Mark Sparrow at Forbes
Gather Round The Campfire And Listen To These Awesome Earphones Designed For Discerning Audiophiles
How much money did you spend on your last pair of earphones? I imagine that the vast majority of people would probably say “nothing” since most people use the earphones that were supplied with their smartphone. And I believe I’m correct in assuming that the majority of earphone sales these days are to users of smartphones who have either lost their original pair of earphones or are upgrading to something better.
However, there is a sizable number of people, music enthusiasts mainly, who won’t compromise on quality when it comes to listening to music. These sorts of people want their music streamed from high-quality sources such as Tidal or Qobuz, and they’ll probably own a dedicated digital music player or maybe use an external headphone amplifier to bypass the cheap circuitry built into their smartphones. If this sounds like you, then you may be interested to hear about a brand new pair of earphones that landed on my desk last week.
Campfire Audio is a boutique earphone brand aimed at music enthusiasts who want to every last sonic drop from the music they listen to. These aren’t earphones for plugging into a regular smartphone, even though they work superbly if you do. No, these are earphones that plug into something like McIntosh’s MHA50 portable decoding amplifier or the superb little Chord Mojo DAC. Plugging a smartphone into one of these high-quality devices totally bypasses the cheap analog amplifier circuit in a smartphone and takes the raw digital data from services like Tidal, and decodes it to analog using a very fancy DAC which it then passes to a really good amplifier that can produce an analog audio signal that’s detailed and rich. For such equipment, you probably want earphones that will do the music and the equipment full justice.
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This is where Campfire Audio comes in. Campfire CEO Ken Ball started his first business in his basement, in Portland, Oregon. He called the business ALO (Audio Line Out) and began by making high-end cables and amplifiers. Ken soon built a reputation for audio excellence and so he went on to found Campfire Audio, which started off in much the same way and prides itself on producing hand-built premium earphones without compromise. I recently borrowed a pair of Campfire Audio’s brand new Polaris model from Campfire Audio’s UK distributor in order to see how they compare to the more affordable earphones I usually review.MORE FOR YOUApple’s Massive iPhone 13 Upgrades Suddenly ConfirmedApple Confirms Serious Problem For iPhone 12 UsersTesla Model Y Closes In On Model 3, As China Quality Issues Loom
This refreshed version of Campfire Audio’s Polaris earphones is a completely new hybrid design and is described as having a “bombastic sound ideally suited to modern music”. Finished in a striking metallic blue color, the metal Polaris earpieces use custom beryllium and copper insulated MMCX connectors, which means the cable can be replaced and it’s possible to upgrade to an even more costly set of wires. The round MMCX connectors enable the earpieces to swivel through 360 degrees, which is a big help in limiting tangling.
The Polaris are designed to be worn over the top of the ear and the section of the wire just before the MMCX connector is reinforced with a comfortable plastic sleeve in the form of a hook. This method of wearing earphones helps to reduce the annoying vibrations that can travel up the cable and interfere with the music. The support of the ear helps to deaden the vibrations and the fit is more secure than the more usual dangling method.
The aim of the design team working on the Polaris earphones was to produce a nicely rounded sound that could serve up the most detailed highs and midrange without shrillness, while creating a bass that is so fulsome, detailed and warm, the music really opens up to create a large and spacious sound that feels like a pair of speakers or open-backed headphones.
To achieve these aims, the Polaris feature something called a TAEC (Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber) created with a 3D printer. It’s a kind of insert that creates an acoustically treated chamber to treat and grow the sound to give it the qualities that Campfire are after. There’s also something else in the earphones called a Polarity Tuned Chamber – another little piece of trademarked technology from Campfire Audio. The Polarity Tuned Chamber contains a 9.2mm dynamic driver that creates the bass sounds. You can think of it as a mini subwoofer in the earphone.
To provide the upper frequencies, Campfire Audio’s engineers chose a balanced armature driver positioned inside the TAEC (I really hope you’re keeping up) – balanced armatures are very good at reproducing detailed treble frequencies. These types of drivers are most commonly seen in hearing aids, and they can reproduce upper frequencies with an openness and clarity that would be difficult to cover with a single dynamic driver. This hybrid arrangement of two or more drivers of different technologies is becoming much more common in modern earphone design as the price of specialist drivers drop, no doubt due to the mass production of hearing aids.
The cable used with the Polaris earphones is a neat design and thankfully not such a chunky affair as is often used on more high-end earphones or IEMs (In-Ear Monitors). The cable is made from silver-plated copper Litz wires, and plaited in what Campfire Audio calls a tangle-resistant, cable weave. The wires are coated with a smoky material that contrasts nicely with the metallic-blue earpieces. The plug is a right-angled 3.5mm stereo jack with a stout collar of insulating material.
Campfire Audio supplies a selection of differently sized ear tips in both silicone and memory foam. It’s absolutely essential to ensure the correct fit of tip to create an airtight seal that keeps the sound in rather than letting it escape. I often wonder how many people listen to earphones with poorly fitting tips and then wonder why the bass sounds so weak. Take time to choose the correct size and experiment by fitting different sizes and materials, it’s surprising how much difference it can make. The other little detail I liked is the zippered blue-leather carrying pouch handmade in Portugal exclusively for Campfire Audio. Nice touch.
So what can I say about the sound from these admittedly expensive hybrid earphones? Well, it’s obvious from pressing the play button that the Polaris earphones have been expertly tuned. For my tastes, the Polaris strike the perfect balance between a superbly controlled and full-on bass with a level of detail in the midrange and treble that allows no detail or nuance in the music to escape. Sometimes, with such detailed and demanding earphones, poor recordings can sound really bad. Also, demanding earphones often require really good amplification to make them sound any good. With the Campfire Audio Polaris, the sound is great whatever you plug them into. They are easy to drive, serve up excellent volume levels but they can really shine when paired with a first-class source and some good quality music such as Tidal’s Masters range or some of the excellent tracks available on the French Hi-Res music streaming service Qobuz.
Verdict:I know that most people aren’t going to consider paying anything like the price of the Polaris for a pair of earphones but I guess it depends on how passionate someone is about the music they listen to. With a great source like one of the high-end Astell&Kern music players, or maybe a really good headphone amp like McIntosh’s MHA50, a good quality pair of earphones finish the job off. The difference with a pair of earphones like the Campfire Audio Polaris is that they sounded right from the moment I popped them in my ears. They’re light and yet incredibly well built. The sound is so open and warm but never overpowering. The balance between bass, midrange and treble sound ideal to my ears and I wouldn’t change a thing about them except, perhaps, the price. But deluxe a hand built products don’t come cheap and you get what you pay for.
Pricing:£499 / $499 / €499
More info:Hifiheadphones UK or Campfire Audio US
- Balanced Armature Driver + T.A.E.C.™
- 9.2mm Dynamic Driver + Polarity Tuned Chamber™
- Impedance: 17Ω
- Sensitivity: 105dB
- Frequency Response: 5Hz – 20kHz
- Housings: ‘Cerulean’ Blue Anodised Aluminium Body
- Cable Conductor: Silver Plated Copper Litz
- Connectors: Beryllium Copper 3.5mm / MMCX
What’s In The Box?
- Campfire Audio Polaris 2019 Edition Earphones
- Smoky jacket Litz cable – MMCX/3.5mm
- Final Audio ear tips (XS/S/M/L/XL)
- Marshmallow eartips (S/M/L)
- Silicone ear tips (S/M/L)
- Mesh drawstring pouch
- Premium leather earphone case
- Lapel pin
- Cleaning tool
Mark Sparrow Senior ContributorConsumer TechTechnology journalist specializing in audio, computing and photography