Today we’re checking out Campfire Audio’s flagship single-dynamic earphone; Atlas.
Based out of Portland, Oregon and headed by Ken Ball, Campfire Audio has solidified themselves as a luxury earphone maker who forges their own path, creating headphones and earphones the way they want. They have introduced unique technologies alongside some iconic designs (Andromeda anyone?) in the past, like T.A.E.C. (Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber), a 3D printed chamber that helps extend the treble response of their custom balanced armatures. Their unique A.D.L.C. (Amorphous Diamond-like Carbon) non-crystalline diamond-carbon coating is designed to reduce distortion, improve clarity, micro detail, and overall dynamics of their full-range dynamic drivers. This latter tech can be found in the new 10mm dynamic set within the Atlas’ stainless steel, hand polished housings.
I have spent nearly two months with the Atlas, experiencing everything this product has to offer. In a time where multi-driver hybrids are the norm, going back to the Atlas’ coherent, well-tuned single dynamic is a refreshing change of pace, proving more isn’t always better.
Let’s take a closer look.
Thanks to Caleb with Campfire Audio for arranging a sample of the Atlas for the purposes of this review. The thoughts within are based on my own subjective experiences with the Atlas. They do not represent Campfire Audio or any other entity. No financial incentive was provided to write this review. At the time of writing the Atlas retailed for 1,299 USD. You can learn more about the Atlas and purchase it here on their product page: https://campfireaudio.com/shop/atlas/
For at home listening the Atlas was plugged into my TEAC HA-501 desktop amp with my Asus FX53V sourcing music. For portable use, the HiFi E.T MA8 handled source duty. Its powerful, near neutral sound complimented the warm and bassy Atlas beautifully, though it did introduce some background hiss. An iFi iEMatch solved that issue. My Shanling M1 also spent some time in the driver’s seat, again complimenting the Atlas well. The Shanling M0 and HiFiMAN MegaMini also sounded fine, but their warmer stock signature congested the Atlas’ sound somewhat. The Atlas was also powered perfectly by the Radsone ES100 over Bluetooth (LDAC) connected to my LG G6. The Atlas is very, very easy to drive and you won’t need an amp to enjoy them.
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 examples of signatures I enjoy.
- Frequency Response: 5Hz-20kHz
- Sensitivity: 105dB SPL/mW
- Impedance: 19 ohms @1kHz
- Distortion: <1%
- Driver: 10mm dynamic
Packaging and Accessories:
I’ve said in the past that packaging is important to me as a consumer because it’s my first impression of a product, and in life first impressions are often everything. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean I expect something extravagant and hyper in depth. A minimal unboxing can be just as engaging as a multi-tiered experience, and in some cases is even more rewarding. Minimal is something Campfire Audio does brilliantly.
Similar to the Comet, the Atlas arrives in a compact orange box. On top is a calming blue sticker adorned with an image of the Atlas and the usual CA branding, along with some highlighted features. The sticker wraps around to the front flap you pull to open the lid and contains another image of the Atlas along with legal info and Campfire Audio’s address in Portland. On the rear you find a minimalist hand-drawn image on a mountain scene under a night sky. Stars speckle the rest of the packaging with a small tepee tucked away on the left side, along with the CA logo above. It is such a simple box, but it is interesting to examine and explore.
Lifting the flap reveals a black leather clamshell carrying case. Inside you find the Atlas’ ear pieces nestled within their own individual felt bags to protect them from bashing against each other during transit and scratching that wonderful, hand-polished, mirror finish. At the base of the package under a hidden floor that you might have overlooked were it not for the notch to pull it up with, you find an accessory kit that is both extensive and useful. Novel! In all you get:
- Atlas earphones
- Twisted pure silver cable terminated in Beryllium Copper MMCX connectors
- Ear piece bags (x2)
- Final Audio Type E silicone tips (xs/s/m/l/xl)
- CA silicone tips (s/m/l)
- CA Marshmellow foam tips (s/m/l)
- CA lapel pin
- Cleaning tool
From the small size of the box, I doubt you would expect such a comprehensive selection of accessories to be included. CA does their customers well, and the environment too due to the limited amount of materials involved, all of which should be recyclable should you wish to dispose of it. Why you would want to do that, I don’t know, you weirdo. This package should be on display somewhere. The inclusion of Final Audio Type E tips was a pleasant surprise when CA first announced the partnership earlier in the year. I came across them first on Final’s E2000, one of the better sub 100-USD earphones I’ve heard. Picture Sony Hybrids made from a much more durable silicone and that’s basically the Type E tip. It’s a stellar product that is plenty worthy of inclusion with a premium offering like the Atlas.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
Campfire Audio has built a reputation of offering high performance products with distinctive designs, made from durable materials. The Atlas is no different. Visually similar to the Comet released around the same time, the Atlas features drop-forged, CNC machined, hand-polished stainless steel shells. Their retro look is unlike anything else currently on the market, hearkening back to products from the 40s and 50. For some, those products are hair dryers, others, laser pistols. I happen to fit into the latter camp, finding them quite fitting in the hands of the Master Chief.
The three piece shells are immaculate in their construction. While seams are present, gaps are minimal at worst and can barely be felt unless picking at them with the tip of your fingernail. Unlike most earphones, the slatted grills protecting the drivers from debris are not separate pieces. No, that is part of the forging process. The CA logos on the sides serve multiple purposes, from announcing the brand to providing grip when inserting or removing the Atlas from your ears. When comparing build with the Comet I was surprised to see that the edges of the logo were sharper (not in a bad way) and better defined, and that everything fit together just that much tighter. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the price difference, but the Comet was already so well built that seeing clearly visible improvements was unexpected.
Campfire Audio’s direct relation to ALO Audio means they have access to some pretty bad@$$ cables. The all-new Silver Litz cable included with the Atlas is certainly a head turner. The four twisted strands are uniform and neat, branching off into groups of two when passing through the y-split. This design is inherently more durable than others. There is no soldering within the y-split where the lower half of the cable ends then reconnects to new sections heading to each ear piece. Here it is just four long strands, twisted together to make one glorious cable. While the y-split doesn’t feature any strain relief, the clear rubber portion at the top does pull out to reveal a well-integrated, somewhat hidden chin cinch. The 90 degree angled plug is made from a translucent, white rubber letting you catch a glimpse of the cable passing through and how it connects to the TRS jack. It is quite compact with a 4-5mm extension to help ensure compatibility with device cases, be that for a cell phone, DAP, or whatever you happen to have the Atlas plugged in to. At the other end of the cable you’ll find two compact MMCX plugs with red (right) and blue (left) dots to denote the channel. Campfire Audio equips their earphones with Beryllium Copper MMCX connectors which are said to be more durable than your typical copper plugs. I haven’t extensively tested this myself, but then I also haven’t been conservative with removing the cables on my Polaris and Comet samples. The cables on both of those still connect with the same solidity present when they were brand new.
Comfort is where I found the Atlas making a small stumble. The steel shells are fairly bulky to accommodate the 10mm drivers, and quite heavy. Whereas this would have been fine with a low profile design like that used on the Polaris or Andromeda, the Atlas takes on a more universal barrel-shaped housing. On the plus side, you can wear them equally easy cable up or down, something I saw users wanting from a future CA product when perusing various interweb forums. The downside is that they are still reasonably long, which combined with the weight means gravity takes hold putting extra pressure on the ear canal. Wearing the Atlas cable up alleviates this for the most part, but cable down the weight is noticeable. I can wear them for an hour and a bit no problem, but after that they need to come out to give my ears a break, something you should be doing anyway. Overall I find the Atlas fairly comfy and ergonomic, and I appreciate the flexibility to wear them the way I want, but they won’t disappear like other earphones using a lower profile design and/or lighter materials.
For a dynamic based earphone, I found the Atlas to isolate quite well. Better than most actually. There is only one itty bitty vent right at the back of the housing which doesn’t leave a lot of opportunity for outside noise to weasel its way inside. Even with silicone tips in place, no music playing, I could sit at my workspace in the office and have a reasonably serene experience. Sure, I could still hear chatter, phones ringing, and typing from those around me, but it was all dulled significantly. Tossing on foam tips only made it better. Well done Atlas.
Tips: Choosing the right tip for your earphone can absolutely make or break how it sounds. Get a poor seal and say goodbye to your bass. Treble and mids usually get pretty harsh in that instance too. On the other hand, get the right seal and the magic is unlocked. The Atlas is one of the most tip sensitive earphones I’ve used, and one of the most important to get it absolutely right on.
You see, the Atlas suffers from driver flex. Not the usual “crinkle crinkle” you get from other earphones, but the kind that builds pressure to the point the driver comes to a near stop. With my usual medium tips, I could rarely find a seal that would also let music come through. This forced me to drop a tip size down to small. Once done, no more flex. I really don’t understand why this works since the seal feels just as solid as it does with medium tips, but hey, who am I to argue with what works? Foam tips avoid the flex issue entirely so if that’s your preferred tip style, you”ll be set.
With the right size silicone tip found, I was free to experiment. Wide bore tips, like CA’s stock option, offered the most ‘balanced’ experience lowering mid- and upper-bass to let the mid-range and treble stand up more. Medium bore tips like RHA’s dual density option brought out the sub-bass but also enhanced upper treble a touch making the Atlas even more v-shaped. Small bore tips like the Final’s Type E pumped up the mid-bass and narrowed the sound stage slightly, giving the Atlas a more bass-focused sound. For my tastes; the wider the bore the better.
Edit May 10, 2019 – The Atlas’s driver flex has gone away. No idea how many hours of use it took, but it is gone. I’m free to use any tips I want without even a hint ‘o crinkle.
The Atlas is characterized by a very powerful, refined, v-shaped signature with a warm tonality and bass you can wrap yourself in. What does that mean? It means they’ve got a lot of bass but it’s good so you don’t mind being smothered by it.
The depth for one is ridiculous. On Kavinski’s “Solli” just seems to extend and extend, providing some intense visceral feedback. It’s not as physical as Massdrop x Mee Audio’s Planamic, but those are a bit of a one-trick pony and extremely unique when it comes to their low end presentation. The Atlas’ driver presents itself like the traditional dynamic driver that it is, and certainly isn’t a bad thing. Texture is great, it’s really quite quick for something that offers up so much bass, and it’s well controlled, though sometimes it inches its way into the lower mids. Not a full on bloodbath, just a light trickle. Now, if you’re an EDM fan like I am, you’re going to want the Atlas in your corner because holy heck it can slam and carry a track like few others can. On Getter’s “Headsplitter”, from the first low note that hits at 28 seconds I knew I was going to be in for a treat. As 42 seconds passed by, I was awash in a turbulent sea of bass that made me chuckle out loud with a stupid grin on my face. I get that this isn’t the sort of traditional “audiophile” experience a lot of people want to be reading about when someone is covering a 1,300 USD earphone, but screw it. Sometimes people just want to be entertained. That’s where the Atlas comes in. This thing is hella fun.
The mid-range is lightly recessed, carrying over the same natural warmth as heard in the low end. Male vocals have a certain dryness to them I’ve heard elesewhere in Campfire’s lineup, while female vocals are intimate and sweet. This is evident in the contrasting vocal styles of Big Boi and Sarah Barthel on Big Grams’ “Fell In The Sun”. Midrange timbre sounds excellent and quite accurate as evident running through King Crimson’s live rendition of “Indiscipline”. As contrived as it sounds, closing my eyes and leaning back in my chair I can almost fool myself into believing I’m chilling in the front row watching these guys go wild with their instruments during the guided improv sections, then lean into the mic to spout some goofy lyrics. It just sounds right and does a good job of keeping me in the music and away from thinking about what I’m listening to. Unless of course it’s a bassy track. Then I know exactly when I’m listening to.
The Atlas’ treble is elevated and doesn’t shy away from applying some shimmer to cymbals, chimes, and whatnot, yet it doesn’t do it in a way that is overly aggressive or offensive. Big Grams’ “Drum Machine ft. Skrillex” is an easy one to test this on since it is rife with high pitched sounds that can be plenty uncomfortable on peaky earphones. The Atlas handles it with ease, letting you enjoy the rythmic, thumpy beats. Treble is handled very well on the Atlas, countering the massive low end while at the same time complimenting the mid-range by giving it lots of detail where other earphones would come across muddy or overly smoothed over. Extension is impressive too with peaks that roll off just before becoming sibilant or overly aggressive. This is an earphone that can be listened to for long periods without causing early onset fatigue.
The Atlas’ soundstage falls into that “deceptively large” category I like to shuffle a number of in-ears into. At first it seems pretty intimate with vocals that tickle the ear, but then you hear effects that sound like they’re way off in the distance. The Atlas as a result displays some impressive depth and width with very accurate imaging. Tracks are layered and instruments well separated. Given these qualities, the Atlas is pretty awesome for gaming and movies. I really enjoyed them with more competitive games like CoD and PUB, yet they still worked well to immerse me in the cockpit of my Impreza in DIRT Rally.
Overall I am nothing if not impressed with how good the Atlas sounds. Something with a low end this powerful and authoritative really shouldn’t be this articulate and clear. It’s smooth, refined, and makes for a very satisfying listen. TOTL all the way.
Select Comparisons (volumes matched with Dayton Audio iMM-6):
Campfire Audio Polaris: Last year when I reviewed the Polaris I said that it “takes your average ‘consumer friendly’ tune and imbues it with the level of technical proficiency you want from a top tier earphone.” The same could be said about the Atlas, though it takes a different approach.
Compared to the Atlas, the Polaris is colder, leaner, and lighter with a snappier but less refined, slightly rougher presentation. Bass is neither as elevated nor hits as hard. Texture goes to the Polaris though it lacks the same sense of physical feedback when the bass starts slamming. Mids on the Atlas are thicker, warmer, and more organic, though male vocals display the same sort of dryness to them. Placement is recessed on both though I don’t find it obscured on either as a result. Clarity is similar too. Treble on the Polaris is more dull and dry, lacking the shimmer and sparkle of the Atlas. Atlas is similarly crisp and detailed with greater upper treble emphasis, though the BAs in the Polaris feel like they’re in a touch more control with sharper notes. Polaris’ presentation always felt spacious but flat to my ears. Atlas has a similarly wide sound stage but comes across much deeper giving it’s presentation a more rounded and open feel.
In terms of build, both are gorgeous. I love the Polaris’ industrial, angular shells and the contrasting combination of blue painted aluminum with the Cerakote coating on the exterior face plate. This is a stark contrast to the Atlas’ reflective, cohesive, polished steel look. The Polaris’ shell is iconic and immediately brings to mind Campfire Audio. I’m not sure if the Atlas’ design language, shared with the Comet, has reached that level of infamy yet, but it surely will if they keep it going on future releases. Cables are equally excellent on both with the Atlas’ lack of memory wire and clear sheath with silver wiring taking the style trophy. Fit for me, hands down, goes to the Polaris which feels like it was designed for my ears. With EarNiNE’s tips in place, it slots in perfectly with zero fiddling required. No driver flex either. Atlas has an advantage in a more universal design that is more compact and works both cable up and cable down.
HiFiMAN RE2000 Silver: The RE2000 is an amazing sounding earphone. To my ears, the cheaper, silver variant even more so. At “only” 1,500 USD it makes for a more apt comparison with the Atlas.
Getting this out of the way early, neither version of the RE2000 competes with the Atlas in terms of build. Their traditional looking rubber sheathed cables, somewhat generic hardware (jack, y-split, etc.), along with the plastic accented housings lack the premium look and feel of Campfire’s offering. Fit is better for me though since they adopt a light weight, lower profile over ear design. Some noted issues with the rear edge of the housing causing discomfort though, so as always fit is personal and what sits great in my ear may be unbearable in yours.
In terms of sound, the RE2000 Silver is still slightly skewed with mildly boosted upper and lower frequencies, but it is considerably more balanced than the Atlas. Starting with the bass, the RE2000 digs just as deep but lacks the authority of the Atlas providing a leaner, more dainty experience. The HiFiMAN’s mids are more forward and again, have a leaner weight to their notes. It is more accurate and articulate, pulling more detail than the Atlas. Almost makes the Atlas come across a bit stuffy. Almost. Treble on the Atlas is elevated more and with a higher peak giving it a more shimmery presentation. The RE2000 shows more control with a tighter presentation and more air between notes. Both are exceptional in terms of imaging and layering with the RE2000 showing slightly better separation in a wider, deeper stage. Atlas for TOTL entertainment, RE2000 for TOTL accuracy. I wouldn’t strictly say one is better than the other, just that they each excel in their respective specialities.
The Atlas is an experience. It’s a powerhouse both visually and in the way it sounds. Yeah, it’s not perfect and suffers from driver flex that with the wrong tips can be intrusive, and the weight does tire your ears out after a while, but neither of these are anywhere close to being so much of a handicap as to hold the Atlas back from greatness.
And that’s the thing. This IS a great earphone. The uniquely bass forward sound signature engages you with your music. The new design language takes Campfire Audio in an exciting direction and is a treat to the eye, or at the very least unique and interesting to look at. The Atlas is different, exciting, and absolutely worth looking into if you want a TOTL earphone that breaks from the norm.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock – Skelethon (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)
Tobacco – F****d Up Friends (Album)
Felt – Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bonet) (Album)
Michael Jackson – Thriller (Album)
The Crystal Method – Grace (feat. LeAnn Rimes) (Track)
Jidenna – Long Live the Chief (Track)
Skrillex – Ragga Bomb (Track)
Big Grams – Run for Your Life (Track)
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (Track)