Campfire Audio Polaris 2 IEM Review
Jay Garrett samples an interesting new pair of old school in-ear monitors…
Polaris 2 IEMs
Many might dig the new breed of true wireless earphones – running fancy new aptX HD and similar codecs – but there's still a market for serious wired in-ear monitors (IEMs) like this. Campfire Audio has been hand-building them in Portland, Oregon since 2015, while the company's story stretches back further still. It was started in 2009 when Ken Ball launched Audio Line Out, initially making cables. This company now also manufactures portable – and not-so-portable – amplifiers under the ALO Audio banner.
As its name suggests, Campfire Audio's £499 Polaris 2 is the second iteration of this hybrid IEM and was released in the middle of last year. Inside the cerulean blue, anodised and milled aluminium casement is the company's Polarity Tuned Chamber, and a 9.2mm dynamic driver that does the heavy lifting for the low end.
Additionally, a Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber is paired with a balanced armature to add a little sparkle to the proceedings up top. This is an acoustic treatment of the chamber housing of the armature driver, said to properly distribute the energy of the treble and upper midband frequencies. Similarly, the Polarity Tuned Chamber works much like a loudspeaker bass port, directing the low frequencies produced by the 9.2mm dynamic driver. The result is that the Polaris 2 dives down to 5Hz as well as reaching 20kHz, according to Campfire Audio. Impedance is claimed at a slightly higher than average 17 ohms, with a stated 105dB sensitivity.
Each earpiece is held together by three black PVD screws that add a nice contrast against the blue, and match the black stainless steel spouts that hold the ear tips. Connecting the wire to the body are custom beryllium copper insulated MMCX connectors. The overall assembly looks and feels extremely solid and could easily pass as a product costing at least twice its retail price.
As well as being constructed as a premium product, the Polaris 2 is also packaged like one and comes bundled with blue cork leather case made for Campfire Audio by artisans in Portugal. Additionally, there's a selection of ear tips, a cleaning tool, a lapel pin, and a printed manual. The tips include five size options by Final Audio, and Campfire's own 'Marshmallows', in three sizes. Naturally, there's no skimping on cable quality here, as the Polaris comes with high-spec silver copper wire. The Litz cable's light grey 'Smokey' colour is unique to the Polaris and sports a classy tangle-resistant jacket of medical-grade PVC.
The design of the Polaris 2's shell is such that getting the correct sided one in your ear is essential for comfort and fitting; thankfully you can easily see the engraved L and R legends on the inner face of each earpiece. Due to the generous range of bundled tips, finding the perfect fit is simple and results in decent passive noise isolation. These IEMs stayed put during my recent attempts at walking and light jogging, although owing to the dual drivers and fancy internal porting, the Polaris 2 does protrude slightly – a point that's worth noting for those with shorter hairstyles than myself. Overall though, the Polaris 2 proved comfortable to wear over my review period – and I suffered no issues due to the weight.
Putting the Campfire Polaris 2 through its paces was done by the Zorloo Ztella MQA dongle fitted directly into my Huawei P30 Pro smartphone, as well as bringing in iFi's xDSD and Chord's Mojo/Poly portables. My initial reaction was of a big and bouncy sounding IEM with quite an engaging and imposing character. The product has a lavish and juicy lower register, a trait that's quite pronounced when you play something mixed for FM radio like Madonna's Vogue. Yet its big, fat bottom end doesn't mean that the Polaris is slow, oh no. There's still plenty of punch for all its plus-size swagger, and the result is a propulsive and engaging listening experience.
For example, Addicted To That Rush from Mr Big's eponymous 1989 debut saw notes flash by thanks to messers Sheehan and Gilbert, not to mention the fantastic drum antics of the late, great Pat Torpy. That luscious low end tackled Torpy's double kick-drum and Billy Sheehan's blistering three-finger bass technique and tapping escapades without placing a foot wrong while putting plenty of meat on the bone, as it were. So while these Campfire Audio IEMs do have a warm nature, they still manage to maintain a good deal of transient attack; things don't sound slurred or laden.
The midband seemed to have taken one step back though, lacking the presence of IEMs such as Final's B1 – especially in the upper mids – but vocals still sounded taut and vital. The lower mids added authority to spoken passages, so fans of PJ Harvey, Patti Smith and Nick Cave, in particular, will no doubt appreciate their tangible vocal presence, as I did during my extended listening session.
The low-end credentials of the Polaris 2 were proven further in tracks such as Erykah Badu's Rim Shot and Run The Jewel's JU$T. That 5Hz boast really does seem to stand up – as well as standing out. Granted, we humans are unable to hear much below 30Hz, but there is a certain atmosphere in the low end akin to what you would generally experience in a well-sorted live venue. Although it's not only contemporary tracks that enjoy those sumptuous depths; Mick Karn's After a Fashion really benefitted from the extra depth that helped bring the electronic drums alive, rather than the wet flap that some nineteen-eighties recordings can deliver through unsympathetic headphones.
Treble can be quite zingy, meaning that handclaps and high-frequency samples really cut through with plenty of sparkle. However, if your taste lies more in harpsichord and strings, things can get a tad rich. Joonas Kokkonen's Metamorphosis for 12 Strings and Harpsichord fared quite well, but that said I did find myself bracing in preparation for things to go off the rails. However, the saccharine highs were tempered by the masterful lower midband and those plump lows – although some earlier recordings didn't do so well.
Campfire's Polaris 2 has what I'd class as a contemporary presentation, and does seem to bring out the very best of modern recordings such as Sondre Lerche's Patience, for instance. This slice of clever pop sees the Norwegian-born singer/songwriter a tad more contemplative but still clinging to his pop sensibilities. I really enjoyed the vocals, and nylon-strung guitar of I Love You Because It's True and Why Would I Let You Go, proving the Polaris 2 isn't just capable of club anthems. Indeed I found myself being drawn in closer to listen to his words more intimately.
With the right content, soundstaging is spacious with plenty of height and depth. You're presented with a sharply focused centre image that's nicely complemented by a capable and not ungenerous width. Unfortunately, if your taste is more Grappelli and Reinhardt than Lil Boi and Queen Naija, then I have a feeling you might have to find what you're looking for elsewhere. However, electronica – and I'm talking anything from Kraftwerk and the Sheffield post-punk of Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League, onwards – is very much catered for here, as are the industrial strains of Rammstein, for instance.
Campfire Audio's new Polaris 2 is a truly talented pair of in-ear monitors. Although not what I'd class as a shrinking violet, it boasts a bass that's highly conspicuous yet never overpowering or overblown. This is partly because the treble is as bright as you'd want, so along with the smooth midband, everything stays in balance. The combination of the acoustic ports and the hybrid driver line-up really shows the latest generation of recordings at their best yet will also allow you to explore your back catalogue too.
The only caveat is that classic jazz, and early classical recordings might get turned away by the doorman stood on the other side of the velvet rope, giving a half-shouted warning along the lines of, “you're not gonna get in, mate! It's not your kinda night!” Not a universal panacea then, but still a lot to like for many fans of “old fashioned” wired IEMs.
StereoNET UK’s Editor, bass player, and resident rock star! Jay’s passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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