Phonak, a market leading Swiss hearing aid company that has been around for over 50 years, recently joined the competitive in-ear monitor game with the release of their single armature based Audéo PFE (“Perfect Fit Earphones”).
While Phonak’s high-end hearing aids go for several thousands of dollars, their earphones are quite reasonably priced at $139 for the regular phone version and $159 for the headset version with microphone.
Read on for the full lowdown, but hold on to your wallet if you’re easily excited about earphones with near-perfect clarity and resolution – for a lower price than most of the competition offers…
- Phonak Audéo PFE (“Perfect Fit Earphone”) Specs
- Driver: single balanced armature
- Sensitivity: 107 dB @ 1 mW
- Impedance: 32 Ohm @ 1 kHz
- Frequency range: 5 Hz – 17 kHz
- Cable: 110 cm / 3.6 ft (Y-style), straight 3.5 mm gold-plated plug, microphone (optional)
- Accessories: Carrying case, silicon tips (S/M/L), Comply foam tips (M), cleaning tool, acoustic filters, silicon ear guides
The Audéo PFE come with the usual accessories one would expect with a medium-priced ear monitor – but the items that stick out in a very positive way are the ingenious silicon ear guides which provide a proper over-the-ear fit and reduce cable noise. These silicon “memory wires” are removable and fit on most other earphone cables as well. All other in-ear phones I tried them with did also benefit from a better cable fit and reduced cable noise transmission. Phonak had a quite bright idea with those, and it seems they are going to sell these cable guides separately – if you have cable noise issues or cables slipping you should give them a try.
The carrying pouch is quite nice as well, as it has two compartments – one for the phones, the other one for the accessories. Since it’s made of quite thin fabric it won’t keep your phones from cracking when you sit on them, but it’s a good way to keep all the tiny parts in one place.
Silicon tips are very similar to the ones that come with Shure earphones, thick and sturdy, with unobtrusive injection mold ridges. They do their job very well and aren’t likely to tear. Foam tips supplied with the Audéo are of the fancy, expensive Comply kind. The PFE only come with medium sized Comply foam tips, which are probably too small for a lot of ears out there. Well, they give you a “fix” of the good stuff and expect you to buy the ones fitting your ears separately…
Phonak took a welcome modular approach with the Audéo PFE’s sound signature. They provide two varieties of acoustic filters and a filter changing tool with the phones. One kind of filter (white) gives a more midrange-centric signature, the other one (black) is more of a loudness-contour kind of sound presentation, boosting bass and treble a bit. It might not be as sophisticated as the Sleek SA6’s tweakability, but it gets the job done – and the difference between the filters is audible, to a certain extent.
The downside to these filters might be that they need to be replaced over time, but I can’t say how long the filters hold up, and how much some replacement filters are going to cost (two pairs of both filter variants come with the Audéo, four black, four white).
Design, Build, Specs
ms their single armature drivers go from a 5 Hz earthquake-simulation straight up to 17 kHz. While I (and probably many other humans) don’t hear these absolute extremes or have music that contains these bass frequencies, the Audéo’s drivers certainly cover the audible frequency range perfectly well. A 20 Hz bass is no issue for them; neither do they lack the upper-most treble extension.
Their decent impedance of 32 Ohm and their not overly exaggerated sensitivity of 107dB means one thing for real-life usage: they don’t hiss much, even with problematic players. They behave very well on the Cowon D2, known to be a somewhat hissy player with many low impedance phones, and they even passed the most devious of tests: plugging them into the epitome of hiss-inferno, the Nintendo DS. The Phonaks aren’t the loudest phones available, but of course they perform well with any modern player, being more than loud enough for anyone’s needs. Trading a little sound pressure level quantity for noiseless background quality certainly is the right thing to do.
Build quality is ok on the Audéo PFE; they’re neither the shabbiest nor the best built phones around. They’re all-plastic, with a decorative metal plate hiding two screws underneath, for access to the armature drivers. There aren’t any other in-ear phones I know of that use standard Phillips screws to hold them together. This might be a welcome target for DIY repairmen or other “tweak-a-holics”, since recabling the Audéo seems like a very easy task, compared to other earphones which are usually glued or snapped together.
The Audéo’s cables are top notch. They remind me of Shure’s SE530 cables in certain ways: thicker diameter than usual, very soft, little noise transmission, and virtually tangle-proof. The strain relief on the 3.5mm plug appears to be a bit stiff, the Y-splitter has no strain relief, and the part of the housing where the cable enters the earphones is rubberized… I’ve seen better solutions, but it work so far. Cable length is 110cm, which is slightly shorter than what most other companies use. I find this to be a great length, as there is no excess cable getting in the way, be it with the player in my trousers’ or in my jacket’s pocket. It might not be the perfect length for a basketball player or similar beanpole, but for me it’s just right.
On a side note: the Audéo PFE are made in Vietnam, which is somewhat out of the ordinary. Most other mass-manufactured phones usually come from China, Taiwan, Japan, or Korea. Vietnamese quality control certainly seems up to the task, no complaints there.
Let’s talk wearing comfort. The Audéo are marketed as “Perfect Fit Earphones” with “exceptional comfort” – well, they don’t really come close to that bold claim, at least for using them while sleeping. Phonak might be a company that has 50 years experience with hearing aids, but they sure failed at making their first earphones as comfortable as their advertisements promise. It’s rather simple, actually: doesn’t Phonak’s design team know that you don’t put sharp edges on earphones?
When using the Audéo for sleeping my ears feel like they’ve been resting on a two-by-four piece of lumber for the night. Anatomically speaking, these phones put pressure on some sensitive parts of my ears, specifically the inner side of the tragus, the part above the tragus, and the anti-helix. “Simple” shaped earphones like the Sennheiser CX300 or V-Moda Vibe are more comfortable for me and even bigger, bent ones like the Shure SE530 provide better comfort while sleeping.
However, to be fair: for regular use they’re ok and don’t hurt like when using them in bed, but my ears still get slightly irritated after some time when using them on the go. The bottom part of the housing is the main culprit here, the lower edge of the metal veneer tickling my ear’s anti-helix. It might just be me, though – people with bigger (or less sensitive) ears might have fewer issues.
This being said, the other part of Phonak’s “perfect fit” claim is true – they fit securely and aren’t likely to fall out. I’ve been working out with them, and they never even broke their seal. The silicon ear guides aren’t really necessary for a secure fit since the phones stay put on their own (well, I didn’t do cartwheels and similar capers). The guides are more useful for counteracting cable noise, but that might vary depending on a person’s ear shape. In any case, the Audéo PFE are a very good choices for people looking for workout phones.
The amount of outside noise isolation can be altered to fit one’s needs. With silicon tips the Audéo isolate about as much as every other IEM out there, with Comply foam tips they attenuate quite a bit more. They won’t block noise as efficiently as Shure SE530 foamies or Etymotic triple-flange tips, but they work well enough for reducing road, train, and similar noises so you don’t have to turn the volume on your MP3 player to unsafe levels.
Which brings me to a point that’s quite important to me personally: I hate having to listen to dangerously high volume levels; I want to preserve my hearing for years to come. Fortunately, the PFE are phones that work quite well even at very low listening levels. Many other earphones don’t sound good at quiet levels (especially when driven by a wimpy MP3 player amp); they often lack bass impact, detail, and dynamics. The Audéo are an exception to this rule, they sound very acceptable at low volume settings. Some day your ears will thank you for that.
Phonak sent me a prototype version of their Audéo PFE a few months ago. Back then I wasn’t overly pleased with the small amount of bass this preproduction unit delivered. Now, a few months later I was quite surprised when I put the bass-enhancing filters onto my new final-version Audéo, started listening, and noticed these things now actually got some of the desired “oomph” going on. The prototypes had about as little bass as Etymotic ER-6, and the various filters didn’t really help much. Now they have about as much as the q-Jays, but with slightly deeper bass extension and less roll-off. Furthermore, none of that silly midbass exaggeration that can be found in cheap boomy phones is present in the Audéo’s sound; it’s all the real deal, all the way down to 20 Hz, tight and punchy. However, as good as the quality is, the quantity certainly won’t please a diehard basshead – at least not without some EQ tweaking.
Midrange is very neutral, detailed, and smooth. Where phones like the q-Jays might sound “hollow” and Etymotic “too forward” with certain audio material, the Audéo sound very natural and balanced. They’re not quite up to the glorious smoothness of the SE530’s midrange, but considering the Audéo’s price range, they’re more than fine. Even very complex music like orchestral pieces or dense heavy metal tracks sound good and are reproduced with ease. It seems as if Phonak’s history in creating hearing aids shows here as well, as human voices seem to have a particularly great intelligibility on the PFE. I would say the Audéo fit well in the noble “ear monitor” category; a mere “earphone” denomination is a bit of an understatement.
Treble quantity is just about right – less than the q-Jays, more than the SE530, about as much as the UE11. The actual quantity depends a bit on the acoustic filters used, but I didn’t notice as much difference between the two filter varieties as with the bass response. Treble quality is great, in every way. It’s never harsh or sibilant, yet there’s no detail missing in the music. They sparkle without hurting, so to speak – and that’s a good thing. I didn’t notice any significant roll-off, which isn’t the norm with single armatures trying to reproduce the whole audible frequency range, but the Audéo don’t disappoint; right up to my hearing’s limits (ca. 16.5 kHz).
From the above paragraphs you might already have g
uessed that the PFE’s clarity, resolution, and instrument separation is nothing to sneer at. Usually you find this kind of precision only in a higher price segment, but the Audéo take on the big boys with ease. The PFE do match the clarity of my personal reference – the Ultimate Ears UE11 – to a certain extent, so that’s probably as good as it gets for earphones (to the best of my knowledge). They stomp all over dynamic driver IEMs when it comes to detail and precision. They even make some of the medium-priced “benchmark” armature phones like the Etymotic ER-6 or Super.Fi 5 Pro sound a little muddy and anemic in comparison.
The Audéo’s armatures are “edge-firing”; they are mounted at a right angle to the nozzle that leads into the ear canal. I can’t be certain this has anything to do with the rather decent stereo imaging (“soundstage”) the PFE’s deliver, but it might be a contributing factor. As it is the case with all other ear monitors, the soundstage is pretty much in your head and doesn’t psychoacoustically expand beyond the physical limitations. However, I’ve certainly heard worse ones. The Audéo’s soundstage isn’t as wide as the SE530’s, the V-Moda Vibe’s, or similar phones, but it is wider than the Etymotic’s, Super.Fi 5’s, and even the UE11’s. However, it doesn’t deliver the pinpoint accuracy and 3D feeling of the UE11; the PFE is more of the usual “three blob” soundstage.
Bassheads have perhaps stopped reading this review already a few paragraphs above – but to reiterate: these phones are probably not for you. The PFE are the right phones for people who appreciate the sound signature of, say, the q-Jays, Etymotic ER-4, or the AKG K701. They do have a certain quantity of bass, with better quality than many other earphones, though.
Considering the comparatively low price of the Audéo PFE, it’s a no-brainer: they give you the perhaps best clarity and precision in the sub-$150 earphone price range. They have better treble than the SE530, better midrange than the q-Jays, and a decent soundstage for an IEM. They are definitely worth their price. Sure seems like certain single armature implementations have come a long way… Higher priced multi-armature IEMs like the UE11 or the SE530 are of course better in certain aspects, but the improvements stand in no relation to their price.
With the bass boost filters I find them to be reasonably fun and exciting to listen to, with the midrange boost filter they are a little more “polite” and analytical. Both variants sound quite punchy and dynamic to me; however I do prefer the more bass heavy approach. I wouldn’t mind if they had slightly more bass quantity overall – let’s wait and see if Phonak releases some bass heavier filters in the future. In the meantime, a little EQing won’t hurt.
If you have a good source and properly encoded audio files you will enjoy them – mostly when listening to classical, jazz, folk, or other varieties of acoustic music. Various genres or rock and heavy metal are equally well reproduced (as long as you can live without an overly visceral “oomph” in the lowest octaves), since the Audéo’s armatures handles dense, complex material quite well. A personal anecdote: the Audéo almost appear to be specially made for listening to the band Opeth – they handle both their airy acoustic interludes and their brute metal parts equally well. I can’t say the same about too many other earphones.
They might not be the most comfortable (despite all of Phonak’s marketing speech), but they should be comfortable enough for most people, and the price/value ratio is very fair. So I can say with good conscience: highly recommended. Phonak Audéo PFE are among the nicest things to come from Switzerland since wristwatches and cheese.
Now excuse me while I’m off to slap an “Editor’s Choice” badge on them.
- Very good dynamic midrange and treble, decent bass
- Excellent clarity, precision, resolution – perhaps the best in this price range
- Acoustic filters to change the sound signature
- Barely noticeable background hiss with problematic sources
- Ingenious silicon ear guides, little cable noise
- Not quite as “exceptionally comfortable” as advertised (but very secure fit)
- Acoustic filters might need to be replaced over time