Review: Cardas A8 Inner Ear Monitors

My Blue Heaven

Right now I’m typing this on a Delta flight to Madison, Wisconsin in early February. Yep, Wisconsin in early February!

Yet there’s a big smile on my face, at least while I am sitting here, listening to Frank Sinatra’s Swingin Session.

You see, the lovely folks at Cardas sent me a review pair of their new blue A8s, the newest earbud from cable wizards in Bandon, Oregon. I’ve been playing with these buds for several weeks and — spoiler alert — these are superb earbuds.

As a consultant who travels almost every week, I find that having a reference system for the road is essential. After much experimentation, I settled on an iPhone 6+ and the compact Chord Mojo DAC/amp to convert those digits in my uncompressed (natch) music files.

George Cardas told me that his next earbud would be “lighter, better sounding, and cheaper” — the A8s were the last piece of the puzzle for a most satisfactory reference portable system.

Getting here was a journey though, as I’m a picky earbud person. Many don’t fit my ear. Many of those that do just don’t sound good. Many that do, don’t offer great isolation from noise on my plane flights. Many have goofy cords that get tangled or exhibit microphonics.

Fortunately, the Cardas A8 has this totally sorted.

Cardas is primarily a high end cable firm, so as you’d expect, the A8s have a nicely innovative cable with just the right amount of springiness in them. The cable, a version of their acclaimed Cardas Clear line, is woven around a semi-elastic center core with the Clear wire stranded in a helix. It looks cool and distinctive, and terminates at the amp end with an angled 1/8 inch jack. They are comfortable too, and I did experiment with the several “tips” that are included in the zippered faux leather circular pouch that they are bundled in.

I found the Comply tips were comfortable and perhaps had the best bass, but I ultimately settled on the double flange tips for the best comfort and sound balance. The original Cardas earbuds were a bit heavier but these seem just right in the ear. They also have a nice blue rubber coating on the brass drivers to make the A8s more compatible with working out and sports. Another cool feature is the red cable cover on the right driver – so very easy to know which one goes where.

Got my mojo on

Frankly the A8s sounded pretty darn good even straight out of the iPhone 6+, but to hear all they were capable of — and to create a nice compact “road reference system” — I decided to invest in the Chord Electronics Mojo DAC/amp. I was lent a Chord Hugo a while back and became a bit of a Chord disciple after a short, but intense, conversion experience.

The Hugo is a large silver brick which amazing sonics, but it also carries a whopping $2,500 price tag. A bit rich for my blood, but these crazy Brits decided to disrupt the DAC/amp market and unleash the $600 Mojo, which — spoiler alert — does almost as well as the Hugo (and the distortion measurements are a little lower). Like the rest of their DACs, the Mojo uses FPGA technology to create a much smoother, less artifact-ridden digital conversion which just sounds very natural to my ears. The amp section in the Mojo is no slouch either, fully able to drive big planar headphones like the Audeze and HiFiman.

To make all this work, you need two cables. The first is the standard “Camera Connector Kit” cable from Apple that outputs the digital bitstream from the iPhone (or iPad), so it is available for digital to analog conversion. Then, you can use a standard USB cable to connect to a laptop for playback or, via a second cable, a USB to micro-USB cable to feed into the Mojo DAC/amp. My buddy Charles Berry at Sight & Sound Gallery in Atlanta talked me into trying a Nordost Purple Flare cable. While a bit skeptical at first, I found the Purple Flare to be an improvement over the supplied (too short!) Chord cable.

On my iPhone 6+, I use the Denon Music Player app, which sounds much better than the standard music player. I rip in CDs, and in this case I had a selection of Sinatra and a variety of jazz albums as well as Nils Lofgren’s Acoustic Live, an embarrassingly audiophile cliché which nonetheless serves as a consistent reference on sound for my ears.

In addition to the Mojo I also listened to the A8s with my “flagship” DAC, the LH Labs Pulse X Infinity (review to post soon, or else Scot Hull will shoot me), my Benchmark DAC1 Pre and the iFi iDSD compact DAC, all excellent DACs. The Cardas A8s worked well with each.

Another earbud? What’s different?

The Cardas A8s use a single driver, however this is a special driver that uses stronger magnets that are more controlled.  Most single drivers use a “pole piece” which is placed at the end of the magnet to concentrate the magnetic flux. The pole piece is used with a coil but this forms an inductor and an electromagnet. This process leads to modulation by the signal they are trying to produce, creating a distortion called flux modulation distortion. The A8 uses contour magnets that eliminate this distortion which leads to a very linear response.

That’s nice Lee. How do they sound?

In a word, fantastic. First, some background…I started my first real system out with Cardas Golden Reference cables. I loved them. They had a gorgeous midrange sound. Very musical, maybe a touch on the warm side. But there eventually came on the market some cables which did even better at the highs and bass as technology evolved and recently Cardas introduce the world-class (in my opinion), Cardas Clear cables. The systems I have heard wired with Clear are incredible. The older midrange warmth and musicality remains but there is a nice neutral sound top to bottom. I mention all of this as I find the A8s to have this same sonic signature. If I have a track with sub-par sonics I hear all of the weaknesses on the A8s. If there is a reference track like say Nils Lofgren’s Black Books then I hear the performance in all of its glory. Mind you, the A8s are not analytical per se. They are just neutral. That makes me happy. I would argue that is the way things should be.

I listened to a few tracks that demonstrated various aspects of sound quality:

Nils Lofgren, To Your Heart. A beautiful song which some gorgeous, almost jangly, guitar strumming. Let’s talk about the clarity of the guitar. The strings are just so natural with the notes superbly decaying in time like live instruments. Resolution in spades. Is it the Cardas driver? The Clear cable? Likely both contribute.

Frank Sinatra, Blue Moon. Vocals. When Frank’s vocals on this track are properly rendered there is a nice “chestiness” to the voice that is very natural and nobody does phrasing like Ole Blue Eyes. After the intro, a very present saxophone comes in and does the melody. Wow. The A8s just nail this. There is a width and depth to the soundstage to this recording that the A8s also portray in vivid detail. There is simply a sense of real musicians between my ears.

Charles Mingus, Isabella’s Table Dance. Pace, rhythm and timing. Is there a better test than this castanet orgy? I think not. The Classic Records CD has all the audiophile goodies. Oodles of detail and a drive that gets my feet moving. The A8s sound great here again, capturing the intense drive of this track and all the intricacies.

Much like with the best DACs, the best earbuds offer up the detail an audiophile needs but not with a hyper-clean, edgy digital sound that takes away from the musicality that lets us focus on the performance. The Cardas A8s do this magic trick well.

Comparing with the RHA T20i

I also used the RHA T20i, another great product in this price range at $249. Also superbly built, the T20s also sound excellent. They are a very well-engineered metal-alloy encased single-driver earbud with very durable cables, and three tuning filters — I favor the more neutral “reference” filter. However, the Cardas have more detail and in direct comparison, I think the T20s are perhaps a bit too “smooth”.

Again, there is an additional level of clarity with the A8s. The highs seemed a little bit more open. I did find the wide variety of ear tips from RHA to be better, however, but for sound, I cannot stop listening to the Cardas.

We’re happy in my blue heaven

These are simply the best earbuds I have heard under $700.

Ole Blue Eyes is singing “My Blue Heaven”. These blue cabled wonders really are offering up heavenly sound with the Mojo, a great partner for the A8s. The A8s serve a up lots of detail but always musical. They are built well, but not too heavy in the ear. At $300, a bit of a steal really.

George, Josh, and Angela have done superb work here.

Highest recommendation.

About the Author

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Lee got interested in audio listening to his Dad’s system in the late 70s and he started making cassettes from LPs. By the early 80s he got swept up in the CD wave that was launching which led to a love of discs from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. Later while working on Wall Street in the 90s, Lee started working on blues, jazz and classical sessions for Chesky Records and learned record engineering by apprenticeship. Lee was involved in the first high-resolution recordings which eventually became the DVD-Audio format. Lee now does recordings of small orchestras and string quartets in the Atlanta area.

Lee’s current rig consists of Audio Research Reference electronics and Magnepan speakers fed by a VPI Scoutmaster and Lyra cartridge and several different digital sources.

Lee is a serious music collector with a tendency toward first pressings for LPs and he maintains a large library of import and gold CDs.

Financial interests: none.