The Ara is the latest model from Campfire Audio – positioned just between the Andromeda and Solaris in their product line. While that might make you expect something similar to either of those, it’s not so much like the sweet and addicting Andromeda, nor is it like the balanced, but powerful Solaris. The Ara is something else entirely with unique characteristics that set it apart from the rest of Campfire Audio’s lineup.
Build and Design
The Ara shares a familiar general shape with the Andromeda, IO, and several other members of Campfire Audio’s lineup. Its shell is solid titanium, and it sports a raw titanium finish which should prove to be scratch resistant and hold up well. I’m always a bit nervous plugging and unplugging MMCX connectors, but the connectors on the Ara and the included cable seem quite sturdy.
The Ara comes with a variety of eartips and Campfire Audio’s latest headphone case is actually made out of cork – a durable, more sustainable alternative to traditional leather. The inside is lined with faux wool, and, combined with the other small protective bag that is included, should do a good job keeping your IEMs safe.
There are a lot of great adjectives and lots of audiophile jargon that I could use to describe the Ara (and I’ll probably do some of that in a minute), but first let me describe what listening to the Ara is like.
You place the IEMs into your ears, and close your eyes.
You are now floating in space, surrounded by nothingness.
You press play on your music.
Around you, musicians and instruments materialize.
You shift your focus around, and isolate each instrument one by one.
Each note is clear and articulate.
Each instrument and voice is clearly placed in your field of view.
You pull your focus back.
The sound of the full ensemble washes over you.
Each sound and each voice remains separate, but they all coherently blend together into one voice, one song.
The Ara is without a doubt designed for the careful, focused listener. Complex harmonies are unwrapped revealing the underlying simplicity. Ambient soundscapes are unfurled as each component can be isolated by your ears, and then rolled back up into the whole. The transparency, spacious soundstage, and accurate imaging give the Ara an incredible revealing character. The balanced tuning ensures that nothing is lost and that no single element overpowers the others.
One of my favorite albums to test the full dynamic range and articulation of headphones is Devin Townsend’s Empath, and I don’t think that anything I’ve reviewed yet has managed to remain coherent through the chaotic “Genesis” and subsequently deliver the emotional highs of the operatic “Why?” as well as Ara has.
The Ara’s strengths make it very versatile and enjoyable to listen to across different genres, and for various types of classical music, progressive rock, and some more complex classic or alternative rock the Ara absolutely shines. It’s fantastic for any song or genre where you want to pick out the small nuances of individual performances or pick apart the layers of sound or voices. That said, it probably won’t be my top pick when I want to revisit The Clash’s discography, or for an afternoon filled with 90s hip hop.
Mini-review: Astell&Kern SR25
My primary sources for testing the Ara were the Astell&Kern SR25 and SR700. The SR25 is part of the A&Norma series and a couple steps down from the SA700, but it still has the same Astell&Kern magic. While the output wasn’t quite as refined as the SA700, the SR25 has a very similar sound profile and output.
The SR25 has a highly stylized exterior, but internally it’s a barebones, no nonsense player.
The main player supports a broad range of formats at varying bitrates, including MQA and 32-bit DSD up to 384KHz. It also includes the TIDAL app, but you must use the Open APP service to “side-load” anything else that you want on there. The interface for switching between apps is also a little unintuitive, but ultimately, this isn’t intended to be an all-in-one multimedia device.
Speaking of the exterior, the design is going to be hit or miss for most people. The device has an aluminum body with the screen positioned slightly diagonally. This means that while the length and width are about the size of a small smartphone (and it’s about twice the thickness of your average phone), the screen is a bit smaller than you might expect. It definitely looks cool, and if you want a player that really stands out, this might be the look for you.
Simply put, it’s got top notch hardware, it looks crazy, it’s light, and it’s got a long battery life: if you’re looking for a pure music player with a fantastic DAC/Amp built into it, at a good price, then SR25 might be what you’re looking for.
The Bottom Line
I really enjoyed my time with the Ara, and while I tend to prefer “fun,” more bassy tunings, the Ara is such an excellent execution of balanced, neutral IEMs, it helped me enjoy songs in a new light. The Ara sounds absolutely stunning and it has a transparent, revealing character. Combine that with the brilliant soundstage and imaging, and you have IEMs that can make listening to songs you’ve heard a million times into a new transcendent experience.