Boasting two custom drivers, are Phonak's new universal IEMs the best monitoring solution for mixing on the move?
As the music production software we know and love finds its way onto pocket‑sized mobile computers, we find it's still impossible to take our studio monitors on the train with us too. As well as helping artists hear themselves on stage, in‑ear monitors (IEMs) are a practical kind of mobile monitoring, and the latest Phonak model is specially designed to provide high-resolution sound suitable for mixing.
Phonak's first IEM was a single‑driver model which, like the PFE232s, was sold with various filters that gave the monitors different frequency-response characteristics. However, the PFE232s use a pair of tiny balanced-armature drivers, as opposed to the earlier single dynamic driver. Interestingly, balanced-armature technology is common in hearing aids, and Phonak themselves have quite an extended history in that particular field of research.
Balanced armatures tend to be used in groups along with passive crossovers, an arrangement that provides the resolution and frequency extension required for monitoring purposes. These IEMs use a closed‑back design, so isolation from external sound is very good, and there's no leakage to speak of.
Two detachable cables with iPhone controls are included, and a zip pouch is provided for protecting the monitors. Since these monitors are worn with cable running over the ear, a pair of cable guides are in the box, along with plenty of silicon tips and foam tips in three sizes. The PFE232s are incredibly light and small for a multi‑driver earphone, so they're very comfortable to wear too.
The most interesting pieces of additional hardware that are boxed with with the PFE232s are a small blue tool and box of coloured circles. These circles are the filters, which can be popped into the outlet tube of the monitors in order to tailor the sound. The filtering itself takes the form of a broad high-frequency cut: the grey filters in place by default cut very little high-frequency content, while the black filters cut a little more, resulting in the flattest response. The green filters cut the most, resulting in a perceived increase in bass response. I preferred the black filters, which sounded the most balanced, as the grey ones were a bit too bright for my taste, and the green filters sounded a little dead in comparison.
The most prominent sonic characteristic of the Phonak PFE232s is high-frequency detail. Bass is presented in sufficiently extended form, though it's very 'lean': don't expect the subwoofer‑style bass impact and extension of a high‑end dynamic IEM and you won't be disappointed. The voicing of the PFE232s reminded me somewhat of the smaller ADAM and Genelec monitors, so users of these systems would be quite satisfied with the balance and detail.
I find differences in the tone of different IEMs to be more drastic at first than with studio monitors, but that the adjustment period required is actually shorter. After I got used to making judgements on the PFE232s, I found them quite up to the task, and some demos I mixed on the move in the Multitrack DAW and FL Studio Mobile apps translated nicely in the studio. As with most mixes carried out on headphones and IEMs, it was the bass frequencies that benefited the most from a remix on studio monitors.
I found the PFE232s' frequency response to have a slight 'smile' curve, though not so much so that it was a problem. In terms of IEMs, where design is something of a balance of compromises, the PFE232s give a very detailed performance. If you have the budget available and are looking for a clean and detailed presentation on the move, you won't be disappointed.
Sony's MDR 7550 dynamic IEM offers similar quality with more of a focus on mid‑range detail, as do Shure's SE425 and SE535 multi‑driver balanced-armature models. JVC's HA FX700 and Monster's Turbine Pro Copper dynamic IEMs have more bass extension and impact, with less treble detail.
- Clean and detailed sound.
- Extremely light and comfortable to wear.
- Detachable and replaceable cables.
- Slightly recessed mid‑range.
The Phonak Audéo PFE232s sit comfortably with other universal IEMs in the price range. They improve significantly on the single-driver Audéo models in terms of extension and clarity, but maintain Phonak's signature sound, with lean yet extended bass and detailed, crisp treble.