Phonak is primarily a maker of products for those with hearing problems - hearing aids of all shapes and sizes. But in 2008 it diversified into headphones, quickly becoming perhaps the greatest earphone maker most people haven't heard of. Following-up the mid-range PFE 012 and 112 headphones, it has jumped into the deep end with the £400 Audeo PFE 232. It's the company's first dual-driver model, and certainly one of the best pairs of in-ear headphones ever made.
You wouldn't guess their price or grand stature on design alone, though. The look is deliberately unassuming, a minor tweak on the design of the £80 PFE 012, a runner-up for our headphone of the year 2011 award. This tweak is based around a little dimpled circle on the back. It's not something that innately suggests the high price of these headphones - rather merely differentiates them from their cheaper siblings.
The buds are made of the same stuff too - plastic. Phonak told us it was keen on keeping the same look as the other PFE pairs, and that was part of the reason why the PFE 232 have "just" two drivers per earpiece rather than three or four of the Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10, Shure SE535 and Westone 4. More drivers equals bigger earpieces.
From a marketing perspective, it's a bold move. Not only do the Westone 4s have double the number of drivers, they are a bit cheaper to buy too. Mention of "marketing" is important, mind. Adding more drivers does not necessitate better sound.
Looking beyond the conservative styling, the PFE 232 hardware design offers a huge improvement over the PFE 012/022 and 112/122 - it uses a removable cable. For a £400 set of earphones, this is an absolute must in our opinion. While the included cable is top-quality, we've lost one too many a set of IEMs from the connection deteriorating at the jack. Not a happy occasion, and one that could spark off a bout of severe depression when we're talking about a £400 set.
Phonak includes two cables in the box, one with the mic/remote housing and one without. To call it generous at the price might be overdoing it, but it helps.
The cable has an almost soft-touch finish, similar to that of the PFE 112, and it's one of our all-time favourites. It's one of the few cable types to significantly reduce tangling without any drastic design changes, by making it slightly less bendy than the norm, and feels - well - nicer than the more rubbery type. At the end is a high-quality right-angle jack. Replacement cables aren't being distributed in the UK at this point, so we can't tell you how much they'll be.
Like the PFE 112/122 before it, the PFE 232 come with flexible plastic ear loops for those who prefer not to wear them with the cable falling straight down. They're a little more robust than the previous type, locking-in the cable much more successfully. Like the earphones themselves, they're not desperately stylish, but they do their job very well. The loops don't cause discomfort because they put virtually no pressure on your ear - instead floating above them for the most part. They make the PFE 232 somewhat viable as a pair of sport earphones, although the potential sweat damage is enough to dissuade us from using such a valuable pair.