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A short film about 3 x wired IEMs: iBasso, Campfire, Meze

  • Bluetooth. It gives us wireless headphones that first process the signal in the digital domain (DSP), correcting/tweaking/smoothing their frequency response before the amplification stage talks directly to the driver. That’s none too dissimilar to active loudspeakers where the consumer buys a complete headphone system and sidesteps the mix n’ match amplifier lottery.

    Unlike most streaming loudspeakers, where the signal can arrive over Bluetooth or WiFi/Ethernet, Bluetooth’s low power draw makes it Hobson’s choice for headphone engineers, its narrower pipe blunting any ‘active’ advantages. The host device – a smartphone or PC – must use lossy compression to meet Bluetooth’s bandwidth requirements. Even smarter codecs like Qualcomm’s aptX and Sony’s LDAC are lossy. Their developers promise a ‘near CD-quality’ listening experience but LDAC and aptX still discard data. Run a FLAC file into a pair of Bowers & Wilkins PX – first wirelessly (via aptX) and then digitally hard-wired (via USB) – and the difference is noticeable.

    Bluetooth’s trump card with headphones comes from another kind of DSP: active noise cancelling (ANC). An ability to eliminate a large chunk of environmental noise is the cornerstone of class-leading models from Bose, Sony and B&W. The way I see it, ANC compensates us for any codec-induced quality loss. The aforementioned B&W PX can strip an aeroplane’s engine drone down to a hiss and, emboldened by their over-ear cup seal, drastically reduce a cafe’s background din. Ditto Sony’s over-ear rival, the WH-1000XM3. That makes me care less about LDAC and aptX’s lossy reality.

    The same cannot be said for Sony’s in-ear equivalent, the WF-1000XM3. Without their bigger bro’s circumaural cupping, the in-ears’ ANC isn’t as potent. Decent on planes, less so in cafes. I know this because I spent a large part of the summer listening to ’em. In Berlin, in Budapest and in Copenhagen. On foot and on a bicycle. And comparing them to another pair of True Wireless IEMs: the Master & Dynamic MW07 (that don’t offer ANC).

    And yet, once that video was done, I swiftly returned to the Campfire Audio Polaris II that had been my daily driver since Ken Ball pushed a pair into my hands at Munich High-End 2019 in May. Their sound is light years ahead of the true wireless Sony and M&D; and so broad is the range of ear tips supplied with the Campfire that it’s easy to find an in-ear fit where passive isolation sits on par with Sony’s active cancellation. However, at US$499, the Polaris II’s street price is a long way north of its true wireless rivals (US$229-299). How would less costly wired IEMs stack up?

    Back in Munich, Ken Ball had also handed me the Campfire IO (US$299). At the end of the summer, iBasso sent me a pair of their US$99 IT01 alongside the DC02 USB-C DAC. When Meze sent me their Rai Penta (€1099) six weeks ago, they also put a pair of the newer Rai Solo (€$249) in the box. The stage was then thrice set.

    More so than over-ears or on-ears, IEMs (in-ear monitors) are designed to travel. To the gym, around town and beyond. Why make a video at home, with a desk and coloured lights, when you have a big city on your doorstep?

    Further information: Campfire Audio | Meze Audio | iBasso

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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