The Ponderosa and Cascara are separated by three hundred bucks, which is not insignificant, but they are both the only Campfire IEMs in the Chromatic Series selling for under $1k. They also have quite different sound signatures, so I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the two more budget-friendly IEMs for those who are unsure of which tuning will suit them. If you would like to read more extensively about sound signatures of these two IEMs, MajorHifi has already released comprehensive reviews on both, the Ponderosa and Cascara separately. But for those who are still on the fence, hopefully this comparison review will give you a better idea of which IEM is most up your alley.
Look and Feel
Though the shells don’t appear different in size, the Cascara might be slightly smaller and feels a tad more comfortable in the ear. As for appearance in general, both IEMs are very similar, only really differing in the color of their respective cables; the Ponderosa is featured in lime green, while the Cascara sports an eye-catching primary blue.
The Ponderosa sports 5 balanced armature drivers (same as the Andromeda), while the Cascara employs only one dynamic driver. But more drivers don’t always translate to better sound, and there are some incredible single dynamic driver IEMs on the market.
Given that the impedance is so much higher on the Cascara than it is on the Ponderosa, the Cascara takes a little more juice to drive, though both can be easily be powered by your phone. (Just turn the volume down before you plug them in!) For this review, I paired both IEM models with the Astell & Kern SR35.
Let’s start with the fact that the soundstage on the Cascara is damn impressive for the price. But here, you’ve got the grand, sometimes stadium-like feel of the Cascara up against the immaculate imaging of the Ponderosa. If expansive height and width is what you want, the Cascara will deliver. But if you’re also looking for the most precise placement and cleanest stage, it’s hard to be the Ponderosa. This is partly due to the fact that the separation is superior on the Ponderosa. The ponderosa also has a richer, more colorful stage given the more comprehensive balance in mids, and the lower midrange elements, in particular, come out with more vibrancy and greater resolution.
If you’re looking for maximum bass presence, the Cascara will give it to it in spades. In contrast, the Ponderosa delivers a leaner, tighter and less colored low-end. This is true for everything from the sub-bass frequencies to the upper bass registers. Given that the bass on the Cascara is so comparatively fat (though it stops short of being bloated), the Ponderosa sounds like the cleaner and more textured performance. And especially if you’re listening to a lot of acoustic genres, the Ponderosa provides much more life-like timbral qualities.
You’ll hear two very different balances in the midrange. On the Cascara, the upper mids take precedence, while the low-mids feel somewhat recessed. In contrast, the Ponderosa has generous low-mids and upper-mids that sit modestly within the mix. As a result, the Ponderosa has a very comprehensive and full bodied sound, while the Cascara is more hollow. Unlike the Ponderosa, which has more even tuning, the Cascara chooses to accentuate the contrast between the lows and highs, giving it a more dynamic or energetic vibe.
But unsurprisingly, the Ponderosa is the cleaner sound of the two. Still, the Cascara is no slouch either in this department, especially considering its heavy bass. But with respect to transparency, the Ponderosa is the clear winner. And this becomes especially apparent on dirty recordings where the more subtle crackles, and noise floor occurs. The ponderosa just reveals more of the nitty gritty.
Up in the highs, the Cascara is the brighter headphone. It has more sparkle and extension than the more tempered treble peaks on the Ponderosa. In terms of transparency, the Cascara still holds its own, offering a level of detail that would suggest a higher price tag. Still, the Ponderosa is less fatiguing in this range, and if you’re particularly sensitive to high frequencies, the Ponderosa would be the safest bet.
The tuning on the Ponderosa and Cascara are vastly different. While the Ponderosa offers an even keeled and fleshed out balance, the Cascara goes for something more lively and dynamic. That said, both sound signatures are undeniably Campfire, with their firm delivery and powerful sense of impact. And even though the Ponderosa is the cleaner IEM, showing off a bit more skill and better resolution overall, the Cascara doesn’t fall significantly far behind. So, at the end of the day, your choice should ultimately come down to which tuning suits your taste and preferred musical genres.