We’d never heard of Phonak until we received these earphones for review. That’s probably a good thing, seeing as how their specialty for over 60 years has been hearing-aid systems. However, a couple of years ago, Phonak decided to leverage its experience with human hearing and in-ear acoustics to design a unique line of earphones dubbed Audeo. Lucky for us, that experience has resulted in one of the most balanced-sounding, comfortable, and secure-fitting headphones we’ve tried yet. Read on to find out why we think the Audeo PFE-122s are among the most well-rounded in-ear monitors for under $200.
Out of the box
Upon opening the box, we were immediately impressed with the overall quality of the packaging. Nothing super extravagant mind you, but definitely enough to show us that Phonak cares about their products and how they’re presented. Once we opened the simple, heavy-stock window box, we were greeted by a felt-lined earphone tray proudly displaying the earphones. A quick twist of the tie-down and removal of the cardboard backing on the underside of the tray was all it took to liberate these tiny transducers from their confines. Easy peasy.
Underneath the earphones tray is a well-organized accessories tray containing: three pairs of silicone ear tips in small, medium, and large sizes; one pair of Comply ear tips; an elf-friendly sized storage box containing additional audio filters (two gray and four black, plus fitting tool — more on these filters later); an ear tip cleaning tool; silicone, over-the-ear wire guides; zippered storage pouch; and instructions in various languages. The PFE122s are definitely some of the better-equipped earphones to cross our desks; kudos to Phonak for thinking of everything.
Features and design
The Audeos certainly don’t look like any other in-ear monitors we’ve ever tried, and they don’t wear like any of them either, which ain’t necessarily a bad thing. This is due to what Audeo calls their “Perfect-Fit” design, which utilizes curved, L-shaped earpiece housings and over-the-ear cable guides to better seat the sound tubes and follow the contours of your ear.
Another feature unique to Audeo is an included set of interchangeable acoustic filters, which alter the tonal balance indicated by the color of the selected filter. Two gray filters come pre-fitted as standard and emphasize the midrange, while the black filters emphasize the frequency extremes. Sets of replacement filters, and an additional green-colored, bass emphasis filter, can also be purchased.
The PFE122s sit firmly in the middle of Phonak’s headphone lineup and utilize a single balanced armature design. Other models in the line feature dynamic drivers or dual balanced armatures depending on price. The Audeos are made for iPhone and other mobile devices and feature a built-in mic and single multi-function control button on the earpiece cord.
The PFE122s sounded a little rough ‘n rugged fresh from the box, so we gave them our standard 40 hours of break-in before listening. Figuring there could be some folks out there who might buy these and not know about Phonak’s design intentions (or bother with the manual), we first tried using the PFE122s the wrong way, i.e. with the L-shaped housings upside down.
We have to admit we were pleasantly surprised by the results: They sounded pretty darned good the wrong way. The sound was definitely better than expected and was clean, clear and distortion free; if a little lightweight in the bass overall. There were some sonic bunions, for sure — like a mildy spitty midrange and an uneven lower treble — but on the whole, the sound was enjoyable and not really offensive in any way.
Once we installed the PFE122s the correct way however, they sounded considerably better. We were immediately impressed with their clean and well-balanced presentation. Midrange sounds, and vocals in particular, had a nice, out-of-the head clarity and openness. Vocal nuances, such the subtle shift in pitch that comes with vibrato and the way a vocalist can “lean” into a lyric with more forceful emphasis, were easily discernible. The Audeos were equally adept at reproducing instrumental timbres and we could easily hear the tonal differences between two similar sounding mandolins in a double concerto.
In fact, The Audeos had one of the most transparent and open midranges we’ve yet heard from in-ear monitors, and they never plastered the sound to the insides of our ear canals. Given that Phonak states the gray filter’s calling card is midband emphasis, this should come as no surprise. What was surprising though, was how this emphasis never seemed out of place. The PFE122s always sounded oh-so smooth, and there was a top to bottom coherency that made everything sound clean, clear and well-detailed.
Next, we tried the black filters. Right from the first note, it was evident these were better than the gray filters. Everything we listened to just sounded livelier and more dynamic, and there was more “drive” to the sound at both frequency extremes. Bass was noticeably richer and fuller without any undue boominess, bloat or overhang; treble had even better presence and decay without any off-putting textures that can make highs sound grainy or sharp; and vocals still retained all of their openness and detail without getting lost in the mix.
In particular, we appreciated the PFE 122s ability to sound revealing without being ruthlessly so. Regardless of whether we used the black or gray filters, we never strained to pick out any specific recording details. We could easily hear quality differences while listening to the same music files through various sources and amplification devices, including a Dell laptop and desktop, an iPhone, a Schiit Lyr and an Antelope Zodiac headphone amp. Consequently, the Audeos responded favorably to better amplification. They had no trouble keeping pace with the superior sound quality of the Lyr and Zodiac, revealing musical details lesser earphones would gloss over.
Perhaps the Audeo’s one slight shortcoming was a minor rolling-off at the uppermost treble. Compared to some other, more-hyped up headphones, the PFE122s may not seem as extended on top. This wasn’t really noticeable in regular use, however, and we always appreciated the Audeos eminently listenable character.
We compared the PFE122s to some other ‘phones we had on hand, including the Bowers and Wilkins P5s, to see how they would stack up. The Audeos weren’t at all embarrassed by the larger, pricier headphones and impressed us with their revealing midrange and smoother presentation. What’s more, the Audeo PFE122s had a higher level of neutrality and sounded clearer and better detailed overall.
The P5s, though, countered with a warmer, richer tonal balance and a tactile treble presence the Audeos couldn’t quite match. The B&Ws better conveyed the sense of large, instrumental resonating bodies, like piano and cello, and they also had more realistic shimmer decay; the sounds of things like sticks hitting cymbals and the sustained ping of cowbells rang truer via the P5s. Nevertheless, the Audeos proved to be a more than competent match, only losing out to the P5s in these areas by a small margin.
In daily use, we found the Audeo’s Perfect-Fit design to work as stated: These are easily some of the best fitting and most comfortable in-ear monitors we’ve yet tried. Various users tested each of the included ear tip options, and all reported similarly positive results. Some users found routing the wires over their ears took a little getting used to, but all of them remarked on how much more secure the Audeos were compared to their own earphones. In fact, the PFE122s were so secure they never once fell out or came loose while piping sweet, sweet music during some epic snowboarding and cycling test sessions.
The PFE122s offered enough noise isolation for average levels, but no more. For sure, there was certainly enough to avoid any unwanted distractions, but not so much that we wouldn’t be able to hear someone if they really needed to get our attention. This should be plenty for most headphone users out there, but if you’re seeking the ultimate in noise suppression, you may want to consider other options.
While the market for high quality in-ear monitors is starting to crowd up a bit, we can confidently recommend the Audeo PFE122s: They’re a surefire bet for anyone who’s looking for a musical yet natural sounding set of earphones. They compare very well against any other ‘phones around two-Franklins, and they even held their ground against headier competition. Very few earphones we’re aware of combine the features and sound quality of the Audeo PFE122s for such a reasonable price—and none of them offer the flexibility to tailor the sound to your liking.
Bottom Line: The Audeo PFE122s are an excellent choice for music lovers of any stripe, and a perfect solution for those who value comfort and security as much as sound quality. The sound is excellent, the design unique, and the fit among the very best. These are definitely one of the most well-rounded set of earphones you can get at any price.
- Superbly-balanced, detailed, clear and natural sound
- Includes interchangeable acoustic filters to tailor frequency response
- Excellent fit, security and comfort
- Good assortment of accessories and different size ear tips
- Slightly rolled off and recessed upper treble
- Not the last word in noise isolation