A phono cable is an important component of an analog system, yet is sometimes given short shrift. I started out simply by using the stock cables that came with my two tonearms, a Tri-Planar Mk.VII Ultimate 2 and an Ortofon RS-309D. The Tri-Planar is hardwired from the cartridge clips to its RCA jacks, but the Ortofon came with a detachable, "nothing special" pair of DIN-to-RCA cables. This past summer, as I began exploring analog gear more deeply, I tested out a new phono cable from Cardas, the Clear.
George Cardas’s Clear line, the top series he makes, is the result of over a decade’s worth of direct experiments in the devising of a full and excellent line of audio cables. First came the Clear interconnects and speaker cables, at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show. Now he’s produced the Clear phono cable, applying his patented theory of Golden Ratio geometry to the problem of carrying the tiniest audio signals.
"I have found that phono cables are a unique problem," Cardas wrote to me in a recent e-mail, "because of the exceedingly low currents and high amplification required by the phono circuit." He found that by addressing the two major sources of noise -- the shadow of the signal itself and outside interference (RFI/EMI) -- he could solve a phono cable’s two basic problems of transmitting the signal and isolating it from noise. Signal shadow is rooted in the mismatch of propagation traits of the conductor and the dielectric. Cardas resolved this by using a conductor (Golden Ratio copper) that matches its velocity of propagation to that of the surrounding dielectric material (Teflon).
But, said Cardas, "I have found that, in addition to what can be induced by a single cable, there is another problem in that the two channels can set up a differential signal between them that then acts like a dipole antenna." He addressed this interference by enclosing the two channels of the phono cable, positive and return, inside a matrix of several concentric, separated shields and Teflon tubes. This shielded the cables and eliminated the dipole interferences that would otherwise be produced between the two channels.
My review sample of the Clear phono cable ($1176 USD) arrived in a plain cardboard box labeled "Cardas." Inside, tucked into a ziplock bag, was a 1.25m cable encased in a rubbery urethane jacket of matte royal blue, terminated on one end with a right-angled Cardas DIN connector (straight connector also available), and on the other end with a pair of beefy Cardas RCA plugs. The cable’s diameter is 0.4" for most of its length, but Cardas telescopes the blue jacketing away at both ends and splits the primaries to the RCA plugs. Like the Clear interconnect, the Clear phono is very flexible and easy to use. It was a snap to connect it to the bottom of my Ortofon RS-309D tonearm, snake it around the top of the rack to the second shelf, and plug it into the input jacks of my reference phono stage, a Herron VTPH-2. I was thankful that the Cardas’s grounding spade has a fairly wide bite and fit easily around the Herron’s ground post.
The Clear took a long time to break in -- over 70 hours, and perhaps closer to 100 before its sound stabilized. "The break-in is a bit tedious because of the high surface area of all the tubes," wrote Cardas. Yet, from the start, there was an overall lowering of the noise floor I’d had with the stock Ortofon cable, and discernible if inconsistent improvements in the depth and clarity of the sound. But after that first 100 hours, things got more dramatic and rewarding. I liken the difference to drinking a good, solid, red table wine, then switching to a big, busty California Cabernet from Stag’s Leap or Grgich Hills: deep flavors, explosive colors, and a bit of emboldened forwardness.
I began by listening to vintage mono LPs via an Ortofon GM Mono Mk.II SPU cartridge (3.0mV) and the Herron’s moving-magnet inputs. With old records that tend to sound quite lean with the stock Ortofon cable, the predominant sound with the Clear was lovely and bold. LPs from Lester Young, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong all fared very well. But I think Gerry Mulligan’s sextet on Mainstream of Jazz, Vol.3 (Emarcy/Mercury 1-95J-36M) showed that the Clear had a rich, almost voluptuous sound that yet didn’t push the system into any congestion. Mulligan’s baritone sax remained clear, bell-like, and warm, with great tonal nuance and, for mono, decent soundstage depth. Mulligan’s attacks had bite, and I could hear him manipulating his horn’s keys. Yet the sound was never crisp, etched, or incisive. In my notes, I rhapsodized that the Clear made things sound "like I was using an 845 amp -- I like it!" In "The Lady Is a Tramp," there’s a nice chasing duet between Mulligan and Zoot Sims on tenor. Sims’s tenor sounded a shade brassier than Mulligan’s rich bari, but the system made a nice distinction of timbres, separating and blending them as they worked through the tune -- soloing, exchanging, harmonizing, shadowing, and canoodling with each other. The clarity of the Clear (so to speak) accentuated the harmonic textures and the dynamic responsiveness in their interplay. "This is what the hobby’s about," I wrote in my notes. I didn’t want it to end.
When I swapped out the GM Mono Mk.II SPU for an Ortofon Cadenza Black Mono cartridge (0.45mV) and used the Herron’s moving-coil inputs, the sound with combo jazz got even fatter. With the title cut of Lester Swings (Verve VE-2-2516), the Clear produced an even bigger, sweeter, more emphatic midrange, particularly with Young’s sashaying tenor. The drum kit was punchier and less rounded, the beat clearer and more precise, the piano more vibrant with color and harmonics than with the Ortofon stock cable. A certain raggedness of sound, particularly on top, that dogged the Clear in the first 50 hours or so of break-in melted away and the sound focused and clarified, though the Clear maintained a tonal character that handled the audioband with greatest emphasis and subtlety in the midrange.
The Clear was even more impressive with stereo LPs -- its abilities to render soundstage depth, layering, and images were all the more evident. Also, the switch to stereo revealed the cable’s finer capabilities with detail: inner nuances of timbre and texture within groups of instruments, the microdynamics of performance, and a quality I’ll call "palpability," for lack of more wit.
With stereo, the Clear proved generous in midrange and just so slightly emphatic in the upper bass. This was particularly evident with chamber-music recordings, such as my LP of Brahms’ String Sextet, Op.18 in B-flat, performed by the Cleveland Quartet with violist Pinchas Zuckerman and cellist Bernard Greenhouse (RCA Red Seal ARL2-4054): The Clear produced a big bottom and thumping cellos in lusciously vibrant pizzicato passages. But the cable’s speed and clarity gave so much to the interplay of the instruments, the dynamic swells of performance, and the musicians’ responsiveness to each other, that everything seemed to happen within the realm of the real. The effect was thrilling.
These traits carried over to large-scale orchestral works. I played Beethoven’s Symphony No.6, performed by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter (Odyssey Stereo Y 33924). Throughout the first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, there was a loveliness across the audioband that captured the richness of the orchestra -- fullness in the violas and cellos, delicacy in the violins, rich and sweet woodwinds, and fulsome bass viols. And scaling was very good as this movement’s crescendi built. Tuttis were not quite as open as I’m used to with the Tri-Planar arm and Zyx Airy 3 cartridge, but, after all, I was now using an Ortofon Anniversary SPU cartridge with an elliptical stylus, which lives for the mids but not especially for sophisticated highs. The Clear’s excellent timing rendered Beethoven’s sensuous painting of dynamic and timbral contrasts with fine tonal colors and superb microdetail. I especially enjoyed hearing the textures of midrange and bass strings against the delicacy of violins. The minute shifts in the timbres of violins and flutes were particularly exquisite.
But it was with well-recorded rock and jazz that the Clear sounded especially good. When I played Roy Orbison’s "Blue Bayou," sung by Linda Rondstadt on her Simple Dreams, from 1977 (Asylum 6E-107), the tremolo in her alto range was luscious and full of dulcet nuance, and her bravura high notes and shimmering soprano yodeling at the coda were startlingly clear, sweet, and open. Detail was such that the kick drum was punchy and full of depth, while the timbre of the floor tom evolved and changed in time with the pace of the music. Each instrumental entrance -- Fender Rhodes piano, pedal steel guitar, strummed rhythm guitar, solo lead electric guitar, acoustic marimbas -- had its own clear moment of sweetness and space against a black curtain of quiet, until the rhythmic tide and harmonic current of the entire ensemble joined back in an organic flow.
However, at first I thought guitars and especially raucous singers could still sound a just a touch hot. I listened to both "Bad Moon Rising" and the title cut from Green River (Fantasy Stereo F-2745), Creedence Clearwater Revival’s third LP, at different stages of burn-in. With about 70 hours on the cable, John Fogerty’s raunchy voice and funky Rickenbacker electric guitar both sounded somewhat overdriven. But at 120 hours or so, what I heard was the real flavor of electronically added reverb -- that grungy and slightly echoing sound, likely dialed in by the engineer and Fogerty together, and so lovingly reminiscent of Sun Studios recordings from the 1950s.
The Clear’s agility with electric guitar was confirmed when I played "Presence of the Lord," from rock supergroup Blind Faith’s eponymous and only LP (Atco SD-33-304). Eric Clapton’s guitar solo (a Gibson ES-335?) had all the controlled distortion and bite, and a crisp and squawky wah-wah, that any member of the Church of Late Reform Psychedelic Rock could want. Clapton’s screaming highs -- the ones that likely inspired the first air guitars in dorm rooms countrywide -- never entirely lost tonal focus and stayed within the harmonic structure and boundaries of the song, an electric hymn to Clapton’s newfound faith in a Creator. As intense as this solo is, it maintains its native character of plaintiveness throughout, and the Clear let the supplicant personality of the music pass through only a shadow of ’60s electronic excess.
The title track of Someday My Prince Will Come, by the Miles Davis Quintet (Columbia Jazz Masterpieces C 40947), completely blew me away. My notes begin with a long "Ohhhhhh!" of uncool, unregenerate surrender. Davis’s muted trumpet, which can sometimes sound piercing, had a beautiful tone and extraordinary detail in the microshifts of timbre, reflecting all the nuances of his solo. In the theme statement, Davis’s trumpet had a perfect shade of sharpness, and I felt the notes billowing out as they left the bell. I could hear how he exploded into the notes on attack, then let them stay in aching developments and trail into the briefest decay before hitting the next note. In the background, Philly Joe Jones’ brushwork was very fine and damped on the snare, but his stickwork on the ride cymbal had a radiating, brassy flare before he came down on the hi-hat with definitive, percussive chomps on the beat. And the clarity of the Clear made it easy to distinguish between the tenor solos of Hank Mobley and John Coltrane. In terms of timbre, Mobley’s style was more straightforward and bluesy, without as much bite. But when Trane entered with his characteristically aggressive attack, then played smoothly through the notes until he initiated the rapid runs that are his signature, punctuated by syncopated stressed quarter-notes held for accent and vibrancy, I was completely captivated by this music’s big, robust sound. The Clear threw off a generous soundstage slightly wider than my speakers, and seemed to place me in a center-row seat just off the bandstand.
Cardas has a winner in the Clear phono cable. With most LPs, mono or stereo, and with three different cartridges, I found the Clear’s dominant trait to be a gorgeous clarity -- the cable completely deserves its name. Its instrumental timbres were gloriously detailed yet rich in tone. It possessed fine organic flow, extremely low noise, and rendered attack transients with flair, midrange bloom with capacious ambience and tonal articulation, and decays with delicate aplomb. Its slightly forward upper midrange, touch of warmth, and occasional emphasis of the upper bass with some discs merely mean that it is not perfectly neutral. Finally, it was just so pliant and easy to use, and terminated with high-quality Cardas RCA (or XLR) jacks that fit snugly and seem durable. If you’re looking for a phono cable that, for its relatively premium expense, gives you an advanced cable design, a fabulous richness of musical performance, and top-quality parts, I highly recommend you hear the Cardas Clear.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Digital sources -- Cary 303/300 CD player, Apple iMac with Wavestream U-24 DAC
- Analog sources -- TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable; Ortofon RS-309D tonearm with Ortofon SPU Mono GM Mk.II (3.0mV), Ortofon Cadenza Mono (0.45mV), and Ortofon Anniversary SPU (0.6mV) cartridges; Tri-Planar Mk.VII Ultimate II tonearm with Zyx Airy 3 cartridge (0.24mV)
- Preamplifiers -- deHavilland Mercury 3, VAC Renaissance Mk.3 with phono stage, Herron VTPH-2 phono stage
- Power amplifiers -- Herron M1 monoblocks, deHavilland KE50A monoblocks
- Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR5 HSE
- Speaker cables -- Verbatim Cable with jumpers, Cardas Clear Beyond biwire
- Interconnects -- Verbatim Cable (RCA), Auditorium 23 (RCA), Audience Maestro (RCA), Cardas Clear (RCA and XLR)
- Power cords -- Fusion Audio Predator and Impulse, Harmonix XDC Studio Master, Thor Red, Cardas Golden Reference
- Power conditioner -- Balanced Power Technology Clean Power Center, Isoclean 104 II power strip
Cardas Clear Phono Cable
Price: $1176 USD for 1.25m cable.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Cardas Audio, Ltd.
480 11th Street SE
Bandon, OR 97411
Phone: (541) 347-2484
Fax: (541) 347-2301