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One of the peculiarities of the in-ear headphones market is that it’s being contested by companies from such a wide range of backgrounds. You have your traditional large consumer A/V manufacturers (Sony, Denon, JVC), your respected audiophile brands (Sennheiser, Audio-Technica) and those who have crossed over from the professional audio sphere (Shure and BeyerDynamic spring instantly to mind). Type ‘Phonak’ into Google, however, and you won’t find any of this stuff.
The Swiss company has a 60 year history in the hearing aid industry, and only crossed over into the US consumer audio market less than two years ago. The Audeo range instantly caused a stir in audiophile circles (check Head.Fi’s excellent forums for details) as a relatively inexpensive IEM that delivered surprisingly high-end performance. Now it’s being bought to the UK.
First impressions are promising, with a well-designed box containing the IEMs and a healthy selection of accessories. As well as a soft, two pocket case, leaving room for the earphones and all the bits, We get three pairs of gel tips to replace the fitted Comply foam tips, a pair of silicon ear guides plus a tip cleaner, six spare filters and a filter-changing tool. Interestingly, the filters provide a means of customising the sound. Opt for one of the two pairs of black filters and you should get a sound with a more pronounced bass and treble. The grey filters, meanwhile, is designed to add clarity and definition in the mid-range. In theory this is a nice idea – we’ll see how it works out later on.
In terms of design and build quality, the Phonaks are easily up to the standard you’d expect from a set of earphones at this price point. The two-tone black and silver design of our review sample looks striking without looking gaudy, and the earpieces are actually quite unobtrusive once inserted. There’s a good, solid rubberized cable leading from the reinforced plug to a tough-looking Y-piece, and from there a slider makes it easy to adjust the length of the final stretches of cable for your comfort, while there’s more reinforcement where the wire meets the earpiece.
The PFE in the product name stands for Perfect Fit Earphones, and it has to be said that Phonak isn’t making any unreasonable claims here. The PFE 112s fit into the hook over the ear style adopted by Shure for most of its range, Klipsch for its Custom series and Sennheiser for the IE range. Sometimes these fit brilliantly without any trouble (thanks Shure, thanks Sennheiser) and sometimes (as in the case of my own Klipsch Custom 2s) it’s a nightmare to get a decent fit and a proper seal. Your mileage will, of course, vary with the size and shape of your own lug ’oles, but I get the Phonaks seated properly first-time, every time, and once they’re in place I find it almost impossible to dislodge them – which is more than I can say for some conventional IEM designs.
Noise isolation is excellent, with the Phonaks successfully drowning out noisy travellers on the train, dishwashers in the kitchen and the spectacular racket of my desktop PC. Throw in the fact that the cables seem very tangle-resistant, and that the ear-guides do a great job of reducing cable noise, and Phonak definitely seems to have done its homework here.
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