If you’ve been around these parts for long, you’ve probably heard us talk about the Campfire Solaris. It was one of our picks for the best Endgame IEMs, we used it as a comparison point in our review of the DUNU Luna, and we recently did a write up on the 2020 updates to Campfire’s IEMs. Now we’re going to take a deeper dive into the Solaris 2020, how it compares to the previous model, and how it holds up to other IEMs in its class.
Build, Design, and What’s New for 2020
For the 2020 revision of the Solaris, the biggest change is its smaller and simpler design. The original model featured a 24k gold plated face and was a little bit too large for many people’s ears. The new version is glossy black all around and 20% smaller than the original. While it lacks the luxurious appearance of the old design, the new look is simple, sleek, and probably more appropriate for a walk around the park than the original's more opulent look – just be prepared to wipe it down frequently as glossy black tends to be a bit of a fingerprint magnet.
The Solaris comes in a nice package with the updated Campfire Audio cork case and a selection of silicon and foam eartips. Smaller pouches are included to protect the IEMs themselves in the case and also hold your eartips. The pouches are soft and convenient, but we should note that they have a tendency to shed a little bit at first, so if you notice some small black strings on your eartips, it’s just from the pouches.
Overall, the physical improvements to the earphones are excellent and should make the Solaris more accessible for more listeners. The question is...has the sound been compromised?
Despite only having 80% of the space of the original, Campfire Audio somehow managed to cram 100% – maybe even 110% – of the original sound in there. The signature warm, round bass, the touch of brightness in the highs, and the overall clear natural voicing – it’s all there. The extra 10% is a mild retuning which helps bring out the vocals just a little bit more, and adds more clarity and emotion to that range. One of my favorite vocal reference tracks is “Pariah” by Steven Wilson. It features a very up front clean male vocal track, and a raspier female vocal who comes in for the chorus. I find that many headphones do one of two things on this track: either the male vocal becomes muddy during its most emphatic moments, or the female vocal feels too distant when it enters. On the Solaris, both vocals remain clear and powerful throughout.
Another key aspect of the Solaris sound is its wide, deep soundstage, which is largely credited to Campfire Audio’s TEAC technology for creating an acoustic chamber inside the IEM itself. The soundstage and imaging are all just as good as before. On “Tribal” by Nightwish, a track which features a mix of classical, traditional folk, and heavy metal instrumentation, you can get a clear sense of the band at the center flanked by choirs, percussionists, and strings. Of course, listening to a more traditional classical recording can demonstrate a similar sense of space, distance, and positioning, but some of us prefer to mix our classical with electric guitars. Don’t judge.
While I could spend all day listening to complicated, impeccably engineered music and using the Solaris to describe the finer details thereof, that doesn’t mean it can’t get a little bit funky. Classic hip hop tracks like Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage” took me for a ride, and when I started listening to Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” my funk was thoroughly funked up. Bootsy Collins’ bass on “Give Up The Funk” is perfect for demonstrating how the Solaris manages to deliver thick bass thumps while also remaining perfectly articulate for nimble slaps and pops all across the low registers.
For my testing I used the Chord Mojo and the iBasso DX220. One common issue with the Solaris (and most of Campfire’s lineup, really) is that it’s very sensitive and with some sources you can get a low hiss in the background. This was not an issue with the DX220, but the Mojo was initially generating some noise. To mitigate this, I used the iFi IEMatch which is an attenuator that essentially adds a “low gain” mode to any device you plug it into. The IEMatch removed the noise (and also reduced the volume) without compromising the sound, and even when I cranked the volume above the previous levels, there was no hint of the original hiss.
Comparison: Noble Tux 5, Empire Ears Valkyrie
To put the Solaris through its paces, I compared it head to head with the Noble Tux 5 and the Empire Ears Valkyrie (which we also reviewed recently) using a mix of reference tracks from different genres.
The first thing I noticed about the Tux 5 was that while the general tuning was similar to the Solaris, the Tux 5 lacked some of the brightness that really balances out the Solaris’s sound. The Tux 5 also had a bit more physicality in the bass. Other than that, the differences were largely contextual. While on some rock and funk tracks, the Tux 5 presented better separation than the Solaris, listening to classical music, the lower end felt a bit more congested. “Land of Confusion” by Genesis presented a little bit of both ends, because on the one hand, there was a stronger physical element with the Tux 5 than the Solaris, but on the other hand, the Solaris provided more clarity through the layers of busy synth work.
While the Valkyrie is in the same price range as the Solaris, it’s a very different tuning and experience. If the Solaris is a sleek European luxury car, the Valkyrie is a red convertible Corvette. Where the Solaris provides a balanced and detailed response across the full spectrum, the Valkyrie has the classic “fun” tuning with powerful exciting bass and clear, airy highs. I found that the Valkyrie particularly excelled at modern, more electronically driven rock, pop, and hip hop, while with older recordings, or anything featuring acoustic instruments, the Solaris was clearly more natural and lifelike. Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars” was a really good comparison track, as you get to run the full spectrum between just the acoustic guitar and the vocals all the way to a full on dancehall drop. In second verse, when it’s just the guitar, piano, and voice, there’s an emotion in Chris Martin’s vocals and the simple instrumentation which the Solaris delivers perfectly, but when the bass drops the Valkyrie just makes you want to get up and dance.
The Bottom Line
The Solaris has a natural sound, with solid bass, and a balanced brightness coupled with a huge soundstage, that should satisfy a broad array of listeners. And with the smaller form factor, more listeners will be able to comfortably wear them for hours. Before the 2020 revision, the Solaris was one of our top picks, and the updates Campfire made have only further solidified Solaris’ position as one of the best earphones on the market.