My inner-basshead guilty pleasure IEM.
PROS: BASS, resolving detailed organic sound, unique shell material, premium ALO cable, leather case, accessories.
CONS: the sound is eartip depended, the bass quality is source dependent.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
The design of single dynamic driver (DD) IEMs is a dying art. I’m not saying that multi-BA or hybrid designs are a piece of cake, after all it’s not easy to bring together number of different drivers under an umbrella of a coherent tuning. But in my opinion, the task of finding and tuning a single wide bandwidth dynamic driver is a real challenge because you are dealing with only one building block. Just look back at all the IEM releases from the last 4-5 years. Typically, DD is associated with earbuds or budget IEMs, and lately it became a part of many hybrid designs. Only a small handful of manufacturers stepped up to the plate and delivered TOTL single DD flagship IEMs, with Campfire Audio (CA) being one of them.
It did come to me as a bit of a surprise when CA announced their next flagship model. After my review of CA Andromeda and PM exchanges on Head-fi with Ken Ball, who is running ALO and Campfire Audio along with his VP Caleb Rosenau, I already knew that Ken and Caleb think outside of the box. 5xBA Andromeda was released almost a year ago, and it’s still in the spotlight of many audiophile and audio enthusiast’s discussions. For some reason, I thought the next logical step after Andromeda would be a hybrid design with an additional DD, but instead Ken surprised us with an announcement of the next flagship utilizing only DD.
Per CA website, Vega is not an ordinary design with off-the-shelf components. The power is drawn from a very compact neodymium magnet (3.8mm x 1.2mm x 1.3mm) which provides the magnetic field for the 8.5mm driver, just 9um thick and coated with ADLC non-crystalline diamond-carbon material. And if that wasn’t enough, they also introduced world’s first liquid alloy metal earphone housing. This liquid alloy offers a superior mechanical strength, even higher than titanium, high level of resistance to scratching and dents, anti-corrosion resistance, and very important – excellent damping and vibration characteristics. The housing of DD shell plays important role in sound shaping, and Ken and Caleb went straight for the kill with a synergy of two worlds’ first: non-crystalline diamond DD and liquid alloy metal housing.
All this reads great on a paper and feels premium in your hands, and along with quality accessories justifies more than enough the asking price of this flagship, but at the end of the day it’s all about the sound performance and the challenge of a single DD tuning. Was CA able to deliver it? Let’s find out.
With Andromeda review behind me, unboxing experience of Vega turned out to be nearly identical, so I will quote some of it here in unboxing, accessories, and the cable sections.
Arrived in a compact sturdy cardboard packaging, there was something about this box that felt rather crafty. I’m not talking about rough edges or sloppy construction, but something different that stands out from a traditional glossy packaging with flashy images and spec bullets. It was the sense of a custom touch, exactly what goes behind all Campfire Audio products. All CA models come in similar boxes with the only difference being the picture and the color which reflects the theme of the corresponding model. The entire CA lineup is named around constellations, stars, and planets – something you would naturally enjoy by the campfire at night while looking at the starry skies!
With the box cover lifted, you’ll find a custom dark leather zippered case hosting earphones and the cable. Don’t assume that all accessories will be inside of the case. The bottom of the packaging box comes out like a secret trapdoor with the rest of the accessories hidden underneath. Considering such a small compact packaging, you will be surprised how much it fits in when everything is out of the box.
I still find the leather case and the premium cable to be the highlights of the accessories, but more goodies were included. You get a set of generic foam eartips (S/M/L) and another set of soft cap shallow silicone tips (S/M/L). While Andromeda included a set of genuine Comply tips, Vega replaced it with a set of genuine silicone SpinFits eartips (XS/S/M/L). These eartips are not cheap and lately became quite popular, so I think it was a great idea to include them stock. Also, you will find a cleaning tool with a magnetic tip (can attach it to your desktop audio components or somewhere else where it’s easy to find it), and a custom pin with Campfire Audio logo to show your fanboy/girl support.
When it comes to the leather case, it’s fully custom, premium quality, and lined with a soft fleece material on the inside. The case has a hard shell to protect your investment during transportation, and once you unzip it – opens like a coin wallet with protected sides so nothing falls out. Some might find it an overkill, but even with a liquid alloy finish of the shells, you don’t want these to toss and slide inside of the case. Thus, a fleece lining is not just for the looks but also to protect the shell finish. And if that’s not enough, Vega arrived with two little drawstring pouches in red velvet material to protect each shell individually.
For those familiar with ALO Audio, another Ken’s company which is a parent of Campfire Audio, you probably aware that in addition to amplifiers he also makes custom cables. Though some of his earlier CA releases featured tinsel wire, starting with Andromeda he introduced all new stock 3.5mm Litz SPC (silver plated copper) cable.
I usually consider replacement cable for sonic improvement rather than the looks, but in this case both goals were met. Starting with a translucent (frosted) 90-deg gold plated jack, you can take a glimpse inside to see how wires are soldered, and the rubbery housing has a nice grip with a decent strain relief. The 4 braided wire conductors have silver finish with a medical grade PVC jacket, and the cable still feels soft and pliable. Four separate wires also mean that ground of each earpiece is isolated down to the connector, which is asking for a balanced cable jack. As a matter of fact, now ALO also offers 2.5mm TRRS balanced wired version of Litz SPC cable which I have been using interchangeably with Vega. While testing Vega with these cables, the microphonics was down to minimum.
The y-splitter is slim and aluminum, like a silver bullet, and it has a clear plastic chin slider which retracts back into the splitter. The wires going to each earpiece after the splitter are twisted, and closer to mmcx connector housing you will find a memory wire section. Here you have a traditional stiff piece of a memory wire wrapped in a soft flexible clear heat-shrink tube which you can shape for over-the-ear fit. The mmcx connector itself uses a high-quality beryllium copper material, and the housing of the connector has red/blue dots corresponding to Right/Left sides.
The same matching mmcx beryllium copper alloy connector is used in the shell of Vega, and you get snappy and secure attachment. Mmcx connectors have a bad rep due to intermittent contact issues or while accumulating specks of dust or just premature wear off. Here, an extra attention was paid to choose components with a premium quality material. The only thing I’m not too crazy about is combination of memory wire hook spinning around the connector as you trying to put these monitors in your ears. Just a matter of personal preference, but I like to put earpieces in first and then wrap the cable over my ears without distraction of moving ear hook.
I probably going to disappoint some of my readers who are used to me featuring pair ups with different aftermarket cables, but like Andromeda I also found Vega to have a perfect synergy with SPC Litz cable. To my ears, ALO Ref8 gives some improvement in clarity and resolution, but it also enhanced the mid-bass impact which I found a bit overwhelming with some songs. Going with Pure Silver cables added too much sparkle to the sound which can push upper mids to a harsher tonality. Pure Copper gave more body to the sound which can take away from resolution. I have a few other flagship cables, but was unable to test them due to 2pin connectors.
At the end, this is another example where I kept coming back to the stock ALO SPC Litz cable which to my ears provided the best balance between low end impact and upper mids/treble brightness.
I already listed the highlights of Vega design in the intro of my review. Everything from a compact neodymium magnet to 9 um thick ADLC coated non-crystalline diamond-carbon material are part of a unique 8.5mm single wide bandwidth driver which fits inside of a very compact liquid alloy metal housing design. The housing has a neutral colored “clear sky” finish, smooth rounded corners, and no more complaining about bold colors like some had with Andromeda. You still have beryllium copper mmcx connector securely inside of the shell, used with all CA IEMs. On a side of the shell, you will find a vent for a dynamic driver, though the port itself is plastic with a small pinhole opening – reassuring a flex free driver performance.
The nozzle is angled and made of a hard plastic material. The top of the nozzle has a lip to keep eartips from sliding off, important design element. The tip of the nozzle is covered with a fine metal mesh to keep your earwax away. Also, you will find CA logo symbol on the faceplate, while inner side of the shell has a clearly stamped L/R marking.
The design is small, compact, and very comfortable. With a rounded “liquid” edges it feels very nice to the touch, and the small shell doesn’t put any pressure inside of your ear. In comparison to Andromeda, it’s almost half the size. But despite its small shells, don’t expect to be able to put your head down on a pillow because due to a nozzle length they stick out just enough for you to feel them with your ear on a pillow.
The expected way to wear Vega is with wire up over your ears, but if you are brave enough to remove memory wire (not an easy task since memory wire is soldered inside of the connector, and you can easy damage it and void the warranty) – you can wear it wire down. With a right selection of eartips to keep it secure inside of your earcanal, it worked quite well and I still had an excellent isolation and no sound leakage. Personally, if you are not a fan of memory wires, I would contact CA and talk to them about modifying it for you.
And speaking of eartips, after reading some posts on Head-fi with people referencing their test tracks and mentioning about sibilance, I decided to test Vega with Spinfits, Spiral Dots, and Ken’s foam tips to figure out what’s going on. I’m very sensitive to bright frequencies and usually can’t tolerate it. While listening to some of the poorly recorded tracks, I was still unable to hear any irritating sibilance, though I did hear pronunciation of “sss” being a little more accentuated in some words. It was more noticeable with Spiral Dots due to a wide bore and lack of “filtering” like you have with Spinfits. The foam eartips also had a little wider bore, but to my ears the sound was closer to Spinfits performance.
I confirmed the same across multiple DAP sources while tip rolling between these 3 pairs. Spinfits and Foamies had a closer sound, while Spiral Dots always sounded brighter. Obviously, it’s a subjective opinion based on my sound preference and ear anatomy, but I want people to be aware that it’s not just a design of the Vega but an equation with other variables including a design of selected eartips and your individual earcanal anatomy which acts like a filter. I’m not dismissing concerns of those people who think there could be an issue, but rather suggesting there is a solution if you try different eartips, preferably with a narrower bore opening.