Phonak Audéo Perfect Fit Earphone and Perfect Bass Earphone
The rash of in-ear headphones over the past few years has produced an enormous amount of style over substance. All too often the bling on the outside is accompanied by horrifically bloated or screechy sound on the inside. Likewise, some makers are able to deliver great sound, but fall down in the looks and comfort department. Rare indeed is the in-ear headphone that is stylish, comfortable, and good sounding.
The Audéo PFE seems to have beaten the odds.
The Audéo Perfect Fit Earphone and Perfect Bass Earphone ($99-$179 MSRP)
When I first saw their swoopy modern good looks I was certainly skeptical; but when I found out these headphones were manufactured by long time Swiss hearing aid maker Phonak my skepticism turn into burning curiosity. Having had the pleasure of listening to Etymotic earphones, who also makes hearing aids, I had to believe the odds were good that the Perfect Fit Earphone might be a winner.
The Audéo PFE comes in a number of different configurations, but it's important to note that in all cases the actual driver and housing are identical. The Perfect Bass Earphone ($99) is available in white and black, and with or without headset microphone ($119); this model includes only the 3 sizes of silicon tip as accessories, and has one pair of green filters mounted in headphones. The Perfect Fit Earphone ($159) is available in white or black, and with or without mic ($179); this model includes as accessories: 3 sizes of silicon tip; one set of Comply foam tips; silicon cable guides for around the ear; extra filters (2 pr. black, one pr. gray); cleaning tool; and carry pouch.
The filters mentioned above prevent gook from getting into the drivers, but they also provide some changes to the equalization of the headphones. Gray filters are the most detailed; black filters roll off the upper mids and lower treble; green filters go a little farther than the black. The Perfect Fit models include gray and black filters, but no green; the Perfect Bass come with green only. All filters are available for separate purchase (4 pair, $14.95).
To reiterate: the earpieces in all models are identical (other than color), as long as they have the same filter in them, they will sound the same.
Styling, Function, and Ergonomics
The deceptively simple and elegant shape of these headphones is not only attractive and comfortable, but very functional. I was surprised at how easily these inserted, and how comfortable they were once in place. Once the tip is inserted into the ear canal, the "arms" of the earpiece swoop upward to allow the cable to go over the top of the ear from front to back.
An unusually nice included accessory is a pair of silicon cable guides that you can snap onto the cable in order to route it over your ears. I tried bare cables on one ear and the guide over the other, and found that it was indeed somewhat more comfortable with the guide than without. These guides are available for separate purchase on Audéo's website, and might be useful on other brands if you wear the cables over your ears. (Wires need to be fairly narrow diameter; 0.075" OD or less.)
The filter holder and filter changing tool is excellent. One end of the tool has screw that threads into the filter housing for removal, the other end "clicks" into the new filter for removal from the holder and insertion into the headphones. Changing filters is easily done without damaging the filter.
I would characterize the overall fit and finish of the product as good and commensurate with the price. The cable bits and strain reliefs look a tad cheap, but the earpieces are nicely done, including a soft integrated strain relief and non-slip textured surfaces where you push to insert the headphones.
The cable is relatively short at 3.6' and is terminated in a gold-plated 1/8" mini-plug. The housing on the plug is small enough to get through the protective cases on your portable gadgets. There is a keeper slider on the cable.
The assortment of ear tip sizes looks appropriate, and the inclusion of a foam Comply tip on the PFE is welcome.
The Audéo PFE comes with a gray filter installed. This is the brightest filter and the headphone sounds similar to an Etymotic ER4P with this filter installed. The black filter reduces the upper half of the mids and low treble, to deliver a warmer sound with some remaining treble so as not to sound murky. The green filter goes a little farther than the black. The biggest difference is between the gray and black filter.
What I found most humorous is the similarity of the information on both the Etymotic website regarding thier original ER4B model and the copy on Audéo's website regarding the gray filter:
ER•4B earphones were originally designed to provide an eardrum-pressure frequency response closely mimicking that of the open ear in a diffuse sound field, making them ideal for any material that has not been equalized for loudspeaker playback, such as properly equalized binaural recordings. Many early listeners found the 4B earphones a bit bright, which led to the introduction of the ER•4S.
Internal studies at Phonak have shown that most people are not comfortable with a sound from an earphone that reproduces exactly the curve of a standard open ear. The curves of Audeo PFE are a compromise between a frequency response that includes the full open ear gain compensation as well as one that has bass and treble predominance. This compromise has been shown to produce greater satisfaction among test users, and therefore Audeo PFE offers two filter types to accommodate the widest range of user preference.
Pretty interesting that both these technically competent companies have struggled to balance objective measurements and subjective experiences. There's no doubt in my mind that more bass is needed than is technically correct to compensate for lack of bone conducted low frequency information when wearing in-ear headphones.
Etymotic solved the problem by producing three different versions of their product: the ER4B; ER4S; and ER4P. Audéo has solved the problem by using their gray, black, and green filters. (Sleek Audio also produces in-ear headphones with tunable filters.)
The Audéo PFE tips do not go very deep into your ears and as a consequence these headphones do not isolate as well as some deep sealing IEMs. I would characterize them as about average isolation. If you need high isolation on a similar sounding in-ear headset, check out Etymotic's hf2, or hf3 for iPhone.
Let's talk about the sound quality, eh?