering a handful of users the ability to play with filters, cabling, and other accessories for kicks. If that strikes you as fun and you have the extra cash around to justify the purchase, go for it, as these earphones deliver good enough sound that you will enjoy listening to them with or without customizations. But be aware that the added frills here come at such a huge price premium that PFE 232 + Mic is hardly comparable to other twin-driver solutions—you can step up to legitimately superior triple- or quadruple-driver earphones from other companies and still pay less. Our hope is that future Phonak models find ways to cut their prices while improving comfort and microphone and remote locations.
Company and Price
Model: PFE 232 + Mic
Compatible: All iPods, iPhones, iPads