Cardas Clear Reflection. A HiFi Cables Review.
By Steve Huff
Ahhh Cables! A touchy and controversial topic in the realm of audio though today I feel more are seeing the reality of what quality cables can bring to a quality system. Even so it seems like some out there still feel like “cable is cable”. Others who are into this crazy audio game spend $50k (or much more) on cables without blinking an eye (I have a friend in California who owns a full loom of Nordost Odin 2)!
Crazy as that is a loom that sets you back 6 figures, for cables!
Me? I am a guy who has been lucky enough to try cables that run the gamut from low to mid to high end. From $20 to $20,000, I have heard cables in my audio journey of all price ranges! So yes I do know the reality of the cable game and yes CABLES DO MATTER when you have a system that is revealing enough to show you these differences.
While I would never personally spend $20k, $30k or $50k for cables I do know 100% without a shadow of a doubt that good cables do make a difference in a quality audio HiFi system. Sometimes this difference is small while at others times it can be quite dramatic, as big as an amplifier change or pre amp change. It all depends on your system and how you have it set up.
If you have a system set up for background music than any $20-$200 cables will do. DO NOT spend a fortune on cables if you just listen casually. If your system is set up with a “sweet spot” for maximum depth and imaging then cables can bring changes in all areas of the sound you are getting and can be the difference between “GREAT SOUND” and “OTHER WORDLY SOUND”.
Snake Oil? It exists…but not in the well known brands that have stood the test of time.
You always hear the term “Snake Oil” in high end HiFi and yes there is quite a bit of that in the audio industry. Some make ridiculous products and claim massive improvements all while knowing their item does nothing but bring a placebo effect to the buyer who spent that cash and now has to justify that cash outlay. Yes, Snake Oil exists in audio but quality cables are not in the “Snake Oil” Category. There may be a brand or two who grossly overcharge for their cables but I know it is possible to find quality and “end game” cables without having to mortgage your home to do so ; )
The issue with me and cables is sort of like the issue I had with phono cartridges. I never wanted to part with too much money on something that didn’t “seem” like it would warrant a huge upgrade to the sound. Spending big cash on something that wasn’t an “electronic” componet that was big, heavy and needed to be plugged in seemed wrong! I mean…Cables? Wire? In fact I have buddies who use lamp cord that they bought from Home Depot for their cables and are 100% happy because they fail to believe that any other cable would change or improve upon the sound.
These guys do not have uber high end systems nor do they have their speakers set up for critical listening so I see where they are coming from. All they need is that lamp cord and they would probably never hear a difference in sound with different cables. These friends often tell me that high end cables are snake oil and that CAN be the case with some unknown brands but with well known brands that have been around a long time (like Cardas) that is 100% NOT the case.
I believe cables can be very important depending on the level of your system. If you have a system that cost up to $2000 total for speakers, source and amp, etc then by all means use cables that are priced accordingly for your systems cost.
On the other hand, if you have a system that runs into the $5,000, $10,000 or even higher up the money chain range one of the best things you can do to “lock in” your systems sound is with a set of well made, high performing cables. One thing to remember though is SYNERGY! If you have a system that leans bright, you want a cable that will inject some warmth into it. If you have a warm system, you want something with more excitement to be brought in. Cables can fine tune your system and for me is always the final step in system building.
I have done so many auditions of cables and have heard the differences in brands as each have a “House Sound” so to speak. Shunyata, Nordost, Audioquest, Transparent, Swisscables, and Cardas are all brands (and there are more) I have owned and tried out within my systems and sure enough each brand does have a “sound” of sorts that they bring to your system.
I do not believe in nor have I ever heard any cable that was 100% neutral to the source. EVERY CABLE, even the $20 cheapies bring some kind of coloration to your music. Finding the one that meshes with your system the best is the key to finalizing a two channel HiFi System. In my experience there is no such thing as a 100% neutral cable as every cable does something to the sound due to the way sound travels down the wire. Some cables add, some take away. Some bring a glow and warmth and others bring stridency and extreme details. What you choose is all dependent on your tastes.
My tastes are musicality, midrange magic, a big wide and deep soundstage with some 3 dimensionality. I like warmth over cold and a welcoming sound that doesn’t hurt my ears with a bright thin sound.
While each part of your system (and your room and setup) contributes to the sound of your system, cables are always the final touch for me to add the last level of refinement, polish and magic to my system.
Interconnects, Speaker and Power Cables.
In my systems and for these ears I always have found that the interconnects make the most difference followed by power followed by speaker cables. After hundreds of swaps and tests that is how I prioritize my cables but I have also become a huge believer in using full looms of one brand within my systems after years of mixing and matching brands.
I believe in having quality cables when I have a high quality system because if I were to spend $25k on a system and then outfit it with $20 cables I would be choking it, constricting it and keeping it from performing at its best. I know as I have tried I! I have tried to save cash many times in my life by going cheap with cables only to realize that doing so makes all of the money I have invested in my system sort of a waste. These days I know that if I spend substantial money on my system, even if it is $2500, $5000 (or much more) I want that system to sound its best so I buy the cables appropriate to the system I have built.
The problem I have had previously is that I never wanted to go crazy on cable. Even with being a huge believer in them, it is crazy hard to part with cash for a piece of wire, no matter how much R&D went into it. We all know this. It’s a mental thing as we see cables and say “How can I spend this much money on Wire”!?!?
I have sort of let that go though as after hearing so many brand and so many low end/high end cables I know 100% without a doubt the difference they can bring to a system. But remember the difference may not always be what you are looking for, so auditioning is key (when you can of course).
My New Reference System
Ever since I moved 10 months ago and started planning a true reference system in my new space I knew my cables would have to be upgraded eventually. While I had very good cables (Nordost Blue Heaven full loom) I knew they were actually keeping my new system from performing at its absolute best due to the quality of the pre amp, amp, dac and components I now have installed in this system.
In my lifetime I have had cables from Nordost, Monster, Shunyata, Blue Jean, Cardas, Anti Cables, AudioQuest, Swisscables, Acoustic Zen, Transparent, and many more. I have auditioned several models form each brand as well even hearing a $25k set of cables from Nordost that actually left me a little cold as they didn’t really synergize with my system at the time.
I once was enthralled with another set of pricey cables from a newer brand yet found they were cheaply made when a connector broke within 3 weeks (after I bought them, so did not review them). I once fell for hype on Audiogon from a seller who claimed his $1200 interconnect beat others in the $8k range. He even had user reviews to prove it. When it arrived I burned it in and thought it was nice but about equal to a $500 interconnect. I sent it back. It’s not easy finding the right cable for a high end system that leaves you 100% satisfied and happy but when you do, you will know it.
My mainstay over the past few years has mostly been Nordost and I usually stayed in the lower realms due to cost (Blue Heaven and Red Dawn and used Valhalla at one time) but I always liked their wide open sound with micro details and even some warmth in their current lineup but climbing the Nordost ladder is a tough pill to swallow $$$ wise.
Even so, when listening to my system TODAY I felt as if these Blue Heaven LS cables were holding it back from being as good as it could be, especially after hearing the Cardas Clear Reflection cables I will be talking about in this review.
My new reference system setup is the highest end system I have ever assembled for my personal enjoyment (and review purposes) and so I decided to try out a few cables to see what sounded best and to see what (if anything) could replace my Nordost. I had my Blue Heaven, a set of $20 cables, a set of Nordost Frey 2 cables and I also wanted to try and hear some cables from Cardas, who are very well known and one of the brands in audio that uses science when it comes to creating cables. George Cardas has long been respected in the world of high end audio and for good reason. His cables are solid designs that are based on sound principles. They are extremely well made as well (best build I have experienced in cables).
My VERY First Cardas Experience
I remember a few years ago when I was listening to my sons audio system. He had Dynaudio Emit 10’s, a Musical Fidelity integrated and under $200 Cardas 101 Speaker Cables. He also had a set of these Cardas interconnects.
IT SOUNDED AWESOME!
In some ways it gave a sound that I was missing in my then $20k system running $2,000 worth of cables. It had a body and solidity to the music that I was missing. It had a glowing midrange and just sounded “complete”. Not perfect, not all out magic but it sounded like music and I was a little jealous if I could be honest!
I was perplexed but figured it was just a synergy and room thing. I was happy for him and his great sounding system but I asked him if I could borrow his Cardas cables for a couple of days. I let him use my cables and took his much less expensive cables and put them in my system.
When I placed these Cardas 101 cables in my higher end system they did change the sound. It was fuller, rounder, bigger and had more authority but it was slight, not so night and day. It lost some air and magic from the Nordost I was using and while it wasn’t a better sound, it was merely different and a sound I could have happily lived with at the time. These were under $200 cables yet sounded more like $1000 cables. When I returned the 101 cables to my son he said “Take these Blue things back please”. He thought the Nordost made his speakers sound a bit thinner than his lower cost Cardas and he didn’t care for it. He loved the Cardas cables.
I thought that was an interesting experiment as it showed me that all cables do make a sound difference to our systems. It did so in his system and mine as well when we swapped for a while.
Coming back to present day I remembered that day listening to his system and what those starter cables from Cardas did to my own system and I started to wonder what a higher end Cardas cable could do within my system NOW which is a much nicer setup than I had then.
It was like magic really. The next day I received an email from Dan at Dedicated Audio (A Cardas Dealer) asking me what kind of cables I currently used in my new system. He then asked if I wanted to try out some Cardas cables. How crazy is that? Almost like I sent the thoughts out into the universe and the universe came back with just what I was looking for.
Dan and I discussed things and within 2 weeks I had a box on my doorstep shipped direct from Cardas full of cables to check out in my now high end reference system.
I had speaker cables. interconnects, a power cable, a phono cable and all I needed to wire up my system that was now comprised of Pass Labs electronics, Dynaudio and Klipsch Speakers, Dr Feickert Turntable & Koetsu cartridge and a Lampizator DAC.
Oh yea…THIS IS A REAL THING TOO…Burn baby Burn!
When I took out my Nordost Blue Heaven LS and swapped in the Cardas something unexpected happened.
The sound became a bit flat, a little dull, somewhat compressed and I was not thrilled. The effect was like I threw a light blanket over each speaker. I was in shock and then realized I had one of the speaker cables hooked up wron (red to black, black to red) which screwed with the polarity! They were now out of phase…OOPS! Lol…after I fixed the issue I heard a warm, full and big sound but it lacked excitement and detail. Hmmm. I also remembered having this happen to me before with Audioquest cables but with Audioquest it was the opposite. The sound was bright, etched and harsh when I first inserted a new set into the system and after a while they calmed down and came into their own.
Reading up about Cardas and talking with Dan at Dedicated it was recommended that these cables burn in, and yes, cable burn in is real. While 200+ hours is recommended it didn’t take that long for the cables to change in a huge way. I’d say 20-40 hours and the cables started to transform into something truly special and unique.
By 100 hours it was a completely different animal and there was nothing muffled, closed in or flat about the sound. The cables were extremely open and bringing a transformational sound to my now truly reference system. I was smiling from ear to ear as the sound coming out of my system now sounded truly polished, complete and lacked nothing at all. I mean, nothing. It was all there – detail, air, warmth, glow, body, 3D imaging and such an organic fluid sound that was much more “complete” than with the Blue Heaven.
The Golden Sound but Improved.
Back in the day George Cardas created a line of cables that were very well reviewed called the “Golden Reference”. These cables were known at the time as being warm, maybe a but syrupy and bringing a full, lovely, golden glow to your music. Some audiophiles loved them and some disliked them but they were VERY well made cables that I always wanted to try out. I never did get to try those cables in one of my systems but this current model I now have called “Clear Reflection” is an improvement on the older Golden Reference and that is how they are described by Cardas.
Caradas has the “Clear” line above this reflection line and they state that the Reflection is a mix of Golden Reference and the new Clear. This means warmth, body, and glow but with air and details this time ; ) The higher up the Cardas ladder “Clear” would bring even more of the “Clear” and less of the “Warmth” and “Clear Beyond” even more so. The Reflection line is about a balance of warmth and clear all in one cable.
In fact this cable brings that legendary Cardas fullness, warmth and beauty but also adds an extended top end and a fluid liquid midrange with such a nice full bass performance as well. The sound is much more life-size and complete over my Blue Heaven cables. So much so that when I added them back in I heard what was missing. It was like there were holes in the music with the Nordost when I did a side by side. It was quite jarring to be honest.
With the Blue Heaven in place the sound was energetic, fast and lacked a bit in midrange fullness and sweetness at the top end. The midrange lost some of the magic and presence as well. Truth be told, I had a hard time listening as the sound became thinner and a tad more excited. With the Cardas Clear Reflection back in the magic was back and I had a mature, full, liquid, flowing presentation.
Instruments sounded so real, so fleshed out and as if there was a magical light around them giving them a little bit of glow and this is where I heard a huge improvement. Not a hint of harshness or glare nor was there any hint of being closed in or overly warm. These were gorgeous cables and truly changed the sound of my system for the better over the full loom of Nordost Blue Heaven that I had for the last 2 years.
I fired up the Dr. Feikert Volare Turntable outfitted with a Koetsu Black cartridge with a very old album “Jackie Gleason Presents The Love Hours”. This was an album that I paid $1 for yet it was like brand new. Vintage yet like new. I was never able to appreciate it though as it always sounded a bit glaring and thin/harsh. The horns were overly bright and it wasn’t the best sounding album in my collection ; ) I wanted to see if the new full loom of Cardas would change things and well, it did. I sat and listened to both sides…twice. Instead of the thin glaring sound I heard that full beautiful sound with a glow, warmth, body and presence. It was actually quite amazing how this album sounded now, I could not believe it. It was like I went back in time and was listening to this music the day it was released. So fresh, alive and pure. I then pulled out a few more albums to hear the changes and it was right then and there I knew these would be my new reference cables for my new reference system.
From $3000 to $20…
Just for fun I took out the Cardas again and placed in some $20 speaker cables. I did leave in the Cardas interconnects and power cables. Just taking out the Clear Reflection Speaker cables and replacing them with my favorite $20 cables the sound lost quite a bit. The imaging was smeared, the soundstage shrunk and the sound became a bit more “Blah”.
This did not make me want to sit for hours in my spot and listen. When I removed all of the Cardas and replaced them with basic RCA interconnects and stock power cords the sound just fell flat all the way around, and a slight hiss also made itself known. This was NIGHT AND DAY, not even close. It was flat, boring and had some noise in the system.
After a few days of swapping the Cardas with the Nordost there was no question as to what cables made my system come alive. The Cardas Clear Reflection was just delivering everything I could imagine no matter the speakers I hooked up.
Even when I placed in a loom of Nordost Frey 2, which are mid way up the Nordost line and more costly than the Cardas I preferred the Cardas in my system. The Frey 2 again had more energy and was tipped up with an improvement in all ways over the Blue Heaven but it just didn’t welcome me in to the music like the Cardas cables did. It’s that synergy thing. The Frey 2 had a bit of a “Trying too hard to impress” kind of sound when compared side by side with the effortless ease of the Clear Reflection.
I tested the cables in my system with my Klipsch LaScala AL5’s, the Dynaudio Heritage Specials and even the $299 Wharfedale Diamonds. I heard the same improvements no matter which speakers were hooked up and they made the Dynaudios sound bigger, sweeter and even more fleshed out than they did with the Nordost. These cables truly brought out more goodness from the Dynaudios and Dan from Dedicated Audio said he feels the Clear line brings out the best of the Heritage. Either way, I was impressed with the Clear Reflection cables.
Sweeter is the word. The Cardas just brought the music to me with all of those things I love and then some and there was nothing I could find about the sound that I wished was better or different.
Soundstage Width and Depth: The Cardas and Nordost were about equal in this department. Both provided a big wide soundstage and had decent depth but the Cardas took the depth of soundstage by a hair and the nordost the width by a hair. But they were pretty close here.
Treble: The Nordost is more aggressive and a bit thinner in tonality than the Cardas without question. This is noticeable INSTANTLY when I switch the cables. The Cardas has a top end that is sweet and a bit more toned down that the Nordost yet the Cardas absolutely sounds more refined and beautiful without sacrificing detail in any way over the Nordost. Before I had the Cardas cables here I did not notice these things with the Nordost. It was only after a side by side comparison that I did and it’s not slight my friends, nor hard to hear these differences.
Midrange: The Cardas strength lies here. The midrange with the Clear Reflection is just so right. Voices sound smooth and have a presence that palpable. The Nordost has a thinner midrange performance and this is especially noticeable on the Dynaudio Heritage Specials in a side by side. I will say that of all cables I have heard in my audio life, these Cardas bring me the most beautiful and special midrange performance I have heard. No contest here.
Bass: The Cardas have an interesting way they present bass in my system. When I listen I NEVER want for more beef, meat, body or bass yet the bass doesn’t shout or make itself known by sounding boomy or loud. It’s fully there but you never think about it. With the Nordost I hear a lighter footed mid bass which again, brings a sound that is lighter and thinner. I much prefer the Cardas.
Now some will wonder why I am comparing a full loom of Cardas Clear Reflection to the lower end Nordost Blue Heaven. It’s obvious that the Cardas should bring improvements as the cost for the Cardas line is quite a bit higher than the Blue Heaven line. While these are not the top of the line from Cardas they are in the mid range where the Blue Heaven is the starter cable in the Nordost line.
The Nordost Blue Heaven full loom of 3 meter Speaker Cables, Two 1m Interconnects, Three 1 M power cords and a digital Coax comes in at around $2700 retail, and this is what I have used for the last couple of years in my system.
The Cardas 3 meter Clear Reflection Speaker Cables, Three sets of IC’s and one Clear Beyond 1.5 M power cord comes in at around a $8000 retail or $5000 more than the Nordost does. So this should not be a fair fight but I compared them as the Nordost is what I owned, and I was looking for an upgrade. It’s not always the case that when you spend more you get better but in this case it absolutely was.
Spending $8000 on cables may sound insane to some but let us put this into perspective and talk about the 15% rule.
I am running Klipsch LaScala AL5 speakers that retail for over $13,000. I have Pass Labs Xa 60.8 Monoblock amps installed that retail for $13,000, I have a Pass Labs Xp-10 preamp that is close to $6k when new in the system right now and a Lampizator Amber 3 DAC that retails for $4000. Add the $3500 Pass Labs XP-10 Phono Preamp, my $2000 Lumin U1 Mini Streamer and let’s not forget my Dr. Feickert Volare Turntable with Koetsu Black Cartridge.
I now have a reference system here that retails for almost $50k without cables added into the mix! Swap the Klipsch for the Dynaudio Heritage Specials and I have a $44k System. Any way you slice it this is is a dream system that deserves the right cables to allow it to be the best it can possibly be.
If I go with spending 15% on cables that would put me in the range of the Cardas Clear Reflection cables! I believe the 15% rule (Spend 15% of your systems cost on cables) is spot on and this comparison proved it to me.
The Clear Reflection by Cardas was a total win in my system. Just when I thought it was sounding as good as it could get with my Nordost Blue Heaven the Cardas cables truly brought out the best of my system but I did have a full loom here. For fun I went back to my Blue Heaven cables and just swapped one of the interconnects between my DAC and Pre Amp. The Cardas Clear Reflection interconnects instantly took away some of the glare of the Blue Heaven and created a fuller more musical flow with my system. That was just by replacing one set of interconnects.
When I added in the Cardas Clear Beyond power cable to the pre amp, again, a bit more larger in scale and even more authority. When I went ahead and added the speaker cables back it completed the chain and sounded glorious. But what was interesting is that I could just change one cable and get the sound of the reflection series cables into my system.
The Cardas brought more ease, more refinement and a more balanced sound to my system. It’s smooth yet detailed, has fantastic imaging performance but sounds so pure and natural. The music comes out with each instrument being fleshed out and “real” within my room. There is a lit from within glow about the music now and there is never ever any harshness, thinness or dull sound. The Clear Beyond power cable from Cardas alone brought a much better and fuller tone to the pre-amp which is where I use the cable.
These somehow managed to be the perfect cable for my system as it stands right now. The synergy meshes well with both sets of speakers, which I consider reference (LaScala AL5 and Heritage Special). The Pass Labs gear also seems to love the Cardas cables moreso than my old Nordost.
These Clear Reflection cables truly complete my system and could be at home in any high end system where you want a beautiful musical sound to your music that offers life, warmth, glow and detail along with the things we love about high quality music reproduction. They are truly gorgeous cables in design, build and sound. A triple win.
I can easily recommend these cables or any in the Cardas lineup and Dedicated Audio who is a dealer for them. You can visit their website here and see their Cardas line HERE. Give them a call at 855-991-8181 if you want to ask about YOUR system as Dan and his crew can help you determine what cable may be best for your system no matter the cost of your system or what you are looking to spend.
Just as Pass Labs made me a lifelong fan with their quality amps and preamps. Just as Lampizator made me a believer in insanley musical DACs. Just as Dynaudio makes me adore their bookshelf speakers. Just as Dr. Feickert made me understand that not all turntables are equal, right now I have realized that after all of these years I have found a cable that delivers all of the musicality and magic that I have wanted. The Cardas Clear Reflection line has made me a Cardas fan for life and they helped finish off my new reference system.
Even if your system is not at a super high end level, Cardas makes a cable for you just as they did for my sons modest system. All it takes is to find the right synergy. By using that 15% rule I spoke about above it will be hard to go wrong with anything in the Cardas lineup. I highly recommend checking them out!