Colleen Cards and Marc PhillipsThis past November, in Texas to promote a new book, I found myself in Austin, which is famous for its live-music scene. It’s also the home of Colleen Cardas Imports, a new audio-distribution venture for Colleen Cardas, the vivacious and caring woman who for 20 years was president of Cardas Audio. She has now partnered, in business and in life, with Marc Phillips, editor of The Vinyl Anachronist and former contributing writer to Tone Audio. Together, they now represent only two major lines -- Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers, based in Treviso, Italy -- and what great equipment it is. (I featured Opera/Unison in the column "The Traveler," in 2008.) Once firmly established, Cardas and Phillips plan to add other lines.

The partners share a lovely new home in Kyle, about 15 minutes south of Austin along I-35. It has an expansive living room and an adjacent den serves as their office. Other than when Phillips and I stepped outside to enjoy cigars, the three of us spent most of my visit -- an enjoyable afternoon -- in a small bedroom (14’L x 12’W x 10’H) that they’ve converted into a listening room. We listened to their demo system and chatted about their new business.

Cardas equipment stageThe demo system comprised the new Opera Grand Callas speakers (89dB/4 ohm, $9995 USD per pair), Unison Unico CDE CD player ($3995), Unico Nuovo integrated amplifier (80Wpc, $2795), Unison Simply Phono phono stage ($1650; add $800 for optional external power supply), and a Rega RP3-24 turntable with Rega 301 tonearm ($895) and Zu DL-103 cartridge ($439). The basic analog rig was tricked out with an optional TT-PSU power supply ($375), a GrooveTracer Reference subplatter ($250), a Rega "white" upgrade belt ($60), and a Funk Firm Achroplat II platter ($249). Wires were, of course, all Cardas: Clear Light ICs and speaker cables and Golden Reference power cords.

I’d brought along my own demo tracks, burned to CD-R, so we listened to those first. What I noticed immediately, from the first notes of pianist Ivan Moravec’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 (CD, Vai Audio 1021), was the lovely bass bloom of piano and Vienna Musikgesellschaft Orchestra through the Opera Grand Callases. There were nicely integrated trebles and mids, as well as soundstage depth, sweet chiming and lovely trills in Moravec’s speedy arpeggios, and superb transient decays as the notes seemed to fade gracefully across the room. The speakers, about 6’ apart, produced an extraordinarily clean sound with no raggedness in the violins or lack of crystalline clarity in the piano. I felt there was uninterrupted extension down to about 35Hz, the cellos were smooth with crisp attacks, and the soundstage was about 3’ deep both in front and behind the speakers. Details were superb, to the point where I could hear, at the end of the first movement, the cellos’ sautillé (i.e., the hopping up of the bow from the strings as in spiccato, but with even more flamboyance).

Opera Grand CallasNot familiar with the Grand Callas, I asked Phillips to tell me about it. He said that the speaker featured what Opera calls a "doublet" of two front-firing, ferrofluid-cooled, neodymium-magnet tweeters, and a triplet of three rear-firing ones. That seemed to explain the fineness of microdetail and the superb treble articulation I was hearing. There were also four 6" magnesium-cone drivers, one to cover the mids and three for the bass, and the cabinet is a sealed box. Opera claims that the Grand Callas has a frequency response of 32Hz-25kHz, with crossover points at 300Hz and 2.3kHz. Something not noticeable in photos was that the speaker’s entire front baffle is covered in custom, fine-grained Italian leather -- extraordinary!

We listened next to tracks from Paquito d’Rivera’s Brazilian Dreams (CD, McG Jazz 1010). "Corcovado" features d’Rivera on clarinet and virtuosic jazz vocals by the New York Voices. I heard beautiful mids in both d’Rivera’s clarinet and Kim Nazarian’s alto lead vocal, which had fabulous depth and organicism, with sweet leading attack edges. The male background voices and horns both had lovely, subtle bloom. The entire tapestry of clarinet, alto sax, trumpet, horn chorus, and voices came together with no blurring of details, and with depth, character, superb decay, and precise timing -- as evinced by drummer Paulinho Braga’s snappy rim taps on the snare, which emerged from the rest of the music just as if I were hearing them in concert.

Last, we tried some analog. Phillips spun "Sleepers Awake," from a recording of Raymond Agoult conducting the London Proms Symphony in Granville Bantock’s transcription of J.S. Bach’s Cantata No.140 (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme), from a reissue of Clair de Lune (LP, RCA Living Stereo/Classic Records LSC-2326). Opera Grand CallasThe string sound was detailed and articulate enough that I could almost distinguish individual instruments, though I know this must have been an illusion produced by the system’s overall synergy and finesse. The great symphonic sweep and scale I heard was partly the result of the big bass presence of the pipe organ underscoring the orchestra, which allowed the horns, clarinets, and strings to alternate focus in coming forward to take up the theme. The demo was wonderful. I came away deeply impressed with the quality of the analog chain Colleen Cardas and Marc Phillips had put together, and with its relative affordability.

Colleen Cardas Imports currently has a dealer network of four: Blackbird Audio Gallery, Audiowaves, Fidelis, and the Audio Doctor. All are "coastal" dealers; Cardas and Phillips are now looking to fill in the rest of the continent. Their goal in November was to have ten dealers by the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, in January, and they told me that it looked as if they’d meet it. They’d chosen Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers as the first lines they would represent in the US because of Cardas’s long-standing relationship with Giovanni and Bartolomeo Nasta, the loving and visionary father-son team who direct Opera/Unison. I can’t think of any better people in audio than these folks.

. . . Garrett Hongo