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.
In addition, Clear Reflection speaker cable apparently employs a modified geometry that was implemented in the Golden Reference, but CR has the same forged, rhodium-plated copper connectors used in the flagship Clear Beyond model. CR is “shotgun” bi-wireable, like Golden Reference was. (Clear Beyond is the only other Clear model that is also bi-wireable.) CR has a black jacket—like the Golden Reference had—with a copper-colored stress-relief bead (at the “Y” breakout for the + and – terminations), whereas the rest of the Clear line has a light blue jacket with black beads. CR interconnect apparently uses a conductor geometry similar to Clear’s, but employs fewer bundles of cable, though CR IC also uses the same connectors as the top Clear.
Right from the beginning Clear Reflection struck me as both coherent and fluid. Coherent because everything sounded organized and clean, without much interstitial noise or “splashiness,” if you will. And fluid because all types of music seemed to simply emanate with a wonderful sense of ease and immediacy, without any sort of subliminal tension. It was as if my inner dialog were, “Ah, this is nice. Just relax and enjoy the music.” I arrived at these impressions by means of the following audition process: 1) Switching the interconnect between the sources and the preamp and listening for a while; 2) switching the link between the preamp and power amp and listening some more; and 3) changing the speaker cable. I did this a couple of times in my own system and also repeated the process in an audio buddy’s system, a meticulously set-up and beautiful-sounding system. I also swapped my normal reference cables (Shunyata ZiTron Anaconda) to CR, and back again few times. Over the course of two months of listening, nothing altered this baseline “coherent and fluid” impression. The combination of coherence and fluidity allowed the music to take on a calm, non-electronic quality and a sense of “proper balance.” When I considered the unforced blend of drum head-and-body sounds, of acoustical guitar strings and body, or of a singer’s throat and chest, on a recording like Doug MacLeod’s There’s a Time [RR], it struck me that the CR’s coherence was responsible for many of those musical elements sounding believably proportioned. This coherent quality drew my attention to the musical progression in the songs rather than to an analytical breakdown of the particular sonic minutiae in the mix.
I also noted a light lower midrange emphasis in tonal balance—at least in direct comparison to my reference cables and to my friend’s Siltech cables. (Further comparisons are addressed below.) This more “low-weighted” quality helped lend a pleasant touch of warmth to the presentation—just as George Cardas set out to do. Mind you, the level of warmth in relationship to the aforementioned commendable levels of apparent speed, dynamic range, and overall resolution, was not the overriding quality I heard in the CR, nor was this warmth quotient as high as my recollections of the pre-Clear Golden Reference sound, but it still offered a beautiful blend of lovely timbre with image specificity and resolution.
We’ve already discussed the warmth factor, so let me address resolution next. The CR’s kind of clarity tends more towards allowing the greater whole to come through rather than spotlighting those aspects of the sound that might immediately suggest high resolution in an audiophile sense. For example, there was a winning balance between the sounds of the whole orchestra and the individual instruments throughout Miraculous Metamorphoses [RR]. CR’s resolution was also good enough to give me the distinct impression that the first piece on Miraculous, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, was most likely recorded with different microphone placements and/or with different eq than the other works on the same release. (The Hindemith has much more of a front-of-the-hall perspective than either the Prokofiev Love for Three Oranges Suite or the Bartók Miraculous Mandarin Suite, with their more mid-hall perspective typical of Reference Recordings.)
As a corollary to resolution, I consider CR’s soundstaging and imaging performance to be strong points. The proportions of an overall soundscape are portrayed credibly, with commendable width, height, and depth—as well as depth layering. Individual images are rendered precisely and clearly but without exaggeration. Images also have heft and depth, rather than appearing like ethereal two-dimensional cutouts. Some other cables tend to spotlight aspects of the tonal spectrum. Not so with CR; everything “sings” with a unified voice.
So what we have here are a positive set of sonic qualities in a well-made cable at a very reasonable price—considering its performance and the current market. Can Clear Reflection compete with more expensive cables?
I compared CR to Shunyata Research ZiTron Anaconda interconnect/cable ($2250/1m, $4327/2.5m) in my own system and to Siltech Classic Anniversary 770i interconnect ($2700/1m) and the now discontinued LS-188 Classic Mk2 speaker cable (~$5200/2.5m when still available)—both without Siltech’s SATT treatment—in a friend’s system. This puts Clear Reflection ($1150/$2800) within a few hundred dollars of half the price of the other two cable sets.
In my system, the Shunyata Anaconda sounded more detailed, open, transparent, and revealing. Transient response seemed to be quicker with the Shunyata, and subtle dynamic shadings came through more readily as well. On the other hand, Clear Reflection sounded a little more organized, more relaxed, more liquid, and, dare I say it, more “organic.” I prefer the Shunyata on the whole for its dazzling dynamics and remarkable resolution, but I can easily understand if another listener—in a different system—might prefer the less expensive Cardas for its coherence and musicality.
In my audio buddy’s very well tuned system (Lou is a meticulous set-up guy, bordering on fanatical actually), the Cardas sounded a little more expansive and slightly more focused than the Siltech. The Cardas threw a larger, deeper, and more defined soundstage and individual images were a little better fleshed-out, as well. The Siltech and CR had similar respective tonal balances, with the exception of the CR emphasizing the lower midrange a bit more. (There’s that warmth factor again.) The two cables’ overall performances with dynamics were, for all intents and purposes, the same, but I would give the CR the edge in overall resolution. Now, I must stress that I have also heard the same Siltech cable in my own system and thought it did some things better than the Shunyata set did, such as throwing a wider soundstage and sounding a little more musically natural in some respects. These comparisons illustrate how cables can perform differently than expected across myriad systems.
So, the answer to the question of whether Clear Reflection can compete against more expensive cables is yes. Which cable you gravitate towards will probably depend on your sonic priorities, system, and budget. As a reviewer, I prefer the Shunyata Anaconda for its remarkable transient response, transparency, and open soundstaging (as I’d mentioned). Others will favor the more smooth, silk-like qualities of the Siltech, or lean towards the clean, balanced musicality of the Cardas.
When stacked against more expensive cables, Cardas Clear Reflection held its own and, accordingly, gets high marks for delivering good performance at a reasonable price. Clear Reflection is a fantastic cable in its own right. Cardas is on to something with its blend of the company’s previous Golden Reference design and its current Clear technology. I was charmed by Clear Reflection’s fluid, organized, detailed, and generally musically satisfying qualities. I would not hesitate to recommend it to others and would consider it myself for a second system. Mr. Cardas, take a bow.
SPECS & PRICING
CARDAS AUDIO, LTD
480 11th St. SE
Bandon, Oregon 97411
Price: Interconnect, $1150/1m (RCA or XLR), additional .5m add $300; speaker, $2800/2.5m (spade or banana), additional .5m add $350
Analog Source: Basis Debut V turntable & Vector 4 tonearm, Benz-Micro LP-S cartridge
Digital Sources: Ayre C-5xeMP universal disc player, HP Envy 15t running JRiver MC-20, Hegel HD12 and HD20 DACs
Phono stage: Ayre P-5xe
Line stage: Ayre K-1xe, Hegel P30
Integrated amplifier: H300
Power amplifiers: Gamut M250i, Hegel H30
Speakers: Dynaudio Confidence C1 Signature, YG Acoustics Sonja 1.2
Cables: Shunyata Anaconda ZiTron signal cables, Nordost Heimdall 2 USB, Audioquest Coffee USB and Hawk Eye S/PDIF, Shunyata Anaconda S/PDIF, Shunyata Anaconda and Alpha ZiTron power cables
A/C Power: Two 20-amp A/C lines, Shunyata SR-Z1 outlets and Triton/Typhon power conditioners
Accessories: Stillpoints Ulra SS and Mini footers, Shunyata Research DFE V2 cable elevators
Room Treatments: PrimeAcoustic Z-foam panels and DIY panels
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