Cascade is Campfire Audio’s first foray into the world of over-ear headphones. Having made their name with top rated IEMs like Andromeda and Solaris, the Cascade launched with the goal of putting some of that Campfire earphone mojo into a set of headphones. The result? Read on to find out.
Build and Design
The Cascade has a simple, durable design. The core construction is primarily aluminum and steel, with leather for the earcups and on the headband. The Cascade is closed back and designed to be portable. It can fold in on itself when not in use to greatly reduce its footprint. The closed back design and look of the Cascade is perfect for a variety of uses outside the home. If you have a city commute, it has a relatively small footprint and doesn’t have the flashy look of many high end headphones. In the office, its strong sound isolation will keep distractions out, and will keep you from distracting the guy in the next cubicle over.
The packaging is like a scaled up version of Campfire Audio’s standard earphone box. The leather case looks and feels premium, with the wool interior adding to its luxurious appointments. The cable has a flexible cloth coating and is generally tangle resistant – though not as resistant as many higher end braided cables.
If you’ve read anything about the Cascade, you probably know that it’s a bit bassy. This is true. My first impression was that it was like “Beats by Dre: Audiophile Edition,” but that’s not a fair analysis. There are a lot of things to like about the Cascade other than it being all about that bass. For one, it has a very spacious soundstage for a closed back headphone under $1000, and also generally solid imaging. The tuning is more v-shaped than bassy: while the mids are recessed, the treble peaks at similar levels to the bass. And the mids, while recessed, still provide plenty of detail.
Cascade is definitely a headphone that warrants a discussion of amps, DACs, and source audio up front. It’s easily driven by a variety of sources, but the sound signature is more heavily affected by poor quality sources than most headphones. Basically, if you plug them into a source like your average phone, and use file formats that aren’t providing a lot of detail to the headphones, you end up with a muddy low end dominating the mix. Upgrade from your phone to something like the humble iBasso DX160 with a Spotify Premium stream, and the Cascade suddenly becomes more balanced with a pleasant warmth that accentuates the low end, rather than a muddy bass that dominates the mix. Drive them off a high end source like an Astell&Kern SE200 with high resolution audio and you’ll find crystal clear highs with good detail, bass emphasis, and solid low end physicality. For the majority of my testing I used the DX160, iFi micro iDSD, and a bit of the SE200.
As you might presume based on the tuning, Cascade is excellent for modern rock, pop, and EDM, but it’s also more than just its tuning as its technical capabilities, speed, and dynamics make it a good pick for more complex genres. On progressive metal titans Pain of Salvation’s “Accelerator,” the intro grabs you right away with thick chugging guitars working in tandem with the bass and drums in a furiously syncopated riff. Each hit of the riff generates a tight punch. When the song opens up for a minute to highlight the vocals, they come through clear and emotional, and as it builds to a climax – with the syncopated low end playing counterpoint with synthesizer arpeggios and multiple vocal parts – Cascade delivers with huge dynamics while keeping the various layers coherent.
On Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds’ live acoustic performance of “Satellite,” the Cascade demonstrates that in addition to delivering power and impact, it can provide a more intimate feeling. While the overall instrument timbre seemed a bit dark, there’s still a touch of brightness in the acoustic guitars, and Dave’s voice has a warm rich quality. The interplay between the two guitars is captured well and the Cascade’s imaging does a good job of providing a feeling of the stage positioning and bouncing the guitar licks back and forth between your ears.
I imagine that songs like the Red Hot Chili Peppers “Give it Away” weren’t far from the minds of the engineers at Campfire Audio as they designed the Cascade. Flea’s deft fingerwork on the bass mixing a variety of techniques including slides and slapping is all perfectly delivered. The drums have a solid impact with a bit of sizzle in the cymbals and a nice pop in the snare. The funky guitar lick provides punctuation through the song, and when you put it all together the Cascade delivers an excellent ensemble performance.
On Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream,” from the start of the song the bass hits you right between the ears with a soul shaking rumble. The vocals are slightly recessed but still clear and nicely textured. As more instruments are added and the bassline becomes more active, the details are all coherent and nicely layered. Again on the drums, the Cascade strikes a nice balance between providing physicality in the low end and providing nice details in the cymbals and snare.
Comparison: Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2 Closed
In the discussion of “best audiophile portable closed-back headphones under $1000,” the Cascade’s main competition is the Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2 Closed. From an aesthetic and functional standpoint, these two headphones have a lot in common. Both are portable headphones that fold up nicely to fit in a reasonably small carrying case. Both are closed-back designs to provide good isolation for travel or the office, and both have fairly understated looks that don’t scream “$1000 HEADPHONES!!” So how do they stack up?
In terms of pure portability, both are excellent, but the Aeon 2 has a slight edge. It folds up a little smaller, the case is smaller (a perhaps a bit more cleverly designed), and it has a little bit more space for your ears which makes it easier to get a good seal and optimal isolation. However, while the Aeon 2 is very cleverly designed, I’d give the Cascade higher marks for overall construction and aesthetics. It simply looks and feels more like a premium product.
In terms of the sound, they’re definitely different animals. The Aeon 2 is on the warm end of neutral while the Cascade has a more bass centric v-shaped tuning. To my ears the Aeon 2 has great technical aspects, but it’s a little boring. Even if you don’t love the extra bass, the Cascade feels more dynamic and exciting.
Overall, both headphones demonstrate excellent portable design and sound quality, but to my taste, the bassy, brash, exciting Cascade is what I’d want with me on a plane ride or a city commute. Fans of more balanced, neutral headphones might prefer the more down to earth, but less dynamic Aeon 2.
The Bottom Line
The Cascade is more than just a set of bassy cans – they have the soundstage, dynamics, treble, and detail as well – but they are definitely bassy cans. If you like bass and you’re in the market for premium, portable headphones that look, feel, and sound like a thousand bucks (even if they don’t quite cost a thousand bucks), the Campfire Audio Cascade should be at the top of your list.