POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 18
Golden Reference cables
as reviewed by Jeff Parks and Robert H. Levi
Journey to Audio Nirvana
I embarked on a journey to find the "perfect" cable last July. Since then, I have listened to cables from a number of manufacturers, but following the Positive Feedback philosophy, I am only reporting on the ones that "lit my wick." Some of them did not make the grade, at least in my rig, and to my ears, so they were sent back to the manufacturers with letters of thanks. I know that some of you will be thinking, "Why report only on the good stuff?" The reason is that with a bad review, nobody wins. Besides, not every product is going to work in a given system because of the many variables—power coming into the house and room acoustics, to name two—hence, I review only products that excite me.
In my Cardas Cross and Golden Cross review (PFO Issue 15), I explained my cable review procedure. I review a complete line of cable, as opposed to listening to, say, a pair of speaker cables or interconnects. I take this approach because I believe that when most of us go to audio salons for cable recommendations, we end up with cables from a single manufacturer throughout our systems. However, if a cable manufacturer offers a mix-and-match solution for reviewing purposes— as your audio retailer may do for you—I will follow their recommendation. You can dramatically change the synergy of a system by replacing just one piece of gear. This was definitely the case with the newest offering by Cardas, the Golden Reference cables, but more on that later.
Cables are for Rookies
Not too long ago, another reviewer coined the phrase, "Reviewing cables is for rookies." As a rookie audio reviewer, I took offense to that statement. I have been playing around with this hobby for over thirty years, and while I may be a rookie writer, I am not a rookie when it comes to knowing great sound. However, with further thought, I came to agree with this statement. Why? Reviewing cables is a major pain in the ass, what with all of the hooking and unhooking of cables, reaching behind your rig at weird angles, and moving cables around so often that you're afraid you will make a wrong move that will kill your rig. I now see why veteran reviewers don't get excited when the latest cable comes their way. Perhaps that is why cable manufactures (at least the ones I have been dealing with) are extremely patient and accommodating. They know that reviewing cables, though rewarding, is quite a chore.
Enough Science to Make One's Head Explode
Reviewing cables has also given me enough data and opinions to make my head explode. It seems that all cable manufacturers claim that they are making the best, most neutral cables on the planet. Then there are the theories of cable construction. The existence of so many concepts about construction technique, materials, and design gives me vertigo. Who's right? In my opinion, they're all right, and they're all wrong. You, the listener, must decide what is best for you, based upon your taste, system synergy, and budget.
It seems that every company has its magic solution for creating the "perfect" cable. Whether it is crossfield construction, matched propagation, eddy currents, networks to reduce EMI and/or RFI, or charging the dielectric with electrical current, all have the same goal, which is to cause the least amount of damage to the signal, and to thereby create the most musical, detailed, and neutral cable available. According to Cardas representative Brian von Bork, the Golden Reference is the most neutral, detailed, and true to the source that the company currently offers. He states, "Where the Golden Cross is musical, relaxed, and forgiving, the Golden Reference is neutral and open, and has a purity that is unmatched within the Cardas line." Both cables have the seductive musicality that Cardas products are known for, and are of reference quality, but the two cables have distinctly different personalities. Cardas is certain that one or the other will fill the bill for any customer.
My time with the Golden Reference began in October 2004. Before I say anything else, I will say that of all of the cables that I have had in my system in the last four months, the Cardas Golden Reference cables have had the biggest effect upon the sound of my system. This resulted in a bit of cognitive dissonance between my opinion of how my system actually sounded, as opposed to how it should sound if it were to be used as a reviewing tool. As reported by Brian Von Bork, the Golden Reference is ruthlessly revealing of system faults. Was this a bad thing? In my opinion, no! Why? My goal was to have the most revealing and neutral, yet musical sounding system I could achieve, and the Golden Reference helped me get there. Nevertheless, I did not like what the Golden Reference cables did the first time I heard them in my system. Although they were detailed, which was enticing, there was a bit too much detail on some program material. During long listening sessions (2 to 3 hours or more), they were fatiguing, something that was never a problem with the Golden Cross. Did that mean that the Golden Reference was bad? Hell no! It just meant that the way my system was configured, it was not a good match. If your system tends to be bright, etched, or overly detailed, the neutrality and extreme clarity of the Golden Reference cables will bring that forward.
This caused me to wonder where the problem lay, and further investigation led me to believe that my line conditioner and power cords were the culprits. After playing around with various cords and conditioners, I settled upon ones that fixed the problem (more on those in a forthcoming review). With these changes in place, my system became more neutral and musically accurate, whereas in the past it could be slightly bright and congested. I was now ready to take another look at the Cardas Golden Reference.
Matched Propagation, Musicality, and Clarity of Sound
The 100 hours that the Golden Reference cables took to mellow out was nowhere near the amount of time that the Golden Cross took. This may be due to the fact that the Golden Reference uses much less copper in its design than the Golden Cross. Less copper, less break-in time—makes sense to me! The Golden Reference cables have other design features that distinguish them from the Golden Cross. Although the two share Cardas' "golden ratio" design philosophy, as well as cross field conductors, constant Q, and ultra-pure, ultra-copper Litz wire, the Golden Reference cables differ in their use of matched propagation.
The main reason for the difference is that the Golden Reference cables were designed, in part, for the needs of the recording industry, which are different from those of domestic audio. In most cases, recording engineers look for the most revealing, neutral, and musically accurate cable they can find, for obvious reasons—when mixing a recording, you want to hear the performers, not the gear or the cables. Another need of the recording industry, based upon its use of very long cable runs, is the rate of propagation, or the speed of the signal through the cable. Within a standard conductor, the rate of propagation is slower in the center than on the surface, which means that part of the signal arrives sooner than the rest. In short cable runs, this is usually not a problem, but in the long runs necessitated by the demands of the recording industry, these timing differences cause a smearing of sound and a lack of clarity. Many times, this comes off as a ghost effect, which is solved by designing a cable in which all of the signal arrives at the same time, and which, in turn, gives rise to a purity and clarity of sound.
Both the Golden Reference and Neutral Reference cables have a very even propagation rate, combined with low inductance. This means that they are easier to drive than cables of the past. Since the signal arrives at the same time at either end of the cable, these cables are no longer directional, and are not affected by long runs. The user can have the same sound from a cable whether it is a one-meter or a fifty-meter run. According to Cardas, low-impedance drives may favor Cross or Golden Cross, and high-impedance drives will favor Neutral or Golden Reference. In short, the Golden Reference embodies the best qualities of the Neutral Reference—clarity, presence, and detail—while maintaining the alluring qualities of the Golden Cross, which include richness of timbre and musicality.
The Truth is in the Listening
The aspect of the Golden Reference cables that struck me first was its ability to put me center stage. The signal was so clear, transparent, pure, and precise that the performers sucked me into music in a manner that I had never experienced before. Ben Harper's song "Blessed to be a Witness," from his Diamonds on the Inside CD (Virgin 7243 5 83003 2 1 2002), begins with a set of blocks playing the beat. Layers are then added—first Harper's soft tenor voice, then his scrumptious playing of a Thele Tongue Drum, and last, the accompanying percussion section. With the Golden Reference in the system, all I heard was Ben, center stage, supported by a bass player and a small percussion section. The close-miked quality of the recording gave me the feeling of being there in the studio, and the Golden Reference's ability to let the music through unmolested surrounded me in an aural experience that I wanted to return to again and again.
Another great strength of the Golden Reference cable is its ability to get micro- and macrodynamics right while maintaining the harmonic structure of the music. These cables add no artificial artifacts. Playing the acapella tune "Picture of Jesus," again from Diamonds on the Inside, the Golden Reference got the layered overdubs of Ben Harper's voice correct, as he sang this complex composition covering multiple parts and octaves. The Golden Reference portrayed the microdynamic structure of his voice with finesse, as he created a lush harmonic tapestry playing across my sound room. The recording gave the illusion of several people singing in several positions across the soundstage, when in truth there were only two people singing. Although the Golden Reference did all this while maintaining microdynamic purity, it was its ability to also communicate macrodynamics that allowed the music to flow with visceral slam. That, I feel, is one of the Golden Reference's strongest qualities. Bass is never an issue while listening to music through these cables. Another song from Diamonds on the Inside, "When it's Good," starts with a bass line created by both the double bass drum and the bass guitarist playing in perfect harmony, that then gives way to a visceral bass line that envelops the listener as the room pressurizes and decompresses. This bass line is followed by Harper's great guitar work, center stage just in front of his voice, again giving the illusion of him sitting right in your room. At concert levels, this was awe-inspiring.
I not only got great sound at loud concert levels (over 90dB), but with the Golden Reference cables in my system, I often found myself listening at much lower levels, without any loss of bass or dynamics. Could this be due to the matched propagation of the Golden Reference, and its great speed? I have to think so! No matter what the explanation, though, I am very happy that I can listen to my music at low levels and still feel satisfied. I'm sure my hearing will thank me as well!
Setting it Straight
The Cardas Golden Reference is truly reference-standard cable. While extremely detailed, articulate, and neutral, the Golden Reference stays true to the music, maintaining the harmonic purity of voices and instruments. If your system is dry, overly detailed, and/or on the lean side, the Golden Reference will let you hear that in all of its fatiguing glory. It will not forgive any faults your system. Instead, it follows the medical profession's credo of "Do no harm," allowing the signal to pass unmolested while at the same time sounding extremely musical. Highly recommended! Jeff Parks
Cables used in the review:
One pair Cardas Reference 7.5-meter XLR—preamplifier
George Cardas is a man who loves music. His company has made cables and accessories under his name, and that of many other audio companies (as an OEM manufacturer), for many years. The Golden Reference interconnects are his top-of-the-line cables, and a high-tech achievement. They are the result of much thought about the nature and gestalt of live music in natural, unamplified acoustic environments. I don't pretend to understand the science, but these cables are complex. They feature multiple shields, litz and stranded wire, air and Teflon dielectrics, sophisticated balanced connectors, and a very complex winding design. Surprisingly, they are very flexible, and a joy to work with. They also boast the lowest capacitance of any cable, beating the closest competitor by a whopping 50%. All of this adds up what? The proof is in the listening, and in knowing the biases of the designer.
There is also, of course, the bias of the reviewer. As a retired professional musician and broadcaster, I am a big fan of "neutrality." I love live music, but recordings have unique sonic signatures, and I want to hear those signatures clearly. I am a definition and imaging enthusiast. I'm not a big fan of using cables as passive equalizers, but we all do it. Some of us use only one manufacturer's designs throughout our systems, to enhance predictability or because we like the designer's biases. Some use a cocktail of cable types to create the best sound. Neither approach is wrong, and I've done both. The goal for me is achieving uncolored, untainted, neutral reproduction. If the source disc is luscious and warmly musical, I want to hear that. If it's hot and thin, I want to hear that, too (for about five minutes). The ideal cable should get out of the way of the music, not render it more musical or less musical. The Cardas Golden Reference interconnects have a sound. They are very musical and ripe. Let's approach them one sonic parameter at a time.
The Golden Reference cables have tons of definition. Backgrounds are not as black as my reference cables, or as quiet, so subtle sounds did not pop the way they usually do. The Golden Reference cables tend to enhance the powerful and slightly obscure the subtle.
Textures and layering were excellent. The lusciousness of the musical presentation was undeniable. At one point, I thought violins sounded jellied (i.e., ultra liquid) and bass fiddles even more bold. These cables bring you a few rows closer to the event, and create a musical flow that pulls you into the performance. It was not exactly a coloration I heard, as it was not predictable. I felt that I was experiencing a philosophy of sound reproduction.
The highs were exquisite, with extended air and definition, though I did notice a slight dulling of flutes, cymbals, and such. Notes were slightly less silvery than absolutely real. Decay of transients was well reproduced, but slightly darkened. Older CDs were more listenable than I recalled. Surface noise and tape hiss were slightly reduced.
The mids had superb definition and rich textures, with a Row G sound. The Golden Reference cables yielded a vast soundstage and wonderful height. I was a bit unhappy with the focus of the instruments. These cables do not do "crisp," and are always slightly soft-focus. I recall J. Gordon Holt saying that in the absence of visual cues, audio cues have to be that much better. I like tight image specificity, and could not get the Golden Reference to give it to me the way my reference cables do. There was always a slight smear, and as a result, depth perspective was somewhat obscured. Back-of-the soundstage musical nuances were not as well rendered as those in the front.
These cables present lots of bass, and it goes deep. They possess a powerful sound, with great swagger. They made my reference cables (at the time Kimber Selects) sound a bit reticent, although at times, particularly on solo instruments, I felt that the added richness was fatter than reality. I have a very flat system, with NO midbass hump, but the Golden Reference gave the impression of a small hump. These cables are very euphonic. That seems to be part of George Cardas' design philosophy. You will have to judge for yourself.
I've never owned cables that had all the sonic attributes of the Golden Reference. Their rich texture and swagger, coupled with such strong detailing, has never been in my lexicon. Is it real? Is it accurate? Is it neutral? Using them as the long link between my preamp and amp was so profoundly impactful, I can say with utter certainty that their effect is not subtle. Maybe it's the combination of materials or the pattern of windings that causes them to virtually bubble with definition and power.
The Cardas Golden Reference interconnects reach for the Mount Olympus of sonic wonder, as only renowned audiophile George Cardas can produce. Their bold dynamics, rich textures, and utter musicality will entertain and delight. They are best used with systems on the lean side of neutrality. They must be tried by audiophiles on the hunt for unfailingly musical performance. Robert H. Levi
Golden Reference interconnects
Golden Reference speaker cables