(Last Updated On: March 28, 2019)

All hail the king of Sparta (again), a refresh of the flagship-grade upgrade cable from Effect Audio featuring palladium-plated silver.

In the world of audiophile cables, companies that make them fall into two schools of thought. The old-school “better conductivity means better sound” camp where the purest silver reigns supreme, like Double Helix Cables and Norne Audio; and the new-skool thinking that metals or alloys can affect sound, for example, PlusSound Audio and our subject today, Effect Audio.

Effect Audio is a company constantly turning convention on its side, tinkering with rare metals, geometry, braiding, and insulation to achieve their desired sound. Founded in 2009 by Suyang, they shot to fame with the original Leonidas, a hybrid cable of pure silver and gold-plated silver. Until today it has many fans, and now they’re hungry for a sequel of Terminator 2 (not Speed 2) proportions.

This deadly whip is the King of Sparta’s weapon of choice.
This deadly whip is the King of Sparta’s weapon of choice.

Effect Audio Leonidas II

“When the creative minds of Effect Audio crack their heads together, the result is often a cracking little product… With palladium, they have created a sound unlike any I’ve heard in a cable. Leonidas II is the shiniest jewel in the already glittering crown of Effect Audio, and the only way to go is up.”

Pros:

  • »Exceptional build quality
  • »Class-leading ergonomics
  • »Design and attention to detail
  • »A sound signature for the ages
  • »Resolution and dynamics masterclass
  • »Ultra-black background
  • »Expansive soundstage with pinpoint imaging
  • »Delivers spectrum-wide improvements

Cons:

  • »Price
  • »Not the most accurate timbre

Burden of the Sequel

Enter the mighty Leonidas II. Named after the guy who kicked the other guy down a chasm while shouting “This is Sparta”, Leonidas II represents the pinnacle of Effect Audio’s extensive R&D and knowledge of metallurgy. It’s a 4-wire hybrid cable with strands of palladium-plated silver and litz silver. It’s kind of a big, badass deal, as Effect Audio is the first to introduce palladium into in-ear monitor (IEM) cables.

Any film buff worth his salt would have heard about the movie that has Wolverine, Batman, Black Widow, and as a bonus, Alfred. The Prestige from 2006 is about dueling magicians at a time when few other forms of entertainment exist, so Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman continually one-up each other to Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper proportions, to decide whose magic was the dopest and er, illest.

Endgame is near, so says the light of redemption.
Endgame is near, so says the light of redemption.

Might and Cable Magic

The famous monologue in it delivered by Michael Caine was about what makes a great magic trick, in three parts.

The first part, “The Pledge”, is when you are shown something ordinary. Then, “The Turn” is when something extraordinary occurs, perhaps even shocking. The final and hardest part, “The Prestige”, is when everything is set right again, sending people home happy.

Ah, yes, cable magic is what I’m implying. So in this instance, the Pledge would be an ordinary silver cable, the Turn is the introduction of palladium plating, and as for the Prestige? What happy ending can you conjure out of the metal that was slowly killing Tony Stark in Iron Man 2? Well, you’ll have to stick around to find out.

Leonidas II is part of Effect Audio’s higher-end Heritage Series and retails for an auspicious USD888. It is available through the official website, with a host of customization options for connectors, Y-splits, and jack. Mine is the 4.4mm balanced jack made in a special collaboration with Pentaconn. I would like to thank Eric sincerely for the review unit, your trust and patience is much appreciated.

Equipment Used:

  • Sony NW-WM1A “K” Modded, FW 2.0
  • 64 Audio Tia Fourte

Albums Listened:

  • Amber Rubarth – Sessions from the 17th Ward
  • Ed Sheeran – Divide
  • Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
  • Macy Gray – Stripped
  • Michael Jackson – The Essential

Packaging and Accessories

Can I still talk about films? Ok, last one. If you’ve ever seen Pulp Fiction, the Tarantino masterpiece that shot him to infamy, the characters risk their lives for a certain briefcase. We never actually know what’s in it, but when it’s opened, it glows a magnificent gold and everyone who looks at it is rendered speechless, awestruck by the object’s stunning allure.

Shine Bright Like a Diamond

The Leonidas II has that effect (pun fully intended) as far as packaging goes, an object of abject beauty you can’t help but stop to admire, like Marilyn walking under a breezy vent. Like buying jewelry, you have to first remove an unassuming cardboard sleeve that hides the goodies from unwanted attention. From there, o luxury and grandeur, bathed in a svelte velvet box.

The velvet is akin to the inner lining of expensive jewelry cases, so the analogy hasn’t stopped yet. Opening that up, you get an exquisite leather round case made just for Leonidas II, in hues of amber and brown. And finally, inside the leather case, a glittering silver necklace, uh I mean the cable. It’s indulgent packaging at its best, drawing your utmost attention to the final product.

Also included, stickers that do not improve sound quality!

Design and Build Quality

While the product page is a hodgepodge of technical jargon and trademarked names that you’re afraid to ask about, what matters most is the cable in front of you.

It looks resplendent and is splendidly built, a cable of glorious splendor you’d splend, I mean spend serious money on.

As mentioned, Leonidas II is made up of four wires in 26AWG gauge, with each wire containing seven cores of a mix of litz silver and palladium-plated silver. Each strand is individually enameled for better insulation, so the wires function to their fullest capacity. The wires undergo a process called UP-OCC (Ultra Pure Ohno [oh yes!] Continuous Cast) for maximum purity so you know you’re getting only the good stuff, with the scum tossed out.

Object of my Affections

Coming back down to earth, it does look like a conventional silver cable. Strands of shimmery silver are seen in the flawlessly-braided wires with a nice sheen that demands a bit of attention. The devil is in the details though. Chrome connectors with Effect’s logo and L/R markings; the hand-stitched leather Y-split matching the case; and my favorite bit, the carbon fiber barrel of the Pentaconn plug; all serve to elevate the Leonidas II to “head-turner” status.

As for build quality, I wager this cable is built to last. It survived an accidental hard yank or two and went back to the shape it was before, like brushing dust off your shoulders. But the same warnings apply, keep away from scissors and hungry pets. This Leonidas won’t fight wars for you. He’s more a princess you have to protect.

The leather case is really sunshine and happiness through and through.
The leather case is really sunshine and happiness through and through.

Ergonomics and Comfort

Remember the first time you held one in your hands, and it felt kinda stiff. That’s what she said. When I started the cable game I had a preconceived notion that upgrade cables make concessions here and there for the ultimate sound. So my first silver upgrade cable was a little stiffy with horrible ergonomics.

Fast forward to today, you can throw that convention out the window (and hope it doesn’t strike something). Thanks to (I guess) the thin 26AWG gauge, and Effect’s patented Ultra-Flex Jacket (more guesswork), Leonidas II is hands down the most ergonomic and comfortable cable I’ve had the pleasure of handling.

Going Out in Style

It’s soft, limber and silky smooth. Also, coils and twists any way you want to with no memory effect that I can perceive. They’re superbly malleable yet built tough. As for comfort, even with PVC sheaths, they are as good to handle as cables lined with fabric, such as HanSound Audio’s Redcore and Q Cables’ French Silk. The others simply fall by the wayside. For this jaded cable enthusiast, call me impressed.

How does that song go? Silver threads among the palladium doesn't seem right.
How does that song go? Silver threads among the palladium doesn’t seem right.

Sound Quality

The basis of a cable’s sound lies in comparisons. The audio chain is affected mostly by the transducer and audio player, with maybe 10% of the sound tweaked by the cable. Plastics One forms the baseline of all my sound impressions, and what I report are based on deviations from them. It’s given with most custom IEMs, so you might have used them before. When we talk about stock cables, this is it. Plastics One is the yardstick by which all upgrade cables are compared to.

Critical listening was done after 150 hours of burning in. Not specifically recommended by anyone, but I believe in equipment breaking-in as much as my ears accommodating to the given sound after a given time. I like the idea of breaking down that palladium newcomer too, show him who’s boss. The IEM of choice is 64 Audio’s flagship Tia Fourte, because I like to pair money with money.

This portable system costs as much as a car, but you can’t put a car in your pocket can you?

Overall Sound Signature

Imagine (or rather, remember what you read about) the sound profile of a silver cable. More details, thinner notes, brightness, and a side of harshness if you’re not careful. Never fear.

Leonidas II’s sound has one hand dipped in tuning assuredness and the other dipped in a uh, cool and soothing moisturizer.

While the expected improvements do surface, like the increase in apparent detail and texture, Leonidas II is more than a one-trick horse.

The first thing I noticed was the immediacy and general tightening of the signature. Notes are not thinned out, rather delivered with more textural feel, along with a keen sense of rhythm and pacing. So notes appear for no longer than they should and disappear into a tarry-black background. Top-tier resolution and excellent end-to-end extension are a given, better yet you get dynamics and finesse worthy of a virtuoso performance.

Seasoned Seasoning

Leonidas II cracks the proverbial whip, disciplining the entire spectrum without sacrificing the fun. The overall signature is quite balanced, with a slight emphasis on the upper mids and lower treble, rooted with a nice subbass presence. Rounding things up is the grand scale presentation.

Leonidas II definitely has delusions of grandeur. Soundstage dimensions are larger in all directions with generous amounts of air and spaciousness lifting the signature skywards.

You could say that the Leonidas II sound is like salt and pepper, improving the taste and texture of a bland meat, bringing subtle refinements across the spectrum like a good all-rounder could. Tasty eh?

Bass

Meat! The subbass wields authority and fills your tummy with a more audible thump and subsequent rumble (meaning you’re hungry again).

It’s not afraid to plumb the deepest depths just for your pleasure. Yup.

Like a well-measured bite, note size is neither too thick nor thin. It won’t knock you into submission, but is tastefully filling and fulfilling, and as a gentleman should, leaves you wanting more.

Suit and Tie

The classy gentleman also knows when to pull his punches. Moving up, the midbass and upper bass are tightened and display admirable control. Notes are well-rounded, organic and meaty (there’s that word again) from attack to decay, but disappear into the background right before things get too bloomy and bloody. Transients are faster and because of that cleanness, bass layering is much improved.

The generous bass punch, limber notes, abundant detail imparts the bass with a sense of liveliness and oneness with the music, setting hearts racing and feet stomping. Put anything in from pop to metal and they will be handled with finesse to impress. Leonidas II effortlessly draws the line between naturalness and detail, delivering a pleasing, thrilling bass. Meat! I mean neat!

The stitching on the Y-split kinda adds a personal touch, like Wilson in Cast Away.
The stitching on the Y-split kinda adds a personal touch, like Wilson in Cast Away.

Mids

When critiquing food, what matters most? Taste. But you can’t do without texture, otherwise, I can serve you a burger that’s just gone through a few rounds in the blender. Great taste makes for a vivid memory, but texture completes the picture. There’s also temperature, plating, instagrammability, not making you sick etc, but that’s another story.

Palpable Pulsating Power

So what I’m getting at, Leonidas II’s mids are a tasty textural treat. From the lower mids up, to quote a random reviewer, a veil is removed. Notes are better felt and palpated, and speedy as ever, even more as we approach the upper mids. Most headlining vocals and instruments reside in the mids, and now they possess more power and bite. In turn, the music is rendered lifelike and involving. Now kiss.

Tonal deficiencies left by the transducer won’t be corrected, if the timbre is off it stays that way. Leonidas II sways the other direction, unearthing details and dynamics. From booming to faint, a scream to a sigh, they are captured quicker than a heartbeat. The texture-filled mids are like upgrading to a 4K television, more resolved and defined as ever. Is that the silver at work? Definitely! The palladium? Maybe! It’s a happy marriage from where I’m listening.

Treble

When you have comically large guns with unlimited ammunition, you’d want to let rip, obliterating the scenery with a hail of bullets. Any martial arts master would tell you, however, true power lies in restraint, in showing your might before even landing the first blow. Armed with hyper-detailed mids, what’s stopping Leonidas II from going where all silver cables have gone and doing one step better?

Except, of course, the surreal resolution boost stops at one point.

Paraphrasing Yoda, details lead to brightness, brightness leads to sibilance, and sibilance… leads to suffering (shocked expression).

The lower treble is accented, yes, continuing the dirty work of the upper mids, revealing better texture and definition as we go. So as expected initially, notes have a sparklier and livelier tone, lending a slight detail bump.

Blade of Mercy

At the middle treble, Leonidas II comes to a halt and says, “attack no more”, puts the sword in its sheath, and shows off its delicate, refined side. Here, notes are airy, feather-light, and effortless in their presentation. The extension is as high as it gets, but each note’s genteel attack is followed by an elegant bloom and decay that is as smooth as it is swift as it is spacious. Harshness and grain are non-issues with this masterfully-tuned treble. Like Anchorman, it stays classy.

A good cable is like chicken soup for the ears. Wait.

Soundstage and Imaging

The sound signature can gallivant all they want, all thanks to what I consider the strongest point of the Leonidas II, the soundstage and spatial presentation. It is with this expansive platform that allows the bass to bloom without bleed, the mids to flow without congestion, and the treble to roam free as light as air. Stage dimensions are larger in height, width and depth, making for a spacious, awe-inspiring listen.

If you’ve ever watched a theatrical production before, the Leonidas II acts as super-efficient stagehands, or gremlins, or underpants gnomes. Dressed all in black, they sweep the stage clean and change scenery and props at a lightning pace. With the speckless stage, every note from every instrument and voice can be heard from beginning to tail-end, with wafts of air in between, before disappearing into the dark once more.

A Space Odyssey

Almost goes without saying, the separation and imaging are at an elite level. Everything has its own space and you can handily focus or mind-zoom into each element of the music. When I’m up to it I’ll attempt to count the number of vocal parts in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

The answer: many many.

The highest resolution and fastest transients are only possible with the cleanest of backgrounds to fall back on. Any rise in the background noise would result in a loss of detail, or a fogged-up mirror so to speak. Leonidas II wipes clean the mirror, presents a stage of epic magnitude and a background as dark as a moonless night. Magnificent and magnanimous.

Comparisons

The Leonidas II is by far the highest priced in my roster of cables. I am taught at a young age that when no alternatives are available, you throw money at a problem until it disappears. So that’s what I’m doing here, assembling my feeble (albeit still expensive) stable hoping they stand a chance against the might of the exalted newcomer.

Allow me to preface by saying that Leonidas II absolutely mops the floor clean with its competitors here when it comes to physical and ergonomic aspects. None can match the softness, suppleness, hand-feel, memory effect and poseability of it, and only Redcore comes close in the looks and handling department. So with only pride to play for, we dive into the sound properties of each.

Effect Audio Lionheart

From Cain and Abel to Kane and the Undertaker, brother vs brother battles are always interesting. Combining strands of gold-plated copper and silver-plated copper, the older Lionheart is every bit as unique as the Leonidas II, and is a copper cable Effect Audio like to call their best.

Like a mature older brother Lionheart is less eager to show off. It takes on a more organic, intimate tone with less flourish. Notes are weightier and rounder, with a slower attack and decay, in contrast to the airy and well-textured Leonidas II. The staging is more compact and imaging is well, fuzzier too.

What it lacks in technicalities and soundstage properties, is made up for with a smooth, Nutella-addictive musicality.

Like a cushy cushion, the Lionheart is comfort personified.

Family Feud

Zooming in, the bass is looser and less disciplined than Leonidas II, and the treble sounds blunted in comparison. However, Lionheart hits where it hurts most. Instrument timbre is impeccably accurate and true to life, a thing Leonidas II struggles to replicate. Vocals are more forward and emotional too, perhaps making Lionheart more of a crowd-pleaser than the technical-minded Leonidas II.

All in all, they could be considered complementary in signature. Smooth/musical versus detailed/spacious. Although paling in comparison to Leonidas II’s technical prowess, Lionheart deserves worthy mention for standing its ground with its own distinct signature. Lionheart is designed with pure listening enjoyment at er, heart.

Han Sound Audio Redcore

Let’s try throwing SGD649 (~USD480) worth of cable at the Leonidas II to see if they get along. The Redcore, like the girl in the red dress in the Matrix, stands out among all cables because of its scarlet fabric sheath, a literal red dress, really. What’s inside matters too, and the wires are made of OCC silver and OCC copper strands. A radiant beauty inside and out.

The Redcore is a girl on the fast lane, sporting a dead neutral sound, with leaner notes and swifter attack/decay than the Leonidas II. The emphasis, like Leonidas II, is on texture and definition, but the timbre is quite tinny. So while speed is Redcore’s greatest asset, tonality takes a hit.

Redcore's pristine signature is the stuff of fairytales.
Redcore’s pristine signature is the stuff of fairytales.

Shut Up and Drive

Bass is flat and lacks some impact, while mids are dry and reedy, although both display excellent detail levels and layering ability. They are very technical, perhaps too much so. These properties are however, very welcome in the treble realm, with top-notch detail, air and resolution just shy of harshness, a sonic equal to the mighty Leonidas II.

Stage size is smaller-scaled than Leonidas II in all directions, but owing to the lean and fast notes, imaging and separation remain on top. After this comparison I valued the Leonidas II more. It has a more balanced, engaging and dynamic signature while retaining first-rate detail retrieval. The scarlet witch puts up a brave fight but succumbs in the end!

Norne Audio Silvergarde S2

The SIlvergarde is the audio purist’s wet dream. Forged from the purest silver in a thick, python-like gauge, conductivity is near maximum with no details spared. It’s my favourite sounding cable despite being an ergonomic nightmare. In comes the Leonidas II hoping to steal the throne and my heart away.

The Silvergarde unleashes hell with the meatiest, boldest and most forward presentation I’ve heard among cables. Like wielding a battle-ready claymore, notes hit with brute force, authority and precision. Timbre leans toward the organic side of things, sounding more natural than Leonidas II, but only just.

Thickkk. Tentacles, sausage links and pythons come to mind.
Thickkk. Tentacles, sausage links and pythons come to mind.

Mad Pythons

Bass response is almost woofer-like, with heaps of subbass rumble and midbass swagger. Notes are round and pack a mighty wallop, but decays with moderate speed and not as clean as the Leonidas II. Mids are forward-placed and dense, reaching the dynamism of the Leonidas II. However, detail levels are not as high, with a hazier definition to each note.

Treble is even and smooth, sounding less exciting and articulate as Leonidas II, with a controlled sparkle. While the overall tone is easy to like, the Silvergarde loses out in the soundstage arena. The stage size is tinier, and imaging is diffuse and less focused, owing to a woolier background. So like the guy who threw Black Panther into the waterfall, we have a new king!

Final Words

The ideal, dream-scenario upgrade cable improves upon the original in construction, ergonomics and durability, and gives sound improvements unquestionably perceptible by everyone. That of course, like mermaids, do not exist. Sound changes aren’t readily accepted by most, so we cable subjectivists are lampooned for believing in aural illusions. They’re dugongs, dammit!

Alas, we have the Leonidas II. Priced to the high heavens and open to ridicule and reprimand for daring to make a difference. But dear reader, I propose to you, to listen with open ears, and an open heart, for there is much to be loved about the cable.

This deadly whip is the King of Sparta’s weapon of choice.
This deadly whip is the King of Sparta’s weapon of choice.

The Three Parts of Doom

Going back to Michael Caine, so what makes Leonidas II magic? For the Pledge, we have an intricately-constructed silver cable, with all the bells and whistles expected for its elite price range. For the Turn, we introduce palladium plating, which reduces cable conductivity and ruins the purity of the silver. Shock and horror!

But the Prestige, and what makes this cable most memorable, lies in the unique sound. Leonidas II dives into the heart of the music, providing a fertile ground for the signature to thrive. At once resolute and smooth, nimble and impactful, expansive and focused, dynamic and serene, creamy and crispy. Take the best adjectives and multiply them by two, for the sum is indeed greater than its parts.

When the creative minds of Effect Audio crack their heads together, the result is often a cracking little product. Their willingness to innovate and experiment has led to Sgt Peppers (again) when others are still stuck in Love Me Do. With palladium, they have created a sound unlike any I’ve heard in a cable. Leonidas II is the shiniest jewel in the already glittering crown of Effect Audio, and the only way to go is up.