At $600, the Audéo PFE 232 sits squarely in the middle of triple driver In-Ear-monitor (IEM) territory, yet “only” offers dual-balanced armature drivers. At first I was scratching my head when I checked the MSRP and noticed that it offered 2 drivers on each side, which is less than similarly priced IEM. The decision to go with 2 drivers didn’t happen by accident, of course. The idea apparently was to: “emit the clearest sound quality without requiring additional drivers,” basically giving the performance of triple or quad units, without going beyond 2. And while the 232 does include some unique extras, can its performance sway you away from the competition? Are 3 drivers really better than 2?
· Latest innovation from the world’s leading manufacturer of hearing instruments
· Highest sound quality with dual-balanced armature drivers
· Maximum comfort with three sizes of ear tips in both silicone and Comply Foam™
· Individual sound signature with three sets of acoustic filters
· 100% compatibility with Apple products
· Light-weight design (just 16g)
Dual balanced armature
· Frequency response:
5 Hz–17 kHz
109 dBSPL/mW, 1 kHz
107 dBSPL/mW, 1 kHz
104 dBSPL/mW, 1 kHz
· Nominal impedance:
16 g, 0.5oz
3.5 mm 4 pole jack
· Cable length:
120 cm, 3.9 ft
The Audéo PFE 232
The Audéo PFE 232 is Phonak Sound’s flagship In-Ear-Monitor (IEM) and is part of their Platinum series. PFE stands for Perfect Fit Earphones and refers to the wearing comfort or ‘perfect-fit’ the company is known for with their various hearing and audio related products. The PFE 232 has dual-balanced armature drivers on each side, which is quite a departure from triple or quad designs you’d find at this price point. Usually, more drivers means the better the sound, but it’s definitely not a rule. The PFE 232 is priced at $599 but includes a free pair of the Audéo PFE 022 if bought at www.audeoworld.com. The 022 is a mid-end IEM which separately would cost $119, making it a pretty sweet deal. This pretty much sets the tone when it comes to the meaning of value for the folks at Phonak: clearly they like fully equipped “kits” as the package not only includes some nice extras we usually don’t find standard on other IEM, but they even include a $119 IEM! While we do like the idea of an additional earphone and love the extra accessories that come with the package, we certainly think we could do without the former. Dropping the extra IEM, would in theory bring the price down to $480 which would make the 232 an extremely good value considering its performance. Don’t get us wrong, we would still love to see the extra PFE 022, but in a more expensive “gift pack” or “limited edition” separate from a basic and cheaper version that only includes the 232. Creating two separate packages giving the consumer more options is something that Phonak should consider.
Like I mentioned above, the package includes some niceties we usually don’t find in competing products and includes:
§ Audéo PFE 232 with remote and microphone
§ Audéo PFE 022
§ Three sets of acoustic filters
§ Additional cable without microphone
§ Silicone ear tips in three sizes (S,M,L)
§ Comply Foam tips in three sizes (S,M,L)
§ Cleaning tool
§ Perfect Fit silicone ear guides
§ Carrying case
Noteworthy is the additional cable and three sets of acoustic filters. While the extra cable is meant for those that don’t require the remote, it does come in handy in case the original cable breaks, which basically comes down to easily removing the damaged cable and attaching the new one. No need to purchase a new cable and waiting for it to arrive. A very nice touch.
The inclusion of the acoustic filters (which do dramatically affect the sound) is a major plus and unique selling point for the 232. It’s also a feature I haven’t seen before on other IEM. It not only allows the consumer to tailor the 232 to their specific audio tastes, but it also allows Phonak to target the 232 to a broader range of consumers. Audiophiles for example usually prefer a more neutral audio performance, while the younger “Beats generation” prefer lots and lots of bass. This usually meant making separate products, but in this case it’s just a matter of changing the filter giving you a totally different perceived listening experience. The 232 comes with four pairs: the Grey filter is for enhanced perception of mid-frequencies, Black for enhanced bass and treble and Green for extra bass. Phonak clearly sees the Grey filter as the main and preferred filter as the package includes 2 pairs of these: the first pair comes already installed while an extra pair brings the total pair of filters to 4.
Phonak generously included 3 sizes of both silicone and foam tips, but we’d also like to see triple flange tips included in future versions. Considering the price we would have also expected an airplane adapter. The carrying case is very handy and has plenty of space to take all the included accessories along with you. We just wish it was a bit stylish. Phonak seems to have a played it a bit safe with the design of the case. At this price range we would have expected something a bit more stylish. A rounded case that matches the round grilles creating some matching theme would definitely go along way.
The PFE 232 eschews the usual organic bulbous shape that’s seems to be the norm for high-end universal fit IEM and goes for a modern flat and thin design where smooth straight surfaces dominate the front, while a more organic ear-hugging shape can be found on the back. The 232 is available in what Phonak calls “Black,” but it’s actually a two-tone color that consists of a glossy Black finish on the inside and a beautiful Platinum color on the outside. The combo looks modern, stylish and definitely makes the 232 stand out. A very prominent design feature of the 232 are the non-functioning round port holes with matching grille that add a bit of edginess to the overall design, while still managing to match the overall theme.
At first sight, the PFE 232 doesn’t look like the most comfortable earphone to wear, especially due to the lack of a more curvaceous design that seems necessary to comfortably fit the outer ear. I was totally wrong. The outer design is all about flat surfaces with sharp lines, giving the impression of not being very comfortable to wear. On the other hand, the inner part of the 232, the part that actually touches your ear is perfectly molded to fit the outer ear. Add the fact that the 232 is extremely light, the result is one of the most comfortable IEM I’ve ever used. Many triple driver IEM tend to be relatively large and wide, resting on a large part of the outer ear. The 232 in turn has a more “skinny” design and as result touches a small portion of the outer ear. The resulting effect is that it almost “floats,” making you almost forget that these are even there. I’m guessing this thinner design is in part due to the use of dual drivers, as triple or quad drivers designs tend to be wider and larger.
The lower portion of the cable is thick enough to withstand daily usage and shouldn’t easily break or get damaged. In case it does, the earpieces can easily be removed from the cable and attached to a new one. This is a huge plus. If this wasn’t the case, a broken cable usually means sending the IEM to the manufacturer for repair. Having replaceable cables means a longer product life, something we’d expect from a $599 product. Phonak has smartly chosen to go for a thinner package for the upper part of the cable that’s connected to the earpieces. It’s thick enough for it not to be fragile, but are flexible enough to easily go around the ear or in the silicone guides. Many IEM manufacturers tend to priorities cable thickness making for a cable that’s too thick, heavy and unable to maintain the right position around the ear. Phonak seems to have found the right balance between flexibility and durability. While I like the inclusion of the silicone ear guides, I found them a bit uncomfortable and not as easy to use. Most users should be quite happy using the 232 without the ear guides. But it’s stil a nice touch to have these included as I’m sure some users will prefer them.
One area that seems like an afterthought is the remote. It simply doesn’t do justice to the style and quality PFE 232 and feel cheap and flimsy. It does work as advertised, but we would have loved a more solid and better looking remote. The placement however is just about right.
Considering its driver configuration, I expected an exemplary performance, but on a level you’d expect from a dual driver setup. This usually is just a step below triple driver designs. This time I really was proven wrong and pleasantly surprised with a performance that’s on par and in some cases surpasses triple driver designs! What stood out was the level of detail and effortless performance the PFE 232 was capable of. The Shure SE535/530 has long been a benchmark for me when it comes to high end IEM and I was surprised by the added level of detail and smoothness the 232 where capable of delivering, making the Shure sound a bit harsh at times. An IEM that in some cases makes the Shure SE535 sound harsh? We definitely have a winner here! The Shure’s are capable of delivering audio on a grand scale with its deep base, most probably aided by its dual woofers. The 232 on the other hand takes a different approach, going for detail and finesse, as if caressing every sweet tune before it effortlessly pushes them to your ears. The 232 simply shines when it comes to the high frequencies, producing probably the best performance I’ve heard in among all the earphones I’ve tested, besting even the Etymotic ER•4 series which has long been a favorite of mine when comes to the higher frequencies. A negative side to the 232’s perfect highs and outstanding detail is that low quality audio will sound horrible and and will reveal a “hiss” that’s typical to audio ripped at a low bitrate. But give it 320kbps audio or Wav files and you’ll be treated with an amazing performance.
Mids are done in an equally amazing fashion, on par with the Shure SE535. The Shure goes for a more dramatic presentation the mids, while 232s prefer a more laid back approach. Again here it’s all about details and more details, making the PFE 232 one of the most fun IEM I’ve had the pleasure of testing. What also stands out is the 232 ability to tie all these frequencies together in what seems like perfectly uniform sound. In the case of triple or quad design there sometimes seems be a slight gap between the mids and either the high or lows.
The lows are where the Shure SE535 pulls ahead, clearly performing better due to it’s ability to dig deeper and doing this with authority. We’re not talking about a night and day difference, but the 232 simply can’t go as deep as the Shure. It’s pretty close though. Considering the fact this is done with two drivers I’m very impressed. I’m starting to wonder what those folks at Phonak could accomplish if they were given three to four drivers. The 232 clearly shows that amount of drivers isn’t necessarily indicative of performance.
One area of concern are the filters when it comes to performance. When I first started listening to the 232 it didn’t sound quite as impressive. It was only when I decided to swap the preinstalled Grey filters with the ones in included in box did I notice a huge increase in performance. Bottom line: the filters can get damaged or have microscopic dirt in them that can have a dramatic effect on performance. I would recommend testing your filters to make sure everything is working correctly. This is not a fault on Phonak’s side as these simply are quite fragile parts.
Update: Phonak has explained to us their decision to go with 2 drivers: The “engineers just found that in order to maintain the PFE unique ‘shape and size’, and without wanting to over complicate the design, a two driver model was the most effective option.”
The Audéo PFE 232 is one amazing IEM, performing on par and in some cases surpassing triple driver competitors when it comes to the mids and highs. Only when the lows are concerned does it fall behind, but just barely. It looks modern and stylish and is probably one of the most comfortable IEM I’ve used. When value is concerned things get a bit more complicated. At $600 you do get what you pay for: a high-end IEM, a $119 mid-end PFE 022, extra cable and the acoustic filters. In my opinion Phonak should drop the PFE 022 and bring the price down to $480 which would make the 232 an extremely good value. Don’t get us wrong, we would still love to see the extra PFE 022, but in a more expensive “gift pack” or “limited edition” separate from a basic and cheaper version that only includes the 232. The PFE 232 is able to play in the big leagues with just to drivers, imagine what they could do with 3. Phonak should definitely consider this for its follow-up. The Audéo PFE 232 gets an 8.3 out 10.
Price should be lower
Remote control feels cheap
Can’t quite go as deep as triple driver designs.
No included triple flange or airplane adapter
Overall performance close to or equals triple driver designs
One of the most comfortable IEM to wear
Extremely detailed and impressive high end.
Extremely detailed and smooth sound
Package includes nice extras
Earpieces can be removed from cable: cables can easily be replaced
Filters effectively modify the sound and are included