Astell&Kern does not require an introduction in the world of high-end personal audio, but the Korean DAP manufacturer is most certainly not a brand name that most consumers know. Their premium DAPs command a hefty price and audiophiles who are very serious about high performance headphones and portable playback, have almost assuredly tried or owned one of their products.
When you have consistently delivered the best, potential collaboration partners are not very hard to find. With the exception of the recently introduced Astell&Kern UW100 Wireless Earphones, all of their headphones and earphones have been designed and manufactured in partnership with other brands; Jerry Harvey, Beyerdynamic, and Campfire Audio.
The collaborations thus far, have been retuning jobs of existing headphones or earphones and nothing has really been what I would call a game-changer. The products were already good and the modifications were made to better suit the playback capabilities of their existing DAPs. There isn’t anything wrong with that but just how far does that move the needle?
I recently received the new Astell&Kern Pathfinder IEMs and I really hope that both brands take the ball and run with it; this is possibly the best collaboration that I have been fortunate to review so far and I am glad to see that Astell&Kern and Campfire Audio have learned from their experience with the Solaris X collaboration and made the necessary changes.
The Pathfinder isn’t the first collaboration between the two companies and while I’m sure Solaris owners will get their torches ready — I wasn’t overly impressed with the Solaris X overall. I expected a lot more and I say that because I have been a Campfire Audio customer for a few years and have a lot of experience with their products; the Andromeda is one of my favorite IEMs and still gets regular use.
I travel with a pair of Campfire Audio Andromeda and the Astell&Kern KANN Alpha DAP and the combination is one that I love very much; It is arguably one of the most enjoyable parts of my day when I can lose myself while I commute listening to music through these two excellent products.
There was most certainly some trepidation reviewing the Pathfinder, because I feared that it might end up being my fourth opportunity to review the Solaris which unlike the Andromeda has not been a love affair for me.
We are not in the unboxing business, but I was very impressed with everything that Astell&Kern and Campfire Audio included in the packaging. The kit comes with the Pathfinder earpieces, a divided cloth bag to protect them, and Campfire’s standard zipper case to store the earpieces and one of the provided cables.
There are three sets of cables to select from in the box; 2.5mm, 3.5mm, and one that is terminated with 4.4mm jacks.
Very few brands do that; many only supply one and charge you up to $350 for the additional cables.
They have also gone the extra mile when it comes to ear tips; the package includes a set of silicone tips, three sets of foam tips, and a full set of Final Audio E-Series tips. I can’t think of too many earphone manufacturers that do that and also include a carry bag for the cable and tips, cleaning tool, and manuals.
The earpieces are finished in black and silver with a cast body in gloss black and steel face plates with a mirror finish. The industrial design is a combination of the Solaris and the angular designs from Astell&Kern with the faceplate having six facets of varying sizes.
The nozzles are bright stainless as well with matching rings around the MMCX port and vent. The entire package has rather substantial heft and it most certainly feels as if Astell&Kern have had a greater hand in the build quality and overall look and feel.
The cables are silver plated OFC Copper Litz in a four strand side-by-side flat housing that is also quite visually impactful. The cable looks heavier than it is and with the ear-hooks at the north end, weight is well distributed and I had no issues with microphonic noise.
Astell&Kern and Campfire Audio certainly delivered on the visual end, but very few people spend this kind of money on earphones because they are visually attractive; the Pathfinder is a hybrid design with a 10mm dynamic driver with a dual diaphragm and radial venting system to better control the low end.
The midrange is handled by a new dual chamber balanced armature, and the highs are handled by a pair of balanced armatures; all of the armatures were custom designed by Knowles for Campfire Audio.
The impedance was measured at 6.9 ohms (the supplied press kit lists 6.2 ohms) and the measured sensitivity was 96 dB/mW, making the Pathfinder easy to drive but somewhat source specific.
The Pathfinder is designed to match well with Astell&Kern DAPs and other sources with near zero output impedance. If your source has a high output impedance, care needs to be taken when pairing them.
I paired the Pathfinder with my Astell&Kern KANN Alpha, Sony WM1A, and a borrowed Astell&Kern SP2000 to test its performance with portables, and an RME ADI-2 FSR BE Reference DAC and Yulong Aurora to test office/desktop pairings.
There was no surprise that the Astell&Kern DAPs provided a slightly warmer and more organic sound than the Sony which leans more towards being analytical sounding.
Both the RME and Aurora offered similar sonic signature with a bit less warmth than the Astell&Kern DAPs but a touch more than the Sony. The best pairings were the Astell&Kern SP2000 and Yulong Aurora that struck the best balance between color, texture, and detail overall.
There is some added emphasis in the low end that gives the Pathfinder a bit of extra impact and definition, but it begins to trail-off around 100Hz and I never felt that it crossed over higher in the bass range.
The sub-bass is well controlled; notes had good texture and detail and I always felt that it was well defined regardless of the genre of music that I listened to.
The frequency range from the mid-bass to the lower midrange is extremely linear sounding and it definitely seems like Astell&Kern and Campfire Audio aimed for a “W” tuning with the Pathfinder.
The new dual dynamic driver is very articulate sounding with more than enough texture, clarity, and control; there is almost no bleed from the bass into the mid-range which keeps the overall presentation quite open and balanced.
The Pathfinder is a not a bass head IEM, but with some EQ applied, the low end can deliver reference quality impact and definition and I question why anyone would need more. Don’t punish your hearing.
The lower mid-range is clean and free of any added emphasis; male vocals are delivered with excellent note weight, accurate timbre, and more than enough detail. I was very impressed with how the Pathfinder reproduces the cello and acoustic guitar; timbre, detail, and never pushed too far forward into the mix that they interfere with the vocals.
There is some added emphasis in the midrange that does add some energy and presence to violin strings and piano notes; I was concerned that it would extend too far into the upper mid-range and impact vocals, but it manages to restrain itself just enough and not become hard or strident sounding.
One of the aspects of the Solaris’ performance that I did not love was the similar emphasis in the mid-range followed by a rather sharp dip which led to unevenness in the upper mid-range and lower treble.
While the Pathfinder shares the same rise in the mid-range, it does not experience the same dip as we move from the upper mid-range into the lower treble; the result is that female vocals are smoother, less recessed, and delivered with more resolution and presence. There is a tiny dip but not enough to change the overall tonal balance and presentation.
The lower treble is more balanced sounding than the Solaris X; percussion has good snap, and cymbals and snares are presented with enough energy to sound realistic. There is some added emphasis around 5kHz, but it doesn’t extend much beyond 6kHz.
Vocals are delivered with good presence and avoid becoming fatiguing in the 6 – 9kHz range. The Pathfinder sounds rather open at the top and there is a gradual roll-off around 14kHz; there is a degree of airiness and sparkle at the top that never sounds artificial or etched.
The soundstage has very good depth and height, but closed IEMs still only deliver a rather intimate performance. The orchestra placement demonstrates very good stereo separation and instrument separation on the stage. Imaging is excellent with musicians carved firmly in place and with very little shift.
The $1,900 Astell&Kern Pathfinder IEM is a very impressive collaboration that exceeds the sound quality of any Solaris model yet released. I’m going to eat my words and say that it is a retuning of the Solaris and that I love it.
It is certainly not inexpensive and you do need to utilize high quality DAPs and desktop DAC/Amplifiers to really experience what it can do; your iPhone 13 with a Dongle DAC won’t sound terrible with the Pathfinders but it won’t be the same experience.
How does it compare to the rest of Campfire Audio range? It is their best release since the Andromeda and that’s rather high praise.
If you already own an Astell&Kern DAP and are looking for a pair of IEMs that will never be the weak link in the chain — consider the Pathfinder because they represent their best collaboration to date. If you don’t own an Astell&Kern DAP, the Pathfinder is still the best Solaris variant yet and well worth a look.
Where to buy: $1,899 at Audio46