“You’re either a cat person or a dog person”, reasons Ken Ball, CEO of Campfire Audio. He’s calling long distance to chat about his latest two IEM models and we’re discussing the audible pros and cons of balanced armature drivers vis-a-vis their dynamic counterparts. Ball’s rationale is that some people prefer balanced armature designs and other people lean towards dynamic driver implementations.
The Portland-based manufacturer utilises both types of drivers to make some of the world’s most interesting IEMs. ‘Interesting’ because of Ball’s eagerness to experiment with different forms and materials, even if that means beating the path less travelled. And ‘most interesting’ because no two Campfire Audio IEMs sound alike.
The high-end Andromeda (US$1099, coverage here and here) is a Campfire stalwart and a recent recipient of the company’s 3D-printed boot that permits more accurate placement of the five balanced armature drivers within their green-coloured aluminium shell.
Although he doesn’t say it outright during our conversation, I get the sense that Ball is frustrated with the general lack of innovation among balanced armature driver manufacturers. Perhaps this is one reason why he has bolstered and extended the Andromeda 2020’s uppermost frequencies with an in-house developed Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber (TAEC).
The Andromeda 2020’s sound is something that Ball refers to as ‘studio’. I hear it as effervescent, vivid and insightful, offering an amphetamine-like clarity that recalls Kii’s Three loudspeaker. To these ears – and sat next to other Campfire IEMs – it’s a sound that’s more impressive than it is caveat-free enjoyable. Does this mean that I’m not really a balanced armature kind of guy? Not at all: the crossover free Ara was my pick of the Campfire crowd until the arrival of two disruptors: the Vega 2020 and Dorado 2020 (introduced here).
Taking LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver from the Andromeda 2020 over to the newly released Vega 2020 (US$899), the audible differences between the two IEMs becomes instantly apparent, even when heard through the wholly decent (but not life-changing) DAC and headphone output of an LG V40 smartphone. It surprises me that a record such as this – indie dance-rock tinged with electronica and featuring some fairly stark production – can be transformed to sound more rounded, fleshier (but also fuzzier at the edges) by the Vega 2020’s single 10mm dynamic driver.
According to Ball, ceramic is less resonant than other materials. The new Vega’s more voluptuous bottom end and more muted (/ less incisive) treble handling makes it more of a pleasurable listen than the Andromeda 2020, especially with lesser quality source material or lower quality source devices. The iPhone 6S Plus has a slightly more strident drive than the LG V40 but is still within the scope of the Vega 2020’s agreeable nature. The last time I felt that way about a Campfire IEM was the Atlas.
And yet, it’s the Vega 2020’s greater communication of tone that really sets it apart from the more expensive Andromeda 2020. To state the obvious: we weren’t in the studio when Sound of Silver was cut, which makes it impossible for anyone outside of James Murphy’s inner-circle to know if a) the Andromeda 2020 is short-changing us on music’s colour or b) if the Vega 2020 is spooning in some of its own. Whatever the truth, the Vega 2020 is more my kind of IEM than the Andromeda 2020. Perhaps I need to face up to the fact that I’m more of a dynamic driver person?
Not so fast. Campfire Audio’s Dorado 2020 moves the ceramic earshell colour from white to black and houses a similar (but not identical) dynamic driver, its treble output augmented by a single balanced armature driver. No crossover; this hybrid design sees both drivers roll in and out of their own accord.
Back with the LG V40, the Dorado 2020 supplants the Vega 2020’s fuzzier edges with instrumental definition that’s as crisp and as clean as winter sunlight. On Robag Wruhme’s impeccably produced Thora Vukk, we note just the right amount of caffeination up top – perfect for those who can’t live without Andromeda 2020’s cleaner window on the album’s hi-hat hits and percussive clatter. We also note only a minor dent to the Vega 2020’s fleshier tonal mass and low-end whomp. The best of both worlds? Pretty much.
Compared to another Campfire Audio hybrid, the outgoing Polaris II (US$499), the Dorado 2020 aces its more affordable cousin with better top-to-bottom transparency and detail retrieval that communicates much deeper musical insight. The newcomer lends more texture to John Cale’s voice (Fragments of a Rainy Season) whilst simultaneously clearing more space around it. Cale’s piano string hits land with wide-eyed immediacy.
The Dorado 2020 delivers music with more control and crisper edges than the Polaris II to give us a high/er-end take on a hybrid IEM: 1) for the more discerning listener or 2) for someone less focussed on covering up the questionable mastering that dogs records like The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America.
Can we not be both types of listener: someone who appreciates a great sounding album but who doesn’t recoil at the first sign of dynamic compression or lossy streaming? In other words, a pragmatist who realises that no single IEM will be everything to all wo/men.
Black and white thinking is the calling card of a desperate attempt to make sense of a complicated world. The Internet head-fi / hi-fi conversation feeds on it. And yet Ken Ball’s Cat n’ Dog analogy offers room aplenty for anyone who remains undecided, ambivalent or, like me, is down with both. Campfire’s Dorado 2020 brings that thinking to life — and will likely to appeal to more listeners than the Vega 2020 because it straddles two worlds, capturing the advantages of balanced and dynamic drivers in a crossover-less design with scant evidence of any downside.
Further information: Campfire Audio
Listen to the Darko.Audio podcast conversation with Ken Ball using the SoundCloud player below (or via Apple Podcasts and Spotify):