Campfire Audio Ara: A new direction

Greetings!

Today we’re checking out the new top dog model in Campfire Audio’s armature-only lineup, the Ara (air-ah).

Campfire’s gear in my experience has mostly been about providing an entertaining, but not necessarily accurate experience. The Atlas and Polaris were hella fun, v-shaped bass monsters, the IO a bright little beast laser focused on mids, and the Andromeda a killer all-rounder with a little bit of everything and some warmth to round it out. The Ara takes a new direction, one that is much more analytic and accurate, without abandoning the entertainment value that makes Campfire Audio’s products so special.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

What I Hear While the Ara’s low end isn’t strong in terms of raw emphasis, it is still very impressive. Extension is stellar for an armature-only unit, or four in the Ara’s case, since four of the seven drivers are dedicated to bass. The drivers used here don’t provide the same level of raw, visceral feedback as a big dynamic, but you can still feel extremely deep notes rumbling away, The opening bass line on Kavinski’s “Solli” is usually absent through armatures, but not on the Ara. Not only is extension great, but the texturing is also fantastic helping to give the Ara a lot of range and depth to it’s low end presentation. I found it particularly satisfying with some speedy jazz, such as “Moanin” by Mingus Big Band. Lastly, the Ara’s low end is insanely quick and well controlled, qualities that are present through to the upper ranges. It doesn’t matter how congested or complicated a track got, I couldn’t find anything that upset the Ara’s impressive stability.

A single armature handles the midrange which is forward and uber clean sounding. While the upper mids see a rise in emphasis, it is not extreme. The result is a reasonably natural, if not mildly bright timbre. Vocals come out smooth and rife with detail, with both male and female vocalists being well represented. Don’t expect forgiveness with sibilance-prone tracks or artists though, as the Ara does nothing to hide it. That unfortunately knocks one of my favorites (Aesop Rock) out of the running during Ara listening sessions. His vocals on “Blood Sandwich” end up much too aggressive with piercing tees and esses that are very tiring. That said, on tracks that are not naturally sibilant, vocals absolutely shine. Take Celine Dion on “ashes” for example. Her power and passion shines through. Percussion instruments are also very satisfying through the Ara thanks to the rapidity of their attack and the energy it brings to every track.

Treble is where I see the Ara dividing listeners. Lower treble is smartly emphasized and aids heavily in the outstanding detail and clarity of the Ara’s output. Fine details are picked up with nothing being smoothed out or glossed over. The brilliance region sees a peak that gives the presentation the most character with lots of shimmer, sparkle, and air between notes, but it can also be quite tiring at higher volumes. At low volumes it sounds amazing since you still experience plenty of energy and spaciousness between notes. This upper range tuning is ideal for low to moderate volume listeners. Notes attack and decay with impressive speed allowing the Ara to retain incredible clarity and cohesion even on very busy or congested tracks, like the improvisational jazz sections common to many King Crimson tracks. The dual armatures handling the treble region have been dialed in well, though some will undoubtedly find the Ara too bright. The most impressive aspect of the treble region is just how tight and well-controlled everything is. No splashiness, just razor sharp cohesion.

The Ara’s sound stage is slightly larger than average with a well-rounded presentation. Thanks to that upper treble boost and somewhat lean presentation, there is a ton of space between notes. This certainly helps with keeping individual instruments and effects separated from one another, and individual tracks elements dynamically layered. At no point did the Ara even come close to sounding congested. Imaging performance is also some of the best I’ve experienced with very fine movements being clearly displayed. I highly doubt the average buyer would be looking at these for gaming, but if they do they will be rewarded with an extremely accurate presentation that can be used to track movement and sound with great precision.

Overall I absolutely adore the Ara’s neutral-bright signature. While it’s bass quantity is low, the quality is outstanding. Notes go deep, are heavily textured, and the speed is intense. The midrange is very crisp and clean with flawless vocal clarity, but unforgiving of sibilant recordings. Treble is bright thanks to the brilliance region spike, but pending you listen at low volumes or are tolerant of such a boost, adds plenty of energy and air to the presentation. This keeps the Ara from sounding sterile or overly safe and dull.

Compared To A Peer (volumes matched with Dayton iMM-6)

Campfire Andromeda 2020 (1,099.00 USD): The Andromeda and Ara certainly sound like sibilings but while there are similarities in how they present, they each have their own character. Starting with upper frequencies, the Ara is the more energetic of the two thanks to additional energy in the brilliance region. This gives the Ara a cleaner, crisper sound and improved clarity. They are both exceptionally quick and well-controlled. Dipping into the mids the Andromeda has more presence with vocals having a thicker, warmer presentation. I also find it has ever so slightly superior timbre thanks to the additional warmth on tap. Bass is where the two are quite similar in terms of quantity, extension, and tonality, though I find the Ara to offer more texture and an even more rapid attack and decay. Sound stage goes to the Andromeda which comes across wider and deeper with more space between layers. That said, I still prefer the Ara’s imaging which is somehow even tighter and more nuanced. Instrument separation is similar, as is layering, though the Andromeda has a slight edge in the latter.

When it comes to build I have to give it to the Ara. They use the same cable and have more or less the same shell design. The Andromeda rounds off the edges a touch more though which gives it a slightly softer look and a barely perceptible edge in comfort, also helped along by the lower weight. So why do I prefer the build of the Ara? Well, the materials. The Andromeda is made from anodized aluminum versus the Ara’s smooth, unpainted titanium. The Ara’s materials are straight up denser and more durable, and will be less likely to show scratches and dents. Plus, paint chips and wear won’t be a concern, though I do expect it to weather over time.

Overall they are both amazing earphones. While the Andromeda is no longer Campfire’s flagship armature-only model, that takes nothing away from how competent it is. That said, they cater to two different listeners. Go for the Andromeda if you want a neutral-warm earphone with good technicalities. Go for the Ara if you prefer neutral-bright with a focus on detail and clarity.

Dunu Luna (1,699.99 USD): The Ara is notably brighter than the Luna, particularly due to a significant amount of additional energy in the brilliance region. This gives chimes, cymbals, etc. a ton more presence in Campfire’s offerings vs. the much more downplayed output from the Luna. While notes seems to attack and decay at a similar speed, impressive given the Luna has a single dynamic, the Ara goes about it in a more obvious and aggressive way. The Ara’s midrange is more forward, though not to the same extent as the treble region. Vocals out of the Ara are a bit thicker and more weighty with a warmer tonality, with the trade off being that they are not quite a detailed and articulate. Timbre is more natural out of the Luna, but the differences are mild. Bass out of the Luna is only slightly more prominent than on the Ara, but thanks to the lack of treble to counterbalance ends up feeling more boosted than it really is. Both have a very linear presentation with a similar drop in emphasis in subbass regions. The Luna’s low end is slower and can’t quite match the Ara’s lightening quick response, nor does it output as much detail and texture. It does, however, carry more weight and move more air providing a more viscerally satisfying experience on bass-reliant tracks. When listening for soundstage differences, I was surprised to find the Luna felt wider and more spacious allowing additional air between notes and resulting in tracks feeling more layered. The Ara comes across more intimate which plays well to it’s razor sharp imaging that the Luna couldn’t match.

When it comes to build they are both outstanding examples of top of the line products and I cannot say definitively that one bests the other. They both utilize Titanium for their shells with the Luna having the more understated design compared to Campfire’s iconic and awesomely angular look. The Luna’s simpler, smaller, lower profile shells lack the visual flair and do not isolate quite as well, but are definitely the more ergonomic and comfortable of the two, and I have zero issues with comfort with the Ara. The cable is where the two separate. Campfire’s cable is thinner, lighter, and more flexible. It does a better job of staying out of the way while also being less prone to memory and tangling. On the other hand, the Luna’s thicker cable design is more encouraging for long term durability, plus it utilizes Dunu’s Quick-Switch modular plug system meaning you don’t have to wear out the MMCX ports with cable swaps should you decide to run it balanced.

Overall they are both some of the best sounding products I’ve ever used. Since their tuning is so different, they compliment each other well and choosing one over the other really comes down to your personal preferences. Do you like a warmer, more mellow sounding earphone? The Luna ticks those boxes well. If you prefer a more analytic, detailed sound the Ara should be the one you look at.

In The Ear Campfire’s iconic design language is present in full force, with clean angles wrapped around a low profile design. Whereas other models are aluminum, the Ara goes all-out with titanium, and you can tell. As good as other models sharing this design feel in the hand, like the Polaris II and Andromeda, the Ara’s physicality is a step up. There is a weightyness and solidity to it that belies the compact size. I also like the way light spills across the earphone. It seems to dull as it approaches the edges which gives the Ara an oddly ethereal visual appeal. Additional qualities of the Ara are shared with other models in the lineup, such as the long black nozzle with a slatted grill. Campfire’s extra-durable beryllium infused MMCX ports make an appearance too. They feel as solid as ever with a tight hold on the plug and clean integration into the body of the earpiece. Unexpectedly, fit and finish is virtually flawless with every part fitting together perfectly and without blemish.

If the cable looks familiar I’m not surprised as it can be found included with a number of different Campfire Audio models. The 90 degree angled jack is smartly designed with an extension to permit compatibility with a wide variety of device cases, though strain relief is still stiffer than I find ideal. That said, I still have yet to experience any issues with it on the numerous cables I’ve used with it. My experiences with Campfire’s cables have shown them to be plenty durable. Within the small, relief-less aluminum y-split, the cable divides sending two strands on each side to the ear pieces. Slotting into the top of the split is a small plastic chin cinch. It moves much more smoothly here than on older Campfire cables and as a result is much more useful. Also useful is the retention of the preformed ear guides we saw on the 2019 Andromeda. While the memory wire used on past Campfire Audio cables worked, I found the “memory” aspect of that title limited at best which led to the wire straightening out over time. Ditching that entirely and sticking with preformed guides has resulted in a much more pleasant experience since I’m not constantly rebending the wire to ensure it stays behind my ear. I am glad Campfire Audio has stuck with this cable and is using it with numerous models in their lineup, however, something more akin to the Solaris 2020’s cable would be even more fitting for Campfire’s flagship BA model.

Since the Ara uses Campfire’s iconic angular shell design, those who have had issues with it in the past won’t experience anything new here. For myself, I find it extremely comfortable, though I prefer the short, stubby nozzles of the 2020 Andromeda. Further comparison to that model shows another ergonomic enhancement over the Ara. While at first glance they seem to use the same shell, save for the Ara’s additional weight, a closer look shows the Andromeda’s edges have been softened up and rounded off giving it a softer, less prominent feel in the ear. Even so, I have had any issues wearing the Ara for very long periods. This shell design and the shape of my outer ear are very much compatible with each other. When it comes to isolation I found the Ara to be pretty outstanding. The shells are sealed and titanium doesn’t let a lot of sound through. Pair that with tips that give a decent depth of seal and you can listen to the Ara in noisy environments at normal volumes quite comfortably. Sure, some noise still bleeds in, but I never found it intrusive enough to warrant raising the volume to compensate.

In The Box The packaging for Campfire Audio’s 2020 trio follows the format set by 2019’s releases with the earphones arriving in a squat, square box, protected by an exterior sheath that is sealed shut by a Campfire Audio seal on the back. While past releases had a clear astronomical theme to them, this year things have gone more psychedelic Hawaiian. On the front of the sheath is a large sticker with an image of the earphones along with the usual branding and model info, all set over top of a vibrantly coloured floral pattern. Another sticker is present around the front edge containing another image of the earphones, some company info, among other details, all set over the same wild background.

Breaking the seal allows the sheath to unfold in four segments revealing the main box within. Lifting it out reveals the same uplifting interior to the sheath that we saw last year; the CA logo dead centre with rays exploding outwards in a dramatic fashion. Looking back at the main box we see Campfire’s familiar mountainous scene along with more CA branding. Lift the lid and you’re greeted to “Nicely Done” printed on the front flap and their now standard half-moon carrying case, though this time it is made from sustainably harvested cork instead of leather. You also find a smaller cardboard box containing the main suite of accessories. Tucked beneath it all is a warranty card and manual. In all you get:

  • Ara earphones
  • Cork carrying case
  • Smoky Jacket Silver Plated Copper Litz Cable
  • Final Audio tips (xs/s/m/l/xl)
    Campfire Audio Marshmallow tips (s/m/l)
  • Medium bore single flange silicone tips (s/m/l)
  • Campfire Audio lapel pin
  • Cleaning tool
  • Mesh accessory case (x3)

Overall a pretty fantastic unboxing experience, as I have come to expect from the brand. Their use of recyclable, sustainable materials is a brand standard and a welcome departure from the needlessly complicated (though fun to disassemble) and less environmentally friendly packaging of the competition. The accessory kit is right up there with the best I’ve experience thanks to the inclusion of a wide variety of tips and styles. Final Audio’s Type E tips are durable and provide a fantastic seal, giving most earphones you pair them with a slight low end boost thanks to the small bore. The included wide bore tips are fairly standard but they too provide a good seal and are a more balanced sounding option. Campfire’s Marshmallow tips have shown themselves to be fairly resilient for a foam tip and do a great job of boosting isolation and softening treble peaks. The inclusion of a number of mesh bags to store everything in is awesome too.

Final Thoughts The Ara is a strong addition to Campfire’s lineup and with it’s neutral-bright sound, brings additional variety to the tuning options available. The Atlas is hugely fun with it’s bombastic low end and sparkly treble. The Solaris 2020 has shown itself to be the best all-rounder thanks to it’s hybrid setup and balanced presentation. The Ara is for those that like to analyze and deconstruct, picking apart a track and every nuance it offers.

It doesn’t hurt that Campfire’s iconic design is present once again, but dressed up further in a flawless titanium suit. The included cable is great, as it the impressive unboxing experience and plentiful accessory kit. As always, the presentation is as strong as the product, which is to be expected from a flagship product playing in this price range. Once again, nicely done Campfire Audio.

Thanks for reading!

– B9

Disclaimer A huge thanks to Caleb for arranging a sample of the Ara for the purposes of review. The thoughts within this review are my own subjective opinions based on over two months of routine use of the Ara. They do not represent Campfire Audio or any other entity. At the time of writing the Ara was retailing for 1,299.00 USD: https://campfireaudio.com/shop/ara/

Specifications

  • Frequency Response: 10Hz-28kHz
  • Sensitivity: 94 dB SPL@1kHz: 7.094 mVrms
  • Impedance: 8.5ohms @ 1kHz

Gear Used For Testing LG Q70, FiiO BTR3K, Earstudio HUD100, Earmen TR-Amp, Asus FX53V, TEAC HA-501

Some Test Tunes

Supertramp – Crime of the Century

Slipknot – Vol 3 (The Subliminal Verses)

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid

King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic

King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black

Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma

The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy

Steely Dan – The Royal Scam

Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dreams

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