Hands-on review: Campfire Audio X Astell & Kern Pathfinder earphones
The Pathfinder earphones, or IEMs (in-ear monitors), are a collaboration between premium earphone manufacturer Campfire Audio and the high-fidelity digital audio system gurus at Astell - Kern.
When I first read up on the Pathfinder earphones, I felt incredibly underqualified to review what are, quite possibly, the most prestigious audio devices that I've been asked to review. One thing stood out and that was the price tag, a breathtaking US$1,899 from the US Astell - Kern site.
I don't really have anything that deserves to have two grand earphones plugged into it. But that's not to say that I'm a philistine when it comes to audio. In fact, I'm pretty fussy when it comes to sound reproduction and can pick up a rattling speaker or pop annoyingly well.
So, with the above in mind, I opened the wonderfully well-presented Campfire Audio X Astell - Kern Pathfinder box, pulled out the earphones (already connected to the correct 3.5mm jack cable), and plugged them into a PlayStation 5 controller. Whilst this may upset the corduroy-wearing audiophiles out there, it's a pretty good test. The audio in modern games is engineered in a manner that puts most studio-recorded tracks to shame. It's an ever-changing soundtrack designed to surround the player and immerse them in a world that has cost millions of dollars to realise.
But let's rewind a bit.
The Pathfinder IEMs arrive in a rather nicely laid out presentation box, as you should expect for devices that, according to the Campfire Audio site, are hand finished in their Oregon workshop. The box contains little sleeves with warranty and serial number cards inside, and the actual earphones are on display ready for use with a cable and 3.5mm jack. Removing the top layer of the box reveals a zippered leather carry case, two storage pouches, a selection of earphone tips, a cleaning tool, and alternative cables.
The selection of earphone tips is very impressive, guaranteeing even though with the most unique of ear channels a perfect fit. There are five pairs of Final Audio E-Type tips (XS/S/M/L/XL), three pairs of Campfire Audio Marshmallow Tips (S/M/L), and three pairs of silicon tips.
Whilst you are likely to bundle the earphones and your favourite cable(s) straight into the beautiful leather case (or just slipped in your pocket- you heathen), that's not what is intended for such prestigious devices. There is a large pouch big enough to accommodate the three supplied cables and another for the earpieces. The two pouches can then be snuggly placed in the zipped case all safe and sound.
About those cables. Rather than tangly bits of wire wrapped in plastic, the Pathfinder's cables are more akin to those of high-end speakers.
This is not surprising considering manufacturing top-end audio cables is where Campfire Audio has its origins. The left and right twisted silver wires rest alongside each other, covered in a clear plastic sheath. This makes the cables lay flat making them easier to roll up and less likely to tangle. Whilst the cables are a bit bulky compared to their cheaper-looking counterparts, it's a perfect example of function over form and the sacrifice you make for quality.
The earpiece end of each cable has a rigid plastic covering that nicely shapes them around your ears. If there is any doubt on which side fits which ear, there is a tiny “L” and “R” on the metal ends of the cable. Cables connect to the earpieces by a rounded clip but, as I mentioned, the most common 3.5mm jack cable is connected for you, already.
The dedicated mesh pouch has separate compartments for each of the earpieces. These can be detached from the cables with an assertive, yet careful tug.
The earpieces have a solid aluminium shell. They are not too heavy but feel very robust. They fit very comfortably in your ears and, with the aid of the ear-shaped part of the cable, are unlikely to pop out. The back of each earpiece has an interesting design that sets them apart from other earphones.
Using the Pathfinder earpieces with the PlayStation 5, I started playing Sony's Horizon: Forbidden West, an open-world game packed with ambient environment audio and a rousing soundtrack. Not only was I able to decern sounds that were just not audible using the TV's speakers more overt noises were recreated so well that on occasion I thought they were real knocking sounds coming from outside my office room. Rotating the in-game camera around the main character, Aloy, unleashed a similarly rotating 3D audio extravaganza on my ears. Not a pop or distortion to be heard, only pure audio just as the audio engineers intended.
For another test, this time on a PC, using my faithful EPOS GSX 300 external soundcard, a played a selection of uncompressed AIFF music files that have been hiding on my hard drive for just such an occasion. The likes of Blue Man Group thundering through the Pathfinder earbuds not only tested their excellent bass but also highlighted just how much we've lost in giving ourselves over to compressed MP3s and streamed audio. Even using the Pathfinders plugged straight into a PC with the last remaining CD player in the house, the audio was shockingly crisp and defined.
As much as I'd like to poo-poo these very expensive Campfire Audio X Astell - Kern Pathfinder IEMs, I can honestly say that I can't find fault in them. Not only do they look very stylish, but they are also exemplary in their job of high-quality audio reproduction.
Having been designed for listening to quality audio recordings and not taking telephone calls, the Pathfinder earphones have no phone functions like volume controls, etc. The earphones are intended to be used with Astell - Kern's range of high-resolution audio devices, thus plugging them into a phone to listen to lossy MP3 or streamed audio is not doing them justice.
The Campfire Audio X Astell - Kern Pathfinder IEMs offer superior audio reproduction, of that I've no doubt. Whether or not they offer two-thousand dollars of superior audio reproduction will very much depend on the depths of your pockets. I will tell you this, though, I've never used earphones with such crisp audio clarity. The manufacturing also seems to be of exceptionally high quality, especially compared to other earphones. The inclusion of the storage pouches and the very nice-looking leather case rounds off a rather exquisite package. My time with the Pathfinder IEMs was a rare pleasure, indeed.