Mark Sparrow at Forbes
Once in a blue moon, a product comes along that resets the standard in a marketplace with a new level of performance. The audio industry is blessed with some ground-breaking products that have stood the test of time because they provided outstanding performance that lifted them above the competition.
I think I may have just come across another product that does exactly that, and this time it’s a pair of IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) from Portland-based Campfire Audio. IEM is a term often used to describe a high-end pair of earphones, so forgive me if I occasionally use the two terms interchangeably during this review.
The Campfire Audio Ara were released this spring and they manage to make such a leap forward in terms of sonic performance, that it's possible to hear the difference clearly. I’ve spent years reviewing headphones and earphones, and much of the time the difference between the various products can be fairly subtle. Seldom do I come across earphones that can blow my ears away with how they reproduce the music and the soundstage, but that’s exactly what these Campfire Audio Ara have managed to do.
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The Ara are unusual in that they incorporate no fewer than seven separate drivers (or speakers) inside their gorgeously crafted titanium earpieces. These are Campfire Audio’s most ambitious pair of IEMs to date and the sound engineers at Campfire have used balanced armature drivers exclusively to sculpt a sound that’s unique in its clarity, stereo imaging and breadth of frequency.
Balanced armature drivers are miniature speakers with a highly detailed sound that, until recently, were mainly used to make expensive hearing aids. Balanced armature drivers produce a sound that’s crisp and precise but usually with a narrower frequency range than the traditional dynamic driver used in many cheaper pairs of earphones. However, to get a sufficiently broad spectrum of sound using only balanced armature drivers requires incredible skill and tuning. By using seven separate drivers and some clever engineering to shape and tune the sound, it’s possible to create IEMs that have the breadth and depth of a dynamic driver but with the surgical precision of a balanced armature.
If a maker gets the mix right, the listener will be rewarded with a sound that is nothing short of sublime. Get it wrong and the result can be a jarring and unpleasant cacophony that will exhaust a listener’s ears and make the music sound metallic, harsh and far too detailed. The skills that Campfire Audio brings to the process is the ability to blend the sound from all those seven drivers into a musical personality that is simply stunning.
To produce this incredible sound, Campfire used two higher-frequency balanced armatures to cover the treble frequencies; just one driver for the midrange; and four lower-frequency drivers to do the grunt work of creating a convincing bass. All seven of the drivers are carefully positioned inside a solid-body internal acoustic chamber designed by Campfire. It’s this chamber that does the important work of shaping the sound by literally swirling the frequencies from the drivers in a similar way that a carburetor mixes gasoline and air to form a combustible gas.
The solid-body internal acoustic chamber is encased in a titanium shell that provides a light-and-robust carapace for the relatively fragile balanced armature drivers. It’s as well to know that balanced armatures aren’t quite as robust as a cheaper dynamic driver used in many earphones. For this reason, it’s not a good idea to stuff the earpieces in a pocket or throw them down on a desktop. Fortunately, Campfire supplies a zippered case, made from sustainable cork and sourced from Portugal, with some mesh pockets inside that carefully cradle the earpieces, so they are protected from sudden shocks. I’m not suggesting that the Ara are too fragile to handle normally, but they deserve to be treated with a certain respect and handled with care.
Each titanium earpiece is fitted with an MMCX connector made from beryllium. The connectors are used to attach the silver-plated copper Litz wire cable that’s supplied with the Ara. This special cable is made using mixed diameter strands of wire and features medical-grade PVC to protect the wires. The MMXC connectors enable the earpieces to swivel through 360 degrees while maintaining a secure electrical connection. This is important as the earpieces are worn by hooking the cable over the wearer’s ears, so they sit more securely, and being able to swivel the earpieces enables them to fit more comfortably. The cable can be replaced or upgraded but the quality of its construction is superb and doesn’t need upgrading, in my opinion. However, some people are never satisfied and love nothing more than to spend crazy money on cable upgrades.
Campfire Audio supplies the Ara with a selection of ear tips to suit most sizes of ear canal. There’s a choice of silicone or memory foam tips, and spares are available from Campfire if they ever need replacing. Getting the correct size of tip to fit the wearer’s ear properly is probably the most important aspect of getting a pair of earphones to sound great. If you use a size of tip that’s too small, the bass response will be inadequate. If you use a size that’s too big, your ears will feel uncomfortable and there could be too much pressure in the ear canal. Take enough the time to choose the right size, that’s the best tip I can give you.
And now on to the sound of these amazing IEMs. The first thing I noticed was the sheer width and depth of the soundstage. With a good and clean recording, it’s possible to accurately locate every instrument with astonishing precision. A well-imaged soundstage adds so much realism to reproducing recorded music.
The second characteristic of the Ara IEMs is the balance of the frequencies. With a frequency response of 10 Hz to 26 kHz, the sound engineers at Campfire Audio have managed to extend the range at both ends of the scale. Not only is the bass warm and enveloping, but it’s also tightly controlled, never flabby and perfectly focused. Whether it’s acoustic or electric bass, the sound is both felt and heard. That’s quite an achievement considering this is all done using balanced armatures.
The midrange of the sound signature is wonderfully clean and solid, as well as being sufficiently forward to anchor the soundstage with realism. The two higher frequency drivers deliver a treble that’s both convincing and detailed, but without ever being harsh or fatiguing on the listener’s ears. Whether it’s the higher end of a guitar scale or the crash of a pair of cymbals, the treble provides a sharp outline for the music and pulls everything into sharp focus. Using the specially designed acoustic chamber, Campfire Audio has managed to pull off the most sublime sonic character that serves up music with precision, brio and warmth in a way that it’s hard to imagine being better.
Verdict: It’s easy to get carried away with superlatives when describing a product that’s been meticulously designed to reproduce music without compromise. When used with the great quality audio source, something like the excellent Astell&Kern A&norma SR25, the Campfire Audio Ara can produce musical magic that you probably won’t hear anywhere else. The Ara have an ability to wring the last remaining ounce of detail from a recording without it ever sounding brash or forced. I can’t praise the Ara highly enough for the effortless way they present almost any genre of music. Obviously, I realize the cost is far more than many people would ever consider spending on a pair of earphones, but if music is as intrinsic and essential part of your life, you’ll probably want to avail yourself of the absolute best to enjoy your music to its fullest extent. Campfire Audio’s Ara achieves that ambition and more. If you’re the sort of person who is unwilling to compromise when it comes to sound quality, the Campfire Audio Ara are the IEMs for you.
- 10Hz–28 kHz Frequency Response
- 94 dB SPL @ 1kHz: 7.094 mVrms
- 8.5 Ω @ 1kHz Impedance
- Dual high-frequency balanced armature drivers + T.A.E.C.
- Single mid-frequency balanced armature drivers
- Quad low-frequency balanced armature drivers
- Beryllium / Copper MMCX connections
- Machined titanium shell
- Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber (T.A.E.C.)
- PVD Black stainless-steel Spout
- Black Screws