Campfire Audio's Cascade

It seems oddly fitting that this review is being posted on the one-year anniversary from my first post on this website, for reasons that I think will become clear by the end of this review. Speaking of the anniversary though, I've thrown together some admittedly simple statistics and a bit of reflection that I think might be valuable, and that'll go up in about an hour after this does.

But beyond all that, let's get to the actual review.

Campfire Audio sent me their Polaris IEM a few months back, and I very much enjoyed my time with them, as well as the background I was able to get from Caleb on what exactly they had done, in terms of innovation and improvement, to create the headphone that they had.

But, as soon as I saw an over-ear pop up on their website, I reached back out. The fully closed-back form factor, the minimalistic, but somewhat industrial design, and the price-point - I knew I needed to get my hands on a pair. They shipped out, and I got them on my head. Spoiler (although more so for framing the review): these are my new favorite pair of headphones, and that's likely to be a theme throughout.

Fit and Form

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Pictures fail to convey quite a bit of valuable information about a headphone, and that's what I was waiting to resolve once I got them in my hands. The headphones are incredibly robust, with almost all exterior surfaces being either matte-black anodized aluminum or sheepskin leather. The actuation of the headphone is something that really surprised me. The design is such that adjustments in the points of pressure of the earcup on your head (both horizontally and vertically) stay where you put them. This was something I had yet to see in a headphone that, it turns out, I really like. I feel that it's valuable for those that are irritated by certain positions of an over-ear headphone, just as a result of the shape of their jaw, etc., to be able to position the headphone exactly as they like.

Let's get through accessories real quick before digging into design of the actual headphone, though. Included with the headphones is a very nice, hard leather case. The zippers are black chrome, and the case has a removable leather carrying strap, all tastefully embossed with the Campfire Audio logo and/or name. It's as compact as could be for headphones of this form factor, and can pretty comfortably fit in a backpack.

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The included cable was another surprise. From the pictures, it looked oddly stiff and seemed like it'd be an inconvenience. Quite the opposite is the case, thankfully. The cable is cloth-wrapped, and is very supple - I had no problems with kinking or stiffness. The connector at the signal-end is a 45° 1/8" TRS connector, and is as compact as possible, although there is still space for a CA logo. The splitter is also very minimal, although I don't foresee any longevity problems with either. The connectors at the headphone-end are circular push-pull connectors which feel absolutely great. The tolerances are good, and the rotational orientation-locking mechanism works very well. The click is also very satisfying - all around, great cable. Microphonics were minimal in use, although they can be heard with purposeful effort.

Because of their weight, along with the materials used, the headphones feel extremely premium. They aren't so heavy as to cause sore spots on the top of the head, thankfully, as that was always a complaint of mine on headphones like Audeze's LCD-series (although I'm aware that the Lohb strap can fix that). Comfort is extremely good, as the level of pressure conveyed through the luxurious leather pads is just right for me.

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Speaking of earpads, there's another high point. The pads attach to the earcup with a very robust magnet that snaps them into position, along with an alignment pin on the top. The pads themselves are deep, rectangular, and my pinna fit very comfortably in them, with almost no pressure on them. This attachment system is a high point for me, as I've never been a fan of ring-attached pads, as swapping pads becomes such a chore.

However, it's not pad-rolling that's the motivation for this design - it's something arguably more significant. These headphones include a very cool acoustic element that I haven't personally seen in any other headphone. Speaking of, it turns out that I left out one set of accessories in the above.

Acoustic Design

When you pull the earpad off the earcup, on the face of the pad that connects to the cup, you'll see a hole that looks like a rectangle with a semi-ellipse cut out of its longest edge on one side. Included in the case of the headphones, there's a black envelope which contains four sets of black sheets of the same shape, although slightly larger. These are wrapped in plastic, and are accompanied by a small pamphlet that explains how to use them. They are acoustic filters with varying pore sizes, from 7μm up to 15μm. Depending on which one is used, the user can tune the headphone to their listening preferences - a smaller pore size allows more mid- and low-frequencies to pass through the dampener.

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In the tuning guide, there's an interesting note, which reads, "All included values have acoustic merit and are worth your time to experiment with to find the right sound for you," which I initially found odd. However, having spent a fair amount of time with these headphones, it's a very valid clarification. None of these filters are thrown in there without consideration - CA is being accurate to say that they all hold acoustic merit. The adjustment is not night-and-day, but it's certainly a noticeable change. Each of the filters is good in its own right, and it really is simply a matter of personal preference. I found myself varying between the 7μm and 10μm (the missing option being 12μm).

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The reason I find this so impressive is the following: not only did Campfire Audio properly damp and implement design to make a single, good-sounding headphone, they figured out where the best placement was, what the best size was, and what the best screening material was in order to be able to tune the sound to four fairly different versions, while retaining quality in all of them. Huge props to them for this.

Sound

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In this section, I'll try to give a bit of a picture of what the comparison between the different acoustic dampeners presents as in listening. With all of them, there is a slight bass tilt to the headphones, but with none of them does the bass ever overpower or cloud out the mids. That bass tilt increases fairly noticeably as you step down in pore size, and with the 7μm filter in place, I think that these could at least satisfy the wants of a basshead, although there are those that would still be looking for more.

Detail across all ranges is very good, with almost every small detail with which I've become so acquainted in my test track set coming across with good fidelity and faith to source. Although the soundstage is comparatively small (to most open-back headphones that I've heard), imaging and separation are extremely good. Every track within the mix comes through as distinct and separate, even in extremely busy tracks (see: most of Animals as Leaders discography, as well as much of Snarky Puppy). Something that these headphones do especially well is handling of texture - these headphones presented among the most pleasant rendition of Yosi Horikawa's Wandering EP that I've yet heard.

Leakage is minimal, given the fully closed-back design, and isolation is pretty good. These don't match the likes of any noice-cancelling over-ear, but they certainly do well enough to combat the noise of a busy room.

Something that I'd like to touch on here is that these headphones sounded great off of every source that I ran them through. They sound almost 100% as good out of my Pixel's headphone jack as they do out of Neurochrome's $1299 HP-1. This was great for me, since, when coupled with their relatively high portability, I was able to use them on-the-go just as easily as I was as dedicated, desk headphones.

Note: the remainder of the sound portion is conducted with the 10μm pore size acoustic dampener on the earpads.

Bass

Songs used: Three Ralphs by DJ Shadow, I Never Woke Up in Handcuffs Before by Hans Zimmer, and The Way It Was by Coast Modern

These headphones do bass very well. Although they don't quite match the likes of some very good ortho or biodynamics, they get very close. The first mental note I made was actually that I no longer felt as bad about having sold my personal pair of Fostex's TH-900 Mk II, since these get damn close to matching the sheer thump and force that I got out of those headphones.

In terms of more granular description, with the 10μm filters in place, the bass has very good slam and impact, without losing detail. Although they hammered their way through, "Three Ralphs," showing off some very good sub-bass extension, they don't lose their pace in a faster, more demanding track, like, "I Never Woke Up in Handcuffs Before". As mentioned above, texture generally is very good, and this range is no exception. Because of their speed, these headphones are very good at conveying the subtle and small variances that make a side-chained sawtooth synth so satisfying as a driving bassline.

Key descriptors: detailed, powerful, and controlled

Mids

Songs used: From Darkness by Avishai Cohen Trio, Tadow by FKJ & Masego, and Nocturne (Live) by Julian Lage

The mids are actually the highlight of these headphones for me. They remain detailed enough to find almost every subtlety of the recordings that I know best, but have just the right amount of lushness and flow to them to keep them engaging and pleasant to hear. Vocals of both genders come across as natural, with good detail and clarity. Instrumental lines are well controlled, allowing for good fidelity to source, and an overall sense of pervasive realism in the listening experience. The staging comes through in this range particularly, with instruments and vocals forming an intimate, but very clear picture of where everything was intended to be.

Key descriptors: natural, accurate, and engaging

Treble

Songs used: Ageispolis by Aphex Twin, Whammy by Death Grips, and Helix by Flume

This range serves as a great compliment to the former two. Extension is very good, with almost no peakiness to speak of. All of the detail sensitivity that I refer to above is supported by the quality of this range. I experienced almost no sibilance in my time with these - although these may be my overall favorite pair of headphones, they haven't dethroned the Kaiser Encore as one of few to get a zero-flaw mark in the treble. Cymbals have very good fidelity, with every element of the attack and decay of all types coming through clearly and accurately. Apologies for this always being one of my metrics for this range, but as I've said before, I've usually found it representative of a certain sense of fidelity for a headphone, and it is in this case. Plus, it doesn't hurt that I've got a lot of live exposure to them.

Key descriptors: extended, detailed, and poignant

Wrap-Up

I don't exactly know how to approach this wrap-up section for these headphones. I will admit that my opinion has been somewhat flavored with time, but I feel that the above qualifications of the headphones are accurate to my experience and representative of what motivates my opinion. These truly are a wonderful pair of headphones, and an incredibly impressive first shot at over-ear headphones for a company that has never approached that market before.

Campfire Audio has delivered an extremely competent headphone that is anything but boring. The inclusion of four swappable acoustic dampeners still boggles my mind a little bit, as that acoustic design element is anything but simple. The price point is high, but for that price, Campfire Audio delivers supremely good build quality, with no exposed actuation points, and nothing but the highest-quality materials available. Everything, from the cable to the case to the headphones themselves, screams quality. If what I described above seems like the sound signature, form-factor, and implementation for you, these should be at the top of your list.

Having had these headphones on my head for the past month or so, I could not be more excited to see what Campfire Audio has in store next - maybe an open-back? I can't say, but if they apply the brain and design power that it's clear they have in spades, I'm sure whatever comes next will be everything but anything bad.

Disclaimers

These headphones were provided to me by Campfire Audio. I am not being paid by anyone to write this review, to endorse the product reviewed, or for the content that I put in the review.

These headphones were powered by an Astell&Kern AK Junior, a Google Pixel, a Neurochrome HP-1, and by whatever soundcard is in the motherboard of my computer.

I have had these headphones for about a month, and I have put about 60 hours of analytical listening through them during that period.

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