Campfire Audio Solaris: Awe Inspiring
Today we’re checking out one of Campfire Audio’s newest premium releases, the four driver hybrid Solaris.
It’s not often a new brand appears and sweeps an industry with game changing gear, and even less common for them to keep the momentum going in the following years. Campfire Audio, brainchild of ALO (Audio Line Out) founder Ken Ball, exploded onto the high end audio scene in 2015 and immediately became one of those brands. With distinctive designs and a house sound that simply sounds right, it is no surprise their new flagship hybrid continues to carry the torch with confidence.
The Solaris takes on a completely new look for the brand that certainly isn’t shy. With a vibrant gold-plated exterior and size to match this swaggerific look, the Solaris is a head-turner. The new super-Litz cable that ships with the Solaris is a stunner too thanks to it’s shimmery silver sheen and heavy gauge that makes it feel substantial without going overboard. Inside the Solaris is just as impressive with two T.E.A.C. equipped custom balanced armatures handling high frequencies, a single rear-ported armature handling mid-range frequencies, and a familiar 10mm A.D.L.C. Dynamic driver. This dynamic has been retuned for the Solaris to handle low and mid frequencies. It all culminates in one of the most impressive audio experiences I’ve had to date.
Shall we take a closer look? Let’s go!
A sample of the Solaris was provided free of charge for the purposes of evaluation. The thoughts within this review are my subjective opinions based on two months of constant ear time with the Solaris. They do not represent Campfire Audio or any other entity. At the time of writing the Solaris retailed for 1,499.00 USD. Be sure to visit the Solaris’ product page over on Campfire Audio’s site if interested in ordering a set; https://campfireaudio.com/shop/solaris/
I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. My preferences for earphone tuning are quite relaxed and as such their is no one signature I look for. The HiFiMAN RE800, Brainwavz B400, and Massdrop x MeeAudio Planamic are examples of earphones with wildly varied signatures that are enjoyable for different reasons. I generally listen at very low volumes, so keep this in mind when perusing my thoughts on how an earphone sounds.
@home: TEAC HA-501 desktop amp with a ZiShan DSD acting as the source
Portable: Shanling M0 with amping handled by the Periodic Audio Nickel
The Solaris is very sensitive and easy to drive. I found that out of many sources there was a fair bit of background hiss so you need something very clean. While it does not need to be amped, I recommend it. Straight out of my main DAPs and phone (LG G6 ThinQ) it sounds good, but bring an amp into the mix and the low end wakes up and becomes much more authoritative. I also caution using something like the iFi iEMatch to quell hiss. When pairing it with the Solaris I found it to quell the dynamic drivers presence and dull the overall signature. Your mileage may vary.
- Frequency Response: 5Hz–20 kHz
- Sensitivity: 115 dB SPL/mW
- Impedance: 10 Ohms @ 1kHz
- Total Harmonic Distortion: Less than 1%
Packaging and Accessories:
Campfire Audio’s products always have names rooted in Astronomy, something that bleeds over into the packaging. Some companies spend a lot of time crafting complicated, yet smartly designed displays that are an experience in itself. Others treat the packaging as merely a means of getting the product to the customer safely. Campfire draws a bit from both camps with some artistic creativity blended in for good measure. The box the Solaris arrives in is just as much an art canvas as it is a functional tool for transport of the items inside.
If familiar with the Campfire brand you might notice that the packaging here takes on a different form factor. Gone is the compact rectangular prism of past releases, replaced by a squat, square-shaped version that takes up quite a bit more space. The matte grey packaging features USA made “French Paper Company” paper and takes on an almost forest green hue thanks to the mountainous, night sky scene printed in a contrasting reflective gold foil. At least it does to these colour blind eyes. That scene has never looks better either thanks to the extra space afforded by this new box. The sticker that takes up most of the main body contains the usual branding and model info, as well as an image of the left earpiece, all floating over a ripple effect emanating from beneath the earpiece. It’s a stunning piece of artwork that just so happens to be the packaging for another stunning piece of art (the Solaris itself).
The star theme continues to the interior where on the inner flap you find another aspect of the packaging design that I love. The words “Nicely Done”printed in a crisp bold font. That’s not the first thing you notice though. No, that honour goes to the massive leather carrying case. Like Campfire cases of ‘old’, the Solaris’ case is all leather with a beefy zipper sealing it shut. As on the cases of other recent releases, the compact round pull tab features a beautifully enameled CA logo that adds further to the premium presentation. Inside the case you find the Solaris attached to the Super Litz cable, neatly wrapped and secured with slim Velco strips. The Solaris’ earpieces are neatly tucked into a small, compartmentalized mesh bag to keep them from bumping into each other and potentially scratching or denting that gorgeous finish during transit. Beneath the case is the familiar “hidden floor” in which the rest of the extensive accessory kit is tucked away. In all you get:
- Solaris Earphones
- Super Litz Cable
- Final Audio E-Type Tips (xs/s/m/l/xl)
- Campfire Audio Marshmallow Earphone Tips (s/m/l)
- Silicon Earphone Tips (s/m/l)
- Campfire Audio Lapel Pin
- Cleaning Tool
- Protective Mesh Earphone Sleeve
- Warranty Card
This is a great unboxing experience. One of the best in the business in my opinion. It’s simple but engaging with lots of detail to keep you hooked while you work your way through the extensive accessory kit. Everything is of outstanding quality too. The case looks as impressive as it feels. The variety and quality of the tips is well above average thanks to the Final Audio E-Type tips and CA’s own Mushroom foams. The lapel pin isn’t really useful in any way, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s a cool little extra that is unique to the CA brand. Even the little mesh bag is a welcome addition, showing the sort of attention to detail this brand puts into their products.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
The Solaris is a confident looking earphone. The matte gold-plated face plate and ribbed texturing along the sides, a texture that continues down along the glossy black PVD coated inner body, is simply stunning. A polished stainless steel nozzle with integrated grills is reminiscent of those found on the Comet and Atlas and rounds out the look. Along the top of the housing resting just in front of the flush MMCX port is a small vent, along with a small Torx screw (for disassembly if needed?). Along the rear you find channel notifications denoted by the complete words Left/Right instead of the usual L/R you find on most products. The CA logo is flawlessly machined into the face plate. The Solaris uses the same beryllium/copper MMCX connectors found on their other products. In my experience with the Polaris they have proven to be as durable as claimed. Over a year and a half later with dozens of intentional disconnects, the plugs still snap in securely with no play or cutouts. I fully expect the Solaris to be the same.
The Super Litz cable is crafted from four large strands of Silver-Plated Copper Litz wire. This grouping separates at the y-split where two strands each heads towards the earpieces. The sheath feels very dense and while it does show some minor memory towards sharp bends and kinks, they are easy to straighten out. Tangle resistance is impressive. The hardware is quality stuff too. The rubber 90 degree angled jack is well extended at the plug to accommodate a variety of device cases and is well-relieved to protect the cable from awkward bends. The metal y-split is very compact and while there is no strain relief, this is the sort of cable that doesn’t really need it everywhere. The thickness and sheath density takes care of that on it’s own. Slotting neatly into the top of the y-split is a chin cinch that can be used to ensure a more secure fit. The cinch is tight on the cable but slides easily enough for it not to be a worry. Leading up to the beryllium/copper MMCX plugs are memory wire segments with a hefty shrink wrap holding the wire in place.
Comfort with the Solaris is a fickle mistress. This is a very large earphone. Ergonomics actually aren’t bad whatsoever thanks to the shapely exterior that interacts fairly naturally with the outer ear, pending your ear is big enough. What I found challenging was maintaining a secure fit. This was partly due to the memory wire which tugged the Solaris back at an angle and made holding a good seal inconsistent. Swapping to a different cable worked wonders. One that was lighter and used a preformed ear guide instead, like the one that came with the FiiO FA1 and/or the Hifihear 8 Core Silver-Plated cable, helped keep the Solaris angled properly. If using the stock cable I had to ditch the stock tip options for something else. The most success came with some fairly ancient Skullycandy single flange silicone tips from the mid-2000s which maintained a stable seal more consistently than any other tip in my collection. Overall the fit is pretty finicky, but once you find the correct cable and tip (if you even need to explore options outside of what is already included) the Solaris is comfortable. Not the kind of earphone that disappears on the ear, but one I can listen to for a few hours at a time without experiencing hot spots of discomfort.
Isolation with the Solaris is also quite good, unexpectedly so. With it’s fairly shallow fit and vented (albeit mildly) design, I was expecting the Solaris to be pretty average in terms of noise attenuation. However, even with no music playing this earphone can still block out an impressive amount of noise, similar to other earphone I’ve recently tested that block in that 26dB range. While typing, only the highest pitch portion of the stroke is clearly audible. The busy main road outside my window is dulled to the point where the drone of fans on large trucks passing by is about all you can hear. Taking the Solaris to the nearby Tim Hortons is fine too where the bustle of customers is dulled significantly. Putting on some music takes your isolation up another level, while bringing the included foam tips into the equation makes the Solaris a capsule of silence and calm.
Overall the Solaris is immaculately built with a unique design and colour scheme I always enjoy. I can thank Subaru’s World Rally team for their use of gold BBS 6-spoke rims back in the day for that. While the Solaris is comfortable, fit can be a bit of a challenge and those with small ears might want to look elsewhere for their TOTL headphone needs, which pains me to say. Isolation is outstanding, and well exceeded expectations.
Tips: Small bore like the included Final Audio tips boost mid-bass and overall warmth making the Solaris more bass focused. Foams have much the same effect. Wide bore like the stock single flange and those from Skullcandy, JVC, UE balance out the sound by reducing mid-bass and raising treble. I performed my testing with wide bore tips.
While price isn’t necessarily indicative of how good a product will sound, there are some general trends I have noticed. Tuning is tighter and more coherent, technical ability improves, and products take on an effortless quality to their presentation. That last point is the Solaris in a nut shell. It reproduces sound without ever feeling like it is straining or breaking a sweat in the slightest, even as you dial in the power and up the volume. The Solaris’ drivers are truly impressive since they’re never playing within an inch of their capabilities. They just sound better and better the harder you push them.
The two armatures handling the top end work in unison to provide an open, detail rich environment. Notes are crisp and tight with a snappy decay and free of any semblance of splashiness that I could detect, even on aggressive tracks like Havok’s “Scumbag in Disguise” which has plenty of rapid fire cymbal work. Emphasis is fairly even from presence to brilliance regions, though upper treble sounds like it’s peaked slightly higher. On Gramatik’s “You Don’t Understand” there is a series of chimes that fire off throughout the track. With the Solaris they display an appropriate amount of energy and shimmer which is lacking on lower treble biased earphones. That’s not to say the lower treble is lacking, for if it was the Solaris wouldn’t display nearly the same level of clarity through the treble and mids. I really enjoy the treble presentation. It is engaging and energetic without being harsh and overly invasive.
The mid-range for the most part is pretty outstanding. I’ve been listening to a fair bit of metal during my time with the Solaris and find that chugging electric guitars sound pretty wicked, such as on Slipknot’s “Pulse of the Maggots”. Combined with the anthem-like cheers in the background and Corey Taylor’s vocals, this song is a complete banger through the Solaris. More nuanced guitar work sounds right too with guitars on classic tracks like Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” having the right amount of bite, texture, and timbre. While the mid-range is every so slightly recessed, vocals are rich, dynamic, and retain a strong presence. On Daft Punk’s “Touch”, Paul William’s emotional intro pulls me in with it’s warmth. The characteristic deep build on some of his words is picked up perfectly too. Female vocals sound intimate and lush as well allowing me to lose myself in Sarah Barthel’s vocals on Phantogram’s “Fall In Love”. Not all is rosy though, as there are instances where vocals can sound slightly hollow or echo-ey, such as on Aesop Rock’s “Racing Stripes” and Netsky’s “We Can Only Live Today (feat. Billie)”. I only experienced this on a handful of tracks. While some might find it a negative, it seemed to fit with the open, airy staging of the Solaris, coming across more like an element of each track than a legitimate flaw. To each their own I suppose.
Bass on the Solaris is warm with a sub-bass skew. Mid- and upper- bass are quite reserved but present enough to give the low end some kick when called for. For the most part, the low end thunders along in the background and lets the rest of the signature build on it. Depth is impressive giving extremely deep notes a fair bit of physical feedback. Texture is impressive giving the low end a very dynamic, varied feel which keeps it from ever coming across as one-note. While not the quickest I’ve heard, the Solaris’ bass is pretty snappy and decays rapidly enough to have no problems keeping up with quick bass lines, such as the rapid double bass on Havok’s “Covering Fire” and the upbeat tempo of drum and bass tracks. That said, I prefer it with slower, more mellow basslines such as those on Dillon Francis’ “We The Funk (ft. Fuego)” which feels quite well suited to the Solaris’ presentation.
When it comes to sound stage all those drivers and that big housing make for a salivatory experience. In terms of placement, the listener sits fairly close to the action with sounds expending way off into the distance. Intimate sections of a track can get uncomfortably close, such as in the closing moments of Culprate’s “Undefined (feat. CoMa & Koda)” where the vocalist whispers directly into your ear. Someone in the Head-fi forums posted a Stax binaural test track (Kunstkopfumgang) a while back which does an amazing job of showing off the Solaris’ sound stage. Closing your eyes, you get a good sense of space in all directions. Imaging is impressively smooth and accurate letting you pinpoint the performers and get a gauge on their distance from the dummy head. When it comes to layering and separation, BT’s “13 Angles On My Broken Windowsill” is a great way to experience what the Solaris can pull off. About 8 minutes in it becomes a mess of instruments and effects, yet you can easily dissect it and follow individual elements. I can imagine the same could be said for orchestral pieces if I were familiar enough with any to use them for final testing.
Overall the Solaris is an amazing sounding product. The cavernous sound stage, deep bass, engaging mid-range, sprinkling of treble, and overall clarity and detail all come together to give an awe inspiring performance. While there can be some hollowing of vocals at times, it was never enough to even begin to hinder the experience, for me at least.
Campfire Audio Atlas: The Atlas is clearly the party-goer of the two thanks to a bassier, brighter signature. The Atlas’s treble feels more elevated in all regions, particularly the brilliance region, giving it a more vibrant upper range. The Solaris’ treble doesn’t sound quite as energetic, but it is more controlled with a tighter note presentation. The Atlas simply lacks the effortlessness of the Solaris in the treble region. Despite the Atlas’ heady mid-bass presence, it’s vocals have a leaner presentation and the mid-range overall has less presence than what you’ll hear out of the Solaris. Bass on the Atlas is it’s main selling point being that it is big and boisterous. Compared to the Solaris, extension is similar with the Atlas having more in overall quantity. The Atlas’ low end hits with a greater impact but isn’t quite a quick and textured. Sound stage on both is excellent, but the Solaris simply offers more. It’s wider and deeper and more convincing. Imaging quality is outstanding on both with the Solaris’ extra drivers giving it an edge in layering and separation. If you like an entertaining v-shaped sound with TOTL performance, you get the Atlas. If you prefer something more balanced but still exciting, you get the Solaris.
Both the Atlas and Solaris are wonderfully constructed pieces of audio equipment. The Atlas is quite different in it’s construction though, being that it is much smaller and completely composed of hand polished stainless steel. I won’t say one is better built than the other since they are so very different, but will say they are top tier representatives of their respective designs (barrel shaped vs. “low” profile over ear). The Solaris’ Super Litz cable is a straight upgrade to the Atlas’s Litz cable being that the individual strands are much thicker. Hardware like the plug and y-split are the same with the Solaris’ MMCX plugs being slightly beefier to accommodate the memory wire. Comfort is about the same for me, though I’ll give the Atlas the edge since it can be worn cable up or down which makes it more universal for a wider variety of users.
Hifiman RE2000: The RE2000’s tuning follows a similar trajectory as the Solaris with a balanced, u-shaped sound. Treble on the RE2000 doesn’t extend quite as far but is slightly more emphasized, particularly in the upper regions giving it a bit more sparkle and shimmer. Detail, control, and speed are similar, though the Solaris’ armatures edge it ahead in a way that is not insignificant. The Solaris’s mid-range is more forward but slightly thinner, colder, and overall crisper sounding. It is also more detailed than the RE2000. Bass on the RE2000 is more evenly balanced between mid- and sub-bass regions versus the Solaris which is skewed towards sub-bass regions. The extra mid-bass of the RE2000 gives it’s low end a fuller appearance and more punch. The Solaris’ sub-bass provides more physical rumble on the lowest notes. Texture is similarly great between the two. While the RE2000 has a well above average sound stage, the Solaris bests it in every direction. It’s wider, deeper, images more accurately, and feels more layered. Instruments are better separated with more space between them. While I think the Solaris is the more technically adapt of the two, this is a good example of single dynamic versus hybrid. If you like the coherency and presentation of a single dynamic and are willing to sacrifice some technical ability, the RE2000 can’t be beat. If you like the mingling of dynamic bass and armature precision, the RE2000 doesn’t hold a candle to the Solaris.
While I thoroughly enjoy the sound of the RE2000, build quality has always been a criticism of their iems. Pitting it against the Solaris makes this very apparent. Unlike the Solaris which is all metal, the RE2000 uses a mix of plastic and brass. The brass is gold plated just like the Solaris, but it’s a very thin plating that is already showing wear. The Solaris’ application feels a lot more durable. The Hifiman logo is printed onto the plastic face plate, unlike on the Solaris where it is part of the machining process and integrated into the face plate. The 2-pin input on the RE2000 extends off the top of the ear piece and isn’t a seamless aspect of the design like it is on the Solaris. The cables are not comparable at all. Like the Solaris’ Super litz cable, the RE2000’s features silver-plated copper wiring. However, it is stuffed into a fairly generic black rubber sheath and poorly relieved everywhere. It would feel more at home on a budget friendly earphone than a 2,000 USD flagship. Overall, the Solaris’ design and build feels every bit the 1,499.00 USD it costs whereas the RE2000 fails to meet basic expectations for a 2,000 USD product.
Campfire Audio is a juggernaut of a brand for a reason. Their earphones ooze style and quality, and have the sound chops necessary to back it up. They’re not “all show and no go”. The Solaris is a perfect example of this. PVC coated metals, a gold-plated face plate , polished stainless steel, multiple drivers with tech engineered by and unique to Campfire Audio, thick silver-plated cables, extra-durable beryllium/copper MMCX connectors, kick @$$ packaging with a great accessory kit, etc. etc. etc. Everything about the Solaris screams quality, including quite literally, the quad-driver hybrid setup. It’s mild u-shaped signature is so effortlessly refined and technically competent, it couldn’t be anything but a flagship product.
All that praise aside, the Solaris isn’t perfect. That amazing sound quality is marred (depending on your preferences) by vocals that can sound ever so slightly hollow at times. And these are not small or subtle earphones in any sense. They stick out quite prominently. Those with small ears will very likely have stability issues, and those who worry about what others think may feel self-conscious that they’ve got giant gold earphones protruding from the sides of their head.
Overall, the Solaris is a flagship earphone fully deserving of the title. It looks amazing, it feels amazing, and it sounds amazing. It’s one of the few flagships I’ve used that is fully deserving of the price tag placed on it, and compared to others still it comes across as a bargain. It’s the complete package and something you have to experience first hand.
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)
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)
Aesop Rock – Fishtales (Track)