Campfire Cascade

Campfire Cascade

First off, a huge thanks to Ken at Campfire for allowing me the privilege of taking the Cascade to Carolina Canfest and sharing it with the other members there. It got a lot of attention at the show and sparked a lot of positive comments. My review is based on that same sample that was taken to Canfest and the thoughts presented are purely my own and were not coerced in any fashion, nor was I financially compensated for this review.

Unboxing

The Cascade arrived a couple days before the show via Fedex. Upon opening the Fedex box, I was greeted with a pleasant green and black cardboard box with the name prominently displayed on the top. On the front flap of the box, there is a photo of the headphones but other details are not displayed on the box. In the overall, I was slightly underwhelmed at this point. Knowing the retail price, the packaging is a bit pedestrian.

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That observation fades quickly once the box is opened. Inside the box is a leather hard shell zipper case with a carrying strap, a CA pin, and two small envelopes. Inside the case is lined with a soft synthetic wool that does a good job of cushioning the headphones themselves.

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The only knock here is that the case doesn’t have a separate compartment for the cable so leaving it on the headphones in the case may ultimately end in scratches. Also, worth noting, is no adapters come with the kit. If you order a 3.5mm cable, you will need to supply a 6.3mm adapter to use the Cascade with home equipment or to purchase an optional additional cable.

Build

First impression is, the Cascade is dramatically overbuilt. In looking at it, I expected the weight to be substantial and it is, but not nearly as much so I had anticipated. Most of the cascade is made of metal of one form or another. From the top down, you have a spring steel headband covered in foam and wrapped in a black pleather cover with the Campfire logo across the top. The headband terminates with steel hinges that allow the earpieces to fold in for storage. Below the storage hinge is another hinge also made of steel that allows the cups to rotate on the vertical axis for comfort and fit adjustment. This vertical hinge allows 90 degrees movement toward the rear and roughly 20 degrees of motion past center toward the front for a total range of roughly 110 degrees of adjustment. The cups attach to the headband via a single connection at the mid-point of rear of the cup. The connection between the cup and band provides the horizontal adjustment for the cups and allows from 5 degrees past vertical to 25 degrees less than vertical. From the outside, the cups and gimbles appear to be all aluminum because they are. All steel parts are carefully hidden inside the cast aluminum shell which allows Campfire to carefully color match the anodizing of the aluminum to the color of the pads and headband for a very classy high-quality look. The cups are cast aluminum, anodized in a flat black, with the CA logo in bright silver at the lower edge of each cup just above the jack. The jacks are recessed bi-pin designs and are in keeping with the rest of the design in being equally over-engineered and strong. Left and Right are clearly marked on the inside of the gimbles along with the serial number clearly displayed.

Pads are leather and memory foam filled. These are very reminiscent of the Dekoni Memory foam pads for the Beyer and Fostex products if you have had a chance to try those. Attachment of the pads to the earpiece is via magnet. I initially questioned the security and durability of this arrangement, but after a couple weeks with them, I have had no trouble with any slippage or movement. On the inner surface of the pads is a permanent damper at the bottom center and a place for an optional damper immediately above the earcup. I will discuss the filters a bit later in the review. At this point, lets suffice it to say the filters work and are well designed if the documentation leaves a little to be desired. I would love to see a set of FR graphs with each filter mounted and without filters just to give a little more detail and set the expectation. Having said that, I’m not a believer that FR tells the entire story, but they are a nice reference point to have.

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Cable

The cable is understated and overbuilt like everything about the Cascade. Without dissecting it, some questions remain but what I can tell about it is. It is a stranded braided cable wrapped in a PVC cloth coating (that may as well be Kevlar from the strength of it). At the single terminus, a 45 degree 3.5mm TRS jack with black soft rubber strain relief. While well made, this is probably the single point in the whole design that looks like it might be subject to breakage. It is a typical 3.5mm jack which somewhat limits the armoring that can take place, but the jack doesn’t show the over-engineering that the jacks on the other end of the cable exhibit. At the Y end of the cable is a soft black rubber strain relief followed by an inch-long steel connector housing with recessed bi-pin connections in the center. The connectors have a blue or red band on them for ID and a pin that indexes the pins. Overall the cable is one of the most well designed and overbuilt I have seen. One complaint, why not make it black to match the rest of the aesthetic? (I know if that is the worst I’ve got, it aint much of a complaint).

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Fit and Isolation

I’ve mentioned the adjustments in the build section but it is worth saying that they do an excellent job and the range of adjustment allowed everyone who tried them at Canfest to find a comfortable fit as well as trying them on children ranging from 7 years old up. So, if they will fit my over-sized noggin comfortably and my neighbor’s 7-year-old equally well you know the adjustment range is substantial. The pads themselves are soft enough that they don’t bother the temples of my glasses and seal well around them. To those who don’t wear glasses, you have no idea of how big a deal that really is. My ears fit inside the pads from front to back with very little room to spare. On the upper and lower I have about 3/8 of an inch of open space between my ear and the pad. Isolation is good. With no source enabled, you can hear some ambient sounds but they are reduced by roughly 4db. This cannot be thought of as great isolation as you will hear some ambients through them. Once the source is enabled, this is quickly forgotten as the driver quickly delivers enough volume of sound to make anything outside the headset disappear. Leakage is absolutely minimal. I have been unable to tell what others were listening to while standing less than a foot behind them. Even when leaning over to place my ear directly in line with the cup on my wife’s head, I could not hear anything clearly enough to discern what the song was. So, for blocking noise out when not in use, they are not the equal of an in-ear for isolation, but when in use, don’t expect to hear anything but what the source provides.

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Sound

Burn-in – Ken warned me that the burn in on the 42mm Beryllium driver was more than most drivers need. He wasn’t kidding. Out of the box the bass was very dominating and over the next 150 hours, they have improved with each day. I put them on pink noise for 3 solid days before the Canfest meet and that helped a good bit, but they have continued to open up since the show and I’m not sure how good they will eventually get as I can’t promise they are done with burn in yet. I’d estimate 150+ hours and if they are fully burned in, it is just barely.

Bass – Big! This will be the first thing you notice about the Cascade, Big bass. Not loose, muddy, slow, or ugly, just big. Extension at the low end is simply superb with the sub-bass easily rivaling anything I have had the pleasure to listen to. While a lot of headphones have a lot of mid-bass and roll-off as you go further down in Hz, the Cascade manages to keep its bass quantity all the way down into the 30hz range before you start to hear any significant roll-off. In running test tones, I was able to begin to hear a loss of clarity and volume between the 28Hz and 24Hz test tones but everything above that was at full volume and clarity. Bassheads will appreciate the Cascade but what is more amazing is so will those who generally shy away from anything that says basshead approved. To most of us, basshead approved is synonymous with huge mid-bass hump, lots of bleed into the mids, and a total loss of detail in favor of lots of visceral thump. The Cascade manages to deliver the visceral experience without sacrificing detail and with only minimal bass bleed into the mids.

Mids – If the Bass is the first thing you notice, the upper mid-range is a close 2nd. Lower mids are slightly colored by the bass and slightly recessed in comparison, but the upper mids and the presence range are surprisingly good. The combination of bass and mids makes for a full, warm signature with lots of thickness in the vocal presentation. Initially, I thought the warmth was at the expense of detail, but the more these burn in, the more detail cuts through. I’m a skeptic about the impact of burn-in but on these I can say unequivocally that it makes a difference. Do not judge these on the first 50 hours as it will be a genuine disservice to you and them.

Highs – Highs are well extended and very polite. The treble is definitely a full step behind the mids and bass and can easily be dismissed if not listened for specifically. I threw a couple of Jethro Tull tracks (Hunting Girl and Locomotive Breath) at the Cascade specifically to see how Anderson’s flute would come through. I was surprised at how well rendered and realistic sounding it was. I had discounted the upper end of the range due to the overall warmth of the signature. Lower treble is well behaved and sibilance was only present in places where I know it is present in the recorded track. Top end air and sparkle is somewhat limited due to the overall warmth of the signature but cymbals are still rendered well enough to be believable if not perfect.

Details – The Cascade is a detail monster. That will be the most controversial statement in this review for two reasons. 1.) Those who do a cursory listen will discount the details due to its warm nature. 2.) Anyone who listens without burn-in will not hear what I am talking about. If you give them time to completely open up, the bass becomes a bit more polite and backs off just a ¼ step. That is enough to let those upper mids and lower treble really shine and details are fantastic. Micro detail is present from the bass all the way up through the lower treble and for me and my love of blues rock, the ability to render detail in the lower registers is a welcome thing. Too many headphones think details below 250Hz don’t exist and as such they are lost. The Cascade instead surfaces those details and does so with great care. Take a listen to the walking bass line at the opening of A view to a kill (Duran Duran) and I think you will agree.

Filters – The Cascade comes with four filters to help alter the mid-bass signature. Those expecting the kind of changes in signature provided by the FLC8s or Lz A4 filters will be disappointed as the impact of the filters is very subtle in the Cascade and may go undetected. The first thing about the filters that needs to be discussed is how they are intended to be used. The Cascade comes with 4 filters that are small cloth pieces with different pore sizes ranging from 7 micron to 15 micron. The different filters are identified by the notches at the edge of the filters. No notches is 7, square is 10, triangle is 12, and circular is 15. As the pore size increases, so does the amount of sound the filter allows to pass so expect to see the biggest impact from the filter with no side notches and the least from the one with circular notches in the sides. Placing the filters is most easily accomplished by removing the pads and placing them pad side down on a hard surface. On the back of the pad, you will see a white permanent damper on the lower side of the driver port, and a cutout for the interchangeable damper opposite it (immediately above the driver cutout). Place the damper of choice so that the not in the top of the damper lines up with the pin hole for aligning the pad to the ear-cup. Once aligned, gently place the ear-cup on the pad. The magnets do the rest and the pressure holds filter in place better than one would expect. It became apparent at Canfest that expectations of the filters were not well defined, nor was where and how to mount them. The system is fairly straight forward once you know the intended use but would still be helped by a few frequency response charts to give a more exact idea of what impact to expect.

Because each filter has successively larger ports, combining them does nothing additional to alter the signature. If you think of them as screen wire, once you filter out something using a small screen, adding a larger screen after it catches nothing further. It might be possible to alter the signature by placing a 2nd filter over the permanent damper at the bottom of the pad, but without knowing the pore size of the permanent damper, this is conjecture at best. If it is already 7 micron or less this again would presumably have no impact on the sound. To my ear, the number 2 filter (Square notches) reduces the mid-bass just a hint and opens the lower mids slightly which is a welcome change to my ear. I started with the #4 and worked up, finding the #1 was a just a bit too much and started to have a negative influence on the upper mid range so I quickly stepped back the filter 2.

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Soundstage / Imaging The soundstage on the Cascade is very much that of a closed back design. It is intimate but does manage to show both height and width in better proportion than expected. The depth of sound stage, while good is the place I think it is most obvious that the Cascade is a closed design. If the soundstage is not as large as some designs, the Cascade manages to make up for it with fabulous instrument separation and imaging. Even in the small space of the soundstage, audio cues are well placed and it is easy to envision the seated orchestra in their proper positions on stage. This is a major accomplishment for any headphone let alone an introductory offering from an outfit known for in-ears. Kudos! to Campfire.

Sources The Cascade played reasonably well from both an HTC M9 and an Iphone 6+ using the 3.5mm jack as well as an Iphone 8 using the apple lightning to 3.5 adapter. With the Cascade designed for the portable market, one would expect that. The fact that when you introduce amplification the Cascade scales right on up along side the improvements in DAC and amplifier is the bigger surprise. Making headphones easy to drive has been done, making them scale well has also been done. Making them do both is a much more rare occurrence. It is worth noting that the Cascade does indeed like a bit more power than most phones can provide and the addition of something like the Walnut F1 or Xduoo Xd-05 will insure that you are able to get the most out of the Cascade if you are using a low powered device for a source.

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Comparisons


Aeon Flow Closed
– The Aeon is far more balanced with bass and upper mids coming across as very thin compared to Cascade. The treble is considerably more forward on the Aeon and comes across as hotter when comparing to the warmer darker sound of the Cascade. These two are so different that it is hard to draw comparisons. At first I would have said the Aeon was more detailed but after more listening, I think the brighter signature makes it seem more detailed when in fact the two are nearly equal. I am torn on this as both headphones have things I really like but neither has all the features I look for in a headphone.

Sub-bass – Cascade

No Mid-bass hump – Aeon

Forward Upper mids – Cascade

Treble Extension and Sparkle – Aeon

If you like a brighter signature the Aeon is going to be your choice, if you like a warmer, thicker sound the Cascade has it in spades.

Audio Technica W5000 – I had a very short time to compare this one so impressions are very limited. I found the w5000 considerably more balanced, faster on both attack and decay when compared to the Cascade with more detail but very thin in the presence region.

Sennheiser 598C – The 598C is a bass first affair not unlike the cascade. The difference being bass is much looser on the 598c and not as well extended. The Cascade is much more visceral when compared to the bass of the 598c. clarity is better on the Cascade as well as the 598 has a tendency to get a bit muddy on busier tracks. Both have some bleed into the mids but the 598c suffers from exaggerated upper mids that will be too prominent for some. For me, the 598c is just over the line and is fatiguing as a result. The Cascade is much better mannered in the mids and doesn’t have the same “in your face” mids as the 598c. Treble extension is better on the Cascade and less veiled and recessed when compared to the 598C. To my ear, my comments on the 598c could easily be swapped with the AD MSR7 as both have similar signatures although I think hte MSR7 is a bit less congested when compared with the 598c.

OPPO PM3 – PM3 goes deeper in sub-bass but has less bass quantity. Similar warm/thick mids on both, upper mids maybe slightly more revealing on the PM3 vs the cascade but not by a big margin. Both are smooth, warm, with big bass capability. Hard to contrast as these are more similar than different.

AKG 553 – Similar to Pm3 and Cascade. Larger soundstage to the 553 than either the Cascade or PM3. 553 is slightly ahead PM3 is bass depth and slightly behind Cascade in bass quantity. 553 exhibits good extension at the low end as did its predecessor the 550 but differs in that the 553 shows a mid-bass hump similar to the Cascade. Upper mids on the 553 are even more recessed than the PM3 when compared to the Cascade, making female vocals in particular sound thin and lack a bit of life that is present when using the Cascade. (Here the 550 is better than the 553 as its upper mids while still not as good as the cascade are much forward of the 553). In the treble region, the 553 is well behaved and has really good extension but somehow manages to lose a step in the lower treble regions and as a result doesn’t have the air or sparkle one might expect. Imaging of the 553 is very good and perhaps a bit better than the cascade again based partially on size of soundstage.

Shure 1540 – Bass extension is similar to Cascade but tends to distort significantly as volume increases and can get really muddy on busy tracks. I’ll admit, I listen at levels on the higher side so this is a huge point in favor of the Cascade. If you listen at more moderate levels, you may not be as impacted by this. The mids are recessed significantly as the 1540 has a very V-shaped signature. Here the Cascade outshines the 1540 by a considerable margin. Vocals are a bit thin and veiled due to this recess and those looking for something primarily for vocals would do best to avoid the 1540. Treble is much more forward on the 1540 than the Cascade with a spike in the 9-10kHz range that can result in cymbals sounding sharp and unrealistic at times. The one place the 1540 really impressed me was in soundstage. It has more dimension than most closed backs and seemed considerably larger in all dimensions to most other headphones compared in this review. It should also be noted my listening to the 1540 was done with an amp as it needs that extra punch to do its best work.

Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro – First off, yes I know – not even slightly portable between their size and 250ohm rating, these are a use them at home with an amp proposition only, having said that, they are also the closed back I judge all else by. Sound wise, the 1770 has great bass extension and good control. What differentiates it from the Cascade is the transition from bass to mids. The 1770 is very clean in the transition with minimal bleed into the mids where the Cascade is a much more gradual transition with significant bleed-over. Mids are similar in that both are slightly laid back and warm presentations. Treble is the typical “Slap in the face” of most Beyers and is much more prominent than that of the Cascade. For those that like a bright signature, the Beyer may be enjoyable but for those that are treble shy, the Cascade will be a better option as it is much less fatiguing for long listening sessions. Soundstage is also much larger on the 1770 as it is 2nd only to the 1540 in overall size and a bit more evenly shaped as the 1540 has good width but the 1770 outclasses it in depth and height.

Meze 99 Classics – Big bass with good extension, very similar to the Cascade. Upper Mids are much more recessed on the Meze and as a result, vocals come across as somewhat thin and a bit behind other instrumentation. Treble extension is good on the 99 but quantity is lacking. Neither the 99 or the Cascade are treble forward designs but the vocal range of the Cascade is more engaging than that of the 99 to my ear.

Comments/thoughts from Carolina Canfest

In taking the Cascade to Carolina Canfest, I must say the feedback was predominantly positive. Comments broke down into basically 5 lines of thought.

1.) Build Quality: That the Cascade’s build is top notch cannot be denied.
2.) Sound Quality: Details and micro details are better than expected by most who tried them. Consider the fact this is in a loud environment so isolation was also key to being able to hear any details.
3.) Sound Signature: The Cascade is definitely a mid and bass centered affair, which is not to say the top end is bad, just not emphasized. Even with filters, these are a mid-forward/bass forward design.
4.) Soundstage: Somewhat small due to closed back design but still well shaped, intimate, manages to have better dimensions than expected.
5.) Filters: Universally not well understood. No marking on pads to show proper alignment, no diagram in manuals to show usage clearly. Video on website makes no reference to proper use of filters or show filter placement. Additionally, most were confused on what impact to expect each filter to have when used.

A set of FR charts showing each filter would go a long way to dispelling some of the confusion along with a video or still shots of placement of the filter properly on the pads.

Conclusions

I think the name is absolutely appropriate as the Cascade mountains are full of peaks and valleys, smaller ridges, and all sorts of terrain features. The more generic term Cascade refers to a multi-stage waterfall, with lots of fluid motion and features packed into an overall beautiful scene. For a first offering in the on/over ear space, the Cascade makes quite a statement. Big sound, warm signature, tons of details, tank like design without tank like weight, good comfort even for those of us with glasses, and attention to details that we have come to expect from Campfire products. With an MSRP of $800, the Cascade sits squarely in the cross-hairs of some very big named competitors and if it were not up to the task, it would fall flat very quickly. Instead what the Cascade manages to do is put every one of those bigger names on notice. Campfire is now in the Over-ear business and they intend to raise the bar just like they did for in-ears. Knowing the progression that Campfire went through to get to the Andromeda, I can’t wait to see where their full-sized line goes next. The Cascade is a great headphone in and of itself, but if it is a harbinger of things to come, Wow! Just Wow!

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