Pathfinder headphones, or IEMs (in-ear monitors), are a collaboration between premium headphone maker Campfire Audio and high-fidelity digital audio system gurus at Astell & Kern.
When I first read about Pathfinder headphones, I felt incredibly unqualified to review what are possibly the most prestigious audio devices I’ve been asked to review. One thing stood out and that was the price, an impressive US$1,899 from US site Astell & Kern.
I don’t really have anything worth having two big headphones connected to. But that doesn’t mean I’m a philistine when it comes to audio. In fact, I’m pretty picky when it comes to sound reproduction and can pick up a rattling speaker or make an annoying pop.
So, with the above in mind, I opened up the beautifully presented Campfire Audio X Astell & Kern Pathfinder box, took out the headphones (already connected to the correct 3.5mm jack cable) and plugged them into a PlayStation 5 controller. While this may annoy audiophiles who wear corduroy, it’s a pretty good test. The audio in modern games is designed in a way that puts most studio-recorded tracks to shame. It’s an ever-changing soundtrack designed to surround the player and immerse them in a world that has cost millions of dollars to make.
But let’s back up a bit.
The Pathfinder IEMs arrive in a fairly well-designed presentation box, as you’d expect from devices that, according to the Campfire Audio site, are hand-finished in their Oregon workshop. The box contains small sleeves with warranty cards and serial number inside, and the actual headphones are on display ready to go with a cable and 3.5mm jack. Removing the top layer of the case reveals a zippered leather case, two storage pouches, a selection of headphone tips, a cleaning tool, and alternate cables.
The selection of ear cushions is very impressive, ensuring a perfect fit with even the most exclusive ear canals. There are five pairs of Final Audio E-Type tips (XS/S/M/L/XL), three pairs of Campfire Audio Marshmallow tips (S/M/L), and three pairs of silicone tips.
While you’ll likely pack the earphones and your favorite cable(s) right into the beautiful leather case (or just slip them into your pocket, heathen), that’s not what devices are meant for. prestigious. There is a large bag large enough to accommodate the three supplied cables and another for the headphones. The two bags can be conveniently placed in the zippered case, all safe and sound.
About those wires. Instead of plastic-wrapped tangled bits of wire, the Pathfinder’s cables are more akin to those on high-end speakers.
This is not surprising considering that manufacturing high-end audio cables is where Campfire Audio has its origins. The left and right braided silver wires rest side by side, covered in a clear plastic sleeve. This lays the cables flat, making them easier to wrap and less likely to tangle. While the cables are a bit bulky compared to their cheaper looking counterparts, it’s a perfect example of function over form and the sacrifice it makes for quality.
The earpiece end of each cable has a hard plastic cover that gives them a nice shape around your ears. If you are in any doubt about which side fits which ear, there is a small “L” and “R” on the metal ends of the cable. The cables connect to the headphones via a rounded clip, but as I mentioned, the more common 3.5mm jack cable is already attached.
The dedicated mesh bag has separate compartments for each of the earphones. These can be separated from the wires with a brisk but careful tug.
The headphones have a solid aluminum housing. They are not too heavy but feel very sturdy. They fit very comfortably in the ears and with the help of the ear-shaped part of the cable, they are unlikely to slip out. The back of each earbud has an interesting design that sets it apart from other earbuds.
Using Pathfinder headsets with PlayStation 5, I started playing Sony’s Horizon: Forbidden West, an open-world game packed with ambient audio and a soulful soundtrack. Not only was I able to discern sounds that were simply not audible using the TV speakers, but obvious noises were also recreated so well that I sometimes thought they were actual banging sounds coming from outside my office. Rotating the game’s camera around the main character, Aloy, unleashed a similar rotating 3D audio extravaganza in my ears. No pop or distortion heard, just pure audio as the audio engineers intended.
For another test, this time on a PC, using my trusty EPOS GSX 300 external sound card, I played a selection of uncompressed AIFF music files that have been stashed away on my hard drive for the occasion. The likes of Blue Man Group thundering through Pathfinder headphones not only proved its excellent bass, but also highlighted how much we’ve lost by indulging in compressed MP3 and streamed audio. Even using the Pathfinders connected directly to a PC with the last CD player left in the house, the audio was surprisingly crisp and sharp.
As much as I’d like to poop on these expensive Campfire Audio X Astell and Kern Pathfinder IEMs, I can honestly say I can’t find fault with them. Not only do they look very stylish, but they are also exemplary in their high-quality audio reproduction work.
Being designed for listening to quality audio recordings and not for taking phone calls, Pathfinder headsets do not have phone features such as volume controls etc. on a phone to listen to MP3s with lossy or streamed audio doesn’t do them justice.
The Campfire Audio X Astell and Kern Pathfinder IEMs offer superior audio reproduction, of that I have no doubt. Whether or not they offer $2,000 of premium audio playback will largely depend on the depth of your pockets. I’ll tell you this though: I’ve never used headphones with such crystal-clear audio clarity. The build also appears to be of exceptionally high quality, especially when compared to other headsets. The inclusion of the storage bags and the very good looking leather case complete a rather exquisite package. Indeed, my time with the Pathfinder IEMs was a rare treat.