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Campfire Audio Cascade Review – Nostalgia & Awe

Pros –

Spacious and open, Terrific build quality, Great technical ability, Tuneable, Scales incredibly well

Cons –

Big sub-bass may overstep boundaries, Headband shape won’t suit everyone

Verdict –

The Cascade isn’t balanced, neutral or realistic, but executes its tuning through marvellous control and clear yet natural voicing.


Introduction –

Campfire Audio requires no introduction in the modern day, but just a few years ago, many were scratching their heads at cable manufacturer ALO Audio’s foray into in-ear monitors. It’s evident that their efforts were a huge success with the Andromeda and Vega quickly becoming benchmarks for their respective sound signatures and driver types. The Cascade represents the next step in the company’s evolution, as their first closed-back over-ear headphone.

Utilising 3 years of development and growing experience, Campfire offer a headphone featuring 42mm berrylium drivers and the same gorgeous build quality that we have come to expect from the company. With an isolating closed-back design combined with deep, plush lambskin ear pads, the Cascade strives to find versatility between home and portable use, catering towards audio enthusiasts of every kind. You can read more about the Cascade and treat yourself to one here.

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Caleb from Campfire Audio very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the Cascade for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the headphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

Accessories –

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It’s almost amusing to see the same packaging from Campfire’s in-ears expanded for the Cascade. Campfire’s signature box design makes a return as does their terrific zippered carrying case, this time scaled up in size. The included hard case is gorgeous with a full grain leather exterior and soft faux shearling interior that prevents the headphones from becoming scratched while providing some drop protection on top. Inside the case are the headphones themselves in addition to the included accessories within two paper pouches. One contains the cable and warranty/instructional papers with the other containing 4 pairs of filters that enable the user to fine-tune the sound of the headphones.

Design –

Sloping lines, smoothly formed edges and a smooth finish all define the Campfire’s first foray into a market of flashy and abstract portable designs. The Cascade rather comes across as subdued with a design language translated from their previous in-ears. Accordingly, we’re gifted the same unyielding metal construction and a sense of styling that is distinct and industrial if not as low-profile as competing models. In line with other premium portable headphones from Bowers and Wilkins and Bang and Olufsen to name examples, the Cascade makes use of lambskin leather that beautifully compliments its cool stainless steel/aluminium complexion. The result is a headphone that’s both solid and luxurious. Though the metalwork is immaculate, I do have qualm with the finishing on the headband as there’s no sealing strip where the leather meets the inner frame to prevent fraying.

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Ergonomics are a strong point of the Cascade though it does come at the cost of portability relative to competitors. The headphones are in-between a home and conventional portable headphone in dimension, with very deep angled ear pads and a reasonably wide headband. In return, the headphones are very comfortable; their wide headband spreading weight evenly and their spacious, ultra-plush pads flattering with great long-term comfort. The pads magnetically attach, enabling easy replacement while permitting users to swap out sound tuning filters. I did find the headband to lack curvature, forming a mild hotspot on the top of my head after several hours of listening. That said, as its frame is made from stainless steel, I was able to form the headband into a more ergonomic shape (I take no responsibility for damage should you choose to do the same!).

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The Cascade uses a traditional stepped headband slider. They were quite loose on my unit, lacking defined click, but with barely adequate tension to maintain their position. This could be unit specific, however, as other reviewers have not expressed similar concerns in private correspondence. Like Master & Dynamic’s headphones, I had to maximise the setting of the slider due to the shape of the headband. That said, Ken has expressed interest in an extended slider that would permit a larger range of adjustment on retail models. As a result of their strong seal, the Cascade can get a little hot though in return, they provide above average noise isolation. They don’t attenuate nearly as much as class-leading active noise cancellers from Bose and Sony or certain portable headphones such as the Oppo PM3, but suffice for public transport and commute when combined with their full sound.

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Using their experience with cables, Campfire elected to use dual entry HD800 connectors on the Cascade; reasoning that, though not widely adopted, they have the lowest fail rate on the market. I didn’t personally experience any intermittency and both connectors engage with satisfying action. The cable itself is very pleasing too, with silver plated litz internals and a durable yet supple fabric sheath. The Cascade’s cable is smooth and compliant with zero memory and minimal microphonic noise. The terminations are well-relieved and Campfire’s pre-moulded connectors all look professional and coherent. Campfire offers a range of terminations, my 3.5mm variant has a pocket-friendly 45-degree plug, a wise choice for its intended uses.

Sound –

Tonality –

The Cascade is discerning, flamboyant and engaging. Those searching for anything vaguely neutral will want to look away, they are clearly V-shaped with abundant sub-bass and vibrant treble. The Cascade isn’t lacking in-between, maintaining fair linearity and a very pleasing tone, ensuring natural midrange voicing and an impressively organised image. Treble is very crisp and airy from factory with filters enabling users to tone down highs to achieve a smoother presentation. On a side note, I did notice that pushing the ear cups in to flatten the ear pads brought the midrange forward. I would presume that as the ear pads wear in, the headphones will become more balanced. The Cascade received over 200hrs of burn-in prior to review to ensure optimal performance.

Filters –

Cascade Tuning Manual

Campfire includes 4 tuning filters, all providing various levels of damping. As the number increases, the filter attenuate more high-frequency presence, thereby creating a warmer, smoother sound. I found the 2nd most conservative filter to suit my preferences best, smoothing treble while retaining some crispness and edge for acoustic. I felt the headphones sounded under-damped stock as they become noticeably more detailed in this configuration simply by smoothing treble peaks and improving control. Higher numbered filters sounded a little over smooth and warm to my ear though, of course, this will be up to individual preference.

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On the flipside, if you want even more clarity and high-frequency presence than even the vanilla tuning, users are able to remove the white “fixed” filters on the bottoms of each earpad. This results in a brighter, more open sound but also a very thin, unnatural midrange. I would not recommend this configuration and it’s clear that the white filters are adhered to the pads for a reason. The beauty of this system is its flexibility. Though they don’t have a transformative effect, the differences between each filter are distinct and effective. One can see this in play just by reading reviews online with almost every reviewers opting for a different filter.

Bass –

The Cascade is a creature of rumble and visceral kick on behalf of its very elevated sub-bass and flawless extension. Sub-bass hits with precision and rumble assumes a physical character that flatters genres such as electronic, R&B and rap in addition to gaming and film. This is offset by a more modest mid-bass emphasis enabling a tone that is fairly clean, with noticeable but not obtrusive warmth. Accordingly, low notes are bold and impactful but the Cascade doesn’t sound overly full and woolly as its emphasis is mainly contained within the very lowest frequencies. Upper-bass is fairly neutral, enabling greater midrange transparency and preventing over-warming of the Cascade’s presentation. Bass is a little omnipresent as a result of its emphasis, though due to its excellent control, bass doesn’t drone nor does it become congested on busier tracks.

What impresses most about the Cascade’s low-end is its control, reminding very much of Campfire’s Vega; a dynamic driver in-ear with big sub-bass reeled in with surgical control. Though its notes are large, the Cascade maintains definition, preserving detail and texture. Sub-bass is tight, especially considering its level of emphasis, reaffirmed by a very solid, coherent impact at the very bottom. Though the Cascade doesn’t strike me as an especially fast headphone, compared to lower-end headphones with similar tuning and even the similarly priced MDR-Z7, the Cascade thoroughly impresses with its ability to follow complex passages; a by-product of its great control paired with a nicely considered mid-bass emphasis. Really, the Cacade’s bass is very respectable in quality, there’s just a lot of it and you can have too much of a good thing.

Mids –

The Cascade’s midrange is laid-back on a whole, but clean and slighty bright, treading a fine line between clarity and balance. To my ears, Campfire have found a fair middle ground with a nicely revealing signature set to a fairly neutral tone. This is achieved through slight attenuation of the lower-midrange that serves to counterbalance the headphones emphasized bass, and a slightly enhanced centre midrange that produces a presentation slightly biased towards vocals over instruments. The Cascade pairs this tuning with a slight upper-midrange lift that feeds more evenly into its elevated treble while providing additional midrange clarity. As such, the Cascade has a clearer presentation and an almost exaggerated sense of separation at the cost of a little body and linearity. I wouldn’t characterise the Cascade as a realistic sounding headphone as a result, though due to its excellent tone, it remains naturally voiced and upholds respectable transparency.

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It should be noted that though both male and female vocals are well-present, they’re still laid-back relative to the Cascade’s enhanced bass with treble presence depending heavily on the chosen filter. At times, male vocals sound slightly chesty on behalf of its enhanced bass while female vocals hold constant spotlight with slightly greater presence and reduced colouration. The Cascade layers very well even if it isn’t perfectly balanced and its excellent resolution enables great background detail retrieval. With the right filters, mids are refined and smooth with accurate articulation, lacking negative traits usually associated with V-shaped headphones. True to its slight brightness, instrumentation is crisp and the nature of the headphone’s treble tuning avoids overly emphasised sibilance. Again, this is subject to change with filters, as I did find the Cascade to sound more explicitly cool stock. Mids are very well done unless you absolutely prioritise timbre.

Highs –

Up top, the Cascade is revealing, resolving and terrifically well-extended. Lower-treble has slight emphasis resulting in a more aggressive presentation of foreground detailing and nicely crisp, if thin instrumentation. Using the included filters can have quite a profound impact here, attenuating peaks to produce a more even and detailed image. With my preferred filters installed, instrument body is bolstered, becoming slightly organic, with the higher resistance filters further pushing the Cascade into smoothness. In this configuration, the Cascade is a very detailed headphone that scrutinises background detail in addition to being superficially clear. It delivers excellent micro-detail retrieval, especially with acoustic, in addition to naturally decaying cymbals and well-resolved high-hats. Regardless of filter choice, the Cascade’s elevated middle-treble always shines through, enhancing air and aiding shimmer.

It sounds very open as a result, a large contributor towards its spacious stage. Compared to a lot of other brighter headphones, the Cascade’s emphasis here is well-considered, I wouldn’t call them over-bright and middle-treble doesn’t overshadow detail lower-down. The Cascade’s background remains fairly clean and composed when combined with its excellent control. The same can be said for its upper-treble. Ironically, with a lot of high-end headphones and in-ears, upper-treble emphasis can become a bit excessive; it does showcase the level of extension they’re capable of but can skew their tone and timbre. In this regard, the Cascade is nicely done, it doesn’t possess the same upper-treble energy as Campfire’s BA in-ears, but retains plenty of sparkle without throwing its technical prowess in the listener’s face. Regardless, the headphone’s impressive extension is always evident through its high resolution, micro-detail retrieval and organised stage.

Soundstage –

Probably one of the first aspects that creates an impression on first listen, the Cascade’s soundstage is very spacious while maintaining coherent imaging. It has a nicely rounded presentation with great expansion in all axis, achieved through its airy tuning, well-extended treble and laid-back vocals that emphasize depth. Some have even likened the Cascade to an open back headphone, and though it’s certainly no HD800 and lacks the same sense of natural expansion, the Cascade is roughly on par with the average open-back.

Layers are very defined and the Cascade’s background remains well-detailed despite being so expansive. Imaging is respectable, especially considering the nature of the Cascade’s tuning, likely a result of its more linear midrange. Separation is generally pleasing too, with controlled, agile and slightly thinner notes working in conjunction with a spacious stage to produce a very delineated presentation. Bass separation is the weakest element due to its sub-bass emphasis that can overshadow mid-bass details, and treble can get slightly busy at times.

Driveability –

With a low 38ohm impedance and 100dB sensitivity, the Cascade is quite easily driven to high volumes from a portable source. For the majority of listeners, even a smartphone will provide sufficient volume. Despite this, the Cascade scales immensely well from higher end sources. It definitely benefits from a strong amplifier and has the resolution to take advantage of a resolving source. Even coming from the Fiio X7 II, running the Cascade from my Schiit Magni 3 desktop amplifier yielded a noticeably more controlled low-end with tighter sub-bass and greater separation. Its soundstage noticeably expanded and micro-details were easier to discern. Select pairings below:

iPhone 6S: Loose, woolly bass with little definition. Slightly warmer tone. Midrange is fairly balanced but slightly more laid-back and lacking a little transparency relative to dedicated sources. Less detailed, pleasing air and resolution. More intimate soundstage with less defined layers. Lacking separation. Liveable, impressive but not ideal!

Echobox Explorer: Slightly fuller bass, mid-bass a little woolly and lacking some control. Midrange is slightly fuller, but still fairly transparent, upper-midrange is laid-back producing a denser image. Enhanced detail presence, crisp and clear, nice air. Good resolution, great soundstage expansion but mediocre layering and separation.

Fiio X7 MKII (AM3A): More vibrant, slightly lifted mid-bass, larger bass notes. Slightly forward upper midrange, enhanced midrange clarity. Well-detailed with nice air. Great resolution, medium soundstage expansion with clear layers and good separation.

Shozy Alien+: Very balanced, clean, great bass control, more neutral tone. Transparent midrange, slightly clearer. Slight lower-treble emphasis aids midrange clarity and detail presence. Nice air and resolution. Medium soundstage expansion with clear layers and great separation.

Hiby R6: Very balanced, clean, well-controlled bass. Slightly diffuse sub-bass slam relative to the DX200/Magni 3 combo, but also a more neutral bass tone. Transparent midrange, slightly less dense but clear and balanced. Well-detailed with nice air. Nice resolution, great soundstage expansion and layering. Well separated.

iBasso DX200 (AMP5): Very balanced, clean, extended bass with nice control and definition. Transparent midrange, very slightly full-bodied vocals. Excellent detailing, slightly enhanced air and terrific resolution. Great soundstage expansion and layering, well separated.

DX200 w/Magni 3: Very balanced, very clean bass with a slightly more physical quality. Excellent bass control, slightly more neutral tone with enhanced definition and separation. Transparent midrange, slightly clearer on account of more controlled bass. Excellent detailing, enhanced air and retained resolution. Expansive soundstage with great layering and separation.

Comparisons –

All comparisons below were running through the DX200 + Magni 3 setup, volume matched using an SPL meter.

Oppo PM3 ($450): The PM3 does not compete within the same price class, but it is my personal portable headphone benchmark. It features planar magnetic drivers and a very balanced signature that contrasts to the vivid Cascade. The Cascade is immediately more V-shaped and more resolving with greater extension at either end. The PM3 has a slight sub-bass emphasis while the Cascade has a fairly significant boost in addition to slightly more extension, producing considerably greater slam. The Cascade also has more mid-bass though its low-end is tighter and more defined despite the PM3 being more balanced. The two diverge heading into the midrange where the PM3 is full-bodied with sustained emphasis through its upper-bass and lower-midrange.

By contrast, the Cascade sounds cleaner and a little more transparent on account of its more neutral upper-bass and attenuated lower-midrange. The PM3 has a more present midrange overall, it’s very linear with an especially realistic timbre. The Cascade is brighter and thinner, but not excessively so. In return, it’s clearer while retaining a pleasing amount of body. The Cascade layers a lot better and it has higher resolution throughout, aided by its clearer tuning. The PM3 has a small bump in its lower treble for detail presence before a moderate slope into an attenuated middle and upper treble. On the contrary, the Cascade is emphasized all the way through, most notably within the middle-treble.

Resultantly, the PM3 sounds dark and mellow while the Cascade is rather open and airy with a brighter background. The Cascade extends a lot further up top which accentuates its openness and contributes towards its higher resolution. When it comes to soundstage, the Cascade is the clear winner, considerably more spacious in all dimensions, more layered and a lot more separated. At twice the price, the Cascade provides all the technical upgrades one would expect and its tuning really capitalises on its strengths. Of course, the PM3 is a lot more balanced, but on a technical level, this demonstrates that driver type should not be considered a limiting factor.

Sony MDR-Z7 ($800): The Z7 is another high-end closed-back dynamic headphone with a bassier tuning. Compared to the Cascade, the Z7 is slightly more balanced but also less transparent and technical. Both dig very deep when it comes to bass, with the Z7 producing greater impact due to its greater sub-bass emphasis. The Z7 isn’t as bassy overall, but as it has a greater focus on mid-bass with a less emphasized sub-bass. I personally prefer its less emphasized sub-bass, but it sounds more bloated and tubby due to the nature of its tuning. It’s also more obviously warm in its presentation where the Cascade is more neutral in tone. In addition, the Cascade has noticeably greater control and it’s clearly more defined and detailed within its lower registers as a result. The Cascade also has a considerably more natural midrange.

Of note, the Z7 has a sucked out lower-midrange combined with over-articulated vocals on account of its more pronounced lower-treble. The Cascade on the other hand is fairly neutral through its lower-midrange. Combined with its more neutrally toned bass, it’s more transparent, natural and refined. Vocals are slightly more laid-back but have more realistic body and timbre. The Z7 has a forward upper-midrange that enhances the presence of female vocals and increases midrange clarity. That said, the Cascade is again smoother and more natural in this regard where the Z7 is more vibrant but also quite unnatural. The Z7 is a well-detailed headphone accentuated by a clear, crisp lower-treble that brings details forward in the mix. The Cascade is considerably more linear through its upper-midrange and treble, providing more naturally bodied instrumentation.

It’s the more detailed headphone even if it lacks an iota of crispness compared to the enhanced Z7. The Cascade also extends further up top, it has immediately more sparkle, a little more air and noticeably higher resolution than the Sony can. The more linear nature of the Cascade’s midrange and treble tuning works wonders with its soundstage. The Z7 actually has the advantage with size and, in some regards, separation; it’s an immensely spacious headphone and its thinner midrange sounds nicely delineated. That said, the Cascade is immediately more layered with clearly superior imaging. It has greater background detail retrieval and separation overall is higher. It’s the more nuanced, coherent headphone if less superficially vibrant and clear.

Verdict –

Over the years, audiophiles have been conditioned to appreciate (almost exclusively), a balanced or neutral orientated style of tuning and with it, have gained a hyper-critical perspective on almost everything else. As an enthusiast with such a mindset, my first minutes with the Cascade were quite a shock yet despite this, I came to thoroughly enjoy my time with the Cascade. It goes without saying that most headphones carry a V-shaped signature, so what makes the Cascade more unique than most is its technical prowess; enabling them to uncover more and more detail over longer listening periods. In another sense, the Cascade is also a poignant reminder of the bassy, hyper-engaging gear that introduces most listeners to the hobby in the very beginning; and it’s one of those products that makes me question my own preferences and whether one can concretely categorise what brings them enjoyment.

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For Campfire, the Cascade not only represents their first non-in-ear design but a refinement of the V-shaped signature initiated by the indomitable Vega; realising great vibrancy without skewing midrange tone. As someone who highly values timbre, the Cascade cannot be universally recommended, despite its technical ability. Still, I’m sure it will be a sound that many will love and many will grow to appreciate. It’s not balanced, neutral or realistic, but executes its tuning through marvellous control. I’m especially enamoured by the Cascade’s midrange that shines through with its clear yet natural voicing achieved through careful transitions that achieve overall coherence. I have to thank Ken and everyone working with him for providing an experience that was surprising, engaging and most importantly, memorable.

The Cascade can be purchased from Campfire Audio for $799 USD. I am not affiliated with Campfire Audio and receive no earnings from purchases through this link.

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