Travelling to audio shows is where work and pleasure collide for this hi-fi-world commentator. Not only at the destination itself but en route where, crammed into economy class, a sense of isolation is crucial to long haul sanity. With a similar level of traveller density found throughout Tokyo’s subway system is it any wonder that the headphone and IEM market is exploding in Japan?
Here our attention turns to head-fi.
One issue is headphones’ high frequency spill. IEMs tend to be far more commuter friendly than even the most well-sealed, closed-back full sizers. You + IEMs means your fellow passengers are less likely disturbed by a leaking tizz-tizz-tizz-tizz.
However, a pair of IEMs’ single most obvious advantage is their size. Wrap them up and drop them into a pocket (or small carry case) when you’re done. The ideal travelling companion when luggage space is tight. (And when isn’t it?)
For this music fan, attending a live gig is an entirely different experience to playing the same artist’s album back at home. Similarly, and with a margin of possibly equal magnitude, the headphone listening experience differs to that served up by loudspeakers. The former is shorn of the latter’s room interference and on-body effects. Headphones deliver music with less physicality but can conjure greater intimacy and micro-detail. Many head-fiers are hip to their favourite cans’ ability to match the performance of far spendier loudspeakers.
Bring the listening experience closer to his own bosom is one Ken Ball of Portland’s ALO (“Audio Line Out”) Audio. With a small army of pocket friendly headphone amplifiers and the bigger, badder Studio Six already making bank, our Pacific Northwester two years ago turned his attention to headphones, specifically in-ear monitors (IEMs).
At T.H.E. Show Newport Beach this year, Ball teased three new IEM models – Orion, Lyra and Jupiter – but this time under a brand new brand name: Campfire Audio. As easy as, 1 2 3.
According to Ball, the reasoning behind the fresh brand naming is this: a campfire is synonymous with intimacy. And what transducer could be more intimate that one that finds home inside the ear? With less air being moved than full size headphones – whose seal circumnavigates the ear – IEMs tend to bring higher efficiencies and lower impedances to the table.
On the bus, train and aeroplane, that translates to good news for DAPper gentlemen: an easier drive for any portable player offering a suitably low impedance at its own output. With a proper in-ear seal, our IEM listener gets the same SPLs as over-ears (or even on-ears) but from lower volume dial reach. Consequently, there’s zero need to double-brick it with an outboard amplifier.
A pair of Lyra would return to Sydney with me post Newport Beach, thus providing a Campfire Audio IEM taster before flying back to the USA for October’s Rocky Mountain Audio Festival where I would collect the remaining two models and news of a price drop for all three: US$349 gets you the Orion, US$749 for Lyra and US$899 for Jupiter.
Ball introduces all three models at October 2015’s Fujiya Avic headphone show in Tokyo:
There weeks prior in Denver, Ball took time out from manning a busy CanJam table to re-iterate that development work was completed entirely in-house and from the ground up. That meant an initially steep learning curve that eventually led to Ball deploying an iterative process of measurements and listening to fine-tune each of the trio’s final voicing. A well known industry consultant was also brought in to assist with the new brand’s prolepsis.
Free from the prejudices that invariably funnel more experienced designers into making certain choices from the outset, a blank canvas meant Ball tried myriad materials and topologies. “We tried things that nobody would do because we didn’t have a right or wrong bias,” exclaims Ball before going more wide-eyed: ”This is easily the most fun project I’ve done to date”.
Flipping the lid on each of Campfire Audio’s simple cardboard outer boxes reveals a hard-shelled synthetic-fur-lined, zip lockable pouch from which one plucks (and stows) the IEMs: leather for the Jupiter, leatherette for Lyra and Orion (for now), canvas for future versions of Orion.
Usability note: a pair of small velcro bands keep the cable in a tidy loop to prevent it from knotting when casually pocketed. I learnt that lesson the hard way, more than once detaching each earshell at its MMCX-connection point to untangle the wire. The cable is ALO Audio’s Tinsel: silver-plated copper.
Orion and Jupiter both orbit around a balanced armature (BA) driver implementation – one and four respectively – housed inside a CNC’d aluminium earpiece. With each BA only moving air inside its tiny, self-contained cavity, the earpiece material is slightly less (err) material to the audible outcome. A dynamic driver commands a larger internal acoustic chamber which utilises more of the IEM’s internal volume.
That’s why Lyra is doubly different. It plays host to a single dynamic driver – a Beryllium layer applied to a PET substrate – whose pistonic action moves air in front and behind. On earshell design, Ball was assisted by a colleague who he describes as a “3D savant” and “easily the most talented guy I’ve ever worked with”.
Objectivists should sit up take note here: “Changes in material influence the sound in ways that a frequency response measurement chart doesn’t show,” commented Ball. For Lyra, plastic and metal shells were apparently tried and eliminated before Ball and co. settled on ceramic – a mould is packed with powder, tipped out as a fully formed piece and then baked.
In the week following October’s Fujiya Avic show I took each of Orion, Lyra and Jupiter out for spins on the Tokyo subway and casual wanders through the city’s much quieter side streets and parks. Each IEM’s sonic qualities would be ascertained by way of contrast to its two siblings: do re mi.
Single-driver-d, joining the dots between Lyra and Orion is their absence of crossover but Orion and Jupiter have the BA connection. The first thought bubble to go pop during this review was the notion of a house sound. For Campfire Audio, there isn’t one. Aesthetics aside, you’d be forgiven for thinking that each model was the work of a different manufacturer.
In Tokyo, Ken Ball asked, “Are you a cat person or a dog person?”. That’s how he mentally separates Orion from Lyra.
Orion’s two standout traits are purity and punctiliousness. With a PonoPlayer doubling down on tone colour but playing a lighter hand with the lowest frequencies, we journey to the core of Global Communication’s Blade Runner-esque intergalactic 76:14. This is an IEM/DAP combo that taps the very essence of the album’s roomy, deeply emotive synth work.
However, Orion’s shortfall with low end oomph casts Hardflloor’s The Life We Choose as more of a mixed experience: polyrhythmic layers of snares and toms snap and pop with front foot enthusiasm but those bass drum kicks sound undernourished. For the acoustic guitar and vox of Momus’ Poison Boyfriend it matters not. Nick Currie’s dense wordsmithery steps clean of the shadows for – get this – pleasingly bleak intimacy.
This entry-point to Campfire Audio IEMs would likely best serve the listener looking to get closest to the soul of simpler arrangements spun by fewer players. In the loudspeaker world, one might draw parallels with the 47 Labs’ Lens: a single driver standmount that counters the usual expectations of goodliness drawn from lower-powered SET amplifiers in favour of gutsier solid state.
Coming into this review I was a little worried Campfire Audio IEM might not put sufficient daylight between their entry-leveller and Xiaomi’s $20 (!) Piston 2. Such concerns would ultimately be proven unfounded. The Orion’s talents with clarity and separation leave the Xiaomi for dust. Only with bass weight does the Xiaomi one-up the single BA-d Campfire model. And even then the Chinese IEM connotes some comparative muddiness.
For best results, the Orion enjoy a kick up the rear. Handshaking with Sony’s NW-ZX2, a DAP that – to borrow from Srajan Ebaen’s analogy – adds more beef to the broth, we get more of what we need down below. The ZX2/Orion pairing delivers more sure-footed low-end heft and forward drive. This pairing sounds more balanced, especially with new wave classics like Marquee Moon by Television or the relentless 909-thump of AFX’s Orphaned Deejay Selek.
For inflating scale on orchestral pieces, for hammering home the whomp-whomp of Hardfloor or pushing forward the on/off percussive drive of Peter Gabriel’s IV, we travel north by a full four hundred bills to Lyra (US$749) whose intrinsic deeper bass reach, even with the Pono, prevents dryness from creeping into Television and AFX by default.
Lyra sounds fleshier and more red-blooded than Orion but it’s also less leading-edge specific. Orion’s crisper handling of micro-dynamics and transients contrasts Lyra as sounding a little fuzzier at the edges and not quite as clean or pure. Lyra’s ballsier bass and less potent treble spice makes for a warmer, fuller personality that still errs on the cosier side of intimacy. Moving over to the Sony source we note an uptick in Lyra’s fuller tonal mass and more humid ambient air – probably too richness against the Orion’s cleaner palette cut.
If all this sounds too convoluted think of the Orion as a short glass of vodka – direct and clean – and Lyra’s mellower, smoother notes and longer finish as a more voluminous white wine.
Calling out Lyra as universally superior to Orion (or vice versa) isn’t easy. Preference is likely to be determined by music style preference. With more low end certainty on tap, Neil Young & Crazy Horse fans will favour Lyra. If you’ve a thing for Nick Drake’s Pink Moon or Joanna Newsom’s Ys, the Orion is your goto guy.
Want the best of both worlds? Striking the AFX/Young side of centre means pairing the Lyra with the crisp-clean delivery of the Sony NW-ZX1 or and Astell&Kern AK Jr.; or tapping the colourful tone of Ayre Acoustics’ all discrete and feedback-free Pono Player. Alternatively, tackling the single BA-d Orion with the chunkier, warmer Astell&Kern AK120 II or Sony NW-ZX2 puts the listening experience on the Drake/Newsom side of neutral.
For those not afraid to strap on a secondary device to their portable or run the same as a desktop doohickey, know that it’s the Lyra that favours Chord Electronics’ finessed and gossamery detail dig. That’s as true of the Hugo as it is the newer Mojo. Orion’s forward lean with percussion and electric guitar, its purity and honesty, require more bass bolstering than either Chord can provide.
Enter ALO Audio’s tubed up Continental Dual Mono (reviewed here) whose amplification is meatier and more tonally potent than either of Franks and Watts’ devices. The CDM improves the Orion’s low frequency reach, especially when deployed in balanced mode using a 2.5mm TRRS terminated cable.
Special Request’s Modern Warfare takes its cues from UK bass music, its low-slung throb affording the Orion proper authority below the waist. The CDM adds more textural squelch, superior separation and vertical layering, proving that with the right amplification the Orion can approximate Lyra’s bass wallop…but without giving way to Lyra’s slight high frequency haze, most noticeable when driven by the more ‘beautiful’-sounding Pono.
Orion + CDM is as close as we get to having our cake AND eating it: meticulous specificity AND deeper bass and this fella’s favourite pairing thus far.
But then there’s Jupiter. US$899 puts a quad of balanced armature drivers into an aluminium shell. A pair of high frequency drivers see their low frequency output slowly curtailed by a crossover that in turn hands over to twin, full-range-running low frequency drivers. At RMAF in Denver, Ball explained how Jupiter’s crossover is emphatically not part of a turn-key solution from Knowels (who supply the drivers) but designed in-house.
An acoustic dampener is applied to the latter pair for tuning. Here’s Ball: “Most manufacturers directly tune by plumbing with tube and acoustic dampener but it also impedes flow of air,” says Ball. “We used ‘in house alternative tech’ to voice higher frequencies”. The quotes deployed by Ball serve as an engineering design-protecting shield but the undisclosed tech could explain why Jupiter offers greater top-end extension than either Orion or Lyra.
Giving Jupiter equal turns with Pono Player and Sony NW-ZX2 shows it to offer the best of both worlds for those who can’t fiscally or physically accommodate ALO CDM amplification for Orion but are adamant they remain in BA territory. Jupiter mixes Orion’s diligence with Lyra’s intrinsic ability to kick harder down below; its sonic character is heavier set than Orion but more exacting than Lyra, all whilst not quite besting the dynamic driver’s punch-and-thrust or the single-BA’s honesty.
These qualities sum to a better all rounder for those spinning the likes of David Bowie’s dynamically constrained The Next Day or The Hold Steady’s pancake flat Stay Positive but who also want to push their face up against the glass of Beck’s Morning Phase or Joni Mitchell’s Blue. If it were a loudspeaker, the Jupiter would approximate an ATC SCM 19.
Two years ago, Ken Ball would have probably confessed to knowing very little about IEM design. Now he’s making models that are up there with the best of them. The Campfire Audio Jupiter is infinitely more refined in its handling of micro-detail than Dita Audio’s Truth, the latter more closely aping the down-to-the-bone spirit of the Sennheiser HD800.
What Ken Ball’s new IEM brand gives us are options of sufficient variation that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. I hear the Jupiter as the most technically proficient with a broader range of music yet, with the right amplification, I prefer the purity of the Orion. The Lyra is my goto with the rambunctious Resonessence Labs Herus or the more filigreed Chord Mojo. Tying the latter to an iPad with Orion and running Spotify over Slashing Cousin’s Fallen Gods EP has me in awe of what’s possible from a head-fi rig that barely tips a grand.
Fortunately, the Campfire Audio case accommodate all three along with a single cable so that I won’t have to choose when heading out to the e-earphone show in Tokyo just prior to Christmas. I anticipate the Sony NW-ZX2 will see the majority of flight time lasso’d to Jupiter but Lyra and Orion will remain on hand for demo-ing DAPs and portable amplifiers on the ground in Akihabara.
Tokyo shows us the ghost of head-fi future where portable audio gear audibly buffers the listener from busy streets and jam-packed trains. Elsewhere, living spaces are becoming smaller and more densely populated. Commutes are getting longer. How long before Chicago, Sydney or Paris begin to feel as sardined as Japan’s bigger cities? Creating one’s own inner world isn’t just a nice-to-have luxury, it borders on necessity. To wit, Campfire Audio offer three distinct takes on private audible luxury even for when one’s surroundings are anything but. Nicely done indeed.
Further information: Campfire Audio