Today we’re checking out Campfire Audio’s first foray into headphones, that being the Cascade.
Campfire Audio (CA) 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. Campfire Audio was a brand I had been watching closely since they released their first earphones, the Jupiter, Orion, and Lyra in mid-2015. Right at the tail end of 2017 I finally got the opportunity to check out one of their newer products, the Polaris.
What caught my eye, and why I started following CA, 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 values design and build nearly as much as sound quality, and Campfire Audio consistently nails the visual appeal of their products
The headphone we’re checking out today, the Cascade, brings a softer but no less bold form of their design philosophy (along the lines of the Vega) to the premium full-sized, closed back headphone market. Like the broad range of in-ears that came before it, the Cascade is crafted from durable materials with a fine attention to detail in both the final design and construction quality. Having been in development for three years, I would expect nothing less.
So how is Campfire Audio’s first headphone? Let’s find out.
I would like to thank Caleb at Campfire Audio for arranging a complimentary review sample. There was no financial incentive provided and the Cascade is still considered the property of Campfire Audio. All thoughts within are my own and to not represent Campfire Audio, ALO, or any other entity. At this time the Cascade was retailing for 799.00 USD and could be found here on Campfire Audio’s main site; https://campfireaudio.com/shop/cascade
For at home use the Cascade found itself being powered by my TEAC HA-501 desktop headphone amp with sound being sourced from an Asus FX35V laptop, Shanling M1, or the HiFiMan MegaMini. On the go the Cascade was pushed by my Walnut V2S/F1 dac/amp combo or straight out of the Shanling M1. My LG G5 also had a hand in driving the Cascade and did a surprisingly good job with the two having some synergy. Music quality ranges anywhere from super high quality 128kbps tracks I’ve been carting from device to device for the last 15 years, to the majority being 320kbps and FLAC.
While the Cascade is easy enough to drive, I highly recommend amping it. It sounds a lot more textured, dynamic, and precise when powered properly. Otherwise, the low end comes across a little sluggish and loose. Considering the robust low end is the defining feature of this headphone in my opinion, you want that running at peak performance.
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, Brainwavz B400, and thinksound On2 offer unique examples of signatures I enjoy. I listen at what I would consider much lower than average volumes, based on my experiences sharing my headphones with others while set to my personal volume preferences, and on comments throughout the forums concerning gear I also own or have used.
- Driver: Driver: 42 mm Beryllium PVD diaphragm dynamic driver
- Impedance: 38 ohm
- Frequency Response: 5Hz-33kHz (attn -26dB)
- Sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/mW
- Earpad dimensions: Outside is approx. 2.75” x 4” / Inside is approx 1.5” x 2.5”
Packaging and Accessories:
While I know many of you out there couldn’t really care much less about packaging, I do. In my mind’s eye it says a lot about the respect a manufacturer has for their product along with the initial experiences and first impressions a purchaser will have. While Campfire Audio’s packaging with the Cascade is quite basic, it is full of the same charm and character experienced when I unboxed the Polaris. That’s because it’s basically the same thing, only larger.
The hand drawn artwork found on the Cascade’s box falls in line with their celestial naming scheme, displaying a starry night complete with a mountain range, cabin, and clusters of trees dotted in various areas around the box. Covering the front flap and top of the box is a massive sticker showing off the CA and Cascade branding with an image of the Cascade itself on the front flap. Also announced is that while the Cascade was designed in Portland, Oregon, it was “assembled in China using globally sourced components”. All of this is backed by a very stylish looking mass of swirls that looks to have been inspired by an oil/water mixture.
The interior of the box is dominated by a large hard shell carrying case in which the Cascade and accessories can be found. This case is absolutely amazing. It is more or less an upsized version of the cases included with their iems. Along with even beefier twin zippers it has a wrist strap that can be removed if you so choose. Inside is the same woolly substance found on their smaller cases that does a great job of protecting the Cascade from bumps and movement. In addition to the case, you find a few more items tucked inside two paper slips;
- Campfire Audio Litz Cable with Cloth Jacket; Silver Plated Copper Conductors with Circular Push-Pull Connectors and 3.5mm Stereo Plug
- Four styles of custom acoustic dampeners with an accompanying tuning guide
- CA branded lapel pin
- Warranty slip
- Instruction pamphlet
I would have liked to see a separate set of pads made a different material, like velour or hybrid sheepskin/velour, but in all I have no complaints. The inclusion of various tuning filters and a proper guide on what each does is also a neat addition. Most other manufacturers would give you a very basic, generic description of each filter, such as “balanced”, and leave you to figure out the rest.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
Being a headphone intended for mobile use, the Cascade is made from durable materials. The ear cups and yolks are crafted from cast aluminum, followed up by some machining to keep the weight down. The well cushioned headband is inset with stainless steel, as are all joints and pivots like those making up the folding mechanism. Many headphones are plastic in these areas which leads to failure, especially in colder climates where the plastic becomes brittle and loses flexibility. This shouldn’t be an issue on the Cascade since the use of plastics is kept to a minimum and used only in places that really won’t see any wear and tear, like the faceplate the pads clip to. In all fit and finish is stellar. So much so that pretty much every seam seems to be uniform in width.
It seems right to assume that people spending the money to buy the Cascade will treat it well and not deliberately abuse it, but as they say, Schiit happens. I mention this because the right yolk on the sample received was slightly bent out of the box leading to the cup binding against it when folded. I was able to carefully return it to it’s original position and it hasn’t budged since which is great, although it does make me question how well these would survive multiple drops. Aluminum is rigid and tough, but isn’t a metal that likes being bent. I’ll be reporting back on this section in the future if this ever becomes an issue as the Cascade will likely be rolled into my daily driver rotation for the next few months and see lots more use.
Onto the angled pads, they are flippin’ fantastic. They feature a fairly steep rake of just over 1.25” at their deepest to about 1” at their most shallow. The opening itself isn’t particularly large (1.5” x 2.5”), but the depth and rake give your ears lots of room to play with. That spaciousness combined with the exceptionally plush sheepskin and low resistance foam within makes for a very comfortable set of pads. While they are removable, they are permanently attached to the magnetic clipping mechanism that very securely holds them in place when installed. Speaking of which, these are the easiest pads to install and remove that I’ve come across. There is quite literally no effort required. Just vaguely line up the little pegs on the faceplate with the clip and let the magnets pull them in and seat them for you. It’s actually perfect. Really. Now Campfire just needs to make replacement pads of various styles for us to play around with.
The Litz cable included with the Cascade features the same conductor design and materials used on their other products, but this time wrapped in a cloth sheath. I’m really not a fan of cloth coated cables for a variety of reasons; they’re usually noisy (contrary to every claim ever saying they reduce cable noise), they pick up dirt, they fray, and they often develop odd little twists here and there that keep them from ever fully straightening.
Given Campfire Audio and ALO are part of the same family, I’m hopeful the Cascade’s stock cable will hold up fine, though up near the push/pull connectors I’ve already noticed a few strands poking out after only a month of daily use. Keep in mind that my headphones are treated better than myself. On the plus side, it is an exceptionally quiet cloth cable, transmitting way less noise than I’m used to. The 45 degree angled jack is slim and should fit well in any case opening, be it for your phone or DAP, though it could use better strain relief. They y-split is much of the same being a compact rubber interconnect. Leading up to the push/pull connectors the cable is well-relieved but a touch thinner than I would prefer. The connectors themselves feature a tiny ridge inside and clear left/right indicators via blue and red colored rings respectively, ensuring they’re always plugged in correctly. Like the ear pads, once lined up they magnetically snap securely into place. They have yet to pull out accidentally. I could nitpick and complain that the ridge location isn’t mirrored on both sides, but really, who cares? It affects nothing.
While the Cascade isn’t what I would consider a light headphone, at 13.5 oz (without cable) it doesn’t feel particularly heavy either. For me it is very comfortable though on the very limit of a headphone that actually fits my head. Not because the Cascade is too small, but because it’s almost too big. On the smallest size it rests just a teensy, tiny bit lower on my head than I would like. Regardless, I can still wear it for the majority of an eight hour shift without getting too hot or uncomfortable, only needing to take small breaks here and there. Probably going to be a different story in the summer vs. the early spring/extended winter when this review was written. I’ll have to revisit this section later in the year to let you know how it goes.
Now, while the Cascade is almost too big for my tiny noggin, reading through the forums and impressions from others I am well in the vast minority.For most they’re great, but for others that are seemingly on the small side. If that’s the case for you, it is important to keep in mind that yes, the headband is well padded. However, when you stretch the cups apart it flattens out quite a bit. While hardly noticeable, when flattened there is still a tiny up tick in the padding that should be enough to keep you from experiencing a hot spot right on the peak of your cranium.
For a closed back headphone the Cascade’s passive noise attenuation is on the lower end of what I would consider average. For example, about 15 feet from my dining table is the fridge. It lets off a very audible hum. Wearing the Cascade with no music playing, that hum is muffled but still very present. Compared to the thinksound On2, a compact, closed-back, wooden on-ear, the hum is reduced to a nearly inaudible level. The Polk Audio Buckle’s sealed aluminum ear cups also passively block more of this noise than the Cascade, though not to the same extent as the On2. Cruising around outside with music playing, I could still hear cars and people and the usual sounds of the city, but they weren’t anywhere near intrusive enough to ruin the experience. After a few minutes, the brain will do it’s thing and ignore that incoming noise for you without you ever noticing. What it comes down to; if extremely effective passive noise attenuation is tops on your list of “must have” features, see if you can try the Cascade before you buy. It might not do the trick.
In all the Cascade is as well built as you would expect from a Campfire Audio product having been crafted with top quality materials. Comfort is excellent with me able to wear the Cascade for extended periods with ease. Passive noise isolation could be better though.
Acoustic Dampeners: The Cascade comes with four different sets of dampeners that can be used to increase mid and low frequencies. After experimenting with them all, I found the effect they had on the Cascade’s overall presentation was fairly minimal and hence why they’re covered in this little aside. They’re a great way to fine tune the basic signature. That said, if you’re looking for a set that reduces bass, there isn’t one. You’re going to have to resort to good old fashioned EQ which the Cascade is thankfully very receptive to. In the end, none of the included filters suited my preferences so I stuck with the stock, dampener free setup. The below impressions are based on that.
There were two things that really caught my attention when I first fired up the Cascade for a listen. The first was that they did not present themselves like a closed headphone. The large, 42mm Beryllium PVD drivers in the Cascade deliver music with a great sense of space and air. The thinksound On2 has a good stage for a compact portable, but the Cascade completely dwarfs it. The AKG K553 Pro gives the Cascade a run for it’s money in this area, but despite being a closed back headphone and terminated in a 3.5mm jack, it doesn’t really offer anything you want in a portable, such as sound isolation. Or portability. Pitting the Cascade against ADVANCED’s open planar, the Alpha, showed the limitations of a closed setup.
To my pleasant surprise, even the hefty low end couldn’t muddy the waters and restrict the Cascade in it’s ability to surround you in your music. In addition to simply sounding much larger than it is, the level of detail in its staging is impressive. The way sound images and moves around is exceptionally well-layered and with impressive separation. Running through the entirety of BT’s experimental opus “If the Stars Are Eternal Then So Are You and I” was a fantastic experience with the Cascade. I was completely immersed in and surrounded by the world crafted throughout this album. Listening to it alongside the official videos further drew me in.
That meaty low end is the second thing that really caught my attention. This is a very full figured headphone with a bass line that dominates the balance. The Cascade isn’t subtle about it’s bass which is always on, even in acoustic ballads like Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California”. This is a thick, heavily textured low end with excellent extension and good control. Throwing on “Desperado” by Savant showed the Cascade is a little soft and slow on impactful bass lines, but on extended sub-bass notes can provide some serious rolling thunder. The Alpha in contrast hits with greater impact but doesn’t linger and hold the lowest notes with the same authority. As a result of the way the Cascade presented it’s bass, I found myself listening to tracks with bass lines in place to support the track, leading with other elements. Black Tiger Sex Machine x Apashe’s “The Grave (Ft. Gabriella Hook)” is a good example of this and through the Cascade got me up and moving.
While the Cascade has a bass forward sound, other frequencies do not take a backseat. Treble is well-extended and extremely detailed, lifted slightly to give mid-range vocals presence and clarity. Even though it isn’t emphasized much, it really supports the airy presentation of this headphone through it’s focus and precision. Both male and female vocals are well presented, though female vocals get the nod through the level of intimacy and care with which they’re presented. Adele’s “Skyfall” is gorgeous example of this. Those averse to sibilance will be happy campers since nothing of the sort is present here. My workplace provides us with a wide variety of surprisingly high quality (320 mbps) ambient “nature sounds” audio files to listen to while we work. Babbling brooks, birds, storms, and other effects are backed by light woodwind instrumentation and drumming, along with chimes and other instruments and effects. Through the Cascade it all sounds eerily realistic and shows off the impressive timbre of this headphone.
The heavy, constant force that is the low end is balanced nicely by an articulate and dare I say, delicate presentation everywhere else making the Cascade an engaging, intriguing, and very capable headphone.
Campfire Audio’s first foray into the world of full-sized headphones certainly doesn’t hint at their inexperience in this particular market. This is a bold product in both design and sound, hitting all the right marks out of the gate. The years of development that resulted in the Cascade were put to good use and will undoubtedly reward those that choose to invest in this particular product.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Additional Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock – Skelethon (Album)
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (Album)
Elton John – Yellow Golden Brick Road (Album)
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Album)
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black (Track)
Supertramp – Crime of the Century (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Converting Vegetarians (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)
Tobacco – F****d Up Friends (Album)
Felt – Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bone) (Album)