Astell&Kern is best known for their beautiful DAPs (digital audio players). That said, the company has had a few collaboration projects in the past centered around IEMs; for these, they have often partnered with established brands like JH Audio. The Pathfinder (2DD/3BA) is another such IEM, this time in conjunction with Campfire Audio, that clocks in at $1900. Now, I would be lying if I said that I’ve found myself impressed with these collaboration IEMs in the past. Does the Pathfinder change this sentiment? Let’s take a quick look.
The Pathfinder is a medium-sized IEM that I personally had no issues with for fit or comfort, although this is always subjective to the end listener. It has an aluminum shell that appears to have been anodized. There is a slight notch where the two halves of the shell meet that catches on a fingernail; I would have preferred for this to be more seamless. The addition of a brushed stainless steel faceplate lends a slight heft to the IEM and a sense of more premium construction. The nozzles are slightly elongated in typical Campfire Audio fashion, although the grills of old (which sported parallel vents) have been replaced by a grill that has eight circular holes.
Frankly, I am not a fan of the Pathfinder’s cable. It is rather unwieldy to use, as it sports four individual lines of wire side-by-side. For those who might be unaware, this is highly reminiscent of the type of cable that is sometimes included with budget manufacturer KZ’s IEMs. Likewise, the hardware on the Pathfinder’s cable would benefit from improvement - it does not feel as premium as I’d like. The most positive thing that I can say on this front is that there are at least three cables (for all standard terminations) included with the Pathfinder.
I always enjoy listening to an IEM before taking measurements and then comparing my notes, after, to how the IEM actually measures. Generally, I’ve found that my impressions have a reasonably positive correlation to what I measure; however, my ears are definitely not perfect. I frequently still find myself surprised by minor discrepancies between what I hear and what the measurements depict. That in mind, here are the quick notes I wrote down upon listening to the Pathfinder for about ten minutes:
- Bass boosted 8-10dB, good amounts of mid-bass with a lower-midrange tilt
- Pinna is around 2kHz
- Upper-midrange seems recessed from around 3-6kHz
- Treble has mid-treble peak, extension isn't the best, starting to roll-off from about 12kHz onwards?
The frequency response of the Pathfinder is pretty…sketchy, for lack of a better word, and it measures worse than I would have expected by ear. But that said, I don't think it sounds entirely bad. The 4.5kHz peak keeps trailing definition to female vocals from being entirely smoothed over, and the Pathfinder actually has decent treble extension after closer listening - the strong quantity of mid-treble and bass just masks it at times. I do wonder if the Pathfinder is using a new DD from CFA, as it sounds quite different from my memory of the Solaris IEMs (in a more positive way), but it could just be the stronger bass shelf talking.
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In any case, the Pathfinder has a somewhat murky, odd sound that treads - at least in my opinion - too far off the beaten path, much less the path to improvement. For context, and as I alluded to above, the Pathfinder seems to be the next iteration of the polarizing Solaris (if not in name, then in sound). But from memory, I think the Pathfinder might be a regression from its Solaris brethren. The Pathfinder's staging seems smaller to me; the treble also seems harsher compared to my memory of the OG Solaris' smooth but delightfully sparkly treble.
IEMs like the Pathfinder are often difficult for me to write about. Generally, I find its sound quality to be somewhere in the limbo of mediocrity, mostly just average in the grand scheme of things. It is even more difficult to take the Pathfinder seriously within the scope of Campfire Audio’s past success with the Solaris which - at least in this reviewer’s opinion - is the superior choice between the IEMs, even ignoring the cheaper price tag.