Review: Phonak Audéo PFE 232 Earphones.

Bliss. Sex. Harmony. Words that could be used for many things in this case are being used for…ears. No. We haven’t turned into some fetish sex blog. Instead, we’re experiencing music for the first time, all over again. But before we begin the constant word tripping, take a second, grab a snack, and follow us in after the break. If you’re at all into personal audio and music, you’re going to want to hear what we have to say…

Who Is Phonak?

Phonak is a Swiss hearing aid company that got their start more than 60 years ago as “AG für Elektroakustik”. Over the decades they’ve become world renowned specialists in helping people regain the ability to hear the world around them by mimicking the human ear via man-made devices. Over the last few years they’ve taken their expertise in hearing aid technology and trudged down a new path: personal audio.

At CES the rep told us the biggest joke amongst Phonak employees is that they now offer complete end-to-end products — headphones to blare throughout your life, ultimately damaging hearing, and hearing aids to then keep customers’ hearing normally long into their senior years. Again, this is as the rep put it, a joke and not the company’s overall goal. Still, it made us chuckle.

Specs & Included Accessories

Driver: Dual balanced armature
Frequency response: 5 Hz–17 kHz
Sensitivity: Gray filter – 109 dBSPL/mW, 1 kHz | Black filter – 107 dBSPL/mW, 1 kHz | Green filter – 104 dBSPL/mW, 1 kHz
Nominal impedance: 47 ohm
Weight: 16 g, 0.5oz
Plug: 3.5 mm 4 pole jack
Cable length: 120 cm, 3.9 ft

Earphones of this scale should offer at least two very good features: sound quality and included accessories. The former is a done deal. The latter — ditto. Inside of the PFE232′s box you’ll find a slew of extra gear:

In the image above, you can see there are a ton of extra goodies included with the PFE 232s, including a second cable sans microphone and remote should you want to go without.

Audéo PFE 232 with mic & volume control
Audio filter box with 3 sets of acoustic filters (gray, black and green)
Silicone ear tips S, M, L
Comply™ Foam Tips S, M, L
Cleaning tool for ear tips
Perfect Fit silicone ear guides
Carrying case

Sound Quality & Performance

The Phonak Audéo PFE 232s are the newest flagship earphone for the Swedish hearing aid company. And let us tell you, no expense was sparred. We’ve spent the last week re-listening to hundreds upon hundreds of songs, with all of them being like first time experiences. Subtle, barely audible pieces of music as well as entire layers that were once masked by poorly designed or simply inefficient headphones were revealed to us. Really. When we say we were blown away, we mean it.

Part of the PFE 232′s performance comes not only from years of research and knowledge about human hearing, but also in how the PFE 232s allow you to adjust their sound signature with three sets of included filters. The default (gray) filters are the most “neutral”, featuring a rather flat frequency response with a slight hump in the middle. The (black) filters emphasize the low and high end while the (green) filters are for the “bass heads”. For most of our review we employed the gray filters as they gave, in our opinion, the cleanest and most natural sound.

Speaking of sound, as we’ve said before, it’s literally the best sound we’ve ever heard from a pair of earphones. Lows are more than ample — deep, resonant, and yet accurate enough that it was both powerful and controlled at the same time. Mids are like butter, forward and active but not overly so. Finally, highs are crisp, far reaching, and (almost…99% of the time) free of any sibilance whatsoever. In our opinion, it is the highs, not the lows, that are hard to get right. Even more complicated: getting both highs and lows right on the same pair of headphones/earphones. But Phonak has managed to do it with the PFE 232s.

At first when we tried out the PFE 232s at CES, we weren’t exactly sure what to think of the highs, or at that time, what we thought was the lack thereof. But after getting our review sample and comparing with our in-house Klipsch X10s and 5 Pros, it became readily apparent how awesome they truly were. Comparing to the Klipsch X10s, the PFE 232s have a much wider soundstage that is nowhere near as narrow. On top of that, we were shocked (really) on just how rolled off the highs were on the X10s. We never noticed it before, and frankly, are bummed we notice it now. (The X10s are still hands down the most comfortable and lightest feeling earphones we’ve used to date.) But that’s often how the personal audio world works; you never notice how not awesome your current gear is until you hear something better. And despite what you may think or how much money you spend, something better will always come along.

Comparing to the X10s again, we’ll note that the PFE 232s featured a more transparent mid-range that reveals more layers and subtle sounds within music. You could say that the awesome mid-range is part of that “increased soundstage”. Quite frankly, the 232s sound a lot more open than we expected.

Finally, bass response is both high quality and quantity (if that’s what you want). With the gray filters installed, more complex tracks from artists/bands such as Dave Matthews Band, Florence + The Machine, Crystal Skies, etc. were wonderfully reproduced allowing us to hear every little nuance of each and every song. Similarly, when it was the low end we wanted to hear, firing up some Basshead, Skrillex, Flux Pavilion, etc. rewarded us with plenty of quality, deep bass (even with the gray filters installed). If we swapped out the gray filters for the black ones, the bass became a little more pronounced and the highs increased in sharpness. Conversely, the mid-range vocals was veiled a bit. Swapping again to the green filters gave us a mostly bass-focused sound that really wasn’t all that great.

You may be asking why Phonak, a company who obviously cares above overall sound quality and reproduction, would ship the PFE 232s with the green filters that (to us) ruin the sound quality to a level you’d find in a cheap $50 pair of ‘buds. We’ve asked ourself that many times as it doesn’t quite make sense. The only utility we can see with the green filters is if you’re listening to a bad recording or music that lacks low end but is unusually bright — such a case would be a perfect scenario for the green filters.

What’s most surprising, however, is that for the first time we’re reaching the limits of not the headphones, but the music. I.E.: we’re finding that many of our higher quality lossy music at 320 kbps AAC is beginning to sound rather crappy, particularly in busier songs in the mid and upper frequencies. Of course, the fix for that is to listen to lossless audio files to truly enjoy our music (which we have plenty of). But part of the PFE 232s charm is their extremely awesome sound in a portable package. Portable devices don’t do lossless well in that you can only store a handful of CDs before you max out the storage limits of most portable devices. In short: we’ve come to the point in our lives where we must now honestly choose lossy/lossless even on the go as we can finally hear the differences. And, now that we’ve heard how awesome our music can sound, it’s damn near impossible to go back to the way it sounded before.

While we focused mainly on a comparison to the Klipsch X10, a lot of you out there are no doubt wondering how they compare to another very popular high-end product, the Westone 4. We haven’t been able to review/hear the Westone 4, but from numerous comparison reviews we’ve gathered that the two are very similar across the spectrum with the PFE 232 edging out the Westone in upper frequencies while the Westone beats out the PFE 232 in mid-clarity while also providing a tad more bass emphasis. Again, like always, such things are subjective and based on a per-ear basis. Make of it what you will.

Build Quality & Construction

Audio qualities aside, the PFE 232s really aren’t all that special when it comes to construction. The main housing is your run of the mill plastic and the overall shape while somewhat unique, isn’t exactly revolutionary. Pertaining to the plastic parts, Phonak says that it is still the lightest material to use and plenty durable to boot. The overal shape/design is based off of years of research (and success) in the personal hearing aid industry according to Phonak.

Phonak ships the PFE 232s with ear loops that do a decent job of keep the earphones in place, though the wire within the loop does slide around quite a bit and the clips are, despite being some of the better ones we’ve tried, still a bit awkward to put on and take off.

While we wish the 232s featured a more breathtaking design to truly copy their stellar sound quality, we won’t knock them too much. The best sounding headphones are often some of the least impressive visually while some of the most visually impressive headphones sound like garbage.

What we really like about the PFE 232s is their breakaway cable that connects right at the earbud itself. They’re not loose in the slightest — They’ll get yanked off your head before they readily pop apart — but that’s actually a good thing. We’d much prefer the connection between cable and earbud be strong. Really, the breakaway design is more for issues of snagged/cut cables. Regardless, it’s a very handy feature to have.


So we’ve convinced you (hopefully) that the Phonak Audéo PFE 232s are pretty much the best sounding earphone of all time. Now here’s where we lose 95% of you — they retail for $599. Yes. That’s a ton of money for headphones, much less earphones, and getting more specific still, “universals”. Custom earphones generally start around this price point, and depending on who you talk to, offer better sound quality. The other perk of “customs” is a completely tailored fit that no universal can obtain (which kind of goes hand in hand with “better sound quality”). All that said, are the PFE 232s really worth it? Chances are if you’re even reading this or own a pair (or three) of higher end earphones, you already know that it’s a money pit with diminishing returns. You don’t buy high-end headphones because they’re a sound (no pun intended) financial investment or will make you money in the long run. You buy them because they allow you to enjoy your music in the way it was meant to be heard. And because that is an ever evolving, highly subjective reality, price is merely a number.

While we can’t say whether or not you’ll find the sound quality worth $599, we can honestly say we are now fans. If we had to buy these out of pocket (and had the money to do so), we would.

More: Audéo World

Gadgetsteria Rating (Average): 8

Sound Quality: 10
Build Quality: 8
Value: 7


  • C.G.

    Great review but Phonak is a swiss company, not a swedish company. :)

    • Mike Norris

      Whoops. Edited.

  • Js95

    I think your build quality rating is a point low. They’re made from the same stuff as westones and shures and in fact screw together below the cosmetic metal cap. Add the fact that 2 most failure causing problems for IEMs are replacable (cable + filter/screen) and I don’t understand why build wouldn’t be top notch. The cable is a replacable and not designed as a break away. The ear guides are optional and most wont use them. The wire slides easily in them by design.

    • The Gadgeteur

      Even though they’re the same material as the other earphones you mentioned, I still think they could look/feel higher end. 

      As for the cable — I didn’t mean breakaway in a bad tone. That said, I realize they’re not “breakw away” in the sense that they’ll easily pop apart if the cord is yanked, they do come apart at the ear bud. While I didn’t want to destroy my sample pair, I got the impression you’d have to have give the cable a pretty good yank to have it separate from the bud. Whether or not it would separate like your more typical break away cable or rip your ear off is debatable for sure.

      Also, not saying the ear loops aren’t good. Just again, they could be better. It would be interesting to take a poll of 232 owners to see how many do/don’t use the ear loops.

      I have noticed a small nick in the cable about 0.5mm above the cap on the right earbud. I’ll be watching it closely over the next several weeks. 

      All that said, I appreciate your input. 

  • Nextgeneric

    Great review.