Phonak Audeo 121 and 112 iPhone compatible Inner Earphones in Review: Phantastic!

headphone-review-phonak-dsc_7809Phonak – Swiss Precision

Who are Phonak?
“Headquartered in Stäfa, Switzerland, Phonak has been developing, producing and selling technologically advanced hearing and radio systems for more than 50 years. At Phonak, we use our extensive knowledge of hearing technology and acoustics to improve the hearing capacity, speech recognition and quality of life for the hearing-impaired. This know-how has now been used to develop Audéo Perfect Fit Earphones (PFE).”

PFE models have been stirring up the portable headphone forum at headfi which is usually stopped up by the big names: Sennheiser, Shure, Westone, Ultimate Ears and Etymotic. Since we have tried three newcomers to inner ear earphones in our previous reviews, we felt that Phonak’s offering would fit right in! In this review, we look at the PFE 112 and 121 which are our first reviewed balanced armature earphones and promise not to be our last! Feel free to discuss this review of the Phonak Audeo 121 and 112 in our forums.

PFE Packaging
Below is a nice marketing video from PFE

Both the 112 and 121 come carefully wrapped within a plastic-screened cardboard box. The inner compartments neatly slide out safely and neatly with easy to arrange contents, however, it is 100% non-environmentally friendly plastic. Loads of empty space within the packaging and wasteful plastic skids unfortunately cheapen the presentation but within the price range, thisis par.

PFE Fit Kit
Phonak are first and foremost, a well-established hearing-aid company and as such, should have exemplary knowledge of the workings of the ear. Fortunately, their fit kit includes both silicon flanges and one pair of expensive Comply® foamies.
Everyone’s ears are different but between the small, medium and large flanges and the soft Comply® foamies, most ear shapes should be comfortably covered. As per usual however, the silicon flanges did not suit my comfort needs the best. They were comfortable and pliable however I prefer more isolation as much of my listening is done on the train as well as at home.

Unfortunately, Phonak chose a differently sized sound stem than the typical Sony/Sennheiser/Monster variety which at the same time is larger than Westone/Shure/Etymotic. That means that if you want to use your old flanges or foamies, you will have to slightly mod your own or press REALLY hard to squeeze them onto the PFE.

Phonak include in the package a unique item: changeable filters that tailor sound, acting much like tuning ports found in Sleek Audio earphones. Phonak state that the included grey filters enhance mids whilst the black filters enhance the highs and bass. I have been using the black filter on the PFE 112 and the grey filter on the PFE 121 and found that both are well balanced and each fit a certain type of music well. Excellent addition Phonak!

The shape of the unit is of some concern to me however. Unlike Shure, Westone and Audio Technica models which mimic the inner ear shape, the PFE models are composed of hard and angular edges which may cause discomfort for some people. Again, everyone’s ears are shaped differently, but I did not find the PFE to be comfortable even in normal listening situations despite Phonak’s marketing claims of “Unrivaled Comfort”.

Much nicer than the Nuforce toss-pouch and miles beyond the serviceability of Zagg’s sock, Phonak’s zippered case is still not ideal. It fits everything including the cleaning tool, filters and is almost big enough for a small portable player or big enough for 10 of the new iPod shuffles.

PFE Specifications
Sound pressure level
107 dB SPL/mW, 1 kHz
32 ohms, 1 kHz
5Hz – 17kHz
3.6 ft/110 cm
0.6 oz/15 g

With a sensitivity of 107db, I was expecting to hear quite a bit of hiss coming from my non-iPod Touch 2G sources, however the PFE are not prone to hiss. Though they are sensitive and sport a low ohm rating of 32, they simply play music, not the wind!

PFE Cable and Construction: Mix the Good and the Bad
I am immediately reminded of Victor’s FX500 cable and to a lesser extent, the Shure SE530’s cable. The PFE in either white or black has a soft, thick and supple cable. At the y-split and afterward, a similarly constructed but thinner cable continues as the signal divides between the left and right earbuds.

Since the cable is light and supple, it makes hardly any noise – microphonics, of course exist but are feeble. The PFE must be worn in an over-the-ear placement, and as such, touch-noise is much less noticeable than either the Nuforce or Zagg. It is a very secure and snug fit. To ensure the long life of its cables, Phonak also include silicon ear guides which lessen the detrimental effects of body oils and sweat which can crystalise and crack the cable. The guides also help the earphones to stay in place during activities that might otherwise force them out of the ear.

PFE’s microphone is small and falls neatly to the right side of the face, below the chin and is adorned by a central button which is easy to press. The button can be used to pause, resume and skip music tracks or to transfer to a call. After many Skype calls and bits of recording, I am impressed: the quality of the mic is clearly excellent.

Unfortunately, not all is good. Though the cable is high quality and devoid of most touch-noise, it does not inspire the most confidence when regarding two issues: strain relief and longevity. Firstly, strain relief at the earphone is attended to by a small rubber grommet that digs down into the plastic arm of the PFE. The whole arm is very slender. The grommet is not fastened to the cable itself, so merely provides a sheath rather than an achoring point for strength. Also, as seems to be the trend, there is no strain relief on the y-split. In regards to longevity of the cable, much is uncertain as the PFE have been to market less than a half year but I have hopes that will proper use of the cable guides, the cables will last a long time – indeed, it is recommended to use them as often as you listen to music. Since the guides can be removed, the can be used with other earphones to save their cables as well. They can be purchased for 8$ per 3 pair from Phonak’s website.

Finally, regarding housing materials, Phonak chose plastic. Plastic like other composites is strong only when its glue is strong and even then, the plastic can be stressed in ways that metal will never be. This plastic is not high-impact plastic as seen on Westone UM2 models, rather it is soft and scratchable. Treat your PFE delicately! That means no twisting, exuberant pushing or pulling – take care of your investment to ensure its long life.

PFE Mic Quality
Please listen below for a sample of call fidelity. As mentioned before, I have found the PFE to deliver clear listening and transmitting signals. Of course this only applies to the PFE 121 model as the 112 does not feature a microphone.

PFE Mic Quality Test Recording – MP3

Sound Quality: The Right Fit means the Right Sound
In Phonak’s marketing literature, they mention, “First-of-its-kind eaphones by leading hearing systems manufacturer provide exceptional comfort with high design and great sound”, and, “New Audeo Earphones Offer Unrivaled Comfort”. I agree with many points; they are well designed and offer great sound however, as I mentioned before, I don’t find them comfortable when compared with many inner-earphones I have tried – the hard angles are just somewhat sinister.

Since the PFE do not use the standard size sound tube (either standard for Shure or for Sony/Sennheiser), if you don’t like the fit or sound of the included ear pieces, you’ll not easily able to use your favourite ear tips from other phones. Slight modifications can be made to Shure Olives or other ear tips to fit the PFE, but perfection is slightly out of the equation. The sound tube is short and flanged. Modifying ear pieces for the PFE is fun to do but making effective pieces that do not come off in the ear is difficult because of the short sound tube. That said, any stock earpiece that Phonak included fit well and are comfortable, so have fun trying them out!

I spent most of my time with the staples of shigzeo’s library:
Armin van Buuren – Trance
Paul Oakenfold – Trance
DJ Tiësto – Trance
Ice Cube – Rap
MC Solaar – Rap
Kent – Rock/Alternative
Ultima Thule – Rock/Punk
Madeleine Peyroux – Vocal
Aphex Twin – I care Because You Do – Ambient, Space

PFE Bass: Clean, Strong but Subtle
Phonak’s PFE is not bloated, overpowering or sloppy. If you have heard Audio Technica balanced-armature IEM’s before, you will easily relate to the PFE house sound. Audeo spec the PFE’s bass as extended to 5HZ but of course I cannot vouch for that as I am not a bat. However, with mere human ears, I am impressed by the extension and clarity of the bass. Quantity depends greatly on the tip you choose. With Comply® tips, bass is at its strongest and yet remains detailed enough to please those whose ears prefer details. I was tipped off by a fellow at that recommended inserting the Comply® tips rear-end first. Doing so will bring out details but keep the excellent isolation characteristics that the Comply® tips provide. Astonishingly so, just by reversing the tips, the Comply® are crisper and at the same time, a little less bassy. Whereas before, they slightly muddied the sound, reversing them keeps bass, treble and mids clean, crisp and maintains the excellent seal for which Comply® tips are are renowned.

The silicon flanges lessen the perceived bass output of the PFE but retain air and clarity. They are soft and non-irritating which is a boon for sensitive ears like mine. For those who value absolute clarity, the silicon may give a preferable presentation.
For my purposes however, I found that the bass that I desire came only from cutting apart pink earplugs, flattening the top and boring a hole through the centre. These provide a great balance between the slightly muffled sound from the Comply® and the uber-detailed sound of the flange. In fact, using this method, the PFE became bass monsters that suit very well to bass and atmospheric music such as IDM, trance and rap.

PFE Treble and Mid: Where the Tough Gets Going
Before I heard the PFE, I read in many forums about they clarity of the treble and instrument separation that rivalled the best even from Etymotic. Having owned the Etymotic ER4S, I was unimpressed with the hype in the forums as the PFE is a new phone and has not yet stood the test of time compared to the more experienced companies like Etymotic. Well, the PFE earphones are wonderful. In fact, I prefer them to the ER4S because they are not as fatiguing. After hours of listening, I am not tired or strained by the PFE – in fact, I have listened up to 5 hours in one day on them with no side effects. There is good space around each instrument and the highs really shine. Mids are no less brilliant and match wonderfully to the highs, bringing crispness and clarity to vocals, electronic instruments and breath even to quiet intimate passages. While not as forward as the mids in IEMs such as UM2 from Westone or SE530 from Shure, the PFE are sure to please mid-lovers and vocal music fans who love clear, full and lush vocals.

These phones best the ER4S in Jazz and acoustic music because they are not tiring nor gratingly metallic. Of course, that is my own opinion and in subjective comparisons, only your own opinion really matters – so please keep that in mind.

PFE Soundstage: A Little can Go a Long Way
Phonak’s PFE delivers on mids and highs in such a delightful way that it is easy to misinterpret more space than actually is present in the music. Instruments are well arranged and placed with no smudging. No matter which tip or filter you use, the stage however, is not nearly as wide or 3D sounding when compared to some other balanced armature and dynamic designs. It is by no means small but it is intimate and performs admirably with jazz, classical and rock. For music that needs tonnes of space, they do well but are not stellar.

PFE Amped: Unmasking the Monster
I have not finished reviewing a very nice amp from nuforce called the icon mobile however I have been using it with all the phones in our reviews and will set up addendums to their reviews to include sound changes when amped.

Suffice to say: the PFE like power. With the added battery power of the nuforce, the iPod or iPhone is unloaded and can deliver its full potential to the amp rather than trying to flex its muscles against the incredible resistance that IEM present to its internal amp. In short: Bass is better but not massively so. The most impressive change I have noticed is in stage. With the driving power of the nuforce, the intimate stage of the PFE spreads out delicately to engulf 3D space. It is lovely to listen to not mere left/right separation and staging but to imagine instruments coming from in front and behind the listener within a contained smallish 3D enclave.

Phonak on the Go: Great
As I mentioned before, the PFE cable is light and nearly noise-free. It does not tangle nor grind on clothes, nor will it bunch up and tangle. Phonak simply made a great cable for a great product. With that said, be advised that you should use the silicon ear guides to protect your investment from oils and sweat – you are probably your IEM’s worst enemy in the long run. Keep it in its case when not in use and when or if the filters clog from debris, clean it.

Audeo have created a remarkable first product. The PFE is articulate, smooth yet deep and extended. It is not fatiguing like some other similarly voiced IEMs but wears comfortably for a long time. Audeo blessed their product with an excellent cable that is nearly noise-free and devoid of tangles but needs to be taken care of as its soft material may be prone harden or crack with prolonged exposure to body oils and sweat. Sound changing filters is a unique twist on acoustic tweaking and works well as advertised making the PFE rather like two earphones in one. However, ear tips will change the sound more than the filters will and the PFE come with comfortable silicon flanges and luxurious and expensive Comply® foamies.

They are a great sounding inner earphone at a good price. Are they the best sounding earphone for you? That is personal. My tastes rest in a phone that has a larger stage and more bass but I enjoy these very much. Remember that you can coax more bass out with custom designed ear tips of your make if you are unhappy with bass quantity.

Phonak Audeo PFE 112 and 121 get Grabbed by TouchMyApps. For more Headphone reviews, please visit our Headphone review section.



App Summary
Title: Phonak Audeo PFE 112 & 121 Developer: Phonak
Price: $139 (112), $159 (121)
  • Excellent fit kit
  • Clear, resolved sound
  • Non-fatiguing highs, smooth mids and well extended bass
  • Unique sound-tailoring system
  • Great cable and unique cable guide system
  • Not the “perfect fit”
  • Not overly comfortable
  • Cable may be too short for some
  • All plastic construction


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