The Pathfinder IEM is a new collaboration between Astell&Kern and Campfire Audio. Astell&Kern has often collaborated with other headphone brands in developing their models, like beyerdynamic, Jerry Harvey Audio, Final Audio. Campfire Audio is a U.S. designer and manufacturer of premium hand-built earphones and fits right into the ethos of A&K. The Pathfinder retails in Singapore at S$2999, distributed by AV One group.
As you can see from the above unboxing photo, the Pathfinder has a load of accessories. Besides the pair of IEM, there are three MMCX cables – 3.5mm unbalanced, 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced. These cables are silver-plated copper cable that are flat instead of twisted and this prevents tangling. There are also a lot of eartips, and comes with both foam and silicone, the latter is the Type E from Final Audio, same as the ones from Meze Audio ADVAR. It also comes with a separate earbuds protection pouch to keep the earbuds from knocking each other, a separate pouch to store the accessories, and a leather-wrapped zip case with inner fibre linings.
The MMCX connector uses custom Beryllium copper material that are harder than typical brass material for better durability. Assembled by hand in the USA, the shell consisted of a stainless steel spout, aluminium body and the iconic hexagonal faceplate in aluminium.
The Pathfinder is packed with some impressive components which results in its size. It uses the world’s first Dual-Diaphragm Mid-Focused Balanced Armature (BA) Driver from Knowles in the midrange to achieve a more natural reproduction. This all-new design houses two chambers with separate diaphragm and drive rod actuated by a single coil, which in Astell&Kern words is like a twin-cylinder engine to deliver more horsepower and smoother operation compared to a single larger piston. The Campfire Audio’s new Radial Venting Technology for dynamic drivers is used for the first time on Pathfinder to deliver more powerful bass and a larger soundstage. In the high-frequency department, it employs Campfire Audio’s patented Tuned Acoustic Expansion Chamber technology (T.A.E.C.) technology to allow the custom-dual BA drivers to deliver clearer and more precise treble reproduction. All these components are housed within the 3D-printed interior acoustic chamber, designed to allow the drivers to vent and deliver optimum sonic performance.
The three dual-hybrid drivers collectively produce a massive amount of musical detail that overwhelmed my senses. The balanced tuning allows the treble to deliver its needed bright tonality while the midrange instruments play with uncanny presence which adds to the tonal precision. The mid-bass pumps politely without exaggeration like a true gentleman, and while it will not satisfy bass lovers, it is a necessary balance to avoid frequency wars. The package comes with dozens of ear tips and materials that subtly influence the frequency balance, so one should swap around.
One outstanding character that makes the Pathfinder so impressive is that there is no excessive prominence of one frequency range over the other. Every instrument is able to be heard clearly, whether it’s a bass guitar, a Rhodes piano, a saxophone, or even a vocalist. It helps that the sound staging keeps the instruments layered and spread intimately to the sides of the ears to increase the listening attention. It sounded as if each instrument had its own individual driver to play the sound without fighting over one another.
Compared to the Meze Audio ADVAR, the Pathfinder offers a different interpretation, one that is less treble-focused. For that reason, the brighter instruments like tambourine do not sound as crisp. The ADVAR sounds airier and wider, feels more clinical and clear. Technically though, the Pathfinder delivers more audio information without sounding too cluttered. To be honest, after listening to the ADVAR for two weeks, my initial impression upon switching over to the Pathfinder is not so positive, an instant “downgrade” of clarity. However, as I took more time listening to the Pathfinder, I realise how the Pathfinder manages to present a lot more music and keeping the tonality tidy. When I switch back to the ADVAR, I felt that the ADVAR impresses only for its clarity department, but sacrifices the embedded instruments. Both has their merits in enjoyment though, and it is definitely up to the individual to determine which IEM suits their listening – and financial – tastes.
The Pathfinder has good reasons to be priced at a premium over other IEMs in the market. It is very well-balanced, keeping bass tidy, the treble bright, and the midrange clear. They are carefully tuned to put priority on details and distinct tonality among instruments and less on the “artistic” perspective, that is, bigger bass, more treble sizzles. They are clinical but not sterile, sounds cohesive yet not instantly eargasmic. To be fair, you must love what you hear before you decide to spend nearly S$3000 on a pair of IEMs, and I highly recommend you to get to the nearest audio shop that has the most conducive and quiet environment to try the Pathfinder.