Many audiophiles seem to regard cables with a mix of resentment and begrudging admiration—resentment because cables are just long thin things that move electrical signals to the “real” components in an audio system, and yet they can cost more than an amplifier or pair of loudspeakers, and begrudging admiration because astute listeners have recognized that better cables can contribute enormously to overall system performance.
Cable makers continue to have a tough sell, though. They seem to have to constantly justify their existence (and product pricing), and sometimes lament not getting their due respect. The manufacturing and design prowess involved in the production of cables may not be as glamorous as that of electronics or speakers, but some cable designers put a great deal of effort into what they make. Lofty cable prices may offend many of you, but well-made cables can make an astonishing difference. Advances in cable design have proven themselves. Why not take advantage of some of the choices now available?
Background, Design, and Context
Cardas Audio, founded by George Cardas in 1987, has demonstrated resiliency and growth in the highly competitive cable and accessories market. One of the elements of its success is the quality of the wire strands Cardas makes. To my knowledge, Cardas Audio is one of the few companies that manufactures its raw wire in the U.S. A year or two after starting the company, Mr. Cardas apparently approached a wire-drawing factory in New England that was on the brink of going out of business and worked out a partnership to ensure Cardas would get high-quality wire (and the wire factory would get a steady stream of orders to keep it in business). Prior to forming this partnership, Cardas could not procure the quality of wire he needed from either overseas sources or from other U.S. suppliers—at least, not at the prices he knew he would need to make his cables viable in the market. As you will see in the accompanying sidebar interview with Mr. Cardas, the only other available high-quality wire-drawing sources at the time were in Japan, and they were charging U.S. manufacturers very high prices for the sort of high-purity, slow-drawn wire Cardas needed to realize his design goals. Cardas Audio also makes some of its connectors at a machine shop in Bandon, Oregon, the same small seaside town where Cardas Audio has been located for over 20 years. (Some connectors are machined in various different locations.) As it turned out, supplying other manufacturers with OEM internal “hook-up wire,” as well as raw strands (for windings) and connectors, is now the largest part of the company’s business.
Cardas is known for an easy-to-understand and readily identifiable design principle: the Golden Ratio—the ratio of proportions exemplified by the cross section of a nautilus seashell (the Cardas logo), as well as by the length, width, and height of many ancient Greek buildings such as the Parthenon. This ratio, expressed mathematically, is roughly 1:1.61803398871. So if the width of a building, for example, is 10 units long, the length would be 16.1803398871 units long. What does this have to do with audio? As it turns out, the Golden Ratio not only adds to a building’s aesthetic appeal, but also to its ability to mitigate destructive resonances. George Cardas first applied the Golden Ratio principle to controlling resonances in racecar engines and exhaust systems. He then transferred the concept to decreasing unwanted interactions in audio cables (such as eddy currents, RF radiation and absorption, mechanical resonance, strand interaction, high filtering, reflections, electrical resonance, dissipation factors, envelope delay, phase distortion, harmonic distortion, structural return loss...and probably others I am leaving out). Cardas applies the Golden Ratio to cables through the relative location and size of the various conductors within each cable bundle—for instance, the outer conductors are about 1.618 times larger than the conductors in the next inner layer, and this pattern is repeated until the innermost conductor ends up being the smallest.
Cardas not only follows the Golden Ratio in its conductor sizes and layouts, it has also devised a way to match the signal propagation speed of the signal-carrying conductors with the “speed” of the surrounding dielectrics. Cardas’ principle of “matched propagation” asserts that the conductors within a cable charge at roughly the speed of light, but the best solid dielectrics charge at a rate roughly 22 percent slower. This velocity difference apparently causes a sort of “shearing” of the signal, similar to the wake of a boat cutting through water. Cardas does not believe cable “networks” can adequately correct for this conductor/dielectric velocity mismatch. Instead, Cardas precisely applies an additional conductor geometry—in conjunction with the Golden Ratio—involving varied twist and pitch angles specific to each conductor layer. As a result, signals moving through the conductors have to travel a longer distance than the overall cable length, which more closely aligns the conductors’ velocity with that of the surrounding dielectrics. (All conductor layers end up having the same length, but their different spiral pitch angles compensate for their relative distance from the center of the cable bundle.) This “Matched Propagation Technology” reportedly results in reduced underlying noise and increased low-level resolution. Matched velocities are the basis of telephone transmission lines; the telephone companies realize matched propagation with coils spaced at certain intervals. Cardas’ innovation is achieving matched propagation velocities continuously within the conductor.
In cost, Cardas’ Clear Reflection (CR) interconnect/cable ($1150, 1m/$2800, 2.5m) falls a little below the halfway point between the model above it (Clear $2320/$4750) and the model below it in the Clear line (Clear Light $750/$1470). George Cardas told me that he did not design CR to a price point, and I believe him. Cardas’ Director of Marketing Josh Meredith mentioned to me, however, that dealers and customers had pointed out there was, indeed, a price and performance gap in the Clear line before Clear Reflection was added—and quite a large one cost-wise. That price gap used to be filled by the now-discontinued Golden Reference model. Golden Reference and the new CR share some DNA—CR was specifically designed to have some of the warmth associated with Cardas’ traditional, pre-Clear, Golden Reference “house sound,” blended with the resolution, dynamic range, and speed of the current flagship Clear model.