Review: Cardas Reference Series Golden & Neutral Ref, Golden Pres. Interconnect

Category: Cables

CARDAS: A Tale of 3 Reference Interconnects: Golden Reference, Golden Presence and Neutral Reference.

Cardas is certainly one of the most established cable companies in the industry. They are meticulously constructed. Cardas painstakingly terminates their cables in a time-consuming fashion with special solders, to optimize signal integrity and to seal out all air, for both sonics, and so the copper never oxidizes. Cardas does not feel silver is able to bring the musical results that copper does.

Cardas elicites strong opinions. People love or dislike them. After having them, I am baffled by any criticisms that some make of their cable, particularly the Reference line, for it is outstanding cable.

The Reference line began with the Neutral Reference, the least expensive of the line. George Cardas developed this cable for the needs of the recording industry that required a neutral cable that would sound the same in long or short runs, with the needs of long runs in studios in mind.

Unfortunately, due to the terminations on the Cardas speaker cable, I was unable to connect it to my speakers, so this review will be limited to the interconnects.

But let me start with the Golden Reference, Cardas' flagship cable. After having had the Straight Wire Crescendo in my system on loan, I thought I would never find a cable that would blow me away as it did. That was, until the Cardas.

I regret that I was unable to make a comparison between the two, but the Crescendo was on loan, and it has been some time, so consider my attempts at comparing the two as based on memory.

All the Reference series has some things in common. A big soundstage that is spread out in width and depth, pin point imaging, focus, and a full-bodied sound. It is eminently musical.

The Golden Reference has a powerful bass, similar to the Crescendo, that lets you know it is no wimpy cable. The bass is not overdone, as a few misguided writers have wrote. It is certainly the antithetis to the anemic, poor excuse for a bass that some cables give. Why anyone would want that sort of sound is beyond my comprehension.

It should be said here that I found the Golden Presence to have a very similar sound to the Golden Reference, as well it should since the construction is identical except for less shielding, I believe. Both cables present a big, bold sound, but I found the Golden Presence to sound even more wide open than the Golden Ref. Vocal focus on both Goldens is exceptional. Diana Krall (on Devil May Care, I've Got you Under My Skin, Let's Face the Music and Dance) has never sounded better. Every vocal nuance is there and lines up perfectly. The integration of her vocal chords, chest sound and resonance, consonants, including the s's and z's is sheer perfection. The whole vocal production flows as one, perfectly synched, natural voice. This is hard to find in cables, and is an acid test that separates cable that is able to keep the signal and its timing intact, and the cable that alters the signal.

The treble has a natural, complete characteristic that is neither accentuating sibilants, nor blunting them. So, if your recording is decent, you'll get good sound. If the recording sucks, don't expect the cable to cover it. Buy Golden Cross if you need to romanticize the sound (I haven't heard it, but that's the word on the street). But then Golden Cross has been criticized by the Cardas haters as being a highly colored cable lacking extension and ultimate detail.

The integration of bass to midrange to treble in the Cardas Reference line is among the best I have heard. The Audioquest Diamond cable I use for comparison to hear detail loss in other cable. The Diamond shows a slight improvement in revealing very small and distant detail, but at the expense of a thinner, more clinical sound and a smaller stage.

The Tara Master Gen II is an older cable that I keep because of its incredible midrange purity. It may have the slightest edge in some aspects of vocals, but overall I would take either the Golden Ref or Golden Presence as superior in overall midrange sound. The differences I'm speaking of are quite small, and only hearable through a system and recordings of highest quality. The Tara bass sounds somewhat lighter and cannot compete with the Cardas.

As I remember the Straight Wire Crescendo, it had some amazing qualities, but I do not think it was as well-integrated, top to bottom, as the Cardas. The bass was perhaps a bit more powerful than reality, and the midrange did not snap quite into the fine focus of the Cardas, nor did the midrange sound as natural. Still, I remember the Crescendo knocking me over, and I am speaking from memory, so take that into consideration. Perhaps I will get to borrow the Crescendo again. It is much more expensive than the Cardas, and much thicker and hard to work with.

The Kimber Select never pressed my buttons, and I never found it to have the coherency or musicality its many lovers do.

The Acoustic Zen Matrix II is long gone, so anything I would say would be inaccurate, as it was never in the present system I own. I did, however, find the Matrix to have a certain character of its own and never was quite satisfied with it.

The Golden Reference has a slightly more powerful bass than the Golden Presence, which is next down the line, but the Presence has an edge in airiness and an even bigger soundstage than the Reference. This was a shock to me. No one reviews the Golden Presence. This is the real sleeper in this lineup, and a true gem.

The Neutral Reference is a great cable, but when comparing it to the other References, it has a weaker bass, a somewhat less expansive soundstage, and vocals do not have quite the same focus, detail and life, though many of the qualities of its more expensive siblings are there.

In my system, and in my analysis, I feel the Golden Presence is the best choice, though a mix of the Presence and the Gold Ref gives an interesting result as well, just slightly different. Which is better is probably system dependent as well.

I did not find the Cardas needed the hundreds of hours that may claim it does. If after time passes I find the cable has improved, I will report on it. Nor did I find any sonic degradation if you switched cable in and out, or moved the cable, as Cardas and others claim. I did countless comparisons, and found the cables to sound virtually the same before and after insertions.

The Cardas RCA jacks are the same on the Golden Ref and Golden Presence, and are of beautiful finish and fit very well on equipment. The Neutral Reference has a slightly less expensive RCA that looks very similar, but it does not have the ultimate feel or grip on the jacks the more expensive RCA's do.

Listening was done on Dali Helicon 800 Mk II's, Pass X250.5, CJ Premier 140, CJ CT5, Aesthetix Calypso, Cullen Stage 4 PS DLC DAC, Marantz SA-11S2 as transport, and Audioquest MontBlanc biwire speaker cables.

Primarily, Large Jazz ensembles, and smaller jazz groups were used, along with vocalists from the present (Diana Krall), older Harry Connick, and the vocal greats like Sinatra, Ella, etc.

I encourage you to listen to the Cardas cable if you get the opportunity and see what you think. It is now the interconnect of choice for me, and my system is sounding the best that is has.

Musicality, coherence, weight, dynamics, midrange purity, soundstaging, detailing....that describes the Golden Reference and Golden Presence. The top to bottom coherence is the best I have yet heard in any cable. Cardas may not change their line as often as other cable companies, but who really cares when they apparently have it right? Outstanding cables.

Associated gear
Conrad Johnson Premier 140, Pass Labs X250.5, Conrad Johnson CT5, Aesthetix Calypso, Cullen Stage 4 DLC DAC, Marantz SA-11S2, Audioquest Mont Blanc speaker cable.

Similar products
Straight Wire Crescendo
Acoustic Zen Matrix II
Tara Labs Master Gen II
Kimber Select 1011
Audioquest Diamond X3
Nice report! Have you had a chance to hear Analysis Plus Crystal One IC? What do you think of it?
Nice write-up. Have you heard the Kimber Select KS-1121/26 or KS-1130/36?

I think they would change your opinion of Kimber Select. The KS-1011 is a warm copper cable and the silver/copper of the KS-1021/26 or silver of the KS-1130/36 is in a different league all together. I've heard all of them.
I use the NR all the way around. Some day I may upgrade to the GR.
Great to see some positive Cardas print. I have a complete Golden Reference system and don't know that I will ever change. Not sure what would be an improvement in the same price range. And the Cardas folks are great to work with.
Colleen and Darla are always pleasant and willing to get the answers you need. Ironically they use a seashell for their logo but they are the best in a nutshell in my opinion.
To respond to each of you:

No, I have not heard the Analysis Plus, sorry.

Nick, I have not heard the Kimber Silver Select. It is very pricey. But since it is the same design configuration as the copper Select, I would think it sounds similar, just more detailed (and, perhaps thinner and brighter). I just didn't find the sound congealed in the Select 1011, and I heard an aggressiveness in the upper midrange I didn't like. But that's just my opinion, and many people love it.

Slikric, you've still got a good cable with the NR. You might try one GR and find a substantial improvement. You can try it first on your source, then between pre and power. You may find it offers more improvement on the source, or the other way around, on the power amp.

Theo, thanks for the compliment. People seem to be more impressed with the latest techno fad in cable, and it influences what they think they hear. There is nothing wrong with a company sticking to a design they have spent years developing and refining. Take my Tara Master Gen II. This is like 8 years old or more. Yet, it runs rings around many newer cables, especially in the midrange and openness areas.

Yes, the Cardas is better. It has more weight, better bass, sounds more coherent.

Herein lies the problem: the design is more than 2 years old, so audiphiles figure it is dated and they should move to the latest cable in vogue at the time. Cable design has improved, in some cases, but in others, all the parts don't come together to make an overall, seamless and musical experience. That's what I look for now in my mature audio years, and I know when I hear it.
After reading your review I borrowed the Golden R and Golden Presence from my dealer. I agree with you that the Presence has much of the sound of the Golden R. I think I'll save myself the money and go with the Presence. It really sounds awesome.
It's amazing what my Dali's reveal. I swapped out cables again last night, and as soon as the Golden Presence and Golden Reference were replaced with other IC's, vocalists lost their body and their focus, the midrange became much less coherent, and I just lost interest in listening. The bass as well really lost its naturalness and its weight. The high end became thinner and brighter, or had less focus, depending on the cables I used. Grain and texture entered the picture as well. The more I listen to the Cardas, the more I am impressed.
I went ahead and bought the Golden presence. They sound amazing in my system and smoke my old cables away and this is with probably 20 hours on them only. Thanks for your review and happy listening.
I must give an update. The Golden Reference and Golden Presence I was using were on loan. It turns out the G. Presence was broken in, where the G. Ref was barely played. Having now purchased pairs of both cables, I just hooked them up, I do not find the soundstage more open or larger with the G. Presence, as I stated in my review above.

I need to break the cables in before making a meaningful comparison between these two models. My initial impresssion, which is not very meaningful on new cable, is that the G. Ref. is even more refined in the high end, though both models are quite similar in sound. Cardas states on their website that the G. Presence is basically the same design as the G. Ref. with addiional shielding.

The G. Ref. is somewhat superior at this point, but both models are very similar in most respects.

Cardas says on their packaging that initially there will be some glare and lack of coherency. I will report back when I have burned all cables in, and give my findings.
Zear, any new updates??
Hey, Zear, after having the Golden Presence for 10 months, I'll have to say that over time the sound improved even further. It opened up more, and became very liquid and seamless., I had several audio friends bring over Nordost, Tara, Audioquest, Wire World and I found all of them to have their own sound, and none of them were competition for the Cardas. Not even close. I know now what you mean about the Cardas having an integrated sound where nothing sticks out or draw attention to itself. At the same time it is detailed and spreads out a nice soundstage.

I have no interest in participating in the neurotic quest for new cable that my friends keep doing. Cables have evolved over the years but these improvements and discoveries have reached a point of diminishing returns. That is probably why companies like Cardas have designs that stand the test of time and don't need tweaking or design changes every year or two. I'm very happy with my choice, so thanks for the review that lead me to this cable.

I have exchanged emails with a others regarding the Golden Presence and they feel exactly the same way as you indicate in your review. Great job!
For those of you Golden Reference owners: Cardas has a new termination for their speaker cables based on die forging. I recently had my cables reterminated and the improvement was not subtle, especially given the $450 cost.
I haven't looked at additional comments to my review for 7 months, sorry. Yes, the Cardas Golden Presence and Golden Reference do continue to open up and sound even better with more time on them. As a couple of guys indicate here, the Golden Presence sounds wonderful, and it amazes me how people are willing to buy the Neutral Reference (which is nowhere in the same league), and overlook the used Golden Presence.

The Golden Reference will still give you more impact in the bass, and slightly more detail, but they are very close, and both will please almost equally.
I just received Cardas Clear interconnects. They blew me away. They have the beauty of the Golden Reference and the transparency of the Neutral Reference. This cable is the real deal. The best I have heard and I heard many.
I made a mistake they have the beauty of Golden Cross and the clarity of Golden Reference.
I need to decide between cardas golden reference 4m IC and kimber select 1116. I have heard the kimber in my system and although I liked its dynamics, speed and transparency, I found the overall sound a bit harsh and not coherent. I have not heard the cardas in my system. Any advice anyone?
All you Cardas fans, some time back I was looking out for an interconnect upgrade. My target was the Golden Reference. I was doing a lot of reading on Golden ref those days. Incidentally I found an IC called Fusion Audio Romance to which quite a few Cardas Golden Ref owners had upgraded to. Few of them actually declared it as their last IC upgrade. According to them, Fusion does everything that Cardas does but without any of their weaknesses.

Based on these feedback I bought the Fusion Romance IC1. I have never heard a Golden Ref but the Fusion IC is in one word stunning. The best part of this IC is the tone. It has such realistic tone and body, you feel like hearing the whole instrument instead of just the pluck. Fortunately this IC is not the typical slow, thick bloomy types. It is fast, smooth, clean and open. To me this is a keeper.

I would suggest you cardas fans to check out this IC.