Listening #39

One should be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.—F. Scott Fitzgerald

During the years I've written about home audio, there have been one or two seasons when my heart just wasn't in it. This isn't one of them.

I can't remember the last time I was this enthused about tinkering with and listening to my music system. Maybe it's because I had an unusually good summer—my daughter and I attended more bluegrass music festivals than the year before—so for once I'm trudging away from the sunnier months a fully satisfied customer. It might also be because winter turned nasty somewhat early this year, encouraging me not to stray too far from the newly installed fireplace in my living room—or my largely tube-driven hi-fi.

All that enthusiasm won't go to waste. For one thing, I'll emerge from the other side of winter with two, rather than one, very good domestic audio systems: That fireplace really was the keystone of a living room full of unpacked cartons and untapped potential—potentially good corners for the potentially big horns I'll be constructing by the time you read this—and its completion will allow me to devote my spare energies to something more electric.

There are other projects pending besides the horns—like the 44-year-old Quad ESLs I recently bought on eBay, the refurbishing of which I'll detail here unless enough readers say no now. And there's lots of good ol'-fashioned tweaking to do—a favorite indoor pastime of audiophiles everywhere, and just the right box of Rid-X to eat through any large tank full of money.

I don't usually spare time for tweaking, simply because I don't have a lot of time to spare. Moreover, if you were to speak with all of the equipment suppliers who've visited my home, I know you'd find at least a few who were horrified by the general lack of cable risers, power purifiers, room treatments, and specially designed equipment supports in my listening room. Yet whenever I do tweak, I tend to enjoy myself, because I see it as an act of optimism rather than desperation: To tweak is to suggest that you always have the ability to makes things better, often through the simplest of means.

I have a code in my nose
Some day I'll look back on 2005 as the year when I found an accessory power cord that really does make an improvement I can hear, after I treated that notion with derision for the better part of my adult life. I was justified in my derision—for speaking out about all those differences I didn't hear, and also for reserving an extra measure of skepticism for cable marketers who each year unload on the public fantastic new audio-frequency cable designs, only to then suggest that they work equally well as AC power cords. I know I'm living in an age of miracles, but I still struggle with the notion of a product that's ideal for conducting a wide range of frequencies when used in one application, yet reshapes itself to the ideal of conducting only one frequency (60Hz) in another. Perhaps it's like those intelligent metal cones that seem to understand when they're supposed to act as couplers, as well as when they must act as decouplers.

But the Cardas Golden Reference power cord, which costs $561 for an 8' run and is now my favorite pricey tweak, isn't one of those. Like all Cardas cables, its design was motivated by George Cardas's belief in the relevance of the golden-section ratio to cable design; eg, ensuring that the mass of one strand in a bundle is precisely 1.618 times that of its nearest neighbor—just as the Almighty has ensured that the distance between the corners of Uma Thurman's mouth is precisely 1.618 times the distance between her lower lip and the tip of her nose, and that the distance from her toes to her navel is 1.618 times the distance from her navel to the top of her head. But beyond that, the configuration of conductors and insulators in the Golden Reference is specifically intended for domestic AC power applications.

Consider just one conductor group in the Golden Reference cord: It contains 119 high-purity copper strands in all, arranged in eight layers, with the proportional mass differential coming from the fact that the discrete strands in each successive layer are wound longer than the ones in the preceding layer: That's done in the interest of damping or muffling out-of-band information—which is to say, the unwanted harmonics of 60Hz.

At the core of the cable are three of those 119-strand bundles—one each for hot, neutral, and ground. Each is insulated with Teflon, then twisted together and wrapped with Teflon tape. Over this goes a braided copper shield—grounded at one end and floated at the other, per usual audio practice—that adds another round of physical damping. The whole thing is covered with a relatively flexible TPR jacket, but not before the ground conductor group has been fitted with a toroidal choke at one end. In all, it takes 33 passes through the winding machinery just to build up the cable portion of a single Golden Reference power cord.

I mentioned my fondness for Cardas's top-of-the-line AC cable once before, in my "Follow-Up" on the ">Ayre Acoustics AX-7e integrated amplifier (Stereophile, January 2006). Before then, I'd never encountered a single aftermarket AC cord that made a damn bit of audible difference, save for the JPS Labs Digital AC. (But only when the JPS was used with a digital source; it didn't improve the performance of amplifiers or the like.) But when Ayre's Steve Silberman sent me an updated sample of the AX-7e, he included a few samples of this top-of-the-line Cardas power cable, and curiosity got the better of me.

As I suggested, the Cardas Golden Reference made a consistently identifiable improvement in the sound of the relatively humble Ayre amp ($2950): Silences were silenter, sonic events were clearer, and the whole music-making shebang had an altogether more natural feel. Now I've had a chance to use the Cardas Golden References with other products in my system, and I'm impressed all to hell and back. Used to power my Lamm ML2.1 monoblock amplifiers, the Cardas cords did the same tricks as with the Ayre. Used to power my Quad ESL-989 electrostatic loudspeakers, the Cardases made their presence more well known. Deeply pitched strings, such as the double basses in the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony 5 with Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic (CD, Philips 289 462 905-2), had noticeably more thrumm and were easier to feel. My system's sense of scale and ultimate stage width also seemed to increase when I used the Cardas cords on my Quads, the players in the last rows of second violinists on one side and the double-bassists on the other appearing more spread out from one another.

With those Cardas cables in place, I then tried a third Golden Reference on the Linn Linto phono preamp I was using at the time—and my astonishment went up another notch. Musical feel—as in the tension in the opening of Beethoven's Symphony 4 under Pierre Monteux on an especially classy vinyl reissue (LP, RCA/Classic VICS-1102)—increased appreciably, as did the sense of musical flow and momentum in very simple music, such as the hypnotic Opening from Philip Glass's Glassworks (LP, CBS FM 37265).

You can bet I'm going to try them on those old Quad ESLs, too; as it stands now, I'd advise anyone who's considering buying a pair of current Quad ESL-989s to mentally add $1122 to their retail price (the speakers are a bargain, anyway): The Cardas Golden Reference power cords made enough of a performance difference to be considered virtually essential.

More relativity
In the early 1990s, when founder Julian Vereker was still alive and his company's image was edgier than it is today, Naim Audio went semipublic with a tweak dubbed the Hydra: They cut the plugs off the ends of all the AC power cords in a system—for the sake of argument, we'll say that system comprised a turntable power supply, a CD-player power supply, a preamplifier power supply, and a pair of monoblock amplifiers—then bundled all the cords together and screwed them to the terminals of a single plug. Hence the anti-intuitive name.

To understand why Naim did such a thing, pause to consider what an electrical ground really entails. A great many years ago, before math textbooks were rewritten to accommodate the poetry of Maya Angelou and before science textbooks had to pretend that carbon dating is a fringe theory, I learned that an electrical ground was a circuit's point of lowest potential, otherwise known as 0 volts. But that turned out to be wrong—not in a goofy liberal sense ("Ground means whatever you want it to mean"), but in the sense that a perfect absence of potential is often unavailable in the real world.