The Pathfinder are hybrid in-ear headphones developed in collaboration with Campfire Audio, which are equipped with dual dynamic drivers and a range of armature drivers, including the brand new, dual chamber and double diaphragm Knowles.
Campfire Audio Solaris is a controversial series of hybrid in-ear headphones that delighted some, discouraged others. Two years ago, I tested the Solaris 2020 model and was impressed by the high resolution, high dynamics and a large soundstage. At the same time, I drew attention to the distant midrange and sharpened treble, which meant that the headphones required synergy with the sound source and the right repertoire to show what they can do. Ultimately, Solaris 2020 appealed to me and I considered them a progress in relation to the progenitors.
Why am I writing about them? Well, everything indicates that the Pathfinder is an unofficial continuation of the Solaris line, because they are also high-end hybrids with multiple converters. However, this time there are a lot of changes, because there are two 10mm dynamic drivers and four dynamic drivers on board. “As if”, because the new Knowles driver is responsible for the midrange, which has two chambers and two diaphragms, but single coils, making it smaller and more efficient. According to the manufacturer, it is supposed to provide a warmer and more natural sound of the midrange, which could be missing in the sound of the Solaris 2020.
- cable with 2.5 mm plug (120 cm);
- cable with 3.5 mm plug (120 cm);
- cable with 4.4 mm (120 cm) plug;
- 5 pairs of Final Audio Type E tips (XS, S, M, L, XL);
- 3 pairs of thermoactive foams (S, M, L);
- cleaning tool;
- accessory pouch;
- headphone cover;
- user manual and documentation.
I did not expect a set of cables in the box. This is a sensation, because the sets of all the Campfire Audio headphones I tested lacked symmetrical cables. However, it can be assessed in two ways. Some will be glad that Astell&Kern did not skimp on cables, thanks to which we do not have to prepare for further expenses. Others will say that we kind of pay for the cables in advance, because the Pathfinder more expensive than the models from the Solaris series.
Other accessories are already well known, as regards tips, pouches and a case, because these are typical additions to the headphones of the manufacturer from the USA. Even the case resembles those added to the Ara or Solaris 2020 models, because it is also arched and capacious, but this time it was made not of cork, but of leather. The accessory was lined inside with imitation wool and decorated with Astell&Kern and Campfire Audio logos.
There is no doubt that Pathfinder is the fruit of cooperation between Campfire Audio and Astell&Kern. The aluminum housings resemble those of the Solaris, but this time the sleeves are simple, and instead of uniform fronts, decorative covers are used. They are made of steel and given an attractive shape that should perfectly match the angular players of the South Korean manufacturer. I admit that I prefer the simpler designs in the Campfire Audio portfolio, but the “mountain-inspired” design is also okay.
The lids look sharp and rough, but in fact the edges have been slightly rounded, so they are pleasant to the touch. The steel is shallowly brushed and the finish is not prone to smudges. Fingerprints are also not visible on the black housings, on which we find MMCX sockets and vents for dynamic converters, placed on opposite sides. Interestingly, there are no classic channel markings on the headphones, which, however, are not needed in the case of OTE construction. However, you can be guided by the prints on the lower part of the housings, because the Campfire Audio logo is on the right earphone, and the Astell&Kern logo on the left.
The cables also look unusual, because they are flat. Completely transparent insulation is used, through which four strands of silver-plated OFC copper in Litz geometry are visible through the coiled conductors. The splitters are made of aluminum, as are the straight 2.5 mm, 3.5 mm and 4.4 mm plugs. The housings of the MMCX plugs are also made of metal, with discreet channel markings. Initially, I thought that the sliders on the splitters were abandoned, but I was wrong – the transparent elements blend perfectly with the splitter, but they are movable, so it is possible to shorten the earbuds.
The build quality of the headphones is high. I did not notice any flaws, problems with fitting or processing materials. Steel lids or sleeves look impeccable, as do aluminum housings. The cables are also immaculate. On the other hand, all Campfire Audio headphones I know impress with build quality, so the Pathfinder is not unique.
Ergonomics and use
The headphones are large, because several armature drivers, two dynamic drivers and special 3D printed chambers had to fit inside the housings. As a result, the housings are wide and stand out clearly from the ears. In my case, the headphones have only minimal contact with the auricles, they mainly block the ear canals, because the sleeves perfectly fill the ear canals. No wonder that the manufacturer did not try to give the Pathfinder an ergonomic shape at all, because the headphones are largely outside the auricles, they do not fill their nooks and crannies.
It turns out, however, that ergonomics is high for such large headphones. The housings do not compress the auricles and do not fall out, because they are not extremely heavy – they weigh 8 grams. During the listening sessions, I did not suffer, although I had to get used to quite long sleeves, slightly expanding the ear canals. So it’s worth trying smaller tips than usual, which will allow you to wear the Pathfinder deeper and translate into quite good sound insulation. Headphones do not perfectly attenuate the environment yet, but they significantly mute it, allowing you to fully focus on the music. Therefore, in terms of ergonomics and insulation, the Astell&Kern Pathfinder are similar to the Campfire Audio Solaris 2020.
The wiring works fine too. I do not agree that wide and ribbon cables do not tangle, because it happened to me many times during the tests. Nevertheless, cables of this type are easier to untangle than ordinary ones with a round cross-section. I also liked the sliders, which move with a lot of resistance, so they hold their position perfectly. However, the microphone effect turned out to be acceptable – only sometimes I heard a slight shuffling of the cable, which, however, did not interfere with the listening sessions. The flexible temples also deserve praise, because they do not cut into the skin and firmly hold their places.
- drivers: 2x dynamic 10 mm (low tones – low mid) + double armature (mid) + two armature (high tones)
- frequency response: 5Hz-20kHz
- impedance: 6.2 ohms
- sensitivity: 94 dB
- cable: MMCX > 2.5/3.5/4.4 mm, silver-plated copper, 120 cm
- weight: 8 g (single earphone); 41 g (both headphones with cable and tips)
- Headphones: Campfire Audio Ara, Dorado 2020, Solaris and Solaris 2020, FiiO FA9, FD7, FH9, FH5s, Meze Audio Advar
- Sources: FiiO M17, M11 Plus ESS, Astell&Kern Kann Max, Cayin N3Pro, FiiO BTR7, Qudelix-5K, Cayin RU-6
There are similarities to the Solaris 2020, because the Pathfinder are also musically and effectively tuned headphones with strong band extremes. Again, there is no question of a balanced, neutral or linear sound, but rather colored, because the Pathfinder is primarily enjoyable and engaging. The promised changes, however, can be heard, because the midrange has actually been modified, and the novelties are easy to detect also in the bass.
Astell&Kern Pathfinder – tips
I listened to the Final Audio Type E tips, i.e. well-known and great quality tips, which are also ideal for Pathfinder. Standard caps with wide outlets shallow the low tones and brighten the upper midrange and treble, which in my opinion is not beneficial in this case. Foams, on the other hand, slightly smooth the sound, round off the extreme bands, which may or may not be liked.
Astell&Kern Pathfinder – sound
Low tones are strong and deep, because the dual dynamic drivers show off their descent into the sub-bass and massive mid-bass range. The higher, more punctual bass is also in place, so the headphones also work well with lighter music and live instruments. However, I have no doubt that the Pathfinder spread their wings where fast, vibrant and rich bass counts, i.e. in modern electronics. The low tones are sensational, fade quickly and are perfectly controlled, because they do not rumble and do not merge. The bass does not overwhelm the other bands yet, it is not served in indigestible amounts, and it surprises with the variety of texture and detail. So the bottom of the band is effective, but still resolving and precise.
The midrange is backwards in relation to the bass or treble, but it is not completely overwhelming. Interestingly, despite the emphasis on bass, I could also listen to jazz without any problems – with a lighter repertoire, the midrange seemed to be closer, becoming warmer and more saturated, which applies to both the instruments and the direct voices of the vocalists. The resolution of the midrange did not disappoint me – this range is extremely direct and packed with details. The general character of the midrange, however, is quite specific, because the range gives the impression of being smooth and calm, as well as outlined and technical at the same time. I had the impression of a certain conflict between the lower and upper midrange, because the headphones sounded both accessible and musical to me, as well as aggressive. It is possible that it is either the influence of dynamic transducers,
The treble is also surprising, because there are a lot of them, they illuminate the midrange and counter the bass, but somehow they are not sharp. The Pathfinders do not hiss, they do not prick the ears and they do not overwhelm with the amount of soprano, because it has been rounded and softened. The treble does not go up indefinitely, it does not accentuate the highest octaves and it does not sound aggressive. The effect is interesting, because we get a really clear and crystalline sound, but paradoxically presented in an accessible way. On the other hand, there is no balanced treble, because it seems to be wavy, does not sound linear or natural, which can be heard on slightly nasal drum cymbals or guitar solos. Again, the priority over the fidelity of the message is the effectiveness and musicality, which is acceptable. At least I quickly stopped complaining about it and just listened to music.
I perceived the soundstage as ellipsoidal, i.e. stereophony has a certain priority over depth or height. However, the shape of the space is close to a sphere, because the headphones differentiate the exposure of the instruments also on the front-back and top-down planes. The foreground is close, which enhances the directness of the presentation, but the background instruments move away from the listener, seem to come from a distance. Thus, the soundstage has optimal dimensions, it is neither gigantic nor small. The instruments are also shapely, three-dimensional and quite large, so the holography is typical of multi-driver hybrid headphones. I also have no objections to the separation of instruments, but it should be remembered that the bass is amplified, so it fills the corners of the stage, builds a foundation for other instruments, which limits aeration. This is typical for headphones,
Astell&Kern Pathfinder – comparisons with the Solaris 2020 and other
Pathfinder headphones resemble the Solaris 2020 , but they have more low registers (especially midbass) and midrange (mainly low), which is probably a consequence of doubled dynamic transducers. In my opinion, the Solaris 2020 generate less midrange, which is, however, harder and more outlined, and they also emphasize the soprano more. I also perceived the bass of the Pathfinder as fuller in the mid-range, less favoring sub-bass. In turn, in the midrange of the Pathfinder model I heard more smoothness and warmth, which is indeed a step towards naturalness. So, simplifying the Pathfinder, it’s a bassier, warmer and gentler Solaris 2020.
This does not mean, however, that the Pathfinder are indisputably better than the Solaris 2020. It turns out that the sharper and less accessible top of the Solaris 2020 is more extended, freer and clearer, when in the Pathfinder it seems softened and rounded. The Solaris 2020 also generate less bass, which is not so dense and massive, and more compact, which can also be a plus. In addition, the midrange of the Solaris 2020 is more consistent and less smooth, because it is more armature, i.e. similarly hard in the low frequency range as in the higher one. Interestingly, I perceived the Solaris 2020 stage as a little bigger and, above all, wider. So Solaris 2020 is still defending itself, despite two years on the neck and a price lower. Too bad you can’t buy them anymore.
In turn, Campfire Audio Ara and Pathfinder are two worlds. The armature Aras generate a definitely shallower, more punctual and tight bass, sound closer in the midrange and more natural in the treble. In my opinion, the Ary are the most even headphones from Campfire Audio, and thus the most technical, because they are incredibly resolving, direct and detailed. With them, the V-shaped Pathfinder sound much more impressive, massive and smooth. I believe the Astell&Kern/Campfire Audio headphones are the quintessence of musicality at the expense of fidelity, with the Ary favoring the technical side and ignoring the musicality. I prefer the Ary, although during the tests I sometimes missed the filling of the low tones from the Pathfinder.
Some similarities to the Pathfinder can be heard in the sound of the FiiO FH9 with balanced filters, because they are also spatial and musical headphones with full bass, which are colorful, warm and effective. However, I noticed that the bass of the FH9 is not as detailed and varied, but it sounds similarly dynamic. In turn, the FiiO’s midrange is even smoother and calmer, because the Pathfinder generate slightly stronger upper mids. The treble of the FH9, on the other hand, sounds more even, but is similarly soft in perception. I believe that the sound of the Pathfinders is in higher resolution, the dual dynamic drivers better differentiate the texture of the instruments, and the foreground is a little further from the FiiO headphones, so the FH9s still do not match the capabilities of the in-ear headphones with the Astell&Kern logo. On the other hand, the FH9 are more than three times cheaper than them, and they are not outclassed.
Astell&Kern Pathfinder – synergy
Pathfinder does not require perfect synergy, they match various equipment. However, I recommend common sense, i.e. choosing sources that do not boost the bass, because there is plenty of that. Nevertheless, I also got great results with players that have quite strong extreme bands, such as FiiO M17 or Astell&Kern Kann Max . The latter pushed the technical aspects of the headphones to a truly amazing level. The headphones also got along with balanced equipment or with a stronger diameter, such as Qudelix-5K or Astell&Kern AK70 MKII. The first one made a particularly good impression, because the Qudelix-5K evened out the headphones, calming the band’s extremes.
However, I have no doubt that the headphones scale with the hardware and are sensitive to the source signature, because the FiiO M17 sounded much smoother than the contour Kanna Max, and both players provided a higher resolution and a larger soundstage than cheaper players or Bluetooth adapters. It is therefore similar to the Solaris 2020, i.e. Pathfinder also needs equipment of adequate quality to show its full potential in terms of resolution, dynamics or space. I was still satisfied with the headphones with Bluetooth adapters or basic players, but it was heard that this was not “that” yet.
Unfortunately, the Pathfinder are extremely sensitive to noise, which is their Achilles heel. This is especially acute in balanced connections, but it was also difficult for me to get a perfectly clean signal from the 3.5 mm outputs, because I am talking about headphones with an impedance of 6.2 ohms, which is even lower than the Solaris 2020 (15.5 ohms) or even Campfire Audio Ara (8.5 ohms). So a great match with the Kann Max is useless, because with this player the noise is unacceptable, it disturbs even from the 3.5 mm output. The FiiO M17 hummed less, but there was still no clean signal that purists would accept. I was satisfied only in connection with Bluetooth adapters, especially with the Qudeliks-5K , which provided a cleaner signal than the FiiO BTR7 .
Pathfinder are undoubtedly original in-ear headphones, which are the result of cooperation between two highly recognizable audio brands. The headphones look phenomenal, are excellently made and surprisingly comfortable for a construction packed with transducers. Pluses include rich equipment, good sound insulation and convenient wiring. The sound is a matter of taste, because it is effective – the bass has been boosted, the midrange has been brought closer and the treble has been wavy, so the headphones are primarily musical. However, in general, the variety of instruments is phenomenal, especially those that operate with bass.
Tuning, on the other hand, is questionable. The low tones come out ahead of the pack, the midrange is warm/smooth and hard/scratched at the same time, and the treble could be more extended and even. Susceptibility to noise is also a big problem – during the Pathfinder tests they sounded clean only in a few cases.
These are headphones that are difficult to evaluate in the price/quality category, because it is an audiophile and prestigious product, several times more expensive than those I usually deal with. On the other hand, the Solaris 2020 or Ara, mentioned many times, are models cheaper by several thousand zlotys, which are similar or even better depending on preferences. Although the Pathfinders already have a set of cables in the set, but in this case balanced connections are often unfavorable.
I think that fans of faithful, completely flat or perfectly natural headphones have nothing to look for here. On the other hand, people who put the emotions of music in the first place, who care primarily about entertainment, can be satisfied. In theory, the Pathfinder are not headphones for me, but they gave me a lot of pleasure, I had a great time with them. However, I recommend a thorough listening session before buying to check not only the sound, but also to verify the purity of the signal.
+ rich equipment
+ three cables included
+ solid workmanship
+ extraordinary design
+ satisfying ergonomics
+ decent noise reduction
+ resilient and varied bass, saturated midrange and strong, but gentle treble
+ holographic soundstage
– specific tuning
– the treble could be more extended
– susceptibility to noise