The Solaris were very kindly provided by Ken Ball at Campfire Audio for the purposes of writing a full review. I paid nothing for these, and there is no obligation to or input from Campfire Audio with regards to the content of the review. All Ken has politely asked for is for a few brief impressions to be posted as soon as possible, so I am posting the below after roughly 6 hours constant listening – any impressions should be taken with the requisite metric tonne of salt, as they are based on my initial reactions after one solid listen. There will be a full and more subjective review forthcoming in a few weeks, once I have properly had time to get to grips with the sound.
Introduction and build
Campfire Audio are a company who need pretty much no introduction these days, if you are a follower of the IEM (in ear monitor) scene on sites like Head-Fi or the other audio forums out there. They have been making waves for the last three or so years with a series of IEMs that are almost universally well-received, building a reputation as a manufacturer with a strong emphasis on musicality and value for money (if such a thing exists in the world of $1000 headphones!).
The Solaris is the latest evolution of the Campfire Audio line, a four-driver hybrid that brings together all of their current design and tuning knowhow into their defacto flagship model, sitting on top of their universal range at $1499. This brings together their ADLC dynamic driver found in their DD flagship the Atlas, the Polarity DD tuning chamber technology designed for their Polaris and Atlas models and the now-ubiquitous TAEC (Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber) technology used in the higher end BA models. This is all married together with a single custom designed crossover, with the DD firing across the full range, one back-vented balanced armature to pick up the midrange and a pair of TAEC BAs taking care of the treble.
All of this is packed into a shell which adopts a more “pseudo-custom” shape than previous models, swapping the more angular edges of the Andromeda and Atlas for a smoother and more textured curve. It is still unmistakably Campfire, sharing its nozzle design with the front assembly of the Atlas. The metalwork on the case is highly detailed, with multiple ridges on the inner surface giving a nice visual sense of texture. It contrasts well with the PVD-deposited (makes a really durable finish) gold on the outer shell, making this a visually striking IEM. Size wise, this is on the slightly large side, but sits well in the ear and doesn’t feel overly heavy.
The Solaris comes in a larger box than the usual Campfire models, keeping the same sort of height but now fully square to accommodate the larger “deluxe” carrying case. Opening the box reveals the fur-lined leather case, which is upholstered in a brown leather (or leatherette) material, and is approximately twice the size of the previous cases. This moves it from being pocketable in a jeans pocket to more of a jacket-pocket carry if you are intending to take the Solaris out and about, but makes sense to accommodate the larger physical dimensions of the IEM.
The rest of the loadout is pretty standard Campfire Audio fare, with Final E-type tips, campfire silicon and foam tips, a small CA pin and IEM cleaning brush and an ALO Cable. The cable is a new SuperLitz design, with differing strand sizes and a silver-plated copper composition. It retains the twisted nature of the recent pure silver cable shipped with the Atlas, so manageability is excellent. Unfortunately, the memory wire makes a return over the ears – I suspect this will come in handy given the more “traditional” fit of the larger IEM shells, but I’m personally more of a fan of cables without memory wire.
The only other unusual addition is a nice Campfire branded drawstring bag with two sections, designed to hold the IEM shells when you are transporting them in order to avoid the metal colliding when in transit. It is a definite improvement on the previous red velvet bags, as the cabling on my Vega actually ended up with some staining from the dye of the bags, so another nice evolution.
Initial impressions on sound
As stated above, these impressions are only based on around 6-7 hours solid listening, so please take them for what they are – a very rough sketch of what the Solaris could be capable of. Ken Ball has suggested that the Solaris should be burned in for around 5-6 days for optimal performance (and has provided some solid reasons for doing so, which I will outline in my full review) – please bear that in mind as well. For clarity, all impressions are based on single-ended use through the Ibasso DX200 on Lurker firmware and set to high gain.
So, if you’re still here, I guess you want to know what these babies sound like? Pretty damn good, is the answer. They are undeniably a Campfire Audio product, sharing the musical DNA of the TOTL models that have preceded them, but not sounding exactly like any of them. On first listen, I was actually expecting to hear something like the Atlas with an airier top end, but was actually struck by the richness of the sound rather than a sense of sparkle. The Solaris are described on the Campfire site as thinning the walls between high-end two channel hi-fi and personal audio, and the Solaris packs a tonality and fullness to the sound that supports that assessment.
Before any 2-channel enthusiasts start reaching for the pitchforks, I’m not suggesting that the Solaris is exactly like strapping two large cabinets to your ears. What it does bring to the sound is a sense of dimensionality that makes it feel more like listening to the sound system in your favourite music venue than from two small in-ear speakers. The sound is big and bold, carrying plenty of bass but with a little less emphasis than the Atlas, and a more engaging midrange. Despite the size of the image in your head, the presentation still feels intimate, pulling vocals forward towards the listener and spreading guitars and other instruments across the stage.
The vocals in particular are impressive, sounding clean but ultra-textured, and feeling more “3D” than flat. I suspect that this is a monitor that will be a top-tier contender in terms of imaging and staging – it is far too early to make that sort of assessment now, but the depth portrayed in the tracks I have listened to so far bode very well. Detail levels are high across the board, but there is an almost vinyl-esque sheen to the music which reminds me of the way the Empire Ears Zeus spits out detail, relying on true resolution rather than treble sharpness to get the sonic information across. These don’t feel like the most overtly detailed IEMs I have ever heard in the TOTL bracket, but again, it’s way too early to really tell, and they certainly don’t feel lacking. They share that smooth detailing that makes the Andromeda such a great in-ear, but take the tone and body and kick it up a gear.
Treble is clean, clear and extended. It sits nicely in balance with the other two frequency ranges, neither too hot or too dull. Anyone who has heard one of the previous TAEC models should know what to expect here.
Overall, the sound is rich and slightly warm, with a serious amount of bass underpinning a musical and resolving upper ranges. Guitar and piano sound crisp and real, and vocals are emotionally engaging. It marries the best aspects of the Andromeda and Atlas together for me, and the synergy makes for something pretty special. This will be less polarising than the Atlas, but it is an evolution of the rich and musical sound that Campfire have been pioneering with the recent Atlas and Cascade models, with some of the OG Andromeda goodness thrown in the mix for good measure. This doesn’t just add more bass to the Andro tuning, and it doesn’t simply air out the Atlas some more – this is a different beast, but I can see why Ken has been so enthusiastic about it. It plays in the TOTL bracket in terms of technical prowess, while sounding just a little different from anything I have heard before. It almost has aspects of the “3D room emulation” from my Audeze Mobius headphones, the sound feels that rounded – it’s an unusual analogy, but one that probably best fits what my ears are hearing – the sound is inside your head, but also all around you.
Trying to accurately describe an IEM after less than a day’s listening is a pretty futile task. That being said, it is normally possible to become familiar with the character of the sound, and in that sense, I feel pretty comfortable that I’m starting to get what Ken, Caleb and the rest of the team at Campfire Audio have tried to do here. Will this be a sound for everybody? No – there is simply too much bass for the true HD800 “lean and mean” audiophile. Does it make music sound like music? Hell yes. This is an IEM that makes you feel like you’re hearing music through a club sound system, with the added clarity and nuance that comes from a good home hifi. It looks excellent, sits well in the ear and sounds sublime. I am very much looking forward to spending a few weeks of proper listening with these to truly capture the sound in words, but initial impressions are that Ken may well have come up with something just a little special here.