Last year, Campfire Audio and Astell&Kern combined their powers to deliver the excellent limited edition Solaris X, and now they’re back at it with Pathfinder. Solaris X took the original Campfire Solaris design and refined it into a three-driver hybrid, and Pathfinder comes in with a set of three all-new drivers to build on the legacy of the two brands’ collaboration. So does Pathfinder deliver a proper sized helping of both Campfire Audio’s creative IEM sound design and Astell&Kern luxurious fit and finish?
Build, Design, and Packaging
Pathfinder’s package is very generous: inside the box you have the IEMs, a case, various pouches, three varieties of ear tips (all in small, medium, and large), and three silver plated copper MMCX cables. The cables provide you with the three primary terminations for IEMs: 2.5mm, 3.5mm, and 4.4mm to ensure maximum compatibility with all your devices. The case is the leather-like cork material that Campfire Audio has been using lately with a fleece interior. The provided eartips are Final E-series, Campfire Audio Marshmallow, and wider bore silicone tips.
The IEMs themselves have a black aluminum vented shell that evokes Campfire’s Solaris with a stainless steel faceplate featuring the signature angles of Astell&Kern. The overall fit and feel is similar to the Solaris 2020, with a rounded, ergonomic fit, and nozzles that have a moderate depth and width. The cables feature an interesting flat design, which sees all four cable cores running parallel in a slightly stiff molding. It’s a unique look and feel which does seem fairly tangle resistant, and feels on par or better than the typical stock cables in this price range from most major IEM brands.
Pathfinder has a smooth, natural sound with a wide, spacious presentation. My first impressions of Pathfinder was that it just sounds “right” to my ears. There’s a little bit of emphasis in the bass, but not in a way that feels bloated or exaggerated, and a little bit of smoothness in the highs, but not in a way that feels veiled or poorly defined. The midrange is surprisingly present with no significant recessions like you often find in hybrid IEMs.
The bass is deep, with the feeling of a slow slope up from a more neutral midbass into stronger subbass. This configuration works particularly well with hip-hop electronic music, as the midbass remains articulate while maintaining the necessary bass presence. With genres like rock and metal, the bass is fast, tight, and articulate.
In the midrange, you get a strong vocal presentation with just the slightest lean towards a warm timbre. Pianos, guitars, cellos, and the like are brilliantly highlighted with good layering and separation in ensemble performances. The treble extends well, but with a little bit of the edge taken off and smoothed out a bit.
The soundstage is wide and three-dimensional – among the best I’ve heard in an IEM. And the imaging is strong as well, with good placement of instruments and a good sense of space around each one.
The opening chords of “Paradise City” by Guns and Roses have a warm jangle, and the drum hits with a solid impact, front and center. The vocals layers are crisp with a good sense of blending combined with a clear separation. The main guitar riff has a fiery energy and the bass doubling it has clear texture and articulation. Through all of this, Pathfinder is equally deft at letting you analyze each aspect of the production and making you just want to rock out.
There’s a good sense of air and texture in the opening moments of Colin Stetson’s “Reborn ”as layers of woodwinds pulse in a sort of relaxed polyrhythm. As the dynamics swell, and a mix of synthesizers join the wash of clarinets and oboes, it’s all topped by an avant garde saxophone solo. Pathfinder captures the texture of the instruments and delivers cohesive layers of sound. The bit of smoothness at the top helps balance out the more cacophonous moments, keeping the dissonance from becoming painful or hard to listen to.
Pathfinder delivers impact and rumble of epic proportions on Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” The overall instrumentation and production is sparse, with minimal background vocals, and a piano sample supporting the main vocals. Again, while you can sit back and analyze each element of the track – from the placement of the backing vocals in the image to the texture of the piano – or you can just let the bass shake your brain out of your ears.
“Moonlight In Vermont” with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong is absolutely sublime with Pathfinder. The upright bass is rich and textured, while the piano adds spritely accents to each line. Ella’s voice is forward with a rich, yet relaxed tone. When Armstrong’s trumpet comes in, it sounds natural and live, and Pathfinder captures the rough texture of his voice expertly.
Most of my listening was done on the Astell&Kern HC2 and the KANN Max, and I also listened with the iBasso DX320 and RME ADI-2 DAC a bit. The HC2 is a perfect match for the Pathfinder if you prefer a smoother, warmer tone, as it accentuates those aspects of the sound. With KANN Max and DX320, you get a more neutral overall sound and stronger mids, while the RME ADI-2 really enhanced the imaging over the other options, while also delivering rich, full midrange.
Comparison: 64 Audio U12t ($1999), Noble Audio Jade ($1199)
At the $1899 price point, the one comparison we absolutely had to make is the 64 Audio U12t, and the Noble Audio Jade seemed like another good comparison. Jade is a five-driver hybrid that also has some sonic similarities to the Campfire Audio Solaris, with which Pathfinder shares some DNA with, making it an interesting comparison all around.
In terms of the build and design, each is very different. Jade has a resin shell with a more ornate faceplate, while U12t has a more industrial aluminum design. Pathfinder hits somewhere in between with a combination of aluminum and stainless steel that might seem more industrial at first, but that’s crafted with a higher degree of artistry than the U12t.
In terms of sound, all three share some characteristics and have some overlap in the tuning, but there’s a lot of nuance that separates each of them. Overall, all three are somewhere in the range of a Harman, soft-V, or warm-neutral tuning. The big differences come down to the balance in the midrange, the level of perceived resolution and treble performance, and the bass impact.
Pathfinder has the strongest midrange of the three, with the most lifelike vocal presentation along with the best feeling of texture in the bass. Jade has a similar feeling of texture in the bass, but lacks the vocal presence of Pathfinder. U12t just has a little less weight in the midrange in general. In the bass, Jade has the most impact, but it can’t match the U12t’s speed. Pathfinder has the speed of the U12t, but with stronger impact and dynamics in the bass.
Where U12t really shines is in the soundstage and the treble performance. U12t gives you noticeably more air, and the best sense of resolution of the three. Pathfinder is close, while being a little bit more reserved in the treble, while Jade can’t match the soundstage, imaging, and resolution of U12t or Pathfinder.
Overall, Pathfinder is very competitive with the U12t, and the difference largely comes down to whether you want that little bit more emphasis and performance coming out of the highs in the U12t, or the stronger low mids and bass of the Pathfinder. Considering that Jade is $700 less than Pathfinder and $800 less than U12t, it also provides a great option for anyone looking for a slightly warm, musical sounding IEM that doesn’t stray too far from an accurate, neutral sound.
The Bottom Line
Pathfinder has some similarities to Campfire Audio’s longtime flagship Solaris and last year’s Solaris X, but this is something different. There’s an extra layer of refinement, both in the physical design and in the tuning. In the end, Campfire Audio’s engineering and design combined with a little Astell&Kern magic has delivered a truly special IEM, and one of the best new IEMs of 2022.