Cardas Golden Reference Interconnects ($917 for 1 meter) versus Nirvana S-X Interconnects ($1400 for 1 meter)

As are Nirvana's S-X in their lineup [left], the Golden Reference interconnects are Cardas' top offering. Nirvana's Steven Creamer had recommended that I use their S-X interconnect between the source and preamplifier, their S-L interconnect between the preamplifier and amplifiers. The Golden Reference interconnects were used in both positions. First up in the all-Cardas wired system was "Nashville Blues" from Circle. The differences between the Golden Reference and Nirvana S-X interconnects were of greater magnitude than between the digital interconnects but only slightly so. If the differences between the digital interconnects were 1/10th the differences between power cords, those between interconnects in the source-to-preamplifier position were 1/5th that. Still small differences, yes - but again audible.

The Cardas Golden Reference was more transparent than the Nirvana S-X, allowing more soundstage detail to emerge. Some of the low-level detail heard with the Golden Reference was missing with the Nirvana. Even though the recorded perspective between both interconnects was essentially the same, the Golden Reference was more resolving of the detail that both brands of interconnects recover - that's analogous to a higher level of detail for a given level of magnification with visual images. Many instruments contribute on "Nashville Blues". It proved easier to locate and follow their individual contributions with the Golden Reference. The Cardas placed them in their respective stage positions with more pronounced left-right separation. Soundstage width between the interconnects was essentially equivalent, but soundstage depth and layering greater with the Golden Reference. These layered images also had more palpability to produce a heightened sense of instrumental three-dimensional shapes. This sharper image focus and enhanced edge definition with the Golden Reference caused the 'spotlighting' effect so beloved by SET fans to be present in greater abundance. The range of dynamic contrasts in the pianissimo (soft) and mezzo (medium) range were greater too, the Nirvana S-X sounding somewhat compressed by comparison. This lent a more exciting and stimulating sense to the music, a greater sense of PRaT (pace, rhythm and timing). However, large-scale dynamic contrasts were similar between the two. Conversely, the Nirvana S-X was a little darker and softer in character than the more brightly lit and detailed Golden Reference. It was a little easier on the ears and more relaxing to listen to. The Golden Reference's down-side in my Duo-Fi-Vibe system? Its sonic prowess could actually become a bit of a distraction, seemingly overstimulating me to pull away from the musical message.

Cardas Golden Reference Interconnects ($917 for 1 meter) versus Nirvana S-L Interconnects ($750 for 1 meter)

Next up were the Nirvana S-L interconnects [right] versus the Cardas Golden Reference in the all-Cardas system. As mentioned earlier, I run the S-L between preamplifier and power amplifiers as per Nirvana's recommendation. I popped the superb jazz album Circle Waltz by the Don Friedman Trio [JVC XRCD2 VICJ 60258] into my Meridian transport. The differences between the Golden Reference and the Nirvana S-L in the 'copilot' position between Vibe and Fi were the same sort of greater detail, articulation, transparency and dynamics already heard with the Golden Reference and Nirvana S-X between source and preamplifier. However, the differences were considerably smaller in magnitude and required listening back and forth several times to reliably identify. This surprised me. I expected the differences to be larger. As far as magnitude, the differences were akin to what I heard with the digital interconnects - small.

Listening to Gillian Welch's and David Rawlings' "Revelator" on Time The Revelator [Acony ACNY 0103], I thought the Golden Reference and Nirvana S-L sounded remarkably similar. Again, only careful listening revealed the differences: The Golden Reference allowed the backing vocal on "Revelator" to emerge from the mix slightly better, unravelling the melody and rhythm lines to make them easier to follow. The Golden Reference also produced a little more 'air' around the instruments and more detail to the string sound of the guitars.

Cardas Golden Reference Speaker Cables ($2388 for 10 feet) versus Nirvana S-L Speaker Cables ($1620 for 10 feet)

Marie Barnett's beautiful gospel song "The Air I Breathe" from her eponymous album [Pacific Arts Group FTED 2007] was rendered nearly unlistenable through the Golden Reference speaker cables. They revealed every sonic wart and shortcoming of this recording's poor production values, rendering the music harsh, edgy, lifeless and annoying. Replacing the Cardas Golden Reference with the Nirvana S-L speaker cables didn't completely hide these sonic problems but restored enough of the musical balance to make the music edifying, engaging, inspiring and even beautiful to listen to. If Marie Barnett is a pure-hearted white-clad angel singing about the beauty of her love for God, then Lucinda Williams is a fire-engine-red tormented soul exorcising her anger at the Church's abuses in "Atonement" from World Without Tears [Lost Highway 0881703552].

On the better recorded "Atonement", the Nirvana S-L speaker cable [left] sounded warmer yet less resolved than the more detailed and leaner Golden Reference. The Cardas had a greater sense of air and space, allowing the recording to breathe in a way that served the music and allowed individual instruments to fully develop and emerge from the mix in a convincing and musical way. With the Nirvana, you were more drawn to the hard-driving bass and distortion-drenched guitar lines. The Nirvana was more rounded, less detailed and smoothed over rough edges in an attempt to save the music from the sound.

The Nirvana worked on "The Air I Breathe", but not as well as the Cardas on "Atonement" where the Nirvana's smoothing action actually robbed the better-recorded music of some of its emotiveness.

If you've never listened to Zoe Speaks' Pearl [Redbird Records RRCD2001], you've missed one terrific album! Described as "contemporary Appalachian music" on her website, the music blends exceptional singing with thought-provoking lyrics and is backed up by great playing on guitars, violins and all manner of other folk instruments. On "Appalachian Childhood Dreams", the Golden Reference and exceptional quality of the recording came across as detailed, nuanced and airy with plenty of space. The subtle harmonies of the duet were fully realized to make the musical experience emotive and beautiful. When the violin played, it produced a sweet and detailed tone. Interestingly, at the same volume setting, the Golden Reference sounded louder and more present than the Nirvana. The Nirvana too delivered maximum musical punch but still had that smoothing effect I noted earlier. Here it didn't affect the musical message one iota.

Cardas SE 9 Speaker Cables ($667 for 10 feet)

Brian also included a pair Cardas SE 9 wiring harnesses for my Avantgarde Duos, and a pair of Cardas SE 9 speaker cables as a value-oriented comparison. Cardas' literature says:

"SE cables are optimized for single-ended amplifiers and high-efficiency loudspeakers. They are Golden Ratio, concentric, asymmetrical coaxial cables. The smallest gauge size the speaker will permit should be used. SE cables do not have a high "Q" like conventional cables because efficient speakers do not demand it. They have dramatically low energy storage for their size, which makes them ideally suited for horns and other highly efficient speakers." The Golden Reference and SE 9 speaker cables [left] have a similar sonic profile. For the money, the SE 9 must be considered good value at 1/4 the cost of the Golden References. Take my descriptions of the Golden Reference and notch it down across the board. Presto, you have the SE 9: Lots of detail, with a vivid direct sound and extended frequency extremes. However, in my system, there was one profound difference between the sonic profiles of the Golden Reference versus the SE 9 speaker cables - bass response. There was lots more bass with the SE 9s. It's almost as if Cardas anticipated an inherently weaker bass response in SET-based systems and "goosed" up the LF range to compensate.

Based on most of the SET systems I've heard, that actually wouldn't be a bad assumption - the bass often tends to be MIA. Case in point: TAS reviewer Stephæn Harrell stopped by to quickly listen to my review pair of Harbeth Monitor 30s. During his visit, I had them hooked up with SE 9 to my usual reference front-end gear. The Monitors 30s have impressive bass for their size to begin with. With the SE 9 in the signal chain, it could sound overdone or as Stephæn said, "overblown". The match of SE 9 was more successful with the Duos where it is possible to dial in bass response with the sub modules' controls. There it actually sounded quite good. Not as good as the Golden Reference, mind you, but a good cable nonetheless, and one that would work well with LF-restricted speakers. It'll trick you into thinking that you have more bass extension than you actually do.

Cardas SE 9 ($279) Avantgarde Duo Wire Harnesses versus Nirvana Wire Harnesses (Custom $500)

The design of the Cardas/Nirvana wiring harnesses for the Avantgarde Duos are quite different but accomplish the same goal of connecting the amp to the three respective drive units. The Cardas wire harness connects in series from midrange to tweeter to woofers. The Nirvana wire harness is a custom pigtail affair built for me by Wavelength Audio guru Gordon Rankin. From the midrange horn, it drops one set of leads each to the tweeter and woofer modules. The wire harness is critical to the sound of the Duos because its subwoofers extend quite far up in frequency (circa 200Hz). The sound of the SE 9 compared to the Nirvana wiring harnesses proved consistent with what I have heard throughout the Cardas range: The Cardas is more detailed and emphasizes leading edges to give a more percussive and immediate sound. Conversely, the Nirvana is more rounded particularly on strings to sound more natural. It is tonally also more evenly balanced than the Cardas which tends to be a bit bass-heavy by comparison. At $279, the SE 9 jumpers are a stone cold bargain and a big improvement over the stock Avantgarde jumpers but no match for the Nirvana jumpers.