Campfire Audio Ara – Beauty and Sophistication.
PROS: Build quality, stock cable, great mids, highly detailed, ergonomics, sensibly priced (within audiophile logic).
CONS: Can be a bit bright for treble sensitive people.
I would like to thank Ken Ball of Campfire Audio for providing Twister6 with the Campfire Audio Ara and Alex/Twister6 for letting me borrow them for this review. No incentive was given for a favorable review.
- Drivers: 7 balanced armature (4 x low, 1 x mid, 2 x high)
- Frequency Response: 10Hz–28 kHz
- Sensitivity: 94 dB SPL @ 1kHz: 7.094 mVrms
- Impedance: 8.5 Ohms @ 1kHz
- Shell: Machined Titanium
- Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber™ (T.A.E.C.)
- PVD Black Stainless Steel Spout
- Connectors: Beryllium / Copper MMCX
- for sale directly or retailers like Bloom Audio.
Campfire Audio, the last and longest stay on my list of “elusive brands”. Those brands who’s products I really wanted to demo and/or review, but never had the opportunity. In fact, as well as the last, it was also the first brand on that list. When I started out in this hobby in 2016 Campfire Audio had just released the Lyra II and those were firmly on my radar as my first set of serious audiophile IEMs. I liked what I read about their signature, the build quality looked superb and they felt like they would be a great investment to start this hobby out with. Alas, I did not get the opportunity to demo them and did not dare order them blindly through a dealer in Austria, while I was living in the UK (the best solution I could find at the time). Ever since, Campfire Audio remained on that list with a number of different IEMs I was very curious about. IEMs such as the Andromeda (of course), Vega, Comet, Atlas, Solaris and recently the custom Equinox with the shallow ‘audiophile’ fit as an option alongside the deeper ‘Artist’ fit. I have had issues with CIEMs in the past and would love a shallow fit CIEM to get the benefits of a custom fit, but not the issues I had in the past. Plus, I am a sucker for a high-end single dynamic driver IEM. Even the Cascade headphones keep drawing my attention now that I have developed a craving for a desktop setup. Last but not least, the Ara came on the scene and seemed to present something quite special. So when Alex suggested I give them a go, I leapt at the opportunity to finally spend some quality time with IEMs by Campfire Audio.
Aside from the IEMs themselves, I think Campfire Audio is a really interesting brand. It is one of those companies that started out by one man slaving away in his basement on something he was absolutely passionate about. In this case it all started in 2009 with Audio Line Out, better known these days as ALO Audio, by Ken Ball. ALO produces a variety of products from cables and interconnects to some very interesting amplifiers. I always loved the look of the Continental Dual Mono portable Tube/Solid State hybrid amp. (And indeed, I never had the opportunity to try one out.) Campfire Audio developed from the same passion that drove ALO and it introduced some really innovative IEMs with outstanding build quality and a surprising commitment to keeping prices at fairly sane levels. At the moment of writing the most expensive IEMs that Campfire Audio have on offer are the Solaris Special Edition at US$1,899 and while still expensive, they sit considerably below the general trend for flagship IEMs. The Ara I am reviewing here go for US$1,299, which feels almost cheap if we forget that we audiophiles have a rather warped understanding of value in our pursuit of sonic bliss. I personally find it a very attractive price point and can only applaud Campfire Audio for keeping prices accessible for us mere mortals.
Campfire Audio have done a very nice job with the box by keeping it simple and effective. The Ara come in a small neat box that looks like it is a box of luxury chocolates, which unwraps and opens up to reveal a blue case and a box with accessories. The case is a very nice one made from sustainably harvested cork. It feels great and it is a perfect size for carrying around while keeping enough space to store the Ara even with a bigger aftermarket cable and an adapter (or something like that). The Ara can be stored using a small bag with two pockets to prevent the IEMs from bumping during transport. There are three such bags with two holding a healthy selection of tips. These are a set of silicone tips, foam tips and my favourite Final E-tips. Further included are a cleaning tool, a Campfire Audio pin, instruction manual and warranty card. Simple, effective, nicely done.
Build Quality and Fit.
If there was one thing that had me interested in Campfire Audio for such a long time, it would be the build quality. Just from looks alone I loved what I was seeing and now that I have the Ara in hand, I can safely say that they live up to expectation. The whole design is quite intricate, but exceptionally well executed to the highest standard and competing comfortably with IEMs like the MMR Thummim that cost well over three times the price. I actually see several similarities between those two IEMs in terms of build quality, as aside from both having titanium shells, the Ara use a similar 3D printed interior onto which the drivers are mounted. The Ara do not use typical crossovers, but instead optimise the drivers’ performance through what Campfire Audio call their Solid-Body internal chamber design. This incorporates the tuning chambers directly into the final earphone’s print. The dual high frequency drivers further benefit from Campfire Audio’s Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber (T.A.E.C.) to produce better extension and clarity. This finely tuned interior is then placed inside the Ara’s Grade 2 titanium billet shells that look and feel absolutely amazing. This is the way to this reviewer’s heart. Using titanium and leaving the machined material raw, while combining that with a design that screams “use me, use me as much as you like”. Yes, the end result feels darn good. The Ara are IEMs that I have no doubt will take intensive use in their stride and only become more appealing as wear and tear changes the finish to reflect the use. At least, I personally really like that and feel that gear that is loved should be allowed to tell the story of many hours of use, rather than by being kept in pristine condition.
The Ara come with a silver-plated copper Litz cable that feels really rather good. It might at first glance be mistaken for a cheap stock cable, but when you look more closely and (importantly) use it, the cable proves itself to be a much higher quality. It is fairly thin and supple to make for a very comfortable cable to use and thankfully there is no memory wire to ruin the experience either. The MMCX connectors have also received a boost by being made from Campfire Audio’s custom Beryllium Copper to improve strength and durability. Despite my love of flashy aftermarket cables, I really like this one, as it was clearly designed to do a job and do it well for a long time. A perfect match for the shells.
The fit of the Ara is a dream for my ears and I rarely get such a good fit so quickly with IEMs. I went straight for the Final E-tips because I generally end up using those anyway and never felt the urge to change anything. I get a very secure fit with a great seal and even after hours of use the Ara are still comfortable. It will no doubt vary from person to person, but as far as I am concerned Campfire Audio nailed it with the ergonomics of the shells. They are as light and comfortable as they are strong.
As Campfire Audio is known to produce highly sensitive IEMs, I decided to do a brief test and see how the Ara would perform with various sources. For this I used a streaming service I discovered recently called Idagio. Idagio is dedicated to classical music and so right up my alley. I started with my Sony XA2 phone and while I believe the XA2 is a pretty decent phone for sound (as far as mobile phones go), it was not a great pairing at all. The Ara had a constant ‘waterfall’ hiss that was quite prominent and they sounded brighter with brittleness in the treble. Switching to my MacBook Pro (mid-2012) reduced some of the hiss although still quite prominent to the point that I personally would not use it like that. The MacBook also maintained a similar brighter, somewhat brittle signature. Switching from my MacBook’s 3.5mm headphone out to the Lotoo S1 (connected to the MacBook) removed the hiss completely to my ears and the Ara became a little warmer and smoother. I still did not quite get to where I heard them with my usual review DAP, the Lotoo PAW6000. Part of this was down to the lower resolution streaming that Idagio’s free service offers (at 192 kbps) compared to my own lossless CD-rip files (when comparing the same album). This illustrated that the Ara are also quite revealing and benefit from a quality source in terms of both hardware and the music itself. Just as I was finishing up this review I also got in the Topping E30/L30 DAC and amplifier stack, and decided to give that a go with the Ara. I used the PAW6000 as a transport and found the Ara became noticeably warmer and lusher sounding, although with some brittleness in the treble again. Surprisingly, the E30/L30 stack was very clean and no noticeable hiss at any gain setting. I found this pairing more musical with a bit more emotion to it than with the PAW6000.
All listening was done with the Lotoo PAW6000 through the 3.5mm SE out.