OTHER INTERESTING PHONO CARTRIDGES
In stark contrast to turntables and tonearms, there have been huge improvements in the performance of cartridges over the last 15 years, so all of the Reference designations are for current models, or upgrades of older models.
That being admitted...
Many contemporary cartridges are ridiculously and shamefully overpriced. This is partially caused by consumers naively believing that you have to pay an outrageous price for high quality and, consequently, don’t take a cartridge seriously if it is priced in a reasonable manner.
What about "the audio press"?
Don’t expect "the 'independent' audio press" to criticize the importers' rip-off prices. They (the 'reviewers') almost always get their phono cartridges for free (Yes, even the most expensive models), or maybe an "extended loan" or, at worst, receive a "sweetheart deal"*. Take a long, thoughtful guess at how "grateful" the 'reviewers' can be in return for this "generosity". And never forget:
Who do you think is subsidizing all of this "generosity"!
Look at the retail prices of the Denon, Dynavector and Shelter models below and then attempt to justify the (retail) prices of the others. Fortunately, you can find really superb pickups for not too much money if you read the information below, do a little work and are patient.
* Some importers have refused to "play the game". Their cartridges are usually either ignored by the press or don't do very well if they are 'reviewed'.
A phono cartridge is much more important to the final sonics of a system than either an equivalently well-designed turntable or tonearm. Only the speakers and the listening room interactions have a greater overall sonic effect. This fact still doesn't justify either distributors grossly overcharging when they know that they can get away with it or consumers foolishly paying those rip-off prices.
Moving-Coil Cartridges, with their inherently lower mass*, have the most refined, accurate and transparent sound available today, and, accordingly, dominate the 3 separate classes below. The vast majority of moving-magnet cartridges, with a couple of notable exceptions, have far too much moving mass to equal their "rival's" performance.
* One reader challenged this claim of "lower mass". He instead claimed that there are no "technical reasons" for the superiority of moving coil pickups over moving magnet pickups. I don't believe him, because as far as I am concerned, the sonic superiority of (the better) moving coils is an obvious fact, and not just an "opinion" or a "taste".
If "lower mass" is not the actual technical cause for a MC's sonic advantages, there must be another technical reason, which has been either overlooked, or not yet discovered. This is science, not "magic".
Further- One reader sent me a letter (1/04) in reply to the (pro MM) reader quoted above. It has been slightly edited:
"...as a matter of fact you're right: MC cartridges DO have a lower MOVING mass than a MM, (magnets are heavier than coils), and lower moving mass is very important for transient speed and low level musical information retrieval; (that's why when you have both a low and high output version of the same cartridge, the lower output version is always the best sounding, as the coils are smaller). There is a second well known technical reason for MC superiority: MM cartridges have a large internal inductance (a typical MM has about 600 mH, while a MC is about 15 mH). MM cartridges are extremely sensitive to loading. A small change in loading (i.e. 100 pF) is enough to change the high frequency responce. MMs also have a roll-off in the high frequencies because of electrical damping. In the real world it's almost impossible to have a flat frequency responce with a MM. The MM designer will have to (empirically try to) compensate the electrical damping at high frequencies with mechanical resonances... Should I say more? :-)"Top
One of my closest associates, who has more than four decades of experience with the finest phono sources, has recently sent me his latest report. Here it is, with my bold:
"Moving coil cartridges have escalated in price to levels where state of the art speakers used to reside. The mark up structure is obscene on these devices and there are no signs of a retreat. With this in mind, the Benz LP-S must be regarded as a bargain. It retails for $5,000, but in the world of top tier phono cartridges, this is considered very reasonable. Why? Because I believe it to be, overall, the best balanced cartridge available. There are some that reveal a tad more high frequency detail, others that offer slightly more transient precision, but none have as many strengths with so few audible imperfections.
The Benz makes LPs sound utterly natural with the absence of errors of commission. You name it, it does it at the highest levels: harmonic completeness, flat frequency response from 20 hz - 20 khz, expansive soundstage with precise focus of instruments within the soundscape, visceral dynamics with tremendous weight and impact.
Once the cartridge is perfectly aligned and broken in, the sound is disarming. It is virtually impossible to delineate a noticeable sonic deviation. It seems to have it all, and what it may be missing is akin to listening to live acoustic music in a slightly warm hall. Nothing in the Benz's sonic signature will prove to be annoying or even at the level of being distracting. The music comes through with an authenticity that is captivating.
To fully appreciate the achievement wrought by the Benz, a comparison needs to be made to the Dynavector XV-1S, which sells for slightly less ($4,500) and the almost twice as expensive XV-1T. Both the Dynavectors are superb performers, and near the top of the cartridge pyramid. The 1S has a degree of extra weight compared to the Benz, and is similar in its overall sonic signature, but it is grainier, less liquid and not as refined and extended on top.
The 1T is noticeably superior to its less expensive sibling. It is smoother, more delicately balanced with superior rendition of low level detail, and with an airier, more extended high end. Low frequencies have more authority than the 1S and it's more viscerally dynamic. However, in comparison to the Benz, the 1T sounds more 'there'. This means it imposes more of its character onto the resultant sound. While the LP-S is seductively smooth, liquid and brilliantly balanced from top to bottom, the 1T sounds slightly drier with less blackness between notes. Almost like a small amount of LP surface noise is riding along with the signal, while, with the Benz, the record is dead silent. The 1T is a great cartridge in its own right, but the Benz brings less attention to itself. The bonus is that the Benz is $4,500 less expensive.
As for set up, I settled on the following: 1.9 grms tracking force, which still requires minute adjustment by ear. VTA - Start with parallel to the record and once again final calibration must be accomplished with aural evaluation. The cartridge sounds best at a loading of 300 - 500 ohms. In a high resolution, state of the art system, settings below that figure will sound a little warm, with softer transient impact, while higher settings will lean out the sound and psychoacoustically provide the illusion of greater speed. The cartridge sounds superb almost immediately, but improves appreciably after 300 hours of play.
The Benz LP-S receives my highest recommendation, even if one is prepared to spend twice the price. If one's budget is limited to $2,500 -$3,000, my suggestion is to scrape up the extra funds and purchase the LP-S.
CAVEAT- Just prior to completing this review, I was informed that Benz cartridges will not be available, as the designer, builder and owner of the company is no longer capable of continuing to make the cartridges. If so, this would represent a great loss to audiophiles."
Personal Notes- I've heard the Dynavector XV-1S at length, but not the 1T or the Benz LP-S. The 1T is out of my price range, but I will try to eventually audition the Benz one way or the other. My associate, for clarification, has heard the ZYX UNIverse (in his own system), but not the UNIverse II.
Important Update- The sad news about the future unavailability of Benz cartridges was apparently due to an illness at the time. However, Tri-Cell Enterprises, who has been the Canadian distributor of the Benz line for more than two decades, has informed me, in their own words, that "we should have some cartridges by the end of (March 2014). I will keep you informed". So it appears that this story will end on a happy note.
The ZYX Universe II X is the finest cartridge I have ever heard, in my own system or elsewhere. In fact, for only the second time, in my long audio life, I have heard a cartridge which has no weakness, even subtle, compared to the competition. More incredibly, and unlike the first cartridge to achieve that milestone, only a tiny number of cartridges I know of even match it in any performance area. The UNIverse II obviously breaks new performance ground, but before I examine those areas in detail, I would like to discuss the last 20 years in my personal cartridge history, which will provide the perspective that I feel is necessary to fully appreciate the UNIverse II's important achievement.
The first cartridge I heard in the "modern era", which had no "serious" sonic weakness, was the Benz-Micro Ruby. While some other cartridges still had minor advantages in certain areas, the Ruby had no "obvious" weakness, which I define as some sonic "problem" that any serious listener could hear, without even having to listen for it. Prior to the Ruby, every cartridge I had heard, at any price, had at least one (or more) fundamental flaw; lack of body; poor dynamics; loss of detail; veiling; no depth and/or focus; poor decay; loss of natural harmonics; lack of immediacy; missing and/or distorted deep bass; treble roll-off etc. The Ruby was different, it was "excellent" in every area, which meant that, for the first time, you didn't have to choose, and then live with, one unavoidable sonic "poison" (at a minimum). This was a huge technological breakthrough at the time. Later in the decade, after a few other cartridge changes (now irrelevant), came the next important step forward...
The Transfiguration Temper was the first cartridge I heard with not even one weakness, obvious or subtle, compared to any of its known (to me) competitors. I simply loved this cartridge. It did everything as well, or better, than anything else, which is extremely rare in audio. Predictably, that desirable status lasted only a few years, and ended (for me) after I heard the top models from ZYX. While the finest ZYX cartridges were superior overall to the Temper, or anything else I had heard, they still had some sonic weaknesses compared to the best of their cartridge competitors.
Each ZYX model I* heard improved on the previous model, starting (I believe in 2004) with the FS Fuji; then the Airy 2; then the Airy 3; then the UNIverse .48mV Silver; and ending, in 2007, with the UNIverse .24mV Copper. However, even the UNIverse Copper had noticeable weaknesses compared to the outstanding Dynavector XV-1S (and later the XV-1T), and this finally brings us (6 years later) to the UNIverse II X, which is the upgraded "II" version of the (original) UNIverse .24mV Copper. Finally, to be clear, and consistent, the UNIverse II has no disadvantage (or "downside") when compared to the I.
*One of my associates auditioned these top ZYX models, in his own system, before I did.
There are four significant sonic differences between the UNIverse I and the II. The other improvements are also important, though they're best described as enhancements of the I's already acknowledged strengths.
1. More Natural Body, "Guts" and "Substance"- This is heard immediately, especially with male voices, or any other instrument within that range*, but it can also be observed at all frequencies. Just as important, this change is entirely "natural", which I believe requires a further explanation, since this also involves the UNIverse I and other cartridges.
The critical point is that the UNIverse II has no "fat" tagging along with the extra body. This problematic "melding" happens with every other cartridge I've heard, with the one exception of the Dynavector XV-1S. The II is "light on its feet", yet it still has true substance, and having this combination is one of the rarest qualities in cartridges, or audio components in general for that matter. Audiophiles almost always have to choose either flexibility or solidity, and then learn to live with a noticeable deficiency, but not this time. This is an achievement that only the very finest of components have ever accomplished.
So, to be clear, the UNI 1 was always "leaner" than the ideal ("perfection"), but outside of the Dynavector XV-1S, every other cartridge I've heard with supposedly more "body", actually had more "fat" instead. Now some audiophiles may still prefer "fat" to "solid and lean", but, from my perspective, this "cure" was worse than the problem, which is why I felt (and still feel) that the UNIverse I was a superior choice, overall, when it came to reproducing music naturally. For those listeners who place "musicality" as their highest priority, this will be the most important improvement.
*I listened extensively to the (Pure Reference Extreme) monitors by themselves, with the matching subwoofers turned off. This allowed me to isolate the different frequency ranges and thus avoid confusing one sonic change for another.
2. Greater Power, Weight and Impact in the Bass- This is also immediately heard and felt. In fact, it's probably the first sonic difference a non-audiophile will notice. The bass may also go a little deeper, but I'm not certain of that, since what I'm observing could be a psychoacoustic reaction to simply hearing more power and weight at the very lowest frequencies. For many audiophiles, this will be the most important improvement, though that is not the case for me.
3. Greater Dynamic Force*- The UNIverse II has much more "balls" than the UNIverse I (which was already excellent in this area). The UNIverse II can actually sound "violent" at times, like a physical assault, bringing it noticeably closer to live music. It's the least inhibited cartridge (or most uninhibited cartridge) I've ever heard. It has the power to startle like nothing I've heard. This improvement is easily noticeable at all frequencies (and with all instruments**).
For many audiophiles, and this includes the writer, this (unprecedented for me) dynamic capability will be almost a revelation. For those audiophiles who trust their "gut reactions" to a component above all else, this will be the most important improvement.
*Directly Related- Subtle and short-lived dynamic changes are also more noticeable and easily heard, so the music sounds more "expressive" as well, which many audiophiles will feel is another important improvement, though it's not as "in your face" obvious.
**Though not with all records. Some records actually sound transformed, while others sound basically the same dynamically. This cartridge, like all cartridges, is obviously limited to what is already in the grooves.
4. More Information, and Better Focus, at the Soundstage's Two Lateral Extremes- The UNIverse II has the most uniform quality of image, from the extreme left to the extreme right, I have ever experienced. The lateral extremes are reproduced with an unprecedented (for me) focus, solidity and separation. If there are any remaining differences between the musicians in the center, and the two sides, they are now subtle. The UNIverse II also sounds "larger" because of this, mainly due to the two far sides now being as real and as "active" as the center. The UNIverse II's superiority over other cartridges in this area is very noticeable.
Visual Analogy- Think of a widescreen movie, which is out of focus and "washed out" on its two far lateral sides, suddenly appearing larger when those same two sides become focused, colorized and "solid". This improvement will be most important to those listeners who value "imaging" above all else, especially focus, image size, separation and organization within that image.
In contrast to those described above, these other improvements do not change the fundamental performance level of the UNIverse. The UNIverse II has somewhat better overall focus everywhere in the soundstage, and not just at the lateral extremes. The recording space is also slightly better defined, which provides the listener a greater sense that you are in the actual recording venue. There is even greater transparency, with more information than I've ever heard at the back of the hall (or studio), though this is not a "breakthrough" improvement, like what occurs at the lateral extremes.
There is a little more precision and control (already a ZYX "strong suit"), which is especially noticeable during loud and complex passages. Finally, there is a greater capture of natural harmonics, so the individual character of the instruments is more easily heard.
The 1st hour listening to the UNIverse II was simply awful. I was almost in tears! It took around 50 hours for it to sound as I describe, though by 30 hours it was close. Only time will tell whether there are still more sonic improvements to come (there are further improvements, in all the above areas, but they are relatively subtle in comparison). The UNIverse II is very VTF and (room) temperature sensitive. I am currently using 2.2 grams. The VTA is (surprisingly) less sensitive, though only before it's well broken-in. After around 200 hours or so, I observed that the II still needs a quite precise VTA to hear it at its best.
The UNIverse II is a significant advancement over the (already outstanding) UNIverse I. I would categorize it as a strong "Level 5" Improvement (which means it is even more noticeable, and important, than the "II" upgrade of the Reference Lenco that I posted two months ago).
Level 5- The improvement can be heard at all times by anyone with healthy hearing, including listeners with no interest in sound quality. The improvement is now always "significant"; meaning an audiophile can no longer enjoy their system without this specific improvement.
On a purely subjective note...
The UNIverse II provides me the widest range of listener responses that I can recently remember from one component change, since hearing the (original) Reference Lenco/Graham Phantom back in 2010. Examples: "Goosebumps" have become much more common, and this is the most involuntary "gut" listener reaction I can imagine. I also find myself loving, or hating, certain recordings more than I did prior to the II, mainly because I now better appreciate the musicianship I'm hearing (or the lack thereof).
From another, more philosophical, perspective (though with practical consequences), the UNIverse II receives my highest compliment: It is a most surprising and unpredictable component, which is extremely rare praise from me. In fact, there has even been a delay in my evaluation schedule* directly caused by this cartridge's sonic unpredictability (or else there could be some confusion). While other extenuating circumstances were also responsible, I don't remember if I ever took such an inordinate amount of time to "digest" any component before moving on, but the UNIverse II has achieved this unusual, though highly telling, distinction. Make that "the last word" on it, for now.
*The V-Cap CuTF Teflon capacitors.
Notable Records Used for Evaluation:
While dozens of LPs were used during the evaluation, it was the four records below that most illuminated, and clarified, the sonic differences between the two cartridges. They also made the greatest impression on me, emotionally and intellectually. Here are my actual contemporaneous notes, which I felt compelled to write down at the time:
Michael Hedges- Aerial Boundaries- Windham Hill WH-1032- "More precision and control, plus greater dynamic force."
Moliere Soundtrack-Harmonia Mundi HM 1020- "The individual character of the instruments is incredible."
Ancient Greek Music-Harmonia Mundi HM 1015- "Everything is stupendous, but especially the reproduction of the chimes!!"
Thomson-The Plow that Broke the Plains-Analogue Productions AP 001- "A feeling of Uninhibited force, yet combined with control as well."
My Audio System
SORA Sound - World Wide Distributor of the ZYX UNIverse (I/II)
This new phono cartridge was evaluated over the last few months by a number of my associates, one of whom owns the Dynavector XV-1S. I have not heard it yet myself. The most literate and experienced of this group, who is also the owner of the XV-1S, wrote this short review. There's some minor editing and my bold:
"Let's begin by emphatically stating that the 1S is one of the finest mc cartridges in existence and that even the most demanding of audiophiles could easily adopt it as their reference. It is very well built (keeping in mind it is after all a cartridge) and will mate with just about any analog set up. It is costly at almost $5,000, but given the current hierarchy of state of the art in cartridges, this figure is considered reasonable. What makes the 1S so special is its overall balance. It is superb in all parameters of performance and exceptional in a few, namely harmonic completeness and tonal accuracy. How much better can it get?
Well, that brings us to the 1T. The 1T looks very similar in appearance to the 1S, but incorporates a slew of improvements structurally and electrically. (this will be left up to those interested to fully investigate). How does all this translate sonically? The answer is quite sizable. The sonic enhancement is evident in practically all areas. Take what is special about the 1S and turn it up a notch or two. The 1T refines all the already stellar attributes of the 1S. These do not represent a Bob Beamon long jump in the Olympics, but more like knocking a 1/100 of a second off of a 1500 Meter speed skate. For example, the delectable high frequency response of the 1S gains more air and silkiness through the 1T.
The bass takes on a slightly punchier, ballsier feel. (Sounds somewhat strange reading back those last two words.) The mids, especially female vocals and massed strings, sound more luminous and fully fleshed out. There does exist two categories of reproduction that does take a giant stride forward. The first is soundstaging. Not only does the image become vastly more open and expansive, the focus within the soundstage is eerily precise. The location of instruments on stage can be located with uncanny exactitude. Close one's eyes or listen in the dark, and the speakers (if the audio system is so capable) will disappear.
The second area of performance breakthrough involves capturing the weight of instruments. This is particularly true with double bass, cellos, organs, and drums, but still evident with lighter instruments such as guitar, horns and violins. The initial attack of the instruments possess greater intensity, and the full measure of their force has a heightened visceral sensation. This quality generates true excitement when listening to reproduced music, approaching the feeling one gets at a live concert.
To achieve optimum performance with the 1S and 1T, will not only require precise setup, cartridge loading will also noticeably affect their sound. It is recommended that the 1S be loaded at 200 ohms and the 1T, due to its higher internal impedance, see a 300 ohm load. Obviously, owners can experiment and settle on any setting they desire, but the recommended settings will maximize the cartridges performance, given the context of a high resolution, accurate audio system.
Both the 1S and 1T are at the pinnacle of the cartridge hierarchy. Living with the 1S will provide a highly enjoyable, rewarding vinyl listening experience that will leave little to be desired. However, the 1T (at almost $10K- outrageous pricing for any cartridge- but unfortunately that's what it costs to achieve this level of excellence) will sound that much better. It is not "night and day", nor does it represent "a difference of kind". The 1T is an easily discernible refinement and, if money is of no consequence, it is highly recommended as the cartridge of choice.
Is it worth its extravagant price? That question can be answered as follows: If an equal or superior cartridge is available at a lower price, then the response would clearly be no. Unfortunately, at present, I am unaware of any other cartridge, at any price, that is its equal."
One of my associates heard this cartridge before me. He has now USED one for 4 years. He has been extremely impressed with it, claiming it's still "the best he's heard so far". I later auditioned it myself, extensively, in August 2005 and then later in October 2007. At first, I wasn't able to isolate the performance of the Dynavector from the rest of the system, but my second audition, in October 2007, confirmed my original assessment; it is superb in every audio category imaginable, and any flaws it has are relatively minor.
My associate informs me that the Dynavector requires 2.7 grams* of tracking force for optimum performance on the VPI JMW* tonearms. The manufacturer recommends, at most, 2.2 grams, which seriously compromises the XV-1S' performance with these tonearms. Finally, this associate has heard almost all of the top cartridges, but he has not heard the Lyra Titan or the Shelter 90-X. The retail cost of the XV-1S is $ 4,000.
*Another highly experienced audiophile, who is also a well-known audio manufacturer, but with no conflicts in this instance, felt that 2.5 grams was the optimum weight. Both of these contributors are using the VPI JMW 12.6 tonearm. This audiophile also feels the Dynavector XV-1S is the finest cartridge he's ever heard.
Update from February 2006- One reader recently claimed that I was being unfair when I described the Dynavector, which has a "List Price" of over $ 4,000, as "considerably more expensive" than the Airy 3, which sells for $ 2,350 on Audiogon (or $ 2,720 with their silver base). I replied that I wasn't aware of anyone selling the XV-1S at a substantial discount, which would then change the price perspective. He then sent a reply back to me, which included the following paragraph:
"...I do not have a Web citation to a discounted price for the XV-1s Dynavector. Recently I was quoted a price under $ 3,000 from an authorized dealer for a new cartridge - this dealer does not have a Website. The dealer asked me not to advertise that price as it will generate ill will between he and his competitor retailers and his distributor. Forgive me if it sounds cheeky that I will not say the dealer - I choose to honor his request..." (My bold)
Personal Note- It's unfortunate that the reader couldn't provide all the details and contact information, but I feel his reasoning can't be questioned in this instance; a promise is a promise. Still, this is great news for those audiophiles who may now feel that the Dynavector is financially within their reach. It may take some time to find a price-flexible Dynavector dealer, but now you know that at least one of them exists. While the XV-1S would still be a little more costly than the Airy 3, even with the discount, the price difference would no longer be significant, or "considerable", to satisfy the helpful reader.
One of my "associates" recently sent me a note concerning the proper vertical tracking force for the this cartridge, which he feels is critical for optimization. Here it is, with some minor editing (My bold):
"There has been some controversy generated around the tracking force required for achieving optimal sonics with the Dynavecter XV–1S cartridge. The manufacturer recommends around 2 grams, while other users, such as Harry Pearson (HP) of The Absolute Sound (TAS), claim that 2.7-2.8 grams is mandatory to realize the full potential of this cartridge. Some owners, and Michael Fremer in his review of the cartridge, boldly state that going above the manufacturer’s tracking recommendation is plain wrong, and that the Dynavecter will not perform properly.
I have used the XV–1S for 10 months, and have experimented with set-up to a fanatical degree, and I can confidently advise that HP is absolutely correct. With my turntable (VPI HR-X/JMW 12.6), until you hit 2.7 grams of force, the cartridge lacks bass impact and midbass weight, transients are softened and high frequencies are lacking extension and total precision. Of course, the cartridge, being ultra critical about set up, must be meticulously aligned and VTA must be attended to. Furthermore, 2.7 grams of tracking only puts you in the ball park. Hopefully, the tonearm used has minute tracking force adjustability capability, since one must, by ear, finalize the tracking force setting, which in most cases is so subtle as to be unmeasureable. In conclusion...
The Dynavecter XV -1S, tracking at the manufacturer’s recommended weight, is a fine cartridge that is euphonically colored (to wit, its errors are all of omission as opposed to commission). However, when the cartridge is meticulously set up and tracking in the range of 2.7 grams, it leaps into a new category of performance exhibiting negligible flaws with the best combination of sonic strengths that I have experienced."
Personal Note- I heard the Dynavector XV-1S extensively in my associate's highly-revealing system, at the VTF he advises above, and I didn't hear any problems associated with an overly heavy VTF. However, all* the people I know who prefer the heavier VTF are also using the JMW 12.6 tonearm. This may be relevant, or it may not. I advise readers to experiment for themselves. There's no harm slowly increasing the tracking force to hear the results. Finally, this VTF "controversy" applies only to the XV-1S, and not the original XV-1.
*This includes both Harry Pearson, mentioned above, and Harry Weisefeld of VPI.
A reader informed me that the Dynavector XV-1s cartridge requires 2.7 grams VTF on the Graham Phantom tonearm. In the past, I always assumed that only the VPI Memorial tonearms required this heavier force for optimization. Now I'm proved wrong, so I guess these two basic designs share some particular similarity. (See the Reader's Letters in the Amplifier File - Canary Reference One, for the details, and to judge credibility.)
I have now extensively listened to this particular version of the UNIverse, and I have come to some important conclusions. First, some perspective is in order at this point.
I listened to the .48mV Silver version of the UNIverse first. My Preliminary Report (see below) took into account what I felt would be the inevitable improvements when going to the (more popular) .24mV Copper version. I did this deliberately, because of the unavoidable laws of physics, and my various experiences with a number of other cartridges with two or more different outputs. However, I made a mistake this time.
I was surpised by the actual differences between the two cartridges. I underestimated the degree of the improvement. Why? I don't know yet. Maybe because my current system is more revealing, or maybe I've become a better listener or maybe this really happens to be the largest difference I've ever experienced when comparing two moving coils, which are exactly the same except for their outputs and coil metal. In any event...
The differences are easily noticeable, and important enough to sharpen and qualify my description and advice. They even change my overall perspective and judgement of this cartridge. First, the sonic differences between the two cartridges...
The .24mV copper is superior to the .48mV silver in a number of important areas of performance;
1. It has a lower sound-floor (which surprised me)
2. It is purer and cleaner at all volume levels
3. It has more inner and outer detail, with less smearing
4. It has tighter, more defined and better controlled bass (it's more "scary")
5. It has greater immediacy, "directness" and transparency
6. It is more precise and delicate, especially with all types of transients
7. It has a greater individuality of instruments and voices
8. It has a slightly enhanced shared sense of space
9. It has even better separation of performers, or less homogenization
10. It has greater width of image, or the soundstage is wider
11. It has improved focus, especially at the left and right outer boundaries
12. There is greater "intelligibility" of words and musical notes
13. and, most surprising to me, it's even a little more dynamic!
If the .48mV silver has any sonic advantages, I have not heard them.
The sum effect of all of these improvements has forced me to adjust my original advice. As of now, the Reference designation is only for the .24mV copper version of the UNIverse. The differences between the two versions are just too noticeable and important for both of them to be "References". They are similar in nature to the differences between the ZYX Airy 2 and Airy 3, though not quite to that degree (maybe 60%). For another way to describe them, think of the differences between a really good 7" driver (.48mVS) and its exact 5" equivalent (.24mVC), but with no downsides for the 5".
In a purely personal vein, which many experienced readers will understand: I was certainly enthusiastic about the .48mVS, but I was not "in love" with it, or "crazy" about it. However, other listeners were "in love" with the .24mVC version, including some readers who sent me letters that I even posted on this web site. I must admit that this concerned me somewhat, because I had taken into consideration what I felt would be the small differences between the two versions. I even started to privately think that I was becoming too critical or even indifferent to serious improvements. That's concerning, because it's the first step to audiophile "burn out" (or even worse).
Well, I'm now relieved to find out my concerns were unfounded, because I too am "in love" with this (.24mVC) cartridge. I know this, because I met my own ultimate practical test of this "condition"; I now want to play all my favorite records all over again, and as soon as possible. This only happens when you experience a component that enhance the sonics of your system, to such a degree, that almost everything sounds "new" and "fresh". In short, your system sounds "born again". (This is also the same test that I use before I actually change components in my own system. I also recommend this test to other audiophiles.)
So let me summarize the above; I now only recommend the .24mV Copper version of the UNIverse. As for the .48mVS version, it's only desirable in those rare systems with truly limited gain. However, even in my own limited gain system, I still much prefer the compromise of limited output to receive the .24mVC's enhanced performance. Also, I never had the feeling that there was a 6 dB greater output with the .48mVS, which there should have been. Once again, I don't know why.
There is still one other loose end...
What about the silver versus the copper (.24mV)? I have not made a direct comparison, but the members of the "Audiogon Fellowship"* appear to feel that the copper version is more accurate than the silver, and preferable for most listeners. (There is now a relevant letter on this very subject in the Reader's Section of September 2006.) This brings up another inconvenient mystery: It's usually silver that's faster and purer than copper. Why is it the reverse this time? I don't have a clue myself.
In conclusion, the UNIverse .24mV Copper is a truly great cartridge. It's so flawless and difficult to criticize, that I find it's easier and more accurate to instead describe its many strengths in a single concise sentence: Its utter realism is spooky.
* I don't want to put words in other peoples mouths. So, interested readers should check out the Analog Discussion Group themselves for the details. Some audiophiles may actually prefer the (described) sonics of the silver UNIverse. (I would do a search on "UNIverse" to find the relevant threads. If the existing threads are not adequate, then ask a specific question to the group. They are very helpful.)
The ZYX UNIverse has the basic same family "sound" of their ZYX Airy series previously discussed, which is actually (almost) no sound, meaning it is highly neutral and uncolored, to the point that some listeners will feel deprived by its lack of "character" (colorations that please them). It's also superb at all the usual audiophile requirements; the bass, transparency, large soundstage etc. I'll get to those areas eventually, but for now I would like to focus on what's really different about this cartridge.
There are two areas of sonic performance that stick out for me, because of their vital, long-term importance in music reproduction and, more importantly, the listener's appreciation of the musical performance (which should be the ultimate goal of all of us).
1. Shared Sense of Space (SSS)- For me, this is the breakthrough performance area of this cartridge, if there is one. I'm well aware that, for many years now, the word "breakthrough" has been grossly overused in the commercial audio press, and maybe I'm being premature and overenthusiastic myself at this point, but I'm experiencing something I haven't in the past. This is what I'm trying to convey here, and this "something" is fundamentally different than just "more extended bass" or "smoother, cleaner highs". I'll try to explain myself by first starting with "the usual (audio) suspects", which we're all familiar with by now...
The UNIverse has an extraordinary sense of immediacy and transparency, plus an ultra-low sound-floor, allowing ambience and decays to be more easily heard and experienced than any other cartridge I've had. It also has outstanding speed (starting and stopping) and phase coherency (separation of musicians and musical lines-see below). This is all important, obviously, and these improvements are almost routine now in our evolving cartridge world (just read my previous discussions of the Airy 2 and Airy 3). However, something else has happened this time, and I think it is because of the combination of these various, and related, improvements.
I now have this primal "feeling", or "sense", that I'm sharing the same space of the original recorded performance. It's more than just "immediacy" by itself, because the entire recording space, front and back, in the studio/hall, along with your own listening room, are all shared. The fundamental separation of the performers' and the listener's respective spaces, something so given, for so long, that I/we assumed it to be almost a scientific law, has now been broken. The "two have become one". NO, I'm not claiming that the two spaces are 100% indistinguishable. It's more like 30 to 50%(?), but some type of "barrier" between the two spaces has been broken, and enough so that the words "common" and "shared" can actually be appropriately used, even if they're being loosely applied at this time.
Unfortunately, this effect doesn't happen with most records, but it happens often enough, with good recordings obviously, to no longer be "startling". It's true that I've experienced this effect before, with a few of the finest recordings I've heard (The Weavers Live at Carnegie Hall), but it was so rare, that I catalogued it in my mind as a "fluke", or a fortuitous incident. Now, while a SSS is definitely not a routine event for me (yet!), the fact that a SSS is no longer surprising either, is the true "breakthrough" in this instance. I feel an audio Rubicon has been crossed here, and while we all understand that each and every component allows the entire system to reach this level of performance, it was the UNIverse cartridge, in this instance, that put my own system over the top.
I feel that this SSS may be an audio breakthrough. Not because some arbitrary, objective standard has finally been achieved, but because of the potentially critical importance of this effect to the overall music listening experience, even though it may be "only" psycho-acoustic in theory. (Also, other audiophiles may have already experienced what I am now finally hearing in my own system.)
A "shared sense of space" gives me an enhanced feeling of intimacy with the musicians, in a manner you normally only experience with a live performance. The listening experience, for me, becomes more of an "Occasion", in contrast to listening to "only" a recording. The entire musical experience feels more important, intense and serious, than it was before. I realize that this complete subject, and the effects I'm describing, are mainly about my personal "feelings", and are mainly subjective. However, I think my strong feelings about the importance, and the ultimate effect, of having a SSS with the musicians, are shared, no pun intended, with many audiophiles. Put into current and popular audiophile lingo; A SSS is an arguably elementary and vital goal for a system/recording to be "involving" to the listener.
2. Individuality- The UNIverse individualizes the musicians, and their instruments, to a greater degree than I've heard with any other cartridge. This performance parameter has become more important to me over the years (mainly due to the fact that the most basic and fundamental areas have already been successfully addressed). Each improvement in individualization, in effect, has enhanced the "humanization" of the performers, by reducing their former "mechanization", which occurs when any homogenization, even subtle, is present. This relative absence of mechanization, is one of the primary differences between analog and (typical) digital recordings, and why many audiophiles refuse to give up their phono systems, despite their easily noticeable problems and downsides.
I've been thinking about one of the two most unique qualities of this cartridge, which I discussed above: The *"Shared Sense of Space" (SSS). Why does this cartridge have this quality to a greater degree than any cartridge I've heard? There must be a technical (scientific) explanation for it, even if it can't be measured at this time.
One obvious reason must be its ultra-low "sound-floor", which allows more soft sounds to be reproduced (passed through) than any other cartridge I've experienced. Any "sense of space" originally begins with extremely soft sounds, but I think there's more to this SSS than just more information, so I went back to the manufacturer's literature to see if they provided some other explanation that was both relevant and rational.
Surprisingly, they did as a matter of fact, claiming (unprecedented) "channel balance" with the UNIverse. I admittedly had overlooked it, but for a really good reason; they had previously made the same exact claim, word for word, for all their other cartridges (FS Fuji, Airy 2 and Airy 3), which did not have this same quality. There was nothing unique claimed about the UNIverse. Still, I decided to seriously consider this claim about "perfect sound balance between the right and left channels". We should forget about their "perfect" baloney, and instead concentrate on the bigger subject of "accurate channel balance", because I believe these ZYX engineers are on to something.
First, if the ultimate goal of the listener is to (re)create a common space with the musicians, doesn't that presume that the (recording of the) musicians originally shared a common space themselves? If the musicians were recorded separately, or even if the (two) channels were recorded/mastered differently, in any manner, there can be nothing "in common" remaining to be recreated and "shared" in the first place. This brings us to the next step...
When the recording/manufacturing team does produce a high-quality record (or CD), with excellent channel balance, will our audio systems accurately reproduce the common space existing on this LP? To do so, the system must be totally "in balance" itself, which is extremely difficult to achieve, considering that even one imbalance, anywhere in the chain, will sabotage the entire effort. (This is the "weakest link" audio concept at its most ruthless and disheartening degree.)
The ZYX UNIverse's achievement appears to have proved that almost all phono cartridges have at least some noticeable problems with accurate (R/L) channel balance, including even ZYX's other cartridges. Below is a preliminary list of other potential channel balance problems that can exist even in a serious audio system:
1. The listening room is balanced in favor of one channel and, even worse...
2. The balance between the channels also changes with frequency. (Unless you have a "perfect" listening room, you have this problem.)
3. The speakers are not properly positioned, spaced and aligned to the primary listener (that's YOU).
4. The cables, both interconnect and speaker, are not the same length or, even worse, not the same model.
5. The two amplifier channels are not matched (particularly relevant with tube equipment, both output and input tubes).
6. The components, particularly speakers, do not have closely matched parts (such as speaker drivers).
Related to all of this are phase problems, on the recording and/or in the system, which will also compromise the SSS, because the original recording space will distort in time and lose cohesion, just like a "fun house" mirror distorts the perception of size, distance and shapes.
Bottom Line- The inescapable conclusion is that accurate channel balance is no less than a requirement for the serious audiophile attempting to create a SSS, and/or other future audio breakthroughs that are still out there ready to be experienced. Accurate channel balance was something I just took for granted, but my current perspective has changed; It is now another performance area on my required checklist when considering components, entire systems and listening rooms. Without becoming obsessive and/or fanatical about it, taking the time and effort, plus making a modest financial investment, to minimize any existing and noticeable channel imbalance problems are well worth it.
Finally... It's easy to drive yourself crazy thinking about all the things that can go wrong in an audio system, but consider the larger perspective; We're experiencing a continual improvement in components, which are also becoming available at ever decreasing prices. Just as important, thanks to the Internet, we have greater knowledge as to how to optimize the performance of these components. Accordingly, we are able to minimize a growing number of problems that once appeared to be virtually unsolvable.
This makes me optimistic that each audio challenge we face can be overcome, at least partially, one at a time. It will take rational thought, experimentation, patience and maybe the humility to try an avenue that is different, if not even contradictory to your previous thinking.
I decided to add some recent observations, or else they could be overlooked. The issue I will now address, which was also brought up by a reader, is whether the UNIverse's performance is worth the extra money. This is particularly relevant considering the already stellar performance of the ZYX Airy 3. I've been struggling myself with this question, which is why I haven’t posted anything about it until now. First, a little history and perspective...
This money question wasn’t a very difficult issue with either the earlier Airy 2/FS Fuji or Airy 3/Airy 2 comparisons, because a few hundred dollars more for their respective degrees of improvement were a really good value, at least in my opinion. If we attempt to put this all in quantitative terms, so as to try to be as objective and direct as possible, let's estimate that the Airy 2 was a 10%* improvement over the FS Fuji, and the Airy 3 was a further 8% improvement over the Airy 2.
Using these (highly arbitrary) assumptions, I would estimate that the UNIverse is an extra 12% improvement over the Airy 3. The obvious conclusion:
As a strict "investment", the UNIverse doesn’t offer the same performance value, for the money, as the Airy 3 does over its own competitors. (Remember, we're now talking about an extra $ 2,000+, not a few hundred dollars.)
This value shortfall is inevitable of course, since the Airy 3 is in a performance/price "sweet spot", and the law of diminishing returns has to start somewhere. The problem, for me and other audiophiles who want "the best performance possible", is that I don’t know how, otherwise, to get this same level of unprecedented performance for less money.
The only serious alternative we have experienced is the Dynavector XV-1s, which is, most likely, more compatible with the VPI JMW series of tonearms (check Audiogon and Vinyl Asylum for others), but it's probably less compatible with most other tonearms. So what do I recommend...
I would purchase the UNIverse if it's compatible with your system and:
1. The extra money isn’t a real "hardship" to you, and you want the best sonics possible today for $ 5,000 or less,
or, even if it's a financial stretch, I still recommend the UNIverse if...
2. Your audio system is “mature” and very satisfying to you the way it is, meaning that no other component changes are on the horizon.
The UNIverse, in that second scenario, would be the most certain avenue for a truly noticeable and significant improvement, and one which you won't "get used to" after just a week or two. For most audiophiles, it will be a "difference of kind" above anything they've ever heard, though you would still have to live with the possibility of a lesser priced cartridge eventually becoming available that might equal, or even slightly** outperform, the UNIverse sometime in the future.
* The "true" percentage, if actually possible to measure, is probably much less than that, maybe 5% or even smaller. I only used "10%" to make it easier to understand the relative differences between the levels of improvement.
** I used the word "slightly" because I am starting to theorize that the truly large improvements in cartridges have already been achieved. The fact that the ZYX and Dynavector, when both are fully optimized, sound quite similar in most areas, while quite different in design, is a strong indication that "practical perfection", while never actually reachable, is starting to becoming approachable. Thus, it's possible that the UNIverse, and the XV-1s, will never be "blown away" by any future cartridge, despite the inevitable improvements that will become available, from them and/or other serious manufacturers (Transfiguration, Allaerts, VDH, Lyra etc).
If true, depending on your personal perspective, you can either honestly celebrate or cry about this development. My own perspective is simple: I hope I'm dead wrong about my "theory", because any public "mea culpa" is a tiny price to pay for the ecstasy of experiencing a true and unexpected "breakthrough".
My "associate" feels this is one of the two finest cartridges he's ever heard. It sets new sonic standards in some areas, and is no less than excellent in all parameters, including its "weaknesses". He compared it directly to the Dynavector XV-1S on a "Special Edition" VPI HR-X turntable, with a JMW 12.6 tonearm. Here's his write-up...
"Dynavecter XV-1S vs ZYX UNIverse Cartridge-
Both are superb cartridges that would satisfy the most discerning audiophile, however, while they share certain common sonic traits, they differ in many areas. They both are very transparent, dynamic, neutral and highly detailed without ever sounding lean, bright or edgy. Both have low "sound-floors" and are excellent trackers.
Differences – Minor Ones- The ZYX is a tad purer with slightly better transient precision. The XV-1S is a touch on the dark side. Perhaps it errs on being more forgiving on less than state of the art recordings or mated to components that are brighter. The ZYX is a champ when it comes to instrumental attack and delineating their fundamentals.
Big Differences- The Dynavecter has more weight, punch and impact from the midbass on down. When drums are hit, or double basses are plucked, the intensity of those instruments are more viscerally presented by the XV–1S. While the ZYX is purer overall, it lacks the Dynavecter’s uncanny ability for harmonic completeness. Complex acoustic instruments contain a vast array of harmonics that the XV–1S seems to be able to adeptly reproduce. With the ZYX, some of the harmonics go missing in action. Coupled with the Dynavecter’s incredible harmonic retrieval, is its truly remarkable ability to take grip of low level detail and refuse to lose any of it. This translates to making acoustic music and orchestral recordings sound more real by being more complex. There is simply more musical information being passed.
Conclusion – If one’s listening tastes focus primarily on jazz or pop/rock, the ZYX is hard to fault except for the lessening of impact in the midbass. Its strengths will be very evident with music that is not laidened with complex harmonics. For those who love acoustic music, especially ancient and orchestral, the Dynavecter’s forte of harmonic completeness and low level detail retrieval will prove irresistible."
Personal Notes- I would add the above observations to the already existing discussion of these two cartridges, plus a few others that are competitive with them, in Audiogon's Analog "discussion" section. Tonearm compatability may be a relevant factor for some, and may explain any contradictory results. At this level, small details and differences can have a relatively large effect.
To be specific, I've noticed that owners of some unipivot tonearms (such as the JMW VPI 12.6) preferred other cartridges to the ZYX line, while the owners of the Triplanar, for instance, had better results. Also, the Dynavector seems to work particularly well with the 12.6, according to not only my associate, but also Harry Weisfeld of VPI and Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound. In short- the ZYX UNIverse may be more tonearm sensitive than some of the other competitors for "best cartridge" honors. With my own linear, air-bearing tonearm, the Forsell, I've had unprecedented success with the best of the ZYX pickups, so far.
In conclusion, there are obvious trade-offs between these two cartridges, so readers must decide for themselves what is important to them or not. At the moment, no one cartridge is "the best" at everything. That's the short-term "bad news". The long-term "good news" is two-fold; Both cartridges not only "share common sonic traits", implying they are both heading towards total accuracy, but they can also be improved, so vinyl oriented audiophiles still have some sonic advancements to look forward to in the future.
The ZYX Airy 3 is the second finest cartridge I've ever heard, in my own system, and substantially superior to the "former champion", the ZYX Airy 2S.
Before I get into the details, I would like to reiterate my recent (1999-2005) "Cartridge History". It's also important to note that this will be from the perspective of January 2006. (Perspectives will always grow and evolve as you learn while climbing the audio mountain.)
The Transfiguration Temper (on a Forsell turntable) was my long-time "Reference". During that period, the Temper proved superior to every other cartridge that I, and my associates, auditioned. I eventually left Toronto in November 2001 for Florida. Unfortunately, I didn't get another working phono system together until Summer 2002, when I had the Shelter 901 installed on a VPI Aries/JMW 10.
The sound, after the necessary tonearm modifications for the Shelter, was truly excellent, but it still was clearly not the equal to what I last had in Toronto, though I didn't know why. Then I received a lucky break; a good friend loaned me his Forsell, which he hadn't used in many years. After careful and lengthy optimization, I sadly realized that the Shelter 901, as good as it was, did NOT equal the overall performance of the Temper (itself later updated). Soon after this serious disappointment, a new cartridge line entered my audio life...
A generous reader loaned me a ZYX R-100 FS Fuji. The Fuji easily outperformed the Shelter, and even beat out overall (the unforgettable memory of) my much loved Transfiguration. However, I still preferred the Temper in some important areas (weight and macro-dynamics). The situation then changed dramatically again with the arrival of the ZYX Airy 2S (in Spring 2005).
The Airy 2 soon became the "new champion", since it equalled, or bettered, both the FS Fuji and the Transfiguration Temper in every way. I went "crazy" over it, despite the warnings that even better cartridges still existed. While I respected these informed opinions, the Airy 2 was still the best I had heard in my own system. This brings us to the recent audition of the ZYX R-1000 Airy 3S.
The Airy 3 is quite different than the Airy 2, more than I expected actually, based on what I had previously read. So, I was surprised at the Airy 3's degree of superiority over the Airy 2. (Funny- I initially thought that I was going to have a difficult time even hearing the differences, since the two cartridges look exactly the same, both externally and internally.)
I don't have the time or desire to describe the Airy 3's performance in extensive and obsessive detail, so this list may not be final and conclusive, but the basic improvements I've now heard can be broken down into these general areas:
1. The Airy 3 is noticeably more "immediate" and "transparent" (#1, #3 and #6 are what you hear first).
2. The 3 is more delicate, pure and refined. The Airy 2 almost sounds "crude" in comparison*, something I couldn't have even imagined prior to hearing the 3.
3. The 3 has much better instrumental and voice separation and focus. In other words, it is much less homogenized, and much more "individualized".
4. The 3 has a lower "sound-floor", allowing subtle musical sounds to be heard and sensed, while also sounding less electronic.
5. The 3's deep bass is more defined and controlled, and it also goes lower. The impact appears to be about the same. The deep bass is the closest I've heard to what you will hear in an actual (orchestral) concert hall.**
6. The 3 has more inner definition and precision, and much less note smearing (also see #2).
7. The 3 is a little more "forward", 1 foot or so, which also enhances its sense of immediacy. There is still plenty of depth.
8. The recording venue or hall is more easily heard or sensed (also see #4).
9. The 3 is slightly superior at exposing dynamic shifts and "tension", especially at lower levels. This is psychoacoutically enhanced by its greater focus and reduced smearing.
*The 3 makes the 2 sound "crude" just as the ZYX FS Fuji made the Shelter 901 sound "crude". The comparison was almost spooky (deja vu), both in the details and even in the degree of what I heard. (Actually, it's a bit disturbing knowing there's a supposedly even better cartridge coming soon, because I may have to go through this same humbling experience a third time.)
**I would like to elaborate on the subject of accurate bass reproduction. Real, honest bass is normally the musical "foundation", but it may sound "ominous", if not actually "threatening". It can even scare you at certain times (like an earthquake). Sadly, inaccurate, or phony bass, is the norm in my experience. Not only does this fake bass lack the necessary ability to unsettle and/or frighten the listener, but, at its worst, it will even sound "comedic" (like flatulence).
Bottom Line- I could never go back to the Airy 2 after hearing the Airy 3. It's that much better. As for the extra $ 400 for the Airy 3; Is it worth it? 100% Yes! It's cost/performance ratio is excellent.
Set-Up Details- The Airy 3 takes a long amount of time to fully break-in, much more than the Airy 2, and well over 200 hours in my experience. The tracking force is currently a little under 2.0 grams, which is higher than the Airy 2, but I haven't made the final micro adjustments yet, and the colder weather may be effecting things. The Airy 3's VTA is slightly lower than the Airy 2's. I also found that the Airy 3's VTA was more critical than the Airy 2's VTA.*
*Based strictly on my recent experiences, plus some anecdotal accounts, I'm starting to theorize that each high-performance cartridge may be unique. So one model may have a more critical VTA setting than its VTF, and another model just the opposite. If true, phono enthusiasts must have a tonearm which can make micro adjustments, plus the personal patience to perform them, and friends to help them evaluate the changes.
Don't forget that a reader, who has had extensive experience with the entire top-level of the ZYX cartridge line, sent me a post (August 2005-see above) detailing his observations, which turned out to be amazingly accurate. This same reader also posts on a regular basis on Audiogon. His posts there (which you can read for free) are more insightful, valuable and trustworthy than any "reviewer" I can think of that you must pay, through a subscription, to read. (In fact, the same compliment can be generally said for the entire "Analog club" at Audiogon. More than any other group I'm aware of at this time, they are currently on the true "frontlines" of phono playback.)
There's now some confusion as to what ZYX cartridges are still available, and their actual model names. Here's the latest information from the North American distributor, SoraSound. With some editing:
"(The) Cosmos is not discontinued. The Cosmos is the naked body Airy 2 and Airy 3. I order the Cosmos when my customers want it. The price is the same as the Airy(s).
On your website, you posted that someone claimed that the Cosmos was dropped (because the UNIverse was so good). The person who wrote that made a mistake. The highest ZYX model, before the UNIverse, was the Sigma. It (had a) diamond (cantilever) and it was $ 10,000. I believe the UNIverse is a lot better, and less expensive, so I have decided not to carry the Sigma. The Cosmos I will continue to order, but there is no need for it if a customer orders the UNIverse, as the UNIverse has an open body at the bottom (not the sides)." (8/05)
Further Information- This is a short update of my initial write-up on the Airy 3 that was posted above (written in February 2006).
There are three technical characteristics of the Airy 3 which I found to be unusual and noteworthy:
1. The Airy 3 requires an extraordinary amount of playing time to totally break-in. In my case, it was around 250 hours or so. The macro-dynamic strengths are the last to develop. Accordingly, I would delay the fine-tuning until the Airy 3's break-in is completed, or else you will be chasing a "moving target", though "ballparking" the settings in the interim is still highly advisable.
2. I found that the optimum Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) is much lower* than the Airy 2, and most other cartridges. I think this is because the novel shape of the stylus, which appears to ride exceptionally deep in the groove, and requires almost a 90 degree vertical alignment, and...
3. Routinely picks up dust, and even mold release compounds, to an unprecedented degree. This means the stylus, and your records, must be kept scrupulously clean. Amazingly, even the scraping sound, when cleaning the Airy 3's stylus, is unique.
I'm beginning to think that the primary differences between the two cartridges are the stylus shape, along with the Airy 3's noticeably stiffer cantilever damping material. There obviously must be some technical reason(s) and explanation for the Airy 3's exceptional performance, as well as the various improvements that have been described by me and others, and these are the best contenders as of now. Finally...
The Vertical Tracking Force (VTF) I am currently using is approximately 1.935 grams.
*One reader, who is very experienced with the ZYX cartridges, reported that his Airy 3 was optimized with only a small reduction in VTA compared to the Airy 2. He did have less hours on his Airy 3 than mine, but this still may be an indication that there is some variability among the Airy 3 models.
Bottom Line Advice- Don't be afraid to lower the Airy 3's VTA until it's "right".
This is one of the finest cartridges that I have ever heard in my own system. Its performance has even forced me to demote the ZYX R-100 FS Fuji. It has since been outpeformed by the Airy 3. This essay below was written in Spring 2005, so please realize things have since dramtically changed.
I realized that the Airy 3 had already been out for months, along with the ZYX (top-of-the-line) UNIverse, but I still felt it was important to deal with this cartridge first. Not only is it less expensive than its two advanced siblings, but I won't be able to fully observe, describe and appreciate any differences (improvements) in the other ZYX cartridges, or from any other cartridge manufacturer for that matter, until I know the true performance capabilities of the Airy 2.
To best understand the performance of the Airy 2, we must first compare it to the two finest cartridges I've heard in the past; the ZYX R-100 FS Fuji and the Transfiguration Temper. Between these two former "champs", the Fuji was definitely the better overall performer, though not in every single way. I still felt that the Temper had more (natural) weight, which also enhanced its dynamic power.
I also felt that while the FS Fuji was the most neutral catridge I had ever heard (the closest to the arbitrary, perfect, "100.0"), it was still "leaner" than perfect, so it was a "99.0" for sake of argument. However, no other cartridge I had heard was in the critical range from "99.0" to "101.0", because, if so, this cartridge would then be equal or superior to the Fuji. This has all changed with the arrival of the Airy 2.
The Airy 2 has more natural body and weight than the FS Fuji. Just enough that, at this point, I can't hear, let alone describe, a tonal balance flaw. I can say that the Airy 2 is now between "99.1" and "100.9", but I don't know where it is within that range, or even whether it is below or above "100.0". I'm not saying that it's effectively "perfect", or that its tonal balance problems can't be noticed and described by others*. What I am saying is that I am not personally able to observe and describe this particular imperfection at this time. It's just too close to "100.0" for me to hear anything.
*(Earlier this year, a reader, who has heard all the top ZYX cartridges, informed me that a friend of his "was able to pinpoint the entire sonic character of the Airy 2 after hearing it for less than a minute". Such an ability humbles me, and it's also a clear indication that, at the very least, the Airy 2 is "NOT perfect" when it comes to tonal balance. To read this contributor's entire letter, go to to the Reference Components-Cartridge File-Class A. Sadly, the reader doesn't provide his friend's description of the Airy 2's "sonic character".)
The Airy 2's added weight enhances another area; dynamic contrasts, at least in those frequencies where "weight" matters. Because of this, I can now state, without reservation, that the Airy 2 is not surpassed, in any manner, by any other cartridge I've heard in my experience. The last time I could make such a rare and important declaration was with the Transfiguration Temper itself, from way back when I first heard it in my own system, and up until I left Toronto in 2001.
Next Step- Now it's time to make a short description of what the Airy 2 does that I haven't heard any cartridge do before.
There are 4 important areas where the Airy 2 breaks new ground for me:
The first is in low-level (or "micro") dynamic shifts. It captures "emphasis" and "de-emphasis" better than any cartridge I've heard, and I strongly feel that this quality is vital for music to be appreciated. Just as in "real-life" (or even acted) human conversations, the subtle dynamic shifts and emphasis convey musical meaning and raw, gut emotions, which are required for the listener to become "involved". Without this ability, music can and will sound mechanical and bland, making it uninvolving to the listener; either in the short or long-term.
The second important strength is the Airy 2's ability to separate and clarify the musical lines (or literally the performers). Instead of a group of homogenized musicians playing together, you can hear them individually, as well as how they "respond" to each other. Once again, the musical intentions are now more easily heard and felt by the listener, where before they were ambiguous and/or hidden.
The Airy 2 also captures the recording space better than I've heard before; allowing you to more easily believe you are either "there", or the musicians are actually "here", in your own listening room. While this might seem relatively trite, I've found that this experience breaks down the unavoidable and artificial separation of the listener and the musicians. This enables the listener to feel that everyone is "sharing the same intimate space", thus compelling the listener to take "the musicians" more seriously, which then makes the music more "involving".
Finally, the Airy 2 captures the individual harmonic texture of instruments, including the human voice, better than any cartridge I've heard. This makes everything sound more natural and complete. While there is no further musical clarification, other than aiding the somewhat academic identification of the exact instrument, it does help in appreciating the pure beauty, and/or the specific aesthetic nature, of the music.
When hearing all of the above, simultaneously, it's possible to get the impression that you're now privileged to finally hear the previously "secret" and intimate "truth" about the music. This same feeling occurs whenever small musical details, that the listener never imagined even existed, are revealed to you for the first time. It's a "peak experience" that true audiophiles, and/or music lovers, live for and (only figuratively I hope) die/kill for.
For me, what I really appreciate the most about this cartridge is its ability to overcome the previously typical (and inherent?) performance trade-offs, not only for phono cartridges, but for almost all components; meaning it's:
1. Delicate and powerful at the same time,
2. Precise, detailed and rich at the same time, and
3. Complex and UNhomogenized at the same time.
There's just no other cartridge I've heard so far that "gets less out of the way of the music" than the Airy 2.
While I highly recommend this extraordinary cartridge, there are still some serious alternatives available at this time. Since the cost will be an important consideration for most audiophiles, I went to Audiogon as this was written (July 17), and wrote down the latest direct-to-public prices from the distributor, SoraSound.
The ZYX Airy 2 is $ 1,950.
The ZYX FS Fuji is $ 1,540.
The ZYX Airy 3 is $ 2,350 and
The ZYX UNIverse is $ 4,950.
There is also the ("Class A") Dynavector XV-1S, which retails for $ 4,000.
I've only heard 2 out of the above 5 cartridges, so I'll start there, while the rest is speculation at this time.
ZYX Airy 2 VS FS Fuji- There is only one simple and direct question to ask; Is the Airy 2's improved performance worth the extra $ 410 ($1,950-1,540) investment? The answer is also very simple and direct; YES! In fact, it is difficult for me to think of another $ 400 investment in audio that would provide as much of an improvement. If anything, it is even greater value than changing to V-Caps etc. So this choice is, in effect, a "no-brainer".
The FS Fuji is only desirable if you want something brand new and absolutely can't go higher than $ 1,500, or you're looking for something that's even cheaper and you're prepared to buy something used. Other than that, the FS Fuji, and every other cartridge $ 2,000 or less that we're aware of, doesn't make any sense to buy at this time if you can afford the Airy 2, which is, by far, the top performer in this price range.
Airy 2 VS Airy 3- I haven't heard the Airy 3 yet. It costs $ 400 more ($2,350-1,950). From what I've read, on Audiogon and Vinyl Asylum, it's "better", but not by a lot. I should have my own observations posted in a few months or so. Until then, I would recommend reading the various threads concerning these two cartridges yourself on those two websites. (I would use their own internal search engines to find them.) Fortunately, these threads are generally informative and well-written. The "reader", mentioned above, is one of the main contributors. The threads were mainly posted either late 2004, or early 2005, but I would check for recent posts at the same time.
Airy 2 VS UNIverse- Their respective prices ($ 3,000 extra) basically preclude a rational/relevant comparison. I've been promised a loan of the UNIverse, but I've delayed it because I already have too many other components to audition in the next few months. I obviously want to hear it, most desperately in fact, but it can't be at this time. Every person I know who has heard it, at least through their posts, has gone "bonkers" over it, including that same reader, along with all of his friends. For me, the UNIverse will have to be as good as he claims to justify the (otherwise outrageous) price. Of course, we mustn't forget that the UNIverse still has its own competitor...
Airy 2 VS Dynavector XV-1S- In this instance, one of my "associates" has made a direct comparison of these two cartridges, and while he says the Airy 2 is still "superb" and "the second-best he's heard", he claims it is not as good as the XV-1S, which is now the finest cartridge he's ever heard. Unfortunately, there is a huge and unfair price difference; a more than double $ 2,000+ ($4,000-1,950). It's obvious that the true and relevant "all-out" contest is between the XV-1S and the UNIverse. Hopefully this comparison will be made and reported before the end of this year.
This post brings us up-to-date on my/our current perspective on the finest phono cartridges. The "bottom line", for us vinyl fans, is that we are now living in a "Golden Age" of phono cartridges, with unprecedented overall performance, and at prices which are high, but not "crazy". As soon as I, or one of my associates, have some more relevant observations, or hear about some other cartridge(s) that breaks into this "Gang of 5", this will be posted immediately.
Besides the above mentioned models, there are three other phono cartridges, from well proven companies, that warrant further investigation:
1. The Shelter 90X, which is the latest and most advanced in the Shelter line.
2. The Lyra Titan, which is the most advanced (and expensive) cartridge yet from this company.
3. The Transfiguration Temper W, which is their most advanced cartridge.
The Shelter 90X will have to improve significantly on the 901's performance to equal, let alone exceed, the ZYX FS Fuji, and there's still the (even better) Airys in the bullpen. Price will not be an issue, since the 90X is under $ 3,000 as far as I know.
The Lyra Titan, which is receiving "raves" from its owners, is priced very high, at $ 5,000. It will have to first "blow away" the (already superb) Helikon, and also significantly improve on both the FS Fuji and the Airys' performance to justify its much greater cost. If it does, it will be a sonic breakthrough in phono cartridges.
The (pre-Supreme) Transfiguration Temper is the closest in performance to the ZYX line that I've heard. In comparison, it is slightly less refined, neutral, detailed, focused and immediate. It equals (and may even exceed) the ZYX in dynamic contrasts. There have now been two model changes since then; the "Supreme" and the current "W". It shares the same difficult hurdle as the Lyra Titan; it must be noticeably superior to both of the ZYX pickups because of its higher price ($ 4,000), though it has two inherent advantages over the Titan;
1. Its starting-line performance is closer to that same final goal of sonic breakthrough, and
2. The price differential is not as great, so its superiority over the ZYX does not need to be as "noticeable".
Break-In- The Airy 2 sounds superb right out of the box, and while the break-in noticeably enhances its performance, I wouldn't describe it as "dramatic", which is the case with some other pickups I've heard. The sound improves in a number of ways; it becomes more immediate and "up-front"; cleaner and more delicate; a little more open and the frequency extremes are extended. The break-in period is approximately 100 hours of play.
Set-up and Fine Tuning- I'm currently tracking at 2 grams, and the tonearm is basically level. I plan to do the fine tuning after 100 hours of play and will later report the results. If the Airy 2 is similar to the FS Fuji, there should be a noticeable improvement just by optimizing the tracking force alone, unless I already hit the "bullseye" by sheer luck.
Output- The Airy 2 I'm using has an output of .24mV. Prospective purchasers should always be certain what output their system requires for reproducing natural body and dynamic force.
"SB"- This is the ZYX designation for their "Silver Base", which is an option that costs $ 370, and is installed on the Airy 2 I'm using. It's supposed to improve the performance by dampening the cartridge body, and it also adds 4 grams of mass. I haven't made a direct A/B comparison of with and without it, so I have no observations or opinions to report. For now, I would first spend that money to go from a FS Fuji to an Airy 2 before I invested in the SB option.
(Critical!) Stylus Cleaning- The Airy 2 picks up more micro-threads than any cartridge I've ever used. Removing them is also more difficult than with any cartridge I've had. I've spent a few minutes removing just one stubborn thread. This must be done because the Airy 2, like all cartridges, sounds dirty and mistracks when the stylus isn't absolutely pristine. Unfortunately, because the Airy 2 sounds so pure otherwise, this sonic degradation is more easily heard. This is the most annoying and frustrating part of using this pickup.
Important- The FS Fuji is now the second finest cartridge within this class. It was formerly the best cartridge, overall, I had ever heard in my own system, but that is no longer the case. I have not yet edited this report, so please keep in mind that all the "mosts" and "bests" you will read are now "third mosts and bests".
The ZYX is the most neutral cartridge I've heard. If I arbitrarily used the number "100" for designating perfect neutrality, with 101 being a touch heavy or "fat", and 99 being a touch thin or "lean", than the ZYX is the closest I've heard to being 100. I'm not saying it is 100, since that is perfection, but everything else I've heard is even less perfect. If I had to guess if it's above or below 100, I would say just below, but it still has more body, with less "fat", than anything else I know. If I was to assign a word to describe its basic character, I would say "naked", in the purest, most positive sense of that word. (While I focused on "body" in the above example, the ZYX's unmatched neutrality is heard across the entire frequency range.)
The ZYX is the most immediate and transparent cartridge I've heard. It sounds more "direct" than any other cartridge I know. It has similar qualities to a good single-ended-triode amplifier driving the proper speaker. It is this attribute, along with its high-frequency delicacy and purity, which will be heard first by most listeners.
The ZYX has a large image, though it is matched by other top cartridges, such as the Transfiguration Temper. Where it is excels is in its focusing ability. It separates musicians better than anything I've heard, and, for once, it doesn't defocus at the lateral extremes, far left and far right, of the image. This makes the image appear psychoacoustically larger because there is finally clarity where there was formerly confusion. What occurs at these extremes now becomes relevant and intelligible.
When you combine the focus, image size and phase coherency of the ZYX, you get an unprecedented sense of "intelligibility" of what the musicians are attempting to convey to you as the listener, making it easier to become emotionally involved with the music. What were random sounds now have musical meaning. What was musically ambiguous now becomes direct and "convincing", such as understanding whether different musicians are either independent of each other, or are actually "relating" to each other.
The ZYX also has the lowest sound-floor of any cartridge I've heard. This allows the listener to hear the most subtle details of the musicians and the space of the original recording, including the natural harmonics, decays, sense of air and space, dynamic shades and tensions etc.
The dynamic contrasts are as good as they get, along with the rare ability to "startle" the listener time and again by reproducing powerful and intense dynamic shifts when they are not expected. This trait recreates more of the emotional impact of the original performancee. Only the Transfiguration Temper is in the same league as the ZYX.
The ZYX is also the purest and cleanest cartridge I've heard. It's sense of delicacy is without equal for me, especially in the high frequencies, which appear to have unlimited extension. It's tracking ability is outstanding, not only retaining its purity, but also its separation of instruments during loud, demanding passages.
The bass of the ZYX is the the finest I've heard in control, cohesiveness and detail, but it lacks some weight compared to some other cartridges, such as the Shelter 901 and Transfiguration Temper. Its extension and impact are not a problem; the lowest notes are there, and with force. The bottom line; pun not intended, I prefer the ZYX's bass reproduction, overall, to any other cartridge.
The ZYX R-100 FS Fuji does less things wrong, and more things right, than any other cartridge I've heard. At this point, I can't live with anything else. I don't want to give the common, pejorative impression that everything else is "second-rate", but in the relative world of serious audio, that is exactly what I am saying. Certainly the best of what I've heard in the past, the Transfiguration Temper and the Shelter 901, are still superb, but they suffer by comparison in virtually every area of music reproduction. While not that far behind in many areas, the cumulative amount was such that I didn't feel they could remain in the same "class", literally or figuratively.
Some listeners have stated that the ZYX is at its best for "small works", like chamber music and jazz, while other cartridges are preferable for large, orchestral works. I disagree. I feel the ZYX's strengths complement all types of music. The descriptive statements above are musically unconditional.
As for the ZYX being "bland", that's about the least accurate description I can imagine. Any person who makes this claim, including one person who did, Michael Fremer, either requires "additives" to their system for an artificial flavor and/or excitement they've grown accustomed to, has some sort of unknown "agenda", or didn't/couldn't set up the ZYX for optimum performance.
On the other hand, the ZYX isn't for everyone. Audiophiles who already have systems with a noticeable sense of leanness, and require indisputable "body", should avoid the ZYX. So should those listeners whose systems have problems with cartridges with a .24mV or lower output. (I haven't heard the .34mV version.)
The ZYX is also among the most intolerant of pickups if played in a less-than-optimized set-up. Both the VTA and tracking force are critical. Plus or minus 1/500th of a gram off "optimum" is audible once the listener becomes sensitized, and 1/100th of a gram over the optimum weight makes the ZYX sound relatively heavy, dull and (yes) "bland". Users will have to have both the tools and the patience to receive the performance I have described above. (My tracking force, after a year's use, was approximately 1.85 grams.)
I even thought for a while that the ZYX cartridge I'm using was "out of phase". One thing is certain though, I have never heard a cartridge sound so different when its phase is changed in an attempt to match the LP's phase, correctly or incorrectly. It's frustrating to know you're listening to a record "out of phase" while not being able to do anything about it short of changing your speaker cables' phase, which is very difficult in my case.
An "out of phase" source, in this case a LP, will sound (relatively) recessed, out of focus and dryed out. Unfortunately, all records are not mastered with the same phase, so the listener will have to choose which phase, "in" or "out", mimics the majority of their LPs. A "phase switch" is the ideal solution, but very few preamplifiers have this capability.
There was an annoyance with this cartridge: The mounting slots were not threaded, which makes it more difficult to make a solid connection and nearly impossible to ever know if the connection is optimized, or compromised. This shouldn't be an issue in 2003, especially for a cartridge that retails for $ 2,000.
Warning- I was recently told by a reader that the original (and less expensive) R-100 is actually the OEM version of the Monster Alpha Two, which is an excellent cartridge, but it is not in the league of the more recent FS Fuji version.
More recently, another reader relayed to me that the new version of the R-100 has "the microridge diamond", and not the "fine-line", like the old Alpha Two.
This second reader, also from Germany, has further informed me that:
"Very very important: Most ZYX MCs use hollow cantilevers, and so must by no means be cleaned with liquid cleaners. The zerodust cleaner is recommended by ZYX Japan."
Meanwhile, a third reader, located in the U.S., informed me that he is in love with his new high-output Fuji, which he purchased. He also had a personal comment on the 'review' of the ZYX FS Fuji, by Michael Fremer, in Stereophile, which was unenthusiastic about the Fuji's performance. The reader wrote that the criticisms within the review:
"...left me openmouthed. It's the opposite of what is clearly the case when I listen."
My Take- It is my opinion that Michael Fremer allows his personal feelings, of the people marketing the components he reviews, to strongly influence his judgement, for better or worse. If you want another perfect confirmation of Fremer's predilection, besides that of actually hearing the ZYX yourself, just read Michael Fremer's correspondence to this website in Reviewing the Reviewers. It's extremely lengthy, but very informative.
This may be one of the better cartridges available at present, and it "only" costs $ 1,500*. (It's a "bargain" of course, but only in the collective mind of our "Alice in Wonderland" audio world.)
It combines the best sonic features of the Lyra Helikon; speed, purity and precision, while also possessing the strengths of the finest single-ended triode amplifiers; neutrality, harmonic completeness, a sense of continuousness, low-level detail etc.
I've now listened to this cartridge now for almost 200 hours, and on 4 different turntables in 3 different systems. There is no question that it is an outstanding performer, the best I know for the money. It is not equal to the ZYX above, but what about the Transfiguration Temper?
I feel that the Transfiguration is still superior. I remember its sound having a greater refinement, more dynamic tension, and a slightly lower sound-floor, which allowed a superior sense of decays, space and harmonics. The Transfiguration is a lot more money, and I certainly don't claim it's worth it.
I must add that I am not totally certain of this assessment. I did not make a proper A/B comparison, and the differences between the Expressive Technology Transformer and the Bent TX-103 also had to be taken into consideration. I did combine my experiences with my friends who have also experienced these two components, and we all agreed with the above assessment.
One other factor that might be important, if not critical, is that the Shelter's output is almost twice that of the "original" ZYX Fuji (.5mV versus .25mV). However, I was recently informed by a reader (see ZYX description above) that there is now a "high-output" version of the Fuji (.48mV). I will attempt to verify this important information as soon as possible.
The Shelter's body is also somewhat sturdier built and easier to mount (it is "threaded", while the ZYX isn't).
Very Important- "Dialing in" the correct tracking force on the Shelter 901 is CRITICAL to optimize its performance. Even 1/500th of a gram change can make a slightly noticeable difference in sonics. By contrast, the VTA of the Shelter is not as critical to optimize, at least compared to other cartridges we have used.
*The distributor of the Shelter pickups is Axiss Distributing. You can reach Axiss by phone (310-329-0187) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Latest News- I just heard from a reader that Shelter is coming out with a better cartridge than the 901. It is the 90-X. It will have a .6 mV output and a retail cost of $ 2,700. The sonic improvement is supposed to be "significant", but not as great as the improvements from the 501 to the 901. (6/03)
This is similar, in overall performance, to the Transfiguration Temper, but with a little more "warmth" but also noticeably less refinement, at least according to one of my associates, his friends and customers and a reader. (I haven't heard this cartridge myself, at least not "in depth".) I think we initially overrated this pickup when I listed it in Class A a few years ago, but it is still one of the finest values out there.
This pickup may be purchased direct from Japan for a very low price, $650*! The foreign distributor is in the Links section. This could be as good a "value" as the Denons below. Meanwhile, the new distributor of this cartridge, Axiss Distributors, has set the U.S. domestic retail price at $ 800. This extra $ 150 cost will eliminate the extra shipping, duty, risks, hassles etc. of directly importing the Shelter yourself.
Setup- meaning loading, proper gain, tonearm compatibility, etc.- is more critical to the 501's performance than with most other cartridges. I write this based on the extreme variance of its described performance in different systems by different owners.
Anyone who reads the most popular analogue-oriented newsgroups, like Vinyl Asylum and Audiogon, will be very familiar with the Shelter line of cartridges. Yet, it is rarely mentioned by the so-called analogue "experts" and "enthusiasts" within the mainstream audio magazines.
The magazines and their "reviewers" wish the entire Shelter line would just go away and die. The Shelter, in the past, had no North American distributor. That meant no "free samples" for the reviewers. It also meant no advertising revenues for the editors and publishers.
It is also "reasonably priced", which embarrasses almost all the existing (and very 'generous') cartridge distributors. Worst of all, any honest and thorough reviewer would be forced to mention that it is essentially the same cartridge as the (former) Crown Jewel SE. How can they then explain the $ 2,000 price difference ($ 2,650 Vs. $ 800) without exposing the excessive mark-up structure of the Crown Jewel's former distributor?
Their readers' interest (to be made aware of a superior component that is also affordable), which was in direct conflict with their "good buddy's"* interests (to earn excessive profits from selling grossly overpriced merchandise).
Their choice and their solution was immediate and simple...
Obvious Conclusion- Veteran audiophiles shouldn't be surprised at the above actions of the audio press. It is totally consistent with the magazines' collective behavior during the last 15 years. It is just one more routine example of who they are really "looking after". They also totally ignore the Denon 103, guess why?
*Important Note- Michael Fremer strongly objected to my use of the word "buddies", even sending me a vulgar e-mail threatening me with a libel suit. However...
I obviously used the word "buddies" only in its figurative sense, which is why I placed the word within quotes, twice! I have no idea who Fremer's personal "buddies" are, but it's not very difficult to distinguish the people within the audiophile community that Fremer actually treats as if they were his "best buddies". That's the only point I was making, and the only relevant issue that the reader should be focusing on.
Fremer has since (January 2005) reviewed the Shelter line. I haven't read it yet, but it will be acutely interesting how he handles the outrageous markup of the original Crown Jewel. Will he be upset at the distributor's actions, thus empathizing with his paying readers and fellow audiophiles, or will he decide to defend the distributor, looking for any "excuse" to rationalize the rip-off price, just like a PR man or a defense attorney would? We'll see, but I seriously doubt it.. I will discuss this issue later, after I get a chance to read the review.
According to my highly experienced associate, "this is a poor man's ZYX FS Fuji", and for only $ 750 retail. A more complete description is in the works. Capsule- Fabulous midrange, bass somewhat weak but still defined and with excellent highs, but not the equal of the incredible ZYX.
Further- I received this letter from a reader, who has serious concerns about this Reference designation. Since no one has a monopoly on "the truth", including myself and my associates, I feel this letter should be read carefully by prospective purchasers of this cartridge. The bass problem was already mentioned in the above write-up on the 17D, but the other problems are new to me.
"I would be cautious about recommending this cartridge too highly before you have more detailed information, and would recommend you try to hear it, at least briefly, yourself. I bought one recently, and was disappointed. There is certainly superb detail and finesse in the high treble, presumeably from the very short diamond cantilever, this I would agree with. The bass and also the midrange, I would say, are surprisingly lean and dry in my opinion, the bass seeming to consist mostly of overtones, rather than fundamentals, like using small monitor speakers after being used to floorstanders or transmission-lines. I experimented with VTF, VTA and resistive loading, not exhaustively, but to a reasonable degree. I found about 200 ohms to be the best loading, and this was confirmed by another UK correspondant on one of our popular message boards, who had bought one at the same time. At 100 ohms or below the dynamics and treble 'air' suffer substantially. I got some typical variations in performance from the VTF and VTA adjustments, but was not able to come close to what I wanted in sound quality. I sold the cartridge on to a colleague after about three to four weeks (50 hours use approx). I await his comment with interest, but he has been too busy with family/work issues to do a proper evaluation of the cartridge yet.
My own experience of cartridges is limited, but I am familiar with the Denon 103, 103 R and the Dynavector XX-1L. The XX-1L seems in many ways to be a superior version of the Denon, with modern tracking and detail levels, but retaining (and improving on) the full body and realistic presence of the cheaper cartridge. I would say the 17D2 does not sound at all like either of these cartridges, it is 'idiosyncratic' at least." (12/04)
Personal Note- I haven't heard the latest Dynavector 17D II myself. In the past, I preferred the above Denons, overall, to the earlier versions of the Dynavectors with jeweled cantilevers; both the 17D and the (Ruby) 23R. However, I still preferred the earlier version of the Dynavector XX-1 to not only all its jeweled "sisters", but to all the Denons also. It just sounded more natural to me.
Recently- Back in December 2004, a reader (above) warned me about the potential bass problems with this cartridge, and I posted them. They are still within the Cartridge File. Another reader has a different perspective on this issue. I felt is should be shared. Here it is, unedited:
"In Dec '04, you posted a comment regarding the Dynavector Karat 17D II from a writer who cautioned about the cartidge's bass response. Prior to switching from a Michell Gyro SE II to the (VPI) Aries 2, I was inclined to share that writer's reservations. However, the Aries 2 has removed my doubts about the Karat's bass response - I find no problem of that sort when it is played with the Aries 2/JMW 10 combination." (8/05)
Personal Note- When the initial letter was posted, I made the above comment in general, and not specific to the alleged problem, and I didn't challenge the writer. This was because I hadn't heard the Dynavector in a controlled setting. I still haven't as of today. This letter is further evidence that certain cartridges are tonearm sensitive, which appears to be the case in this instance, and also confirms the first writer's observations.Top
Click on this link to go to the dedicated DENON CARTRIDGE FILE. I did this because the length of the Denon file was starting to dominate this Reference Phono Cartridge File.
There were two models. The only difference is their outputs, one is .9MV and the other is 1.9MV. They are the finest cartridges anywhere near their retail price with medium outputs. The Denons' are better, but require higher gain. They are noticeably superior to the Grados’ below, which have even higher output.
NOTE: There is now a MK. II version of these cartridges, along with a new, low-output version. We have not heard any of them yet.
There are four models in this "reference" line. All of them are excellent. I recommend these if you need more than 2 MV. output. Their top of the line (The Reference) is not worth the extra money.
Don’t confuse these in any manner, but basic appearance, with the original Signatures; they are very different and far superior. These have the immediacy, lucidity and openness of a good moving-coil. Their output is 3.5MV. They are not quite as clean and lucid as the Gliders.
FURTHER GRADO INFORMATION: One of us has finally heard the Grado Statement, the model with a much lower output and a much higher price. It sounds like an improved Koetsu, with lots of body and richness etc. It doesn't have the speed, precision and cleanness of the top cartridges. If you want, or need, "lush" though, this could be it. Way overpriced, of course.
For those readers who (understandably) can't, or won't, spend "big money" on the superb, but mainly overpriced, pickups you see above and elsewhere, and are also uneasy about mail ordering for the other models, there is an alternative:
Find one of the famous pickups from the past, the kind no one wants anymore. It doesn't matter what condition it's in, even the lack of a cantilever is acceptable! The cheaper, the better.
Then have it sent to either Benz-Micro or VandenHul. If a local dealer can't handle the details, contact the distributor directly. It will cost a few hundred dollars to have it rebuilt, but you will end up with a superb cartridge and it will be new. There are numerous candidates: Koetsus, Asaks, Shinons plus many others. The end result will be a new Class B or C pickup for a fraction of the price.
NOTE: There can be delays of up to 20 weeks for this service.
CAVEAT: I have recently heard that VandenHul's quality control may be slipping. This could be due to overwork. Browse the audio forums to find other peoples' experiences. There is still Benz (Benz-Lukaschek) and another company in England: Expert Stylus Company. Their telephone number is: (01372 276 604).
RECENT "GOOD NEWS"- A reader has just informed me that he sent 3 cartridges (all of them Koetsu's) to the "successor" of the (late) Garrott Bros. He is extremely happy with the results. The cost was $ 300 to $ 400 per cartridge, compared to $ 2,000 by Koetsu direct. The person now performing the upgrades is: Kerry Williams.
There were some compromises. The stylus designs were similar to the original Koetsu's and not as advanced as the latest Koestus (these more recent stylus designs are also available). Further, they were "slightly off alignment (about 2 to 3 degrees)" and the stylus was glued in, rather than pressed. He was very happy with the service he received; with "a fast turnaround (couple of weeks)" and good communication.
There is a link to the Garrott Bros. in the Links section. Actually the link is to Tivoli Hi-Fi, which is their current "agent".Top
Clearaudio- These cartridges, all of them, are very overrated, and some are also grossly overpriced. (The only possible exceptions are the new "Aurum" series, which we haven't heard yet.) None of them compare in sonic performance to most of the Reference Cartridges in this list, including all the models in Class B.
While the best of them do have some excellent qualities, they are all dry, lean and dynamically compressed, like many digital sources. I have no idea why a number of 'reviewers' are so enthusiastic about them, but considering the obscene gross profits available for "use" when marketing a $ 10,500 pickup, it is possible to make an excellent guess.
Crown Jewels- The improved SE version is/was the exact same cartridge as the Shelter 501 II, but with a different outer shell, and has, or had, a price of $ 2,650, $ 1,800 more!
It is an excellent cartridge, but it is no longer a reference because of the outrageous price difference. The "original" Crown Jewel is most likely the "original" Shelter 501, but we've had no verification of this assumption. The Crown Jewel distributor is aware that this (very embarrassing) information has come out and has responded (see "Further").
Further- The distributor of the Crown Jewel started "bad mouthing" the Shelter's history of reliability on an audio forum (Vinyl Asylum). This is simply a pathetic attempt to deflect criticism over his own (greedy) behavior. (Though, to be fair, he appears to be no more greedy than most other cartridge importers.)
The truth: I am aware of more than a dozen owners of the Shelter, and none of them have had any reliability problems. One of them liked the Shelter so much that he even purchased two more cartridges as "backups".
Blue Oasis- This is an excellent cartridge, that excels in every area. It is especially suitable for high-gain preamplifiers with high-impedance inputs. It doesn't quite equal the performance of the Benz-Micro L0.4 (or the other Class A/B low-output models) with low input impedance moving coil transformers.
Rega- I was a Rega dealer a few years back. I was impressed with their original (low-priced) turntables, plus their integrated amplifiers (with phono stages).
I was not impressed with any of their cartridges, including their most expensive model. There is something unnatural about their tonal balance, and they excel (no pun intended) in no area.
The excellent (budget) Rega turntables and the RB-300 tonearm deserve better than this.
Sumiko Blue Point (Special)- These two models have been very popular cartridges for years, mainly because of their price and their reputation (based on some glowing reviews). I sold a few of them myself.
They are overrated. They are generally smooth, but they are also veiled, lack inner detail and are (somewhat) dead sounding. Sumiko has distributed much better cartridges than these, and I will discuss these superior models at a later date.
Dynavector XX-1- This is another pickup from the past that had a very natural, full-bodied and rich sound, plus a huge soundstage. The output, around 2 millivolts, was high for a moving-coil cartridge. The sonics were very similar to a stock MFA Luminescence. I owned one of these just before I purchased the Expressive Technology transformer in late 1991. It was my personal favorite of all the high-output moving coils that I ever owned.
There was another version of the XX-1, with lower output, that sounded just a little quicker and cleaner. Both models had a "switch" on the front, whose purpose I never fully understood. It didn't really matter because I never heard a clear difference, regardless of its position.
Further Dynavector News- According to one of my reliable sources, Dynavector has come out with an improved, replacement model for the already excellent XX-1. It is called (appropriately) the XX-2, and he may get one for evaluation. This same source also informed me that Dynavector has a new "flagship" model. It is called the DRT XV-1. There are no details at this time.
Linn Cartridges- Linn has now marketed a number of cartridges with its brand name on it. The first that I could remember was the Asak, which came out in the 1980's, but it, along with all the others, was actually designed and manufactured in Japan.
Over the years, I've had the opportunity to hear virtually their entire line. All of the Linn cartridges I've heard have "decent sound" or even better. There are no "clunkers" as far as I know. The best values are found at their lower price points. Their most expensive models have always been impressive, but they have also never been able to equal the performance of the finest of the competition within their price points, either from today or during the past.
These cartridges are only desirable if they are "part of the package", which means the purchaser is essentially getting it for "free" or, at the very least, a "great deal". Otherwise, I would go with one of the reference cartridges above if you are starting from scratch and buying new.
Audio Technica OC-9- This is a "classic" and one of the finest cartridges ever made for the money. It is also well built and reliable. The performance of the OC-9 is good in every sonic parameter. The output is .4mV, so make sure your preamplifier has enough gain.
It just misses making Class C, but it is an excellent "Entry-Level" choice.
Madrigal Carnegie- I sold this model when it came out in the middle to late 1980's. It received a glowing review and recommendation by Harry Pearson of TAS when he was on his "transparency kick". I was never as impressed with it as he was.
It had excellent detail and image size plus focus (Pearson's priorities). However, it was missing the natural sense of harmonics and body reproduced with other pickups. It also didn't have the visceral dynamic qualities of the Koetsu models available at that time either. It almost reminded me of typical "solid-state" sound. I just didn't like it. It might work with an overly warm tube system, but matching two "wrongs" never sounds really "right".
Benz-Micro MC-Gold, MC-Silver- These two pickups sound nothing like their better (and much more expensive) models which are discussed above, from the Glider on up. They are veiled and dull sounding. A major disappointment.
Decca London- These are a unique series of phono cartridges, both in design (they don't have "traditional" cantilevers) and sound. They have been around for more than 30 years now, with a number of upgrades and re-builds. They have very high-output, so no step-up device is required.
Early models of this design were very variable in sound, some being superb (for its day) and some virtually unlistenable. At their best, they were the most transparent, detailed and dynamic pickups available. They just sounded more "alive", by far, than anything else available. (This was before the "moving-coil renaissance" of the late 1970's and early 1980's.)
There were several problems of course. It had to be tracked at a relatively high weight, 3 grams or above, to reduce (but not eliminate) mistracking. This could also cause some record wear. To make matters worse, the Decca had a high-frequency boost that emphasized the distortion, and its superb ability to capture detail actually became a liability in this instance. It also had a propensity to "hum" with certain tonearms and turntables.
The above noted high-frequency aberration was matched by a noticeable low-frequency emphasis. The end result was a "spectacular sound" (like horn speakers and Decca Phase Four LPs). For some listeners, who had systems with these problems in reverse or who were insensitive to their tonal colorations, the Decca was a revelation. For others (including myself-a number of times), the continual, predictable character of the Decca eventually became tiresome, even though moving to another cartridge meant giving up the Decca's unprecedented strengths. (My dilemma ended with the purchase of a Denon 103S.)
Since then the Decca has improved, but so, to a much greater degree, has the competition. It still has the most alive sound for a high-output cartridge that I am aware of, but there are now numerous moving-coils that equal or surpass it in its strengths and don't have its "in your face" and dominating character. I can easily understand why some people may still love its peculiar sound, but it's not for me.
TRANSFIGURATION TEMPER (SUPREME)- This WAS the finest cartridge that I ever heard. I owned one for a couple of years and I never felt even once that I sensed, let alone heard, a significant problem with it. I couldn't even "nitpick" it, even though I was aware that it must have had some audible downsides compared to best of the rest.
It still excels in every area of music reproduction. Its output is .35 mV. It is very expensive and over-priced at now more than $ 4,000. However, much has changed in the the "cartridge world" within the last two years or so. The Shelter line, especially the 901, and now the ZYX R-100 FS Fuji, puts the viability of all other (low-output, high performance) pickups in jeopardy, especially those with high prices, like this.
Further: None of us has heard the improved "Supreme" or the most recent "W" version of this pickup yet. It may still be superior to the rest.
LYRA HELIKON- This cartridge from Lyra is a considerable improvement over their earlier models, which were too "analytical" and compressed to make this list. The Helikon has incredible delicacy, precision and refinement, plus excellent dynamic qualities.
The minor downsides are; its tracking isn't quite as good as the others, and the harmonics are still a touch on the lean side. Accordingly, this cartridge should not be used in a system that is, or verging on, "bright" and "lean". The cost is (an overpriced as usual) $ 2,500. The output is more than .4 MV. I have not heard this pickup yet, but one of my associates has purchased and lived with it. He prefers both the Shelter 901 and the ZYX R-100 FS Fuji, which are also less expensive.
Further- While none of has heard one, a number of audiophiles have raved about the specially designed MONO version of the Helikon, which may be the finest of its type in the world.
BENZ-MICRO L0.4- A simply superb pickup, which is an excellent match for high-gain preamplifiers. It is excellent in every area of sonic performance. It was even superior to Benz-Micro’s more expensive models. The fact that the audio 'press' has totally overlooked and underrated this pickup is just more evidence of their incompetence. Output is .4MV. This cartridge also has the further advantage of being relatively inexpensive to retip and rebuild.
NOTE: There are 3 new Mk. II versions of this pickup, with different outputs. We have not heard any of them yet.
VANDENHUL GRASSHOPPER IV- I am very familiar with the Model III. It was the second pickup I ever heard that had the ability to get all "the basics" right (the first was the Cardas Heart), and the best pickup of its day. It was superb, but finally beaten out by the Blue Oasis, which was considerably less expensive, and then by the Benz-Micro L0.4. Both of the latter picked up more low-level information.
The VDH still has two advantages though; first the output is higher at .6MV, and it’s also less expensive to retip and rebuild. It has recently been improved, but I haven’t heard this latest model.
CLARIFICATION: This pickup only makes sense if you absolutely require the extra output, but you must accept the reality that there are now a number of other pickups (with lower output) that sound better and also cost considerably less money.
MIYABI (47 LABS) PICKUP- I haven't heard this cartridge, but one of my associates lived with it for a while. He was very impressed with its strengths; smoothness, "good tone", excellent outer detail, powerful and detailed bass and intense dynamic swings, but he felt it subtracted low-level information; harmonics, decays, fine inner detail etc., and sounded somewhat "dry". He felt it was superb on rock and pop, but behind the best with acoustical music. None of us has heard the current "stock" Miyabi.
EMPIRE MC5 CARTRIDGE- I have no personal experience with this cartridge, but if what this reader observes is even "half-right", then this Empire is the bargain of the new century:
"I just wanted to let you know that I bought an Empire MC5 cartridge that was supposedly made by Ernst Benz in the 1990s. I have compared it to the Denon 103 and Shelter 501. It has more air and detail than both of these. It just sounds great especially for the price of $175 at turntableneedles.com.Top
I received this letter from a veteran reader, who is also a regular contributor to both Vinyl Asylum and Audiogon. I have no intention of becoming obsessed with ZYX cartridges, but this letter is too thoughtful not to share. There's very little editing:
"I've just read your June and July components updates and thought I'd share a few reactions.
(Disclaimer: I now own a Teres 320, having upgraded from a 265 just a few months ago.)
The key observation in the discussion of Chris Brady's tables was his taste in music and sound. I have joined CB for several private audiophile gatherings, at a mutual friend's house. The friend owns a 340. Chris's love for warmth, Urushi-style blandness, etc. is apparent. However, with other skilled audiophiles present (Frank Schroeder himself being but one), we have easily produced the more dynamic, lifelike sound that your correspondent failed to hear when he visited Chris's home.
Like you and that correspondent, my partner and I HATE rolled off transients, blandness or soupiness in our sound. I assure you, with the right arm and cartridge, and assuming the right amps and speakers of course, a Teres will not impart any of that character itself. For your correspondent to attribute that trait to the table, rather than to Chris's Urushi, SET amps, horns and (probably) cabling and room treatments seems a bit of a stretch. I assure you that if he'd heard my system, with a ZYX UNIverse on a TriPlanar VII, a powerful push-pull amp and B & W Nautilus speakers, he would not have noticed any softness, roundness or blandness. (We actually do still have some, from our c-j preamp, but few visitors would notice it until they got to know the system well.)
Comparing tables across two wildly different systems is virtually futile. The only commonality between the Teres and Galibier setups was the Schroeder tonearm, and even that can be voiced during setup, as Frank himself explained to you and demonstrated to me. To my knowledge, no one has done a truly valid comparison between these two tables. It would be interesting to hear one of course!
BTW, shortly after Chris lost that sale to Galibier, he followed my advice and that of our mutual friend and acquired a UNIverse. No more Urushi sleepiness. It would be interesting for your correspondent to hear his system again now and compare with his memory of the first visit.
ZYX (Airy 2):
... You heard exactly what we heard when we moved to that from our Shelter 901... We were head over heels, for a little while...
Sorry for forgetting to share what our quick-eared friend heard in a minute or less. Basically, he felt the Airy 2 was slow, somewhat stodgy and therefore overpriced. Does that shock you? Would it shock you more if I said that he was right? The Airy 3 is significantly faster and more free sounding, significantly more dynamic and much the better cartridge for the money. (Mr. Quick Ears started nodding his head and tapping his toes the moment he heard it.)
The Airy 2 is every bit as good as you explained, but only in comparison to lesser cartridges like Shelters, Koetsus, etc. It is not in the top league, so save some superlatives for the Airy 3 and - above all - the UNIverse. The Airy 3 is a much better version of the same cartrdige. The UNIverse, as befits its price, is on a completely different plane.
The Airy 2 is wonderful at this. After the near perfect tonality it's the first thing we noticed, and its the best thing we still like about it.
The Airy 3 does this about as well, though not better. The UNIverse, well, just you wait. :-)
Clarifying musical lines:
The Airy 2 does this well enough so that no recording ever sounds unpleasantly compressed, which is not at all the case with the Shelter 901 for example. The Airy 3 does this much better. The UNIverse, well...
Do you have a copy of ‘Les Plaisirs de la Renaissance’ (Harmonia Mundi, HMU 963)? If so, try the last two tracks on side 2. Alfred Deller's countertenor is doubled by an alto recorder, all in a stony and reverberent acoustic. These tracks will separate the men from the boys in cartridges. A Shelter 901 is hopelessly congested, a shrieking horror actually. An Airy 2 makes this listenable. The Airy 3 lets you clearly hear Deller and the recorder as individuals. The UNIverse puts you live in the room with them. It's a great test record, and great music too.
The Airy 3 does this much better, though only after 100-150 hours. The UNIverse, well, you know...
Individual harmonic textures:
As above, I'm getting boring.
You are, I believe, listening to the copper coiled ZYX's. That is good. We've A/B'd a silver coiled UNIverse vs. our copper one in our system. The silver significantly rounds off and smooths the sound. It makes the UNIverse into a faster, more neutral Koetsu RSP. Not my cup of tea, but useful for ZYX to have in the lineup for those wedded to that sound. For those seeking neutrality, copper coils are the way to go.
(Personal Note- I'm listening to the Airy 2-S, which I believe has silver coils.)
Odds, Ends, Caveats:
Break in of the Airy 3 took longer than the 2. Check my A'gon review for details. VTF and (especially) impedance loading were all over the place for 100+ hours. Make no early judgements. A VTF closer to 1.90g will probably be best after break in. We only go as high as 2.00g in the winter (Connecticut), something you needn't worry about any longer.
First, I assume your records are wet cleaned with a RCM. If you don't have a Keith Monks or Loricraft, I'm afraid that should be in your future. They easily outperform the vacuum wand style machines, and are much pleasanter to use besides. Last Saturday I cleaned 32 records in a single (long) session. Try that with a VPI and you'll be deaf.
Do a search on VA or A'gon for Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. This and a dry brush are all we ever use for stylus cleaning. No chemicals to endanger the suspension, and it does a far better job than Extreme Phono goop or Silly Putty-like polymers. Careful use is required of course, but we clean the stylus after every side (per a recommendation from Jonathan Carr of Lyra) and have no problems.
Glad to hear you're enjoying the Airy 2. Its holistic, accurate, integrated presentation is easy to live with for a very long time. Its sins, Mr. Quick Ears aside, are ones of omission only. You know, the kind of thing you never notice until you hear something better." (8/05)
"Thoughts on the ZYX cartridges - I owned a ZYX Airy 2 SB (along with a Benz Ebony LP, Koetsu Urushi, VdH Colibri and VdH Condor). I could never get the Airy 2 to come alive in my system despite changes in VTF and VTA (I have a VPI TNT-5 HR). The Airy 2 was very polite, neutral, but uninvolving. I returned it to the distributor and acquired a ZYX UNIverse which I just installed. Right out of the box the UNIverse is a stunning cartridge. I have about 8 hours on it. All the LPs that I have played sound wonderful, even the LPs that shouldn't, sound wonderful. Suspecting a euphonic coloration I called a friend who had just installed a ZYX Airy 3 in his system. My friend concurred. He felt that his ZYX had a wonderful coloration that made everything sound brilliant, vivid and dynamic. He had just had a friend over who is doing an LP reissue. In my friend's system they compared a CD-R taken from the master tape with a test pressing LP taken from the master tape. With my friend's regular cartridge (which is respected for its neutrality), my friend thought the CD-R and LP test pressing sounded very, very similar. With the ZYX Airy 3 the test pressing was much more musical and enjoyable, but it sounded less like the CD-R.
What I now have to determine over the next few hundred listening hours is if the UNIverse is in fact colored. A cartridge that makes mediocre pressings sound wonderful and great recordings spectacular is certainly a boon to vinyl lovers. However, like the colorations of the Koetsus, will the wonderful and very musical colorations of the ZYX become tiresome? Just something to keep in the back of your mind while listenng to the ZYX cartridges.
On the other hand, the UNIverse is so delightful to listen to I just may end up saying "neutrality be damned" and just enjoy replaying all 7,000 of my LPs over and over and over again. A remarkable cartridge. You do need to get one into your own system."
Personal Note- This is the first negative reaction I've read about the ZYX UNIverse. The UNIverse will be auditioned sometime later this year, I hope. Meanwhile, the Airy 2 is still the second most "alive" cartridge I've ever heard in my own system, so I am at total odds with this reader's experiences.
(For another disagreement, this time with his friend; No simple "coloration", on its own, can make a cartridge, or any component for that matter, sound "dynamic". Why not? True dynamic capabilites are strictly volume related contrasts. If the frequency related "dips" and/or "emphasis" are consistent in degree at all loudness levels, the "dynamics" will be totally uneffected. In short- "colorations" deal with relative frequencies, while "dynamics" deal with relative loudness. As for the word "uninvolving", please see "My Audio Philosophy", where I discuss that word plus "Musical".)
ZYX UNIVERSE CARTRIDGES- I don't remember the last time I've read such an overwhelming amount of praise and enthusiasm for any component. a veteran reader just sent me his preliminary observations, which couldn't be more rhapsodic and complimentary. I felt they should be shared, since they're beyond the norm. Here it is, with some slight editing (My bold):
"(I) just bought a UNIverse...I upgraded from a ZYX Airy 2. Paying over $ 4,000 for something the size of a Georgia pecan isn't what I would have called cost effective. I could have bought a modest but nice, preamp, DAC, or a bunch of vinyl for that kind of money.
As skeptical as I was, I can tell you that this new ZYX has made a larger improvement in my system than anything else I have done in the last 12 years. I continue to be impressed. I have had maybe 3 audio epiphanys in my 35 years of this hobby (wife calls it a disease). The UNIverse is number 4.
I will fill you in on the details in a short while as it seems to get better with every listening session. Kind'a like an "expanding UNIverse". (Pun intended). I'm still collating."
Personal Note- I'm doing my best not to be influenced by all the excitement for this cartridge. Fortunately, it's not that difficult because I'm really happy with what I have, the ZYX Airy 3, let alone my having the unforgettable experiences of countless disappointments in the past. Still, if this is all true...!!!
ZYX UNIVERSE (.24MV COPPER) CARTRIDGE- Here's a letter from a veteran reader. He has more experience with the UNIverse cartridges than any other audiophile that I know. He's also, in my opinion, a very astute listener.
"I've just read your August update, which included your reaction to the cartridge I've been raving about for nearly two years. I'm happy you've had the chance to try it in your system and hear what all the fuss has been about.
In my experience, the "spooky realism" of this cartridge does not pale over time. In fact, other system upgrades allow it to get even "spookier". This cartridge gets better with familiarity, not worse. That, it seems to me, is a sign of genuine value in a component. The better the system, the better it sounds. Not only do I relish replaying all my favorite LP's, I discover unexpected relish replaying LP's I thought were only mediocre. They get better, which is another kind of value.
You wondered which of the 12 (now 13) differences you noted were due to low output vs. high and which were due to copper vs. silver. I have compared .24mV Copper vs. .24mV Silver and particularly noted your difference #6 ("It is more precise and delicate, especially with all types of transients"). The transient behavior of the Copper version is notably more accurate and realistic, even when comparing cartridges of the same output. I was as surprised as you at the superiority of the Copper, and have no explanation either." (9/06)
Personal Notes- You can get more information from this reader, about the silver vs. copper coils issue, by going to Audiogon; Analog Discussion Group. I share his opinion that even "mediocre" records are enhanced (improved) by using the UNIverse. The reader also verifies my working theory that it's still the higher output which is causing the most problems, and must be avoided if possible.
"Value" is a very subjective term, and it's difficult to imagine any $ 5,000 cartridge, no matter how good it is, as having "genuine value". However, with the exception of improving your speakers, I can't think of another one-step improvement that would be as substantial as moving to this cartridge. So, for some phono-oriented readers with appropriate systems, the UNIverse may actually be the audio purchase with the highest performance/cost ratio now available to them.
I received this letter from a reader who has been an audiophile for many decades. Below are his observations about two of Dynavector's cartridges, one of which is a Reference at this time. There's some minor editing and my bold:
"After reading and following your Reference Components list (cartridges) for a number of years, I decided to try the Dyna 17d2 cart. While it has many excellent qualities (speed, openness, imaging, depth), it simply did not reproduce bass in balance with the other aspects of the cart.
But the immediacy of a Dyna is inescapable...I decided to try the next cart up the line (DVxx2 MkII)....WOW...this is one that deserves a listen. It does everything the 17d2 does, but better. Great tracker, wonderful bass in balance with the full spectrum of musical reproduction. The Dyna immediacy with an openness and great sense of air around instruments and voices. The 3D sound staging and depth of field is eerie. This cart is an excellent match with my system:
AI M3a pre, Quicksilver transformer
Quicksiler 8417 Monos
Spendor SP9/1 speakers (these continue to amaze me)
VPI Scoutmaster, JMW9 Signature, Ring clamp system
Quicksilver silver speaker and innerconnect wire
I realize you cannot listen to everything out there, but if given an opportunity, this one deserves to be heard. After owning and listening to the Benz H2O, H2, Clearaudio Virtuoso, Dyna 17d2 MkII (on balance there is little to choose between these units...all very good, but different strengths and weaknesses), I can say without a doubt the DVxx2 MkII easily kicks the crap out of them, and there is not a slouch in the group. It is simply in a different league."
Personal Notes- A number of other audiophiles have also made similar claims about the performance of the Dynavector DVxx2. I won't be able to hear it myself, but I advise readers to check it out. I've also noticed that Dynavector cartridges are consistently compatible with VPI tonearms. Every person I can remember has mentioned the 17D's weakness in the bass, so it should be considered definitive. I've mentioned this bass problem with the 17D from its initial write-up in November 2003, but it can be easily overlooked. (12/06)
The same reader who sent some earlier letters in December about the Canary Reference One, sent me this e-mail about his experiments with optimizing the Vertical Tracking Force on the above combination. Minor editing:
"Last night I thought I would re-evaluate the tracking force on the Dynavector XV1-S and Graham Phantom arm. I confirmed it was at 2.66 grams and then listened to a few specific cuts. I adjusted the tracking to 2.2 grams and listened again. No question that the detail and clarity of the mid-range and treble dropped off with the soundstage losing some of its normal seamless presentation. I moved the tracking back to 2.66 grams and it all came back. I then moved the tracking to 2.76 grams and found a very slight improvement and left it there." (1/08)
I recently received this (edited) letter from a reader:
"The cartridge section ...(can not) be regarded as authoritative, or even informative, when it doesn't even mention the existence of Ortofon..."
I would like, ideally, to get as much of my relevant audio experiences posted as humanly possible. Since I do this part-time, I am trying to post what I feel is the most relevant, helpful and important information first. The rest will have to wait (maybe forever). Accordingly, there are still numerous lines, in which I have extensive experience, that I have not yet mentioned on this website.
As for the Ortofon cartridge line, there are many models, past and present. I was never an official Ortofon dealer in my audio retailer days. Still, through numerous trades and "special-deals", I heard virtually all of their most popular models, from the early 1980's to the middle 1990's, which even included their (then) top of the line ultra-low output designs (the MC-2000 and the MC-3000). (I have no experience with Ortofon's current models.)
The reason I haven't already mentioned any of these Ortofons is that I felt there was nothing special about them to discuss, for better or worse. Every model I heard was "good". The ultra-low output versions (.05mV!), mentioned above, did have some "outstanding qualities" (an amazing speed and purity), but they were impractical to use, and I still preferred other cartridges, overall, at the time. And these other cartridges didn't require extraordinary methods to amplify them.
Alternatively, if I had felt that the Ortofon cartridges were substandard in sonics, or even overpriced (like many of the Clearaudio pickups), I would have warned my readers by now. I don't feel that audiophiles have to be "warned" about Ortofon. They're good, well-made, safe and fairly priced. I realize this may not be enough to satisfy an audiophile who is a real "fan" of the line, but that is my honest opinion. (2/08)
Here's an interesting observation from a reader concerning a cartridge none of has heard (as far as I know). This is a small part of a lengthy letter, with my bold:
"...The Colibri... is the finest cartridge I have heard. I feel its sense of space, transparency, and lack of bloom is what other manufactures are trying to achieve. I don’t think they know how, so they dampen the tone of there flagship cartridges to try to simulate what the Colibri does naturally. The Colibri has unbelievable resolution and detail. No cartridge I have heard comes close. The Dynavector XV-1s sounds 20 years old in comparison. It also has all the colors of the spectrum in complete saturated hue. The colors are not grayed out like the (Air Tight) PC-1 and the XV-1s."
Personal Notes- Usually "lack of bloom" is a sonic deficiency, so I assume this reader means this to be some sort of a reduction in distortion. I've never heard the Colibri (that I know), but if it actually outperforms the Dynavector to the same degree that this reader claims, then it will also be the finest cartridge, by far, that any of us has ever heard.
This same reader is getting in a ZYX UNIverse (which is my personal reference), and he promises to get back to me with his results from another direct comparison. (12/08)
For the last time...
"...This notion that the Dynavector XV-1s requires 2.7g or whatever is total nonsense...
First of all, if you track it that heavily (against the manufacturer's wishes by the way), you are surely pushing the coil out of the magnet system's linear range. So if you prefer nonlinear performance, by all means, knock yourself out, but you are not hearing the designer's intentions, nor are you hearing linear performance from the cartridge. Such advice to readers does them and the manufacturer a disservice.
But beyond that, by grotesquely increasing tracking force by more than a half a gram beyond the recommended maximum VTF, you are changing the SRA by a huge amount....by doing so and not changing the VTA to compensate for the SRA change to restore the VTA/SRA to what it was before you increased the VTF so that you could make some kind of informed comparison, is making a fool's comparison.
By claiming that the XV-1s sound better with the coil out of the gap's linear region (this according to the cartridge designer) and by not explaining that in order to know whether you're hearing the effect of increased VTF or the change in SRA made when you increase tracking force by that much, you indicate a lack of understanding of the entire process.
If you're going to suggest increasing tracking force well above the manufacturer's recommendation you need to explain that doing so will have a profound effect on SRA that should be compensated for in order that the listener compares one parameter change, and not two.
Finally, I will never recommend operating a piece of gear outside of the manufacturer's recommendations. It's very bad policy and exhibits a level of arrogance I find repulsive."
First, this reader ignores several (critical and posted) facts:
1. The higher tracking force is recommended only* with VPI JMW tonearms (the longer 12.6 model in particular).
2. The improved sonic performance has now been consistently heard, and verified, over a 4 year period.
3. The improvement was independently observed by Harry Pearson (TAS), Harry Weisfeld (VPI) and my "Associate"**, each of whom has almost 40 years of experience (comparable, if not greater, than the reader).
4. In each instance, these highly experienced audiophiles routinely readjusted the other cartridge parameters, like the VTA, after changing the VTF. This mandatory procedure is so obvious, like rebiasing an amp with new output tubes, that it goes without saying. (Only audiophiles who are setup experts, or with access to experts, should own an XV-1s in the first place.)
5. During this entire 4 year period, there has been absolutely no deterioration in cartridge performance, in any of these systems, by the unexpected "coil gap", or anything else.
*A reader, just above, claims that the Graham Phantom tonearm also requires a heavier (2.7 grams) tracking force than what is recommended by the manufacturer. All of these named tonearms have unipivots.
**My "associate" has, very recently, been using the Kuzma Airline Tonearm, and with the exact same XV-1s. Accordingly, he has had to conduct entirely new setup experiments. The results- He now uses 2.2 grams of VTF (instead of 2.7 grams), which is within the manufacturer's recommendation. This further proves that it is only the observed results that actually matter with the audiophiles I trust, and not common prejudice, blind faith, thoughtless assumptions and/or ignorance.
Finally, my perspective on this entire VTF issue, generally and specifically, is fundamentally different than this reader's:
"Disservice"?- I strongly believe it would be a much greater "disservice" if I had censored these important results and observations from my readers, simply, I assume, to satisfy a (overly sensitive?) manufacturer, who can't be expected to test all of their cartridges with every tonearm in existence.
In short- I don't believe that any manufacturer is omniscient, which is why I have performed (and recommended) "modifications" for 30 years. Some "mods" work and some don't work. Why? Because no one knows it all, in audio, or anything else in life. To claim otherwise, as does this reader, is true "arrogance".
"Repulsive"?- That is a powerful word. I'll save it for: Darfur, "honor killings", Taliban, Emmett Till, Kim Jong Il, female circumcision, Robert Mugabe et al. If I was forced, with a gun to my head, to make an audio analogy, then I'd advise reading The Stereophile Report. There you can observe the sad and pathetic results when loyal readers are sold out to "commercial interests".
I don't have any experience with this cartridge, and neither do any of my associates, although the II version is a "Reference" (Class B-Lower). One veteran reader is impressed with with the III, and I felt his observations should be shared. There's some minor editing and my bold:
"I just wanted to share an experience somewhat different than what is posted in your site: re the 17DII (I assume a close relative of the 17D3 I have). We compared this cartridge to 23R (Ruby).
My deck is an Oracle Delphi Mk II (well set-up after 30 hours of trials and errors with the suspension towers…), Alphason Xenon MCS (13gr arm) and Dynavector Karat 17D3. The mat is hard carbon (and not the original Oracle mat), and there is one tweak – TTweights (http://www.ttweights.com/page/page/6597621.htm) 290gr copper outer ring (great tweak by the way).
On my deck, my impression was of a very neutral sounding cartridge, very low surface noise (compare to Shibata based Audio Technica cartridges, which are detailed but noisy and a little edgy to my ears), tonally balanced top to bottom, dynamic in both macro and micro, extended top to bottom (what lack of bass?!? Bass is extended and very clean with super fast attacks, bass is not boomy – no mid bass hump, sorry British sound loversJ), extremely nimble, airy and detailed at a price of loss of an overall body and fullness (density).
Best short description I have: In my deck, it sounds like a CD with soul. People who are used to the fuller (but slower/laidback) sound of most basic turntables, might not like this cartridge. A matter of preference." (8/09)
Here is an interesting letter from a veteran reader, which I felt should be shared, with some minor editing and my bold:
"More thoughts about the Dynavector 17D3 Vs Benz Micro SM:
After few more days with the Benz, and after living for three years with the DV17D3, I think I have a better grip of their strengths and weaknesses, which mostly lie in their physical design:
The 17D3 is a much faster cartridge than the Benz SM. This is not a surprise given shorter and stiffer cantilever (diamond cantilever) and less coil windings, which translates to lighter mass. What this translates to is a cartridge which moves and stops on a dime. Almost like a strain gauge on-off type reaction, which makes sense of my comparison to a good CD player.
The 17D3 has no give or flexibility. Like the Yamaha NS-1000 Beryllium drivers, it has excellent speed and attack, but shorter decay. The phenomenal speed creates some dryness in its sound whether it is tonally lean (with a light tonearm) or full (with a heavy tonearm), especially in the mid and low bass where overtones are lost in translation.
It also translates to an airy and open sound, but diminished sense of depth (like in most electrostatic speakers in my mind). I can see why panel guys, with already loose bottom ends, would like a cartridge like that. It will complement their electrostatic super fast top end, while tightening their loose bass (it will still lack complexity, but at least it will not sound bloated). In a box speaker, with two 7" carbon fibre drivers, like mine, a 17D3 bass will be too tight, and one note, to sound realistic, especially on double basses. Enter the Benz Micro: now here is just about the opposite cartridge - it is heavier, it has a longer Boron cantilever, which is slightly less stiff than diamond, and it is mounted inside a vented wood box.
This translates to "woody" sound (for better or worse): Very lush and full, with plenty of overtones, harmonics and decay, especially in the mid and lower bass, but it's limited speed translates to softer and rounder attack.
The top end, while pretty smooth is a bit rounded off, fat and not as sharp and snappy compared to the 17D3. This translates to limited texture retrieval and a touch of dullness in the top end. Not lack of liveliness per se, but definitely less emphasis on top end which translate to less airy and open sound.
Its strength lies in its ability to reproduce very realistic bass, and to reproduce rich tonality, harmonics and decay. Its greatest strength is its ability to present the whole musical picture, rather than concentrate on its individual parts. With all of its shortcomings, I find it to be a much less fatiguing and much more organic and liquid cartridge than the 17D3 IN THE CONTEXT OF MY SYSTEM.
Again, these two cartridges remind me of the difference between electrostatic speakers (Dynavector 17D3) and box speakers (Benz Micro). A case of system matching and, of course, taste and priorities." (08/12)
Personal Note- The finest cartridges, such as the ZYX UNIverse, and the two finest Dynavector models, combine the strengths of both cartridges, but they are in another price category.
I recently received this letter from a reader, living in the U.K., who has also heard the Benz LP-S and has directly compared it to other top cartridges. I felt his letter should be shared. There is minor editing and my bold:
"I read your February (2013) update about the Benz LP-S with interest. I have been using Benz Ebony LPs for about 6 or 7 years. Fortunately they are one of the very few audiophile items which cost less in the UK than in the US.
I auditioned the latest LP-S and felt it was not a significant, if any, improvement over the original LP. (Nor did the UK distributor). I have liked the sound of the Benz LP hence owning several. About 2 years ago, I decided to add an extra arm to my Kuzma XL4, so purchased a 4-Point and a Vdh Colibri.
This cartridge divides opinion, but I wanted a contrast to the Benz. The Colibri is ruthless in its presentation and makes the Benz sound rather dull. The Colibri defines the spatial aspects of the recording space and adds greater depth. It is very good with classical music and jazz. It creates slightly more surface noise on poor vinyl. I found I used the Colibri much more than the Benz. The exception being female vocals that contained sibilance. The Colibri shows up any flaws in a recording, while the Benz masks them to some extent.
I would be so bold as to suggest the reason the Benz does not emphasize surface noise is because it does not really extend the high frequencies. It is a nice smooth sounding cart and I considered it SOTA as far as my experience was concerned. In an otherwise bright sounding system, it could be a good choice. I believe I have a revealing, pretty neutral balance, set up.
More recently a new cartridge has come into my life, the AirTight PC-3. This cartridge seems to have the strengths of the Benz and Colibri blended into one. It has a slightly higher output which gives it power, it is fast, detailed and portrays a large sound picture. It projects a rock solid image and locates instruments precisely. The UK price is considerably more than the Benz, but in the US considerably less. You really should audition this cartridge. It obviously suits my system well, but then I thought the others did.
To put this in context - I too have decades of phono experience, stretching back to my (Garrard) 401. I consider the set-up of my cartridges and arms to be pretty spot on. I use an USB microscope for VTA/SRA and an oscilloscope for azimuth." (03/13)
Personal Notes- I have not heard the Benz LP-S. My associates conducted the listening tests and wrote the review. I would like to hear the PC-3, since it is reasonably priced ($ 3,500), but the PC-1 is of more interest, since it is their "all-out" model. Unfortunately, the PC-1 costs around $ 9,000.
I received this letter from a reader who has extensive experience with many of the finest audio components ever made. Even better, he has compared these components to each other, and is not hesitant with directly stating his observations and evaluations. There is some minor editing and my bold:
As for "I'll cut to the chase - I am using an original Panasonic Strain Gauge cartridge, with custom made tube power supply by Dave Slagle. After years of using first the ZYX, and then the Kondo MC cartridges, I decided to give the Soundsmith SG cartridge a try. I really liked it, but the ultra fine line contact stylus proved to be too sensitive to record-to-record variability in cutting angle. I also wondered about the electronics. I read somewhere that Dave Slagle had made up some custom tube power supplies for SG cartridges, and contacted him (Dave is quite a talented designer of tube and magnetic driven front end equipment).
To make a long story short, Dave convinced me to try his electronics with a NOS Panasonic SG cartridge from the late 70's (it's back when the Japanese were really trying to push the envelope). Well, the results were truly great - faster, more transport than a MC cartridge, yet full bodied corpulent sound. Extraordinary, by most measures, although the Panasonic does seem rather sensitive to temperature - I have to vary the VTF by as much as .3 gms between winter and summer. Again, this may be a final purchase. I also bought one of Dave's TVC, which made mincemeat of my Placette passive VC!! Slagle is the man!
Well that's about it for now. One thing I will say - despite the fact that I only listen at average volumes of about 70-75 db, I have still found that nothing beats the basic concept of moving a large volume of air. I think this is why I have always liked the big tall line source speakers - no matter what the volume they always sound more relaxed, and effortless compared to smaller speakers. in my short experience with tri-amping, the FR's I have found that tri-amping further enhances these effortless qualities. I find this very appealing." (08/13)
A veteran reader sent me his latest observations which may be useful to readers, especially those living in Australia. Here it is, with minor editing, but with my bold:
Lyra Kleos Cartridge (www.lyraconnoisseur.com)
"I think you already know that this is a remarkable cartridge, with some aspects of its performance better than the older vastly more expensive Lyra Titan. I upgraded from my Soundsmith enhanced Shelter 501 Mk2 to the Kleos a few weeks ago. It is certainly the best cartridge I have ever owned. The Shelter, with Soundsmith ruby cantilever and optimum contour stylus, has almost unbelievable performance for the price, but the Kleos is in a different league again." (08/13)
Some Good News!...
I received an e-mail from a happy reader, concerning the Benz-Micro LP Cartridge, which is the earlier version of the LP-S (a Reference Component on this website). Here it is, with some minor editing and my bold:
"My repaired benz arrived yesterday. Happy news after a somewhat sad start. The cart sounds wonderful. You said it would be better than the (ZYX) Airy 3, and better is an understatement. It's a Level 5 improvement on your scale. It sounds bloody gorgeous. The Needle Clinic did a fine job retipping and servicing. I imagine the sound will become a bit more refined as the new suspension breaks in.
This is the first time in my life (apart from playing in or listening live) that I have been able to clearly discern second and third instrumental harmony parts in an orchestral setting; from recorded works. Mind blowing really. I thought the ZYX was really good, but the level of detail the benz provides is something else entirely.
So, a sad tale has a happy ending." (03/14)
Personal Note- Of course, the really good news is that this reader's positive experience may mean that Benz cartridges, especially the higher priced models, will now be a viable option in the future. Any reader's confirmation will be appreciated.
The Needle Clinic
I recently received this letter from a veteran reader, with considerable experience with some of the finest MC cartridges ever made. I felt it should be shared (with minor editing and my bold):
"I have made a very positive discovery in the form of a new MC cartridge from Goldring, the Goldring Legacy MC. The price asked suggests a midrange cartridge, but the sound and performance from this cartridge says something else. I can not remember any cartridges I have ever owned bringing me closer to the music then this one, and I have owned quite a few including: Lyra Lydian, Lyra Clavis, Ortofon MC 20, 30, MC 3000, Rondo Bronze, Van den Hul MC DTT II, MC One, Linn Karma, Denon 103, 103R, 304DL, 305, DL1000A, etc.
The stylus used for the Goldring Legacy is one of the smallest I have ever seen apart from the Denon DL1000A stylus. The design is a moded Shibata cut diamond, "supervital" they call it. It has been quite a revelation listening to my record collection, retrieving things that I have not heard before from my records, in particular space and emotion in the recordings, which is very fascinating to listen to as it brings me back to the time where the recording was made.
I load it higher then recommend at 150 ohms, and the VTA is slightly positive (I have adjusted it to the "golden point", which is possible with VTA on the fly). I know that many will argue that this is not possible to do with a variation of thick and thin records, but you will have to take my word for it... My friends have heard it and they have had to surrender, as I can prove my point time and again with anything from an EMI Greensleeves ESD late 70s, to a London pancake pressing from the late 1950's). The recommended load of a 100 ohm & VTA will not reveal the strengths of this cartridge." (01/14)
Some Confirmation on Needle Clinic...
This reader's letter offers some confirmation on the service of Needle Clinic. Minor editing and my bold.
"I can't confirm anything about the Benz cartridge, but I can confirm the quality of work from The Needle Clinic. The suspension of my favorite cartridge, the Technics EPC 100 MK4, a brilliant design in my opinion, even if it is a moving magnet, had collapsed enough that I couldn't play a record without it physically bottoming. I sent it to The Needle Clinic and, for a super reasonable cost, I again have my favorite back. Dealing with Andy was also pleasant. Highly recommended."
Important Update- The speculation about the future unavailability of Benz cartridges was apparently due to an illness at the time. However, Tri-Cell Enterprises, who has been the Canadian distributor of the Benz line for more than two decades, has informed me, in their own words, that "we should have some cartridges by the end of (March 2014). I will keep you informed". So it appears that this once sad story will end on a happy note.
A reader sent me this letter with his observations concerning some components mentioned prominently on this website, and I felt it should be shared. There's some minor editing and my bold:
"... I am fortunate enough now to have two identical tables, one with a Shelter 901ii and the other with an Airy 3 low output copper with silver base. The Shelter has about 150 hours and the Airy 3 about 40 so far. The tables are both VPI Mk IV with SAMA and speed controllers and the TNT platters, SME IV arms rewired with Audio Note tone arm wire and using AN/VX tonearm cables. I lucked into this deal, but on my main system have set things up so I can swap arm boards easily and with a minimum of adjustments.
After 30 years of Shure M91s and Grado Zs, I got a Shelter 501ii ten years ago and was so thrilled that I bought a 901ii a year ago. Then I needed a cartridge for my 'den' system and got a Denon 103R, which is a horrible match for an SME IV arm. I figured that out in a few months and got the Airy 3.
I first have to say that the 901ii is much more refined and nuanced than the 501ii is in my system. The distinctions are all subtle, but added up together they make for a markedly superior cartridge- almost delicate sounding. The Airy 3 at first reminded me of the Walt Disney hippo wearing a tu-tu doing a ballerina act in a movie. The Airy 3 images like crazy, and seems way faster and more detailed than it should be. The Shelter reminds me I guess of a hummingbird moving about a flower with absolute precision and delicately taking nectar. I could for sure live with either one of them and now don't know which will stay with my main system.
The rest of my system probably isn't worth mentioning except to interject that I use dynamic speakers that are known for world class bass, 4 monoblock amps for use as tone controls (I know folks shun this but my midranges can still honk even after rewiring and Mundorf caps), and I am a fan of Mundorf SGO and Dueland Cast caps as opposed to your preference for Teflon. My listening room has huge bass traps and is certainly overdamped, as I prefer dry fast delicate sound." (07/14)
THE REFERENCE COMPONENTS
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