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Review: Campfire Audio Trifecta

Sound impressions 

If you’ve been reading along, you probably haven’t noticed too much by way of controversy so far. Fear not, things are about to get really interesting. 

It bears repeating here that Trifecta has been intentionally created against convention, to look and sound different to what most other companies are doing at the ‘high-end’. And so, Trifecta indeed sounds very different to any other high-end IEM I’ve heard.

The differences are not isolated to one or two metrics either; Trifecta is quite different across the board. Its combination of peculiar tonal colouration (this is not a reference-tuned IEM, if that’s what you’re after) and technical attributes (exceptional in some, not so much in others) will either delight or disappoint you – probably both. 

I’m going to stick my neck out here and describe Trifecta in the way I’ve been describing it to some like-minded compatriots I’ve been exchanging notes with along the way: Trifecta is a wild stallion.

What does that even mean? For one, it’s utterly unpredictable; I couldn’t say with certainty what a familiar piece of music is going to sound like with Trifecta, until I actually hear it for myself. If you think you can look at how Trifecta graphs and get a clear understanding of how it’s likely to sound, think again.  

Another attribute I associate with the wild stallion metaphor is excitement – or danger, depending on your perspective. Without fail, when I listen with Trifecta, I get a palpable sense of excitement from how it plays back both familiar and unfamiliar music. There’s nothing soft and sedate about it either; this is balls-to-the-wall levels of excitement. 

On the flipside, you get music – and not an insignificant amount of it – that simply doesn’t work with Trifecta. It either clashes with your preferences or particular sensitivities, or simply doesn’t play the way you like to hear it. When this happens, and the ‘stallion’ is bucking up and down like an unhinged demon, you can either get off, or try find ways to calm it down. Persevere without changing anything, and you’re in for a hard fall. 

This type of experience is understandably not for everyone. If your music preferences (and sonic tolerances) align with what Trifecta does best, the result is nothing short of magical. Picture yourself riding bare-footed on a powerful steed, wind in your hair, freshness in your lungs, through a landscape of sonic wonder, and you won’t be far off from how it feels when Trifecta’s on song.  

But oh, if your library happens to consistently pick out some of the mountainous tonal peaks in Trifecta’s tuning, or if your preference is balanced, analytical or technical, there’s no freedom and wonder for you. Think horrified grimace and a sudden, sharp, unflattering fall from grace, into the mud, in front of a crowd of hot-as-sin onlookers you’re desperately trying to impress. It’s not pretty. 

So, what will Trifecta be for you? Let’s get down to brass tacks and find out.

Tonality

I could describe Trifecta’s tonality as U or even moderate V, but that won’t always apply. The overarching attribute of Trifecta’s tonality is its analogue delivery. If you’ve ever heard classic hi-fi systems from the late 1970s and 1980s, think back to that warm, organic sound, never the last word in audiophile reproduction but so lifelike and natural in a delightfully messy sort of way. 

That said, Trifecta is also much cleaner and clearer than those systems, so the comparison is not like-for-like.  

Breaking this down into frequencies, for me, Trifecta is defined first and foremost by its bass response. That’s not really a stretch, given how it effectively portals the energy and air movement of three 10mm dynamic drivers into a single, oversized sonic entity, and nowhere is that more evident than Trifecta’s. bass.

This is a sumptuous, visceral, solid-yet-surprisingly-agile bass that’s bigger, slams harder and rumbles longer than just about every other bass-first IEM I’ve tried (and if you know me, you know I’ve tried most of them). Not even Empire Ears’ mighty Legend X or EVO bass monsters can shock-and-awe like Trifecta can, when she’s in the mood. Nor can FatFreq’s audaciously subwoofer-like Maestro SE move as much air across the stage as Trifecta can, using a tiny fraction of Maestro’s input power too (there’ll be more on these comparisons later). 

Trifecta’s is as close to life-size bass as I’ve heard in an IEM. If all you care about is big bass and nothing else, you’ll get what you came for. But all this power is nothing without control, and that’s where Trifecta earns its keep, for me. This is not some loose, bloated, undirected bass from a cheap woofer. This is bass that can hit as hard as a hammer but also caress as soft as a flower. 

For anyone who’s interested, I’ll include detailed listening notes later in the review, but for now I’ll keep the examples short and sweet. Listen to Lana Del Rey’s masterful A&W off her latest LP and you’ll hear both sides of Trifecta’s skilful bass delivery: the rhythmic punch and decay of the kick drums in the opening act of the track, and the bouncy, bountiful blobs of bass in the second act, which incidentally is the most viscerally satisfying I’ve ever heard it.

Switch up to EDM, like Ilan Bluestone’s Scars, and I just love the energy, weight and texture of the bass in the title track. That’s not to say I love this track on Trifecta, and I’ll get to that later, but as far as the bass performance goes, to my ears it’s faultless. 

But it’s real drums where Trifecta shows its mastery over most other IEMs. From the kick drums in Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing to the toms in Pink Floyd’s Time, Trifecta renders drum hits, attack, decay and timbre as well as anything I’ve heard, and arguably better too. 

If all you want is a monitor for drums, with the caveat that your recording and playback equipment is up to scratch (more on this later), I can honestly say Trifecta’s a good fit. And if, like me, you crave the very best, most powerful, most life-size drum playback available, Trifecta delivers. 

Before we go further up the FR, it’s worth mentioning that Trifecta’s balance between sub- and midbass is spot on too. Because it moves so much air, Trifecta’s sub-bass extension is seemingly infinite. I can feel the most subtle rumble in otherwise bass-devoid tracks far more easily (and enjoyably) with Trifecta than with any other monitor I own, possibly even Maestro. 

But unlike Maestro, Trifecta doesn’t tail off the midbass too soon. You get the punch and slam, and also some of the warmth flowing into the lower midrange, but without the veil that’s usually associated with midbass ‘drone’. This is a more lucid bass than the thickset midbass of FIR Audio’s Xe6, for example, and significantly more present than the midbass level on FIR’s Rn6 and Sony’s Z1R. 

How Trifecta manages to produce so much quality bass and still keep it mostly separated from the other frequencies is anyone’s guess, but it reminds me of how Sennheiser pulls off that trick with its IE900 flagship. You probably get a bit more ‘bleed’ than you would with the Sennheiser, mind you, but it’s not the type of bleed that veils midrange clarity or vocals. 

Speaking of which, Trifecta’s midrange is remarkably natural, almost neutral, despite the bass colouration. I’m not hearing any sort of recess in male or female vocals; if anything, vocals come across perfectly imaged on stage, not too forward, but just close enough to make it easy to pick out the lyrics even in softer performances.  

Trifecta isn’t tuned to follow a flat line, or even a Harman-esque profile; you’re bound to encounter some dips and troughs along the way, and that’s particularly evident in the midrange. That means you’ll want to maximise the recording and mastering quality of your source files, because Trifecta will pick apart and decimate any music that lands on its tonal quirks. 

For example, hotly-recorded vocals like those on Def Leppard’s Hysteria are sadly susceptible to this phenomenon. I’m not quite sure where Joe Elliott’s vocal range peaks, but the way he’s been recorded on this, one of my all-time favourite albums, leaves little place for my ears to hide when I listen with Trifecta. Whether it’s the seminal 90s anthem Rocket, or the quintessential rock ballad Love Bites, when Joe hits his high notes, you’re going to feel it. 

I suspect the issue is a combination of Trifecta’s 5KHz peak (that immediately follows the 3KHz dip), compounded by the 7KHz and 9KHz peaks further on (we’ll get to those nasties later), further compounded by the over-zealous recording levels of this album, in whichever version you happen to own it.

But land on an album with pristine recording quality – let’s use Tool’s Fear Inoculum to more or less keep the genre consistent – and suddenly the vocals, guitar crunches and even cymbal energy is not only delightful to behold, but unquestionably world-class in its presentation. With Fear, I’m turning the volume up rather than down, and that’s testament to how well this wild horse can and does perform.    

There are also some issues with female vocal delivery, but significantly more from the treble overtones, which we’ll get to next, than any midrange quirks, of which there are very few. Myrkur’s Folkensage is a great example of where both good and bad are present; good in the sweetly nuanced and natural timbre of her voice, bad in the occasional close-micced hiss that hits the mid-and-upper treble peaks I’ll get to in a minute. 

Where there’s absolutely no question, in my mind, of Trifecta’s excellence, it’s instrument timbre. From snares to toms, horns to trumpets, guitars both electric and string, and, aptly, pianos, Trifecta nails the tone, speed, weight, and subtle organic nuances in the reproduction of real instruments as well as I’ve heard them before or since. 

Paired with a slightly warmer, naturally-tuned source like HiBy’s RS8 or Sony’s WM1Z (with which Trifecta was tuned, and again, more on that later), and you’ll hear exquisite instrument reproduction in everything from modern jazz to modern classical, and even classic classical. Wood instruments, wind instruments, brass, steel, or string, it doesn’t matter. 

As such, I find Trifecta’s midrange excellence dovetails with its bass performance as the one-two punch that defines its tonal character. The issues I’ve highlighted above are not necessarily midrange issues in and of their own, but rather artefacts from the choppy waters that represent Trifecta’s treble response. 

For me, treble is where Trifecta will either sink or swim with your music library. It’s a strange beast of a treble in that it can be so good with some music, and so harsh with others. Most of the ‘issues’ with Trifecta’s treble are centred around the 7KHz to 9KHz region, where you’ll find two substantial and rather abrupt peaks. When you get music with a lot of brass instruments, high-pitched vocals, or compressed dynamics, the result is a hard, often ‘metallic’ sound in the upper registers, that sometimes permeates downwards into the upper midrange. 

I’ve already used any example of this above, in Def Leppard’s Hysteria album. Because the vocals are recorded so hot, and the production itself leans bright, Trifecta does it no favours in exposing the harshness, which, if you’re sensitive to it, will dominate the performance. Likewise, a treble-heavy album like Ilan Bluestone’s Scars will have segments where the sheer volume of mid-treble dominates the production and spoils the broth, so to speak. 

On the flipside, give it well-recorded material with pristine treble mastering and Trifecta will reward you with a clear, precise treble delivery that’s full of sparkle. Take Alphaville’s Forever Young, for example, an album with dominating high-frequency synths on many of its tracks. While Trifecta calls attention to these ‘highlights’, notably on Sounds Like A Melody, it doesn’t cross the line to harshness, and instead presents a vivid, lively versions that’s as enjoyable as I’ve heard it.   

With reference recordings like Rebecca Pidgeon’s sublime The Raven, not only is Trifecta’s treble on point, it’s a perfect complement to the recordings, lending them clarity, sparkle and air in abundance. Interestingly, even when it’s harsh, Trifecta’s treble generally steers clear of sibilance, which would normally be present – but isn’t – on tracks like Alanis Morissette’s Univited and Missy Higgins’ Shark Fin Blues

I’ll talk more about taming Trifecta’s treble later in the review, but from what I’m hearing, the problems I’ve encountered mainly show up in treble-forward tracks that are either poorly recorded or highly compressed. That’s no excuse, of course, given that many other high-end IEMs manage to avoid these pitfalls, but Trifecta is no ordinary high-end IEM, nor does it have the luxury of ‘multiple drivers’ in the true sense of the term to decouple the treble tuning from its main focus areas of bass and midrange.

Ken puts it best when he explains the choices that were made in tuning Trifecta:

“There was a lot of give and take [in tuning Trifecta’s] high frequency versus mid and low. You can’t move one portion of the FR without affecting the other. So yeah, it was a delicate balance. Campfire and all my designs are centred around a foundational philosophy of not using any or many passive components to manipulate the electroacoustic output of the drivers.  Basically my theory, or mantra, is to let free horses run free. They just need to be tamed via physical spatial tricks. The moment you add a bunch of garbage in the signal path all the magic is gone.” 

Reading between the lines, Ken concedes that Trifecta’s tuning has compromises, and to my ear, those compromises manifest almost entirely in the treble. It’s as if there was no space to spread out the bold tonal swings he created for Trifecta, so they mostly bunched up in the treble. As far as compromises go, it’s not ideal – considering most of us are more sensitive to treble anomalies than any other – but conversely when the tuning hits just right with the right material, the ‘magic’ is there to hear in abundance. 

Bottom line, if you’re extremely sensitive to treble peaks, or have a library that exposes the upper-frequency metallic hardness that you’ll hear with certain types of music, Trifecta might not be the right choice for you. 

That said, if a large portion of your library avoids these pitfalls, there’s plenty of room to enjoy what Trifecta has to offer as a complement to other high-end transducers. After all, it’s not like Trifecta is the first ‘specialist’ IEM that does some things really well and others not. That it does so unashamedly just means it’s harder to avoid.

Technicalities

One of the most ‘misunderstood’ aspects of Trifecta, in my opinion, is its technical performance. Of all the criticisms I’ve read online or heard in person, Trifecta’s apparent lack of technical acuity, at least compared to other IEMs in its price tier, is its glaring flaw.

So you can imagine that it came as somewhat of a surprise to me when, after several sessions with Trifecta both pre- and post-burn-in, not only was I hearing excellent technicalities – a least of the sort that matter to me – but in some metrics I’d rate Trifecta among the best I’ve heard, at any price. 

The first of these is soundstage. I’ll confidently say that, with the right material, Trifecta casts the largest stage I’ve personally heard with an IEM – and that includes the venerable Sony Z1R that’s held the soundstage title against all-comers, until now. 

So wide, tall and deep is that stage on tracks like The Eagles live rendition of Hotel California, or just about any track off Amber Rubarth’s brilliant binaural recording of Sessions from The 17th Ward, that sounds literally emanate outside my head and all around me. It’s the closest I’ve come to hearing what truly holographic sounds like in an IEM.  

Following on from staging, Trifecta also delivers when it comes to pinpoint imagingseparation and layering. All three metrics are top-of-class, in my opinion. Imaging in particular is exceptional, with the caveat that the tonal compromises I covered in depth tend to rear their heads when the music gets particularly complex or aggressive. It’s usually at that point that both me and Trifecta lose focus, so keep this in mind if you think you’re going to pick out a butterfly flapping its wings in the middle of a metal jam session with these. 

Yet another technical home run is dynamics: Trifecta can be positively explosive, particularly on tracks like Hans Zimmer’s Mountains that use massive volume swings to create dramatic contrast. While Trifecta’s drivers may not be quite as nimble as say BA woofers, they still have incredible control, and can stop and start on a dime when it’s called for. 

Where Trifecta lags against some of its pricey competitors is speed and, to some extent, resolution. The former is not necessarily an issue, unless you primarily listen to fast-paced and/or aggressive music, like EDM, hard rock and metal. Even then, there are plenty of examples in these genres I can give you that Trifecta excels at. 

The point is, there are better options out there if you’re after pure speed, and it’s rare to find a single dynamic driver IEM that’s as fast as a BA/planar/estat hybrid, let alone a triple driver.

The latter is a contentious one. There are plenty of tracks, like Heidi Talbot’s close-micced Cathedrals, and Brandi Carlile’s The Story, where vocal resolution and micro-detailing is nothing short of excellent. I do think Trifecta lacks some last-mile resolution in its treble delivery, and also tends to push back some upper treble overtones in cymbals and other high-pitched instruments and synths, so you’ll generally ‘hear’ them as sitting behind these instruments or elements. 

On sparser tracks or slower music, I think Trifecta is excellent with both macro and micro detailing. It’s tuned for clarity and contrast, which is easier to pick out in less complex arrangements. 

Slow jazz, small ensemble orchestras, singer-songwriter acoustic music, binaural recordings – these are where Trifecta excels, and where its resolving prowess never comes into question. Throw treble-laden 140BPM EDM or thrash metal at it, and you’ll struggle to see the wood for the trees.

In summary, do I think Trifecta is an excellent technical performer? Yes. Do I think it’s the most technically accomplished IEM in its price range? Absolutely not. But unlike some would have you believe, Trifecta is not technically stunted, at least not with the music that maters to me. 

Continue to Taming Trifecta…

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Picture of Guy Lerner

Guy Lerner

An avid photographer and writer 'in real life', Guy's passion for music and technology created the perfect storm for his love of portable audio. When he's not playing with the latest and greatest head-fi gear, he prefers to spend time away from the hobby with his two (almost) grown kids and wife in the breathtaking city of Cape Town, and traveling around his native South Africa.

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