An Unreasonably Unfair Earphone Shootout: Campfire Audio, Shure, Beyerdynamic and Noble Audio

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From left: Beyerdynamic Xelento, Noble Audio Kaiser Encore, Campfire Audio Solaris and Shure SE-846.

I spent quite a bit of time stuck on a chair in the air this year. Music is important to me, so I’ve been traveling with Oppo PM-3 — a wonderful planar magnetic, over-hear, closed-back headphone. Sound-wise, it does everything just right for me: it’s musical, accurate, doesn’t emphasize anything and has reasonable punch. Maybe a bit boring due to trying to be so even across the board, but I let it slide.

Unfortunately, the form factor has proven to be too cumbersome for travel: I found myself listening to music less and less. They’re too large and fiddly. I won’t have that though, I need to pad those last.fm stats, right?

I decided to take another look at earphones¹. I used to own Shure SE-846 a few years ago. I loved the sound, but it was cumbersome to put them on and they kept falling out of my ears. Stock cable was too stiff, aftermarket cables were either expensive or low quality.

I was very happy to learn that apparently earphone market has seen a considerable progress in technological development in the last few years. Companies like Campfire Audio and Noble exploded, not to mention the very vibrant Asian makers popped up and challenged the status quo. Seems like the right moment to jump back in.

Since consumer is king™ in America and return policies tend to be generous, I decided to put in all my savings and one kidney into several models that might suit my taste based on extended reading. Here’s what I got and why, in no particular order.

On top of the regular hype for Campfire Audio products on the forums, I saw otherwise reasonable people lose their minds, families fall apart, governments dissolve and economies fall over this particular model. What caught my eye was that these riots were happening in the slightly more sensible circles of audiophile community. I got swept by the hype.

There is an equal amount of hype around this brand, although in the other circles. That made me skeptical, but reviews were intriguing enough to spark my interest anyway. I’m a big fan of Noble’s design language too, having spent countless hours drooling over Wizard’s gorgeous designs.

(I received a special Black-On-Black edition of this model. Thank God.)

I used to own these and I loved them. They were like Audeze LCD-X mini with more bass, meaty punch and forward midrange. I sold them because they started to fall out of my ears. I grabbed them again for this comparison to find out if they sound as good as I remember them.

I like this company and their design language a lot. I have fond memories of DT-990 and I’m convinced that T-1 is one of the most beautifully designed headphones ever. Reviews led me to believe that Xelento could be a better SE-846, so I had to check them out.

Fair warning: this is not going to be a fair competition. Apart from significant difference in prices (Kaiser costs twice as much as Xelento and SE-846!), SE-846 is by far the oldest design in this comparison. Not a fair fight, but let’s play anyway.

I used foam tips to increase bass wherever needed and suppress treble (I have tinnitus) for each earphone except Xelento, which has more than enough bass already and its silicone tips turned out to be perfectly comfortable.

I played Apple Lossless files directly from my Macbook Pro, because I’m a relatively normal person.

I spent about a week with each earphone prior to writing down these impressions.

I will review the sound characteristics (bass, midrange, treble, resolution, soundstage), comfort, ergonomics and design.

Let’s-a go!

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Beyerdynamic Xelento, you freaking bass cannon.

Bass

  1. Xelento
  2. SE-846
  3. Solaris
  4. Kaiser Encore

Xelento has too much bass. It overpowers the presentation and limits its usefulness to a handful of electronic genres. There is too much punch too, kick drums sound unnatural and tiring after a short while.

SE-846 is a little too strong in this department too, but manageable in long listening sessions. The punch is meaty and solid here, no complaints.

Solaris would be ideal if it had 5% more bass, especially at the very bottom. Its punch is a little strange, sometimes it sounds like bass notes end too quickly.

Kaiser has less bass and it doesn’t hit as hard as the Solaris.

  1. Solaris
  2. Kaiser Encore
  3. Xelento
  4. SE-846

Solaris does an amazing job uncovering texture in bass. Kaiser is not far behind. Xelento does it well too, although I feel that bass quality would be better if there weren’t so much of it. SE-846 has the least amount of texture and layering, comparatively.

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Noble Audio Kaiser Encore. For serious audiophiles who are also smart enough to not damage their hearing.

Midrange

  1. Kaiser Encore
  2. Solaris
  3. SE-846
  4. Xelento

I quite like electric guitars on the Kaiser. They have an aggressive bite to them. On the flip side, there is not enough foundation, they feel a bit thin and shouty due to Kaiser’s emphasis on the upper frequencies.

Solaris is a strange story: there seems to be a dip in upper midrange (as discovered by the Actual Living Microphone). His review gave me anxiety attacks. All of my awfully recorded thrash metal albums sounded wrong all of a sudden! A week of intense listening to the Solaris later and… it sounds more or less fine now. What happened? A quick example: I’m listening to Nine Inch Nails at the moment. On one hand Mr Self Destruct lost its lunatic attack which makes me sad, on the other Wish still smacks me over the head which makes me very happy. What the hell happened? Burn-in or denial? Or both? I can’t put my finger on it.

SE-846’s midrange is not bright either, but it seems to have a little more bite and substance than Solaris. Unfortunately, it sounds grating and unrefined.

And finally Xelento — midrange sounds more or less correct to me, although as it usually happens with V-shaped sound signature, it is recessed and loses impact. Especially the connection between bass and mids is blurred and overpowered by bass. Male vocals sounds muffled.

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Campfire Audio Solaris: smooth and silky.

Treble

  1. Solaris
  2. SE-846
  3. Xelento
  4. Kaiser Encore

This is a tricky section for me to analyze and write about. See, being a very stable genius™, I acquired tinnitus and as a result, my ears are sensitive to high frequencies. In other words, I will never enjoy earphones which emphasize treble.

Solaris has just the right amount of treble, there is sparkle and it is perfectly smooth. I can survive the high pitched screech at 00:06 in Front 242’s Soul Manager, no problem.

SE-846’s treble sounds natural, but it is slightly recessed in comparison to its midrange and less smooth than all the other earphones.

Xelento’s treble is too elevated for my taste and sometimes sounds unnatural, especially cymbals. It seems to be disconnected from upper midrange. It also feels like it tries to fake air and detail.

And finally the Kaiser… it trips over my tinnitus miserably. I can’t listen to it. I do appreciate the natural timbre, but there is just too much treble for me here. It commits a deadly sin in my book: it makes poorly recorded metal from early 90’s unlistenable. The above-mentioned screech makes my teeth fall out.

Resolution

  1. Solaris
  2. Kaiser Encore
  3. Xelento
  4. SE-846

Solaris does a remarkable job of delivering detail. It’s articulate and smooth. There is just enough air between instruments so that I can follow each separately with ease. At the same time, overall presentation is coherent and musical, it doesn’t feel like it tries too hard to show me how detailed it can be.

Kaiser follows suit, although I feel there is trickery here — it uses the elevated treble to appear more competent in this area.

Xelento happily follows the path of using treble to upscale resolution and takes it further than the Kaiser. Apart from that bass glues everything together down low and midrange is lost in the background, affecting instrument separation across the board.

SE-846 toddles along in the back, carefree: a respectable performer on its own, but unrefined and less than average in the context of its competition.

Soundstage

  1. Solaris
  2. Kaiser Encore
  3. Xelento
  4. SE-846

Solaris delivers spacious and impactful sound. Kaiser’s soundstage is too large for me, it reminds me of Sennheiser HD-800 and music loses its punch. Xelento and SE-846 are both more in-your-face due to their punchy nature. Xelento seems to be quite a bit wider than SE-846 though.

Comfort

  1. Xelento
  2. SE-846
  3. Solaris
  4. Kaiser Encore

This aspect is completely subjective, unless you’re a clone of me.

Xelento slip into my ears immediately and the oddly shaped tips create a seal without any issues. Strange, but welcome.

SE-846 worked almost as well during tests, but since I owned these in the past, I do remember them becoming unwieldy over time due to the stiff cable.

Solaris the biggest of the bunch and even though it’s not that heavy, I still need to push them in every now and then because it feels like they may be slipping out.

And finally Kaiser — initially I couldn’t make any of the supplied tips work. I eventually made it stay in my ears with CA’s foam tips, but not without compromise: while bass got nicely emphasized, treble became shouty and unbearable. Later on, supplied silicone tips finally worked, but they reduced bass.

Ergonomics

  1. Solaris
  2. SE-846
  3. Kaiser Encore
  4. Xelento

First up, Solaris. For something that looks like a specimen from a jewelry store, they feel tough. Golden surface has a pleasant matte texture, which is not prone to scratches at all. Each earphone has a gigantic, clear side marking. The cable feels solid and premium, not too stiff.

SE-846 feels very solid too, although it’s made of plastic. The surface is prone to scratching and clouding over time. The cable is too stiff and heavy.

Kaiser feels very solid, but the seam running along the earphone is quite wide. It feels like it might crack open one day. The cable is thin and feels flimsy. It was the only cable that gave me a heart attack when I was disconnecting it from the earphones. How are 2–pin connectors still a thing?

Xelento’s beauty is also its undoing: mirror finish catches fingerprints and is very prone to scratches. They’re small too, I’m afraid I would lose them. The cable feels great, but MMCX connectors look cheap.

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Campfire Audio Solaris: gorgeous (in Taylor Swift’s voice)

Design

  1. Solaris
  2. SE-846
  3. Xelento
  4. Kaiser Encore

I’m nitpicking, they are all quite beautiful.

I like Solaris the most because of the wonderful color combination, the matte gold texture and the gorgeous “ribbed” texture in the off-black parts. It looks and feels beautiful and solid. Excellent execution.

SE-846’s transparent shell puts all the tiny, complex internals out in the open, it’s quite a sight to behold.

Xelento’s mirror finish is a head turner. My wife wants to wear them as jewelry. I’m not a fan of the serial number and “Made in Germany” caption on the outer side of the shells — I think these don’t deserve such a prominent spot. Also, while they look gorgeous, they don’t feel premium. What you see on the photos is not metal, it’s coated plastic. Will it chip?

Kaiser looks menacing and smooth. The logo is minimalist and intriguing. Texture and feel of the material are spot on. I actually like Kaiser better than Xelento, but I banished it to the last place because of the undignified seam. It‘s disappointing that surface lines don’t continue smoothly across it. I don’t understand it, considering Noble’s track record in industrial design.

Characteristics Summary

Mild bass emphasis, muffled midrange and smooth treble. Musical and detailed, natural sounding. Very enjoyable in the long run.

Focuses on analytics, not much bass, emphasized treble. Too lean. Natural sounding. Fatigue caused by treble kicks in almost immediately.

V-shaped bass cannon. Recessed midrange. Unnatural treble and fakes detail. Fatigue from elevated bass kicks in immediately.

Emphasized midrange, musical, meaty. Unrefined in comparison to the others. Enjoyable in the long run.

Final Score

I tallied up places in each category and assigned points like so: #1 equals 4 points, #2 = 3 pts, #3 = 2 pts and #4 =1 point. I’m not sure if this system makes sense, but end results more or less match my preferences:

  1. Solaris: 31 points
  2. SE-846: 20 points
    Xelento: 20 points
  3. Kaiser Encore: 19 points

Oh boy, the revered Kaiser Encore defeated by the silly Xelento and the ancient Shure SE-846? I can hear the pitchforks scratching at my front door. Folks, please remember this is an entirely subjective review, okay?

Furthermore, there is a good chance that if you’re not an idiot like me — blasting Sepultura at full volume at the age of 13, which led to awful tinnitus — you will have the physical capability to appreciate what Kaiser Encore truly has to offer.

I’m happy that I went through this test and I’m confident that Solaris is the keeper. At least for now…

I think the main takeaway here is that I encourage you to take reviews with a grain of salt and always listen to audio products before you buy. Consumption of sound is an incredibly individual experience due to both physical and mental factors and it’s never a good idea to spend significant money without trying things out. So, I encourage you to take advantage of generous return policies and test stuff. For science!

¹ I considered customs for a while, but eventually decided against them: low resale value and the risk of unpleasant impression of in-ear intrusion pushed me away.

² No bullshit affiliate links here!

Product designer, Apple Design Award winner, mountain biking and violent music aficionado.

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