The Phonak PFE 232 offer supremely detailed high- and upper-mid frequencies, rendering vocals with spectacular clarity and definition. No other high-end IEM we compared these earphones to, could match the sensational texture they brought out of Kate Bush's half-husky vocal on 50 Words for Snow's Misty. What's crucial about the sound here is that the ultra-high levels of detail in the treble continue further down into the mids, bringing wonderful separation that bests the Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10, Shure SE535 and ACS T2. The soundstage isn't quite as wide as Shure's top-end IEMs, but the far greater treble definition provides a similar sense of scale.
That the sound brings out its best bits in this part of the frequency spectrum makes using the comply foam tips a good idea if you're going to use them in a noisy area - its most magical effects are spoiled by the intrusion of ambient noise. And the foam provides better isolation than the simple rubber tips. In the right conditions, the Phonak PFE 232 are intensely insightful in a manner that's both challenging and rewarding.
They dissect the synth-y soundscapes of M83's Midnight City to the point where you'd swear you could calculate the oscillations of each wave by ear, and all without resulting in any of the "clinical" impressions that some of Etymotic's more analytical IEMs can give off. This is largely because bass performance is also great. It's deep and taut, although very carefully controlled - and not an ounce more than is needed. The intensity here comes from the upper-mids and high-end, not from epic bass.
This is very much to our taste, but does ensure that the Phonak PFE 232 aren't quite as fun as the bass-centric Sennheiser IE8i or the slightly more exhuberant Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10. While we'd argue that the Phonak PFE 232 are technically significantly better than both in many respects, many will be better off with one of those more affordable - but still excellent - sets. These are enthusiast earphones that offer accuracy and insight rather than "ear candy", at a level that can be compared to the high-end part of open-back over-ears headphones like the AKG Q701. That's high praise for an in-ear pair.
The Phonak PFE 232 offer a style of sound very well-suited to the £400 price - and it's one that beats the vast majority of its rivals in the fields it excels in - definition and detail. It's simply higher-fidelity than the output of Shure's and Ultimate Ears's top-end pairs, if a little less fun. They have a price to match, though, retailing for £80 more than the best reputable price we found for the SE535 and £180 more than UE's top universal earphones. Are they worth it? We think so. But should everyone looking for a high-end set buy them? Not when the Etymotic ER-4P and UE Triple.Fi 10 cost half the price. However, if you've exhausted these options and are willing to pay for the step up, we can't deny that they do supply the goods.
Phonak's PFE 022 and 122 both wowed us with their sound at release, and the PFE 232 has done it yet again. However, this time they are more expensive than alternative models, rather than cheaper. For £400, you get class-leading high-end detail, without the cold and clinical feel that comes to define some analytical earphones. We wish they didn't cost almost twice as much as the Etymotic ER-4P and Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 Pro, but the performance justifies the heavyweight pricing.