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Campfire Audio Polaris II Review

Pros – 

Outstanding sub-bass extension and power, Gorgeous build and design, Upholds a relatively natural midrange

Cons – 

Not balanced in the slightest, Bass bloat is present due to its tuning, Male vocals quite laid back and occasionally muffled

Verdict – 

The new Polaris provides a fun sound without compromising driver quality, retaining a mostly natural vocal image and highs that possess newfound cleanliness and nuance.


Introduction –

We’re all familiar with Campfire Audio, but for the uninitiated, these folks have been making some of the finest IEMs on the market for years. With designs hand-assembled in Oregon, a hallmark of Campfire Audio has always been their build quality and stunning combinations of colours and shapes. The Polaris was among their first hybrid driver offerings and brought with it acoustic developments that enabled cutting edge designs like the flagship Solaris. Campfire has since updated their line-up to include the Polaris II. In addition to completely redesigned internals featuring an upsized 9.2mm dynamic woofer and further improved build quality, the Polaris II also receives a $100 price cut compared to its predecessor, now offered at $499 USD. You can read more about the Polaris II and treat yourself to one here.

 

Disclaimer –

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

 

Accessories –

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Similar to the IO, the Polaris II comes with Campfire Audio’s updated packaging with a larger box that opens up to reveal the goodies inside. Buyers receive a similar zippered case to the IO in matching cerulean blue with signature faux shearling interior that prevents scratches during transit. The box also contains a Campfire Audio shirt pin alongside 3 pairs of marshmallow foam tips, 3 pairs of silicone tips and 5 pairs of Final Audio E-tips.

 

Design –

It would come as little surprise that the Polaris II looks gorgeous, carrying the signature Campfire Audio aluminium shell in stunning cerulean blue. This is topped off with black stainless steel nozzle, an upgrade over the plastic unit on the original, and flat black screws. The Polaris II looks sporty and clean, a huge step up over its two-tone predecessor. The machining is also improved with more rounded corners, smoother edges and a more even finish across its flat planes.

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In the ear, the earphones are comfortable and sit at just the right angle. The slightly longer but slimmer nozzles permit a deeper fit than past Campfire earphones and the seal remains just as solid. Combined with an over-ear fit, the Polaris II has terrific fit stability combined with excellent passive noise isolation, especially for a vented earphone. They isolate more than the original Polaris making them a much better choice for commute, especially when combined with their bassy tuning.

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The venerable Beryllium reinforced MMCX connectors make a return and along with them, solid action, even tension and excellent reliability. The cable, however, sees some refinements as with the IO and 2019 Andromeda. It has the same silver-plated copper Litz internals with a new smoke jacket that complements the Polaris’ aesthetic well. Furthermore, the awkward memory wire of previous models has been replaced with pre-moulded guides that hug the ear with greater confidence and comfort. This is topped off with excellent build quality throughout from the well-relieved 3.5mm plug to sleek, metal y-split.

 

Sound –

Tonality –

Weight, power and clarity. The Polaris II harkens back to a typical Japanese V with an even more V-shaped tuning than the original. Interestingly, this increase in bass and treble doesn’t come across as one would expect, operating to the midrange’s benefit by increasing body, quite similar to what the Atlas did to the Vega. Bass is big throughout though fairly well-balanced between sub and mid-bass emphasis, creating a very full, warm low-end but also one that doesn’t sound immediately off timbre. Lower-mids see large attenuation, heightening separation and preventing midrange muffle. Meanwhile, focus is put around the upper-midrange, redeeming vocals presence and clarity. Treble is similar to the Polaris, however, appears smoother in context of the Polaris II’s more emphasized bass. The result is a more natural and refined presentation if at the cost of more clearly laid-back vocals.

 

Bass –

Powerful sub-bass extends deep below the audible and into the perceived with sizable quantity emphasizing this quality, this is where emphasis has been increased most. Mid-bass retains highest quantity but with newfound harmony with the sub-bass, creating huge notes and a plump, warm low-end but also a slightly more natural presentation. Meanwhile, upper-bass begins a reasonably sharp decline into a recessed lower-midrange. The low-end is still bloated, a by-product of its huge mid-bass, however, bass doesn’t come across as muddy or humped due to the technical qualities of the driver.

In particular, the Polaris II has excellent bass control and quicker decay that prevents its large bass notes from spilling into each other, upholding respectable note separation. Though not the most defined low-end, the Polaris II retrieves an impressive amount of detail and it is well-textured throughout. The earphone is clearly tuned for fun and seismic impact over accuracy, however, Campfire offers a wealth of more balanced models for users wanting such. Instead, the Polaris II is a celebration of the bombastic, verbose and full of character.

 

Mids –

From the flawed foundation of the original comes the sequel, more mature, more composed. Though almost identical to the original through the midrange, increased bass warmth creates a significantly more natural presentation here. In particular, vocal body is more accurate and, as there is wide-band centre midrange emphasis, vocals remain prominent and clear. This also negates the need for excessive upper-midrange bias, though some emphasis within this region is apparent, creating a high-clarity vocal presentation. A small 4K dip redeems some smoothness, working in tangent with the warm mid and upper-bass to create a coherent vocal image.

As the lower-treble does rise quite aggressively after, there is still some rasp and thinness at times, however, not nearly to the same degree as the original Polaris. The result is an earphone that does resemble a typical V but retains more vocal presence than most alongside a pleasingly natural presentation. Though instruments are somewhat biased, the midrange isn’t overshadowed. As with the original, male vocals are slightly more laid-back and, with increased warmth, can be prone to muffle on certain tracks. Still, this is a big step up from the original in terms of timbre and consistency between genres.

 

Highs –

Though more lifted than the Polaris highs appear more balanced in reference to the Polaris II’s more present bass. Highs remain modestly bright though focus is centred around the lower-treble, creating a slightly sharper percussion and detail forward presentation. There is a subsequent rise at 8 kHz before a sharp fall off. The result is abundant foreground detail and great clarity but also fairly thin instrument body. Still, the Polaris II isn’t overly metallic or splashy, especially as the middle-treble above the aforementioned bump is quite dark, granting a substantially cleaner background than its predecessor.

TAEC is present, however, it obviously doesn’t match the standard of that on Campfire’s higher-end Andromeda and Solaris. Treble extension remains sound, however, and a hint of upper-treble emphasis grants some sparkle and micro-detail retrieval which isn’t hugely common on midrange IEMs. This also provides some dimension to its background, flattering directional cues and imaging. As such, the Polaris II is well-layered due to the contrast between a forward foreground and dark yet detailed background. It also sounds fairly composed and controlled with reasonably natural decay. Surely, it doesn’t suit purists, but does represent a well-realised V with immediately improved technical traits that grant is immediate advantage over the original.

 

Soundstage –

Such differences in resolution and smoothness most apparently manifest within the earphone’s soundstage. Listening to an album such as the Eagles Hell Freezes Over with live recordings, and the Polaris II generates an involving presentation. It isn’t overly wide but projects substantial depth, emphasized by its somewhat laid back vocals, especially male. Similarly, imaging is immersive with defined layers, a strong centre image and sharp directional cues, a level of dimension lacking from the original. Instruments are well separated from vocals though bass can skim over fine details when the track gets complex. Treble is especially well separated, however, due to its strong contrast and crisp yet well-controlled foreground detail presence.

 

Driveability –

With a 17ohm impedance and 105dB sensitivity, the Polaris II is quite efficient, more so than its predecessor and most hybrids. This makes it easy to drive to ear-splitting volume, even from a modern smartphone dongle. That said, the Polaris II is quite sensitive to output impedance. As it has only two drivers, mids and bass are mostly unaffected, however, from a 10-ohm source such as the Hiby R6, the Polaris II loses a substantial amount of treble and highs become significantly rolled-off. Moreover, from my Pixel 4 dongle, bass became quite flabby and uncontrolled, losing a fair amount of definition compared to even a midrange DAP such as the Shanling M2X. As such, a low impedance source with ample power is recommended to extract optimal performance.

 

Comparisons –

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Oriveti OH500 ($499): The OH500 is more balanced, bearing a W-shaped signature. It has significantly less bass and its tuning is more linear, with just modest sub-bass emphasis. Meanwhile, its upper-bass is slightly laid-back to create a clean tone that contrasts to the clear warmth of the Polaris II. The OH500 has slightly less extension and the high driver control of the Polaris II means its greater quantity doesn’t come at the cost of too much detail. Through the mids, the OH500 sounds more natural and it has more vocal presence. It better balance between male and female vocals.

As its lower-treble is recessed and its lower-midrange more linear, the OH500 sounds smoother and has more body despite having a cleaner tone with less warmth, creating higher transparency. Within the highs, the Polaris II offers an aggressive lower-treble and more detail presence while the OH500 sounds a bit cleaner with higher focus of emphasis. The Polaris II has more defined layers while the OH500 has cleaner foreground instrumentation and slightly higher detail retrieval. The OH500 has a wider stage while the Polaris II has more depth and a slightly airier sound.

Audiofly AF1120 MK2 (~$585): The AF1120 is massively more linear and balanced. It has immediately less bass emphasis and extension, lacking the same pressure and rumble. Meanwhile, the AF1120 MK2 is warm on behalf of slight mid and upper-bass emphasis though, being a BA earphone, it has much faster decay and higher definition and detail retrieval. The Polaris II has a clearer midrange where the AF1120 MK2 is lightly warm, well-bodied, natural and smooth. This is mostly on behalf of its attenuated lower-treble. On the contrary, the Polaris II is brighter and appreciably clearer but also more female vocal biased.

The Polaris II has a substantially more aggressive treble tuning where the AF1120 MK2 has quite a smooth foreground detail presentation, rather deriving its crispness from middle-treble emphasis. This also grants the AF1120 with excellent headroom, slightly more than the Polaris II. The AF1120 MK2 has more background detail retrieval at the cost of foreground as it can lack some bite due to its smoothness. The AF1120 has a wider soundstage but lacks the same depth and layering.

Campfire Audio Polaris ($699): The Polaris II is more V-shaped, however, it is also the more refined performer. The Polaris II has more bass, especially sub, but it’s more controlled and there’s better balance between sub and mid-bass. As such, it’s more defined and sounds more natural. Mids also sound more natural with greater body and smoothness, especially male vocals. That said, vocals are more laidback than the Polaris as the bass and treble are more forward. Highs don’t feel as present by comparison to the larger bass so it sounds smoother and more composed.

This is opposed to the original that sounded slightly sharper and notably brighter through the background. The Polaris II has noticeably more treble extension and sparkle in the highest registers, it is more detailed and less one-dimensional. This is especially noticeable in its soundstage that is slightly larger but a lot more layered with more precise imaging. The new Polaris is cheaper but performs better and sounds more natural only at the cost of vocal presence, for those wanting a similar style of V-shaped sound, going with the updated model is a no brainer.

Astrotec Phoenix ($799): The Phoenix is slightly pricier and is more balanced with a W-shaped signature. Both earphones have a similar bass curve, however, the Polaris II has a few dB more bass throughout, especially in the mid-bass. As such, it is noticeably warmer where the Phoenix sounds more tonally accurate. The Phoenix also sounds cleaner and has higher definition. That said, the Polaris II has slightly higher bass control, delivering more texture than the Phoenix which sounds a touch smoother in its presentation of fine details. The Phonics has a larger centre midrange push that brings its vocals closer in line with its bass. The Phoenix sounds quite clear similar to the Polaris II, with both having modest upper-midrange emphasis.

However, it also has more lower-midrange body in culmination with less bass spill, sounding slightly more natural and delivering higher midrange definition. This is no doubt aided by its recessed lower-treble that offsets its upper-midrange emphasis where the Polaris II is much more aggressive. Nonetheless, The Phoenix is more detailed by a fair degree and it has better extension. The Phoenix has similarly strong foreground/background contrast but has more sparkle and background detail, yielding a more involving soundstage. It has greater dimensions, however, as the lower-treble is more recessed, its directional cues occasionally aren’t as sharp as the Polaris II.

 

Verdict –

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When first dipping my toes in this hobby, I recall the words of leading reviewers praising the latest designs for their balance and neutrality. Yet, when hearing these models, I would walk away disappointed. How could that be? It got a perfect score and traces the diffuse-field neutral frequency response to a tee. I failed to understand that the ultimate decider in a purchase decision should be personal preference. That’s the beauty of Campfire’s latest line-up, a company who dares not to chase what is ideal in the conventional sense, but rather to explore what is enjoyable to the majority and minority alike. The Polaris II is fun, an apt descriptor for its head-shaking low-end, crystal clear midrange and crisp highs. Yet, where these characteristics once came at the cost of quality, the new Polaris has been realised with excellent driver control that keeps the bass detail despite its size, retains a mostly natural vocal image and highs that possess newfound cleanliness and nuance. That is what buyers can expect from Campfire Audio, mature acoustic engineering realising myriad sounds that resonate with all.

The Polaris II can be purchased from Campfire Audio for $499 USD. I am not affiliated with Campfire Audio and receive no earnings from purchases through this link.

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