Campfire Audio Ara IEM Review – Audio Therapy

Sound –

Testing Methodology: Measured using Arta via IEC 711 coupler to Startech external sound card. Deep (more balanced) and shallow fit (brighter) measured with and without the coupler nozzle. 7-9KHz peaks may be artefacts/emphasized due to coupler resonance, less so with deep fit. Measurements besides channel balance are volume matched at 1KHz. Fit depth normalized to my best abilities between earphones. Due to these factors, my measurements may not accurately reflect the earphone or measurements taken by others.

Fit Depth –

Fit depth should also be mentioned here given that the Ara carries the revised tip design of the 2018 CFA earphones. As such, there is some flexibility. I found them noticeably brighter with the tips brought further out from the nozzle and very balanced with the tips pushed all the way in so that the grill right at the edge of the tip, this can also be observed in my measurements. This will be an easy experiment to noticeably tweak the balance of this earphone. I will be assessing the Ara with the included E-tips alongside a deep fit that I found to offer the most balanced sound. My thoughts follow.

Tonality –

The Ara is a balanced and neutrally toned earphone, slightly bright leaning to my ears, but certainly the most reference design we’ve seen from Campfire yet. Though it doesn’t trace any conventional curve, the earphone carries an almost dead neutral tone throughout and is naturally voiced too. It has a focused top-end with a slightly more aggressive detail presentation, tipping it towards the analytical side when compared to the fuller and warmer but also airier Solaris and Andromeda. The bass is very linear with a small bump in the sub and mid-bass for a bold note presentation. As it has a slightly full-bodied midrange presentation, this will never be mistaken for an anaemic or strained sound. The top-end also has quite remarkable technical ability.

Bass –

Though not at all a bassy monitor and evidently not a DD in timbre, the low-end has very surprising weight, power and extension, immediately more so than the Andromeda if not challenging the hybrid Solaris or Atlas here. Indeed, it still lacks some physicality and sub-bass notes that are a bit ill-defined when compared to DD offerings, but undoubtedly, the extension is outstanding for a BA earphone; a focal point of Campfire Audio’s marketing for this model. So, besides the aforementioned qualities, it gets very close in terms of sub-bass solidity, delivering quite a palpable rumble and slam. In terms of voicing there’s an uptick of emphasis in the sub and mid-bass, delivering a bold and slightly fuller note than dead neutral while the upper-bass remains neutral to avoid midrange colouration. As such, there isn’t a hint of warmth or bloom here, the Ara is a clean machine.

The timbre of the bass is distinctly BA in nature, that is to say, very quickly decaying and highly defined through the mid-bass. Though delivering full, bold notes, the Ara provides excellent insight and detail retrieval that even the best dynamic drivers cannot reproduce. Naturally, with quicker transients, you do lose a bit of texture and body in the pursuit of high resolution. The Ara also sports lightning-quick note attack that reinforces its extended sub-bass to provide impressively hard-hitting impact. This isn’t a bassy monitor but a very, very punchy one with heaps of energy down low. When listening to tracks that take advantage of these qualities, think Dirty Loops, the low-end is thoroughly engaging and even commanding all the while never encroaching on the rest of its presentation, leaving its mids and highs pristine.

Mids –

A prime talking point surrounding Campfire Audio has been their ability to extract a natural midrange voicing from an unconventional sound signature. The Ara is similarly an oddity, with focus centring around dual 1.5 and 3KHz peaks that I haven’t seen reproduced often elsewhere. As the bass is quite neutrally positioned and transitions smoothly into the midrange, vocals carry a slightly increased sense of body but are completely absent of warmth or tonal colouration. The Ara’s midrange is instantly super clean as a result. Timbre isn’t perfect, however, with some notable colouration, but this is clearly a very well-adjusted sound. Vocals especially are highly natural with ample smoothness, body and articulation despite the unconventional signature. Vocals are enlarged and slightly forward relative to midrange instruments and I hear a just touch of female vocals bias but a well-metered presentation overall.

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They don’t have a rich or powerful delivery but a highly insightful one while retaining a natural image. More specifically, the enlarged vocal size works in tandem with bolstered body to provide a delightfully coherent and well-resolved presentation. Definition is extremely high with a complete absence of warmth, bloom or veil due to the lack of colouration from the bass. Separation is similarly excellent and layers are very clearly defined. Meanwhile, small 4KHz and 6KHz dips redeem density and smoothness ensuring that vocals remain refined and accurately articulated despite some lower-treble emphasis. The result is a highly transparent and eloquent performance imbued with a hint of euphony on behalf of the added vocal body. So though clear and revealing, the Ara is, in turn, never unnatural, strained or lean. This is a winning combination for those wanting an ultra-clean midrange that simultaneously avoids any semblance of thinness or fatigue.

Highs –

The top-end is defined by a crisp, slightly aggressive foreground detail presentation that fully showcases the outstanding detail retrieval and resolution CFA have achieved, alongside a cleaner background than usual for the company. The Ara, to me, is the most detailed earphone in CFA’s line-up despite the Solaris earphones remaining higher in price. With a less bass-focussed tuning, highs naturally stand out more in the presentation than CFA’s other earphones too. The 5KHz region is where most crispness is derived with a very concise note attack but not too much sharpness as there is a pleasantly linear extension from 6KHz through the middle-treble. The result is an accurate, even slightly smoother shimmer and decay. In addition, there’s plenty of air, but certainly no emphasis on it, favouring a cleaner presentation with more foreground/background contrast. All the while, the Ara retains a pleasing amount of instrument body and texture and avoids a metallic timbre in addition to sibilance. There remains exemplary good top-end extension with a good serving of sparkle in the highest octaves.

Resolution is fantastic as one would expect from the company, and though the background isn’t pitch dark immaculate, it remains very clean with copious micro-detail presented in a natural fashion. It is here that we have some contention between intention and expectation with numerous impressions of the Ara stating that sparkle sounds muted. It is important to keep in mind these comments are relative to CFA’s other high-end models that are notably emphasized here. Still, this is a beloved quality of CFA flagships and the Ara doesn’t carry the same energy. On the flipside, some may be pleased that it also lacks the same tizziness, favouring a more focussed and stable, dare I say realistic presentation that works much to the benefit of its imaging performance. Though no longer as ethereal in its presentation, the Ara offers heaps of engagement with its huge resolving power, clean transients and focussed detail presentation.

Soundstage –

The Ara certainly has a very wide stage, but notably more intimate depth coming from the Andromeda and Solaris. Width is wider than the Andro to my ears, extending out of the head frequently and notably, more so than the vast majority of in-ears around this price range. And yet, the focal point is the Ara’s imaging that is absolutely stunning and up there with the highly specialised phase-coherent designs I’ve tested; no surprise given the physical crossover design and balanced, mostly linear tuning on display. Main vocals are strongly centred while backing vocals fan out laterally into organised layers. Layers themselves are highly defined with outstanding delineation that grants the Ara exceptional organisation on complex tracks.

Though subjectively on the brighter side, it never sounds loud or noisy with intense tracks, but rather clear and well defined as a result of its ability to deconstruct and organise instruments and vocals. With quick, clean transients and a slightly crisper presentation, directional cues are tack sharp and this is never to the detriment of localisation which is pinpoint accurate, appreciable coming from the floatier Andromeda. In turn, perhaps not as overtly holographic due to its less sparkly and energetic presentation but a very immersive performance, nonetheless. Take one listen to Yosi Horikawa’s renowned “Bubbles” and you will instantly agree that the Ara positions and captivates like few competitors, even those from Campfire Audio themselves.

Driveability –

The Ara sports a very low 8.5ohm impedance which means it will be a more source dependent earphone in terms of output impedance. Meanwhile, the lower 94dB sensitivity suggests that this will be more hiss resistant than former designs. In real-world listening, the Ara remains a very efficient earphone that reaches extremely high volumes from lower-powered portable sources. Despite this, it indeed is more hiss resistant than the Andro and Solaris, a good trait as this irked many fans of those earphones. Select pairings to illustrate below:

Pixel 4 + DD TC35B: Reduced sub-bass extension but retaining a controlled and hard-hitting presentation, a bit less defined than larger sources. Mids are less layered and smooth/liquid but even in presentation with convincing body and definition. The top-end is crisp but with reduced extension and detail retrieval, still a very detailed presentation but missing some resolution and micro-detail. The soundstage is more intimate but organisation remains very good and separation is strong on behalf of the earphone’s clean tuning. Very minimal hiss at the very lowest volume.

Shanling M2X: Slightly reduced sub-bass extension and light warmth in the mid-bass. Well-defined with great control but less power overall. Slightly lighter note weight in the midrange and thinner treble but very well detailed. Good soundstage width, more intimate depth. Sharp imaging and excellent separation. Incredibly faint hiss audible only on lowest 2 volume steps.

Hiby R6: A good test for source matching with its 10-ohm output impedance. Immediately brighter and more treble-dominated. Bass is diminished but still very punchy, vocal deliver is thinner and drier. Treble lies at the fore, sharp and intense but remains highly detailed. The soundstage presentation is interrupted and not enjoyable for me. This is not an ideal pairing.

iBasso DX200 w/AMP5: Excellent sub-bass extension alongside a powerful rumble, clean mid-bass with excellent definition and control. Clean and refined vocal delivery a touch more bias towards the upper-midrange, excellent extension and resolution. The top-end is slightly more aggressively detailed but also highly detailed and defined. Ultra-clean transient response with great resolution. The soundstage is very wide but retains a more intimate depth. Separation is especially strong and imaging is holographic. Minimal but noticeably hiss at 20% volume.

THX 789 + Khadas Tone Board: Excellent sub-bass extension with strong, powerful rumble and slightly fuller bass notes. Excellent control and definition. Mids are a bit fuller and more liquid, very refined and even presentation. Treble is highly detailed with excellent extension and resolution. The soundstage is very wide, good depth projection but still more intimate overall. Holographic imaging with sharp localisation and strong separation. Zero hiss.

Suggested Pair Ups

The Ara is, as expected, very sensitive to output impedance and reasonably hiss sensitive as well. As such, it fundamentally requires a low output impedance and matches best with a cleaner noise floor, though this is less of an issue than before regarding CFA flagships. Once these boxes are ticked, even a meagre source like the DD TC35B does a good job delivering a balanced and clean sound. Still, the Ara is a very resolving earphone and, in turn, scales very well with more resolving sources. The M2X is the least I’d want to enjoy its top-end presentation and imaging while the larger, pricier sources provided an appreciably more dynamic and powerful bass, especially the desktop setup. In addition, as the Ara is such a neutrally toned earphone, it picks up colouration quite clearly from the source. This will be personal preference, but I most enjoyed the Ara with more reference sources like the iBasso and THX 789. I didn’t feel any additional colouration was necessary and found these sources to complement its strong technical ability and let the delicately tuned signature shine through.

Comparisons –

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Andromeda 2020 ($1099): The Andromeda is instantly a more coloured earphone, being bassier, warmer and fuller. Lows extend better on the Ara, with a harder hitting sub-bass while the Andro packs more wallop in the mid and upper-bass. As such, its bass is much warmer and fuller, also quick decaying but the Ara is considerably cleaner and more defined, it is much more technically able here. Despite the midrange bump on the 2020 Andromeda, it still sounds noticeably more laid-back than leaner Ara. Both are similarly full-bodied but the difference lies in the tone and forwardness, the Ara being more vocal forward and neutral here. The Andromeda is more coloured, denser and warmer which some may prefer. However, the Ara undoubtedly has the leg up on definition and separation for those who found the Andro a bit bloomy.

The top-end also sits more forward on the Ara, especially the lower-treble. The Andro is glitzier, it has thinner instrument body up top with more focus on air and sparkle. The Ara is appreciably more detailed and just as extended but less overt in its expression. The Andromeda has a more rounded stage with its bassier and more laid-back sound. The Ara has greater width, but less depth. Its imaging is considerably sharper and localisation more pinpoint accurate. The Ara has much better separation. Given the considerable difference in tuning, the Ara naturally appeals most to different listeners. However, even for those coming from the Andro, the full-bodied midrange will be instantly familiar despite being more upfront in presentation.

Solaris 2020 ($1499): It’s curious that in isolation, all three of CFA’s flagships appear balanced while varying hugely in presentation. The Solaris is a higher contrast sound with a more engaging W-shaped signature. It has a larger, more physical bass that occupies more of its presentation. Both are actually quite similar in voicing, the Ara being quicker decaying, however, but also more discerning through the mid-bass. On the contrary, the Solaris definitely has a more insightful sub-bass, reaching deeper and delivering more definition here. The midrange presentation is a touch more laid-back on the Solaris but similarly, vocals come across as vivid and enlarged.

The Solaris 2020 is a touch warmer but not nearly to the extent of the Andro, both are similarly full-bodied. The Ara is a bit smoother and more coherent, a more revealing and defined presentation while the Solaris 2020 is a bit more powerful and musical while retaining a natural voicing.  The Ara is more aggressively detailed and crisper in the foreground while the Solaris 2020 is a bit more full-bodied once again but without the ultra-clean transients and note attack of the Ara. The Solaris 2020 has a bit more sparkle at the very top. The Solaris 2020 has a larger soundstage in all dimensions. Meanwhile, the Ara has superior imaging, being sharper with a keener sense of direction. The Ara also has better separation.

Custom Art Fibae 7 (1100 EUR): The Fibae 7 is a neutral/natural monitor being more warm leaning with greater bass heft. It has similarly strong extension and also slightly hazier sub-bass notes similar to the Ara. The Fibae is warmer and fuller through the low-end, sub-bass especially, and also has some light mid-bass emphasis. While the Ara is considerably tighter in the sub-bass, the F7 is just as defined and controlled through the mid-bass. Entering the midrange, the F7 too carries a slightly forward, vocal enlarged presentation. The Ara is a touch more vocal biased due to its more conservative bass but isn’t necessarily more intimate than the F7 due to its denser upper-midrange. The Ara is a bit more full-bodied while the F7 is a touch warmer. The F7 rather has a smoother articulation.

The Ara is more lower-treble forward than the F7 which is very linear with no peaks or bumps here. Meanwhile, the F7 derives a bit more crispness from the middle-treble delivering similar instrument body but also a touch more air. The Ara has more sparkle and energy up top while the F7 has greater foreground/background contrast delivering an even more focussed detail presentation. The Fibae 7 has a wider soundstage but similarly intimate depth. The Ara has sharper imaging but both have terrific separation. The Fibae 7 is surely a great option for those wanting a bit more warmth and bass, sitting comfortably between the Ara and Andro in terms of emphasis and fullness.

Noble Audio Katana ($1800): Also carrying a more neutral and reference tuning, the Ara gives the Katana a good run for less money. The Katana is, in general, a flatter and more reference earphone. However, the Ara is just as neutrally toned and more musical. It has better sub-bass extension and a harder-hitting bass despite not having more bass per say. Both are very linear and even through the low-end with similar quantity throughout and a small mid-bass bump, the Ara also having a bit more sub-bass. The Ara is more defined and discerning in the bass as well, the Katana having a smoother note attack and decay that glosses over some fine details. The midrange is more conventional on the Katana, a smooth, gradual rise until 3KHz prominence before a drop-off in the upper-midrange. It’s a touch vocal forward – but slightly more balanced to my ear than the Ara whose enlarged vocals are more powerful but also command more attention, tipping focus away from the bass. The Ara is more full-bodied and a bit smoother in articulation too, a more musical midrange while retaining that transparent tone.

The Katana possesses a hint of thinness and rasp and both have exceptional definition and separation. The Katana is slightly more lower-treble forward and it has more contrast with the denser upper-midrange. As such, it has greater crispness but also a thinner instrument body than the Ara. The Katana has slightly sharper note attack and is more aggressively detailed, very slightly more so as well. The Ara meanwhile, sounds cleaner and more even metered. It has a bit more sparkle at the very top and more apparent air too with its lesser focus on the lower-treble. The Ara has a noticeably wider soundstage and sharper imaging too while the Katana has slightly better layering, especially in the midrange and similarly strong separation besides the treble which is a bit too lower-treble focused. The Katana is a good option for those wanting a more straight-edged reference voicing though it will be up to the buyer whether it warrants the additional cost given that the Ara, though more coloured, is technically superior in many aspects and just as tonally transparent.

Verdict –

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The Ara is a very easy earphone to appreciate, with incredibly strong technical ability that is truly TOTL. Perhaps most impressively, it does so without any weirdness in its voicing; this isn’t an overly sharp nor thin sound, by all means well-weighted, organised and natural in the midrange. Certain CFA characteristics remain, an enlarged and full-bodied vocal presentation and a hefty sub-bass in addition to a slight lower-treble focus. That said, this is undoubtedly their most linear and neutrally toned earphone to date. The titanium shells are gorgeous in finish and design and, despite upping the driver count, are just as comfortable as preceding models. The included case and cable net high marks too. Now the tuning may come across as bright to some, and I’d hesitate to say lean due to the bolstered midrange, but this is surely one of the least bass-focused CFA earphones. Of course, the Andro and Solaris 2020 are very attractive options for buyers wanting more fullness and oomph. As a result of their acoustic design and tuning, they are also especially sensitive to fit depth and source output impedance. However, find a clean, transparent source and the Ara sings brilliantly with detail retrieval and imaging that are highlights even within its premium price range.

The Ara is available from Campfire Audio (International) for $1299 USD at the time of writing. I am not affiliated with Campfire Audio and receive no earnings from purchases through this link.

Track List –

Beck – Mellow Gold

Bob Segar – Night Moves

Brb. – Sorry That I Love You

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit

Crush – NAPPA

Dire Straits – Communique

Dirty Loops – Next To You

Eagles – Hell Freezes Over

Elton John – Honky Chateau

Eric Clapton – Unplugged

Joji – Sanctuary

Nirvana – Nevermind

Pixies – Doolittle

Post Malone – beerbongs & bentleys

Radiohead – OK Computer

Rich Brain – The Sailor

Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Ryan Soo

Ryan Soo

Avid writer, passionate photographer and sleep-deprived medical student, Ryan has an ongoing desire to bring quality products to the regular reader.

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