Astell&Kern is on the Right Path with Campfire Audio Collaboration
The PATHFINDER is a collaboration between Astell&Kern and the IEM manufacturer Campfire Audio. Astell&Kern is known primarily for its digital audio players, but they have dabbled in in-ear monitors. Campfire Audio, meanwhile only makes IEMs. It's not the first time A&K has joined forces with Campfire; they released the AK Solaris X back in 2021. It's also not the first joint effort for AK, having paired up previously with JH Audio and Beyerdynamic. The PATHFINDER is a hybrid balanced armature and dynamic driver design, and it costs $1,899. If it sounds as good as it looks, I'm all in!
- Striking design
- Deep, rich sound
- Lots of accessories
- No Dragon Cable option
- May feel heavy to some users
Materials, Quality & Comfort
The PATHFINDER is a beautiful marriage of both Astell&Kern and Campfire Audio's design philosophies. Astell&Kern's aesthetic is based on the principles of light and shadow, which gives their products an industrial, futuristic look. Campfire Audio, meanwhile, likes to incorporate aspects of nature into their designs. The PATHFINDER does have that more industrial AK look, with matte black aluminum shells, stainless steel nozzles, and stainless steel backs. That's the nature aspect, as the brushed stainless steel is six-sided diamond-esque design that culminates in a point, like a mountaintop. It gives these IEMs a really snazzy look.
The aluminum and stainless steel make for an IEM with a durable and high-end look and feel. The outside of the left earpiece is emblazoned with "Astell&Kern," while the other side says "Campfire Audio." There are two small ports on each shell; this is to help expel energy that builds up from the dynamic drivers.
The MMCX connectors are made from beryllium and copper, making them more durable than traditional brass connectors that tend to wear out over the course of many cycles of connecting and removing the cable. That's actually the reason that Moon Audio does not use MMCX connectors on its Dragon Cables. As such, we don't have a Dragon Cable option for the PATHFINDER. That being said, the PATHFINDER comes with three silver-plated OFC copper Litz cables: 2.5mm, 3.5mm, and 4.4mm. The cables have a flat design, which is said to make them less prone to tangling and easier to wind. It's actually rather cool looking. It was definitely easy to wind, and it tended to remain nicely coiled after I put it down.
Because the shells look and feel so solid (and so high quality, I might add), I was worried they might feel too heavy in my ears. Not so! These are really comfortable IEMs, and once I had them in, I didn't have much awareness about anything being in my ears.
I paired the PATHFINDER with the Astell&Kern SE180 DAP for my testing sessions. While pairing the PATHFINDER with an AK DAP was an obvious choice, you can use any portable music player or headphone amplifier/DAC that you like. (And yes, you can also drive the PATHFINDER directly from your phone, but for optimal sound quality, we recommend playing your higher-end IEMs on a dedicated playback device.)
To my ears, two of the most striking sound aspects of the PATHDINDER are the depth and punch of the bass and the clarity. The bass is definitely beefy, but it doesn't overpower. The sound is rich with some midrange warmth, but also crisp, clear, and peppy. The PATHFINDER strikes a nice balance in those regards.
"Away from the Mire" by Billy Strings sounds warm and weighty, but not at the expense of detail. Highs are smooth; my ears appreciated the smoother tonality of the banjo. Mids are clear and warmish, with nice vocals. Mandolin and fiddle are sweet but not screechy, and the upright bass has an enjoyable twangy punch. The PATHFINDER kept everything nicely aligned during the extended and frenetic solo. There is great instrument separation, such that you can easily track the guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, and fiddle.
Athens Creek's "House of the Rising Sun/Amazing Grace" medley was another great example of the rich full sound with clear mids. The vocals are to die for on this track, and no amount of obscuring or recessing them will do this track justice. (Opinion time: If you're looking for one of the best renditions of "House of the Rising Sun" you've ever heard, this is it. I recommend the acoustic version on YouTube.)
From the iconic funky bassline in Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" to Carly Simon's soulful vocals to the delicate flute in Jethro Tull, the PATHFINDER suited everything I cued up.
While it's not the widest soundstage (it is an IEM, after all), I found that the PATHFINDER has a nice depth to it. That makes for a sense of realism on tracks with interesting sound effects and lots of layers. In the end, that's important for a satisfying listening experience. No one wants music that sounds flat and one-dimensional.
"Away from the Mire"
"House of the Rising Sun/Amazing Grace"
(The Road Home)
"That's the Way I've Always Heard it Should Be"
As mentioned, the PATHFINDER is a hybrid design using two dynamic and three balanced armature drivers.
Two 10mm dynamic drivers are used for the bass and part of the lower midrange. The drivers are housed in a 3D printed chamber and feature Campfire's new Radial Venting Technology. Each dynamic driver is vented through a specially designed opening located at the face of the driver. This 3D printed acoustic tuning allows the dynamic drivers to vent to the entire circumference of the driver. This dramatically improves the expression of the drivers. The result is a larger soundstage and more presence without increasing pressure or bass bloat.
The midrange is covered by two new "dual chamber" balanced armature drivers from Knowles. This is an innovative driver design in which a single coil operates two individual diaphragms. Compared to a traditional BA with a single, larger diaphragm, the design incorporates two chambers, each housing its own diaphragm and drive rod actuated by a single coil. The result is a higher, more powerful output for its size than any other BA that is excellent at expressing a warmer and more natural midrange.
Dual balanced armature drivers are used for the high frequencies. The drivers incorporate Campfire's T.A.E.C. (Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber), which adjusts the volume of space available in front of the drivers and helps the drivers to express high frequencies without fatigue or sibilance. Campfire Audio says this is superior to the typical “tube and dampener” system because it provides a direct passage from the driver to your ear, which results in unsurpassed clarity and extension.
I opted to compare the PATHFINDER to the Empire Ears Legend X. Like the PATHFINDER, it's a hybrid dynamic and balanced armature design, but it has seven drivers vs. five. The Legend X has a bold, bassy, and energetic sound, but not at the expense of other good things like detail and instrument separation. It's got a V-shaped tuning, meaning that the bass and treble are more forward and the midrange is pulled back just a bit. This gives it a sound reminiscent of many consumer-oriented headphones, but at $2,299, this is definitely an audiophile's IEM. Again, the tuning is such that the bass is big, but it doesn't drown out everything else.
Campfire Solaris 2020
Compared to the PATHFINDER, the Legend X has more bass and bombast. For lovers of Rock and Roll, EDM, and other more bass-driven genres, the Legend X is a solid choice. For listeners who want more present mids as well as great bass but in a more toned-down presentation, the PATHFINDER would be the better option.
I was unable to compare the PATHFINDER to the Solaris X, which was AK's previous collaboration with Campfire Audio, but I did listen to the limited-edition Solaris 2020. The Solaris 2020 has a balanced and natural sound that is crisp and smooth. Bass is tight but not huge. Compared to the Solaris 2020, the PATHFINDER hits harder. The sound is weightier, punchier, peppier.
Great sound in a gorgeous package. That's the PATHFINDER in a nutshell. It was love at first sight and listen for me. The PATHFINDER has enough bass and slam to do justice to more rocking tracks, but enough midrange clarity and presence to make vocals tracks and acoustic music sound great. There's plenty of definition throughout the upper ranges, but the presentation is smooth. This makes the PATHFINDER a versatile IEM. I listen to a lot of Rock, Folk, Bluegrass, and Jam Band music, and all of those genres shone on this IEM. I don't listen to much Jazz, but I imagine that the low-end weight coupled with a smoother top end would appeal to Jazz listeners - classical, too. Paired with your favorite AK DAP or other digital music player, the PATHFINDER is going to give you a versatile option in both sound and ergonomics for your on-the-go hi-fi listening.
What's in the Box
- 2.5mm Silver-Plated Copper Cable
- 3.5mm Silver-Plated Copper Cable
- 4.4mm Silver-Plated Copper Cable
- 5 pairs of Final Audio E-Type Tips (XS/S/M/L/XL)
- 3 pairs of Campfire Audio Marshmallow Earphone Tips (S/M/L)
- 3 pairs of Silicon Earphone Tips (S/M/L)
- Earphone Cleaning Tool
- Leather Zipper Case
- Earphone Protection Sleeve
- High: Custom dual balanced armatures + TEAC
- Mid: "Dual chamber" balanced armature driver from Knowles
- Mid-Low to Sub-Bass: Custom 10mm dynamic driver from Knowles
Frequency response: 5Hz-20kHz
SPL: 94dB @ 1kHz 13.49mVrms
Impedance: 6.2 Ohms @ 1kHz
Total harmonic distortion: <1%
Cable: 2.5m silver-plated copper; 3.5mm silver-plated copper; 4.4m, silver-plated copper
Material/Design: Aluminum shell / Hand polished stainless steel threaded spout / Stainless steel Inlay and Parts