Are wired IEMs doomed? Consumers might be projected to spend $27 billion on wireless headphones by 2027 but there will likely always be a market for wired earbuds and more expensive IEMs.
Even with advances in Bluetooth technology, wired IEMs still have one significant advantage over their wireless siblings — sound quality. Wired IEMs like the Campfire Audio Holocene deliver a very different experience and the gap is so wide that I can’t imagine ditching my Helm Audio Bolt Dongle DAC anytime soon.
As I’ve discovered over the past two months, the Campfire Audio Holocene are perhaps one of the best values in high-end IEMs even if their asking price is likely to induce some sticker shock.
$649 is a lot of money for any pair of headphones or IEMs; the Campfire Audio Holocene is certainly the most expensive pair of IEMs that I’ve ever tried and after a year of listening to products like the Audeze LCD-5, Audeze CRBN, and Meze Audio LIRIC — they represent an interesting alternative to those $2,000+ headphones.
The Meze LIRIC have proven to be quite impressive so far; I’ve been using them with 3 Dongle DACs, the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition Network Player/Amplifier, and my Schiit Audio Ragnarok 2 Integrated Amplifier.
Meze LIRIC definitely deliver on all of Antonio Meze’s promises and more. I certainly can’t afford them right now with my eldest in college, and 2 other kids in private school — but they’re on my list of headphones to own by the end of 2022.
The Holocene will be waiting for them on my desk.
The Running Man
When the COVID pandemic brought the Garden State to a complete standstill in March 2020, I made the decision to run every single morning to keep myself in shape and for my mental health.
The local authorities decided to close our local parks; because apparently one can get COVID from trees and deer, and I was forced to run alone in the dark wearing a mask at 5 a.m. to the beach where I had to hop over barricades erected on the Long Branch Boardwalk to save me from getting a respiratory disease from the sand.
I was the only person around for at least a mile most days when I ran.
Super spreader event for sure.
I’ve had COVID twice and am fully vaccinated; in case someone thinks I don’t take this seriously. My sense of smell/taste have not returned and I didn’t listen to anything for almost two weeks because the congestion was so bad.
Over the past 20 months, I’ve listened to more than a dozen pairs of true wireless earphones on my runs and I’ll be honest and say that none of them really floated my boat.
My office drawer is filled with charging cases and cables. The Sony is definitely the best of the lot and what I take on my runs in the cold most mornings.
But then the Campfire Audio Holocene showed up and everything changed.
I really can’t give all of the credit to the Holocene; the Helm Audio Bolt Dongle DAC has completely changed my listening habits when I run, take the train into Manhattan, or just sit on the back deck and watch as the construction crews turn my once quiet and affordable neighborhood on the Shore into a cluster of oversized McMansions.
The Holocene are the 4th new IEM introduced by Campfire Audio in 2021 and tuned for listeners who desire a balanced design that doesn’t really favor any part of the spectrum over the other.
The Holocene is a triple driver universal monitor with a single custom-tuned BA driver for the treble, and two independent custom-tuned BA drivers covering the midrange and bass frequencies.
When I removed the Holocene from its unique packaging, I was immediately impressed by the design of the shell; the Holocene drivers are integrated inside a 3D printed acoustic chamber design.
The finish level is extremely high and the second generation aluminum and anodized edged shell features glow-in-the-dark accents which proved to be quite useful when I reached for them in the dark on my night table.
The Holocene are not the most demanding load at 5.8 ohms and only require 6.99 mVrms to create 94dB SPL, making the Holocene one of Campfire Audio’s most sensitive IEMs.
In general, low impedance headphones (below 50 ohms) are designed to work properly with portable devices.
The “umber” finish on the shell body is definitely brown and I found the Holocene to be very sleek looking; nobody could find these to be gaudy even with the glow-in-the-dark accents. The illuminated logo looks quite cool in the dark.
The Holocene also comes with Campfire Audio’s new stainless-steel spout. The shell does not feature a venting pot.
Campfire Audio have included quite a few accessories with the Holocene and it’s rather easy to carry around with the colorful “Epoch” case.
- Final e-tips (xs/s/m/l/xl)
- Foam Marshmallow tips S/M/L
- Silicone single-bore tips S/M/L
- 3 x cushioned pockets (for the monitors and foam tips)
- Cleaning brush/pick
- New “Epoch” SEAQUAL® YARN carry case
- Campfire Audio pin badge
Don’t Forget to Tip Your Waitress
Most consumers don’t put a lot of thought into the tips that they use with their IEMs and I was impressed to see that Campfire Audio includes a rather wide variety with the Holocene IEMs.
I was perfectly fine with the stock foam (L) and Final e-tips (L) and felt that both offered excellent comfort and isolation. I did wear the Holocene around the house and my children let me know that they could hear the music I was listening to if I was standing only a few feet away. Duly noted.
The supplied cable is a silver-plated copper (SFC) Litz 4-wire that has proven to be quite robust and free of microphonic noise. The 45-inch long cable comes terminated with a right-angle 3.5mm TRS jack and beryllium MMCX connectors.
One of the reasons why I have avoided expensive universal IEMs over the years is that they seem to favor one part of the spectrum at the expense of another; I have very little interest in IEMs that produce too much bass and I’m definitely sensitive to a hot top end.
The Holocene isn’t perfectly neutral sounding with some added emphasis in the bass and a very clean and shimmery sounding treble, but it’s definitely not tilted too far in either direction.
The midrange is slightly recessed sounding but I found that the Helm Bolt’s warmer tonal balance and midrange boost helped in that regard.
If you’re looking for a bass heavy IEM, the Holocene are not for you; the bass response is more about definition, texture, and speed and that worked particularly well with the music that I listen to.
“House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals (The Animals Retrospective, Qobuz, 24-bit/88.1kHz) has been the background anthem to my entire life and the Holocene delivered Hilton Valentine’s guitar playing and Alan Price’s Hammond organ with just enough verve to make me sit up in bed and feel like I was listening to this track anew with Sharon Stone dying in the hallway in front of me after being given a hot shot in Casino.
The Holocene is big on clarity and detail; better recordings really opened up and I was quite amazed at the difference between the wired Holocene and wireless Sony WF-1000XM4 in that regard. The Sony are very good wireless earphones, but they don’t deliver music with the same degree of transparency or detail as the Holocene.
The Sony has more midrange punch which some will prefer, but I was able to use my Helm Bolt to give the Holocene a shot in the arm in the midrange when listening to vocal heavy tracks.
“Valerie” is buried at the very end of Amy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Qobuz, 24-bit/44.1kHz) and it is the late-Amy Winehouse at her best. The track is a sad reminder of how much talent she really had and I found myself lost in the Holocene’s presentation that was decidedly more spacious sounding than I’ve heard from other IEMs.
The track is definitely on the cooler side from a tonal perspective and I think the Holocene was pretty faithful to the recording in that regard; the top end was airy and detailed and the vocals were not pushed that far forward in the mix which was a different experience compared to other IEMs and headphones on this specific track.
The Helm Bolt and THX Onyx changed that with the Holocene and it’s something to think about when matching the IEMs to a DAP or Dongle DAC. I can’t see a laid back sounding Dongle DAC or DAP working that well with the Holocene if you’re looking for a sonic presentation that emphasizes vocals in the mix.
Driving the Holocene directly from my iPhone 6s’ 3.5mm headphone jack (old school) highlighted two issues; I had to listen to music at 75% volume or higher for satisfying listening levels and the cooler tonal balance of the iPhone’s DAC/amplifier was not ideal for the Holocene.
Adding the Helm Audio Bolt (with an Apple Lightning to USB Adapter, $29.99) delivered more power and a very different tonal balance that was more pronounced in the midrange and smoother in the treble.
Electronic music was particularly good though the Holocene because of its excellent sense of pace, imaging, and overall transparency. Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, and Boards of Canada had ample detail and I found myself lost in the groove most of the time.
The Holocene doesn’t recreate the deepest sounding soundstage I’ve ever heard from a pair of IEMs or headphones, but I think that’s more a feature of the driver selection than anything else.
The Holocene have a slight bass boost around 50Hz that was never overwhelming and I was quite impressed with the texture and definition of percussion instruments and bass guitar; bass notes between 40Hz and 80Hz had excellent definition and impact.
I’m sensitive to a hot treble and I had zero issues with the Holocene in that regard; the top end is airy and detailed without ever sounding strident, but I definitely experienced some hardness listening to Green Day’s American Idiot and Dookie when driving the IEMs directly from my iPhone.
When I switched back to the Helm Bolt, the slight degree of hardness in the treble was gone but I was more aware of it going forward on other recordings if it was present.
The midrange doesn’t sound thin but it does sound somewhat restrained in comparison to the bass and treble. The decision to tune it that way made me reach for my Helm Bolt Dongle DAC 95% of the time because a lot of the music that I enjoy needed that extra degree of presence and warmth in the midrange.
The Campfire Audio Holocene didn’t seduce me right away and I wasn’t sure I could live with their tonal balance and presentation long-term based on the music that I enjoy.
I have no issues with the design, comfort level, or quality of the product; they’ve proven to be very easy to use and I rather like the weight and robustness of the shell and cables.
The addition of the Helm Audio Bolt completely changed my experience and the more I listened — the more I learned to appreciate the tonal balance and overall clarity and detail.
The bass response is one of the Holocene’s best features and I applaud Campfire Audio for the decision to focus on resolution, texture, and speed versus overwhelming impact that would become fatiguing during extended listening sessions.
Campfire Audio makes other models with a greater emphasis on bass impact.
As I head into my cold weather running routine, I look forward to many months of Holocene/Bolt/iPhone and I can’t imagine needing anything more than these excellent IEMs as I pound my way through the snow and sand listening to Qobuz and TIDAL.
The $649 Campfire Audio Holocene have proven to be one of my favorite new products of 2022 already and I’m more than curious to see how they will fare with some of the desktop headphone amplifiers headed my way in the coming months.
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