Campfire Audio Vega IEMs & ALO Audio Reference 8 Cable
It’s not unusual to find a headphone or IEM manufacturer to branch out into making their own amps, and then their own cables, but Ken Ball is one of two people who have gone in reverse, at first making after-market headphone cables, then amps and DACs, and now IEMs, of which the Vega is the flagship dynamic.
To that end he has been quite successful with his range of balanced-armature IEMs, topped by the Andromeda. It was to my great surprise to hear that he had designed a range of dynamic IEMs as well.
When I go to the Tokyo Headphone festivals, I get asked to try a LOT of gear. I don’t doubt that I could come home from the show, if I desired, with a few dozen pairs of IEMs if I desired. Not only would I have to review them all, but I’d probably have to do so not liking many of them. Out of everything I try, very little ends up inspiring me enough that I’d want to, and feel good recommending them. In the case of the Vegas, my first impressions at the show were overwhelmingly positive, so I immediately asked Ken if I could review a pair.
The pair used in this review is the same one that Anakchan reviewed, after which he sent them to me.
Similarly when I first tried Dita Audio’s The Answer I was impressed by what they’d managed to get out of a single dynamic driver. However I felt that the best results had been from Tralucent Audio’s 1plus2, which combined a dynamic with a balanced armature. At the time I still hadn’t heard treble as good as one could get from a well-designed balanced armature IEM. The Tralucent was no doubt helped by the quality cable which cost more than the IEMs themselves.
That is one area where Campfire Audio did well with their range: The cables. I’ve had too many pairs of IEMs that didn’t shine until the cable was upgraded, most often because they turned green inside and the sound became harsh and unpleasant. No such problems with the Andromedas which have a sweet treble that previously I’d only experienced on top-of-the-line IEMs from JH Audio and Ultimate Ears.
One area the dynamic driver IEMs have a great advantage is in the bass delivery. They seem to be able to deliver both quantity and quality at the same time. As well, they don’t have to be large, so a single dynamic driver IEM can be simpler and even smaller, which is true in the case of the Vega versus the Andromeda. That leaves us with the actual technology. From the Campfire Audio site, the Vega has:
– World’s First 8.5mm non-crystalline Diamond Dynamic Driver
– World’s First Liquid Alloy Metal Earphone Housing
– Highest sound conduction velocity of any IEM driver
– Premium Litz Wire cable; Silver-plated-Copper Conductors
Adding to that is the beryllium copper MMCX connector intended to ensure a reliable cable connection over a longer time (not that, given the quality of the stock cable, you need to ever replace it for sonic reasons at least) and Ken’s focus on hand-checking everything carefully for quality and you have what comes across as a very seriously designed and made product.
Given the impressive-sounding features, I’m almost surprised (but glad) he didn’t charge $2000 for it, given the market.
If I appreciate the attitude of the manufacturer, it’s because I also appreciate the result. Let me put it in perspective. Not long ago I reviewed the $50 Meze 11, another single-dynamic-driver IEM, which has no right to be as capable as it is, let alone as well-made. It was capable of picking out the difference between DAPs over and under $1000. Now imagine I’m just as surprised by the Vegas, as $1,200. Everything I’ve disliked about dynamic-driver IEMs isn’t there.
The ergonomics, to start with, are pretty good for comfort but a bit troublesome when trying to get them to stay in place. Much smaller than the Andromedas, and more round, they are pretty small. The ear-tip section of the housing is plastic, and angled forward slightly (assuming the plugs point forward from one’s ears) for the optimum insertion direction. The endlessly swivelling MMCX connector is a bit annoying. I find that I have to use the choker to hold the cable in place. This is troublesome on the optional Reference 8 cable as it is too thick for the choker to slide easily and so I have to rely on the memory wire. As my ears sometimes have issues getting a good seal with silicon tips, it takes me a bit of fiddling if I don’t want to lose all the bass, which is what happens with a dynamic driver IEM.
By default, the Vegas come with long-nozzle foam tips, and default to a particular sound as a result. Initial impressions are of thundering bass. If you listen to anything with a strong bass line, look out if you turn the volume up. The bass is clean with precision and doesn’t interfere with the mids in more than quantity. Compared with other tips, the treble is let down slightly by the long nozzles. The overall tone reminds me of the Fostex TH900s, but with more detail.
Switching to SpinFit tips doesn’t change things much, as the nozzle width is similar, but may be more comfortable. The real changes came with JVC’s Spiral Dot tips, which use a series of indents on the inside to reduce sound turbulence. The treble is brought out more and presented more cleanly, but ends up a bit stronger than ideal. The thunder is also turned down a degree. While sibilance comes out in tracks, the quality of the treble is good enough with this combination that it didn’t end up bothering me where it usually might.
Upgrading to the Reference 8 cable spreads the tonal balance out more, making it more even, especially with the Spiral Dot tips. Then the result is a quite spacious, somewhat v-shaped sound with delicious treble, still with quite a strong bass presence but without as much intrusion as before.
Clarity at this point, no doubt emphasised by the treble, is on a degree that I found it easier to distinguish the differences in some gear using the Vegas and Reference 5 than the HE1000 V2 and Studio Six, even if for enjoyment I’d rather listen with full-size headphones. For example, using my Pico Power as the amp, the dead-neutral and slightly forward presentation of the amp is clear versus the more relaxed and subtle Continental V5. When it came to battling off the Cozoy Rei with Chord’s Hugo, the characteristics of each were readily more apparent listening with the Vegas. Not to mention, the difference between my iPhone direct and via the Mojo was startling.
Until recently I didn’t think that dynamic-driver IEMs could be as good as what I have experienced with the Vegas, which makes them another sure hit for Ken.