I first became aware of Campfire Audio at T.H.E. Show 2016, where the guidebook for the event featured close-up advertising photos and revealed the exotic and purposeful looks of Campfire’s newly launched range of universal-fit earphones. In high-performance audio it is usually not a good idea to judge books by their covers, but sometimes products like the Campfire earphones show such careful attention to construction details and overall design that one can’t help but be impressed. A bit of investigation revealed that Campfire Audio was no ordinary start-up company, but rather had a desirable pedigree in that it was a spin-off from the well-regarded firm ALO Audio.
For those unfamiliar with the name, ALO Audio is an Oregon-based firm that was founded by Ken Ball and that has been around for many years: ALO is best known for its specialised personal audio cables, its superb portable and desktop headphone amplifiers, and outstanding amp/DACs. Indeed, when I first began to explore high-performance personal audio components almost a decade ago, I fondly remember Ken Ball loaning me one of his ALO Rx-series portable headphone amplifiers so that I would have a high-quality platform with which to evaluate earphones and headphones. Over time, it seemed only logical for ALO to branch out to develop a range of specialty earphones to be marketed under the Campfire Audio brand.
Ken Ball and his team launched Campfire Audio in 2015 with the release of the firm’s first three earphones: the Jupiter, Orion, and Lyra. In 2016, Campfire released its flagship Andromeda and Nova earphones, followed by the so-called ‘Liquid Metal’ range consisting of the Lyra II, Dorado, and Vega earphones (the Vega serves as a co-flagship model alongside the Andromeda). Finally, in 2017, Campfire introduced a new mid-priced earphone called the Polaris.
In late 2017 I asked Ken Ball what he thought would be the best Campfire models to review in order to give our readers a good sense for what the Campfire brand is about and after a brief pause he proposed the flagship Andromeda ($1,099) and mid-priced Polaris ($599) models as the subjects for this review.
There are obvious external similarities between most of Campfire’s earphones. All feature crisply-lined, angular earpieces fashioned from metal—either via CNC machining, as in the case of the Andromeda and Polaris, or via a ‘Liquid Metal’ process as used on models such as the Vega, Dorado, and Lyra II. Another signature feature found on all Campfire earphones are thin, angular metal faceplates that bear “CA” logos and are attached with recessed, miniature cap screws. All models use proprietary Campfire beryllium-copper MMCX-type signal cable connectors. Each model in the line-up is treated to its own distinctive colour scheme, making it easy to tell at a glance which model is at hand.
The Andromeda earpiece shells and faceplates are done up in a matt Kelly green anodised finish with accents in the form of silver-coloured metal sound outlet ports and bronze-colour cable connector jacks. In turn, the Polaris arrives with matt textured Royal blue anodized earpiece shells topped off with matt black/cobalt-coloured, Cerakote-finished faceplates, with polished black sound outlet ports and again bronze-colour cable connectors. (Cerakote is a durable polymer-Ceramic Composite coating often used in firearms applications, but that Campfire puts to more musical uses in Polaris and several other earphone models.) It’s on the inside, though, where the biggest differences between Campfire’s various models become apparent.
Let’s start with the Andromeda. Each CNC-machined aluminium earpiece houses a five balanced armature-type array consisting of two high-frequency drivers, one midrange driver, and two low frequency drivers. Output from the mid and low frequency drivers are directed toward the listener’s ears via traditional bore tubes, but the high frequency drivers are treated differently. Instead of using a “traditional ‘tube & damper’ tuning system,” says Campfire, the Andromeda’s dual high frequency drivers are loaded into a 3D-printed Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber™ (T.A.E.C.). The T.A.E.C. system is said to provide the requisite “acoustic tuning without compression”, thus yielding uncommonly extended and open-sounding treble response. Campfire describes the Andromeda as a very well balanced all-rounder that “combines all of the best elements of our earphone design experience into a single set of earphones”.
Accessories included with the flagship Andromeda include a dark brown leather semi-hardshell carry case, a set of Campfire Litz-wire signal cables featuring silver-plated copper conductors terminated with beryllium-copper MMCX connectors on the earphone ends and a 3.5mm stereo plug on the amplifier end. As befits a flagship model, the Andromeda also comes with an expansive set of ear tips including sets of SPINFIT tips (sizes XS, S, M, and L), Campfire tips (sizes S, M, and L), and Silicone tips (sizes S, M, and L). Completing the package is a small cleaning tool and a Campfire Audio lapel pin.
The Polaris is considerably different to the Andromeda in that it is a hybrid design that uses both a dynamic driver and a balanced armature-type driver to achieve its signature sound. Handling low and midrange frequencies is a 8.5mm dynamic-type driver loaded into a so-called Polarity Tuned Chamber™ whose output is directed to a sound outlet port. Actually the Polarity Tuned Chamber is not just one chamber, but rather two—one positioned on the front side of the driver and the other on the rear. Campfire claims the Polarity Tuned Chamber helps optimise the performance of the dynamic driver in a way that “opens up the sound and gives the driver an effortless power.” In turn, the Polaris’ single balanced armature-type high frequency driver is loaded into a Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber similar to the one used in the Andromeda. Campfire describes the Polaris as an earphone that is “emotionally engaging and highly resolving”.
Accessories included with the Polaris are similar but not identical to those provided with the Andromeda. The two differences are that the Polaris’ carry case is made from a textured black faux leather material whereas the Andromeda’s case uses real leather, while the Polaris’ Litz-wire signal cables feature high-purity copper conductors rather than the more costly silver-plated copper conductor cables supplied with the Andromeda. In all other respects the accessory kits for the two earphones are the same.
During my tests I used the Andromeda and Polaris earphones with a Questyle QP2R digital audio player and Astell & Kern KANN digital audio player, plus a system consisting of a Windows/Lenovo/jRiver-based music server feeding a Chord Hugo II headphone amplifier/DAC. In all cases I used a wide range of musical materials captured at CD or higher-resolution levels as sourced from the built-in memory of the DAPs, from the music library driver of my music server, or from Tidal. Finally, to see how the headphones would fare in a casual, everyday listening context, I did a fair amount of listening to both models as driven by an iPad Air. Earphones on hand for comparison included models from Noble Audio, JH Audio, Westone, and others.
Early on it became apparent that the Polaris and Andromeda were targeted toward different groups of customers and different sets of application scenarios.
I would say the Polaris is geared for listeners who care more about the overall ‘feel’ or ‘vibe’ of the music than about pluperfect, purist-grade tonal neutrality or accuracy. This isn’t to say that the Polaris is burdened with gross sonic colourations, as this definitely is not the case, but rather to say that it does—in a subdued and tasteful way—take a few liberties with tonal balance in the name of making music sound a bit more punchy and exciting. What is more, the Polaris’ tonal character also helps the earphones achieve a richer and more articulate sound when powered by less than ideal amp/DACs or performance-limited smartphones and tablets.
With these objectives in view, the Polaris is voiced to provide a judicious touch of low-end lift and a subtle degree of upper midrange/treble emphasis as well. These characteristics prove extremely helpful in day-to-day listening environments where there may be a fair amount of background noise present—for example, in trains, train stations, airports, or aboard jet aircraft. In any setting where there might be a distracting amount of ‘rumbling’ low-frequency noise or ‘hashy’ upper midrange/treble noise present, the Polaris’ voicing lets the music rise above the noise floor while retaining a vital measure of its essential clarity, tonal colours, and dynamics. The key, though, is subtlety; the Polaris’ moderate touch of bass lift and gentle upper midrange/treble emphasis are just that: moderate, gentle, and very carefully managed. As a result, Polaris deftly influences the balance of the music being played, but without causing the music to lose its fundamental character. What is more, the Polaris is highly smartphone and tablet-friendly, meaning that its tonal characteristics can help overcome the sonic limitations of the electronics.
To appreciate the benefits of the Polaris sound, try a track such as Hanne Boel’s soulful rendition of the classic tune ‘After Midnight’ from Outtakes[Warner Music, Denmark, 16/44.1]. Boel’s rendition of ‘After Midnight’ features an incredibly hard-grooving rhythm section centred on an agile and highly propulsive electric bass, a rock-solid drum kit, and what sounds like a Hammond B3 organ. The Polaris does a great job of conveying the depth, punch, and fluidity of the bass line, while absolutely nailing the precise thwack of the kick drum, the pop of the snare, and the crisp attack and shimmer of the hi-hats and cymbals. In short, the sound just makes you want to get up and boogie. At the same time, the midrange of the Polaris does full justice to the sound of Boel’s deeply inflected and profoundly soulful voice (which brings to mind comparisons with singers like Aretha Franklin or Betty LaVette), while showing how the plaintive wail of the Hammond organ serves as a perfect foil for Boel’s voice. My point is that the Polaris delivers on Campfire’s promise of an “emotionally engaging and highly resolving” sound.
In contrast, the Campfire Audio Andromeda is an earphone created by and for audio purists. In practice this means the Andromeda offers optimal and near-neutral tonal balance, with a substantial amount of resolution—especially when it comes to capturing spatial cues in the music. Perhaps the Andromeda’s only (very slight) deviation from flat frequency response might be a subtle degree of bass emphasis, which gives a sense of more solid grounding whenever foundational bass elements are present. Like many fundamentally neutral transducers, the Andromeda sounds so effortlessly natural that it can at first seem self-effacing, though in truth it is simply standing aside to let the music tell its own story.
In short, the Andromeda is highly faithful and transparent to its sources. When the music is well recorded and rich in emotional content, the Andromeda sounds very accomplished, expressive, and refined. But, if fed recordings that sound flattened, compressed, or lacking in focus or expression, the Andromeda honestly will reveal those shortcomings. On more than a few occasions I noted that the better the recordings you play and the better your ancillary equipment is, the more you will be impressed by what the Andromeda can do. I found the Andromeda to be competitive with top-tier models from firms such as JH Audio and Westone (many of which carry higher price tags than the Andromeda does), which is to Campfire Audio’s credit.
A track that highlights the Andromeda’s strengths is Dead Can Dance’s ‘Anabasis’ from In Concert [PIAS America, 16/44.1], which is an extremely well-made live recording of the famous electro-acoustic ensemble led by Lisa Gerard and Brendan Perry. This intensely atmospheric track combines both powerful yet nuanced high and low percussion instruments, a wide variety of other acoustic and electronically synthesized instruments, plus haunting, Middle Eastern-influenced vocals. Through the Andromedas, the variegated textures and tonal colours of ‘Anabasis’ are brilliantly revealed, so that the track sounds by turns dark, brooding, shimmering, soaring, and always majestic. But owing to the Andromeda’s superb resolution of low-level details the sumptuous sound of the music proper is augmented by the earphones’ uncanny ability to capture the distinctive three-dimensional spatial qualities and the electric atmosphere and overall ‘feel’ of a live concert event.
Are there caveats to the Polaris and Andromeda? The only one I can think of is that the somewhat angular shape of Campfire’s earpieces might not be a comfortable fit for all ears (although they fit me well). For this reason, I suggest that prospective buyers do a ‘test fit’ with any of Campfire’s models (they all share a similar shape) to verify that the earpieces are comfortable for them. This might mean a trip to a CanJam show, but if they suit, it will be more than worth the effort. Everything else about these earphones—sound and build quality, useful accessories, etc.—is all to the good.
Campfire’s Polaris is an enjoyable and entertaining high performance mid-priced earphone that works very well in noisy environments and is happy to be driven by smartphones and tablets. The Andromeda, in turn, is a serious audio purist’s earphone that does all things well and that offers particularly good top-to-bottom balance and coherency, plus very effective rendition of spatial cues in the music.
Campfire Audio Polaris
- Type: Two-driver, two-way, hybrid dynamic/balanced armature-driver universal-fit earphone.
- Driver complement: one 8.5mm dynamic driver in a Polarity Tuned Chamber enclosure, one balanced armature-type high frequency driver in a Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber enclosure.
- Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz
- Sensitivity: 97.5dB SPL/mW (but note, perceived sensitivity seems much higher than this specification suggests)
- Impedance: 16.8 Ohms
- Accessories: Described in review text
- Price: $599
Campfire Audio Andromeda
- Type: Five-driver, three-way universal-fit earphone.
- Driver complement: five balanced armature-type drivers grouped as two high-frequency drivers in a Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber enclosure, one midrange driver, and two low-frequency drivers.
- Frequency response: 10Hz–28kHz
- Sensitivity: 115dB SPL/mW
- Impedance: 12.8 Ohms
- Accessories: Described in review text
MANUFACTURER INFORMATION: Campfire Audio
Portland, Oregon 97214 USA
Tel: +1 (503) 853-8606, +1 (855) 204-1492