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Phonak PFE

Phonak Audeo PFE Review

Phonak PFE
Reviewed Jan 2010

Details: the original ‘Perfect Fit Earphone’ from Swiss hearing aid manufacturer Phonak
MSRP: $179 (manufacturer’s page); $199 for 121/122 with mic & 1-button remote; $239 for 132 with mic & 3-button remote
Current Price: $179 from  for 111/112; $140 for 121/122; $165 for 132
Specs: Driver: BA | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 107 dB | Freq: 5-17k Hz | Cable: 3.6’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 3mm | Preferred tips: Jays silicone single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (5/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes), Comply T130 foam tips, 8 filters (4 grey; 4 black), cleaning tool, silicone ear guides, and zippered carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) –  The plastic housings are extremely lightweight and the cabling is fairly thick and quite soft, with a strong tendency to resist tangling. The PFEs certainly don’t feel bulletproof but the newest revisions should survive daily use quite well
Isolation (3/5) – Isolation is quite tip-dependent and best with the included Comply T130s or similar foamies. With silicone tips isolation is average
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Quite low, partly because they must be worn over-the-ear
Comfort (5/5) – The part of the housings that fits inside the ear is small and the earphones are very light. As a result the PFEs can really disappear during everyday use. Bonus points for the included silicone cable guides. The only (rare) problem I had was that of losing seal under strenuous exercise with silicone tips

Sound (8.8/10) – Ultimately, the sound is really what makes or breaks an earphone. After my initial listening rounds with the PFE I settled on the grey filters and kept them in for the duration of the test. To my ears the grey filters provide more sparkle in the treble and a slightly smoother and thicker upper midrange. The black filters accentuate the bass but I found the (slight) hardware bass boost provided by my iBasso T4 to be a better solution. Tips matter as well – the included comply T130s will provide a more tactile bass presentation but also slightly veil the high end. The silicone tips have a more transparent sound but for some reason none of the stock tips fit me quite right. I did finally find a good fit with Jays silicone tips off of my J-Jays though.

The overall sound of the PFEs amazes with its smoothness and clarity. The bass is tight and accurate. The mids are somewhat liquid and very well-positioned in being neither forward nor recessed. The treble is similarly accurate and quite enjoyable. There is a small amount of unevenness at the high end, but this can be reduced a bit by using the black filters. I wasn’t bothered enough by it to give up the grey filters though. Overall the PFEs have a tonal balance on the cool side of the spectrum and very high resolving capability. Soundstaging is about average – wider than the Ety ER-4S and RE0 but not as expansive as the ATH-CK10 or RE252. Instrumental separation is excellent and positioning is quite good as well. They lack the famed Etymotic forwardness, which makes it a tiny bit harder to pick out details with the PFE but results in a less fatiguing sound.

Amping: The PFE is one the rare IEMs that do benefit from amping. Despite the relatively low rated impedance and high sensitivity, the PFE becomes truly effortless when fed enough power. My iBasso T4 was sufficiently powerful but the transparency of the D10 and mini3 gave a nicer sound. When properly amped the PFE maintains its incredible clarity and resolution and becomes very hard to beat in transient response and all-around speed. A positive side effect of their inefficiency is the ability of the PFE to suppress background hiss from impedance mismatches. At listening volume the PFE exhibited no notable hiss from any of my amps or sources except the Amp3, with which they were still far more tolerable than with most earphones.

Value (9/10) – Despite the crop of excellent mid-range earphones currently available to the average consumer, the year-old Phonak Audeo PFEs still amaze with their incredibly coherent presentation and musical sound signature. I can’t recommend them enough for acoustic tracks, but they work well with nearly all music styles. The possible combinations of tips and filters and the responsiveness of the armatures to equalization also make the PFEs very tunable. Die-hard bassheads may want to look elsewhere but the PFE should be shortlisted by anyone looking for balance and clarity without the need for monstrous isolation.

Pros: Comfortable, low microphonics, very balanced and musical presentation, great clarity and resolution
Cons: Reported build issues with original version, mediocre isolation





Living in the fast-paced city of Los Angeles, ljokerl has been using portable audio gear to deal with lengthy commutes for the better part of a decade. He spends much of his time listening to music and occasionally writes portable audio reviews across several enthusiast sites, focusing mostly on in-ear earphones.


11 Responses

  1. Thank you very much for your time. I am going to keep Etymotic HF5 as they have got very similar characteristics. With comply they have got a bit more “body” in base, a bit less detail in vocals, a bit worse placement when it comes to width of soundstage compared to Phonaks. Etymotys have got also a thinner cable and you cannot recognise which monitor is right or left. They have got an L shaped jack, too. Those are the differences for me… 🙂

  2. Just one more question. Did you really mean R-20? Didn’t you want to type R-50? I was thinking of them for a while too…

  3. Etymotic HF5 is a very good choice, I think. The only thing I can think of that can beat it in detail in that price range is the Rock-It Sounds R-20, and I don’t know if you can still buy one of those. Haven’t tried anything that can pump out more details on vocals, cymbals, and hi-hats than those (that’s currently on the market).

  4. Hello ljokerl,

    I need a replacement for my Phonak PFE 111 (using them with grey filters and comply) and so far I tried Hifiman RE-400 and Meelectronics A161P. Both of them were kind of too warm and definitely lacked the detail. I love how I can hear vocalist’s every breath and how cymbals and hi-hats sound on Phonaks. I missed a bit of bass body but I always thought it must be sacrificed for the clarity. Could you recommend me any in-ears below 200 bucks? Recently I ordered Etymotics HF5 and in case I am not going to like them I would love to have other ideas up my sleeve.
    Love your reviews – thank you for your time, I really appreciate your work.

  5. For sound the closest match I’ve tried in that price range are probably the VSonic VC02s but they lack durability and I wouldn’t recommend you actually buy them. Lower price ranges… something is always a trade-off.

    I think the green +bass filter of the PFE is the hardest to replicate – it’s very easy for similarly-tuned IEMs to go overboard in bass quantity and sacrifice balance/clarity, and also difficult to imitate the smoothness of the Phonaks. Two examples – the Sony MH1C is an awesome warm-sounding and smooth IEM, one of my favorites in its price range, but compared to a PFE its bass is quite powerful. On the other hand sets like the MEElec A151, Rock-It Sounds R-20, and Astrotec AM-90 have very balanced sound and smooth treble, but lack the slight boost in bass impact that the PFE provides.

    But enough with the negatives – I do think the Havi B3 Pro I is worth taking a look at. Good clarity, decent bass, pretty versatile sound that’s balanced but not analytical. It’s a little hard to drive but so are the PFEs, and you should be able to get one for around $60 shipped.

  6. Hi Joker,
    I bought the PFE 112’s above and have loved them. I wished they had more bass, but I’ve been able to adjust for that somewhat by using an external amp (C&C BH2). I liked them best with the green filters (which, strangely, never seem to get mentioned in comparisons!), not much at all with the blacks (too ‘muddy’?) and 2nd best with the grey.

    They just stopped working in one ear (heartbroken!) and I’m in between jobs and income-less, so I’m looking for a pair to buy in the $0 – $60 price range (NB: am based in London, UK).

    I wondered if you could recommend anything that has a similar sound to the PFE’s at that price range?
    Obviously I’m not expecting miracles or the same sound quality. But I don’t know how to put into words exactly what it is I love about the PFE’s, so it’s hard then to know what to look for in lower range IEM’s.
    All I can say is I love the clarity and detail I can hear with the PFE’s. I do like good bass, but I don’t like muddiness and would choose clarity over bass if I had to choose one!
    I listen mainly to acoustic, rock and hip-hop music (but also bits of jazz, folk, pop, RnB, blues, classical etc).
    I was at the CanJam in London recently, and heard many earphones and only two really stood out for me (both incredible!):
    Jaben’s Hyperdynamic IEM’s (staggeringly good, and set to cost less than $200!) and the JHA Roxanne’s. That might help you, but I doubt it, given the price of the JHA’s and the fact that the Hyperdynamics haven’t been released yet (unless you’ve also previewed them?).
    Anyway, this is turning into an essay. Hope you can help and thanks for your time and the terrific website!

  7. I categorize the V3 as being mildly v-shaped (slight bump in the bass, high-energy treble) and the BA200 as being mildly warm (it’s quite flat/neutral, but the upper mids and lower treble are a bit smoothed-out giving it a warmer tone). The PFE has three sound tunings so it’s a little tougher. With my preferred gray filters it is quite flat, with a bit of that Etymotic-like upper midrange boost.

    Don’t know about the Flare but I wouldn’t call the DUNU laid-back. It’s a a more v-shaped sound than your V3 and generally sounds pretty exciting. The EPH-100 is not too laid-back, either, but it has good soundstage layering and smoother treble so it may be a better choice here. The RHA MA750 is another enhanced-bass set that I like, and is a bit more laid-back than the EPH-100 overall. You’ll have more bass and less clarity compared to your current sets, but it’s been a very nice casual-use IEM for me.

  8. Hi Joker,

    I was wondering if you could help me out with understanding iem descriptions. I currently have three main iems, a 1964 V3, PFE 112, and BA 200. What category would each of these iems be in? I think I want to look for something to use while working, perhaps a little more laid back and was thinking of either the dunu 1000, flares r2, or eph100? What would you suggest?

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