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What’s more, the Phonaks are extremely comfortable. Over long periods I find most IEMs have a tendency to irritate my ear canal, with the Klipsch Custom-2s and my Etymotic hf5s probably the worst offenders. I wore the Phonaks over two three-hour train trips in a day without feeling the need to remove them once (bar the obligatory ticket checks and coffee breaks). The lightweight design works wonders here, and the Phonaks don’t even cause aggravation should you wear them lying with your head on its side.
None of this would matter a jot if the sound isn’t up to scratch, but I’m pleased to say that the PFE 112s justify Phonak’s growing reputation. In fact, for a headphone with nothing more than a single balanced armature they’re extremely good. The PFE 112s have a strong but not boomy or overpowering low-end, a crisp, detailed high-end and a wonderful, smooth and balanced mid-range in-between. The sound-stage is about as wide as I’ve encountered from an IEM, and there’s a great, almost holographic sense of positioning – again, something that single armature IEMs tend to struggle with.
Impressively, the switchable filter idea works too, and it’s worth experimenting. At first, I preferred the bass boost and more exciting treble offered with the black filters, but the more I play with the grey filters, the more I like them. You get the clarity and precision you’d expect from, say, Etymotic’s hf2s, but with a touch more bass and a little more body and weight in the mid-range. For classical music in particular the PFE 112s are a brilliant listen, the Phonaks coping well with massed instruments and enabling you to pick out small nuances in the horn or string sections. They’re also exceptionally sensitive to subtle changes in volume or tone.
The Phonaks also cope brilliantly with vocal-led tracks with relatively sparse instrumentation. There’s something about that creamy, warm mid-range that just works wonders with the human voice. There’s no problem, however, if your tastes run more to rock or pop. While there are more punchy IEMs around, the Phonaks’ rich, clear and balanced presentation did wonders for pretty much everything I threw at them, from Muse’s baroque rock to Maxwell’s retro soul.
The only thing I would mention is that the Phonaks are harder to drive than most single-armature IEMs. Using an iPod touch or Samsung YP-Q1 (with a library of FLAC tracks to ensure optimal test conditions) I’ve had to twitch the volume up by 10 to 15 per cent to achieve my normal volume level, and I’ve had to do similar things with my desktop PC and an iBasso D2 headphone amp. This hasn’t affected audio quality in any way, and the Phonaks don’t need a lot of volume to sound good, but it is something to bear in mind if you like to listen loud (and have no concerns about long-term damage to your ears).