- Review Price: £119.95
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.
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).
Now things get really interesting. Had the Phonaks launched eighteen months ago when they did in the States, I think they’d have been pretty much untouchable at this price point. However, the IEM market has now reached a point where aggressively priced dual armature models are hitting the streets for similar money. Jay’s Q-Jays can widely be found for around or under £100, while the Ultimate Ears 700s can be had for only £10 more than the PFE 112s.
Just to be clear, a dual armature IEM won’t necessarily beat a single armature IEM every time, but the Ultimate Ears 700s are a pretty tough earphone to beat at this price point. Having recently borrowed a pair, I can only agree with Hugo’s Recommended verdict. However, comparing the UEs directly with the Phonaks the outcome is less clear cut than you might imagine. Sure, the UEs have the edge when it comes to their gorgeous, crystalline top-end and their rich, friendly bass, but the PFE 112s win out in other areas. Listen to Eden from Talk Talk’s always stunning Spirit of Eden, and as the track ramps up, layering instrument on instrument on instrument, the Phonaks manage to maintain a clarity and separation that the UEs can’t quite match. Switch to something a bit more fun, in this case Royskopp’s Happy Up Here, and the Phonaks less up-front, smoother, more balanced presentation is actually a little easier on the ears.
I’ve spent hours over the last two days switching between the two IEMs and trying to work out which I prefer, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really just a case of character. In the same way that I find myself switching between Grado and Audio-Technica full-sized cans depending on what I’m listening to and what mood I’m in, I could see myself flip-flopping between the Phonaks and the UEs. Given that one is a slightly cheaper, single-armature IEM, that’s something for Phonak to be proud of.
However, in the real world most of us – me included – can only afford to make one choice. All I can say is that the UEs remain the top dog at this price point if you want optimum clarity at the top-end and a good, fun, bass-rich sound, and that, if they only had five minutes to try each pair, it’s the UEs that most listeners would walk away with. The Phonaks take longer to reveal their strengths, but they do have a really lovable, warm and balanced output that doesn’t allow any one frequency to dominate the sound. For me, that’s enough to earn an equal, and no less valid recommendation.
The Phonak PFE 112s offer good comfort and excellent sound quality for a single armature IEM. While the affordable dual-driver competition makes your buying decision very difficult, these little beauties should be near the top of any mid-range IEM shortlist.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 9