Something of a 4-way shootout: My impressions of the Vision Ears VE8, Campfire Audio Solaris SE, 64 Audio u12t and Empire Ears Legend X

Ode to the 4 directions

Something of a 4-way shootout: My impressions of the Vision Ears VE8, Campfire Audio Solaris SE, 64 Audio u12t and Empire Ears Legend X

One year ago today I was sitting down to gather my impressions of my then just-a-few-days-old OG Solaris. It was my first real “endgame” IEM but what I didn’t realize at the time was that my journey was only beginning. In the year that followed I have bought and sold my way through a number of high-end IEMs and DAPs-- sometimes purchasing new gear due to dissatisfaction with old gear, and other times simply due to the irresistible persuasion of curiosity that is the true driving force of this hobby—and have presently settled on the VE8, Solaris SE, and Legend X as my foreseeable endgame. Those 3, along with a u12t which has been graciously loaned to me for a few days by @Titienne, will form the basis of the present post.

I have learned two very important lessons this past year. The first lesson is—take absolutely everyone’s opinion with a massive grain of salt. There is no shortage of opinions out there on pretty much any piece of gear you can imagine—and many of them are glaringly contradictory. This isn’t to say that there aren’t an abundance of great impressions/reviews out there…there are, and anyone who has been in this hobby for long will have a sense of which reviewers or users they will look to for reliable info—but the greater point is that, at the end of the day, nothing can compete with actually hearing something for yourself to determine if it’s right for you or not. There are plenty of quality reviewers out there—Antdroid, Toranku, Resolve and Crinacle (whose graph comparison tool has been especially invaluable) are a few who have been quite helpful for me, or who I have learned a lot from…but there isn’t a single one I haven’t flatly disagreed with at one time or another. There is so much that goes into determining whether I will enjoy a piece of gear—musical tastes, signature preferences, sensitivities, sensibilities, and so on—that, while information from others can be very helpful, it will never be the final word.

The second most important lesson for me has been revolves around the journey of self-discovery that I’ve undergone. One year ago I had only a dim sense of the different types of sound signatures out there— like so many audiophile plebs I started out thinking that if the bass was good nothing else was important. I had no idea about things like resolution, naturalness, musicality, soundstage, voicing or what terms like neutral, bright, warm etc. really implied. Due to my relentless program of “trial and error” this past year I’ve come learn a few things about my own preferences and biases, and what value in an IEM. The lesson is: until you have some understanding of and experience with the types of sound signatures available don’t pigeon-hole yourself down one particular pathway or another. Be open to trying new things, get a sense of what you like and not afraid to let go of what isn’t working for you.

What follows is in no way meant to convey any sort of absolute order of said IEMs’ objective worth. IEMs, for me are more a “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” sort of deal. A superficial demo (~1 hour or less) will give you some idea of salient characteristics and certain technical features, but to really get a sense of where something fits in the grand scheme of things you need to spend some time with it. I am personally less interested in the individual characteristic components of an IEM’s sound and much more interested in the overall gestalt it presents-- how everything fits together as a whole. This is often something that becomes apparent only after you’ve spent a good deal of time with them. In short: this is a work in progress.

This won’t be structured like a typical review. I am by no means a professional and l believe I lack the technical palette that many reviewers have. Furthermore, since I have no access to measuring gear I won’t be commenting too much on the FR of my IEMs. Both 64 Audio and Campfire Audio have been criticized in some quarters for alleged “unit variation” (though nothing specifically has been said about the SE in this regard) and since my VE8 is a re-shell I shouldn’t assume that the FR for the VE8 generally will apply wholesale to my own. Ultimately my impressions are rooted fundamentally in what I hear, what I notice during long listening sessions and what jumps at me when switching from one IEM to another. I will try and be as objective as possible when I can, but fundamentally what follows are my impressions and as such will be indelibly rooted in and intertwined with my own subjectivity.

WEST

1) Vision Ears VE8

The first thing I should point out before talking about my VE8 is that it is not a custom as is typical for this IEM—I am the third owner and I bought it off a guy who had the original custom re-shelled by Naga Audio to a universal fit. So anything I can about the VE8 here may not be applicable to the VE8 generally, as I have had a few people tell me that universal VE8s tend to be brighter than their custom equivalents. That being said, my one and only gripe with the VE8 so far is that I’m detecting a dash of sibilance here and there in some tracks-- s, sh and ch sounds sometimes have a dash too much emphasis. Now it’s only in some tracks…in most I don’t notice it at all but it has been a slight nitpick here and there. I’m not sure if this is 1) just how the VE8 sounds, 2) a problem with the recording that the VE8 is picking up or 3) something to do with the re-shelling process and the fact that the drivers in mine aren’t totally optimized for the shells they are in. I noticed on Crinacle’s site the graph for the VE8 uni has an 8k spike that is absent from the custom he measured, so maybe this is what I’m hearing. Consequently if I drop 8k by a couple DB I don’t really notice it at all.

Edit: A user on Head Fi (mvraz) pointed out that his experiences (RE sibilance) with a VE8 universal shipped to him from Vision Ears were the same as mine…which leads me to believe that what I am experiencing is typical of a VE8 universal and not an issue unique to my own.

All of that said…

The VE8 is a tremendous IEM that has rocketed to the top of my list and shows no signs of going anywhere anytime soon. It has helped solidify in my mind the idea that the mid-range is the most important—and most difficult to pull off—element of the FR. When I was a noob in this hobby I was fixated on bass—the first IEMs I sought out I did so because I heard they had good bass. Even through much of the last year my initial impressions of the different IEMs I demoed—Solaris, Z1R, VX etc.—often began or ended with my impression of their bass response. With the VE8, on the other hand, it’s all about the mid-range. The VE8 is the first IEM where I really understand what people mean when they talk about the sound of an IEM being “emotional” or similarly engaging— of the IEMs I’ve heard the VE8 is the one that most consistently sweeps me off my feet, and it does so largely through its lush, natural and immersive mid-range. Don’t get me wrong—the bass and treble in the VE8 are excellent, but compared to other IEMs they serve more as the means to the end of supporting the mid-range rather than the highlights in and of themselves. The VE8 is warm, musical, detailed and deep— it plays well with pretty much all of my music and of all the IEMs currently at my disposal the VE8 is the hardest for me to stop listening to.

Of the IEMs under consideration today the VE8 more similar to the Solaris than to either the LX or the u12t. Both Solaris SE and VE8 go for the same sort of balanced sound; they are both pretty sooth up top; they both fall decidedly on the “musical/engaging” side of the spectrum in that they sacrifice a bit of pure detail and resolution for the sake of a more fun and engaging sound; they both excel at separation and imaging and lastly they both “stage” music in a similarly immersive way (as contrasted with something like the LX and u12t, where it feels as though you’re sitting in the audience with all the sound coming towards you-- with Solaris, and with VE8, you feel like you’re surrounded on all sides by the sound). In many respects I would say that of all the IEMs I’ve heard the VE8 would be the most natural upgrade to Solaris for someone who wants to go custom and is after a slightly more refined presentation of the same sort of balanced neutral-warm sound.

One thing I do prefer about Solaris is the bass texture and sense of vastness and space. VE8 bass is excellent, sufficiently extended and well textured…but Solaris has that DD element that simply can’t be replicated by any BA setup. The most prominent aspect of the VE8 is with the midrange. I’ve always loved the instrumental timbre of Solaris but VE8 takes it to another level of naturalness and nuance-- things sound a dash more “real”. Vocals are very slightly less forward than on Solaris SE, particularly male, but both male and female vocals sound more bodied and natural on VE8. Stage on VE8 is slightly more “intimate” but similarly laid out. The sound is more clear and nuanced-- I can hear more detail and separation on VE8. To my ears things sound slightly more “3 D”. Take all of this with a grain of salt, however, as I don’t think I really have the palette to accurately describe all the similarities/differences. But the VE8 does seem to take a lot of what I love about Solaris and refine it a wee bit.

EAST

2) Campfire Audio Solaris Special Edition

It’s not as technically impressive, detailed or as tonally correct as the u12t, it doesn’t have the lush or immersive midrange of the VE8, and it doesn’t thump as hard as the Legend X—but I would place it second to each of those IEMs in those respective categories. There isn’t really any other IEM out there like Solaris SE—a dynamic hybrid that goes for a nice balanced sound without any element of the spectrum dominant over any other. For much of the past year the Solaris/SE has been the gold standard for me personally. It encapsulates everything I look for in a monitor-- natural, balanced, spacious, clear, impactful, dynamic bass, not to mention beautiful to look at.

The SE represents a subtle but clear step up from OG Solaris to my ears with improved clarity, more robust and forward vocals and cleaner bass. Solaris SE provides coherent and well-balanced signature within a fully rendered 3-d space combined with impeccable layering and separation-- it doesn’t excel at any one thing FR wise, but it does “everything” better than just about everything I’ve heard. I know many have cited “weirdness” in the upper midrange as an issue with Solaris…but I’ve never really detected it, much less been put off by it. I will say though, that if you listen to a lot of female vocals or music that requires a lot of presence in the upper-mid/lower treble region (J-Pop, K-Pop) then the Solaris may not be a good bet (due to reports I’ve heard from others).

And yes, there is a hint of the “BA texture” to the bass…but it’s far and away a DD above all. The u12t and VE8 both have great bass, but the lack of DD is noticeable and neither of them extend as deeply as Solaris does on the low end

Again, what I really appreciate about Solaris SE is the perfect balance it brings to the spectrum-- there’s just enough of everything and nothing is overwhelming. This is something that stands out more and more as my hours on it wear on-- CFA has, imho, reached a “zen” level of balance with Solaris SE. Further they have done a peerless job of combining BA and DD drivers into a balanced “total package” IEM. Solaris might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.

North

3) 64 Audio u12t

Ahh the mighty u12t. This is the only IEM of the 4 I’m covering today that I don’t own however thanks to @titienne, who graciously lent me his for over a week, I was able to finally get to know it.

My experience with and of the u12t has helped me come to a greater understanding of my own tastes and preferences. Let’s get one thing clear off the bat-- the u12t is an absolutely exceptional IEM…listening to it I was blown away by the detail, the staging, the precision, the layering…it really exposes everything in the recording you’re listening to. Add on to that it’s got a very non-aggressive tonality that basically plays well with everything. It didn’t matter what I threw at it everything sounded good on the u12t. When I first started looking at IEMs many months ago 64 Audio and the u12t were among the first to catch my attention, but when I visited the website it described it as an IEM primarily for stage musicians…I didn’t understand what that meant at the time but it steered me away a little bit, especially considering that 64’s “audiophile” offerings like the Fourte are way more than I’d ever be able to afford. Fast forward to now where, after finally getting some time with the u12t I fully understand why it would be perfect for stage musicians. The u12t presents every layer of the recording you’re listing to in such a way that 1) you can isolate each layer at any time and get lost in its details and 2) it does in such a non-obtrusive way that you can be totally doing something else (like focusing on your own playing or, as the case may be, writing a paper or something). Even the added bass boost makes sense in this capacity as it is done, not to color the signature, but to compensate for the bass that is lost in the ambient noise of a stage setting. I could see the u12t being the perfect IEM for someone who likes to listen at work, wants to experience the entirety of what they’re listening to but also have their mind in the foreground focused on something else.

This is an IEM for the analyst who values correctness and precision above all. When I was listening to the u12t I was consistently in awe of it…such a great reference sound but with killer DD-like bass. Ultimately for me (and the way my mind works when I listen to music) with the level of detail in u12t I often found myself zoning out on all the different layers of a recording-- but I have a harder time viewing it as a unity…I’m not talking about a coherence problem or anything…just that u12t is so good at what it does that I just get lost in all the detail and “forget the forest for the trees” so to speak. Put another way, it reminds of an experience I had with some friends while we were in an “elevated state of consciousness” back in the early 90s. We were excited because we were going to see Return of the Jedi in the theatre. I had thought that, in our elevated state, the movie would be super intense and involving. In short: it was, but not in the way I was expecting. Watching the movie in that state all the effects became transparent and all the illusions were dissolved-- the space ships and props looked like models and even the actors came across as people playing a part in a play. It was indeed an intense experience—all the details of everything I was seeing on the screen presented themselves accurately to my mind…but the romance was gone. It was technically very impressive but I was yearning to be swept off my feet. This same sort of thing happened to me every now and again with the u12t—I’d be wowed by all the different layers of what was going on, but it wasn’t quite as emotionally involving or exciting for me as a whole.

Solaris and VE8, on the other hand, sacrifice a bit of sheer resolution and detail for a more musical sound…they’re not as technically proficient in some respects, nor, in the case of Solaris, as tonally correct, but I have an easier time getting lost in the recording in both than I do with u12t. u12t is more correct but Solaris and VE8 are more fun, immersive and “in your face” in their presentation…thus making them slightly more engaging to my ears and sensibilities. When listening to the u12t for long stretches I would often find myself reaching for Solaris or VE8 because I felt I needed some excitement. This is not a slight to the u12t at all—I’m pretty much splitting hairs here as I could easily be happy with any one of the VE8, Solaris SE or u12t as my only IEM. If I could get Solaris bass , space and musicality with a dash of u12t stage and detail all combined with VE8 mids and treble I would stop chasing the unicorn.

South

4) Empire Ears Legend X

Bass of the gods. The thundering yang to complement the ethereal yin of the Solaris and VE8. With the LX the whole signature is defined by the bass-- it’s large, it’s powerful and it’s everywhere. Thankfully it’s also very resolving and detailed so that the rest of the sound isn’t drowned out in the bass. Nonetheless the bass is present and it dominates. The sheer quantity of bass makes the sound is a bit “closed in”…like you’re in a club with the bass pounding. I wouldn’t go so far as to say congested, as one of the great things about LX is that it somehow avoids this despite all the bass…it’s why I would call it the ultimate “basshead audiophile” IEM. It’s definitely the IEM I reach for the least out of the ones I have but every time I do it never fails to win me over.

The Legend X is not an IEM you can listen to “passively”-- they command your attention and are utterly captivating when you feel like getting rocked by vibrant and detailed low end. The key is that it’s so refined and resolving. The CFA Atlas (which I also love) was described as having “get off the bus and shit yourself bass”… well by that metric the LX has “park your Mercedes and shit yourself bass”. It’s definitely a “guilty pleasure”, but I’m ok with guilt and I love pleasure.

The LX is akin to listening to music in a club-- a more confined space, with the thundering bass permeating everything, much like the oil in an olive. If the LX is like listening in a club the Solaris is like listening on a mountain top-- grounded in the bedrock of the powerful bass, but wide open up top, and to the left and right, so everything has room to breathe. Nonetheless, due to the robust low end on the LX it can be said to be lacking a bit of air, which I get from my #1 and #2 above. Thus the 3 are a perfect collection for me.

Conclusion

So where does this leave us?

I used to wonder at people who would build these collections of IEMs and headphones-- why would you need more than a single pair, I wondered…wouldn’t one be enough? Now that I’ve got a modest little collection (all but the u12t here are mine) I kind of understand it. In some ways these IEMs are all more similar than different (with the exception of the LX’s bass response) however each of them has something unique to offer and each of them satisfy my different moods at different times. If I want to be swept off my feet by a lush midrange I grab the VE8, if I want to be rocked by a robust low end, the Legend X is my go-to, if I want to be awash in detail and layering the u12t can’t be beat, and if I want a little bit of each of those things the Solaris SE does the trick. It’s nice to pick and choose depending on what you’re feeling at a given moment. Ultimately many of us crave a bit of variety in this hobby…having the right collection on hand that suits different facets of your tastes is a great way to stay excited without having to buy something new every month or two.

In terms of the order I’ve presented these IEMs in today, and the implication of where they stand relative to others I’ve owned/demoed…it’s entirely a reflection of my subjective tastes and preferences— I make no claims to objectivity here. I quite expect there to be many who would rank them differently than I do—this is fine and normal…but the order here defines my tastes, preferences and needs at this very moment. I derive a certain degree of enjoyment from all my IEMs…but the VE8 is the only one so far that’s left me feeling romanced…if that makes any sense. I didn’t truly understand what was meant by the term “emotioanlly engaging” when describing IEMs until I heard the VE8. I’ve been moved to tears, and to dance…more often with the VE8 than with any of my other IEMs.

After the VE8 comes the Solaris SE. I get that there other IEMs that many would claim best the Solaris in some keys ways, both technically and tonally, but chances are, if I’ve heard them in some way they failed to present the total package to my ears that Solaris does. The VE8 is the hardest to stop listening to but the Solaris the first one I reach for when I need a break from any of the others.

If the criteria was simply “achieves what it sets out to do” then the u12t would probably take the top spot—I consider it the most technically astounding IEM I’ve heard. It’s also probably the safest and easiest rec I could give to someone who just asked for an IEM that sounds great with everything but doesn’t say anything else about their preferences, tastes etc. Furthermore, it is quite unlike anything else I have in my collection and would make a great addition to it…and some day may. As a standalone however it’s a touch too analytic for my tastes, which leave me preferring the more dynamic and “in your face” presentation of the VE8 and Solaris SE.

Lastly there is the Legend X…no doubt the “odd man out” of my collection. As an all-rounder the LX certainly stands distinct from other 3 being discussed in this post, and if I had to pick only one it would be the last, however for a certain subset of my music (some modern pop, hip hop and some live funk and jazz) the Legend X is so much better than everything else that I can’t deny it a seat at the table.

The LX’s bass response notwithstanding there are way more similarities than differences with these IEMs, despite how our descriptions can make them sound like vastly different things. To my ear they are all variations on a “warm musical” sound signature and I could honestly be happy with any of them as my main.

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Great review. I like the “shootout” format. :+1:t4:

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great content Rockman

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Really excellent review. A thoroughly enjoyable read. Thanks.

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Fantastic read my friend ! Happy I could contribute to this post in one way or another :slight_smile: The VE8 is definitely at the top of my wishlist at the moment. I was impressed when I got to try it (thanks to you of course) and I kind of miss it now that it’s gone. Like you said, it really comes down to the overall presentation and how the different instruments and vocals are presented. I don’t think there’s an IEM quite like the VE8 out there !

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Thanks for the kind words man. Someone on Head Fi responded to this post that he found a touch of the same sort of sibilance (in similar circumstances) from the VE8 universal that was shipped to him from Vision Ears…so evidently it’s just a slight thing with the universal, which a few people have told me independently but it’s nice to have it confirmed.

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Great review @jrockwell. While I thoroughly enjoyed - and learned a lot from - the impressions themselves, as a relative plebeian in this world, I enjoyed your preamble almost more (perhaps because I can relate in many ways). Thank you!

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That’s a very fine review. Either the stars aligned for you, or it was the precession of the equinoxes.

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Thank-you for the kind words everyone!

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It was a great review. I like the detail on how you talk about how each of the IEM’s connected with you.

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I’ve try the VE8 custom, there is still some sibilance not often, but on some tracks. Rock music, are the best on these, don’t know there is something about the way the guitar sound… So crisp, just the way it should. But overall, the tonality sound too near to my Westone ES5… For me Legend X (1950s) all the way :wink:

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I love the Legend X in small doses (~ 2 days at time)…beyond that the bass gets a little suffocating. It absolutely can’t be beat when the time is right though.

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Thought I’d resurrect this as my general impressions thread. A few weeks ago thanks to rec’s from @Titienne and a few others I decided to purchase the Lotoo PAW S1 dongle. I was so impressed with it that I decided to order it’s big brother the Lotoo PAW 6K DAP. The S1’s reference tuning and inky black background has been a revelation for me with my Solaris and has managed to milk an extra 5% peformance from them that I didn’t even know I was looking for. Fortunately the 6K seems to be all this and more-- it radiates build quality, beauty and stark simplicity…loving it so far, more impressions to come.

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Looking rather beautiful and sounding divine through my n6ii + E01 combo. Hiss is just slightly greater than through Solaris and not very prominent overall to my ears. Zero hiss at all through PAW S1 but, as with Solaris, I prefer the livelier and more vivid presentation of the E01. My immediate, off the cuff impression of Andro that it is a lot like Solaris but differently staged, a bit more intimate and relaxed and without the dynamic low end. Both IEMs definitely have their own identity but It’s very apparent to my ears that they’re both cut from similar cloth and belong on the same evolutionary trajectory. Loving Andro 2020 so far and am very much looking forward to a week of one on one time with them.

Edit: Really loving these so far. Early days and I don’t want to jump to conclusions but I could see these emerging as my favorite BA IEMs.

vs. u12t => u12t has better bass but Andromeda sacrifices a bit of the raw detail and separation of the u12t for a more musical and engaging signature. This is not a knock against the u12t which, when measured against its aim of being a reference monitor is pretty much flawless. I think fundamentally these two are the Mars and Venus of IEMs. The u12t, being decidedly reference-like and analytic in nature 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. IMHO neither approach is superior to the other but my heart is with the Andromeda as it just so happens that I’m personally not really after a reference type signature.

vs. Anole VX => It’s been a while since I’ve heard the VX but my memory recalls it being slightly more detailed, resolving and “cleaner” sounding…it was also just a touch too vivid in the lower treble/upper mid region and ultimately too fatiguing for me with many recordings.

vs. VE8 => I’m not quite prepared to claim that the mids of the Andro can top the luscious, tug-at-your-heartstrings mids of the VE8, bit the Andromeda does entirely lack the sibilance that I noticed there.
Edit 2: I will say that of the aforementioned 3 BA IEMs I have prior experience with the Andromeda 2020, to my ears, probably most resembles the VE8 in terms of tuning philosophy and execution.

Again, early days but the Andromeda 2020 is doing very well in my estimation.

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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, Headphones.com, 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 of ours.

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I’m trying to capture some of the texture of the inlaid abalone on the MW10 and I think I succeeded here a little.

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I like the MixWave version look. Very cool

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The MV10’s are definitely a very own brand in the Andromeda portfolio, crystal clear, very detailed, extremely natural, but also very amp dependent.

If driven incorrectly, they tend to be flat, lacking in bass and occasionally too pointed in the higher registers.

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Driven incorrectly how? Are you talking about the usual impedance issues? They sound amazing through both my n6ii and my PAW S1.

Fiio M11: Bassless and flat

Earstudio ES100: Bassless and shrill

Fiio BTR05: Bassless and flat

ifi iCAN: Strong background noise and too treble heavy

ifi hip DAC: flat and dull

Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt: :+1:

ifi iDSD Signature: :+1: :+1: :+1:

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