February 2005Cardas Audio Golden Reference Interconnects and Speaker Cables
by Marc Mickelson
In my hometown, Madison, WI, there is a diner called Monty's Blueplate that's been around for 14 years because of its great food. When it opened, its retro vibe was a new thing (at least in my hometown), but its diverse menu -- lots of good vegetarian dishes and staples like burgers and fries done well -- and reasonable prices have kept people coming back. I was one of those people. I tried other restaurants as a matter of variety, but I kept coming back to Monty's, and often took visitors there as well -- for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "It's always good," was my rationale.
Cardas Audio has a lot in common with Monty's. It has been around for over 20 years, and during that time George Cardas and staff have created interconnects and speaker cables that always sound good -- if not like the competition. My first brush with Cardas products came in the early '90s with the Hexlink and Quadlink lines. I remember thinking that those cables sounded warm and fuzzy, but also very pleasing -- the cable equivalent of a tube amp that uses 300Bs. I enjoyed those cables but didn't buy them, settling instead for pricier products whose sound caused me to reminisce about the cables from Cardas with added fondness. Such are the whims of audiophiles.
So it was with no small enthusiasm that I asked Cardas Audio about reviewing the company's newest cable line, Golden Reference. I was interested to hear if and how the Cardas sound had evolved, and also determine where the company's cables belonged in terms of the many lines I've heard and written about. Some reviewers consider writing about cables sonic torture. I, on the other hand, enjoy it, perhaps because interconnects and speaker cables are easy to use (putting aside break-in considerations) and I have electronics and speakers that I love. Also, we at SoundStage! haven't written about Cardas Audio products in quite some time, so discussing Golden Reference interconnects and speaker cables seemed like a perfect way to address a few issues with a single review.
Cardas Audio makes and/or markets an impressive array of products -- from audio cables and connectors to phono cartridges -- all of which come from the fertile mind of George Cardas. Cardas, an audiophile of some renown, holds patents on cable stranding and conductor design, and his Golden Reference line grew out of his involvement in the recording industry, where cable of small diameter, high flexibility, and low capacitance and reactance is prized for its use in the long runs that snake around recording sites.
Golden Reference interconnects and speaker cables feature Cardas' patented Golden Section multi-gauge stranding, which is based on the Golden Ratio, "the mathematical proportion nature uses to shape leaves and sea shells, insects and people, hurricanes and galaxies, and the heart of musical scales and chords." In the case of Golden Reference interconnects, three 26AWG pure-copper conductors are used with Teflon and air dielectrics to produce a cable with a mere 7pF per foot capacitance in balanced configuration, 12pF per foot single-ended. Each polarity of Golden Reference speaker cable is 3.5AWG, due to the use of 816 individual conductors -- 12 bundles of 68 conductors, 408 for each positive and negative leg. This produces a speaker cable whose capacitance is 36.9pF per foot. Internal biwiring and triwiring are options.
RCA and spade connectors are also from Cardas and are rhodium plated. I especially like the RCAs, which fit snugly but do not lock and therefore won't chew up your jacks. The Golden Reference speaker cables are 0.7" thick in diameter but relatively easy to connect and place. The interconnects are almost as supple as cooked noodles and can be snaked in and around electronics with ease. Both eschew an outer mesh jacket in favor or their rather plain, dark-gray insulation and true-gray shrink wrap. Neither is much to look at, if you are someone who likes to look at audio cables.
In terms of price, Golden Reference is Cardas Audio's top line. One-meter interconnects cost $917 USD, while eight-foot speaker cables run $2106 per single-wire pair. Pricing, however, is somewhat misleading when talking about Cardas products because cables other than Golden Reference may be better suited for certain systems. Before settling on Golden Reference, therefore, you would be wise to hear Neutral Reference and Golden Cross as well.
Also on the menu
The Golden Reference interconnects and speaker cables I received for review connected a veritable Friday-night buffet of high-resolution components. Speakers were Wilson Audio MAXX 2s, which were driven by Lamm ML2.1 and M1.2 Reference monoblocks. I used three different "Reference" preamps: Lamm L2 Reference, VTL TL-7.5 Reference, and Mark Levinson No.32 Reference. Digital sources were an Esoteric X-01 CD/SACD player, Audio Research CD3 Mk II CD player, and Zanden Audio Model 5000 Mk III DAC, which was used with a Mark Levinson No.37 or the ARC CD3 Mk II as transport. Power was courtesy of Shunyata Research -- Anaconda Vx, Anaconda Alpha and Taipan power cords, and a Hydra Model-8 power conditioner. The BNC-terminated digital link between the Zanden DAC and the transport used was an Audience Au24. The Lamm ML2.1 amps and L2 preamp sat on Silent Running Audio VR 3.0 isoBases, while digital components sat atop Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 platforms or a pair of Michael Green equipment racks.
Break-in is very important with Cardas Golden Reference. Out of their baggies, both the interconnects and speaker cables sound anything but musical. There's ample treble glare and hardness that translate into too much edge definition -- maybe "edginess" describes it best. It takes, at a minimum, 100 hours of use to eliminate this, which is no short amount of time to run an audio system and not listen to it. Luckily, when you're "there," past the ugliness of the break-in period, the cables will let you know with sound that is utterly transformed.
The last interconnects and speaker cables I reviewed were Siltech Generation 6 Signature Compass Lake and The Emperor, and to say that I was impressed by these very expensive Dutch cables is an orchestra-sized understatement. However, as I listened to the Cardas Golden Reference cables after break-in, I thought that the sound was similarly all-encompassing as that of the Siltech cables, but not quite the equal of their near-golden glow and exceptionally low noise, which manifests itself as abundant detail -- less noise means more signal. Golden Reference sounded smooth and detailed, physical in the bass, and not at all warm and rich, as earlier Cardas cables had been. Some listeners want sound that conveys romance, while others want the sense that no romance exists. I can't say which way the Cardas Golden Reference cables lean, so consummate is their performance.
I have slowly been accumulating Blue Note RVG remastered CDs. These include many important jazz titles whose sound is consistent from recording to recording. The first thing you'll notice is that the level of each recording is a couple of clicks of the volume control above average for CDs. Moreover, the sonic character of these recordings is rather lean, even sterile -- the opposite of the more full sound of JVC XRCDs and especially DCC gold CDs. Golden Reference conveyed this handily, showing Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue [Blue Note 7243 2 95335] to sound spot-lit and a bit bleached. You might wonder from what I say about RVG remasters why anyone would buy them. They are not as rich and warm as I would like them to sound, but they are still the best way to hear the classic music on them. They are high-resolution recordings that no one will mistake for analog.
In contrast are the many CD and SACD releases from Telarc, whose warmth and fullness are as apparent as the stark whiteness of Blue Note's RVG remasters. Again, the Golden Reference interconnects and speaker cables conveyed this personality trait, but also showed that SACDs such as Sisters & Brothers [Telarc SACD-63588], a blues celebration that features the talents of Eric Bibb, Rory Block and Maria Muldaur, sound terrific. The SACD has a distinctly hear-into character, especially concerning the vocals. Again, conveying this was no problem for Golden Reference, which also gave the recording's warmth a fair shake, including the full, rich bass tones.
Pinning the sound of these cables down is an exercise in futility, except to say that their sound is complete and satisfying. Perhaps the recording that proved this to me more than any other was the Mobile Fidelity SACD of R.L. Burnside's First Recordings [Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2026]. Set to tape in 1968 on a portable recorder, the songs on First Recordings have the sort of immediacy and spontaneity that makes them sound new every time you hear them. That Mobile Fidelity decided to re-release this gem is notable enough, but MoFi's standard high-resolution remastering job makes playing this SACD one of the things that turns us into audiophiles -- we get very close to this music. If any part of a playback system smears transients or obscures detail, or thins out the presence of Burnside's voice, First Recordings will sound like an older recording of mediocre quality. My system is highly resolving, and this held true while Cardas Golden Reference connected everything, the cables imparting little signature of their own. Consequently, First Recordings sounded spectacular -- intimate, powerful and real.
In the end, what defines the sound of Golden Reference interconnects and speaker cables more than anything is their high level of neutrality, real neutrality, not the thin, washed-out sound that audiophiles often think represents neutrality. Cardas Golden Reference conveys not only all of the weight and density of the performers, but also the space of the recording venue and the fine points of each performance -- the human quality of the music. These cables never tip one way or another far enough for their neutral character to be altered -- or easily identified.
Because of the amount of discussion of audio equipment online as well as the ease with which used products can be obtained, audiophiles nowadays understand well the difference between sound that's different and better. Of course, one person's different may be another's better, but that's a discussion for another article. For me, "better" means more complete, a greater sense that the limitations of reproducing music at home are being addressed. Hence, as I compared other cable lines to Cardas Golden Reference, I discovered that absolutes are hard to come by. One trait may be handled better by the Cardas cables, another by some other brand.
For instance, Nordost Valkyrja (interconnects, $2000 per meter pair; speaker cables, $4600 per eight foot pair) illuminates at low listening levels better, and casts a brighter, more vibrant soundstage than Golden Reference, which counters with a richer presentation that I wouldn't characterize as rich by nature. Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval interconnects ($399 per meter pair) and Solo Crystal Oval 8 speaker cables ($870 per eight-foot pair) sound a great deal like Golden Reference, but their presentation is less weighty, which gives the impression that images are less solid and physical. Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II interconnects ($948 per meter pair) and Hologram II speaker cables ($1048 per eight-foot pair) have a similarly all-encompassing sound, and before comparing them to Golden Reference, I would have thought them the equal of the Cardas cables in terms of overall neutrality. However, their sound is, again, lighter and brighter than that of Golden Reference, which doesn't sound dark by any means but seems to cling more faithfully to the idea of absolute neutrality.
What surprised me the most about all of these comparisons was not so much what each different cable told me about the sound of Golden Reference, but what Golden Reference told me about the sound of the other cables. This was due to the fact that the Cardas cables consistently had the least personality. So often audiophiles use cables to tune their systems, but Golden Reference will make this tough going, and may even sound boring to some people's ears. In my system, which is made up of electronics and speakers that are similarly full-range and honest, Golden Reference sounded wonderful.
Like a meal at Monty's Blueplate Diner, listening to music with Cardas Golden Reference cables is always satisfying. Throughout their entire performance range, Golden Reference presents a very coherent and complete view of the music, never sounding too much this or too little that, maintaining neutrality at every turn. I especially enjoyed the way these cables conveyed lots of detail while never sounding overtly detailed themselves, imparting a view of the music that was both pristine and tangible. Yes, you can find interconnects and speaker cables that will better them in one specific way or another, but the Golden Reference cables' self-effacing way with music is something that few other cables achieve, and they cost less than most top-of-the-line competition.
One of the joys of eating out is the excitement of trying a new restaurant. Sometimes we're impressed and other times let down, often at a price that we're not happy to have paid. "We should have gone to Monty's" is a phrase I've uttered more than a few times. "I should try some Cardas" looks to be another.
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