Not many audio companies, to my recollection, have made the transition from manufacturing speaker stands to making the boxes atop them, but that’s the journey undergone by Kudos Audio. Its stands are still winning awards but today the marque is as well known for the five-model range of Cardea loudspeakers, ranging from the compact C1 – joint winner of our group test last year (HFN Nov ’08) – to the recently introduced, top-of-the-range C30.
   Slotted beneath the latter and previous alpha male is the C20, a two-way floorstander that uses the same cabinet and bass-mid driver as the lesser C2 but is equipped with a superior SEAS Crescendo tweeter and higher-grade crossover components. Included in the latter are the bespoke silver-wired capacitors that also feature in the C10 – the cut-above version of the C1.

WATCH FOR WARPS
In common with so many of today’s loudspeakers, the C20 is reflex loaded – a feature that need be of no concern to potential buyers using digital signal sources but may be of relevance to LP aficionados. When I was a nipper reflex speakers were a good deal less common than they are today, with the closed box alternative a lot more prevalent. Why? Because closed box loading better controls cone excursion at very low frequencies, obviating the cone flap that occurs when replaying warped or rippled vinyl, particularly if the arm-cartridge combination has a poorly placed and damped fundamental resonance.
   By using up available cone excursion, and perhaps even pushing it beyond the driver’s linear range, this infrasonic diaphragm dance squanders output capability and increases distortion. If you’re an LP user, this is something to bear in mind when considering any reflex loaded speaker, of course – not just the C20.
   Not, I might add, that it is immediately apparent to the naked eye that the C20 has a reflex port because it’s located out of sight in the base of the enclosure and exhausts via the gap between the cabinet proper and its screw-on plinth. In my more paranoid moments I wonder whether this increasingly popular method of disguising port loaded speakers isn’t just about aesthetics but a quiet conspiracy to make near-field bass measurements more difficult to undertake. (Not that this will bother the large body of reviewers whose relationship with measurement microphones is unconsummated.)
   And am I imagining things or are more speaker manufacturers also bucking the split crossover trend and fitting a single pair of input terminals, thereby precluding bi-wiring or bi-amping? Whatever, the C20 falls into that category, having just two binding posts within the recess in its back panel. Other points worth mentioning are that its plated M6 spikes are thin and pointy enough to provide a firm foundation through thick carpet (hooray), and that the C20’s smart but aesthetically unadventurous cabinet is available finished in the usual quartet of Kudos veneers: cherry, rosenut, sycamore and walnut. That’s right – no black finish, and no high-gloss lacquer either.

A STING IN ITS TAIL
Any sensible discussion of the C20’s sound quality has to begin with its tonal balance. When I reviewed the C1 in the aforementioned group test, I noted in the lab report that it had ‘a gently rising frequency response trend’. Well, the C20 is the same only more so and there’s no mistaking this when you start playing music. Personally I find a rising response trend less intrusive than a presence band hike, but the C20’s tilt is sufficiently pronounced that something needs to be done about it unless it’s partnered with ancillaries of complementary character.
   The simplest and most effective solution is to point the speakers somewhat away from the listening position. Disciples of the late John Crabbe might wish to experiment with over-rotating them so that their axes cross in front of the listening position – an arrangement designed to exploit time-intensity trading [see box-out] to provide a more stable stereo image across a wider listening area. Me, I prefer to angle speakers outwards in these circumstances, so that there is less spectral disparity between the sound reaching the ears direct from the speakers and the first lateral reflection from the side walls. In this way you don’t just quell the speaker’s treble, you also usually end up with a bigger and more believable stereo image.
   So it is with the C20s but angling them outwards – I eventually settled on pointing them straight down the room – didn’t achieve a completely clean bill of high frequency heath. I was still troubled by a touch of sibilant emphasis (for example, on the 24/96 download of Rebecca Pidgeon’s atmospheric ‘Auld Lang Syne’/’Bring It On Home To Me’) which it is tempting to ascribe to the resonant ridges visible in the CSD waterfall in the octave below 10kHz [see Lab Report, p52]. Interestingly, the ‘inferior’ C1 didn’t exhibit these.

THE PRIME DIRECTIVE
This issue aside – and you have to make up your own mind about its annoyance factor – the C20 is a thoroughly enjoyable speaker if, like me, you believe that high fidelity’s prime directive is to be informative about both performance and recording. Whereas if you are someone who is prepared to sacrifice insight in order to achieve a glossed-over sound that extols smoothness and equanimity above information retrieval then the C20 is probably not for you.
   One of the welcome corollaries of the C20’s tilted tonal balance is that it sidesteps the thickened lower midrange that so many box speakers display to some degree. So on Diana Krall’s ‘The Girl In The Other Room’, from the CD layer of the SACD of the same name [Verve 0602 498620465], there was no artificial bloom in the lower registers of her voice. Although this may sound less seductive on short acquaintance, over the longer term it’s a welcome relief from a familiar coloration.
   The same track also showed the C20 to have an agile, hangover-free bass. As confirmed in the Lab [see p52], this speaker begins rolling off well before the bottom audible octave and will not satisfy those who expect to have their intestines vibro-massaged by the lowest organ pedal notes. For that you will need to add a subwoofer – something currently missing from the Kudos inventory. But most listeners, I’d wager, and particularly those with difficult rooms, will welcome the C20’s inherent low frequency articulation and lack of boom.

ALL ABOUT IMAGE
Another result of the C20’s leanness in the lower midrange is that it images well, without the sound ever skewing towards the speakers except, as already noted, on some vocal sibilants. The result is a gratifyingly spacious but precisely defined soundstage, which delivers a persuasive portrayal of natural recording acoustics. Although the piano in Philip Hobbs’ vibrant recording of ‘Widor’s Introduction et Rondo’ on Vibraciones del Alma [Linn Records CKD 331] is set further back than the solo clarinet, via the C20 it was never muffled or vague but still percussive, still rich in harmonics. And Maximiliano Martin’s clarinet soared and swooped before it, riveting attention on the performance.
   That spaciousness was also manifest in the bucolic background sounds of ‘Because’, the opening track of the Beatles’ remixed Love album [Parlophone 0946 3 80789 2 0], where the sounds of wildlife provides accompaniment to the a cappella vocals. Then strains of ‘A Day In The Life’ and a strident guitar chord announce a live recording of ‘Get Back’, where the C20’s powers of organisation and control were also well in evidence. But so, again, was its bright tonal balance, emphasising that this is a speaker you need to listen carefully to before purchase, and which demands sympathetic setup and system matching.

VERDICT
If you can deal with its bright tonal balance – by careful positioning and appropriate choice of partnering components – the Cardea C20 will repay you with an insightful sound characterised by agile bass, a lack of lower midrange thickening, and spacious but precisely metered imaging. The fact that it is an unusually easy load to drive is another plus, facilitating the use of a wide range of amplifiers.

 

 

Originally published in the November 2009 issue