Cardas Audio was one of the first to make an audiophile grade USB cable. Back when using USB as a digital audio connection was still something of a new thing for enthusiasts, Cardas’ Clear USB showed how that four-conductor digital link can make a significant difference to performance, and the original cable has been in production ever since. However, the digital audio landscape of 2021 is a very different one to that of a decade ago and while “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” still applies, the new Clear HS (High Speed) USB brings many of the benefits of the ‘standard’ Clear USB and brings them to the upper-tier of modern digital audio.
There are four shielded conductors inside any USB 2.0 cable; two differential data conductors (known as ‘Data+’ and ‘Data-‘), as well as a voltage rail (5V for USB-powered devices) and a ground. The power/ground conductors are notoriously good at transmitting a lot of noise (both from USB-powered devices and from USB controllers elsewhere on that buss), to the point where some companies severed the connection altogether, even though that technically made the cable outside of the USB 2.0 specification. Cardas never did this, preferring instead to use good cable engineering to isolate the conductors. However, Cardas Clear High Speed Serial Buss cable (‘Clear HS USB’ to its friends) takes this conductor isolation to its logical limits, by adding a physically separate ‘data’ cable alongside the ‘power’ cable, joined at the terminator. That terminator is USB A to USB B as standard, but this can also be supplied with USB C or MicroUSB connections. Note that the cable is a high-speed USB 2.0 and not USB 3.0; as USB 3.0 requires the cable to have an additional drain wire and a foil shield around the conductors, it runs counter to the Cardas’ ‘conjoined-cable’ layout.
In essence, Clear HS USB uses two individual cables, both using shielded conductors within a double-shielded layout. Unusually for Cardas – typically a distinctly copper-only cable brand – the twin data conductors are silver-plated. The doubling up of blue outer cables increases the bulk and the weight of the cable, but unless you are using this with some extremely small and light portable DAC with lots of space issues on its back panel, it’s functionally as easy to use as Cardas’ original USB cable, perhaps just a little more inflexible.
I have been using the original Cardas Audio Serial Buss (a.k.a., USB) cable for several years, although it’s actually one of the few products in the line we never got around to reviewing. That’s not to say it’s bad – far from it, in fact – but it was such an intrinsic part of the Clear line, the truth is, it became a part of the audio furniture. It’s an excellent, affordable baseline cable; well-executed in Cardas’ inimitable fashion, has an easy, even-handed performance that doesn’t try to highlight any particular aspect of the performance and if it errs, it errs on the side of sounding bigger and more refined than many of its rivals, which is ideal for ‘tickling up’ some of the more stark-sounding digital devices at the low-to-middle end of the market. In fact, it remains something of a ‘go to’ cable in that context, ideally suited to balance out many of the popular ‘detail-hound’ DACs in the sub-£1,000 market, which can sound a little sharp and shrill at times.
Of course, when you go further up the digital ladder, those demands change. However, the Cardas ‘first do no harm’ rule applies here too, and the Cardas Clear HS USB manages to deliver a fine combination of honesty and integrity to the sound, without the artificial bloom of bass-heaviness or shrill treble commonly encountered in USB audio. The consistency of the original is fully retained, too, but now with added mid-bass punch and mid-range detail. However, if anything, the intensity of that mid-bass punch makes the original cable sound at once more taut and more dynamically uncontrolled; the first hit like a middle-weight, this new one has a touch of the Bruce Lee about its mid-bass. It’s faster and just as impactful.
The big change here is the expansion to the soundstage, in depth, width and even – if your system can muster it – height. The soundstage size is increased, yes, but the big difference is in the quality and solidity of that soundstage, taking on a greater sense of realism in the process. As befits the name, this is a very clear sounding cable; not significantly more so than the entry-level cable, but enough to make you look deeper into your music and come away satisfied.
It’s worth restating the sense of calm, balance and order Clear HS USB brings to what can be the chaotic world of USB audio. Like many Cardas cables, it doesn’t shout, either about itself or the equipment to which it is connected. Yes, that means those wanting some upper-end fireworks or some heavily accented rhythm will find other designs to their favour, but this is the more cerebral cable. It’s the one for that person who has done with the fireworks and just wants to hear music sounding easy and coherent, with good staging and not much in the way of shouting or foot-stamping… unless the music calls for it.
If you spend really big on USB, you get the same sense of balance and order, but with even more refinement and air in the upper registers. But we are talking about potentially spending over £1,000 (or more) on a USB cable… in its own field, the Clear HS USB’s sense of balance wins out, as many in this price point tend to ‘highlight’ (the polite version of ‘exaggerate’) performance aspects.
There’s an easy and pithy way of summing up the Cardas Audio Clear HS USB: twice the cable, four times the quality! Clear doesn’t exaggerate or amplify parts of the musical whole, it just plays it with honesty and accuracy... and the HS USB makes more sense of music than most as a result.
Price and contact details
Product: Cardas Audio Clear High Speed Serial Buss (HS USB)
Price: £399/1m, £449/1.5m, £499/2m
Manufacturer: Cardas Audio
UK Distributor: Audiofreaks
Tel: +44(0)208 948 4153