Headphones and Earphones
- Written by Jim Clements
- Published on 22 August 2012
Introduction to the Audeo PFE 232 Earphones
Audeo was founded in 2008 as a subsidiary to the Swiss corporation, Phonak, which is the largest maker of hearing aid systems in the world. Audeo was formed with the simple goal of becoming the worldwide leader for high end in-ear monitors (IEM's) by 2016. They are well on their way to that goal with a remarkable 500% growth in 2010.
Audeo PFE 232 EARPHONES SPECIFICATIONS
- Design: In-Ear Headphones (Earphones, Earbuds)
- Driver: Dual Balanced Armature
- MFR: 5 Hz – 17 kHz
- Sensitivity: 104 - 109 dB SPL/mw, 1 kHz (Sensitivity depends on filters see text)
- Noise Reduction: Not Stated
- Nominal Impedance: 47 Ohms, 1 kHz
- Cable: 3.9 Foot Length
- Plug: Gold-Plated 1/8" Right-Angle Connector
- Weight: 0.5 Ounce
- MSRP: $599 USD
- SECRETS Tags: Phonak, Audeo, Headphones, Earbuds, Earphones
This review focuses on Audeo's top of the line Perfect Fit Earphones (PFE) 232's. Audeo calls this range their "Platinum" price category. The PFE 232's are the first model in this range and the first from Audeo that includes a dual balanced armature design.
The Audeo PFE 232 is a high end product that leverages technologies developed through the earlier PFE models that generated quite a buzz over the last four years. The previous models have been lauded for their clarity and neutrality in the midrange and treble. So the goal with the Audeo PFE 232 was to improve further on the midrange and treble qualities while serving up an enhanced foundation in the bass region.
The major difference between the PFE 232 and the earlier Audeo models is that the PFE 232 incorporates an additional balanced armature driver for the bass. The crossover frequency between the two individual drivers is around 2 kHz.
The PFE 232 carries forward a number of other Audeo exclusives. The most notable is the inclusion of three different acoustic filters to tailor the response. You get two pairs of gray filters. These filters provide the flattest response. You also get one pair each of the black and green filters. The black filters are said to enhance the frequency extremes while the green filters are claimed to enhance the bass response.
The filters come in a small, plastic flip case with an included tool for removing/inserting the filters. I found the filters to be very effective regarding their performance and they are easy to change. The filters do affect the sensitivity of the PFE 232 with the gray (neutral) filters being the most sensitive and the green (bass enhance) filters being the lowest.
The PFE 232's are designed so that the cable leads wrap around behind your ears, much like custom, professional IEM's. This adds to their comfort level but inserting them turned out to be more of a fussy, two-handed affair than the simpler designs out there.
The system comes complete with everything you need to use, maintain, transport and tweak the PFE 232. Three sizes of ear tips in each of two materials are included – silicone or Comply Foam. That is a total of six ear tips. Audeo's silicone tips are comparable to other high end brands, but I preferred the even lighter Comply Foam tips which are made of a material similar to earplugs used by workers and sportsmen. Like those earplugs, you compress the Comply Foam plugs before inserting them into your ear canal where they subsequently expand to provide a "custom" fit. They also reduce outside noise by about as much as active, noise-cancelling headphones.
In addition to the aforementioned filters and filter tool, you also get an ear tip cleaning tool and two interchangeable cables. One has the iPod controls and mic while the other one is simply a straight cable. All this - the IEM's, the tools and accessories fit into the included carrying case that has two compartments, a belt loop and a ring to clip the case to a backpack or handbag.
My only quibble is that I wish the PFE 232 came with a shirt clip like some competitors' IEM's. The PFE 232's do have an adjustable yoke which is a nice touch when you are in an active mood but I still prefer to clip the cable lead to my shirt when I'm moving around.
I broke in the PFE 232's by listening to my iPod for about 20 hours at a moderate volume level. Once they had settled in, I sat down for some careful listening.
I'd like to begin with a brief discussion of the acoustic filters before delving into my direct listening impressions. Audeo does not claim that the filters are intended to tune the sound to your personal tastes. Instead, they are intended to serve a higher purpose. Here it is in their own words: "In-the-ear earphones often block the ear canal. The natural gain and resonance provided by the pinna and ear canal are suppressed. The earphones then have to compensate for this effect. Phonak engineers in Switzerland therefore have developed an acoustic filter that creates a natural, unmistakable sound, and provides the customer with three frequency settings."
As mentioned previously, you get two pairs of the neutral gray filters and one pair of the other two filter types. The black filters attenuate the midrange and the green filters attenuate both the mids and the treble. I liked the gray and black filters the most. The green filters put too much of a veil over the proceedings and in so doing they suffocated much of the life in music. The black filters were enjoyable with their lively presentation, but as a purist, I found that the neutral-sounding gray filters breathed the most life into all the different songs I auditioned. My following listening impressions were made with the gray filters installed.
I started my serious listening sessions with the inaugural album from Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears - "Tell 'em What Your Name Is". I sourced the files from the CD that I ripped with Apple Lossless Encoding to on my iPod Nano. I just love this band's material with their gritty vocals, bold horns, guitars and driving rhythms. It is pure fun.
The PFE 232 started right off with nimble and clean bass lines, delicate highs and excellent macro dynamics. Compared to other IEM's the sound was cleaner and more transparent with a bass line that was not as full but was well integrated which led to a lean, clean sound in the lower registers. Taken as a whole, the sound laid down by the PFE 232 was so dynamic and fast-paced that I was simply out of breath at the end of the "Bobby Booshay" track. Awesome.
Next up was a 320 kbps MP3 download I got for free when I purchased the LP of the Danger Mouse production, "Rome". This album was inspired by the famous soundtracks from the Italian Westerns of the 60's and 70's. This theme is presented through a series of compositions by Daniele Luppi with guest vocals by Norah Jones and Jack White.
The PFE 232's are rated to 17 kHz which indicates that they cover the range of musical fundamentals but not the higher harmonics that give many instruments that sense of "sparkle". I could hear that the PFE 232'sy were not super extended in the treble when listening to high resolution sources, but with MP3's this limitation was less of a concern.
So I enjoyed the natural-sounding cymbals on this MP3 album. In fact, I've never heard this MP3 sound better. I was particularly impressed with the nearly spot on reproduction of violins. The bass was balanced, full and pitch perfect through the PFE 232's.
As with other headphones and IEM's, large orchestras can sound as if they are stuck in your head. They generally lose their sense of scale. One exceptions to this was "Problem Queen". The height cues came through the PFE 232's unscathed on this track.
The PFE 232's were sounding so good on digital sources that I just couldn't resist the temptation to try them out on some high resolution vinyl. Some days I'm in the mood for a little classic rock. So why not Lynyrd Skynyrd's self-titled album from 1973?
The strings were amazingly tactile. The piano had great presence. The bass was full and deep if not quite as nimble as I've heard from the best headphones. The vocals were highly intelligible but the sibilants were at times a tad shut in.
I like Lynyrd Skynyrd's ballads a ton. Take "Freebird" for example. I mean, is this the greatest Southern Rock ballad of all time? It was about as good as it gets through the Audeos. The strings' harmonics were there for the taking.
I needed to try a new pressing so I reached for Adele's latest work, "21". This whole album is so good. It's almost unbelievable how good really. I'm impressed how Adele has many different sides. She can get gritty, soulful or melodic. She shows all these sides and more on this one album.
Over the PFE 232's I didn't hear as much surface noise on this record as I'm accustomed to hearing. I also found "Rolling in the Deep" to be a bit sugar-coated sounding. That quality fits Adele to a tee. Elsewhere, her gritty, controlled voice came through like she was right in front of me. At this point, I took off my reading glasses and just listened. It was like butter. I had absolutely no listening fatigue after hours of continuous listening. This pair of IEM's could possibly replace your cans because the Comply Foam plugs are so, well, comfy.
On "One and Only" Adele sounds like a soul singer a la Joss Stone. Like I said, Adele has grit and she has many sides like the next track, "Lovesong", which is so beautifully melodic. All this from the Audeo's. This was a very impressive performance.
The bench test results are shown below. Our standard test procedure for IEM's is to run the tests through a short section of surgical tubing where the eartip is 1/4" from the mic. We do not employ a coupler in this method so our test results may not be directly comparable to a manufacturer's published test results.
At 20 Hz, there was less than 1.4% THD with an output of 90 dB.
At 1 kHz, distortion was less than 0.8% THD at 90 db.
IMD was a low 0.007%.
The measured frequency response illustrates a shelf at 1.8-3.8.
I had my first chance to listen to these amazing ear buds at the Can Jam during the 2011 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. My personal audition was conducted by Christoph Umbricht, Audeo's Director of Business Development. I wasn't getting special treatment. He was manning the Audeo booth doing demonstrations alongside the rest of his marketing staff. Anybody at the show could have enjoyed the same type of demo from Audeo's Umbricht. This impressed me a ton. A major corporation that has this level of attention to their customers is quite rare these days.
The PFE 232's are targeted toward a sophisticated, adult clientele. They are for you if you are serious about your music on the go or at home. They provide excellent noise isolation without batteries. You get nuanced mids, clean highs and full, tight bass response. They have it all - compatible with MP3 players, home systems or dedicated headphone amps. With their Comply Foam ear tips they can even replace cans. I think that for 599 bucks plus an iPod you can get the best sound many people may have ever heard. So if you are tired of chintzy, blingy ear buds, then move on up to the Audeo PFE 232's! You can thank me later.