This is an interview we’ve had with Ken Ball and Caleb Rosenau of Portland-based Campfire Audio. Enjoy.
Everybody knows Campfire Audio but what many people don’t know that you’ve been in the industry for many years. Can you please tell us a bit about the history of your company and where you come from.
Campfire Audio had its first product launch in the summer of 2015. Our first release contained three earphones; Orion, Jupiter, and Lyra. At the time, our super angular machined all-metal shells were unique and caught the attention of many people exploring the emerging high-end personal audio space. Lyra was the first IEM with an all-ceramic body. So we were doing some exciting new things right out of the gate. Of course, we worked on these for quite a while before we were ready to launch.
Before turning our attention to making earphones, we had been making amplifiers and DACs for headphones as well as a full range of premium hand-built cables as ALO audio. This is a somewhat different pursuit from making earphones, but it did give us the idea to start the earphone shells by machining them from aluminium, just like we had been doing with the amplifier enclosures. So from the very beginning, we took a somewhat different approach than we’d seen done before with earphones. It was also really an exciting period in those early days when we began to put the whole audio string together, from a source to our amp to our earphones, all connected by our cables. It felt great and was a fertile time at Campfire Audio.
Tell us a bit about your team, how many people are working for Campfire Audio?
We’ve been fortunate over the years to build an incredible team of people. It’s Ken, myself, Valivann, Danielle, JD, Aubree, Ben, Andrew, Brendon, Tyler, Lily, Wolfgang, Brodie, Chris, Danny, Matthew, Brian, Izzy, Jim, and Charlene. So Campfire Audio is twenty people currently. Our workshop is located in inner southeast Portland, and most of us live near the shop. Unfortunately, as a result of the pandemic, we’re not always in the shop altogether anymore. But I know we’re all looking forward to seeing the end of the pandemic soon.
Campfire is based in Oregon, did your hometown gave you the inspiration regarding your brand name?
Yes, I think it’s a fair connection between Campfire Audio and Oregon, generally speaking. There is a great appreciation for the outdoors, and Ken is undoubtedly a regular camper. Location-wise, we’re about an hour’s drive to Mt. Hood, where there is plenty of camping happing in the Mt. Hood National Forrest. I think there is also a communal feeling to a Campfire and gathering around it. And of course, many of our products have celestial names, inspired by looking up into the night sky while out there. Being away from the city from time to time and re-connecting to the natural environment is essential. And at the center of that experience, there is a campfire.
Now let’s focus on Campfire: The Andromeda is where everything started, right? Did you ever expect this product being such an incredible success? It changed the whole company, didn’t it?
Yes, I think undoubtedly Andromeda did have a massive impact on us as a company and certainly significantly contributed to our rapid growth, especially early on. We enjoyed early success with our first round of releases, which was during the late summer of 2015. We had travelled to several global shows to introduce people to the brand and get our earphones in front of as many people as we could. We were only building a few hundred earphones a month at that point and had a team of six people. It was a lot of fun, but also a lot of learning by trial and error as we figured out how to make more than a handful of earphones at a time.
Andromeda came together pretty quickly, based originally, at least conceptually, on our model Jupiter, which was a four-balanced armature driver model. But something magical happened when that fifth driver was added to the mix. I remember the first time I heard it. It was one of several prototypes Ken was working on simultaneously at that time. I put them into my ears and suddenly just heard the music. Not the earphones making music, but just the music. It was something, and it was great.
So with that, we went to work preparing it for launch in the Spring of 2016. We had barely finished making a handful of them by the time we were in Chicago attending the AXPONA show. The response there was even better than we’d hoped for, and people were connecting to it at that show. Even better, they were posting their glowing reviews on Head-fi.org and several other sites at the time. Almost directly after that show, we flew to Tokyo and attended the Fujiya-Avic audio show there. But to our surprise, as soon as the show opened, people rushed to our table to hear Andromeda. The show coverage from the previous event, posted online, inspired a tremendous amount of interest in Andromeda and Campfire Audio. The entire show, our small table was full of people waiting to hear Andromeda. It was gratifying to get that overwhelming validation in Japan. It is such a competitive market for earphone makers, and the personal audio fans there are incredibly sophisticated in their taste for premium earphones.
Next to Andromeda, Solaris has also been a huge success: Can we expect more affordable products in the near future?
Yes, we’ve been grateful for the success of Solaris. It has regularly outsold Andromeda since its first introduction in 2018. The two models often go back and forth as our top sellers, depending on the month. And while the high-end of the market is exciting and where we prefer to operate, I think there is an opportunity to reach out to new people beyond the audiophile walled garden.
One place we see an opportunity to connect with like-minded people is in music performance and production. These are people who know what music should sound like. They approach their gear as tools for their craft and depend on them as such. We believe we make products that can meet and exceed their expectations and offer those at prices that fit their budget. So we’re excited to roll out some new models later this spring with working musicians specifically in mind. Of course, we think many other people will enjoy them and can certainly appreciate what we’ve done in this space.
The mainstream segment seems to switch to wireless: How do you guys deal with this – are you also working on something?
Sure, this is the undeniable trend for the vast majority of people. Luckily for us, this is not necessarily the same person who has bought our earphones historically and not our core customer at the moment.
However, this is an exciting time for personal audio and, more significantly, for earphones. Never before have so many people been buying earphones and listening to the content of their choice. There is also a perpetual shelf-life of earphones with batteries, which means these customers will be repeatedly be returning to the earphone market for years to come. We think this quick product life cycle offers as many opportunities as it does challenges. When we enter this highly competitive new segment, we need to bring something unique to the table, and I think that is what we expect to do.
But for the moment, we consider the mass-market wireless segment as distinct from the premium wired IEM market. They are very different and have unique values and approaches. We’re also more confident than ever about the sustaining perseverance of the high-end personal audio market. As the demand for high-resolution music and earphones more broadly expands, the gravity of premium products that offer the very best performance will continue to draw in new people. It is an exciting and incredibly rewarding rarefied market to people who choose to invest in it.
Which is your personal favourite from your collection?
Right now, for me, Ara is my favorite. It has remarkable speed and resolution that is difficult to match in our line. It is also really the one product that I still don’t understand why it failed to connect to more people. While it is certainly not a failure, it has not yet connected to as broad an audience as Andromeda or Solaris. I suppose launching it at the very beginning of a global pandemic was, in retrospect, a strategic mistake of marketing. Not supporting it with shows and in-person listening demos essentially sealed its fate. But I hope that people will find out what they’ve been missing here once this pandemic is over. Also, I think it looks great. It is machined from titanium and left unfinished, beyond polishing. So it is the natural material and benefits from the abuses of daily wear aesthetically. Anyway, that’s what I’m enjoying right now, along with several of our upcoming Spring / Summer 2021 lines, which I’m looking forward to discussing more.