Today we’re checking out Campfire Audio’s newest hybrid earphone, the Polaris.
Campfire Audio is an American company out of Portland, Oregon. It is the brainchild of Ken Ball, CEO and founder of ALO Audio, a company renowned for their high end portable audio cables. While the Polaris is my introduction to the Campfire Audio brand, it’s one I’ve been watching closely since they released their first earphones, the Jupiter, Orion, and Lyra in mid-2015.
What caught my eye, literally, was their unique design philosophy. It was unlike anything else on the market I had seen. The aggressive and edgy lines of the Jupiter and Orion were stunning with tons of detail, such as the visible screws holding on the outer face plate, and the small CA logos. I’m someone that appreciates and valued design and build nearly as much as sound quality, and they certainly nailed the visual appeal.
The Polaris is Campfire Audio’s newest earphone and features a hybrid design with some interesting features. T.A.E.C. stands for ‘Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber’ and is a technology unique to Campfire Audio, also featured in their flagship Andromeda. The balanced armature driver is enclosed in a 3D printed chamber which tunes it’s sound without the suppression inherent in a filtered design and permits improved extension. This is coupled with the dynamic driver’s new ‘Polarity Tuned Chamber’ in which the driver is encased in a 3D printed casement. Tuned chambers are located in front and behind the driver giving it “an effortless power that must be heard to be believed.” (Source)
Other notable features are the application of Cerakote to the outer face plate (or lid). Cerakote is a very durable polymer-ceramic material with high resistance to physical abrasion, chemical corrosion, and impacts. This makes it an excellent material to apply to a portable product that will be subject to damage from sweat, dropping, and other events you might come across in daily life. Backing that up is a durable CNC machined aluminum housing with what I think is a brilliant blue finish. Also adding to this perceived durability is an upgraded MMCX connector that utilizes Beryllium Copper materials instead of brass as found on many other products. MMCX connectors in my experience are notoriously unreliable so this focus on increased durability of this common connector is appreciated.
The Polaris is full of technology and is designed to be durable. Ringing in at 599.00 USD, it’s not an inexpensive product and for many could potentially be thought of as end-game material. It’s been my daily driver since arriving on September 11th, 2017 and has shown itself to be a fantastic product. Why? Let’s find out.
I would like to thank Caleb and Hannah at Campfire Audio for arranging a complimentary review sample. There was no financial incentive provided and the Polaris is still considered the property of Campfire Audio. All thoughts within are my own and do not represent Campfire Audio, ALO Audio, or any other entity. At this time it was retailing for 599.00 USD and could be found here on Campfire Audio’s main site; https://campfireaudio.com/shop/polaris/
For at home use the Polaris was powered by a TEAC HA-501 desktop amp or straight out of my Asus FX53V laptop. For portable use it was paired with an LG G5, HiFi E.T. MA8, Walnut V2s or Shanling M1, all of which brought it up to listening volume without any effort. I also occasionally ran it through a Walnut F1 portable amp.
I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. While I enjoy a variety of signatures in my headphones I generally lean towards slightly warm with elevated treble and sub-bass, an even and natural mid-range response, with reduced mid-bass. The HiFiMan RE800, MacaW GT600s, and thinksound On2 offer examples of signatures I enjoy.
Frequency Response – 20Hz–20kHz
Sensitivity – 97.5 dB SPL/mW
Impedance – 16.8 Ohms @ 1 kHz
Packaging and Accessories:
The artwork on the Polaris’ packaging is stunning in it’s simplicity, and entirely coherent with the brands celestial naming scheme. The front of the small, blue cardboard box is adorned with a sticked announcing the Polaris is contained within. The background is a swirling mass that looks like it was inspired by a viscous oil and water mixture. The rear has a beautiful hand drawn scene of a mountain with trees at it’s base and constellations above with Campfire Audio placed dead centre in a somewhat faded text. It’s all very simple in execution, but the artistry is engaging to say the least. Oh, and when you flip the lid and look on the inner flap you see “Nicely Done”. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
The inside is dominated by Campfire Audio’s spacious and durable leather carrying case which as expected already contains the Polaris. The zipper is thick and durable and the inside lined with what looks to be wool. Unlike most clamshell cases, there are two collapsible inner walls that hold the Polaris securely in place when zipped shut. This is one of, if not the nicest compact carrying case I’ve come across yet. Underneath the case beneath a false floor rests the accessories, a manual, and a card for the Polaris’ limited one year warranty.
The included accessories include some standard items, like various tips, and some not so standard items, like a Campfire Audio pin which I thought was pretty neat. It’s not a cheap feeling pin either, with the CA logo properly raised and enameled. In all you are provided;
- Polaris earphones
- Litz copper cable
- SPINFIT tips (xs/s/m/l)
- Campfire’s own foam tips (s/m/l)
- Wide bore silicone tips (s/m/l)
- Cleaning tool
- CA branded Lapel pin
The accessories included are plentiful and of high quality, and the unique artwork very pleasing to the eye. This unboxing experience strikes a nice balance between something very basic like thinksound’s MS03+mic and something more extravagant such as the unboxing experience for the FLC 8S.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
Campfire Audio’s reputation for durable, well-built products is undeniably warranted if the Polaris is any indication. This thing is an absolute tank; the proverbial T29 of the earphone world. As noted earlier, the outer lid/face plate is coated in Cerakote for extra durability, while the rest of the housing is blue anodized aluminum. The MMCX connectors utilize Beryllium Copper instead of brass for increased longevity.
The cable is very well built too. The winding of the four strands is tight and uniform leading up to the y-split, and breaking into a slightly looser wind beyond. The compact 90 degree angled jack feels durable and should be thin enough to fit most media player and cell phone cases. The y-split lacks strain relief, and while welcome the chin cinch is very tight and difficult to move. If there are any weak points on the Polaris’s cable, the y-split and cinch will be them.
While I can live with those minor niggles, the memory wire is another story. I’m pretty sure it has amnesia. You can bend it into place, get yourself settled in with the Polaris, and a few minutes later the bend is gone and the wire has returned to it’s original shape; a loose U. This is the type of memory wire that ruins a cable, regardless of how good it is, and is the same problem I had with the original cable on the FLC 8S before they removed the wire entirely. I would love to see Campfire Audio revise this cable with proper memory wire, a pre-formed ear guide, or just remove it entirely and leave the cable bare. Any one of those options would be an improvement over the current setup.
Despite the large and angular housings, I found the Polaris quite pleasant to wear and exceptionally stable. The 3D printed plastic nozzles are long with a prominent though very smooth and unexpectedly effective lip that permits compatibility with a wide variety of tip sizes and styles, something that’s conveniently included in the package. The length of the nozzle kept the housings from nestling in too close to my outer ear so I didn’t have to worry about hot spots caused by the inner edges of the housing. They’re pretty light too which also helps.
Isolation is below average with improvements found from use of the included foams tips. Even so, the Polaris is adequate for use in noisy areas you just need to up the volume somewhat to compensate. On the plus side, for those worried about safety when traveling with earphones in, the Polaris’ isolation levels should be considered a positive as you can somewhat clearly hear your surroundings. While I do listen quietly, I did notice when upping the volume that the vent on the rear face plate bleeds some sound into your environment. It’s also affected greatly by wind, funneling a noise that sounds like someone blowing into a microphone into your ear.
Overall the Polaris is put together with great attention to detail, showing offer a very tight fit and finish. Disregarding the annoying memory wire, this earphone is ergonomically sound and works well over long listening sessions. Isolation is good enough, just be wary of wind noise and sound bleeding out into your environment.
Tips: Preferred tips for the Polaris came down less to sound changes than to fit and comfort. Moving from wide bore tips like the stock silicones or something from JVC, to a smaller bore options like the Spinfits or Sony hybrids, didn’t seem to have a huge affect on the sound. Wide bore tips seemed to balance out the mids and bass somewhat, whereas the small bore tips dialed in more low end emphasis. These differences were minimal at best though. My listening was divided evenly between the stock wide bores, Sony hybrids, and Spinfits, all in medium.
As you move up the rung from budget to high end products, neutrality or the next closest thing seems to be what everyone hunts for. Things get serious. Big bass is frowned upon and you’re made to feel guilty if you enjoy it, and v-shaped signatures are indicative of a poorly tuned product not worthy of the price. Still, say that’s what you want along with those other qualities that make a premium product worthy of the title. That’s where something like the Polaris comes in. This isn’t a neutral earphone. The Polaris takes your average “consumer friendly” tune and imbues it with the level of technical proficiency you want from a top tier earphone.
Starting with treble, the Polaris is direct and precise without any hint of splashiness or lack of control. There is just a touch of sparkle and shimmer to cymbals which attack with authority as evident on Skindred’s “State of Emergency”. The Polaris’ upper ranges are also quite airy and spacious giving it a very open feeling, especially effective with rock and metal. Extension is good too, though it seems to roll off
The Polaris’ mid-range starts of with a dip in the lower regions and raises as you head into the upper mids. This gives female vocals more presence and makes this earphone an absolute baller with most of the vocal drum and bass tracks I listen too. Female vocals sound simply magical through the Polaris. Despite coming across a touch dry, male vocals can still empower you with feeling, such as on Daft Punk’s “Touch” where Paul William’s emotional performance is not lost. This mid-range is still recessed though, so at times I found the hefty low end to overshadow quieter vocals, such as those on Dimension’s “Dark Lights”.
Bass is an area where the Polaris really excels. It’s 8.5mm dynamic drivers are exceptionally quick and impactful with awesome sub-bass presence making them a delight with electronic genres. Mid-bass has the kick needed to make rock tracks like Soil’s “Loaded Gun” as aggressive as it’s supposed to be, and there is no shortage of visceral rumble present for those long, drawn out liquid drum and bass basslines. It’s a very dynamic low end that despite being boosted, is not ever present. If the track is lacking low end, the Polaris reflects it. It’s very well textured too, able to pull out some grungy notes.
In terms of soundstage I found the Polaris did better with width than depth and in general lacked a little in forward/backward movement. Still, the airy treble and excellent separation results in an earphone that feels large and open. Imaging is quite precise too making it easy to accurately track sounds crossing from channel to channel, and delineate between instruments in a congested track.
Overall I found the Polaris to be a very coherent and proficient v-shaped earphone with outstanding detail retrieval and an open sound stage. Treble is prominent and well extended, bass deep and powerful, and mids recessed in the lower regions but still clear and engaging.
(Volumes matched as best I could using Dayton Audio’s iMM-6 calibrated mic with Audio Tool for Android.)
FLC 8S: The 8S is a very versatile 2+1 hybrid with 36 tuning combinations. Given it can cover a wide variety of signatures vs. the Polaris’ one, I compared it in Green/Red/Grey configuration for maximum v-ness. Even in this configuration, the FLC 8S is slightly brighter, has a more forward mid-range, and less bass presence.
In the 8S’ favor is it’s sound stage. The Polaris sounds large and open, but it lacks a little in terms of dynamic movement. The 8S has a much more rounded sound stage and outside of the B400 from Brainwavz, comes the closest to achieving “3D” movement. I also find the 8S more tonally accurate in that it lacks that low mid-range dryness that plagues the Polaris.
In Campfire’s….camp…is detail retrieval. The Polaris highlights minute details quite well and as a result is more revealing than the 8S. I also find it’s bass extends much deeper and provides a more visceral feel, something I find mostly absent on FLC’s hybrid.
Fidue Virgo A85: The A85 is Fidue’s newest hybrid and in my opinion makes for a smooth, lush listen.
In the A85’s favor is it’s more forward mid-range which makes good on Fidue’s promise of realistic vocals. They’re forward, detailed, and naturally toned for both males and females, whereas the Polaris is at it’s best with female vocals. I also found it to have a more well-rounded soundstage with a better balance of width and depth, though I don’t find it to be quite as spacious as the Polaris’.
The Polaris on the other hand sounds more accurate and direct. It’s treble has more detail. It’s low end is punchier and better textures with a more realistic mid-/sub-bass balance. To my ears the A85 has too much of a mid-bass hump that combined with a slower attack and less detail makes it a touch bloated vs. the Polaris.
HiFiMan RE800: The RE800 is a single dynamic and like the Polaris uses some interesting tech; a topology diaphragm which applies material coatings in specific geometric shapes that tune the resultant sound. It was criticized for having an uncomfortable 7k treble spike, which I personally had no issues with. Against the RHA Cl1 Ceramic the RE800 was positively tame in the treble region. How does it fare vs. the Polaris?
Things take a bit of a turn here with the RE800 taking the detail and clarity crown. The Polaris is great in these qualities, no doubt, but the RE800 is a focused step up. I also found the RE800 more natural, especially in the mid-range where the Polaris’ dryness was already quite present. The RE800 also serves to match the Polaris’ openness and width of soundstage, but brings in much better spacial movement in other directions.
The Polaris’ low end I found much more engaging, however. Not only did it dig deeper and hit harder, it in general provided a more engaging and entertaining experience. The Polaris’ texturing was also more prominent and forward. Volume matched to 60dB the RE800’s treble spike was very noticeable resulting in little else being heard. Whereas the Polaris at 60dB was much more well-rounded with only the mid-range coming across a little on the quiet side. I still consider the RE800 an unbeatable companion for low volume listening in the quiet and private or my home, but the Polaris and it’s more even presentation makes it a much better daily driver.
The Polaris is a thoroughly enjoyable product and if you’re a fan of bassy, vibrant earphones you should enjoy this one. Initial impressions are positive as a result of the artistic packaging and high quality accessories. In hand the high quality build is truly impressive and while entirely subjective, I love the blue on grey color scheme resulting from the Cerakote lid and anodized aluminum backing. The powerful v-shaped signature and overall presentation is engaging too, even if it wasn’t necessarily to my taste with all genres.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Album)
Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Going to Eat That? (Album)
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Album)
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black (Track)
Supertramp – Crime of the Century (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma (Album)
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (Album)
Massive Attack – Mezzanine (Album)
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors (Album)
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (Album)
The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy (Album)
Skindred – Roots Rock Riot (Album)
Felt – Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bonet) (Album)
Michael Jackson – Thriller (Album)
Soil – Whole (Album)
Dimension – Dark Lights (Track)
Jidenna – Long Live the Chief (Track)
Skrillex – Ragga Bomb (Track)
Big Grams – Run for Your Life (Track)
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (Track)
Aesop Rock – Fishtales (Track)