December 15, 2005Cardas Audio Golden Reference Interconnects and Speaker Cables
Entering the lists by a side door, backward
As cornucopias go, audios is huge. High-end cables, for example: We always have new and novel designs to contemplate. Out of this abbondanza, why pick Cardas Audio to write about? Thats easy: I recently reviewed -- then bought -- Aurum Acoustics Integris CDP, a CD player-preamp. The Integris CDP is a sophisticated product, as is Aurums fully integrated, indivisible Integris 300B system of active speakers, triamplification, and cables. I was curious to know why Aurum designer Derrick Moss had settled on all Cardas Golden Reference cable for the 300B.
My e-mail exchanges with Moss revealed a no-nonsense sort properly skeptical of audio voodoo, mojo, and fads. Admitting that he hadnt tried every audio cable -- who could? -- Moss set out his reasons for having opted for Cardass Golden Reference. Thus motivated to see whether Cardas GR would apply equally well to a system consisting (apart from the Integris CDP) of radically different components, I asked Cardas for the loan of GR speaker cables ($2106 USD per 8 pair), interconnects ($917 per 1m pair), and a power cord ($500, 2m). My contact graciously obliged before I mentioned any possibility of a review. It was only after having lived with the Golden References for a while that I felt impelled to write about these top-of-the-line Cardas products, and so put the suggestion to my editor. And here we are.
Or almost. Ill also be covering Aurum Acoustics version of the Golden Reference power cord ($720, 2m), which Cardas produces to Derrick Mosss specs. The difference is in the wall plug: The Integris version uses the expensive Wattgate 330i, the stock Cardas GR cord a less costly Cooper plug. Moss is big for symmetrys synergy: He favors the Wattgate 381 wall receptacle, and so, the Wattgate plug.
A brief moment of amateur techno
I cant say whether Wattgate receptacles would make an audible difference -- I use four dedicated FIM 880 duplex receptacles for my audio system. Like the Wattgate, the FIM 880 is a high-quality audiophile item, but even a specimen as extreme as oneself is willing to go only so far: An audiophile of my acquaintance urged me to implant a silver-plated copper spike in my cellar floor, to which I would ground my dedicated outlets. The spike would need to be kept wet. Best Beloved waters the houseplants daily. The spike would become one more such duty. Merely a speculation. Wives can have their spouses committed.
Remaining with symmetry, the GR power cords IEC fitting is a Swiss-made Schurter, matching the Schurter IEC inlet in the Integris CDP. Derrick Moss: "A key feature of the standard Cardas GR power cord is the embedded filter at the cable-IEC junction. This filter complements the AC filter built into the CDP just perfectly. Each does separate things that together deliver a comprehensive treatment ideal for a digital source component." His power amps GR cord omits the filter: "In a higher-current and/or dynamic-current application (most power amps are both), the filter is a bit of a compromise. We need only one filtered cord in the system."
Moss doesnt recommend external line conditioning with his CDP and its GR power cord, and Ive acted on the suggestion. Tweakwise, its a bare-bones system -- probably the best way to go for a cable review. Apart from dedicated outlets, I use no line treatments. The electronics occupy isolation platforms: for the Mark Levinson No.33H amps on the floor, a pair of Silent Running Audio Ohio Class; for the Integris atop a low cabinet, three DH Ceramic Cones and DH Squares and a concrete tile. GutWire NotePads keep the speaker cables off the carpet. (I file this latter tweak under What Harm Can It Do?)
Packed with Cardass GR cables is a leaflet cautioning that, even after a lengthy break-in period, the cables will need a few minutes recovery time if theyve been handled and will also require a short period of play-time to sound their best. Its been my experience that my sound system also requires some moments of play-time to come up to snuff. The following observations take into account the GR cables needs -- the speaker cables did sound briefly congested after being disturbed. During cable swaps, my Nordost Valkyrjas remained in top form from the get-go. Why the difference in settling time I cant say, and I dont offer these observations in any way critically. In normal use, we dont move our cables about.
The Cardas website provides information about the Golden Reference lines technology that Id be wasting space repeating here. How many of these claims and descriptions amend the laws of the physical universe I cannot say. I hear what I hear.
Why they pay us the big bucks
Ill first describe my impressions of Cardas Golden Reference line with the Integris version of the GR power cord, followed by a comparison with the unmodified GR power cord. Ill also compare GR balanced interconnects and speaker cables with Nordosts Valhalla interconnects and Valkyrja speaker cables. The Valkyrjas, when I reviewed them, seemed close to indistinguishable from that companys superb Valhalla speaker cable.
From what Ive read and heard, Cardas cables have a rep: nice, but too forgiving -- sweet, a little tubby, a touch less authoritative than Audiophilias crème de la crème. Ill start with speed -- the sense I had, when all was going optimally well, that, from whisper-scratchy to migraine-loud, I was hearing a recordings transients conveyed to the max. In terms of a good attack, the Nordost Valhalla stands at the head of the line. Indeed -- though before making any direct comparisons -- I got no sense of second-best with Golden Reference: even the most evanescent transients came through. However, when considered as separate qualities (again, before comparing), the GRs speed and dynamic subtlety deferred to something rather more significant.
One of the great percussion CDs, Labyrinth [hatART 105], features music composed between 1938 and 1942 by the late Lou Harrison. The Maelström Percussion Ensemble, under the direction of Jan Williams, performs the discs eight works. The venue was the Slee Concert Hall, in Buffalo, New York, and the admirable Peter Pfister taped, mixed, and mastered.
In terms of music, performance, and production, Labyrinth is a spectacularly fine release that, by itself, would suffice to demonstrate the Golden References qualities. Harrison was a West-Coast bohemian who looked to Asia for inspiration. In a highly original fashion, his percussion works of this period reflect the music of Japan, Indonesia, Korea, and India. Maelströms textures and timbres are deliciously various, the musics rhythms gut-satisfying. Wired with Golden Reference, the system conveyed deep bass and scintillating highs better than, or certainly as well as, anything Ive ever used. What set the Golden References apart was my sense of absolute, spot-on coherence. Rather than great highs or great bass -- or great whatever -- I focused on the overall lifelike presentation of the instruments. It was as if the GRs strengths took command of the midrange and fanned out from there.
The Swiss label hatART has issued a number of great CDs of works by Guillermo Gregorio, an Argentinean performer-composer residing in Chicago. The music, understated and endlessly involving while rarely breaking a sweat, straddles the line between sedate takes on free-style jazz and art musics avant-garde. I played again a recent release, Coplanar [New World 80639-2], comprising eight works by Gregorio for small combos: female voice, tuba, cello; oboe, clarinet, tuba, cello; piano and strings; clarinets, bass clarinet, strings, piano; etc. The instrumentalists often engage in extended excursions into unconventional sound production, for the most part pianissimo. Some of the sounds on this disc are about as clamorous as falling feathers, and listening in the early morning, when my quiet little town is quieter still, is the best time to ferret out such sonic distinctions. When I did, again there was that seamless quality I can describe only as mouth-watering, along with a keen sense of the venue, a Chicago recording studio. The midrange magic was there. The GRs were neutral, uncolored, and truthful.
Tom Varners The Window Up Above: American Songs 1770-1998 [New World 80552-2] consists of the free-jazz-based French hornists quirky arrangements of popular songs and spirituals, a couple of them with a vocalist, Thirsty Dave Hansen. My GR-cabled system nicely revealed subtle gradations of studio reverb, as well as a venue rather different from that of the minimalist Gregorio disc. An earlier Varner-led release, Long Night Big Day [New World 80410-2], for alto and tenor sax, French horn, double bass, and drums, was recorded live to analog two-track by Steve Gaboury in 1990. In a word, astonishing. Verisimilitude at this level of intensity needs to be taken in moderation lest one be spoiled rotten. The Cardas Golden References excelled at everything I threw at them.
Listening hard with knitted brow . . .
Ultimately, I settled on Guillermo Gregorios Coplanar for my comparisons, including of the power cords, for which this fine recordings wide range of harmonic complexities, timbres, and dynamics, is ideal. Theres never so much going on at one time that critical listening becomes a challenge, and I get a real kick out of the musics imaginative takes on allusionless abstraction.
A comparison between the Cardas Golden Reference and Nordost Valhalla interconnects ($3300 per 1m pair), both balanced, bore out my early impressions. The same held true for the Cardas GR and Nordost Valkyrja speaker cables ($2800 per 1m pair). Purely as a listener -- never mind the technologies broader or finer points -- I heard both design concepts as consistent, ICs and speaker cables alike. The Nordost cables lived up to their enviable reputation of detail and resolution, and the Cardas GR cables did not come in second. Different, yes, and thoroughly endearing -- and just as good.
Mixing it up
I remained with the Gregorio CD. The first track, "Coplanar 1 + 2," for guitar, ARP synthesizer, reeds, accordion, viola, cello, and bass, is long: 16:24, with lots of quiet, "experimental" moments. The cable combinations were: GR ICs and Valkyrja speaker, Valhalla ICs and Valkyrja speaker, GR ICs and GR speaker, and Valhalla ICs and GR speaker.
In terms of my involvement -- the sense of "thereness" -- the all-Nordost pairing (Valhalla ICs and Valkyrja speaker) was the least engaging. The midrange sounded a tad bleached. Conversely -- I was surprised -- the GR ICs with the Valkyrja speaker cables conveyed a sound I can describe only as ravishing: exquisitely detailed yet lifelike and full. This was a pairing I could live with forever. Its opposite, Valhalla ICs and GR speaker, didnt work as well. The all-GR combination -- no surprise here -- was also something I could happily live with: gossamer detail sharing space with upticks in "body" and warmth.
Change of pace: With the GR ICs as the constant and alternating between Valkyrja and GR speaker cables, I concentrated on Vol.1, disc 1 of John Eliot Gardiners continuing cycle of J.S. Bachs cantatas [Monteverdi Productions SDG 101]. With male and female vocalists and instrumental accompaniment, purely instrumental ensembles, and choruses, the Valkyrja seemed to emphasize the musics filigree edges. The Valkyrja is a marvelous speaker cable, beautifully detailed yet sweet. However, after settling in, the GR speaker cables ways with midrange presence, a firm low end, and an exquisite top end made it, for me, the easy choice.
The clincher came the following day. Just for the pleasure of it, I took a break from household chores and hunkered down with disc 2 of the Gardiner Bach set. In hi-fis early days, most speaker systems stood against walls or occupied shelves. During long moments of near-epiphany, I reminded myself that audiophiles have long preferred freestanding speakers for their superior imaging. My sense of the musics dimensionality is at least as important as any other quality I attempt to cultivate in a good two-channel sound system.
How do cables figure in this? With the GR, the image achieved a likeness to life Ive not heard bettered. The vocalists and instrumentalists occupied the kind of three-dimensional space we perceive with the naked eye. Thats what I mean by near-epiphany (actual epiphanies being held in reserve for flat-out religious experiences): the sort of ear-popping, eye-opening event that makes our crazy hobby worth the sweat, blood, and money we shed in its realization.
Those power cords . . .
I removed the Aurum Acoustics version of the GR power cord and replaced it with Cardass less expensive, stock GR. I noticed a difference and was curious to know what Derrick Moss heard. He came back with an interesting response. With a conventional receptacle, he doesnt hear much difference between his GR and the unmodified cord. However, he does hear his Wattgate version as better detailed when its plugged into a Wattgate receptacle -- as youd expect of someone whose design philosophy hinges on system integration and a belief in symmetry equaling synergy. I heard pretty much the same difference with the Wattgate-terminated GR plugged into my FIM 880 receptacle: an uptick in detail. The unmodified power cords midrange seemed more prominent. I present these perceptions absent a clear understanding of why or how different power cords can produce different sonic results. Cardas might consider offering the Wattgate mod as an option. When youre spending this kind of money, the difference in price isnt all that prohibitive.
Afterword: an acquaintance confirms
Because the Cardas Golden References struck me as ideal matches for my Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy 7 speakers, I e-mailed an acquaintance at Wilson with my impressions. Seems he hadnt experienced Cardas cables for several years and was pleasantly surprised, during a visit to an audio showroom, by how good Wilsons Alexandria X-2 speaker system sounded with the GRs the dealer had been using. One is never so secure in ones impressions that a little corroboration fails to help. I love these cables!
Cardas Audio Golden Reference Interconnects and
Cardas Audio Ltd.
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