Table of Contents
It’s been a while since I’ve done a cliffnote so let me do a brief primer. These kinds of posts are more “stream of consciousness” types rather than the highly formatted, precise style of my regular reviews. My standards are still the same, as is my pedantry for the small details, but my language and writing are just a little looser is all.
I’m going to do that “<insert brand here> needs no introduction” thing here because yeah, it’s Campfire. A brand that was basically made by its Andromeda model way back in 2016, followed by the release of some frankly unmemorable models (consisting of like, 78 Andromeda variants) and then a resurgence with the release of the (original) Solaris in late 2018.
2020 is a new year, and with the new year comes new products. The Ara is of course the more hyped of the three, but that’s pretty much a given seeing that it’s the only release that was of a truly original model. And yes, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t chuckle upon hearing that the other two were rehashes of the Solaris and the… *sigh*, Andromeda.
(Many of you would probably be tired of my dad-joke-tier clowning of Campfire’s constant Andromeda releases, but c’mon!)
With the jokes out of the way and out of my system, let’s begin. Do the new models represent a true upgrade, and will the Ara be the one to break open my stone-cold heart?
Campfire Andromeda 2020
Product page: https://campfireaudio.com/shop/andromeda-2020/
Driver configuration: 5BA
I think the Andromeda 2020 gave me the biggest struggle (amongst the three CFA IEMs) with regards to determining whether or not it is a true upgrade to its predecessor. I can make pretty good cases for both; for instances, my biggest point for the original Andromeda was the existence of the upper treble spike, which (in combination with the boosted lower midrange) brought upon a certain colouration that was quite unique yet worked well to its favour.
Comparisons courtesy of the Graph Comparison Tool
And yet it is the same treble peak that would be the ire of many an audiophile, and so to these people the Andromeda 2020’s comparatively more tamed and smoothed upper-end response would be a much-welcome change. The slight boost to the midrange certainly helps with the overall tonal balance, keeping it more within “acceptable pinna gain parameters” as some would put it.
Technicalities were pretty much similar for both models; I would’ve said that the original Andromeda was the more resolving of the two, but after a good long session of A/B testing I’ve realised that the original Andromeda really only has the advantage of perceived detail due to its treble spike.
After some thinking and cross-analysis with other entries on the Ranking List, I think I would personally rank the Andromeda 2020’s tonal balance higher than the original, though I would not put it as high as “S-“. Instead, due to the relative “destructiveness” of the original Andromeda’s treble peak, its tonal score will be revised down to A and the 2020 edition shall keep the original’s old tonal score of A+.
Pretty good change by Campfire, so credit where credit’s due. Still though, the man’s gotta cool it with the Andromedas.
Overall Grade: A+ ★
Campfire Solaris 2020
Product page: https://campfireaudio.com/shop/solaris-2020/
Driver configuration: 4BA 1DD hybrid
Look, I’ve never been the biggest fan of the original Solaris. And after going through hell when my initial (very critical) impressions dropped and subsequently followed by the drama that happened, seeing one of those golden bananas in the wild would practically give me a mild panic attack.
So, 2020. New year, new Solaris, new me. And I have to say… I think the original’s better.
My main issue with the original was the whole “choked out upper mids” thing, where it felt like a lot of instruments (including vocals) were straining to hit the higher registers due to the suppressed upper midrange, kind of like the Audeze house sound. The Solaris 2020 doesn’t really fix this issue (or should I say, it doesn’t have the exact same issue but rather the same issue presented differently) and comes with an extra nasty surprise: sibilance.
So unfortunately if we’re talking sound quality, the Solaris 2020 still doesn’t get the IEF seal of approval. The 20% size reduction is pretty sweet though.
Overall Grade: B
Product page: https://campfireaudio.com/shop/ara/
Driver configuration: 7BA
Alright, wow. The Ara is certainly resolving, comes with very well-defined notes and also Campfire’s signature imaging. In terms of technicalities, the Ara can play with the top dogs no problem.
Where the Ara falls flat (and falls hard) is in the tuning. And with these kinds of reviews & impressions, I always have to disclaim that this doesn’t mean that the Ara is bad or horrible, but when you’re playing in the big leagues there is a certain set of expectations that come with the territory. Expectations that are a matter of personal opinion, mind you, but since you’re reading this website I assume you’re looking for my opinion.
I always have to ask myself one question whenever I listen to higher-end IEMs in order to re-calibrate myself against any price biases: what if I heard this tuning on a $50 set of chifi IEMs? And in the Ara’s case, the answer is simple. It’s average, chock full of minor problems here and there that, while relatively benign on their own individually, ultimately lead to a wonky tonal balance when approached from an abstract perspective.
The Ara’s presentation triggers the uncanny valley effect pretty hard for me, and while many instruments sound very forward and detailed (owing to its stellar technical capabilities), they unfortunately don’t sound… right. It’s not as bad as the Zeus-XIV (I’d need to readjust its ranking in the future), but the Ara’s tonality just sounds a little too all over the place for my ears. Maybe it’s the too-early peak at 1.5kHz similar to the notorious IO, maybe it’s the wibbley-wobbly upper midrange, maybe the combination of both.