Campfire Audio Cascade – substance with style

Pros:  Solid metal construction, stellar bass, outstanding physical texture to the sound, big sound, musical but balanced tuning, emotive midrange, crisp treble

Cons: Bass will be too much for some, have to detach cables to fold and stow in carry case, pretty much nothing else

Price: $799

Product site: https://campfireaudio.com/shop/cascade/

Acknowledgement

These headphones have been provided to me by Campfire Audio for the purposes of this review, along with their SXC8 4.4mm balanced cable. There is no incentive (financial or otherwise) for giving these headphones a positive review, and all the words and opinions expressed within are my own (no matter how misguided!), with no editorial input from Campfire Audio.

Introduction

Campfire Audio are a brand that are quickly becoming one of the defacto “go to” manufacturers on the current audiophile scene for high end portable audio. Based out of Portland, Oregon (USA) and headed up by Ken Ball, this American audio powerhouse originally sprang from Ken’s other business selling high end audio components and amplification, ALO Audio. Despite the fact they have only been around for a couple of years, they have quickly slipped into the fabric of the audiophile upper echelons with releases like the Jupiter, Andromeda and Vega, utilising advanced tuning techniques in the IEM shells and unusual driver materials to keep the driver counts down while producing some of the most well regarded IEMs in the $1k bracket.

I first heard a Campfire Audio product when the Nova was made available on the group buying site Massdrop. As Campfire don’t currently have a UK distributor (at time of writing), the only way for me to hear their take on sound was to jump in with both feet and buy blind. To cut a long story short, while the Nova wasn’t my own personal endgame in terms of preferences, there was something in the skill of the tuning that very much appealed to my inner sensibilities, so I made it my goal to hear as many more of their lineup as I could, whenever the chance arose. Having since heard (and reviewed) their 2017 flagship models (the Andromeda and Vega) and loved both very different takes both IEMs produced, I was hugely intrigued to hear what Ken & Co could cook up with a 42mm over-ear driver, so I positively jumped at the opportunity to review these headphones once the chance came up.

Unboxing

Campfire Audio are becoming synonymous in their IEM range for the simple elegance and diminutive size of their packaging, and the Cascade certainly doesn’t veer far from that established blueprint here. The headphone is initially presented in a dark green cardboard box, with a grey constellation pattern meant to evoke the feeling of sitting around a campfire and staring into the stars (hence the name of the brand, or so the story goes). On the top face of the box is overlaid a classy grey and silver sticker with the name of the headphone and some basic information in shiny silver writing, set on a swirling grey background. It is simple but undeniably classy, with the front face of the box carrying more information including a picture of the headphones, the relevant certifications and a nice holographic Campfire Audio sticker verifying the serial number of the headphone. The rest of the box is bare, with just a couple of stick-drawing trees and a small Campfire Audio logo in gold breaking up the starry green and grey backdrop.

Opening the flip top lid of the box, you are presented with a large faux-leather headphone carrying case, in the same form as the iconic carry cases from their IEM range, including the faux-wool interior cushioning. Removing the carry case and opening it reveals the headphones themselves, along with two small black envelopes. Tipping out the contents onto the table will reveal the ALO Audio headphone cable that comes as stock, a small Campfire Audio pin, a warranty card, two sets of instruction manuals and some small acoustic tuning inserts.

The manuals for things like headphones are usually of the strikingly obvious variety, and don’t often offer much in the way of any useful insights. The main manual follows this format, providing some useful info on how to detach the earpads from their magnetic assembly, but otherwise sticking to the tried and tested format of “plug this in here and place on head”. The second manual is far more interesting, as it details the effects of the four different acoustic damping filters that are provided with the Cascade to tweak the tuning.

All in all, it’s a classy presentation, not overly ostentatious but definitely in keeping with the pricetag of the gear. It sets a good tone for the whole first listening experience, and as the headphones fold into the carry case, is actually not a horrific size in terms of the overall package when you actually have to store it on a shelf somewhere. Off to a good start.

 

Build quality and aesthetics

Taking the Cascade in hand, they are a sturdily built affair, sporting a solid aluminium frame with a padded headband and ultra-thick detachable earpads which are held on by a magnetic fastening system. The entire headphone feels sturdy  and robust, even down to the metal extenders that move with a solid click as the extend and retract. Despite the all-metal build, the weight is pretty reasonable, and is well distributed across the head when worn. I have a head that is only marginally smaller than an elephant (or so I’ve been told), and occasionally I can feel a slight hotspot right in the middle of my skull after protracted periods of wear, but this isn’t a huge concern for me personally. Otherwise, the clamping force is firm but not overpowering, the swivelling earcups and plushness of the memory foam padding making for a very good seal and secure fit.

The pads click on and off easily, with a strong pulling force to keep them in place when they are on your ears. As mentioned, the foam filling is on the thick side, with a ergonomic wedge shape to the pads that is thicker at the back of the headphone, following the contour of the head. The size of the pads is on the smaller side of the circumaural scale, being only marginally bigger than the circumference of my ears. The softness means that this isn’t uncomfortable if your ears do touch the outside of the padding, but if you do have ears that wouldn’t look out of place on the front cover of the BFG, this will probably be a snug fit. The detachable pads also allow the user to fit one of the four included tuning filters into a specially designed gap between the driver and the pad, allowing some subtle fine tuning of the sound. The act of placing the micropore fabric over the driver vents is a delicate process for those with fat fingers, but they stay in place very well once you have the pads back in place, so isn’t an odious process to change whan you fancy a slightly different tang to the presentation.

The Cascade use the Sennheiser HD800 style of push.pull connectors, and these are angled out of the bottom of each earcup at 45 degrees. This allows for a nice solid cable connection, and naturally angles the cabling forwards so it lays more easily across the chest. The cable connectors and socket both look well machined and fairly robust, so should last through multiple connection and disconnection cycles. This is handy, as the cables need to be detached from the cups before being stowed in the carrying case. In conjunction with the hinges in the headband (just above the extender on both sides), this does allow the Cascade to pack down into a very compact shape for ease of transport in their case for taking on the bus/train/plane.

Finally, the included cable is a high-quality fabric sleeved cable from Campfire’s sister company ALO Audio, terminated in an angled 3.5mm connector. The cable is a silver-plated copper cable, and is very flexible, with practically no microphonics or memory effect. The grey sheathing is less “custom” looking compared to the exposed insulation of something like the SXC8, but it is still in keeping with the overall aesthetic, and the lightness and manageability of the cable go a long way towards making the portable experience more practical.

Overall, these headphones feel sturdy and beautifully put together, and sport an angular industrial design that doesn’t take up too much real estate on the skull. They look different (and not in a bad way), and pack down neatly and easily, giving the impression that they will survive a multitude of trips wherever you intend on taking them without the slightest hint of trouble. Like much of Campfire’s design work, they are definitely a bold design, but unless you really hate the industrial look they are going for, these tick all the major boxes for a top of the line headphone.

Initial impressions on the sound signature

The Cascade is unabashedly a Campfire Audio product in terms of the tuning, sharing a similar sonic slant to both the single DD in-ear monitors on their current range, the Lyra II and Vega. For the uninitiated, this means depth, a weight to the sound you usually only get from sitting in the front row at the World Anvil Dropping Championships and some world class musicality. While it has balance, this is not a headphone for the neutrality-lovers out there. It has bags of bass, a detailed and forward leaning midrange, and a decently crisp treble.

The first and most prominent frequency range is the bass, and it’s here that the Cascade takes full advantage of the Beryllium driver technology to present a sound that is big, bold and punchy. It had the same sort of presence as their flagship IEM the Vega, verging on basshead levels of quantity and slam. Straight out of the box, it occasionally approaches boominess with some poorly mastered tracks, but manages to keep enough of the beast in its cage to cruise just inside the lines. After 200 hours of use, the bass (or my ears) has tightened up, giving a superb sense of dynamism and texture to the lower end, with no small amount of snap. Despite the size, the bass doesn’t overshadow or bleed into the midrange, managing to keep from drowning the lower registers of the vocal ranges in mud or haze. Big, bold and musical are the order of the day here.

The mids are slightly forward and verging on the intimate side in terms of stage position, but a little behind the bass in volume level. Detail levels are surprisingly high for such an overtly fun tuning, with the Cascade being able to spit out gobs of fine detail and texture when required. Guitars sound damn fine, carrying a physical substance and crunch that works superbly with most genres of rock music. The presentation is densely layered, hitting you with a tightly defined wall of sound without sounding cluttered or congested. Vocal delivery is throaty and emotional, and remains fairly even handed when portraying both male and female singers. Overall, musical and thickly detailed is how I would describe these, taking the sort of tuning that worked so well for the Vega and adding a little tweak.

The upper end is crisp but not overblown, sitting somewhere between an XXx and XxX sort of tuning. Ken @ Campfire recommends >75 hours of burn in for the drivers to really relax and start showing their true colours, and while I’m neither a believer or disbeliever, the treble does seem to have moved more to the fore as the hours have racked up, so be prepared to give your brain or the drivers time to break in before you pass judgement.

Again, detail level is high, with a crispness to the leading edge of the notes that adds just a splash of bite to the otherwise warm and musical tone of the Cascade. They are far from congested or dark, but there isn’t a huge feeling of air or sparkle in the upper registers for me, with the treble staying firmly planted just above the midrange rather than glittering off into the rafters. Lovers of 1000C treble heat should probably look elsewhere for their dose of in-ear acupuncture – these cans are definitely not tuned for the stereotypical HD800 fan.

 

Bass

Getting into the main talking point of these headphones, the bass is something that will polarise the card carrying “audiophiles” out there. With a sound that is thick and beefy, the Cascade kicks out a huge amount of body in the lower end. It isn’t a bass that is woolly or loose in its presentation, and carries a nice sense of agility and punch, but it is BIG. It’s the sort of bass that feels almost tactile, filling the lower end of the frequency range with a sound that is rich, velvety and textured. It lends a very musical and “live” feel to the sound, evoking the chest rattling feeling you get at a good gig when the bass and drums kick into gear.

In terms of balance, the Cascade shares the load fairly evenly between the mid and sub bass frequencies, with a slight tilt in the midbass and then a strong and linear descent into true sub bass (or as true as you can get from a pair of over ears) without and loss of power or emphasis. The bass quantity is definitely a way north of neutral, verging on basshead territory depending on which filter setup you use. It shares a similarity with its IEM counterpart the Vega in that no matter how big the bass feels, it doesn’t feel like it is overshadowing or muddying up the sound above it.

Speed is good, if not quite planar-quick, with a crisp snap and sense of dynamics that keeps drum hits clearly separated in the midst of the most demanding of tracks. “Coming Home” by the prog / rock supergroup Sons Of Apollo starts with a thunderous fill across the width of the kit from Mike Portnoy, and this rolls from left to right across the back of the Cascade stage like a tidal wave. Each strike of the drumhead occupies its own space, both in the X-Y axis and also along the Z-axis, giving a three dimensional feel to the rhythm section.

The bass guitar on this track is thick, distorted and lightning quick, and the Cascade keeps up with the frenetic fretwork easily, providing a thick and rasping low end to the crunchy guitar and vocal histrionics going on above. Another bass growler on my review playlist is “Bad Rain” by Slash, and this absolutely roars on the Cascade. The bass riff that kicks in at the 20 second mark fills the lower left half of the soundstage, and sounds so rich and thickly textured you could probably sell it as a steak in a Michelin starred restaurant. The inner detail here is top notch, presenting layering and resolution in the lower end that is of the highest order, especially for a can in this price bracket. You can hear the heavy gauge strings on the bass guitar vibrating after each hit, slowly starting to fade before the next note hits the ear. Despite the thickness, this is sound with body but no bleed, keeping each strike distinct and taut against the listener’s eardrum.

In comparison to some of the bassier IEMs I have, I find the Cascade presents the lower frequencies in a physically larger and slightly more diffuse way, filling more of the sonic picture in my head. The imaging is actually pretty tight, but the overall presence just feels a little more physically real to my ears.

Switching to something a little funkier, “Here Come The Girls” by Trombone Shorty kicks off with a driving bass and snare drum intro, then the titular brass comes to the party. The Cascade captures the energy of the song, each bass drum hit landing with a solid physical impact and the snare packing a seriously heavyweight punch. The bass quantity adds a richness to the lower end of the horn section that makes the song sound organic and alive, each instrument having a solid and thick foundation to the underside of the notes that plants the music firmly in the listeners’ brain.

“Get Lucky” by Daft Punk sounds sublime through these headphones, the liquid chocolate of the bassline dancing around the ears and dropping lower and lower without losing emphasis. Some drivers can leave the bassline sounding a little one-note as it scrapes the floor of the track, but the Cascade is able to pick up the fine differentiation between the notes without iver-analysing it and losing the inherent Rogers and Pharrell funk that gives the song its heart.

Another genre that benefits from the Cascade’s loud and proud bass stylings is funk, with both Rock Candy Funk Party (yet another Joe Bonamassa driven supergroup) and the more bluesy crossover from artist like Keb’ Mo’ sounding at their toe-tapping best through the Campfire cans. “Stand Up (And Be Strong)” by Keb’ Mo’ is a current favourite, mashing a bluegrass style fingerpicked blues riff up against some vintage Stevie Wonder hammond organ and a whole heap of funk in the rhythm section. The bass is multi-layered and thick, propelling the song into the front of your brain and getting the feet tapping involuntarily. The Cascade is very good at that, the thick and full bodied sound just feeling so damnably engaging that you end up losing yourself in the music and just going along with the flow. At the end of the day, you can talk technicalities until the sun comes up, but sometimes it just has to be about how a particular headphone/DAP/amp makes you feel with a particular piece of music, and the Cascade has this pretty much nailed.

Rounding out the bass, “Heaven” by Emile Sande tests out the sub capability of the Cascade, and once again it doesn’t disappoint. The track kicks off with a meaty thrumming, the sense of vibration building slowly in your ears until it feels almost physical. To be fair, this isn’t the most sub-bass I’ve ever heard in either an IEM or over-ear, but it is definitely north of neutral, sitting nicely weighted against the beefy mid-bass to round out the sound without overly tilting or skewing the signature. EDM lovers will be well served with this headphone, the Cascade punching out each kick drum and snare impact with a visceral authority, contrasting well against the physical hum of the sub bass tones.

“Why So Serious?” from The Dark Knight OST underlines the prowess on display, the ominous rumbling as the track passes the 3 minute marker really sucking the listener into the sound, and slowly pulsing in the ears as the track starts building again. As mentioned, this isn’t the biggest sub-bass I have ever heard, but it is present, dense and physically involving, which is all I really want from the low-low end of my headphones.

In summary, the bass on display here is large, tight, fully textured and capable of excellent layering and detail retrieval. More than that, though, it is just downright involving and fun, putting a big grin on your face and a little shudder in the soft grey stuff behind your ears as it plows through each track you feed it. Yes, it demands attention, but it manages not to overshadow the rest of the music in the process. If you are looking for anaemic texture-but-no-substance “audiophile” bass, you have most likely come to the wrong set of cans, but for everyone else who loves a bit of meat on their music, the Cascade are as close to perfect as they can get for this particular tuning.

 

Mids

In its naked (no filter) configuration, the mids aren’t recessed, but sit a little behind the bass in terms of stage presence. This has balanced out a little with brain/driver burn in, but my personal preference for the Cascade is running with filter #4, which adds a little more emphasis on the mids to the mix (to my ears, anyway). If the bass is the talking point of the Cascade, the mids could be its most unexpected strength.

In keeping with the presentation below, the midrange is thick and meaty, sounding rounded and muscular. There is a subtle detail and clarity to the presentation that lays underneath, however, and once your brain has tuned in to it, it can provide a very pleasant surprise. This can reminds me of the way the Questyle QP2R presents music – plenty of body and richness, but never at the expense of the detail sitting behind. The Cascade are actually one of the more resolving headphones I have heard, allowing the listener to resolve small details on well known passages of music that can be muddied or obscured by other cans. This is the difference between treble emphasis (which can artificially boost perception of micro-details) and actual resolution, where the details are present in the music for the listener to discern, rather than being pushed up against the front walls of the soundscape demanding attention.

For avoidance of doubt, these are NOT headphones that will take on detail monsters like the HD800 in a straight micro-plankton sifting contest, but they also deserve more credit than they seem to be getting for the actual insight into the music they provide.

Starting with “Everybody Knows She’s Mine” by Blackberry Smoke, the first thing I was looking for to test out the clarity of these ‘phones is the acoustic guitar lick that comes in over the chugging electric at around the 20-second mark. The Cascade give the main riff a meaty and thudding sense of body, but the acoustic guitar still comes through clear and neatly defined, sitting just on top of the main sound. On some IEMs and headphones I have, this lick can be swallowed up by the body of the amplified guitar underneath, or sticks to it like an unfortunate bug on a windshield as it blows by your ears, but the Cascade manage to avoid both of those outcomes. There is plenty of other macro-detail in this track that is pulled out well, the jangle and resonance of the acoustic guitar strings as chords are strummed playing into the periphery of the sound and adding a nice layer of texture to the main body of sound.

Sticking some vocal testers into the mix, “Whiskey And You” by Chris Stapleton sounds powerful and rich, avoiding traces of sibilance or harshness as the raw sounding chorus kicks through. The weight of the mids and bass beneath fill in the gaps around the singer’s gravelly roar, keeping the detail in place but sounding very forgiving on the hotly mastered ballad, which can sound unpleasantly ear-shredding on sharper setups. “Starlight” by Slash also passes the sibilance test, the nitro-fuelled wails of Myles Kennedy coming through with texture and power but no unpleasant edge or harshness as it soars. The body around the track allows the vocals to hit the limits of listenability without bothering the eardrum, and more importantly without compromising on the inner detail. The Cascade present both male and female vocals with the same level of prowess, voices in the lower register coming out just a shade thicker due to the bolstering effect of the bass underneath it, but not enough to unbalance the delivery.

The last of my vocal stress tests belongs to Emile Sande. Whoever mixed and mastered “My Kind Of Love” from her debut album either directs spends their leisure time directing an off-off-waaaay off Broadway show consisting of recordings of babies screaming for 3 and a half hours, or has a serious high range hearing deficit. The track is sharper than a bag full of scalpels, and is positively punishing on some gear. Again, the Cascade keeps a lid on the harshness, making the track listenable if not fully enjoyable. While the vocal presentation is usually on the warm and slightly sweet side, even the Cascade has its limits, so while this is definitely a headphone that brings the best out of most things you feed it, there is too much detail underneath to fully hide a really bad recording.

Guitars sound sublime on the Cascade, both electric and acoustic types sounding big and dynamic. A decent portion of my music library involves either of these instruments, and the thick and beefy sound of a chugging rock riff just sounds right through these cans. To put it simply, this is a headphone that is tuned to excel with all types of rock music. There is a thick, viscous feel to the body of the notes, hitting with genuine weight and presence. Despite this, the presentation doesn’t feel muddy or clouded, keeping a nice sense of separation between each of the large bodies of sound. The sounds feel full bodied, carrying a thickness through the middle of the note and just sharpening up around the edges to retain the detail.

The Cascade isn’t picky what it sounds good with, either. From radio friendly AOR (“Be Good To Yourself” by Journey) through instrumental tracks (“Crazy Joey” by Joe Satriani) to something like Metallica or the Foo Fighters, all sound thickly resolving and full of life. The Satriani track is particularly well recorded, and the Cascade revels in putting the little sonic cues around the stage into focus, playing the reverb from Satriani’s wailing guitar cleanly into the space between each note.

Moving to something a little more funky, “Stand Up (And Be Strong)” by Keb’Mo’ channels Stevie Wonder into the finger-picked guitar that sits on top of the pure funk bassline and hammond organ. The bassline is thick and driving on this track, but doesn’t cloud the acoustic guitar accents, all coming together to generate a toe tapping gospel/funk/blues fusion that actually got my feet moving while I was writing this paragraph. The Keb’Mo’ album this track is taken from is actually pretty good for testing headphones, with some high quality recording and plenty of subtle micro-detail in the tracks. “Gimme What You Got” is another funk/blues number, which starts with a barely audible count-in from the drummer that is picked up on one of the drumhead microphones. On a lot of gear it can blur together with the opening organ notes, but the Cascade manage to present it faintly but clearly in the back of the soundstage.

Piano and keys are also represented with authority, with a warm and natural sounding timbre that prioritises weight and physical impact but still retains detail (noticing a theme here?). The piano evokes more of a smoky jazz bar theme than a classical recital in Carnegie Hall, carrying more weight on the bottom end of the notes, but that fits in nicely with the overall tone of the Cascade. On “Your Heart Is As Black As Night” by Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa, the opening piano bars sit on top of a rolling bassline, and set the tone perfectly for the sweeping jazz-soul of the track. They sit just underneath Hart’s throaty vocals, accentuating the bass without getting drowned in it.

So, we’ve discussed how the Cascade chews through rock tracks like an 80s roadie, and how it treats wailing walls of sibilance. How does it do with the more civilised end of the spectrum when you feed it some classical music? The answer to that is: pretty damned well. It lacks the super-expansive soundstage and uber-detail of something like the HD800 to really give you that “in the opera house” feeling, but for most classical or classical-fusion fare, the Cascade present a more than adequate sonic picture. Stringed instruments feel full and weighty, cello and violins carrying a sackful of texture in each bow stroke. The relative bass emphasis adds a fair slice of sturm und drang to passages like “Orpheus In The underground” or “Toccata & Fugue”, sacrificing stage size for a more intimate but heavyweight presentation of the music. “Danse Macabre” by Dual & the London Session Orchestra sounds full and rich, the violins taking centre stage. This presentation is more orchestra as a wall of sound than a full symphony, but no less moving or engaging for it.

In summary, the mids here are weighty, smooth and warm but still carry plenty of peripheral detail and bags of texture. They are slightly in the shadow of the bass, but certainly never overshadowed by it. In terms of staging, they are still further forward than neutral on the stage to my ears. They make rock and other guitar music sound excellent, and make a pretty good fist of correct tone and timbre for other stringed instruments and piano. In isolation, they provide a beautifully tuned take on a musical midrange that doesn’t sacrifice detail. In concert with the bass below and the treble above, they make even more sense. These aren’t mids for the audiophile purist, these are mids for the music lover, and like the rest of this headphone, are all the better for it.

Treble

Considering these are a set of headphones tuned for bass presence, the treble is a pleasant surprise, packing a good anoint of presence and very good clarity. “Starlight” by Slash starts with a screeching guitar harmonic, which comes through clear and strong on the Cascade, sounding deliberately dissonant but not grating. It isn’t the most emphatic or forceful rendition I’ve heard, but it certainly isn’t lacking. The rest of the track has some gentle guitar fretting and reverb sounds that the Cascade havens equally well, presenting them softly in the upper layers of the sound without letting them be overshadowed by the thickness of the sound underneath.

Cymbal crashes and hi hats on the track feel realistic and deftly emphasised, providing a percussive backdrop to the music without distracting. Again, not the splashiest, but the decay feels weighty and real, cutting through the music and dying down shortly afterwards. The sound isn’t overly tizzy, having a very realistic (to me) timbre.

Sticking some more electronic fare into the playlist, the upbeat synth of “Drinking From The Bottle” by Calvin Harris carries a chunky presence, sitting a little further back on the stage than the mids and bass but not feeling overly shelved or rolled off. This treble is clean and thick, painting itself across the ceiling of the soundstage rather than echoing out Ingrid the distance. There is a small element of sparkle hiding in the occasional synthesiser run, but this isn’t a headphone that screams Beyer or Senn HD800 when you think about how it presents itself up top.

This is a headphone that concentrates more on purity and blackness in the higher registers, presenting a treble that is crisp and crunchy, but doesn’t sparkle in the same way as its stablemate the Andromeda. There is delicacy and detail in the upper reaches of the music, but it feels a little more reserved compared to the titanic midrange and bass to my ears. Listening to “Mountains” by Emile Sande, the sweeping strings and delicate finger picked acoustic guitar float about in the top end of the song, showing a nice level of finesse without dominating proceedings. This headphone feels a little more present in the treble than IEMs like the Vega and Lyra II from the same manufacturer, carrying just enough edge in the treble to let the notes cut through the notes around them and retain their clarity without getting lost in the body.

“Theme” by the classical duo Duel is rendered with a twinkling finesse that underlines the credentials of the treble, strings dancing around in the upper left and upper right quadrants of the sound, the delicate pluckings of other instruments like the harpsichord (I think – ironically, I used to fall asleep in music lessons in school) adding finesse to the more emotive orchestration underneath. The whole album (also called “Duel”) is actually fairly eye opening through the Cascade, the twin violins and smattering of synthesiser and other more modern electronic instrumentation being beautifully presented as the tracks ebb and flow.

The general tone of the treble lends a more enclosed rather than spacious feel to the sound, with the notes dying away into silence a little quicker like they would in a well damped room or packed music venue, rather than echoing around a larger hall or audio space. This doesn’t feel cramped or squashed, and for a closed back can the soundstage is still far more than adequate, so the tuning choice here sits well with me in terms of the overall cohesion of the sound signature. For those who had issues with the Vega’s treble (I wasn’t one) and wanted something a little more , the Cascade may be just the thing you are looking for.

 

Separation, soundstage and layering

The Cascade have a naturally compact soundstage, presenting a big sound that hovers around the circumference of the head. They are slightly above average for a closed back headphone in that respect, but still clearly a closed back model in direct comparison to open-backed models. It presents with good depth and height, however, lending a feeling of scale and size to the notes that give the presentation a “big” feel to it, even if it doesn’t wander off too far while playing with your ears.

The staging is relatively forward and intimate rather than spacious and distant, the size of the notes and the stage they play on pulling you forward into the mix, rather than leaving you sitting a few rows back in the crowd. Vocals are strongly centre-field in the stage, coming down through the top of my head on a slight angle for most tracks, as if I was sitting on a chair with the singer standing up and performing in front of me. Imaging is strong on this headphone, allowing “live” recordings like Better Man by Leon Bridges to place the instruments in the room in exact places, notes drifting forward over your ears and sitting at the back of the sound depending on which instrument is playing. There is a gentle whistle at the end of the chorus (around the 1:05 mark) that floats in just from the left, giving a strong picture of the backup singers in their position in the cavernous room this track was recorded in.

Separation is good, hard panned instruments pulling well to the left and right of the soundscape and multiple strands of music resolving themselves clearly in the ear without bleeding together or being bulldozed by louder passages of music. Layering is similar, with the Cascade more than capable of stacking multiple textures and tones into the same musical space without becoming blurry or smeared. The feel of the sound is dense but detailed, and rewards critical listening by allowing you to move around the various strands in a well recorded track without too much mental effort. Given the relative size of the stage, the peripheral instruments never stray too far on the x-axis from the main central image, but again, this is in keeping with the overall presentation.

Cable choice

The Cascade uses the push/pull HD800 style of cable connectors, so there will be a plethora of available upgrade cables available from the usual aftermarket suppliers if you want to experiment with different cable “tones” for this beast of a headphone. The demo unit I got sent was lucky enough to come with a 4.4mm terminated version of the ALO SXC 8 upgrade cable, currently being sold on the Campfire and ALO websites for $349. Like the stock cable, it is an SPC configuration, this time in an 8-braid form with transparent sheathing and the eyecatching ALO 4.4mm golden connector plug at the end.

As these are the only two cables I currently have using this type of connector, and one of them (the SXC8) runs balanced, I wasn’t able to do any thorough A/B comparisons. To my ears, the SXC8 sounds a little richer in tone out of the balanced out from my ZX300, and the Cascade does seem to benefit from the additional power at the same matched volume levels. The SXC8 is a beautiful looking cable, and while it lacks the absolute flexibility and lack of microphonics of the stock sheathed ALO cable, it does look and feel premium. Added to the additional benefits of being able to access the sonically superior (to my ears) balanced amp pathway of the ZX300, it has become my cable of choice for the Cascade. It does suffer a little with microphonics and stiffness, so if you are mainly intent on using the Cascade as a fully portable unit on your daily commute, you will probably want to stick with the highly capable and more manageable stock cable, which has no real stiffness or microphonics to speak of. On the other hand, if you do have access to a 4.4mm balanced source and intend to listen to the Cascade in more “stationary” locations (coffee shop / office / home) then the SXC8 does help to my ears to bring a small but noticeable improvement to the signature – as mentioned, the ZX300 is known to have a “better sounding” balanced out due to the way the device is put together, but as always, we are talking about very small margins here, so please take that opinion with the appropriate grain of salt.

Power requirements and matchability

The Cascade share many similarities with their fraternal stablemate the Vega, and one of them is their approach to amplification. Neither unit needs to be amplified, with both being able to produce louder-than-comfortable output from things like mobile phones or typically underpowered DAPs like the Sony A-series. That being said, if you do apply the power, both models do a very good job of drinking it up, scaling in dynamic impact and power as the wattage increases, and taking a slightly tighter grip on the lower end. I don’t have any true face melting power outputs at my disposal, but running the Cascade off my desktop CMA400i from Questyle or the portable Continental V5 from ALO, the extra juice adds a little something to the sound that suggests that these should be fed as much power as you have on tap when you have the chance – you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

In fact, if you have a CV5, you should definitely consider welding it to the cable of the Cascade, lest you forget to use these together. On paper, the warm and tubey sound of the Continental may not be the best match for the already warm and deep tones of the Cascade, but the additional voltage swing the CV5 is capable of putting out takes a slightly firmer hand on the rudder in the more lively bass passages, and the staging of the amp lends itself well to really flesh out the stage of the Cascade in the ears in all three directions.

In general, though, the warm and thick sound of the Cascade will typically benefit from a cooler source to really unlock the levels of detail and resolution that the drivers are capable of. Paired with the Sony ZX300 in balanced mode (using the ALO SXC8 cable kindly provided with my review unit), the Cascade double down on the thick and warm element to their sound, with the ZX300 adding more solidity to the already prodigious bass on display with its classic Sony house sound. For some tracks, the texture is so rich and decadent that you could probably market it in a patisserie, but for others, it flirts with the border into stuffiness. Music never sounds anything less than good, but if you aren’t a fan of overly warm signatures, this may not be the best pairing for you. Personally, I do enjoy this pairing for the huge feeling of substance it is capable of evoking, but as always, one man’s nectar may be another man’s poison (or whatever the analogy is!). One thing the Sony does have to counteract the effect on the bass is a naturally expansive soundstage, which does go some way to alleviating the warm air in the midrange by giving it a bigger stage to play on.

The Echobox Explorer produces similar results to the above, with less solidity in the bass but without the expansive staging properties of the ZX300, pulling the music into a denser and smaller central image. This isn’t a great pair up to my ears, and again while it still doesn’t sound bad, it isn’t a coupling I have reached for since my initial listens.

The best matches in terms of DAC signature I have found from my collection have been the LG V30 and the CMA400i. The V30 provides ample power to run the Cascade, and the naturally cooler and more analytical tint to the sound allows the full clarity of the mids to come through a little easier. The CMA400i takes things up to the next level, the neutral/revealing tone of the DAC bringing out more of the potential of these cans without losing their warm and engaging sound. The unusual “current drive” technology employed by Questyle also plays very nicely with this headphone. Given the CMA400i shares some sonic similarities and much of the same technology as the QP2R (from memory – I have never compared the two in the same room), I suspect that the QP2R will also be a very good source pairing for the Cascade.

Comparisons

Focal Elear

The Elear is Focal’s entry into the high-end dynamic driver headphone market, with a list price of slightly more than the Cascade as at time of writing. The Elear are an open-backed headphone, with a unique “M-Dome” driver design and a mostly metal construction rivalling that of the Cascade.

Starting with sound, the Cascade has a bassier tuning, losing out slightly in dynamics to the Elear, carrying more body to the low end and a slightly less crisp feel to the presentation. It carries a little more physical impact down low, but can lack a little of the Elear’s class leading dynamic punch in the midrange with more frenetic tracks. That isn’t to say the Cascade is lacking, as it does sport a hugely dynamic sound itself, but just isn’t quite at the stellar level of the Elear in this specific regard.

Tonally, the Cascade are a warmer headphone than the Focal, with voices feeling slightly more forward in comparison to the Elear. The Elear has a slightly leaner tone, so carries a little more texture in the midrange, where the Campfires tends to sound a little smoother and more emotional in its delivery. Audible detail retrieval and resolution is similar between both, with the Cascade keeping pace with the Elear, despite the increased bass presence. The Elear feels the “crisper” of the two cans, but this is due to its relative lack of warmth and bass compared to the Cascade. In contrast, the Cascade feels the fuller and richer of the two, with a more enveloping sound. Guitars sound crisp and spiky on the Elear, and solid and meaty on the Cascade. Drums hit with visceral immediacy and then relax on the Elear, but hit you slower yet a lot heavier on the Cascade, and linger a little longer to see the damage done. The Cascade also has the advantage of the four included tuning filters, giving you a total of 5 variations on the main tuning to find your preferred sound, in comparison to the fixed tuning of the Focal unit.

In terms of driving power, the Cascade requires a little less juice from all of my sources except the LG V30 (which has its high gain output triggered by the 80 Ohm output of the Elear). Comfort wise, the Elear feel a little lighter and less “present” on the head than the more solidly built and sturdy feeling Cascades. The Cascade offers far superior noise isolation, and has smaller earpads which hug the outer ear a lot closer than the Elear but feel a lot softer and plumper. The Cascade also leaks practically no noise into the surrounding environment, in comparison to the portable loudspeaker effect of the Elear.

In terms of presentation and loadout, the Cascade sports a less ostentatious but more practical package, with the “usual” Campfire loadout and carry case being far more portable and usable than the more regal but less practical presentation box of the Elear, which is the same size as most 1980s teleevisions and sadly doesn’t come with a portable alternative. It looks very foam filled and plush, but the sheer volume of real estate it takes up makes it difficult to store.

The cabling is also more practical on the Cascade – the Elear’s amp friendly 6.3mm connector is married to a 3m rubberised monstrosity of a cable, fixing it firmly in the non-portable (and frankly unwieldy) category, and is a lot less ergonomic and user friendly to actually use without resorting to the aftermarket cable landscape.

Build quality on both headphones is high, but the Cascade edges it overall, with a more compact and sturdy feel to the construction. It is marginally heavier on the head, but the weight distribution is good and it feels more robust and solid than the Elear. It also molds more completely to the shake if the head and ears when worn due to the rotating earpads, in comparison to the Elear’s fixed pad design.

Overall, both headphones are heavy hitters in their price brackets, with the Elear costing about $200 more than the Cascade at current street prices. Neither is an outright winner, with the Elear having a crispness and dynamism to its sound that the Cascade can’t quite match. The Campfire model parries in response with a weightier bass, a warmer and more intimate feeling sound (the word vinyl-esque keeps springing to mid) and a feel of physical substance to the notes that the Elear can’t outdo. If I had to pick just one, I’d probably go with the Cascade – it shares a similar stage size but adds a chunkier feel to the sound without losing detail (once you get used to the presentation), and is usable both as a portable can on things like the daily commute, and a sit at home listening pair, which the open backed Elear can’t do. I wouldn’t like to give up the Elear’s unique sense of dynamism, however, so it wouldn’t be a decision that came without a downside.

Audioquest Nighthawk

As a closed back portable can, the Cascade actually has more in common physically with the older brother of the Nighthawk (the Nightowl), but in terms of sound, the Nighthawk shares more of the Cascade’s sonic DNA. Both headphones share a rich, warm tonality, with a generous bass response and a smooth but surprisingly detailed upper end.

Starting in the bass, the Cascade has slightly more weight and noticeably more punch down low, with the Audioquest model hardly being bass shy, but presenting in a softer and less aggressive manner. Quantity is also higher on the Cascade, but not by a huge amount overall. The Nighthawk is more centred around the mid bass, with the Cascade having a more even spread between mid and sub bass. Detail levels and texture are similar on both models.

Mids are slightly softer and more romantic on the Nighthawks, but a touch more emphasised in comparison to the Cascade due to the lower quantity of bass in the Audioquest model. The Nighthawk does very well at conveying the emotion in a vocal, due to the almost smoky delivery through the midrange. In contrast, the Cascade feels a little crisper and more raw in its delivery, with a more obvious texture to the sound. Guitars sound crunchier and more aggressive on the Cascade, but have a more natural tone on the Nighthawk. Piano sounds equally good, if different, on both. It almost feels like comparing an impressionist painting from one of the old masters (the Nighthawk) and a modern Ultra-HD photograph of the same scene (the Cascade) – the Nighthawk is the more stylised, with the Cascade providing gobs more audible detail and contrast.

The treble is similar on both, erring more towards clear and silky rather than glittering and sparkly. At a push, I’d say the Cascade has the better audible extension, but despite the lack of emphasis, the Nighthawk can also push up into the higher reaches as well when needed. Quantity is definitely higher on the Cascade, with the slightly sharper edge to the notes contributing to a crisper and cleaner feel to the sound, and more overt detail retrieval.

Comfort is won quite easily by the Nighthawk, with the floating headband and super comfortable ear cup construction, plus the more generously sized ear cups. The Cascade is more robust and suitable for portable use, with the Nighthawk feeling fragile and lightweight in comparison to Campfire Audio’s all-metal bruiser. The Nighthawk also leaks like a post-iceberg Titanic in terms of letting sound out, whereas the Cascade is deathly silent. Conversely, the semi-open Nighthawk actually manages to block slightly more external noise out than the Cascade, which lets a surprising amount of noise in even the music isn’t playing.

The Nighthawk has a tuning that isn’t as forward as the Cascade, giving a slightly more spacious air to the sound, and pulling you a few rows further back from the stage as a result. The Cascade sounds more direct and punchy, with the ‘Hawks having a more laid back feel to the presentation. In terms of stage size, the Cascade presents a slightly wider staging, with a more pronounced sense of L/R separation. Dynamics are won easily by the Cascade, which is second only to the Elear for sheer punch and impact on my own personal listening experiences to date.

Overall, these cans exhibit two very different approaches to music reproduction; the Nighthawk is perfect for losing yourself and floating off into beautiful music, and the Cascade is for those times when you want your tunes to suck you in, grab you by the throat and drag you round the room until you agree to start grinning and tapping your feet like an idiot. Both sound absolutely stellar, and are now my two favourite sets of over-ears. If you are a fan of uptempo rock, electronica and a more vivid, Vega-like sound, then the Cascade are an easy choice. If you prefer more laid back and acoustic tracks, or prefer a softer and more tube-like tinge to the sound with the ability to let you drift deep into the music, the Nighthawk would be my suggestion.

I said to Ken Ball when I agreed to review these over-ears that if they managed to knock the Nighthawks off their perch as my all-time #1 over-ear headphone then they’d be doing pretty well – while there are still some things that I’ll choose the Nighthawks for (soul, relaxed acoustic and old vinyl records), if I had to choose just one or of the two, I think the Cascade has just taken the new top spot for me. Congratulations, Mr Ball – I doff my cap to you.

MrSpeakers Aeon Closed

This seemed like a good comparison to make (and I handily happened to have both sets of cans in my possession!). The Aeon Closed has won plenty of accolades as the best closed back headphone of 2017 on various audio sites, and shares the same closed back construction and price point ($799) as the Campfire model.

Starting with build, the Aeon have a metal and carbon fibre build, with a super-thin Nitinol frame and self adjusting leather headband in comparison to the Cascade’s solid metal frame and leather padding. The Aeon feel extremely light in comparison with the Cascade, and sit on the head almost effortlessly, the half moon shaped earpads enclosing the ears neatly and providing more space for the larger ears out there, in comparison to the more compact Cascade ear-slots. As a trade-off, they feel very flimsy in comparison to the Campfire model, feeling better suited to stationary listening and more delicate handling. Comfort is definitely won by the AC, rivalling the Nighthawk for long term wearing comfort.

Accessories are similar, with both coming with top notch carrying cases and a nice but simple display box, and the Aeon providing one tuning pad insert compared to the Cascade’s four. The ALO stock cable is more ergonomic and easier for genuine portable use than the Mr Speakers DUMMER cable that comes with the Aeon, although both are high quality.

Moving on to sound, the two headphones are far more different than similar. The Aeon are a painstakingly neutral and crystal clear sounding headphone, with just a splash of warmth with the foam inserts and enough body not to sound thin. The Cascade are almost the polar opposite, with an exaggerated sense of musicality and far more weight and dynamism to the music. The Aeon are the sort of headphone you listen to when you are trying to unwind and sink into the music, and the Cascade are the headphone you listen to when you want to wind back up and live and breathe the tunes coming in through your ears.

Starting with bass, the Cascade has a much higher amount of both mid and sub bass than the lightweight Aeon. Slam and impact go to the Cascade, with the Aeon exhibiting a great sense of texture and a similar extension down into the deep sub bass, but without a huge amount of physicality to back it up. It almost feels like comparing a dynamic driver IEM with a balanced armature model – the bass on the Aeon is quick, extended and packed with detail, but just lacks the physical sense of body that the Cascade are capable of conveying. This changes slightly when the Aeon are hooked up to some serious desktop or portable amplification (my favourite combo being the ALO CV5), the sound taking on a slightly more bodied and substantial tone in the bass, but still nowhere near as punchy and powerful as the Campfire model.

Mids are slightly cleaner sounding on the Aeon (especially in the sans tuning pad configuration) due to the relative lack of bass. They are thinner and more spacious sounding, lacking some of the physical solidity of the Cascade that is imparted by the titanic bass sitting underneath. The feel is a little more laid back on the Aeon, where despite the leaner note structure, there is less edge to individual notes and a little less dynamism in the sound. The Aeon feel like the more detailed of the two headphones (although there isn’t a huge amount in it), with the cleaner presentation and greater air between the notes making things sound a little crisper, despite the lack of “edge”.

In the treble, the Aeon present a cleaner and crisper tone, with less weight and more airiness to the notes. There is a slightly sharper tint to the tuning (especially without the foam tuning insert), and comparison to the more rounded and weighty treble of the Cascade. Microdetailing and room noise are actually on a similar level between both headphones, but the Aeon presents the information with a greater sense of space and lightness around the notes, making it easier to discern some subtle phrasings and tiny scraps of sonic information against the less full sounding musical background.

In terms of amplification requirements, the Cascade is the easier of the two headphones to drive well, and can generally be run off most sources (mobile phone, DAP etc). The Aeon will generate sufficient volume off most things. although with a sensitivity of around 93dB it can take a lot more of the available volume pot to do so with some devices. Where they differ is that the AEON need a powerful source to sound their best, exhibiting that planar tendency to really come to life with some big current and wattage flowing. The Cascade respond well to amplification too, but don’t actively need it to get close to their full potential, unlike the AC.

Looking at isolation, the Aeon closed are the more isloating of the two headphones, being able to block out external noise more effectively than the Cascade. This doesn’t overly affect the Cascade in portable situations, as the increased bass output in comparison to the Aeon Closed helps mask the background noise more effectively anyway. On the flipside, the Cascade are far better at keeping noise in behind its metal earcups, with practically no leakage out to the nearby listeners – the Aeon is actually noticeably worse in this regard, still not leaking much but being more easily audible when using them in bed next to a sleeping partner, for example.

Lastly, as far as soundstage and separation go, the Aeon has a slight advantage, pushing the sound further out of the head along the X-axis, and pulling musical information further out onto the edges of the sound with hard panned audio cues, giving an impression of a bigger stage. The relative neutrality of the note thickness the Aeon portrays in comparison to the Cascade helps here, carrying enough warmth not to sound dry or analytical but not particularly meaty or thick. This gives the instruments a little more breathing room between them in the soundscape, and makes the Aeon a more “spread out” presentation. Please note that of these headphones are closed back, so the observations are relative to each other – neither will have a huge soundstage in comparison to a true open-backed can.

Overall, these are two headphones that both aim for a musical presentation, but take two very different routes to get there. The Aeon presents clean, crisp tones with a wider staging and a pleasing sense of warmth and purity, whereas the Cascade puts out a thicker, more densely packed sound. You would be splitting hairs in terms of technical capabilities, as both resolve very well for the price bracket, and neither has any major issues or flaws. This is definitely a battle of preferences – if you value portability, bass presence and a thicker, lusher presentation, then the Cascade would be my tip. If you prefer a more neutral and laid back tone with a splash of warmth, and intend to do more listening at home or out and about with a powerful DAP/amp combo, then the Aeon would be the go to here. Both are stellar examples of what can be achieved in the sub-$800 price range, and both are equally worthy of the praise they are receiving.

Specifications

Specifications
Price $799
Driver type 42mm beryllium PVD dynamic driver
Frequency Response 5Hz – 33kHz
Weight 383g
Cable 4ft silver plated copper (SPC) litz cable
Pad type Sheep leather, detachable
Impedance 38Ω
Sensitivity 100 dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
Connectors 2 x push/pull circular connectors (HD800 style)

Overall thoughts

The latest evolution of the Campfire Audio “house sound” is definitely going to be a polarising one. Ken and Co seem to have a clear idea of what tuning they want to achieve with their flagship products, differentiating themselves from the rest of the marketplace with their failure to adhere to the recent audiophile sentiment that “bass is bad”. The Cascade are a headphone tuned to appeal to the soul rather than the brain, making you feel the music rather than analyse it. Could they have dropped the bass tuning down a few dB for a more subjectively balanced sound across the range? Yes, they could. Would it have been such a compelling offering if they had? In my humble opinion, no it wouldn’t.

The Cascade manage to marry a technical proficiency with a big fat slab of musicality that makes the combination both rare and admirable at the same time. These won’t appeal to everyone in the marketplace, but they shouldn’t be written off as “just a basshead can” or for Vega fans only. There is plenty of technical prowess in the presentation, a beautiful sounding midrange and a bass presentation that comes close to standing in front of a proper music venue amp stack on occasion, all wrapped up in a compact and portable package that looks almost as good as it sounds. This isn’t tuned with some nod to the audiophile version of political correctness, and it feels all the better and more enjoyable for that unwillingness to compromise.

Objectively, I think they could have made the holes in the earpads a little bit bigger to accommodate all ear sizes, but as they are detachable, I’m sure that will be an easy upgrade if they wanted to do that at some later point. They could also pad the headband a tiny bit more for better comfort in marathon listening sessions. Neither of these things are issues or dealbreakers for me, and they are certainly comfortable enough for my daily use cases (1-2hr stints, a few times a day). This is just nitpicking, as otherwise the whole Cascade package presents music in such a unique (and uniquely “Campfire”) way that I can do nothing else but be impressed with the musicality and sheer enjoyment they bring to my ears. For people with huge heads, oversized ears or a chronic aversion to bass: you may want to look elsewhere. For everyone else who enjoys listening to music rather than the gear it is played on, these are a stone cold certainty for one of the best choices you can make under $1000 in this hobby at the moment.

Hence, we come to my rating. A 5-star rating across the board is pretty rare, and in the case of a headphone that patently won’t cater to everyone’s tastes, could come across as slightly biased. While I am happy to admit that the Campfire house sound plays beautifully with my own personal listening preferences (see the “About Me” for more details), that isn’t the reason I have given this the hen’s teeth rarity of a full house. It isn’t because I thought it was like an improved version of the Vega (which is my current highest scoring review on the site). No, I have given this the top rating as I genuinely feel that Ken Ball and team have nailed the exact sound they were shooting for, in at a pricepoint that is competitive or better than its peers.

Please bear in mind that a headphone at this price won’t be 2 or 3 times better than a headphone coming it at $250, but even in the heady arena of diminishing returns this is an easy recommendation if you have the cash to consider it. It’s getting boring to write this about Campfire gear, but this is very much another case of “Nicely Done”.

 

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