Non-audiophiles watching a member of our tribe move towards the purchase of a costly assault-on-the-art loudspeaker may believe that acquiring that component guarantees sonic nirvana. We members of the tribe know better. That understanding is a big part of the blend of excitement and angst that attends the decision to change out a major part of a music system. As Ringo Starr sang (when he could remember the words), sometimes “it don’t come easy.” I learned this lesson anew with the Audio Physic 30 Cardeas LJEs, which I used as my only speakers for a two-month stretch this spring. A good deal of diligence with choosing complementary amplification was required to get them sounding their considerable best. But that effort was assuredly worthwhile, and I was very sorry to see these world-class loudspeakers go at the end of the review period.
The LJE of the product’s name stands for “Limited Jubilee Edition.” In 2015, to celebrate the German company’s 30th anniversary, Audio Physic announced it would be building 30 pairs, and only 30 pairs, of these loudspeakers. Of course, AP didn’t design a brand-new speaker with the plan of making just 60 of them. Rather, this model represents the ultimate refinement of the Cardeas Plus+ that premiered in early 2014, which in turn evolved from the original Cardeas, introduced in 2009. The Cardeas Plus+ remains in production and costs $32,995 or $35,995, depending on finish. Manfred Diestertich, who has designed Audio Physic’s loudspeakers for 17 years, told me that once the thirty LJE pairs are gone, he expects that “a non-anniversary edition of the Cardeas will evolve from the latest design advances and be available for sale in the U.S.” In other words, you will still be able to purchase essentially the same loudspeaker being considered here after the numbered LJE sets have all sold—it’ll just have a different name. Don’t you just love marketing?
With all Audio Physic loudspeakers, one design obsession stands out, namely the aim of eliminating any unwanted resonances that could negatively impact the performance of those elements that are supposed to create sound. (This emphasis on mechanical factors is completely understandable, given Manfred Diestertich’s engineering background—see sidebar.) Numerous design decisions serve the goal of decoupling vibration-prone elements from the drivers, beginning with the drivers themselves. To avoid resonances associated with the metal cones that AP favors, a silicone/rubber ring is incorporated to apply direct pressure to the cone. Audio Physic calls this Active Cone Damping, maintaining that it’s an effective way to eliminate ringing and the consequent “metallic sound” of the drivers. All the drivers, including the tweeters, are ceramic-coated aluminum cones built to Audio Physic’s specifications by Wavecor (AP owns the tools), and this consistency of driver material and form surely contributes to the top-to-bottom seamlessness of the sound that one hears. AP’s drive units incorporate a dual basket, again intended to help decouple the drivers from the cabinet: an aluminum outer frame assures strength and a plastic inner basket provides optimized damping. The Cardeas has been—and remains in the LJE version—a six driver, three-and-a-half way design. Highest up on the narrow front baffle is a 5.9" HHCM III (Hyper Holographic Cone Midrange) unit and, below that, a 1.75" HHCT III tweeter newly designed for the LJE version—and now used in many models in the line. Next comes a pair of 5.9" midrange/woofers and, closest to the floor, two side-firing 10.2" HHC woofers that are wired in a push-pull-push configuration. The tweeter, midrange, and two mid/woofer drivers each live in their own sealed chambers and are decoupled from the enclosure with Audio Physic’s SSC (String Suspension Concept) technology, a construction in which the drivers are not directly connected to the baffle. Examining the loudspeaker’s exterior, one might conclude that the woofers’ enclosure is a rectangular box comprising the bottom 45% of the LJE’s vertical dimension of approximately 47 inches. In fact, the non-ported bass chamber is much larger, extending up behind the mid/woofer, midrange, and tweeter enclosures.
For the Cardeas Plus+, Diestertich introduced a stiff ceramic foam material, used internally to provide structural stability and, because of its high porosity, acoustic absorption. The foam further adds to the inertness of the cabinet yet doesn’t significantly reduce the volume of the woofer chamber. A black high-gloss aluminum front panel and bottom plate are unique to the LJE version. Otherwise, the backward-tilted cabinet, twice as deep as it is wide, has rounded side and back surfaces that can be assumed to provide the usual mechanical and acoustic advantages. The Cardeas 30 LJE is offered in two “jubilee” veneers, black ebony high-gloss and rosewood high-gloss. I can report that the latter is stunning with a level of execution that’s the equal of fine furniture.
The crossovers (with exclusive Clarity Cap capacitors and copper foam technology) have also been decoupled from the enclosure with SSC materials. Audio Physic has long employed a “floating” configuration for its crossovers, meaning that serial electronic components within the crossover are arranged in both the positive and negative limbs of the signal path instead of only on one side. Manfred Diestertich’s observation regarding this topology is refreshingly non-German-engineer-like: “The measured performance does not change at all but the audible result is amazing,” he told me. In fact, a number of other loudspeaker manufacturers have taken up the practice, including Gauder Akustik, GoldenEar, and Sonus faber.
Audio Physic’s devotion to acoustic isolation extends to the binding posts and the interface between speaker and floor. On the first score, it’s generally underappreciated that cables can transmit vibration back to the speaker and thus to the drivers. All the speaker models in AP’s top lines are equipped with Vibration Control Terminals, (new exclusively modified versions are in the LJE) a substantial aluminum structure holding the binding posts and fitted with a rubber gasket that assures the mechanical isolation of the connecting hardware from the enclosure. On the second score, in lieu of spikes that directly contact the supporting surface, AP’s spikes are screwed downwards through the front and rear outrigger supports to terminate in a plastic ball foot. Instead of draining vibrational energy from the speaker to the floor—the usual approach—where, theoretically, it can still do sonic harm—most of that vibration is converted to heat. With the ball feet in place, it’s fairly easy to move the 163-pound speakers during the positioning process without damage to floor or carpet. For the ultimate in speaker-to-floor decoupling, the LJE owner is supplied with a set of VCF V Magnetic Feet with which to replace the ball feet. These devices have repelling neodymium magnets that serve to reduce the load on the SSC material that bears the weight of the speaker. (The magnetic feet are optional with the standard Cardeas Plus+; they can be purchased separately for use with other brands of loudspeakers, as well. They’re not cheap—around $1500 for a set of eight.)
The Cardeas 30 LJEs replaced my usual two-channel speaker system, a pair of Wilson Duette 2s complemented by a Wilson WATCH Dog subwoofer. My dedicated listening room is 15' by 15', with a ceiling height that varies from 11' to 13'. I hasten to reassure those concerned by the symmetric LxW dimensions that a hallway leading off from one sidewall near the front of the room serves to “unload” the space: Standing waves are not a problem. The truck that delivered the speakers to my place was met by a team of three audio pros—Roy Feldstein, the chief technical officer for VANA, Ltd. (now AP’s North American distributor), VANA’s managing director, Justin Feldstein, and Micah Shevaloff, a consumer electronics veteran handling Audio Physic’s marketing/PR efforts. They spent several hours carefully adjusting the position of the LJE’s and installing the magnetic feet, having settled on a location that had the speakers 8' apart (center-to-center) and two feet from the wall behind them. The distance from the front baffle to the sweet spot was also 8', with roughly 15 degrees of toe-in towards the listening position. This deployment, which could be viewed as a nearfield listening perspective, worked quite well and I made no changes after the three gentlemen departed. The owner’s manual, which does include exceptionally helpful set-up guidelines, advises that the drivers for Audio Physic loudspeakers have been fully burned-in at the Brilon factory and that only a few hours of music or white/pink noise should be needed to bring them up to their sonic potential. Indeed, by the end of the day that they were installed, it was apparent I was hearing a top-echelon loudspeaker, competitive with other highly regarded models in their price range from Wilson, YG, Magico, Von Schweikert, and others.
The source material used to assess the APs was all-digital, coming from either an Oppo BD-103 universal player or a Baetis Reference music computer, feeding my usual Anthem D2v processor. Anthem’s room-correction software was employed up to 800Hz which, as with virtually every other speaker I’ve used in the room, controlled any bass irregularities that speaker positioning didn’t tame. Cabling was mostly current Transparent product. But which power amp(s), you ask? That’s a journey you need to hear about.
Naturally, I started with my reference amplifiers, a pair of Pass XA 60.8 Class A monoblocks. To begin with the sonic metric referenced by Audio Physic’s advertising slogan, “No Loss of Fine Detail,” the LJEs ability to uncover musically relevant nuance—microdynamic shadings and subtle shifts in color—was as good as I’ve heard with any other loudspeaker, and that includes various electrostatic and ribbon designs. Want a tutorial on what was cutting-edge in studio wizardry circa 1982? Check out the 176/24 HDtracks download of Michael Jackson’s Thriller to savor layer upon layer of instrumentals and vocals, subtleties of the decay and reverb applied to synthesizers, and Michael’s distant yet clear-as-day vocal exclamations on “Beat It.” Perhaps it’s not necessary to hear so much of the minutiae that went into the creation of a pop masterpiece, but the point is you can. Sometimes, what we refer to as transparency in a good orchestral recording is actually a measure of detail retrieval. There’s no better example than the Introduction to Part II of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, as heard with an HDtracks download of a 2013 performance from Yannick Néget-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The music is quiet but extraordinarily atmospheric, evocative, and complex—at one point, 31 staves are required in the conductor’s score and many of those have two or three parts per staff. Without seeming the least bit “analytical,” the LJEs reveal every shift in light, every timbral nuance that the composer conjured up to suggest a moonless night in prehistoric times with human sacrifice on the agenda.