Phonak Audeo PFE122
Phonak is a renowned Swiss-based hearing-aid maker. The PFE is the company’s first foray into consumer audio. During several quick auditions at local meets, I was piqued by how smooth and pleasant sounding they made. Also, the comfort of the Phonak really won me over; I can easily sit back, relax, and enjoy its sound for a long time, though because of the shallow insertion, it can’t match the isolation of the ER4.
Phonak has included 2 different types of filters, grey and black, for the PFE, each giving a noticeably different sound. The black filter gives some loudness effect to the Phonak, adding some bass warmth at the expense of some upper mid resolution. It is not bad per se, actually quite good depending on the music, but for this review, I am using mostly the grey filter, since it really showcases what Phonak does best, which is midrange and upper midrange presentation.
A hearing aid is supposed to reproduce real life naturally to aid the hearing impaired; thus, I have great expectation for the Phonak to be natural-sounding. I was only half correct on that part. Voices sound great with this IEM, but not dead neutral life-like voices, the Phonak engineer adds some upper midrange emphasis, airiness, forwardness and liquid tonal character to the voices. Definitely one of the best mid and upper-mid oriented vocal presentations I have heard for the price. The Phonak is a fairly smooth and laidback sounding IEM, with a distinctive forward upper mid warmth. Grado has similar emphasis on mid and treble; however, they are not as smooth. To make an analogy, listening to the Fischer Audio Eterna is like taking a bite of a rich milk chocolate, the Phonak is like eating a nip of sweet dark chocolate. Rich, but only slightly so.
In some ways, The Phonak sounds like a much less clinical ER4, while maintaining good clarity. Voices reproduction stands out on both the ER4 and the Phonak, with the ER4 being sharper and more distinct, the Phonak smoother and more liquid. Unlike, the ER4, the very last bit of the treble sparkle is shaved off slightly earlier to give a smoother sound. The ER4’s reproduction of voices can be peaky and unforgiving with the wrong setups, tips, or songs. The Phonak on the other hand, is smoother and more forgiving to its source. Some peakiness is still noticeable but only on certain recordings. The bass though, lacks some impact and punch. It is there and still present in the music, but you hear it rather than feel it. The bass doesn’t snap like the ER4 though extension is comparable.
The Phonak can’t quite beat the ER4 technicalities bells and whistles, especially against the ER4S. The ER4 maintains an edge on instrument separation, transients, and imaging, but the Phonak is close enough while being less clinical, smoother and warmer. The music flows a little bit more as opposed to the surgical precision of the ER4. Soundstage-wise, the Phonak is slightly wider compared to the RE-0 and ER4; however, imaging-wise, the sound is a bit diffused in the soundscape. You trade off some of imaging precision for soundstage width. I was listening to this choir track, and I had some trouble imagining the localization of the sound, the size of the room; it just doesn’t add up to a clear image.
One strange thing about the Phonak was that it could sounds a bit mediocre and unfocused on some setups, like on my Ipod Nano. Though the signature upper mid warmth is maintained, it sounds a bit boring and uninspiring out of my Ipod Nano. Out of the Ipod, the transient attack of the Phonak is a bit on the slow and soft side. Some instruments lack a certain snap or crunch to it.
This is not caused by my ears adjusting to the Etymotic, because when I compared it to the Eterna, the Phonak has a muted sparkle, slower transient attack, a bit soft, dull, and too smooth out of the Ipod. The overhang from one note can clash a little with the soft attack of the next note. When the music gets really fast (like very fast up and down and change in volume between the notes), the Phonak has a hard time catching up. On the positive side, this give softness and pleasant decay overhang to the vocals. It’s a definitely preference thing, but I prefer a faster attack, and clearer decay stops. It is not a deal breaker but in the company of ER4S and RE-0, they sound a bit too unfocused.
Luckily, most of these problems were fixed out of my uDAC, which has a cleaner signal and beefier amp than Ipod Nano’s headphone out. Music has noticeably more snap, sparkle and focus to it. It’s not night and day. The improvement is subtle but enough to bring the Phonak to the level of focus competitive in this shootout.
One of my biggest discoveries while reviewing the Phonak, is the impact of adding a 75 ohm impedance adapter to the signal path. The impedance adapter gave the same effect to the Phonak like going from ER4P to ER4S. The guitar crunch comes alive. I like the sound of instruments better, but honestly, some of the warmth of vocal sound has been reduced as well to give a clearer focus to the sound, and this may not be preferable for some genre. Anyway, I recommend this to every Phonak user who has an amp if you want some more focus and sparkle to the sound. The change is subtle, just a nudge to a slightly more analytical direction, but not yet into the realm of extreme focus of the ER4.
The new Phonak Perfect Bass due to launch soon is more reason why you should try the Phonak if you have been waiting do so. Though the Perfect Bass maintains the same exact driver and design, it is cheaper and comes with a better cable and extra set of new bass-oriented filters, giving more option for sound-tuning.