HeadRoom/Cardas Fat Pipe headphone cables

When Audio Advisor's Wayne Schuurman contacted me about reviewing the Vincent Audio KHV-1pre headphone amplifier, I felt confident that I had everything I needed to handle the task, owning, as I do, both the AKG K701 and Sennheiser HD-650 headphones, which have long been my references. That oughta get 'er done, I thought.

Then I got a phone call from HeadRoom's Tyll Hertsens. "Dude! You have got to hear the rewiring job we've done on the '701s. We hardwire a four-conductor Cardas cable directly to the drivers, eliminating at least two solder joints—then we put a Cardas ¼" plug on the end. Un-freaking-believable!"

I already considered the '701s pretty special, so I was skeptical about the level of improvement. I dithered. "What's it cost?"

"It is kind of labor-intensive for us, since we have to disassemble the headphones, hard-solder the tinned leads directly to the terminal blocks. It works out to $322 for a 10' set." (It's also $285 for a 5' set terminated to an 1/8" miniplug, if you want to use your '701s with a portable.)

While I pondered this, Hertsens explained that he'd been inspired to open up his '701s by the improvement brought about by HeadRoom's Cardas-cable upgrades for the Sennheiser HD-580, HD-600, and HD-650 headphones ($185 for 4' with miniplug or $222 for 10' with ¼" plug), all of which use a standard Sennheiser connector at the earcup. "The simplicity of replacing the cable makes it possible for people to quickly compare the stock cable and the Cardas cable," he continued. "Pretty much everybody prefers the Cardas. You don't get that ability to quickly compare the AKG—unless you attend one of the HeadRoom road shows we do all around the country." Then he sprang the trap. "Of course, I can send you a pair of '650s with the Cardas and '701s with the Fat Pipe, and you could compare them to your stock sets." Oh, Tyll Hertsens, do lead me into temptation. And the original sample of the Vincent KHV-1pre would be the perfect testing device for this singular comparison: it has two headphone jacks and a huge amount of testicular fortitude.

But . . . I didn't really want to hear un-freaking-believable differences between my stock cables and sets that I'd have to shell out extra for—besides, with minor cavils, I liked the sound of my '650s and '701s. Un-freaking-believable differences would make them sound, well, different. I realize that such grumpiness is inconsistent with the audiophile creed of Different is better. Sometimes I just want things to stay the same.

Here's what the cables have in common: They are four-conductor wires, built to Cardas's Constant-Q, Golden Ratio configuration, inside and covered with a shield. Both terminate in a hefty Cardas plug with stress-relief wrap. Because standard headphone jacks use a shared ground, the Cardas plug is designed to reduce crosstalk.

The Sennheiser cables are hardwired to custom-built Sennheiser connectors that grip the Sennheiser jacks more firmly than Sennheiser's stock plugs. (My biggest beef with the HD-580s, '600s, and '650s is how that connector loosens as time goes by and you repeatedly toss your cans in your go-bag for monitoring recordings. Problem solved—I think.) The Fat Pipe needs to be hardwired to your '701s by HeadRoom's techs.

My worry that the Cardases would turn either of my fave headphone into something else proved unfounded. The AKGs sounded warmer and punchier, with extra detail throughout their response range. Extra detail isn't code for too much, but an attempt to explain why I heard more air within soundstages, and why those soundstage grew slightly more voluminous. This may well be attributable to that crosstalk-reducing plug—in my experience, quieter usually translates to more detail and space. The bass response was more solid, and extremely tight.

Simone Dinnerstein's recent recording of keyboard works by J.S. Bach, The Berlin Concert (CD, Telarc CD-80715), was clangier through the Fat Pipe. The acoustic of the Berlin Philharmonie sounded not larger, but more convincingly large. Dinnerstein's percussive technique sounded sharper, the leading transients of her notes crisper, faster, more athletic. And man, the Fat Pipe gave that Hamburg Steinway a super bottom end.

In other words, the Cardas Fat Pipe did nothing bad to the qualities I liked in the AKG 701s, and made very subtle but noticeable improvements in those areas where I felt they could use them.

The Cardas opened up the top end of the Sennheiser models. I can't say it actually extended their HF response, but it gave them some of that sparkle I'd grown to think they needed. That added clarity to all recordings, and expanded the soundstages of those that had any. Another benefit of that Cardas plug? Can't be sure—but that's my guess.

With "The Colors of Chloë," from the Gary Burton Quintet's Ring (CD, ECM 1051), the stock Sennheisers had a slightly more closed-in sound that made it harder to distinguish any given note of Mick Goodrick's guitar from any single note of Pat Metheny's. Following the lines of the two guitarists was easy enough, but individual notes seemed buried deeper in the mix than with the Cardas. What was revelatory, however, was the way Burton's vibraphones cut through the arrangement with the Cardas. The leading edges of his mallet strokes were crisper, and the harmonic overtones were more integrated with the fundamentals.

These are subtle differences. I could be very happy—was very happy—with the stock cables, but now that I've heard the differences, I may not be able to be. This is the problem with being an audiophile: There's always something better, and it usually costs money. People who are happy with good enough aren't attracted to this hobby.

Are the differences too subtle to justify $300? Only you can answer that. Probably, if you're really happy with the sound you're getting from your AKG K701s or the top Sennheisers. But—and this is a BIG but—if you rely on your Sennheisers and AKGs to extract from a recording every damn thing on it, and/or if you won't be satisfied with even a close second, it's not an unreasonably costly upgrade. Of course, that doesn't mean it can be taken lightly: If I can afford to have only one of my two favorite cans upgraded, which do I choose?

But that's my problem. Your problem, assuming you're brash enough to experience the difference HeadRoom's cable upgrades can make, will simply be, Should I?

Sure you should.

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