In-ear monitors. IEMs. We’ve already established (as if we really needed to) that a wired pair will, all things being equal, sound superior to a wireless pair. Despite the frequency response tuning possibilities opened up by DSP, the Bluetooth-carried source signal remains lossy. Direct experience also tells us that active noise cancellation is far less effective on an IEM than on a pair of full-sized headphones.
That’s cold comfort for those living in warmer countries (G’day Australia) where a hotter climate dictates IEM usage to porta-fi fans during the spring and summer months. It’s not just the southern hemisphere. Temperatures in Berlin now regularly stretch beyond 30C (86F) in June, July and August. IEMs are the only comfortable way to take hi-fi sound out onto the sun-blasted streets or down into the stifling air of the U-Bahn.
2019’s Sommer-straße listening was dominated by one brand: Portland’s Campfire Audio. CEO Ken Ball had pressed several new models into my hands at Munich High-End in May and during June, July and August I gave two of them a full airing: the IO (US$299, 2 x balanced armature) and the hybrid Polaris II (US$499, 1 x BA + 1 x dynamic), which were subsequently covered here and here.
Wanting to leave the best for last, Campfire’s newest flagship model, the Solaris (US$1499), would have to wait until September for its unboxing ceremony. I don’t use the C-word lightly: Campfire’s packaging is a sight to behold, a layer of beautifully printed card elegantly unfolding to reveal an equally delightfully decorated flip-top cardboard box containing a faux-leather carry pouch (containing the IEMs) and a side pocket loaded with extras: tips, cleaning tool, Campfire pin. Big spenders might expect nothing less but this attention to every last detail of the customer experience has been extended by Campfire to all models, irrespective of price.
The Solaris had leap-frogged Campfire’s previous flagship, the Andromeda (US$1099), on price whilst simultaneously eschewing its all BA design in favour of a hybrid approach: 3 x BA + 1 dynamic. It also turned up another surprise…
I’ll confess to not fully appreciating the Andromeda until receiving the Solaris. The latter’s lighter, more fluid Super Litz cable design, like the cables supplied with the IO and Polaris II, proved less of a downward drag on the Andromeda’s ear shells than their original Tinsel wire. Eartips from Japan’s Final quite literally sealed the deal, providing a better in-ear fit than the foam tips pulled from the Andromeda’s box three years ago. With the Solaris’ cable in tow and the Final tips applied to those smaller green shells, I could at least realise the Andromeda’s potential: clean, insightful and fast.
The negative that niggled was a hint of emotional distance. Going back to the back with the Polaris II’s, the latter’s greater low-end whomp and top-to-bottom warmth was more opaque but better suited to Robert Leiner’s Visions Of The Past, an electronic odyssey that benefits from the Polaris II’s extra bass shove (which isn’t the same as bass depth). The Polaris II also lent The Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas more forward push and smoothed its sharper edges. Truth seekers will still prefer the Andromeda. Pleasure seekers, however, might find the Polaris II more rewarding, netting a US$600 saving in the process.
That’s cash that can be dropped on a better source device. For the Polaris II, I prefer the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt‘s finesse over the Chord Mojo‘s more direct punch. The Andromeda inverted that preference. For the Solaris, I leant toward the AudioQuest dongle but its filigreed edge over the Mojo wasn’t as cut and dried as with the Polaris. The Chord extracted greater dynamics from Destroyer’s Kaputt. The Cobalt, more delicate handling of its finer details. Neither was preferred.
If you’re reading the Solaris as less source dependent, you’re on the money. It’s also a rare breed of IEM: one that could easily stand in for a pair of full-sized headphones. More pertinently, it doesn’t make us choose between truth and pleasure:
Further information: Campfire Audio