I've listened to quite a few cables in my own and other systems. It always amazes me that wire can have such a large influence on the overall sound. Some wire, such as the Naim & Chord wire that Naim recommends for use with all of their gear, is very system-dependent - you stray from Naim's recommendation at your own risk. Some wire seems to excel only with equipment from certain manufacturers and is a poor choice for other gear. Some wire seems to work well in a wide variety of applications. The choice of wire can often make or break a system's sonic and music-playing abilities. Thus I have come to view wire as a component in and of itself rather than simply a way to connect components. To offset the risk of buying expensive wire that is a poor match for my system, I usually contact manufacturers to get recommen-dations for use with their gear, borrow cables from friends to try, seek advice from wire services like the Cable Company or consult with a knowledgeable dealer. So far, that strategy has worked well for me in picking out cables that are a good match for my system. With that in mind, I was eager to try out the Cardas cables that Brian picked out for my reference system.

My current HiFi rig consists of a Meridian 508.20 CD player used as a transport feeding one of Jerry Ozment's excellent Audio Logic 2400 vacuum-tube DACs; a Tom Evans Design Vibe preamplifier; Don Garber's Fi 2A3 SET monoblocks; and Avantgarde Duo loudspeakers. I usually try to wire my whole system with cables from just one company as that approach has served me well in the past. However, I presently deviate slightly by using a Cardas Neutral Reference digital interconnect between the transport and DAC in my otherwise all Nirvana-wired system. I use Nirvana S-X interconnects between DAC and preamplifier, Nirvana S-L interconnects between preamplifier and amplifiers, Nirvana S-L speaker cables between amplifiers and speakers, and a custom Nirvana wiring harness made by Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio fame for my Duos to connect the midrange horn, then the tweeter horn and bass module in parallel [right].
During the review period, I also had review loaners of the Magnum Dynalab MD-90 Triode tuner and the Harbeth Monitor 30 loudspeakers in-house.

They too saw duty during the Cardas review. Initially, I removed all of my Nirvana wire and my Cardas Neutral Reference digital interconnect from my Duo-Fi-Vibe reference system and replaced it with the Cardas Lightning 15 digital interconnect, Golden Reference interconnects, Golden Reference speaker cables, and the SE 9 wiring harness to let them break in and settle down sonically.

I also used the Cardas Golden Reference interconnects & speaker cables, Lightning 15 and SE-9 speaker cables with the Harbeth Monitor 30 loudspeakers that I had in for review, and later tried the SE 9 and Golden Reference speaker cables in Stephæn Harrell's TAS system as an alternate reference.

I have never auditioned a cable set that took as long to break in and settle down as the Golden Reference. In fact, while listening by the light of 2A3 tubes in the dark of night, I noticed an ominous red '666' glowing on the cables' jackets. It took eight weeks for things to settle down and start sounding good and playing music well. One by one, each glowing red 6 was replaced with a softly glowing green 7 to finally signal the '777' of Divine completion at the end of the lengthy settling-in period. Be patient if you experience the same. Audio cables really do need to break in before you'll hear them at their best. My first impression of the unbroken-in Cardas cables were not positive: The melodic and rhythmic lines seemed disjointed and out of whack, screwing up the system's ability to make musical sense. The strings had a harsh, unnatural metallic tinge. There was so much detail evident that it was distracting me from the music. The nastiness disappeared after eight weeks of breaking in: Melody and rhythm lined up, the harsh metallic tinge on strings disappeared and the detail remained but now made musical sense. I only mention this break-in process because it could save you from getting overly anxious and worried should you experience something similar. Just hang in there and you too will be rewarded for your patience.

During the review process, I used the following methodology: I compared each piece of Cardas wire with its Nirvana counterpart in the all-Cardas cable system. I methodically switched out the digital interconnect, RCA interconnects, speaker cables and the Duo wiring harnesses to get an idea of how each piece contributed to the whole. Then I compared the all-Cardas system to the all-Nirvana system to get an idea of each cable system's house-sound differences. This is a lengthy and laborious way to review cables. However, since we were talking about premier products from both companies, I thought this the best and most appropriate way to get a handle on the magnitude of contributions the cables in their various positions within my system would make.

It is often said that the magnitude of difference cables will have on your system depends on where they are located. Digital connectors are said to have less effect on the sound than interconnects between source and preamplifier. Those are supposed to have less effect than interconnects between preamplifier and amplifiers, which are said to have less effect than speaker cables. You get the idea: Digital interconnects should have the least influence on sound quality, speaker cables the most. I wasn't sure if I believed that, but I thought I'd check out this theory in the context of this review. First up then is the Lightning 15 digital interconnect:

Cardas Lightning 15 Digital Cable ($266 for 1 meter) versus the Cardas Neutral Reference Digital Cable ($264 for 1 meter)

Digital designer Jerry Ozment told me that the differences in digital interconnects were minimal on his Audio Logic 2400 DAC. He recommended I buy a decent but not overly expensive digital interconnect to get excellent results. I followed his advice and chose the Cardas Neutral Reference, Cardas' cost-effective top-of-the-line digital cable. I otherwise would have purchased the more expensive Nirvana digital interconnect to maintain the one-brand approach that has served me well in the past. I've been happily using the Neutral Reference for several years now. I've tried a couple of other now-forgotten digital connectors (alas, not the Nirvana) and haven't found anything I liked better - or for that matter, anything that sounded particularly different. Given Jerry's comments on digital interconnects, I was curious what difference, if any, I would hear between the almost identically priced but technically different Neutral Reference and Lightning 15.

Cardas' web site explains that the Neutral Reference is their attempt at "a perfectly neutral reference" digital transmission cable, and that the Neutral Reference is the choice for AES/EBU and SPDIF applications by none other than famous mastering engineer Bernie Grundman at his mastering house in Los Angeles. When you look at the specifications for the two digital links, they have differing capacitance, number of conductors and cable gauge. Visually, they are different in color, size and choice of connectors. Before I checked into price and technical specifications for the review, I guessed that the Lightning 15 was the more expensive of the two. It has fancier connectors, chubbier girth and an overall fancier appearance. It looks like a visual clone of the Golden Cross interconnects I used to own, a pricey but great-sounding model within the Cardas line.

To begin the listening comparisons, I picked the CD version of Merle Haggard's Songs for the Momma that Tried. Many years ago, Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds told me that Momma was his favorite country-western album, so I bought a copy to check it out. Chad's right, it's a killer album but unfortunately has been out of print for many years. Fortunately, MCA Records reissued the album on CD, calling it What a Friend We Have in Jesus [MCAD 20787] due to its country-gospel theme. The lore behind this album states that Merle cut it as a present to his Mother on her 79th birthday to honor her and the religious beliefs that were so important to her. The music and performances are awesome, the sound is very good. If there ever was an album ripe for the deluxe remastering treatment, this is it - a bona fide jewel!

While listening to "When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels", I thought the difference when going back and forth between the Neutral Reference and Lightning 15 was very minimal. To give you an idea of the magnitude of those differences, I'd say it was 1/10th the difference I heard between power cords on Stephæn Harrell's SACD player during a recent TAS power cord survey. Almost no difference - almost. Both the Neutral and Lightning came across as neutral in character. The Lightning 15 rendered the opening violin string tone on "Jewel" a little bit brighter and smoother than the Neutral Reference, which was correspondingly slightly darker and had a greater sense of bow upon strings. The bass in the center of the soundstage was rendered slightly rounder and less propulsive with the Lightning 15, the Neutral Reference being both punchier and leaner. Momma uses backing vocals to accompany Merle in a couple of places, but they are much lower in level and more recessed than his. The Lightning 15 made the backing vocals slightly more intelligible. As I listened through it, I could hear a combination of female and male backing vocalists, where with the Neutral Reference, I could only hear the female voices, something I found both interesting and a little perplexing. The backing vocals are very soft and the effect of the digital interconnects on female versus male voices were very, very, subtle. On Momma, the sound and music-making ability between the Neutral Reference and Lightning 15 was a toss up.

Next up was the 30th Anniversary Edition of the legendary Will the Circle be Unbroken [Capital 7243-5-35148-2-2] with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the all-star lineup of Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Junior Huskey, Norman Blake and Pete Kirby. This is a superb recording with some of the greatest bluegrass musicians that have ever lived. As stated, the differences in sound between the two digital cables on Momma was audible but pretty minimal. On Circle, they were brought into more vivid relief. Bluegrass string tone can be a little bright and edgy in life, and through the Lightning 15, the strings sounded too bright and harsh to fully enjoy the music. On "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "Nashville Blues", I actually had to turn the volume down to keep listening.

I put the Neutral Reference back and breathed a sigh of relief as the music once again took on the natural musicality and string tone that makes Circle such a pleasure to listen to. As another data point, the Lightning 15 didn't sound harsh at all in the Naim/Harbeth system I already reviewed. If you like bluegrass music or your system has a bright balance, listen very carefully to the Lightning 15 in your own system first to make sure it's a sympathetic match before laying down your money.

Given the very different results between the Neutral Reference and Lightning 15 on Momma versus Circle, I thought I had better spin another disk or two to get a better handle on what was going on. Next up was Byron Janis playing Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 in A on Mercury Living Presence [Mercury 4320022]. The results were similar to that of Momma - the differences between the digital cables were much less obvious than on Circle. If anything, I slightly preferred Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Lightning because it seemed more dramatic and rich in musical color - not by much but it was noticeable.

For a final listen with the Neutral Reference and Lightning 15, I spun Lucinda Williams' World Without Tears [Lost Highway 0881703552]. Lucinda Williams is the daughter of poet Miller Williams and knows a thing or two about writing verse herself. Her music contains elements of country, folk, rock, blues and jazz, with themes of drugs, alcohol, sex, religion, rejection, depression, love and longing - often all in the same song! The album is recorded hot and just on the edge of being shrill in a couple of places. On the first cut "Fruits of My Labor", Lucinda actually sounds drunk, slurred words and all. The Neutral Reference and Lightning 15 sounded similar on this recording as with Momma and Liszt. The album's somewhat edgy quality was retained with either digital link but remained listenable and musically satisfying. As with Momma, this was another toss up.

Summing up, Jerry Ozment was right. I didn't hear huge differences between these two digital interconnects but I did hear some. Depending on the balance of your system and your musical tastes, they could be an important factor. The Neutral Reference seems more tolerant of a wider variety of music than the Lightning 15. If you listen to many different types of music, go for the Neutral Reference. It's somewhat warmer in the highs and had a leaner, more detailed and tighter bass than the Lightning in my system. The latter is slightly more articulate with vocals and has leaner highs and a warmer, more rounded and looser bass. The traits of the Lightning 15 actually made it a good match in the Harbeth-Naim system. In my Duo-Vibe-Fi system, the Neutral Reference was the better match.