Have you ever listened to a pair of cheap earbuds that were all bass, bloat and congestion, with no detail, and thought, “these are really terrible, but they’re also kind of fun to listen to?” With the Campfire Polaris it almost seems like someone said, “let’s make some IEMs that are all bass, but without the bloat and congestion! We can even throw in some detail!”
Build and Design
The Polaris’s design and packaging fits right in with the rest of Campfire’s lineup. Coming in a simple square package, it includes a Smoky Litz cable, a leather case, a selection of eartips (Final silicone tips and Campfire “Marshmallow” foam tips), and a cleaning tool. The IEMs themselves have the same angular shape as other Campfire IEMs like the Andromeda and Ara – the Polaris being “Cerulean” blue with black hardware.
The Polaris is a dual-driver hybrid design with one balanced armature and one dynamic driver. It uses many of the same proprietary Campfire Audio technologies as Campfire’s more expensive IEMs: the Tuned Acoustic Chamber (T.E.A.C) and Polarity Tuner Chamber, as well as beryllium MMCX connectors. In terms of construction and presentation, Campfire provides the same premium materials design and presentation from the top of the line all the way down the full lineup.
The Campfire Polaris’s sound is built around its dominant bass response. It has incredible impact and power, but it sacrifices quite a bit of presence in the mids and treble to achieve that. What separates the Polaris from cheaper headphones with a similar signature is that while many earphones have a lot of bass, that bass is muddy and bloated. In addition, many bassy headphones and IEM don’t just have recessed mids and treble, they have bad mids and treble. The middle and upper registers of the Polaris are well executed, they’re just tuned to be less prominent.
In terms of soundstage, the Polaris feels small, but not cramped. The imaging is also competent, but the positioning isn’t always particularly clear, and as more players are added, it starts feeling a little crowded. While everything remains generally coherent, and the bass stays out of muddy territory, it doesn’t present with a strong sense of space and separation between instruments. Basically, from a technical perspective, the Polaris meets expectations and is perfectly competent for IEMs in its price range. Where the Polaris exceeds expectations and delivers something interesting and unique is its incredible bass response.
I find very bassy IEMs to often do very well with classic rock, so I turned on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. From the start of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Pt. 1” the Polaris provides excellent depth in the organ, and throughout the album, the various pulsating synths burrow deep into your ear canals. The vocals often feel a little recessed, but David Gilmour’s guitar work is clear and every bit as emotional as always. The highlight of the album with the Polaris is the groove on the intro and verses of “Have a Cigar.” Each note of the bassline has a powerful, physical impact, and it’s just massive fun to listen to with the Polaris. On the title track, the timbre of the acoustic guitar is a little tinny, but the song remains as personal and emotional as ever.
Since Ken Ball probably didn’t have acoustic ballads from the 70s in mind when he created it, I moved on to something a little more in line with it’s tuning, and the Chemical Brothers “Galvanize” proved to be quite the experience. The throbbing rhythm played under the main hook felt like it was vibrating my entire skull. When the electronic voice came in the background saying “Push the button.” I got the sensation that my brain had been hacked into by an AI, and I had no other choice but to push the button. Thankfully the nearest button was just the spacebar on my keyboard.
Having executed the command and freed my brain from AI control, I decided to split the difference and try something electronically driven, but with more acoustic instruments. Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” was just the thing, and possibly the best performance I’ve heard from the Polaris across several days of listening. The groove and impact felt just right, and as each layer was added on – the funky guitars, the horn accents, the additional synth – there was a clear separation between layers, and each part remained articulate throughout. Listening through the rest of the Headhunters album, I had to ask myself if the real purpose of the Polaris was to be the perfect IEMs for listening to Herbie Hancock. The Polaris really came to life, and aspects of the detail and imaging which I would have considered “pretty good” on other tracks, were outright amazing.
The Polaris also proved to be an excellent pairing with modern alternative rock. Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive” was an experience with the heavy dubstep-like bass demonstrating the seemingly limitless bass and sub-bass capabilities of the Polaris. The vocals remained clear and natural, and guitars and higher synth parts sounded surprisingly well organized and separated. “Stressed Out” by twenty one pilots was similarly well-suited with the bass groove providing a solid impact on the low end, while the rapped and sung vocals were well-placed and natural. If you’re familiar with it, one of the criticisms of modern pop and rock music is that it’s mixed to sound good in the cheap earbuds that the average listener has plugged into their phones – not for a hi-fi speaker system or headphones. In my listening, the Polaris does exceptionally well in this segment of music as the tuning is similar to many such earbuds, but it’s executed with orders of magnitude more precision and refinement.
I did most of my testing for the Polaris using the iBasso DX160, and also used the headphone out on my Macbook Pro and on my phone using an Apple adapter for an iPhone XS. There was definitely some detail lost in the laptop and phone listening, and the bass didn’t have quite the same coherence as it did with the DX160. I also messed with the EQ settings a bit and found that 1. The Polaris’s drivers can handle pumping the bass up even more, 2. It can be EQed fairly well to temper the bass and bring out a bit of detail and brightness – if that’s what you’re into.
The Bottom Line
The Polaris is sure to be polarizing. If you want a tuning and character that is neutral and analytical, you’ve probably already figured out that this isn’t the IEM for you. If you prefer a warm sound signature and want bass for days, you’ll love the Polaris. The Polaris is also a good pick if you’re just taking your first steps into audiophile headphones, and while you can recognize the benefits of headphones with a detailed, balanced delivery, you don’t want to leave behind the bassier sounds of popular, inexpensive brands. Overall, the Polaris is a lot of fun, and an incredible execution of a L-shaped bassy tuning.