flinkenick's 17 Flagship IEM Shootout Thread (and general high-end portable audio discussion)
Dec 21, 2020 at 10:09 AM Post #25,801 of 28,777

Rockwell75

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On my last day with the MEST trying to organize my thoughts of the last few weeks/months into a little 3-way...

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Dec 21, 2020 at 10:35 AM Post #25,803 of 28,777

jwbrent

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Effect Audio King Arthur came out last year I believe for $6,800 (made by Empire Ears), so there are definitely other ridiculously priced IEMs out there.

Yes, I forgot about that one ...
 
Dec 21, 2020 at 2:57 PM Post #25,805 of 28,777

jwbrent

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The most expensive IEM title was already claimed by oBravo RA C Cu...

Please enlighten me on what that costs!

The Odin was my first foray into +3K iems. I never thought I’d spend that much because I always questioned the value of flagship iems. Now that I own four flagships, soon to be five, I’ve been sucked in to their allure, and I have put aside my criticism about these very high retails. But 6K is not likely a threshold I’ll consider, me thinks. 🤔
 
Dec 21, 2020 at 3:03 PM Post #25,806 of 28,777

mashuto

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Please enlighten me on what that costs!

The Odin was my first foray into +3K iems. I never thought I’d spend that much because I always questioned the value of flagship iems. Now that I own four flagships, soon to be five, I’ve been sucked in to their allure, and I have put aside my criticism about these very high retails. But 6K is not likely a threshold I’ll consider, me thinks. 🤔
That obravo runs about 10k
 
Dec 21, 2020 at 3:08 PM Post #25,807 of 28,777
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Please enlighten me on what that costs!

The Odin was my first foray into +3K iems. I never thought I’d spend that much because I always questioned the value of flagship iems. Now that I own four flagships, soon to be five, I’ve been sucked in to their allure, and I have put aside my criticism about these very high retails. But 6K is not likely a threshold I’ll consider, me thinks. 🤔

It is $10k IEM released 2.5 years ago, with a price reflecting the cost of R&D development and manufacturing of their own custom oBravo AMT miniature drivers.
 
Dec 21, 2020 at 3:09 PM Post #25,808 of 28,777

Rockwell75

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Shades of Color— a little 3.5 way shootout between the CFA Solaris SE, Andromeda (2020/MW10) and the Unique Melody MEST

For some reason it seems that whenever I find myself on holidays I’m almost immediately struck by the impulse to write a review or a shootout on whatever audio gems have crossed my path in recent memory. On that note here I am, at the beginning of my Christmas holiday, about to gather my thoughts the Unique Melody MEST and the Campfire Audio Andromeda MW10 edition, specifically how they stack up against each other and, of course, and against my mainstay the Solaris SE (and to some extent the Andromeda 2020).

I have had the MEST on loan for the past 3 weeks as part of the Canadian tour and I was fortunate to purchase the MW10 through an auspiciously placed friend in Osaka. Regarding my Solaris SE, I realized this morning that on this day last year, at about this hour that I am typing this, I stopped by Headphone Bar in Vancouver to pick it up. This makes it the first IEM I have had as my daily for a year straight. I think I deserve a few quit audio points for that.

A couple important points to start:
  • The first thing to note is that I love all 3 of the IEMs about to be discussed— I could live with any one of them as my main. Often when we describe differences between top tier IEMs minor differences, quibbles and issues get magnified and exaggerated when in reality what we’re talking about are nuanced differences between pieces of gear that are fundamentally playing at or very close to the same level of performance. The fact that I could live with any of these 3 IEMs as an exclusive indicates that they have passed my most difficult personal requirements and now all that remains are subtle differences relative to each IEM’s unique character and strengths.

  • Second, all my experience, listening and aspirations fall squarely in the sub $3k tier. For a variety of reasons (and mental barriers) I don’t think I will ever splurge on an IEM like the Odin or the Erlkonig. I’ve kind of set my limit on what I will spend on a single IEM at around $1.5k and it’s in that “mental space” that operate when considering the relative strengths of an IEM.

  • I appreciate measurements, and am in the process of learning, but I am not yet at that lofty state where I can directly correlate what I see on a graph to what I hear. Because of that many/most of my impressions are rooted in what I feel and how I perceive what I am hearing.

  • My own bias is towards a balanced sound with a very slight musical bent. Some people really value technicalities and are willing to pay for as much detail, resolution soundstage etc. as they can get-- to these people an extra $2K for 5% more performance (or less) may be totally worth it. My personal priority is engagement and enjoyment-- the more engaging and enjoyable the experience of listening to an IEM is, the more highly I will regard it. Along these lines, and for myself, I have found that an increase in technical skill doesn't necessarily translate to a more enjoyable listening experience. On that note I tend to value tonality over technicalities
Lastly, I am very greatful to helpful communities and sources of information like Head-Fi, r/headphones, Discord etc. Without their help we’d all be stumbling blindly in the dark searching out quality gear. In my close to 2 years now in this hobby everything I have come across has been top tier. I can’t think of a single truly “bad” IEM that I’ve owned— because of this even on the top 10 list I made the other day the difference in quality between the top entry and the tenth is much less than may be suggested by the length of the list. None of this would have been possible without the help of fellow enthusiasts from all the communities I mentioned and some. This hobby is such a fundamentally personal thing...possibly my favourite aspect of threads like this and Head Fi in general is that everyone is free to pursue this hobby in whatever way is satisfying to them-- be it through constantly changing through gear or the minutia of cables and sources, or hell even audio rocks (ok maybe not audio rocks). It's always interesting to hear other people's genuine takes and impressions and compare them against your own. I'm happy to have places I can to share the love of this hobby as well as learn and converse with others in the process…so a heartfelt thanks to you all.

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Onto the IEMs…

1) Campfire Audio Solaris SE

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I mention this one first only because I’ve had it the longest and am the most familiar with it. Between my 1 year (to the day) with the SE and about 6 months with the OG, one Solaris or another has been with me for most of my time in this hobby, which means that it’s become kind of my benchmark for me. I do not pretend that it is perfect (I don’t think any IEM can be perfect—the range of tastes, not to mention styles of music and quality of recording is much too vast) but it does tread a sort of goldilocks middle path for me in that it plays very well with the wide varieties of musical styles and genres that comprise my musical palette. As I’ve said before it’s not necessarily the best at any one thing, but it attains an almost zen level of balance across the spectrum (in terms of both tone and technicalities) such that it does just the right amount of everything to give it a level of versatility that is unparalleled in my personal experience. Further it’s the only IEM I’ve yet owned that I can live with exclusively for months on end and not feel that I’m missing anything substantial and start craving an up or a sidegrade. If by chance anyone reading this is interested in more in depth impressions of the SE see the reviews linked in my sig—particularly the “4 way shootout”.

It’s also worth pointing out, and most people around here who are familiar with me already know this, but I’m something of a huge CFA fanboy. They were one of the first brands I encountered in this most recent chapter of my audiophile life, and as I’ve already indicated they’ve been something of a mainstay for me throughout the last couple years. I love Campfire and have no problem admitting that they are my favourite audio brand. I love their whole design philosophy, aesthetic and sustainable business model. I love the peerless build quality of their products and the fact that they're willing to experiment a little with different tuning platforms and staging models within their IEMs. I like Ken Ball a lot-- he's one of those old hippy types who got his start in life with the idealistic wind of the 60s still at his back. In some ways he's like the Steve Jobs of the portable audio market-- and the holistic, sustainable "think different" ethos of his company seems to suggest this.

The above said I know Campfire are no strangers to controversy (though much of it vastly overblown and underserved IMHO) and head scratching moments. I, along with many, stare in bemusement (and sometimes confusion) at the endless stream of revisions and “special editions”. As I have stated elsewhere I am ok with this to some degree. I much prefer their habit of tweaking and refining their successes as opposed to totally reinventing their lineup every couple years. And I'm grateful that for the time being they're eschewing the fad of exotic driver types in favour of traditional BAs and DDs. That said I do understand the eye-rolling and dashes of jadedness and cynicism that lately have been accompanying these new "special editions". On the other hand I cannot fail to note that I really like how they’re current lineup is shaping out. All 5 of their current models have their own niche on a spectrum from the balls to the wall fun sound of the Vega 2020, to the progressively more balanced and “reference” sound of the Solaris to the Ara. So while I may raise an eyebrow and slightly wrinkle my nose at some of these releases I love what they're doing on the whole and can eagerly look forward to eventually demoing their entire lineup.

2) Unique Melody MEST

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Ahh the mighty MEST. My first time hearing of the MEST was last spring in an impressions thread at headphones.com. The first things I read about it were that it “comprehensively bested” the Andromeda and was a “much improved” Solaris. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say of a new IEM that it’s “better than Andromeda”…I’d be able to buy another Andromeda. Still though, these claims about the MEST were made by people whose opinions I respect so I filed them in the back of my head at the time.

Fast forward to the summer where the hype around this IEM reached such a fever pitch that it was all but lauded as some sort of Jesus IEM that could annihilate everything at the $3k+ tier...I was waiting for reports that the MEST had walked on water, raised the dead or fed multitudes with a few loaves and fishes. This pitch of hype didn’t last and before long some more grounded reports started to emerge and, like everything else, it appeared to have its share of idiosyncracies and specialties that may appeal more to some than others. Nonetheless when the opportunity came for me to participate in a Canadian tour for the MEST I enthusiastically jumped on. As I am writing this I am at the end of my tour cycle and am preparing to mail the MEST away to its home.

TLDR: While the hype was, predictably, overblown I nonetheless LOVED my time with the MEST and easily place it in the upper echelons of my personal preferences.

In some ways the MEST was exactly what I expected, in other ways it wasn’t at all. Coming from Solaris the first thing one notices is the bass. In my previous shootout I, inspired by Resolve’s review of the Atlas, laid out the beginning of a framework for measuring bass response using “crap your pants” analogies. The Atlas, for example, has “get off the bus and crap yourself bass”; the Legend X, by comparison, has “get out of your limo and crap yourself bass”. Using this metric I would say the MEST has “wait until you get home and drop a mad one” bass—to wit: it’s superbly controlled, ultimately very satisfying but at the same time it can also be preoccupying to the point of distraction. The bass on the MEST is so good in some respects that it creates a problem for me trying to evaluate it—do I praise its ability to completely captivate and often almost hypnotize me? Or do I point out that it can sometimes do this to the detriment of the rest of the FR?

As implied the MEST eschews the more balanced tonality of the Solaris for a mild V that places a clear emphasis on sub-bass, percussion in general and sparkly highs. On the MEST the sub-bass is a bit wooblier (not wooly, woobly), better defined and a bit more in perceived quantity than on Solaris. The sub-bass response on the MEST is addictive—I often get lost in its subtle textures. But this, again, is both a blessing and a curse as while zoning out on the bass or technical detail I’m simultaneously oblivious to the rest of the spectrum. Conversely both the Solaris and Andromeda do a better job at drawing your attention to the entirety of the sonic spectrum and in their own way allow you to appreciate the recording you’re listing to and not be as distracted by the pyrotechnics. Interestingly I compared graphs of the SE and MEST and imho it doesn’t reflect the bass emphasis I perceive on the MEST. I don't think I would go so far as to say the MEST's bass extends deeper. On the Solaris the bass is perhaps a touch denser and punchier but further back and with a quicker decay and more of a mid-bass emphasis. Because of this there is a bit more "air" to the MEST's sound while the Solaris sounds more balanced. What this means practically speaking is that in some recordings the MEST is notably better than Solaris, which is nonetheless more than adequate and a little more versatile across the board.

Of the 3 main branches of the FR the MEST is probably weakest in the mid-range. While they are perfectly fine much of the time there were times when vocals and instruments sound a little thin and vaguely digitized. Conversely, the midrange on both Solaris and Andromeda sound fuller, more forward and more organic on the whole. The highs on the MEST are outstanding and nuanced and have great “sparkle”. Though, oddly, there were some tracks where it sounded like something vaguely weird was going on, like a chunk of the FR in the “sparkle” region was snipped and inserted somewhere else…if that makes sense. It didn’t happen all the time but there were definitely times where I wasn’t quite sure what to make of what I was hearing. Highs on the MEST have more sparkle, whereas on the Solaris there is a bit more shimmer. The highs on the Solaris can sound a touch bitey on some tracks, but I haven't noticed this at all on the MEST…but the highs on the MEST can be a touch sibilant/overwhelming to my ears here and there.

Sheer technical chops is where I would say the MEST has a clear advantage over both CFA IEMS I own. In terms of detail and resolution I definitely hear more minutia on the MEST, though this may be more due to the lesser mid-bass. It would be interesting to pit the MEST against something like the Andromeda MW10 through the PAW S1 here. In terms of staging, separation, imaging etc. the Solaris used to be my benchmark and though I hesitated at first after hearing the MEST but now that more time has passed, in terms of technicalities, I have to give the crown unequivocally to the MEST over the Solaris...though I have to say the jury is still out on the MW10 in this regard. In any case this isn’t to say I don’t prefer the placement and emphasis of the layers in the Solaris in some ways, but the skill and facility with which the MEST layers and separates things, giving everything its own sense of space is truly remarkable and I have not experienced the like in any other IEM I have tried.

If I had to criticize the MEST at all in terms of its technicalities I would say that sometimes the “fireworks” of its technical skill and detail retrieval can distract one from the heart of the recording they are listening to. I once likened the u12t and Andromeda to the “Mars and Venus” of IEMs. The u12t, being decidedly reference-like and analytic in naturem evokes a more intellectual response-- its engagement factor is derived from the precision, order and detail that characterizes its signature. The Andromeda, by contrast, evokes a more emotional response-- it is less concerned with space and details and more concerned with sweeping you off your feet and casting its spell on you. The u12t stimulates your intellect, the Andromeda tugs at your heart. IMHO neither approach is superior to the other—it really depends on you and what you’re after. I would make a similar claim (with caveats) regarding the MEST and Solaris. I have heard the MEST described as a “supercharged” Solaris and in a sense it is—in terms of its technical chops, but in terms of tonality I found both the Solaris (and Andromeda) more likely to sweep me off my feet.

Overall I was often split down the middle with individual tracks around whether I preferred Solaris, MEST (or neither over the other). For every track that the MEST flexes its strength there is another where I appreciate the Solaris' more organic sounding and forward midrange. In some ways going from Solaris to MEST is like talking to someone from LA and then someone from New York-- while each person will sound distinct it's clear that they are both fundamentally speaking the same language. My preference for one or the other can even vary on the same album. For instance on Dire Straits' first album the MEST renders Mark Knopfler's steel guitar on "Setting Me Up" with greater facility and clarity than the Solaris does. On the other hand when I'm listening to "Six Blade Knife" from the same album on the MEST I find myself missing the extra warmth and body that the Solaris provides. They're both tremendous IEMs, but the MEST is probably more captivating on initial listen. Honestly I if I were to walk into a store and demo the two IEMs cold there is a good chance I'd probably leave with the MEST over the Solaris. However, and this is a big however, having had the Solaris for the better part of two years (and having come back to it on one occasion) my own opinion is that its sheer versatility as an "all rounder" is hard to beat and for me. As to which is a better choice that depends on the individual and their tastes. Technically the MEST is superior and has better bass and highs. But I personally prefer the tonal balance, mid-range timbre and overall "gestalt" of the presentation on the Solaris (and Andro) and would personally edge them both slightly over the MEST. That being said I can imagine there are many for whom the MEST is unquestionably the better choice...so, like so many other things, it's a YMMV situation.

3) Campfire Audio Andromeda MW10

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The MW10 is a limited edition Japan only version of the Andromeda that, in addition to being the most beautiful (Imho) it's also rumoured to be the best sounding of all, but a clarification of the exact differences and it's exact standing will have to wait until a bit later.

The Solaris was my first love from Campfire Audio and I only really heard the Andromeda for the first time when I got my hands on the 2020 last summer. It's nice to finally understand what all the hype is about-- the Andromeda is probably the most instantly accessible, easily likeable IEM I've heard and I can see why it remains the de-facto reference IEM for many even after all these years. Prior to owning the MW10 I would have said that I still prefer the Solaris overall as the dynamic low end and more "in your face" staging is more to my liking. However for someone looking for a "do everything" IEM that is immersive, inoffensive, and engaging it's hard to think of a better recommendation than the Andromeda...it puts many, much more expensive IEMs to shame.

In the case of Campfire Audio it's practically a platitude that the Andromeda is their most beloved model despite the fact that there have been a few models released "above" it (Vega, Atlas, Solaris were all flagships after Andromeda). I think the thing with Andro is that they hit on a tuning that's really likeable, sufficiently technical, highly engaging and that plays well with just about everything. Often you have to make sacrifices in one of those categories for the sake of another but the Andromeda strikes a nice balance for a lot of people-- there is a definite emotional pull or allure to its sound that I haven't come across very often…and probably never yet to the same degree. Solaris definitely has its devotees (like myself) but it also takes a few chances and is a less conventional tuning than Andro-- which means that how one feels about it will depend on what they listen to and what their own particular sonic priorities are. I listen to a lot of minimal techno and acoustic music and I place a high value on immersiveness, dense bass and holographic spaciousness-- and for what I listen to the Solaris (and now the MEST) is the best I've heard to my tastes. In some respects the Solaris takes the signature of Andromeda, stretches it out and wraps it around your head-- which can be a great effect but it leaves parts of the mid-range feeling a touch thin or wonky for some.

As I’ve indicated elsewhere my impressions of the MW10 at this point have limited value as I have no real experience with earlier versions of the Andro and as of this writing haven't heard the 2020 in months. Further I’m still definitely in the “honeymoon” phase so anything I say has a 50% chance to be the result of me waxing emotional rather being objective. That said—I am in love with the MW10. They are truly a phenomenal product across the board and easily take the crown and the most beautiful and classiest IEM I have owned. Given how sweet their sound is I imagine demand and value will remain steady over time.

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Going back in time to the summer, my initial thoughts upon hearing the 2020 Andromeda for the first time was that Solaris sounds like "Andro with its big boy pants on" and on the whole I still stand by that. The first thing I notice when I switch from Andromeda (either variant) to Solaris is the denser and richer low end, vaster sense of space and by extension the more holographic stage. In terms of technicalities my thoughts on the 2020 at the time were that Solaris bests Andromeda in all areas except perhaps minutia of detail (largely an unavoidable consequence of the increased low end presence). My “off the cuff” thoughts on the MW10 are that it has made refined the technicalities and improved the dynamics and punch compared to the 2020. Like the 2020 the Andromeda MW10 has that unbeatable coherence that (in my experience) has only been achieved so far with single driver type setups. There is a definite sweetness and allure to Andromeda's sound that Solaris doesn't quite capture-- but in fairness I haven't heard anything else which quite does either. On that note I would probably give Andro (both the 2020 and the MW10) the slight edge over Solaris tonally, but all 3 IEMs ultimately suit my preferences fine. The Andromeda also puts forth a more etheric type sound-- Solaris is more spacious and Andromeda gives more space between notes if that makes sense. The more I listen to both the more I feel they were each ideally named. Andromeda is a galaxy which conjures images of spaciousness and unity, whereas Solaris derives its name from the sun, a massive centre of gravity which cannot fail to grab your attention. My closing thoughts on the 2020 Andromeda (relative to Solaris) as of a few months ago were that ultimately if I had to pick one I would go with Solaris as I feel it takes the DNA of the Andromeda and expands it into a more complete and evolved sound signature. At this stage the “final standing” of the MW10 over Solaris remains for me to see as I’ve only had them for a few days at this point. Suffice to say the MW10 sound amazing...but they are very very close to what I remember the 2020 sounding like.

In truth I find myself wondering if the MW10 does indeed contain some secret sauce-- in addition to the already speculated treble sparkle-- in the form of improved technicalities and dynamics over the 2020. Regarding the question of whether the MW10 has the "missing" treble sparkle of the 2020 I can't confirm or deny absolutely without listening to the 2020 (or the OG) again. That said it's noteworthy that, coming from 2.5 straight weeks with the MEST, which is known for its highs, sparkle and air, I don't find anything lacking or suffocating with the MW10 Andromeda. It could very well be that the MW10 takes the lows and mids of the 2020 and combines it with the relative brightness and treble profile of the OG...but I would have to hear the 2020 again to verify this for sure. There is something truly magical and enchanting about the Andromeda's sound-- I find myself captivated and "swept off my feet" more than with any other IEM...but I remember saying this about the 2020 too so who knows. I am working on a plan, in the new year, to tour this through a very select group of Andro enthusiasts for some measurements and impressions/comparisons...which will put the exact standing of this thing on less mythical ground.

Man oh man they are nice to look at though.

Summary

So where does this leave us? I am in the midst of something of a philosophical shift in the way I regard and assess IEMs. The more time I spend in this hobby the more I tend towards the view that our own subjective state of consciousness—including preferences, sensitivities, moods and many other factors—are AT LEAST as important as any qualities of the IEM itself. To see a beautiful elucidation of the sort of thing I’m getting at see this clip from the martial arts movie Fearless where where Huo Juan Jia (played by Jet Li) describes, over a glass of tea, that any assessment of the tea he makes says as much about him as about the tea. Now I’m not denying that there are definite, objective differences in quality between various IEMs—but after a point the question of “which is better” is less a statement of a given IEMs objective merits and more about the needs, demands, preconceptions and overall state of mind of the listener.

For the last few days I have spent hours switching between the MEST, the Andromeda and the Solaris in order to gather impressions and comparisons of each. What I have found, repeatedly, is that when I listen to either the Solaris, the Andromeda or the MEST at the time I am listening the idea of “comparing” goes out the window and I find myself enjoying each IEM on its own terms and for its own strengths.

IEMs, I think due to the intensely personal connection we derive from them, are almost like our children and it's hard not to take it personally when others trash them or don't rank them as highly. My own belief is that the greater the extent to which one is able to let their own tastes, inclinations and impressions guide their search-- even, and often especially, when it contravenes the "status quo"-- then the greater will be their satisfaction, success and happiness in this hobby.

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Last edited:
Dec 21, 2020 at 3:44 PM Post #25,809 of 28,777

IEMusic

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My own belief is that the greater the extent to which one is able to let their own tastes, inclinations and impressions guide their search-- even, and often especially, when it contravenes the "status quo"-- then the greater will be their satisfaction, success and happiness in this hobby.
*Slow*👏
 
Dec 21, 2020 at 7:27 PM Post #25,810 of 28,777

CL14715

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Shades of Color— a little 3.5 way shootout between the CFA Solaris SE, Andromeda (2020/MW10) and the Unique Melody MEST

For some reason it seems that whenever I find myself on holidays I’m almost immediately struck by the impulse to write a review or a shootout on whatever audio gems have crossed my path in recent memory. On that note here I am, at the beginning of my Christmas holiday, about to gather my thoughts the Unique Melody MEST and the Campfire Audio Andromeda MW10 edition, specifically how they stack up against each other and, of course, and against my mainstay the Solaris SE (and to some extent the Andromeda 2020).

I have had the MEST on loan for the past 3 weeks as part of the Canadian tour and I was fortunate to purchase the MW10 through an auspiciously placed friend in Osaka. Regarding my Solaris SE, I realized this morning that on this day last year, at about this hour that I am typing this, I stopped by Headphone Bar in Vancouver to pick it up. This makes it the first IEM I have had as my daily for a year straight. I think I deserve a few quit audio points for that.

A couple important points to start:
  • The first thing to note is that I love all 3 of the IEMs about to be discussed— I could live with any one of them as my main. Often when we describe differences between top tier IEMs minor differences, quibbles and issues get magnified and exaggerated when in reality what we’re talking about are nuanced differences between pieces of gear that are fundamentally playing at or very close to the same level of performance. The fact that I could live with any of these 3 IEMs as an exclusive indicates that they have passed my most difficult personal requirements and now all that remains are subtle differences relative to each IEM’s unique character and strengths.

  • Second, all my experience, listening and aspirations fall squarely in the sub $3k tier. For a variety of reasons (and mental barriers) I don’t think I will ever splurge on an IEM like the Odin or the Erlkonig. I’ve kind of set my limit on what I will spend on a single IEM at around $1.5k and it’s in that “mental space” that operate when considering the relative strengths of an IEM.

  • I appreciate measurements, and am in the process of learning, but I am not yet at that lofty state where I can directly correlate what I see on a graph to what I hear. Because of that many/most of my impressions are rooted in what I feel and how I perceive what I am hearing.

  • My own bias is towards a balanced sound with a very slight musical bent. Some people really value technicalities and are willing to pay for as much detail, resolution soundstage etc. as they can get-- to these people an extra $2K for 5% more performance (or less) may be totally worth it. My personal priority is engagement and enjoyment-- the more engaging and enjoyable the experience of listening to an IEM is, the more highly I will regard it. Along these lines, and for myself, I have found that an increase in technical skill doesn't necessarily translate to a more enjoyable listening experience. On that note I tend to value tonality over technicalities
Lastly, I am very greatful to helpful communities and sources of information like Head-Fi, SBAF, r/headphones, Discord etc. Without their help we’d all be stumbling blindly in the dark searching out quality gear. In my close to 2 years now in this hobby everything I have come across has been top tier. I can’t think of a single truly “bad” IEM that I’ve owned— because of this even on the top 10 list I made the other day the difference in quality between the top entry and the tenth is much less than may be suggested by the length of the list. None of this would have been possible without the help of fellow enthusiasts from all the communities I mentioned and some. This hobby is such a fundamentally personal thing...possibly my favourite aspect of threads like this and Head Fi in general is that everyone is free to pursue this hobby in whatever way is satisfying to them-- be it through constantly changing through gear or the minutia of cables and sources, or hell even audio rocks (ok maybe not audio rocks). It's always interesting to hear other people's genuine takes and impressions and compare them against your own. I'm happy to have places I can to share the love of this hobby as well as learn and converse with others in the process…so a heartfelt thanks to you all.

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Onto the IEMs…

1) Campfire Audio Solaris SE

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I mention this one first only because I’ve had it the longest and am the most familiar with it. Between my 1 year (to the day) with the SE and about 6 months with the OG, one Solaris or another has been with me for most of my time in this hobby, which means that it’s become kind of my benchmark for me. I do not pretend that it is perfect (I don’t think any IEM can be perfect—the range of tastes, not to mention styles of music and quality of recording is much too vast) but it does tread a sort of goldilocks middle path for me in that it plays very well with the wide varieties of musical styles and genres that comprise my musical palette. As I’ve said before it’s not necessarily the best at any one thing, but it attains an almost zen level of balance across the spectrum (in terms of both tone and technicalities) such that it does just the right amount of everything to give it a level of versatility that is unparalleled in my personal experience. Further it’s the only IEM I’ve yet owned that I can live with exclusively for months on end and not feel that I’m missing anything substantial and start craving an up or a sidegrade. If by chance anyone reading this is interested in more in depth impressions of the SE see the reviews linked in my sig—particularly the “4 way shootout”.

It’s also worth pointing out, and most people around here who are familiar with me already know this, but I’m something of a huge CFA fanboy. They were one of the first brands I encountered in this most recent chapter of my audiophile life, and as I’ve already indicated they’ve been something of a mainstay for me throughout the last couple years. I love Campfire and have no problem admitting that they are my favourite audio brand. I love their whole design philosophy, aesthetic and sustainable business model. I love the peerless build quality of their products and the fact that they're willing to experiment a little with different tuning platforms and staging models within their IEMs. I like Ken Ball a lot-- he's one of those old hippy types who got his start in life with the idealistic wind of the 60s still at his back. In some ways he's like the Steve Jobs of the portable audio market-- and the holistic, sustainable "think different" ethos of his company seems to suggest this.

The above said I know Campfire are no strangers to controversy (though much of it vastly overblown and underserved IMHO) and head scratching moments. I, along with many, stare in bemusement (and sometimes confusion) at the endless stream of revisions and “special editions”. As I have stated elsewhere I am ok with this to some degree. I much prefer their habit of tweaking and refining their successes as opposed to totally reinventing their lineup every couple years. And I'm grateful that for the time being they're eschewing the fad of exotic driver types in favour of traditional BAs and DDs. That said I do understand the eye-rolling and dashes of jadedness and cynicism that lately have been accompanying these new "special editions". On the other hand I cannot fail to note that I really like how they’re current lineup is shaping out. All 5 of their current models have their own niche on a spectrum from the balls to the wall fun sound of the Vega 2020, to the progressively more balanced and “reference” sound of the Solaris to the Ara. So while I may raise an eyebrow and slightly wrinkle my nose at some of these releases I love what they're doing on the whole and can eagerly look forward to eventually demoing their entire lineup.

2) Unique Melody MEST

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Ahh the mighty MEST. My first time hearing of the MEST was last spring in an impressions thread at headphones.com. The first things I read about it were that it “comprehensively bested” the Andromeda and was a “much improved” Solaris. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say of a new IEM that it’s “better than Andromeda”…I’d be able to buy another Andromeda. Still though, these claims about the MEST were made by people whose opinions I respect so I filed them in the back of my head at the time.

Fast forward to the summer where the hype around this IEM reached such a fever pitch that it was all but lauded as some sort of Jesus IEM that could annihilate everything at the $3k+ tier...I was waiting for reports that the MEST had walked on water, raised the dead or fed multitudes with a few loaves and fishes. This pitch of hype didn’t last and before long some more grounded reports started to emerge and, like everything else, it appeared to have its share of idiosyncracies and specialties that may appeal more to some than others. Nonetheless when the opportunity came for me to participate in a Canadian tour for the MEST I enthusiastically jumped on. As I am writing this I am at the end of my tour cycle and am preparing to mail the MEST away to its home.

TLDR: While the hype was, predictably, overblown I nonetheless LOVED my time with the MEST and easily place it in the upper echelons of my personal preferences.

In some ways the MEST was exactly what I expected, in other ways it wasn’t at all. Coming from Solaris the first thing one notices is the bass. In my previous shootout I, inspired by Resolve’s review of the Atlas, laid out the beginning of a framework for measuring bass response using “crap your pants” analogies. The Atlas, for example, has “get off the bus and crap yourself bass”; the Legend X, by comparison, has “get out of your limo and crap yourself bass”. Using this metric I would say the MEST has “wait until you get home and drop a mad one” bass—to wit: it’s superbly controlled, ultimately very satisfying but at the same time it can also be preoccupying to the point of distraction. The bass on the MEST is so good in some respects that it creates a problem for me trying to evaluate it—do I praise its ability to completely captivate and often almost hypnotize me? Or do I point out that it can sometimes do this to the detriment of the rest of the FR?

As implied the MEST eschews the more balanced tonality of the Solaris for a mild V that places a clear emphasis on sub-bass, percussion in general and sparkly highs. On the MEST the sub-bass is a bit wooblier (not wooly, woobly), better defined and a bit more in perceived quantity than on Solaris. The sub-bass response on the MEST is addictive—I often get lost in its subtle textures. But this, again, is both a blessing and a curse as while zoning out on the bass or technical detail I’m simultaneously oblivious to the rest of the spectrum. Conversely both the Solaris and Andromeda do a better job at drawing your attention to the entirety of the sonic spectrum and in their own way allow you to appreciate the recording you’re listing to and not be as distracted by the pyrotechnics. Interestingly I compared graphs of the SE and MEST and imho it doesn’t reflect the bass emphasis I perceive on the MEST. I don't think I would go so far as to say the MEST's bass extends deeper. On the Solaris the bass is perhaps a touch denser and punchier but further back and with a quicker decay and more of a mid-bass emphasis. Because of this there is a bit more "air" to the MEST's sound while the Solaris sounds more balanced. What this means practically speaking is that in some recordings the MEST is notably better than Solaris, which is nonetheless more than adequate and a little more versatile across the board.

Of the 3 main branches of the FR the MEST is probably weakest in the mid-range. While they are perfectly fine much of the time there were times when vocals and instruments sound a little thin and vaguely digitized. Conversely, the midrange on both Solaris and Andromeda sound fuller, more forward and more organic on the whole. The highs on the MEST are outstanding and nuanced and have great “sparkle”. Though, oddly, there were some tracks where it sounded like something vaguely weird was going on, like a chunk of the FR in the “sparkle” region was snipped and inserted somewhere else…if that makes sense. It didn’t happen all the time but there were definitely times where I wasn’t quite sure what to make of what I was hearing. Highs on the MEST have more sparkle, whereas on the Solaris there is a bit more shimmer. The highs on the Solaris can sound a touch bitey on some tracks, but I haven't noticed this at all on the MEST…but the highs on the MEST can be a touch sibilant/overwhelming to my ears here and there.

Sheer technical chops is where I would say the MEST has a clear advantage over both CFA IEMS I own. In terms of detail and resolution I definitely hear more minutia on the MEST, though this may be more due to the lesser mid-bass. It would be interesting to pit the MEST against something like the Andromeda MW10 through the PAW S1 here. In terms of staging, separation, imaging etc. the Solaris used to be my benchmark and though I hesitated at first after hearing the MEST but now that more time has passed, in terms of technicalities, I have to give the crown unequivocally to the MEST over the Solaris...though I have to say the jury is still out on the MW10 in this regard. In any case this isn’t to say I don’t prefer the placement and emphasis of the layers in the Solaris in some ways, but the skill and facility with which the MEST layers and separates things, giving everything its own sense of space is truly remarkable and I have not experienced the like in any other IEM I have tried.

If I had to criticize the MEST at all in terms of its technicalities I would say that sometimes the “fireworks” of its technical skill and detail retrieval can distract one from the heart of the recording they are listening to. I once likened the u12t and Andromeda to the “Mars and Venus” of IEMs. The u12t, being decidedly reference-like and analytic in naturem evokes a more intellectual response-- its engagement factor is derived from the precision, order and detail that characterizes its signature. The Andromeda, by contrast, evokes a more emotional response-- it is less concerned with space and details and more concerned with sweeping you off your feet and casting its spell on you. The u12t stimulates your intellect, the Andromeda tugs at your heart. IMHO neither approach is superior to the other—it really depends on you and what you’re after. I would make a similar claim (with caveats) regarding the MEST and Solaris. I have heard the MEST described as a “supercharged” Solaris and in a sense it is—in terms of its technical chops, but in terms of tonality I found both the Solaris (and Andromeda) more likely to sweep me off my feet.

Overall I was often split down the middle with individual tracks around whether I preferred Solaris, MEST (or neither over the other). For every track that the MEST flexes its strength there is another where I appreciate the Solaris' more organic sounding and forward midrange. In some ways going from Solaris to MEST is like talking to someone from LA and then someone from New York-- while each person will sound distinct it's clear that they are both fundamentally speaking the same language. My preference for one or the other can even vary on the same album. For instance on Dire Straits' first album the MEST renders Mark Knopfler's steel guitar on "Setting Me Up" with greater facility and clarity than the Solaris does. On the other hand when I'm listening to "Six Blade Knife" from the same album on the MEST I find myself missing the extra warmth and body that the Solaris provides. They're both tremendous IEMs, but the MEST is probably more captivating on initial listen. Honestly I if I were to walk into a store and demo the two IEMs cold there is a good chance I'd probably leave with the MEST over the Solaris. However, and this is a big however, having had the Solaris for the better part of two years (and having come back to it on one occasion) my own opinion is that its sheer versatility as an "all rounder" is hard to beat and for me. As to which is a better choice that depends on the individual and their tastes. Technically the MEST is superior and has better bass and highs. But I personally prefer the tonal balance, mid-range timbre and overall "gestalt" of the presentation on the Solaris (and Andro) and would personally edge them both slightly over the MEST. That being said I can imagine there are many for whom the MEST is unquestionably the better choice...so, like so many other things, it's a YMMV situation.

3) Campfire Audio Andromeda MW10

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The MW10 is a limited edition Japan only version of the Andromeda that, in addition to being the most beautiful (Imho) it's also rumoured to be the best sounding of all, but a clarification of the exact differences and it's exact standing will have to wait until a bit later.

The Solaris was my first love from Campfire Audio and I only really heard the Andromeda for the first time when I got my hands on the 2020 last summer. It's nice to finally understand what all the hype is about-- the Andromeda is probably the most instantly accessible, easily likeable IEM I've heard and I can see why it remains the de-facto reference IEM for many even after all these years. Prior to owning the MW10 I would have said that I still prefer the Solaris overall as the dynamic low end and more "in your face" staging is more to my liking. However for someone looking for a "do everything" IEM that is immersive, inoffensive, and engaging it's hard to think of a better recommendation than the Andromeda...it puts many, much more expensive IEMs to shame.

In the case of Campfire Audio it's practically a platitude that the Andromeda is their most beloved model despite the fact that there have been a few models released "above" it (Vega, Atlas, Solaris were all flagships after Andromeda). I think the thing with Andro is that they hit on a tuning that's really likeable, sufficiently technical, highly engaging and that plays well with just about everything. Often you have to make sacrifices in one of those categories for the sake of another but the Andromeda strikes a nice balance for a lot of people-- there is a definite emotional pull or allure to its sound that I haven't come across very often…and probably never yet to the same degree. Solaris definitely has its devotees (like myself) but it also takes a few chances and is a less conventional tuning than Andro-- which means that how one feels about it will depend on what they listen to and what their own particular sonic priorities are. I listen to a lot of minimal techno and acoustic music and I place a high value on immersiveness, dense bass and holographic spaciousness-- and for what I listen to the Solaris (and now the MEST) is the best I've heard to my tastes. In some respects the Solaris takes the signature of Andromeda, stretches it out and wraps it around your head-- which can be a great effect but it leaves parts of the mid-range feeling a touch thin or wonky for some.

As I’ve indicated elsewhere my impressions of the MW10 at this point have limited value as I have no real experience with earlier versions of the Andro and as of this writing haven't heard the 2020 in months. Further I’m still definitely in the “honeymoon” phase so anything I say has a 50% chance to be the result of me waxing emotional rather being objective. That said—I am in love with the MW10. They are truly a phenomenal product across the board and easily take the crown and the most beautiful and classiest IEM I have owned. Given how sweet their sound is I imagine demand and value will remain steady over time.

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Going back in time to the summer, my initial thoughts upon hearing the 2020 Andromeda for the first time was that Solaris sounds like "Andro with its big boy pants on" and on the whole I still stand by that. The first thing I notice when I switch from Andromeda (either variant) to Solaris is the denser and richer low end, vaster sense of space and by extension the more holographic stage. In terms of technicalities my thoughts on the 2020 at the time were that Solaris bests Andromeda in all areas except perhaps minutia of detail (largely an unavoidable consequence of the increased low end presence). My “off the cuff” thoughts on the MW10 are that it has made refined the technicalities and improved the dynamics and punch compared to the 2020. Like the 2020 the Andromeda MW10 has that unbeatable coherence that (in my experience) has only been achieved so far with single driver type setups. There is a definite sweetness and allure to Andromeda's sound that Solaris doesn't quite capture-- but in fairness I haven't heard anything else which quite does either. On that note I would probably give Andro (both the 2020 and the MW10) the slight edge over Solaris tonally, but all 3 IEMs ultimately suit my preferences fine. The Andromeda also puts forth a more etheric type sound-- Solaris is more spacious and Andromeda gives more space between notes if that makes sense. The more I listen to both the more I feel they were each ideally named. Andromeda is a galaxy which conjures images of spaciousness and unity, whereas Solaris derives its name from the sun, a massive centre of gravity which cannot fail to grab your attention. My closing thoughts on the 2020 Andromeda (relative to Solaris) as of a few months ago were that ultimately if I had to pick one I would go with Solaris as I feel it takes the DNA of the Andromeda and expands it into a more complete and evolved sound signature. At this stage the “final standing” of the MW10 over Solaris remains for me to see as I’ve only had them for a few days at this point. Suffice to say the MW10 sound amazing...but they are very very close to what I remember the 2020 sounding like.

In truth I find myself wondering if the MW10 does indeed contain some secret sauce-- in addition to the already speculated treble sparkle-- in the form of improved technicalities and dynamics over the 2020. Regarding the question of whether the MW10 has the "missing" treble sparkle of the 2020 I can't confirm or deny absolutely without listening to the 2020 (or the OG) again. That said it's noteworthy that, coming from 2.5 straight weeks with the MEST, which is known for its highs, sparkle and air, I don't find anything lacking or suffocating with the MW10 Andromeda. It could very well be that the MW10 takes the lows and mids of the 2020 and combines it with the relative brightness and treble profile of the OG...but I would have to hear the 2020 again to verify this for sure. There is something truly magical and enchanting about the Andromeda's sound-- I find myself captivated and "swept off my feet" more than with any other IEM...but I remember saying this about the 2020 too so who knows. I am working on a plan, in the new year, to tour this through a very select group of Andro enthusiasts for some measurements and impressions/comparisons...which will put the exact standing of this thing on less mythical ground.

Man oh man they are nice to look at though.

Summary

So where does this leave us? I am in the midst of something of a philosophical shift in the way I regard and assess IEMs. The more time I spend in this hobby the more I tend towards the view that our own subjective state of consciousness—including preferences, sensitivities, moods and many other factors—are AT LEAST as important as any qualities of the IEM itself. To see a beautiful elucidation of the sort of thing I’m getting at see this clip from the martial arts movie Fearless where where Huo Juan Jia (played by Jet Li) describes, over a glass of tea, that any assessment of the tea he makes says as much about him as about the tea. Now I’m not denying that there are definite, objective differences in quality between various IEMs—but after a point the question of “which is better” is less a statement of a given IEMs objective merits and more about the needs, demands, preconceptions and overall state of mind of the listener.

For the last few days I have spent hours switching between the MEST, the Andromeda and the Solaris in order to gather impressions and comparisons of each. What I have found, repeatedly, is that when I listen to either the Solaris, the Andromeda or the MEST at the time I am listening the idea of “comparing” goes out the window and I find myself enjoying each IEM on its own terms and for its own strengths.

IEMs, I think due to the intensely personal connection we derive from them, are almost like our children and it's hard not to take it personally when others trash them or don't rank them as highly. My own belief is that the greater the extent to which one is able to let their own tastes, inclinations and impressions guide their search-- even, and often especially, when it contravenes the "status quo"-- then the greater will be their satisfaction, success and happiness in this hobby.

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Just know I would love to own a pair of MW10 if those ever don't receive the play time they deserve.
 
Dec 21, 2020 at 10:46 PM Post #25,811 of 28,777

Rockwell75

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Just know I would love to own a pair of MW10 if those ever don't receive the play time they deserve.

Chances of that are slim. I've already decided that if for whatever reason I need to pair down to a single IEM it will be the Solaris that I sell.
 
Dec 21, 2020 at 10:49 PM Post #25,813 of 28,777

Damz87

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Chances of that are slim. I've already decided that if for whatever reason I need to pair down to a single IEM it will be the Solaris that I sell.
Rockwell SELLING his Solaris?! Now I’ve heard it all :D
 
Dec 21, 2020 at 10:51 PM Post #25,814 of 28,777

mashuto

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Chances of that are slim. I've already decided that if for whatever reason I need to pair down to a single IEM it will be the Solaris that I sell.
Yup, thats it, hobby over. Time for us all to quit.
 
Dec 21, 2020 at 10:53 PM Post #25,815 of 28,777

Rockwell75

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Rockwell SELLING his Solaris?! Now I’ve heard it all :D

It would be much easier to replace if I wanted to buy it back :wink:
 

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