April 23, 2019 9 min read
Review written by Anthony Nguyen (@antdroid)
Never has an IEM made me struggle through so many ups and downs as the latest flagship from Portland-based Campfire Audio. Ken Ball’s latest creation is the Solaris, and it features a standout 24 karat gold plated and intricately detailed shell, and 4 drivers – a 10mm dynamic driver and 3 balanced armatures. It has the DNA of the Atlas and the Andromeda and it has changed my world so far. Why? Let’s discuss.
First off, the Solaris is priced at $1499, so expectations are quite high for this set, as it’s priced $400 more than the acclaimed and bestselling Andromeda, which I also had a chance to demo side-by-side with the Solaris. These units were provided on loan from The Headphone Community’s Preview program.
The IEM itself has a beautiful gold shell, while the ear-side surface has a black ribbed-like texture that is detailed and exquisite. But, as you may already know, the shell is large. Really large. The Andromedas are dwarfed by it. The Campfire Vega is even smaller and I feel like the entire Vega is smaller than just the bore of the Solaris. It’s that big.
And that’s where my struggles started. I actually found them to fit surprisingly well – on my left ear. I barely know it’s in my ear when it’s on, despite its shape and size. My right ear has had more challenges, and if you’ve read my posts in the past, you’ll know this is pretty common. My right ear tends to get sore much easier than my left and my ear canal is just a little bit smaller on that ear that it can affect fit. The Solaris fought hard here, and it’s winning as I write this.
The thing is, I don’t want it to win. It’s such a great IEM that I want this to work, and I’m going to battle it out a little more. But let’s talk about how the battlefield has dropped many tips to ground. I’ve gone through over 20 tips of various sizes, shapes, bores, flanges, foams, and hybrids – literally everything you can think of. My right ear does not want to cooperate. I’ve had the most luck with 3-4 tips: SpinFit CP145, RHA Silicone Tips, and occasionally these generic silicone double flange tips. Everything else was in and out within minutes due to soreness in my right ear. My left – never a slight bit of pain in any of these tips. So frustrating!
And you know why I keep battling?
This is why. The Solaris is one of the best IEMs I’ve listened to. It’s nearly perfectly balanced, crazy wide and holographic (as advertised), and just downright awesome. The whole package: It’s great.
The IEM comes with a much larger brown leather case than other Campfire products. It’s beautifully made and makes the whole presentation great. It also comes with the standard array of tips including Final Audio E tips, the Campfire Audio lapel pin, and cleaning tool. The included Super Litz cable is an upgrade upon other Campfire cables as well, with a thicker and more tightly braided gage wire. That said, I still don’t particularly like using it and that’s mostly due to the use of memory wire, which I absolutely hate. If this was not a loaner unit, I’d chop the wire off and let it drape over naturally.
With that said, I used the Yinyoo 8-core 2.5mm balanced mmcx cable or the BGVP DM6 mmcx stock cable for the remainder of this review. In addition, I used various devices as sources: RME ADI-2 DAC, Pioneer XDP-300R, and the FiiO M9. I also used iFi IEMatch in some initial trials. As far as music selection, I try to play a well-rounded suite of music, but mainly focus on post-rock, acoustic rock, jazz, trip hop, and both old and modern rock music.
On the topic of IEMatch. I used it primarily to find the effects of output impedance. On various Campfire products, the output impedance can change the sound signature and primarily boosts and lowers the bass and treble response, due to the ultra-low impedance of the driver. In addition, the very high sensitivity of the headphone coupled with this low impedance can also make typically inaudible hissing noises from your amp more discernable as well as make your volume pot very sensitive to change. The use of the IEMatch will help in every one of these cases.
With the Solaris, I found the OI to not matter as much as the Andromeda for sound changes but there was still a slight change in bass response. I found the OI below 1 (Ultra) to sound less bassy than at the 2-3 Ohm (High) switch on the IEMatch. This was the opposite of my listening impressions using it with the Andromeda, where 2-3 Ohms reduced bass. This review keeps the OI down below 1.
Finally, this review is the first major review I’ll be writing using a new In-ear headphone coupler. I recently procured a clone IEC-711 coupler and mic to measure earphones with. This measurement rig will now be (generally) compatible with Harman International research papers and industry standardized measurements and therefore I will be able to post future measurements with Harman Target curves overlaid. Remember, frequency response only tells you the sound pressure level (SPL) at a certain frequency using sine wave sweeps, and is not fully representative of a headphone’s sound signature on its own. Each individual’s “target” curve may be different from the Harman’s research, and that’s expected. Harman targets are general averages of thousands of sample data and are intended to be used as a general profile.
As mentioned in little rant earlier, the Solaris is a well-balanced IEM. At first, I wasn’t very interested in this IEM. I heard claims of Atlas-like bass, and as someone who has briefly listened to the Campfire Atlas, I did not like it. It was way too bassy for me, with too much slam and boom. I am more about bass quality than quantity.
Luckily, the Solaris delivers with surprising results. The same 10mm dynamic driver is employed here, but I have to assume the new design and other tuning features make the bass much more controlled and while still very present, it does not have the massive impact and boom that the Atlas and Vega (to a lesser extent) have. It’s weighty and deep, but never, ever, bleeds into the mids and is never muddy and exaggerated. I never knew I liked this much bass, but apparently, I do!
Some of my go-to tracks for bass and sub-bass excel with this IEM – including Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma” and “Unfinished Symphony”, and various Daft Punk tracks from “Random Access Memories.” Even in XX’s “Basic Space”, the drums slam with authority, but trail off quickly. The speed of the bass attacks are impressive for a dynamic driver.
The mids are smooth with a slight rise in the upper-mids which helps accentuate string instruments. Instruments and voices sound very rich and full, but not overbearing. Male vocals are just slightly more forward than female voices but only if you are very attentive.
In my normal vocal comparison songs, I listen to “Rumours” by Fleetwood Mac. Four different vocalists all delivering in their own style gives you a good idea of various vocal ranges. In “Dreams”, Stevie Nicks sounds more distressed than ever, with the unique soundstage this IEM offers. Her voice sounds on point, and in front of you, not between your ears. In fact, everything I listen to has this effect – it’s like cross-feed is magically activated in this IEM on its own, but in the most natural and live way possible.
Campfire Solaris Frequency Response vs 2017 IEM Harman Target Curve
In “Gratification” by Halycon Fields, the build-up and expanse space-like atmosphere is projected in all directions. The song sounds vast in IEMs like the Andromeda and Moondrop Kanas Pro, but with the Solaris, it’s mesmerizingly grand in every aspect: The soundstage is wide in all directions, and voices are coming at you and away from you and engulfing you with sound – it’s something I would expect to hear from a wide over-ear headphone or a speaker system, not from any IEM I’ve ever used. It’s pretty cool in this regard.
I think the treble area is where people may find some issue perhaps. The IEM, to me, plays very neutral. I think some people may find that it could be a little brighter than they want – to me, it makes the Andromeda sound rather veiled, dark and dull. The Andromedas do have upper treble spark which gives it a needed kick, but in general, the Solaris’ treble is more boosted across the entire range than the Andromedas and it’ll really accentuate stringed instruments. Andromedas will really accentuate the upper end instruments like Cymbals and hi hats, more so than the Solaris, but it’s not missing in any regard on the Solaris.
Left to Right: Campfire Vega | Campfire Andromeda | Campfire Solaris
I had not had a chance to listen to the original Andromeda up until recently. I had experienced the Andromeda S but never found the opportunity to demo the original green legend. Thanks to Headphones.com and the Community Preview Program, I was able to demo them, along with the Vega and the Solaris all at once.
The Andromeda and Solaris, to my surprise, don’t share a great deal on commonality in sound profile. I found the Andromeda to be more laid back and warm, as well as dark sounding when A-Bing back and forth between them and the Solaris. The Solaris has more upper-mids and treble energy, while the Andromeda is more consistently smooth, with additional upper-treble energy to keep it exciting.
The Andromedas were even more sensitive than the Solaris to Output Impedance as mentioned earlier in this review. The Andromeda is equally detailed, but does sound just slightly more closed in. Both are spacious IEMs, but the Solaris has a more 3D sound to it that scales more vertically and forward.
The Andromeda has a shallower fit and much smaller body, making them more comfortable to wear in general. The sharp edges can be irritating to smaller ears like mine with improper fit or movement though, just like the Solaris. That said, I had a much easier time wearing Andromedas than the Solaris.
Frequency Response: Campfire Vega (Gray) | Campfire Andromeda (Green) | Campfire Solaris (Gold)
The Vega has seen a recent price drop due to the release of the Campfire Atlas, which, in a way, takes its position as the V-shape premium IEM in the Campfire lineup. The Vega sports a tiny metal shell and is completely dwarfed by the Solaris.
Vega’s bass is much punchier and stout, with some occasional muddiness. Solaris’ bass region is more taut and cleaner, and less heavy. The mids of the Vega dip more than the Solaris, as expected given the V-shape nature of them IEM. Vocals do sometimes get buried behind the heavier bass. Vega’s treble is also more accentuated than the Solaris (and Andromeda). There is a sharp peak in the treble region around 8KHz which can make the Vega sound pretty bright and harsh on some recordings. In general though, the Vega is a solid V-shape, fun IEM. The Solaris is a more balanced one in comparison with no specific sound region highlighted over the other.
In the end, I love this IEM in almost every way. The sound is right up my alley, with a well-balanced signature, despite more bass than I thought I liked, and a soundstage that goes in every direction. The biggest flaw for me, unfortunately, could be a deal breaker – and that is FIT. Since these are so large, and have unusually large bores that go in deep, they are wreaking havoc with my right ear.
I’m going to decide if my temporary tip solutions can last me long term, or if I should just hold on to my wallet. The wildcard though is the fact that CIEM shops like Advanced Sound can make custom tips for Solaris, and that may end my depressive state right now, where I’ve found a pot of gold that I can’t touch.
Update: After writing this entry I decided to continue to mess around with tip options and discovered a tip that works for me. It’s a large double flange silicone tip that I have had nearly zero discomfort during hours of listening. As with all IEMs, tip choices will greatly impact sound, seal, isolation, and comfort. Trying out various options may lead you to a winning combination!
Campfire Solaris with the winning tip choice: Generic double flange silicone tips
- Anthony Nguyen (@antdroid)
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