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Positive Feedback ISSUE 6
april/may 2003



Replacement headphone cable

as reviewed by John Brazier






Sennheiser HD 600 headphones.

EarMax Tube OTL headphone amplifier.

Rega Planet (transport only), Perpetual Technologies P1A Digital Correction Engine and a Perpetual Technologies P3A Upsampling DAC (both with IS2).

Acoustic Zen Silver Phantom digital cable and Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference interconnects.


My day usually begins around 5AM. This is this time I surf the net, write, balance the checkbook, and most importantly, listen to music. Unless I intend to raise the ire of my sleeping beauty, it is not an ideal time to power up the primary living room system for a full frontal assault. It is, however, a perfect time to set the tubes of my Earmax headphone amp aglow and position the Sennheiser HD-600s atop my head. I began listening via headphones about two years ago as a stopgap between "real" listening sessions on the main setup, or perhaps another window to listen through when I felt so motivated. Despite this, the headphone setup has become my primary source, and it has therefore become quite sophisticated, employing an upsampling DAC and digital correction engine, all joined with Acoustic Zen cabling.

My headphone setup is now more pleasing to me than my main two-channel setup, in almost every way. It is rich in detail, dynamic, and harmonically accurate. Once I was able to appreciate a soundstage that is encapsulated in my head versus one that is between me and a pair of speakers, the imagery was both holographic and convincing. It took a while for this mindset to sink in, but headphone setups are every bit as susceptible to tweaking and upgrades as any audiophile setup. I had assumed that, given the lower cost and sophistication of headphones, my ability to manipulate my headphone system’s sound would be limited. Of course, I was wrong. I now feel that because of the intimate nature of headphones, minor changes in the signal path are more easily appreciated. For me it was the amp first, then the DAC, then the digital cable, then, finally, power conditioning, but only until the Cardas Headphone Cable replacement became available.

I can recall one of my first thoughts regarding my headphones’ stock cord: "Man, this cord seems wholly inadequate." It wasn’t much more than zip cord. When I looked into it, I found to my surprise that there was only one replacement cable available. Opinions on this cable were all over the board, yet everyone complained of stiffness. Given the mobile yet tethered nature of headphones, one requires a certain amount of mobility to use them, so I couldn’t get too excited about a cumbersome cable, not to mention one with only a lukewarm reception from those in the know. About a year ago, I began to hear rumblings that George Cardas would be offering a replacement cable for the HD600 (and 580), and it became available some eight months ago.

The cable is bit longer then the stock cable and at least twice as thick. It is not as flexible as the stock cord, but this has not in any way hindered my mobility or comfort. Connection to the amp is via a high-quality plug, though at the headphone end Cardas was limited to using the same plug as the stock cable. Initially, there were some complaints that the headphone-end connections had a tendency to come out at the slightest tug, but I understand the problem has been rectified, and I have not experienced this problem.

The fact that the sheathing is light blue has fostered heated debate about its aesthetic appeal, and has lead to the cable being dubbed the "Smurf" cable. Some ridicule the color for the way it draws attention to itself, while others see it as a unique, cool, badge-of-honor thing. I fall in the latter group. Since the introduction of these cables, headphoners have been snatching them up as quickly as they could get them, which indicates that a good-quality cable replacement/upgrade was long overdue. As a matter of fact, at least two other manufacturers are grasping for market share with their own replacement cables, and Cardas has come out with a second edition.

It took all of two minutes to pop out the old cable and pop in the new. I love all music except for popular country, so whatever the subject of my review, it will have the full gamut of music genres and styles thrown at it. Not knowing what to expect or what the burn-in period of the Smurf cable was like, I dropped in Johnny Cash’s Unchained (popular, but not "popular country") and hit Play. Everything was immediately different. I was amazed at what I was hearing. I guess, considering the apparent low quality of the stock cables, it really should not have surprised me that much, but that is neither here nor there because my stock cable will never again see the light of day.

Two major areas of improvement jumped out at me: (1) the depth of the bass, and (2) the presence of air that was not there prior to the installation of the Cardas. Cash’s voice can hit the lowest of lows, and honestly, before I used the Smurf cable I was content with the bass performance of my setup. I now think that this was a case of ignorant bliss. Every alteration I had made to my setup had increased and bettered the bass performance until I reached the point of complete satisfaction, yet with the Cardas cable, the bass sounded still deeper. And better. There was that extra iota of control that was not there the day before. This newfound bass presence extended right up in to the midbass. Vocals became somewhat throatier—not unbalanced or exaggerated, but more authentic. Next up, Kruder & Dorfmeister’s K&D Sessions. This disc is fraught with great, vibrant bass. Before hearing it with the Cardas cable, I did not think that one could "feel" the bass with a pair of headphones, and this is certainly true in the traditional sense, yet I feel more vibrant and sinewy bass now that I have the Cardas. I did not get the Cardas to improve bass performance, but the fact that it has done so is all the better.

Like so many millions before me, I too have snatched up the Norah Jones Come Away With Me CD. To me, she has an unmistakable Eva Cassidy quality to her voice. It is warm and smooth, with a hint of desperation, and it evokes imagery of a small nightclub filled with fixated listeners. This comes from the "small night club" nuances embedded in the acoustics of the recording—the airiness of the surroundings, if you will. I’ll be the first to admit that the digital age in music technology has left the sound a touch cold and impersonal, but I am not willing to throw out the baby with the bath water, I love CDs and will strive to make them sound better before I do something as crazy as go all vinyl! Lest I digress any further, my point is that the Cardas has captured an element of air within the venue.

Another fantastic recording that has been wonderfully communicated by the Cardas cable is Directions in Music: Celebrating Miles Davies & John Coltrane, by Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, and Roy Hargrove. Released in 2002, it was recorded live at Massey Hall in Toronto. As a live recording, it is a bit stealthy. You don’t hear much audience participation or reaction in the background. However, with the Cardas cable, there is an unmistakable and appetizing live recording underneath the performances. The Smurf cable truly captures that unidentifiable element of live-ness, one that is extremely difficult to capture on a recording. The Cardas replacement cable is unquestionably better than the stock cable from Sennheiser in every respect.

If I dig deep, though, I can find a quibble or two. One is that the Cardas cable may exacerbate the warmth of an already warm-sounding setup, a quality that some may be attempting to mitigate. I found that the Cardas fit in nicely between the tubes of the Earmax and the digital edge of my DAC. During my recent review of the Cary 308-T CD player, I tended to shy away from its overly lush presentation. Would a different headphone cable have made a difference? Dunno. The more likely culprit was the combination of the tube output of the Cary and the tube output of the Earmax, but given that any high-quality cable, headphone or otherwise, has the ability to influence the music, it is possible. So, as usual, give a listen for yourself. I predict you will run out and get a Cardas Cable for your headphones. John Brazier




Retail: $149

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