Ken Ball of ALO Audio and off-shoot Campfire Audio is a fixture on the CanJam scene. I thought he had one of the best displays at the show because there was his fascinating vacuum-tube-based (!) portable DAC/amp and a new model of IEMs called the Campfire Polaris. I’m a sucker for that old vacuum-tube glow and a good pair of IEMs, so I was in heaven and tapping my toes to some “Swingin’ Session” Sinatra from my own iPhone. I like to use my own music of course and I really enjoy the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CDs which I have ripped to my iPhone at full resolution. Fitted with some Comply foam ear tips, the Polaris was really sounding excellent.
The Polaris at $599 USD is a mid-priced IEM as prices go these days. The case work is simply gorgeous. It has a slate gray-ish outer “Cerakote” cover attached by three chrome screws but a beautiful popping, rich, deep blue case with black extensions for the ear tips. You really have to see this one in person. Campfire uses an angular, semi-industrial look that is very distinct among IEMs I am familiar with.
The Polaris is a hybrid design that uses an 8.5mm dynamic driver that uses a chamber tuned for polarity. A balanced armature complements the driver to fill the frequency range. The armature uses Campfire’s Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber to deliver the sound. Campfire says this TAEC allows the highs to be open and extended and not suffer the compression of more typical tube and damper methods.
Packaging is deluxe too. The Polaris comes in a nice leather case with silver-plated Litz copper wires starting with a 3.5mm stereo plug and ending with Beryllium copper MMCX connectors for the Polaris body. I’ve owned headphones modded with ALO cables and can tell you from personal experience that Ball really knows his business in fine cables. Lots of different sized tips are included as well as a cleaning brush.
It all seemed to work very well on my short audition. The presence of the sax on Sinatra’s Blue Moon was natural in timbre and quite dynamic. The soundstage of the Polaris was excellent. It was a lot of sound for $600 USD.
Stepping up a bit from the Polaris straight into a humble iPhone was the inclusion of the vacuum-tube powered amplifier, ALO Audio Continental Dual Mono. With two stylish 6111 tubes each of the left and right side of a clear window, this DAC/amp really took the Polaris up a big notch over the mediocre iPhone internal DAC. Everything was clearer, smoother, and more musical. These tubes have a long life and to get rid of microphonics, Ball’s team individually solders each one to a PCB board. It’s really a tube/solid-state design. As ALO describes it:
IT DELIVERS THE LOW OUTPUT IMPEDANCE, TIGHT BASS AND SONIC PRECISION OF A SOLID-STAGE AMP, BUT WITH THE ADDED MIDRANGE RICHNESS, EXPANDED SOUNDSTAGE AND SPACIOUSNESS OF A TUBE AMP.
On the DAC front, the device uses a Wolfson 8741, one of my favorite chips, with an extended dynamic range and high signal-to-noise ratio. It offers up conversion of both DSD and PCM sources and has several digital filters.
A beautifully machined case comes in black, burgundy, and a sparkly silver which is the one I auditioned. The case has curved corners and is one-inch deep and 5.75-inches by 3.25-inches square. Partial vents on the sides allow for heat regulation. A protruding silver knob with the ALO logo account for gain control and on/off switch. Front panel lights change colour based on sample rates played.
An impressive pair of products. Thanks Ken for the audition!