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Cardas A8 Review – Pleasure Doesn’t Have To Be Guilty

Introduction –

Cardas is probably best known as a cable manufacturer and a pretty fantastic one at that; their silver solder compound is one of my absolute favourites, both easy to work with and very acoustically transparent. However, a few years ago, Cardas made the move into in-ear earphones with their EM8513. And given Cardas’ background in traditional speakers and metals, the innovation packed into this earphone surprised many listeners. However, while the EM8513 was an innovative earphone, it served more as a proof of concept with awkward ergonomics and some issues with high-frequency tuning. That’s where the A8 comes in, promising to be more portable, more comfortable and more sonically pleasing. To top it off, the A8 also comes with a drastically reduced asking price of $349 USD. While it still isn’t a budget earphone, the A8 offers a really pleasing sense of value with super solid brass housings, one of Cardas’ signature Litz cables and an excellent sound created by a proprietary dynamic driver. Let’s see if Cardas’ combination of traditional and innovative elements can maintain enough cohesion to compete with more cutting edge hybrid driver competitors.

 

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Angela from Cardas very much for providing me with the A8 for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

 

Accessories –

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I was lucky enough to receive the 30th Anniversary edition A8 complete with updated packaging. My unit shipped in a clean white box with punchy renders and a tactile rubberized finish. Inside lies the earphones and carry case within a foam inlet in addition to some information cards detailing some facts about the company and the A8’s design just beneath. The earphones come with a set of medium dual flange tips preinstalled with a small and large pair within a holder for convenience. Cardas also package the A8 with a set of medium Comply foam tips though I personally had the best luck with JVC Spiral Dots. The included carry case gets special mention, it has a nice design with the signature Cardas golden ratio logo on top and a catching gold zipper. The hard case is very protective but maintains comfortable pocket-ability for travel. An internal pocket combined with that tip holder allows for easy transport of accessories.

 

Build –

The A8 is a unique looking earphone that really draws the eye. While the regular A8 is coated within a rubberized blue, the 30th-anniversary model I have here is instead finished in a delicious black chrome. The housings themselves are constructed from brass rather than aluminium which grants them with an incredibly solid in-hand feel. While they are built in China, Cardas are quick to note that they own a portion of the factory responsible for manufacturing, enabling more consistent quality control. My units were pretty perfect with no moulding or joining issues and an even paint job. There was some rainbowing to the rears of the earpieces though this could be intentional.

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The earphones are also exceptionally well-shaped, they assume a traditional cable down fit though they are both comfortable and stable in the ear. The long, protruding nozzles ensure a deep fit while the smooth shaping of the housings prevents the formation of any hotspots. And though the nozzles aren’t angled, the earphones naturally sit at a comfortable angle in the ear, they were completely comfortable for me even after hours of listening despite their weight. Furthermore, the A8 is fully sealed which, combined with their dense housings, creates very good noise isolation that is only bested by more ear filling monitors like the Campfire and Shure SE earphones.

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The cable is an interesting affair and this time, Cardas have engineered a cable that is very well suited towards an in-ear. While the original model has a modular cable that is detachable below the y-split, the 30th-anniversary model trades removability for a slightly longer cable with improved strain relief. It’s a fabric coated affair though microphonics are kept reasonably low due to the angled stems on each earpiece that prevent the cable from contacting the listener’s face. The earphones also work quite well over the ear though the cable is prone to flicking off the ear due to those angled stems. Below the y-split, the cable is quite thick but very light, it’s an intriguing design with the conductors weaving around a fibre, theoretically lowering stress on the conductors themselves.

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The 45 deg jack and y-split are both super beefy with excellent strain relief, this is one of the hardiest cables I’ve come across. Above the y-split, the cable is thinner and splits into two colours, grey for right and black for left. This segment is quite prone to tangling but untangles easily due to its smooth texture. The cable is also quite supple considering its thickness and fabric sheathing, easily coiling for storage. While the cable is not removable, Cardas’ extensive experience with cables is clearly evident and I am very confident with the A8’s build.

 

Sound –

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And beyond build, Cardas have taken a really interesting approach to sound; in a price range where most brands look towards multi armature or hybrid driver setups, Cardas have instead produced an interesting take on the traditional dynamic driver. The A8 has been kind of refreshing for me, it’s a truly unique product that seems to have been designed in isolation of other products, they are simply so unlike anything I’ve come across in terms of both build and sound (which works both for and against them). On that note, they are utilizing a similar technology to the TFZ Exclusive earphones (or rather, the TFZ earphones are using the technology pioneered by Cardas) which encompasses the use of two magnets within each driver. Through this, Cardas claim lower distortion and superior end to end extension than traditional single dynamic driver earphones. And in listening, the A8 does indeed produce some stunning qualities but, as always, it is not an earphone without its faults. Of note, I did put the A8 through 150hrs of burn-in and attempted some tip rolling to achieve my most desired sound. I ultimately ended up with medium JVC Spiral Dots which had more clarity, bass definition and a generally improved sense of openness up top. I would definitely recommend that A8 users looking for a brighter sound invest in a pair or two, I also felt that I achieved a better seal with the JVC tips than the stock dual flanges. While their site states that the 30th Anniversary model carries the same sound as the regular A8, Cardas did confirm that the drivers in the 30th Anniversay A8 have been slightly reworked and that the cable has been improved producing a slightly different sound but one with very similar characteristics. Unfortunately, I don’t have any experience with the original model but at the very least, I did very much enjoy my time with the new A8.

 

Drivability –

While it is not difficult to achieve high listening volumes with the A8, I would not say that it is an easy earphone to drive. Cardas don’t provide any specifications on the exact sensitivity though they are similar to the Oriveti New Primacy which should indicate a ~10ohm impedance in addition to a ~105dB sensitivity. As such, my iPod Touch and HTC 10 had no issue driving the A8’s to a comfortable volume though the earphones sounded a bit closed off. However, the A8’s scale exceptionally well from higher end sources, from my X7 II, the A8’s really opened up, their soundstage greatly expanded and bass tightened up. They are still perfectly happy from a portable source but I would recommend pairing them to a good DAC/AMP.

 

Tonality –

The A8 is an L-shaped earphone with lifted bass presence relatively even mids and a gradual decrease in treble presence. Despite this, they are still quite balanced overall though they aren’t a neutral earphone in any way.

 

Soundstage, Imaging and Separation –

The Cardas A8 has a truly spectacular soundstage that is easily among the most spacious earphones I’ve heard around and well above this price. Not only do they produce out of the head width, the A8 also has an impressive amount of depth. When listening to “Morning” by Beck, the A8 provided a truly vast presentation with immersive space and stunning projection of vocals. In addition, guitars were separated and drums expansive. This is aided by the A8’s strong imaging, instruments are easy to pinpoint and centre image to main vocals is strong. They aren’t as holographic as the 64Audio U6 or Campfire Jupiter, but the A8 matches the Rose BR5 on accuracy if not on speed and sharpness. Separation is more mixed, the A8 has quite a thick low-end mated to a more laid-back high-end though due to their great sense of space and excellent dynamics, the A8 never sounds congested, they have plenty of resolution to slice through any muddiness. That being said, each frequency can get a little muddled, for instance, bass notes don’t sound super delineated though they never encroach upon the midrange. The more balanced New Primacy and brighter, considerably clearer Rose BR5 MKII both have greater delineation within each frequency range.

 

Bass  –

Powerful and defined, the A8 has weight to its lower registers and the muscle to get it moving, they take full advantage of their proprietary dynamic driver to deliver awesome rumble and body. Sub bass extension is stunning, earphones don’t get much deeper than this, even the Sennheiser ie800 and Shure SE846 can’t match the rumble and impact of the A8 despite costing 2, even 3 times as much. The A8 is probably the closest I’ve come to a home theatre sub-woofer from an in-ear, that really deep information that other iems give the listener a taste of every now and then is put on full display from the A8. They have so much slam yet simultaneously resolve so much texture within the very lowest registers, bits of rumble here and there that the vast majority of earphones fail to reproduce at all. But that’s not too say that the A8 is a loose bass canon, they are actually modestly balanced, sub-bass has great emphasis though it feeds smoothly into mid and upper bass creating a sound with plenty of body but minimal bloat.

And the quality of that bass, sub-bass, in particular, is excellent. Bass is surprisingly tight and very textured, perhaps not quite as much as the Flares Pro and ie800 but definition and bass energy are both stunning. When listening to Hyukoh’s “Tokyo Inn”, the A8 provided exceptional bass depth to drums along with a nice definition to bass guitars all while avoiding lower midrange spill. By comparison, the hybrid New Primacy and BR5 failed to encapsulate convincing slam to bass drums with only a slight advantage on texturing and definition. Bass speed is also impressive given the A8’s style of tuning, they are pretty snappy even though bass is thick though armature earphones easily outpace them as do the quicker micro driver Flares and Sennheisers. Neutrality is not the A8’s intention but if its bass extension and power that you want, the A8 provides one of the most dynamic listens I’ve come across, they are exceptionally well done.

 

Mids –

The midrange sits a step behind the bass response, but a touch of extra clarity to lower mids and a slight rise in the upper midrange grant vocals with some extra presence that creates a mostly balanced listen. Mids are natural and generally full bodied, vocals can sound thick but there’s a layer of resolution and clarity that slices through any veil and their soundstage prevent congestion. In addition, vocals are exceptionally smooth which, combined with their more laid-back tone, creates excellent listenability over longer listening sessions. On the flipside, the A8 is not the most immediately resolving earphone, they don’t layer like the New Primacy nor do they present details like the Rose BR5 MKII, but the A8 is the most organic and musical of the bunch. Both male and female vocals have nice presence and the A8 actually resolves a little more background detail than either of these earphones, it’s just not always apparent. When listening to CLC’s “Liar”, the A8 provided awesome bass definition and reach complimented by clear, spacious if slightly recessed female vocals. Layering was apparent if not ultra-defined and the higher synthesized effects were appropriately placed and separated.

Otherwise, resolution is very good, not quite as high as the BR5 MKII overall, but the A8 is similarly resolving as the New Primacy. And despite their full bodied, laid-back nature, the A8 is surprisingly transparent, they are more adaptable to different genres than the BR5 MKII despite being far less neutral. Detailing is an interesting affair because raw retrieval is very good yet the A8 is clearly missing some bite to their upper midrange. As such, acoustic sounds very realistic and textured but also slightly dull, especially when compared to the brighter Primacy and BR5. While they have no issue with modern pop, Asian pop and electronic which all have a slightly thinner, clearer mastering, the A8 can sound a little too laid back with rock and jazz.

 

Treble –

Highs are on the polite side, given the A8’s upper midrange and general treble tuning, it seems that Cardas have tuned them more for long term listening rather than critical listening though the A8 still retains plenty of engagement in that regard. Even compared to the very smooth New Primacy, the A8 sounds quite toned down. They still have some crispness, when listening to Axwell’s “More Than You Know”, the A8 produced a really impressive amount of high-end clarity though a gradual decrease in emphasis as the frequencies rise is apparent, sapping them of that airy quality. Similarly, Seal’s “For The Love Of You” was nicely crisp, each guitar strum was clear and each cymbal had some shimmer though again, the A8 rarely sounds airy or extended like the Campfire Orion and BR5 MKII, even the New Primacy has a little extra energy to highs that grants it with some engagement. Now this is going to get subjective, but when I was listening to the A8, I didn’t notice the lack of high-end air like I do when I listen to the New Primacy. I would intimate that their bass response tends to draw attention, but the A8 does have a little lower treble something that grants instruments like strings some additional presence before declining in emphasis. The A8 isn’t missing any high-end detail or nuance compared to similarly priced models but what is there does sit further behind in the mix. While some may find the A8 too laid back, they do retain enough resolution, extension and detail to engage and find genre versatility. Furthermore, they are absolutely resistant to fatigue and sibilance, even on poorly mastered tracks and the A8 really takes the edge off harsher recordings.

 

Comparisons –

Kinera H3 ($99): The H3 is a stunning $100 earphone and one that can compete with certain higher priced earphones, but its models like the New Primacy and Cardas A8 that prevent me from saying that they exceptionally outperform their price class. When talking build and ergonomics, however, the H3 is actually quite accomplished, their over ear fit is just as stable as the A8 but less microphonic and they isolate pretty well despite being vented. The Kinera also sports a nice removable 2-pin cable which is more manageable than the A8’s in daily use. But it’s sound where the A8 starts to pull ahead, and though the Kinera has great end to end extension and texture for a $100 earphone, they can’t touch the power and definition of the Cardas. The differences in refinement are most apparent within their midrange presentations, the A8 is a much more natural sounding earphone and though the H3 has more clarity, it is also strangely voiced and lacks the smoothness and layering of the A8. Highs will be hit and miss for both depending on buyer preferences, the H3 is moderately accentuated while the A8 is much smoother. Extension is similar on both, the H3 is far more aggressive in its detail retrieval though both are similarly nuanced. The A8 has a larger stage than the H3 and images better though the H3 is often more separated on account of its more v-shaped tuning. I am not intimating that the H3 is a poor performer, simply providing some reference on the relative performances of both earphones. While the A8 is undoubtedly a better performer, whether that is worth the $200 premium will be a subjective matter of opinion.

1More Quad Driver ($200): The Quad Driver makes for interesting and perhaps more even comparison; both are cable down, bassier earphones with metal builds though, in use, they couldn’t be more different. In terms of construction, I can’t fault either apart from the lack of a removable cable though the 1More has a remote which is handy for smartphone use. In terms of anything fit related, the A8 is leaps ahead, they seal far better, are more stable and isolate a lot more whilst the Quad Driver is somewhat ergonomically awkward. When it comes to sound, the Quad Driver is more balanced overall with a slightly v-shaped sound. That being said, to my ear, the A8 is the more linear earphone, the Quad Driver has some unevenness within the bass and treble that saps detail though the 1More is considerably more aggressive within its highs which grants its sound with more energy and engagement. Mids are similar, both are more full bodied though the A8 is slightly more organic at the cost of some clarity. I do find the bass response on the A8 to be more discerning, they are simply more extended, textured and defined. This is definitely a more evenly matched comparison, the 1Mores are lacking some technicality compared to the A8 but they are tonally more conventional and I can definitely see some preferring their more energetic high-end and clearer midrange.

Oriveti New Primacy ($300): The New Primacy is easily one of my favourite sub $500 earphones yet the Cardas offers a very realistic alternative for different preferences and requirements. Both earphones garner top marks on build quality, the brass A8 feels more solid in the hand though the New Primacy has a fully removable cable whereas the A8 only detaches at the y-spit (or fully fixed on the 30th-anniversary model). Both are very comfortable and isolate similarly though the New Primacy is more stable and offers a lower profile fit for sleeping and activity where the heavier, cable down A8 tends to be better suited towards more general daily use. Sonically, the two are very different, the A8 has much more bass emphasis and depth with great sub-bass rumble and definition though the New Primacy is tighter and more textured above. Mids are immediately clearer and more separated/layered on the New Primacy, mids also lie in better balance with their bass response though they lack the space of the A8. The A8 is actually more transparent within its midrange and slightly more natural just with a tendency to sound a bit thick. Highs are interesting, both are on the smoother, more laid-back side, the Primacy is more linear where the A8 has a small rise then falls off in emphasis. Neither have exceptional air or extension but resolve nicely.

Flares Pro ($450): The Pro’s are slightly more expensive but offer a lot of interesting features and qualities that will justify that additional cost to some buyers. Most notably, the Pro’s are Bluetooth enabled and feature a much cleaner style of tuning. In terms of build, the A8 has a significantly nicer cable though I can’t fault either the Pro’s titanium housings or the A8’s brass ones. The Pro will be more comfortable for smaller eared listeners but both were similarly comfortable to me. The A8 does isolate more for those who plan to use their earphones for travel. When it comes to sound, the two couldn’t be more different; the Flares are supremely clear and resolving while the A8 is thicker and more laid-back. Both have exceptional sub-bass extension though the Flare’s lack the weight and rumble of the A8. Above that, the Pros are faster and mids have a lot more clarity and balance at the cost of space and body. Treble most diverges, the Pro has a very sparkly, airy and hyper detailed response that vastly differs from the A8. In fact, the Pro suffers from the opposite, it can occasionally sound unrefined especially through a wired connection.

Noble Django ($999): The Django is not really a competitor to the A8 but a comparison that I found fit due to some similar tuning choices. The first thing that hits buyers is the Django’s size, they absolutely dwarf the A8 but somehow find an ergonomic fit nonetheless. The A8 is more comfortable and more stable in the ear but both isolate very well. The A8 is also all metal where the vastly more expensive Django is half plastic (but it’s fantastic). Sonically, both are powerful, full bodied sounding earphones with a more polite high-end though the Django takes balance and refinement to the next level. The Django, while not a remotely neutral earphone, is much closer to neutral than the A8. Bass is still weighted and moving on the Noble, not nearly to the extent of the Cardas, but in reference to more balanced earphones around their price. And although the Django houses 6 armature drivers within each earpiece, the A8 easily bests them on bass extension, the Django can’t even resolve the rumble that the A8 flourishes with. Yet above that, the Django is both cleaner and clearer, mids are still full but have excellent clarity and layering that the A8’s doesn’t achieve. The Django has a smooth high-end, but it extends brilliantly and has gobs of detail and texture, never sounding closed off or overdone. The A8 is a very nice $300 earphone, but they do lack the balance and meticulous attention to detail of more expensive in-ears. Again, whether that massive premium is worth the difference is subjective and the dynamic driver based Cardas actually has an advantage when it comes to bass. Yet in a lot of other aspects, listeners looking for this style of sound will find a natural progression with the Noble earphones.

 

Verdict –

I think the ~$300 price range is populated with some of the most unique and impressive earphones I’ve come across. Because a lot of them compete very much with earphones priced at a more premium $400-500 though their manufacturers choose to discount them, not due to any performance difference but to imbue them with a sense of value. The A8 exemplifies this as an earphone that provides an extremely compelling experience at a modest price, at least as far as earphones go in 2017.

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For users of cheaper earphones like the 1More Triple Driver or Kinera H3, the A8 is a very reasonable upgrade and even those with vastly more expensive earphones can consider the A8 for its unique presentation, especially with regards to soundstage space, bass extension and rumble. Furthermore, the A8 has an incredibly solid build with a mostly excellent cable and surprisingly uncompromised ergonomics. They are a very well considered earphone in many aspects, only their more polite treble will garner complaints from some. To my ear, the A8 more than makes up for it with an exceptionally dynamic sound that feels more like a home theatre system than an in-ear (in a good way). Those looking for pure fidelity and neutrality will not find it here, but the A8 is nonetheless a nuanced and surprisingly transparent earphone that maintains great versatility and engagement.

Verdict – 8.75/10, The A8 is an excellent earphone at a competitive price point. Their brass build never fails to impress nor does their subterranean bass response and cavernous soundstage. They aren’t the most detailed, resolving earphone on the market, the BR5 MKII handily scratches that itch, but the A8 is a truly unique experience that finds versatility.

The 30th Anniversay Edition Cardas A8 is available from Amazon (US) for $349 USD and the original for $249 here, please see my affiliate link for the most updated pricing, availability and configurations.

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