Review written by @Precogvision
If I had to take a guess - at least with the way Campfire Audio’s naming schema works - the Campfire Ara is intended to pay homage to the Ara constellation. Now that’s cool and all, but some other stuff definitely came to mind when I read the name of their latest IEM. My more cultured readers will know what I’m talking about, as the phrase “ara ara” effectively translates to “oh dear” in Japanese. There’s, ah, certain other connotations that generally come attached, but this review will ignore them and take the phrase at face value for comedic purposes. And to this effect...the Ara makes me go “ara ara” for all the wrong reasons. Let’s take a look at why.
This unit was loaned by Headphones.com for review and will be returned at the end of the review period. As always, what follows are my honest thoughts and opinions to the best of my ability.
Source and Driveability
- All critical listening was done off of an iBasso DX160 for consistency. Because of the Ara’s extreme sensitivity, the sound signature will shift audibly depending on your source. I used the stock cable, stock Final E tips, and lossless FLAC files.
- I recommend picking up something like the iFi IEMatch to kill any hissing.
- My genres of preference include the following: K-Pop/J-Pop, Country music, EDM, and instrumental scores.
As with the other Campfire Audio IEMs I’ve reviewed, the Ara comes in the same, distinctive candy-like packaging. Here’s everything that’s included:
- Final Audio tips (xs/s/m/l/xl), Campfire Audio Marshmallow tips (s/m/l), standard silicon tips (s/m/l)
- Campfire Audio Litz Cable – Silver Plated Copper Conductors with Beryllium Copper MMCX and 3.5mm Stereo Plug
- Campfire Audio Sustainable Cork Earphone Case
- Campfire Audio pin and cleaning tool
The cable is pretty sweet; probably one of my favorites. I’ve noted this in a previous review, but I don’t really care for mega-braided, high-end cables if they don’t work well in practice. The Campfire Litz cable is terrific: Lightweight, non-microphonic, and it feels high quality to boot. But I don’t think there’s much else to say about the other accessories or the packaging, so let’s forgo all that extraneous stuff. Go read other review sites if that’s what you’re interested in!
Instead, let’s briefly talk about the Ara itself. Titanium - hypoallergenic, rustproof, and with one of the highest strength-to-weight ratios of any metal. The metal of the gods. I would have liked to have seen Grade 5 titanium being used; nonetheless, it’s awesome to see titanium being incorporated in the Ara's construction. One of the biggest issues with previous iterations of Campfire Audio’s industrial aesthetic was that, well, the paint often chipped off and it wasn’t a pretty look. Conversely, not only should the Ara age gracefully, but now it also has the durability to back up that rugged look.
Disclaimer: If you’ve read my reviews before, then you probably know that I like to take a more critical approach. This allows you, the reader, to more effectively calibrate your expectations of a product even if you have the exact opposite preferences of my own. Still, if you don’t hear the flaws that I hear...well, that can only be for the better! I don’t necessarily encourage seeking out said flaws or trying to find an issue with something that you’re happy with.
I’ll be making comparisons with the Campfire Andromeda 2020 for this analysis; while this might not line up as much on paper, this has a lot to do with their technical qualities which I’ll discuss after. Anyways, let’s cut to the chase and talk about tonality, the Ara’s biggest pitfall. To my ears, the Ara follows something close to neutral with a slight upper-frequency tilt.
Frequency response provided courtesy of Headphones.com. This measurement was taken using the RA0402 coupler; there is a dampening factor at around 8kHz to remove coupler resonance.
The bass response is basically dead-neutral with no less than four BAs dedicated to it...and for what? It features Campfire’s “signature” BA intangibles. You know, the snappy attack and decay functions that neuter any notion of real slam or bass texture. I can’t say I was ever a fan of this, and the Ara does nothing to change that helped in no part by its lackluster quantity; it’s decidedly BA through and through. I’d give the Ara a pass if you listen to EDM and like genres. However, it’s worth noting that these qualities might be right up some peoples’ alley. It does extend nicely, and for those who listen to less bass-heavy stuff, or just want a speedy low-end, the Ara’s bass response should suffice.
But ara ara...I’m afraid the midrange is in need of work. Some serious work. It’s as difficult to describe as it is disconcerting to hear; think somewhere between sucked out and smothered. Vocals just don’t sound any sort of tonally correct, particularly those in the upper midrange. They’re imaged on the soundstage with good outward diffusal; however, there’s an unpleasant tilt to them and they sound the wrong kind of distant, that is, the telephonic kind.
Admittedly, I’m not much of a graph nut, but I did take a look at the frequency response. While I’m not even going to attempt to deep-dive into the intricacies of why the Ara’s midrange sounds like what it does, suffice it to say that it doesn’t graph too nicely. If I had to guess, it’s mainly attributable to the ear gain peaking too early at around 1.5kHz. Have I also mentioned all the sibilance? It’s not the worst I’ve heard - surprisingly so, given that the upper midrange graphs like the Rocky Mountains - but it’s most definitely present. This isn’t helped by the Ara’s BA timbre. Although benign and limited to a lack of note density in isolation, this trait exacerbates the aforementioned sibilance with an unpleasant edginess to the midrange’s transients.
Clearly, the bar isn’t set too high at this point, so I won’t knock the highs too much. At the very least, I hear good extension and air; that’s something I think the Campfire Audio IEMs do very well. There’s ample treble presence, sometimes bordering on splashy, and the Ara’s a brighter IEM. On its own merit, it’s not bad. As for whether this works well as a whole...well, that’s another matter I’ll discuss further below.
If this review has come off as harsh thus far, thankfully the Ara manages to somewhat redeem itself with its technical performance. Campfire Audio is very consistent when it comes to their IEMs’ technicalities. And to this effect, a lot of my thoughts here could honestly be a copy-and-paste from my Andromeda 2020 review; the two IEMs are fairly similar in the intangibles.
That in mind, let’s break down their biggest difference: macrodynamics. And yes, here comes a fresh batch of criticisms. Whereas the Andromeda 2020 had something of an upward compression to the way it scaled macro details, the Ara leans in the opposite direction. What do I mean by this? Listening to my usual test tracks, such as Sawano Hiroyuki’s “e of s,” there’s an unpleasant limpness to the transitions (ie. 1:03, 2:03, 2:53). The Ara simply doesn’t scale the subsequent quiet or loud sections appropriately, helped in no part by the midrange’s egregious timbre. Describing what I hear as flat or compressed would be charitable; perhaps “dampened” is more apt, like the dynamics are being smothered beneath a wet rag. Granted, that’s a superlative for illustration’s sake, but I think you catch my drift.
And see, this is where my gripe with the treble comes into play - at least within the scope of the Ara’s total sonic qualities. In essence, the slight treble emphasis clashes rather poorly with the Ara’s otherwise muted dynamics. I did have another analogy in mind that would go nicely with my previous one, but I’d prefer not delve into such unpleasantries. Let’s just say I’m reminded of a fish out of water, gasping for oxygen and fighting for life. Thus, what is debatably the best part of the Ara’s tuning conversely becomes its Achilles Heel.
But I digress - yikes, that got dark for an otherwise bright sounding IEM! Outside of this issue, the Ara does have much of the terrific imaging and layering capability that I enjoy so much on the Andromeda 2020. I hear solid diffusal of the image, transient speed - you know, the works. I was also pleasantly surprised by the Ara’s resolving capability; it edges out the Andromeda 2020. This is a slight edge, mind you, but it does push the Ara into respectable price-to-performance territory for this specific technical aspect.
The Ara also has excellent perceived soundstage depth, if only by virtue of its dipped upper midrange. As I noted earlier, though, it frequently rings artificial due to the unnatural tilt; depth feels sonic-walled accordingly. I don’t find it to be an improvement in soundstage width or height over the Andromeda 2020 (which admittedly sets the bar very high) either. On one of my usual test tracks, Taeyeon’s “Fine” with the vocal overdubs in the chorus, the Ara lacks the same quantity of space, or air, between layers that the Andromeda 2020 has. Of course, this stuff tends to be even more subjective, and your mileage might vary. But...if you’re asking this reviewer, the Andromeda 2020 actually images better.
In general, the juxtaposition between 1) what’s a very coherent IEM owing to Campfire’s crossover-less design, and 2) what’s a not-so-cohesive tuning, leaves me feeling equal parts miffed and bewildered. This is helped in no part by the fact that Campfire’s own Andromeda 2020 has the more pleasing intangibles to my ears.
The Source Question
The Ara is extremely sensitive, and its sound will shift audibly depending on your source. It’s worth mentioning that I am not a big believer in power memes and scalability; however, I did find the Ara to “scale” - at least intangibly - off of an Audio-GD 11.28 I had on loan. The background cleaned up noticeably, ergo layering, and the attack felt sharper in general which highlighted the Ara’s excellent technical capabilities.
However, something like this tends to be a bit more unpredictable (for example I experienced the opposite with my Moondrop Blessing 2), and I don’t think it's realistic to assess the Ara off of something that not everyone will have access to. Also consider that a good portion of an IEM’s function is predicated on portability. Still, it stands to a certain extent that you can play around to find the ideal “synergy” with the Ara that most suits your preferences.
For the discerning audiophile who prioritizes technical capability, the Ara presents a decent, even compelling option for its price point. If you’re willing to play around with sources, or do some EQ-ing, this probably holds even more true. And heck, even I have to admit I got used to the Ara’s sound at one point despite my plethora criticisms.
I’m mostly just left perplexed by the strange direction taken with the Ara’s tuning and its lackluster dynamics. To this effect, I don’t think I was ever left outright offended by the Ara’s sonic qualities, but more so disenchanted. Disenchanted, if you will, by the thought of what could have been. I would like to have seen Campfire Audio raise the bar, to be more than their excellent Andromeda. Unfortunately, in this reviewer’s opinion, it doesn’t seem like the Ara quite has the merits to take up the mantle.
Those titanium thighs shells are pretty sweet though, and props to Campfire for giving their IEM such a cool name - can we get a waifu mascot too?
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