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Upon entering another realm: Campfire Audio’s Cascade

  • Some audio manufacturers offer a broad portfolio of gear. Think McIntosh Labs, Bryston, or Mark Levinson, where each will happily supply most major components for a system. Others aim to handle just one category and do it well – that’d be Harbeth, JH Audio, or SOTA, known for excellence in their singular fields. There’s no right or wrong approach, and we find success stories as well as failures in each type.

    It always intrigues me when a specialist branches out into new but somehow related territory. That leads to Focal leveraging their speaker design chops to grab a significant share of the headphone market, or Innuos taking proprietary tech from their well-regarded music servers to build a stand-alone USB re-clocker. To my way of thinking, this sort of synergistic design approach makes sense. That’s not to say Focal or Innuos couldn’t launch, say, a nice turntable or preamplifier. But that would feel more like starting from scratch – nothing about their historic products suggests they have any unique insight into those categories.

    One successful transition we don’t see all too often is from in-ear-monitors to full-size headphones. While many audiophiles tend to lump those into the same “headphone” category, they are actually quite different. Industry giants like Sony and Sennheiser have scored with well-respected offerings in both formats, but other full-size headphone specialists such as Ultrasone and Grado have never really been taken seriously in terms of high-end in-ear designs. Meanwhile, HiFiMAN is the only firm I can think of that started with in-ears and worked their way up to big reference-caliber headphones – to the point where those outside the headphone scene probably aren’t even aware of their in-ear roots.

    Campfire Audio, a specialist known for their formidable in-ear lineup, aims to break into the larger headphone space with the Campfire Audio Cascade (US$799). Three-plus years in the making, the Cascade leverages everything Ken Ball and co. have learned about squeezing big sound from small transducers. Only this time instead of the sub-10mm dynamic drivers or balanced-armature arrays used in their in-ear designs, the big Cascade allows for a 42mm beryllium PVD diaphragm dynamic driver. Campfire has been pairing beryllium drivers with miniature metal enclosures for years, which is why Cascade – with its closed-back, machined aluminum cups – feels like the aforementioned synergistic growth rather than a cynical attempt at grabbing market share.

    Design and build
    Cascade occupies a somewhat unique space in the headphone landscape. At US$799, it’s certainly not a budget component, but neither does it compete with flagships who typically play in the multi-thousand-dollar range. Additionally, while I’ve been using terms like “full-size” and “over-ear”, Cascade is actually designed with portable use in mind, and thus eschews the bulk of the big Audeze and Sennheiser flagships. Its plush sheepskin leather pads, attached by a clever magnet system for easy removal, may not completely encircle the ears of some users. That said, their elongated shape makes efficient use of real estate, and even my big head/ears are happy with the result.

    Headphone comfort is extremely subjective by its very nature, but I find the Cascade quite serviceable overall. The portable focus means Cascade has more clamping force than your typical huge circumaural headphones, which generally fit looser and thus flop around more easily during head movement. Thankfully they do not go overboard in this area as quite a few portable-oriented headphones do. At first, I had a bit of trouble with hotspots on the top of my head due to pressure from the headband. But I learned that expanding the fit and relying more on pad clamping around the ears made for a better experience. In the end, I can typically get through an entire full-length album before feeling like I need a breather – which for me is about as good as it gets for a headphone of this type.

    Build quality is excellent, with the entire frame assembly being made of either aluminum or stainless steel. The previously mentioned pads are real leather, whilst the headband cover feels like a quality protein leather with a more “grippy” texture than the earpads – all the better to keep it from slipping around. The Cascade folds up nicely to fit in the bundled (and very nicely built) storage case, and in that sense, it truly is useful as a travel companion. I don’t consider them “on-ear” headphones like many of the offerings from Bose or Bowers & Wilkins, which for me become uncomfortable after just a few tracks worth of listening. Campfire does offer cloth and extra-large leather earpads (US$39 and $49 respectively) for those who want to experiment with fit and feel.

    Speaking of experimentation – Cascade allows for some sonic adjustments by way of several included “tuning pads”, which can be quickly added/removed without hassle. It basically amounts to removing the earpad, slapping a sticker-like piece onto the designated spot, then reattaching the earpad. Thanks to the magnetic detachment system this entire process takes well under a minute. The acoustic dampeners tweak the proportion of bass and mids relative to treble, making experimentation accessible to even the least tech-savvy users among us.

    Campfire founder Ken Ball got his start as a cable maker, which helps explain the quality of the bundled silver-plated copper Litz wire. It shares design traits with cables used in Campfire’s existing IEM line whilst adding a welcome cloth cover for reduced microphonics. The cloth also seems to help with the inevitable tangling issues when used on the go. The player-end of the cable is terminated with an angled 3.5mm plug while the headphone-end gets the same connectors seen on the Sennheiser HD800 series. These plugs are expensive and difficult to work with, but also very reliable, and pretty much universally available in terms of aftermarket cable choices. Campfire sells this cable separately for US$149 and it truly does feel like a product worthy of commanding such a price.

    Before proceeding, I want to circle back to the “portable” description, as it may cause a bit of hesitancy. Now, I am actually not much of a fan when it comes to most “portable” headphones, and would much rather use in-ear monitors for on-the-go listening. So-called portable headphone designs typically end up being uncomfortable for my head/ears. Which, when combined with their generally lackluster sound, becomes something of a deal-breaker for me. I would say the Cascade avoids both of those problems while still possessing the attributes desirable for portable use: durable, easy to drive, adequate isolation, low sound leakage, and a bass-boosted signature – desirable for overcoming background noise which naturally tends to diminish our perception of low-end response. However, there’s absolutely nothing stopping users from enjoying Cascade at home, which is indeed where I did the majority of my listening for this evaluation. In that sense, Cascade supersedes the long-discontinued Oppo PM-3 as the most versatile headphone I’ve experienced for that sort of dual-purpose use.

    Review system
    For home listening, I started with a Stack Audio Link II network bridge powered by their matching VOLT linear power supply (US$1266 for the combo). My Euphony Summus ($2600) acted as Roon server, streaming to the Stack Audio endpoint using a selection of tracks from Tidal, Qobuz, and my own library stored on an Asustor NAS. To keep things simple, I rotated through several all-in-one DAC/headphone amplifier units, including the DA Art Aquila II (US$700), Matrix Audio Element I (US$1150), and Yulong Audio DA1 with matching Power Station (US$4100). AC, digital, and interconnects were all from Audio Art, and an Equi=Core 1800 conditioner supplied balanced power.

    Portable listening was mostly done via LG G8 or a classic iPhone 6S. I did break out a few dedicated players from Shanling, HiFiMAN, and Cayin, but the Cascade proved easy to drive and thus didn’t see much benefit from those more potent outputs. On the whole, I’d say Campfire’s Cascade is happily driven from most any device, making it easy to integrate into a variety of use-cases.

    Prior to the Cascade’s arrival, I had been working on another project which involved extensive use of Sennheiser’s HD800 as well as their newer HD800S. Anyone familiar with those models is aware of their somewhat thin tonality and emphasis on speed and crispness – particularly on the original model. After being immersed in that world for a while, switching to the bass-heavy Cascade felt like quite a shock. It took some time and patience to come to grips with the Cascade’s divergent signature, so I deliberately reserved judgement until my aural palate had been thoroughly cleansed.

    Mental adjustments having been made, I find the Cascade to present a bold, dynamic sound, with the focus being on low-end drive and energy. There’s a lot to love here – that potent bass impact is clean and nicely textured, but I also quite enjoy the natural midrange, well-extended top end, and surprisingly open soundstage which is very impressive considering the closed-back design. Overall balance is what folks in the headphone world sometimes call “V-shaped”, meaning there’s at least some level of perceived shelving in the mid-band with respect to the lows and highs. This type of signature can be anywhere from mild to extreme, and Cascade leans towards the former in what feels like a very well-crafted tuning. Fans of Campfire Audio’s in-ear designs like the Vega, Comet, and Atlas will recognize this signature and feel right at home.

    The tuning seems deliberately focused on what I’ll call “listenability”. The bass response, while certainly generous, stops short of being overbearing. There’s the smooth, natural vocal reproduction, free of any ‘shoutiness’ or honk, plus a distinct lack of sharp peaks to grate on the ears (hello Sennheiser HD800). The cumulative result is a sound that engages without causing fatigue, suitable for long listening sessions even at higher volume levels.

    My initial listening gravitated towards the kind of music one might expect with a fun signature like this. Roeth & Grey’s Insert Coin starts out as a textbook guilty-pleasure electro house, but builds into something more complex with the addition of layered samples, break-beats, and varied electro elements. Cascade hits the necessary deep-bass authority whilst maintaining composure with the ever-changing synth landscape. Switching to hip-hop legend Rakim’s 1997 release The 18th Letter sees Cascade show off its prowess once more, with satisfyingly punchy low-end response and crisp, snappy percussion. On my personal favorite track “Guess Who’s Back?”, Cascade clearly portrays Rakim’s trademark deep vocals and rhythmic flow and conveys the bounce and energy of the track in a way that Sennheiser’s HD800 – and many other high-brow audiophile headphones – just can’t match.

    Rotating through a varied collection of music, Cascade shows a versatility beyond that of the typical fun, bass-cannon headphone. Pinback’s “Non-Photo Blue”, from the future classic Summer in Abaddon, shows Cascade nailing the visceral opening bassline and dry kick drum tone, but also the natural transient attack of guitars and even the surprisingly sweet piano bits that kick in towards the track’s conclusion. City of Refuge by Abigail Washburn highlights Cascade’s delicate vocal reproduction – perhaps not as forward as I’m used to with certain headphones, but nonetheless soulful and convincing. Standout track “The Opposite of Hallelujah” from Swedish indie-pop artist Jens Lekman showcases Cascade’s ability to present a cohesive blend from a somewhat disjointed collection of instruments and vocals. I often think multi-driver in-ear monitors sound detached and somewhat confused by this song, but Campfire’s beryllium-equipped 42mm driver handles it with point-source composure.

    Odds and ends
    Bucking what feels like a recent trend in headphone design, it’s not at all difficult to extract a high level of performance from the Cascade. While it does scale reasonably well via more resolving sources, the base-level performance straight from an iPhone 6S remains quite impressive. There’s certainly little need for powerful amplification, and I actually worry that some dedicated desktop amplifiers might be a bit much – high gain models aren’t really a great match. But this makes perfect sense for a headphone that is at least partially focused on portable use. Does your modern smartphone omit the headphone jack as so many do these days? Not a problem, most any dongle DAC should be up to the task.

    Astute readers may notice an upgraded cable appearing in some of my photos. That’d be a rather expensive 16-wire pure silver job from Effect Audio. I don’t recall the exact price offhand but I’m confident it was more than the entire Cascade itself. Overkill? Definitely. This extravagant cable teases slightly more focused midrange projection whilst firming up midbass and opening up the soundstage beyond that of the already spacious stock presentation. Also useful is the balanced 4-pin XLR termination, letting me tap the full potential of certain devices in my collection which performs best via that connection format. I do have additional compatible aftermarket cables on hand thanks to my ongoing affair with the Sennheiser HD800, but none seems to offer a clear improvement over Campfire’s included leash (and some actually make things worse). This tells me the Cascade experience is already rather well optimized, though a modest upgrade does remain possible.

    One thing which isn’t an upgrade, at least to my ears – the optional tuning pads included in the Cascade bundle. I was hoping for a worthwhile variation in signatures, but all I hear is a more drastic bass boost along with unwelcome midbass bloat. I can’t imagine anyone finding the original sound cold or bass-light, so these adjustments seem like a solution in search of a problem. I certainly award points for designing an easily implemented tuning system, but in the end, I just don’t care for the alternate signatures it produces.

    Ken Ball did mention several other Campfire headphone models tentatively in the works for future release. If Cascade’s multi-year incubation is any indicator, we’ll have to wait patiently for those to appear. That said, readers tracking Campfire’s body of work over the years will recognize that Ken doesn’t like to sit still. His in-ear monitors have come in a wide range of prices, with different housing materials, various driver types, and somewhat unique sonic trajectories. I look forward to seeing (and hearing) what he dreams up for his next headphone release.

    Based solely on my experience with the Cascade, I’d say Campfire’s expansion from in-ear monitors to headphones is off to a great start. Their Cascade is uniquely attractive and ridiculously well built, convincingly applying the firm’s in-ear expertise to the headphone format. The crowd-pleasing signature pairs with a wide variety of genres, and the sensitive nature of the drivers make it possible to derive great enjoyment from even the most pedestrian of sources. Useful at home, capable on the go, and tough enough to take a beating if needed, Campfire’s Cascade is indeed a welcome expansion into this new realm.

    Further information: Campfire Audio

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    Written by John Grandberg

    John Grandberg is a US-based audio journalist who has been immersed in the scene for over a decade. A recovering percussionist, he has a particular affinity for headphones and associated gear.

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