REFERENCE COMPONENTS THE SUPREME RECORDINGS MY AUDIO SYSTEM REVIEWING THE 'REVIEWERS' MISCELLANEOUS NEW LINKS USED COMPONENTS NOW ON SALE INTERNAL LINKS
THE SUPREME RECORDINGS
MY AUDIO SYSTEM
REVIEWING THE 'REVIEWERS'
USED COMPONENTS NOW ON SALE
This section contains ALL of the newest material before it is posted to the dedicated files. It will remain here for around 12 months. So readers can now find the latest observations, news, opinions and thoughts in the fastest time.
Caveat 1- Readers should always keep in mind that the material which is most recently posted is also, generally speaking, the least reliable. It is usually, though not always, my (or our) "first impressions". Sometimes it will be an a simple update, which of course is usually more reliable. In any event, I may further edit, quite liberally and without any notice or warning, anything you may read here.
Caveat 2- A number of the posts below are by Anonymous Readers of this website. They are separated from my own posts (*******), and should never be considered my own personal evaluation, belief or recommendation. In many cases, I will add a "Personal Reply" to the reader's letter. If so, my contribution will be the only editorial part of that post that I take personal responsibility for.
I have made these letters public because I feel they may be interesting and informative to some readers. I also like an exchange of observations, evaluations and ideas, even when I disagree with some of them. However, readers >must always consider the extent of the previous experiences of the anonymous writer. Serious thought should also be focused on the writer's actual objectivity and their sonic priorities. All of this background and perspective is obviously relevant and critical, and can be extremely difficult to evaluate within a short anecdotal observation. A continual skepticism in our audio world is a perspective that is difficult to argue with.
There's nothing new to report this month, but to partially make up for this lack of new content, I have posted an interesting series of "Readers Letters", see below.
Further- Almost all of the Readers Letters that are removed from this file, after the standard 12 Month posting (such as the July 2018 Readers Letters), are subsequently posted in their respective Reference Component Files: Amplifiers, Cartridges, Speakers etc. They can be found under "Readers Letters". If the reader's letter discussed more than one type of audio component, I will place that letter in the file of the component that was the most discussed.
A long-time reader, who lives in Australia, sent me a letter concerning the latest version of the Doge 8 Preamplifier, which has long been one of this website's "References". I have still not heard any version of the Doge 8 myself, but some of my associates have been owners, and all of them feel it is one of the best values in audio history, both for its sonics and its build quality. Other components are also discussed as well by this reader.
With my urgings, prompts and questions, this generous reader ended up sending me 7 letters, some of which are quite lengthy. They are posted below in chronological order. I found these letters both interesting and informative. I am presently doing my best to convert (to html), organize and edit the various sections, but I don't have the time these days to meticulously edit them. I will also attempt to add some relevant links after all of the letters have been posted. Here they are, with my bold:
Thought I'd let you know what has happened in my system since I contacted you in 2015 about my Doge 8 purchase. I sold it a few days ago and ordered the newly released Doge 8 Clarity (2019 Edition). Mr Liu, who owns the Doge designs and operates the factory out of China, has made major design improvements in the MM/MC phono section (including fully adjustable cartridge capacitance and impedance settings), minor improvements in the line preamp design, and substantially improved component quality across the board. The result is apparently a substantially better sounding preamp than any of the previous Doge 8 offerings by a large margin. Mine will be arriving next Wednesday, and I'll immediately be swapping 2 NOS GE JAN 12AT7WCs and 2 NOS Mullard 12AT7s into the line sockets and making similar 12AX7 swaps into the phono.
I shall give you my impressions.
My already radically modified switchable power/integrated amp, seated in a Yaqin MC-100B chassis, has just been totally rebuilt by Joe Rasmussen (see link below), to incorporate his latest thinking on providing current-compatible (i.e. non-reactive) speaker loads. Here's a photo, but note that the 12AT7s and 6550s are just left in for show! The entire first and 2nd stage amplification uses transformers and a Darlington Pair transistor array in a unique combination (first time he has used transistors in an amplifier for well over a decade). The power tube stage uses 4 "fat bottle" 6CA7 tubes. This is a sub-$3000 power/integrated amp which, for musicality and sheer musical impact, blows away vastly more expensive power amps I've heard. I don't think I have heard a better sounding amp.
At the same time, Joe modified my Oppo 105D to his ultimate performance version (JLTi level 4.2 ACD "Signature"). It's hard to characterize this digital player except to say that I've never heard a dedicated CD player or digital server which comes close. I do hope you get to experience one of these - it may not reach the heights of your Upper Class A APL, but it costs about US $2,500 in upgrades to an Oppo UDP-205 or Oppo BDP-105x, so, even if you are paying the current crazy price for an Oppo 205, it's still going to cost a fraction of a 2nd hand Esoteric K-1. And with BDP-105s going for US $500, it's a truly wonderful digital player for under $3K.
I spent an hour this morning comparing my German CBS pressing of Robert Casadesus playing the Mozart 24th Piano Concerto (George Szell/Chicago) on my turntable system, with the CBS Masterworks CD on the modified Oppo. The vinyl still trounces the CD, but, if I did not compare, I could have mistaken the CD reproduction for vinyl.
I then listened to the 3rd movement of the wonderful David Zinman performance of Mahler's 2nd Symphony on RCA SACD (one of the best digital recordings I've ever heard), and was overwhelmed by it. The combination of new changes to the amp and to the Oppo 105D allowed the recording to recreate the Tonhalle concert hall for me.
A few words about Joe Rasmussen: If you ever heard the Allen Wright Electronics valve amps of about 2 decades ago and more, (AJ Van Del Hul described his AWE Realtime power amps as the most realistic amps on earth), Joe Rasmussen was responsible for many of Allen Wright's electronic designs. Joe's reference speakers are the 'current-driven' DIY Elsinore Mk 6 speakers that he designed and are lauded by many to be the best sounding DIY speakers in the world.
Here is a quote from someone who built a pair of Joe Rasmussen's DIY Elsinores: 'What I’ve long loved about the Egglestonworks Andras is their effortlessness. The Andras are never fatiguing; they always sound like they’re comfortably striding along, easily making music. They have a very natural mid-range and over the past 18 years or so I’ve come to really love them. But the Elsinores are better: the low end is a little more coherent, they seem to be an easier load on my amplifiers (they are certainly a little more efficient) and their tonal balance is incredibly engaging. Nothing too forward, no stridency, beautifully balanced, very engaging. I cannot tell you how pleased I am with these new speakers. I doubt I will ever be able to fully express my appreciation to Joe Rasmussen, whose brilliance appears to be matched by his extraordinary generosity (Joe, if you ever find yourself in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA region, you have a place to stay and a great bottle of wine waiting for you). Scott'
Keep in mind that Scott was comparing the Elsinores, which cost him a few grand, to $15,000 speakers regarded by some as among the best medium priced speakers in the world.
By the way, I retain my scepticism about your generalized Class D rating of all Oppos. It does not at all reflect my experience. I compared my JLTi-modified Oppo BDP-95AU (sold, waiting on pickup), to my stock Oppo UDP-205 (both sold to fund the 105D upgrade above). The stock UDP-205 sounded very nice, but I've heard several stock CD-only players which sounded better playing that format. On the other hand, my JLTi-modded BDP-95AU was more revealing, more intense, more focused, more musical that even Oppo's newest top-of-line. Certainly, the stock UDP-205 is deserving of your Class D, and probably the stock BDP-105x and BDP-95x models as well, but the BDP-103, BDP-93 and BDP-83 are not in the same musical league (I can't speak for the BDP-203 which I've never heard).
Reading your review of the problems with digital players, it occurs to me that Joe Rasmussen's ultimately modified Oppo 105x Oppo 205 player does many of the things you regard as unobtainable (at least for now) outside the APL, in a player which is cheaper than some barely listenable digital players. I'm not suggesting it is a match for the APL by any means, but:-
The player uses a clocking mechanism which overcomes the DAC timing problems inherent in standard clocking:
-It reclocks all digital sources immediately prior to the DAC and overcomes some of the issues associated with transport jitter, USB jitter, etc.
-By treating jitter as sub-sonic analog noise (which Joe believes it actually is), jitter is filtered, post-DAC, in ways which largely eliminate the inherent jitter of Delta Sigma DACs without affecting any information in the audible spectrum
-The player has no capacitors in the analogue output stage, using only transformers
-The player does not require a line stage and can be the digital/analog preamp for all digital sources which feed into it via the transport, the HDMI inputs, the USB inputs and the digital inputs, due to the particular architecture of the Sabre DAC family
Because it is a true universal music player, treating all digital sources identically, it provides a way to listen to music on hard drives, music delivered from a digital-output-enabled digital tuner, music from subscription cloud-based music services, CDs, SACDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays etc., with a quality of sound considerably better than anything I have heard before in the digital domain. Most importantly, it's a pleasure to listen to it. With the right material, it provides the same sense of wonder that good analogue provides.
Doge 8 Clarity (2019 Edition)
Actually direct comparisons between the two Doge 8 generations is not possible, as I sold the Doge 8 LP to help finance the Doge 8 Clarity (2019 Edition). Keep in mind that, with the extraordinary realism of the JLTi amplifier, I had become dissatisfied enough with the Doge 8 LP's degradation of the JLTi, that I had stopped using the 8 LP, willing to forego output to my headphone amp.
Doge's (English) assistant sales manager had assured me that the Doge 8 Clarity sound would be radically more transparent than the Doge 8 LP, though he believed I would need to roll tubes again. Both his assurance about transparency and his assumption about tube rolling were correct.
After some 150 hours burn-in of the Doge 8 Clarity (not anywhere near enough burn-in time as it turned out), using the same American military grade tubes as I had in the Doge 8 LP, the sound, fed into the JLTi amp used as a power amp, was disappointingly inferior to the sound of the JLTi amplifier alone (switched to integrated mode). There was excellent immediacy, but severe degradation of the holographic soundstage of the JLTi.
Knowing the reputation for holographic imagery of NOS Siemens 1982 ECC081S tubes, and their relative affordability, I obtained 2 matched pairs (for a staggeringly cheap US $33 per tube) and replaced my military grade American tubes with them. Once I'd given them a couple of days burn-in, by which time the Doge components had 300+ hours of burn-in, I was rewarded with musical reproduction starting to approach that of the JLTi alone! Not quite as much air around instruments and voices, and a slightly different soundstage overall, but I was clearly hearing a very special preamp. Since then I have also been informed by Doge's assistant sales manager that new Russian (NOT Chinese!) copy Genalex Gold Lion B579 tubes also excel in this preamp.
I am currently writing a review of the Doge 8 Clarity (2019 Edition). I shall pass it on to you once completed, probably in a week or so.
JLTi OPPO BDP-105D Level 4.2+ACB "Signature"
I love listening to this player (mainly listening to my SACDs and FLAC rips of my CDs), almost as much as my vinyl. It is magnificently involving and intense, like sitting with the sound engineer as he adjusts the recording. The biggest difference in sound when I go to my record playing system is that the music 'relaxes'. The sound from the record player is no less intense, but the involvement with the vinyl player is somehow more like listening in a concert hall seat.
http://www.customanalogue.com/ is Joe Rasmussen's home page, which concentrates on the Oppo player upgrades - note that prices are all in Australian dollars, so the price of the full signature upgrade of the BDP-105x and of the UDP-205, is around US $2,500
JLTi Yaqin Mk5 hybrid push-pull transconductance amplifier
I cannot describe the sense of 'being there' conveyed by this amplifier. I've heard it only into my own speakers (Totem Arro pair + REL T2), and into Joe Rasmussen's fabulous Elsinore Mk 6 pair. My brother (a professional bass payer and music arranger) gasped in disbelief when he first heard it. He'd heard the amp prior to its Mk 5 rebuild, but was totally unprepared for the breathtaking increase in realism he now heard.
Joe believes this to be the first amplifier of its type in the world, but I suspect that stratospherically expensive Silbatone amplifiers use somewhat similar design concepts. Any information about amplifiers on Joe's pages relates to amps which predate this one and do not include its unique solid-state high-transconductance input stage, or 6CA7-based output stage.
Sydney Audition in August
On August 18, I'll be presenting practically my system at the Sydney Audio Club, for the whole 3-hour club meeting (I'm not a member). It will be the first opportunity for the public to hear the JLTi Mk5 amplifier, the fully JLTi-upgraded Oppo 105D (next to an unmodified 105D), and the first Australian public audition of the Doge 8 Clarity (2019 Edition). The Sydney Audio Club can be contacted for details via their web presence on the Stereo.net.au forums: https://www.stereo.net.au/forums/forum/81-sydney-audio-club/.
I've done a rudimentary review of the Doge, but at this point I only have less than 100 hours on my new phono stage tubes (Russian copy Genalex Gold Lion B759 [12AX7]) so there is still some way to go before they are at their best. I'm convinced that these are the best affordable 12AX7s available today. Right now they are very detailed with very low noise, but not quite as incisive as I am hoping for. My stand alone phono is still significantly superior, but I'm beginning to think that the Doge's phono may actually get to its heady heights!
In a few days' time, I will do a critical comparison.
In the meantime, I'll compare, once again, the Doge's line stage from my JLTi Oppo through to the JLTi amp, to the same music direct from the JLTi Oppo to the JLTi amp (the JLTi Oppo has a lossless volume control) to assess the inevitable degradation through the Doge. My recollection is that the Doge line stage (with Siemens 1982 ECC801S tubes) has a level of transparency which is quite astonishing in direct comparison, but I shall check if my memory played tricks on me. I think I shall compare using the 3rd movement of Mahler's 2nd Symphony on SACD with David Zinman conducting the Tonhaller Orchestra.
Here is some of that rudimentary review. It is not a warts-and-all review, making some assumptions I'm certain will be borne out in due course.
The Doge 8 Clarity (2019 Edition) is, by a VERY large margin, the BEST VALUE comprehensive preamp I have EVER heard!
Incredible sound quality.
-Beautifully laid out.
-Exceptionally well built.
-Solid remote control. Includes mute/unmute, volume control and on/off as well as source selection.
-Two variable outputs. I use one for my headphone amp.
-One fixed output for recording. When on phono, this actually fully bypasses the line stage – WOW that’s probably unique and an incredibly smart way to get as close to recording perfection from phono as possible.
-5 inputs + in-built MM/MC phono.
-Variable capacitance and impedance on phono.
-You can raise the line output by 8dB, at the flick of a switch, if required.
-You can INDEPENDENTLY raise the phono output by 8dB. WOW. Fantastic if you have an ultra-low-output MC. Or a medium-output MC you want to run as if it were a MM with a 47K ohm impedance. Or simply to raise the output level by 8dB if you are recording and bypassing the line amplification altogether.
SOUND QUALITY: There are line-only preamps out there which cost TEN TIMES as much and do not sound as good. And there are phono-only preamps out there which cost far more than this unit, and are spectacularly beaten in sound quality by the Doge 8 Clarity’s phono stage.
If money was no object, with the ingenuity that has gone into this phenomenal preamp, I’m certain Mr. Liu could have built an even MORE AMAZING preamp. But I could NEVER afford it and many of you couldn’t either.
What he has done for the money is beyond amazing! We have here, a truly incredible preamp, which could EASILY justify a price tag 3 or 4 times what Doge is charging. I cannot shout loudly enough: This is an amazing buy!
An important caveat:
The Chinese 12AT7 and 12AX7 tubes which come standard with the Doge 8 Clarity do NOT do it justice. The Doge 8 Clarity deserves FAR better! I use Siemens NOS 1982 (Munich) ECC801S (12AT7) tubes in the line stage, which, after say 200 hours settling in, ?allow the line stage to absolutely excel with a deep wide holographic soundstage and exquisite vocals and truly lifelike realism! These spectacular tubes cost me a little over $50 each.
In the phono stage, I have four Russian copy (gold pinned) Genalex Gold Lion B759 (12AT7) tubes which cost me under AU$50 per tube. Once they have settled in, they transform this excellent phono stage into a giant killer that puts many $3000+ phono preamps to shame.?
Further to my last email, I now provide my critical impressions of the Doge 8 line level music reproduction.
Musical Selection: Gustav Mahler Symphony No 2, 3rd movement, Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich conducted by David Zinman, RCA SACD
Source Electronics: JLTi-modified (level 4.2 ACD "Signature") Oppo 105D
Power Amp: JLTi Mk5 high-transconductance hybrid switchable power/integrated amplifier
Speakers: Totem Arro front speakers (with upgraded crossover caps) plus REL T-2 sub
Interconnects, speaker wire and power cords: AntiCables
-I set up volume levels with and without the Doge to be near-identical
-I listened to the 3rd movement (and 20 seconds of the 4th movement) with the Doge 8 Clarity fed by the JLTi Oppo and, in turn, feeding the JLTi power amp.
-I listened again to the 3rd movement (and 20 seconds of the 4th movement), this time with the JLTi Oppo directly feeding the JLTi power amp (the JLTi Oppo has a 100% lossless volume control).
-I listened to the 3rd movement (and 20 seconds of the 4th movement) again with the Doge 8 Clarity fed by the JLTi Oppo and, in turn, feeding the JLTi power amp.
In total, I listened for about 35 minutes including changing connections. I took no notes, but began writing this review immediately.
Note: This is an extremely unfair test, in that I am effectively comparing the Doge's musical signature and electronics to a complete lack of additional signature and electronics in the signal path! It is thus impossible for the performance with the Doge to be as true to the original recording as without.
My immediate response to the first listening was that is was breathtaking and shocking in its realism. Spacial positioning of instruments was very good with lots of instances of holographic positioning, but a few instruments did seem to wander a little. Air around instruments. Decay was palpable, emulating the actual decay which might be evident in the Zurich Town Hall. Musical textures and contrasts were phenomenal. Tension was beautifully evident, with slow decrescendos and pianissimo passages holding my attention before being hit by the next extreme fortissimo. Anna Larsson's solo entry into the third movement was spellbinding!
On the 2nd listening, I was surprised that it sounded a little "faster" and lighter (this is a dark movement). Apart from that, the single biggest difference was that the position of instruments was etched into the soundstage. In a few complex passages, I also felt there was a touch more clarity in the different musical lines thrown so aggressively against each other. It was a touch easier to close my eyes and pretend I was in the actual concert. Anna Larsson sounded even more remarkable at the beginning of the 3rd movement. Interestingly, I had expected her to be positioned either further forward or back in the soundstage but it seems that the Doge is extraordinarily neutral in this regard, and left her in the same position.
I would have expected that listening again with the Doge in the mix would have left me pining for the purer sound I had just heard. I cannot say that was what had happened. It took a few moments to readjust to a slightly less holographic soundstage, but nothing else really hit me as inferior. I did not get the impression that the music was "slower". And, probably because I had already heard it twice in short succession, if anything, the musical complexities were rendered even more transparent this time! Despite knowing this music very well, and hearing it a third time in 30 minutes, I was just as shocked each time Mahler wanted to shock me with his explosive instrumentation of sudden fortissimos. Anna Larsson's entry sounded a bit darker than the previous time.
The Doge 8 line stage (with NOS Siemens ECC081S tubes) held up better than I ever could have reasonably expected, regardless of price!
I shall compare the phono stage to my stand alone tubes + transformers MC phono in a few days time.
The turntable itself is a Once Analog Mk 2 turntable, taken up to the highest specification a little while before Vince Hamilton, on Australia's southeast coast, stopped producing his phenomenal-sounding turntables.
The arm is an Audio Origami PU7 arm from the legendary Johnny Nilsen in Glasgow, Scotland. It's an unassuming arm which simply does its job better than any arm I've heard near its price range.
The cartridge is a Lyra Kleos medium-low output (0.5mV) moving coil, designed by Jonathan Carr and crafted by Yoshinori Mishima.
The platter mat is a Herbie's Way Excellent II mat. Quite simply the best mat I have ever used.
I also use a TTWeights TTMega 1.2 Kg peripheral ring weight and Once Analog 1.4 Kg "Nugget" centre weight with every record.
The three turntable cone feet sit on Herbie's Cone/Spike Puckies which make an instant improvement in isolation.
My Reference Standalone Phono Preamp: Eastern Electric MiniMax hand-wired "Vacuum Tube Phono Preamplifier" with inbuilt permalloy MC step-up transformers, which I had massively re-engineered by Joe Rasmussen:
-RIAA corrected and split between input and output stages
-Gain increased to allow critical 1st-stage 12AX7 to be replaced by 12AT7
-Audio path design corrected, allowing all caps but one to be removed from the signal path
-Inferior bypass capacitors replaced by Jantzen Superior-Z caps (my favourite moderately priced caps)
-Power supply design corrected and components replaced
-Chinese 6X4 rectifier replaced by Mullard NOS EZ90 (never underestimate the difference a better rectifier tube makes)
-Two Chinese 12AX7 replaced by matched Mullard NOS ECC83s
-Chinese 12AX7 replaced by matched parts Raytheon NOS JAN 12AT7WA (a really wonderful tube)
Power Amp: JLTi Mk5 high-transconductance hybrid switchable power/integrated amplifier
Speakers: Totem Arro front speakers (with upgraded crossover caps) plus REL T-2 sub
Interconnects, speaker wire and power cords: AntiCables
Music: Georg Friedrich Haendel - Dixit Dominus
Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra
John Eliot Gardiner directing
Felicity Palmer soprano, Margaret Marshall soprano, Charles Brett counter-tenor, John Angelo Messana counter-tenor etc.
on Erato 33RPM
The Lyra Kleos has a recommended input impedance of between 88 Ohms and 810 Ohms, established by trial and error, but determined at least in part by the overall capacitance of the rig. Setting the impedance too low tends to smother the natural aggression within the music. Setting it too high tends to sacrifice subtlety in the music.
With 150 hours on my Genalex B759 phono tubes, using the available phono dip-switches, I adjusted the Doge for optimal phono reproduction, trying input impedances of 47K, 298.1 and 99.8 Ohms. I may yet try a slightly lower value (Within Lyra's preferred range I could go to 90.6 Ohms). I suspect that I already have the best compromise of detail and aggression.
I tried 92pF input impedance but went back to 46pF which is the minimum available.
The 100 Ohm setting of my modified EE MiniMax (which is the highest for MC that the MiniMax offers - though I could get that changed if I needed to) seems to work very well with the Kleos (also with my fallback cartridge - a ruby cantilevered Shelter 501 Mk2 - what a gem for the money!), but every phono stage is different.
-I went through several iterations of listening to both phono stages, changing dip-switch settings on the Doge, swapping over cables as necessary, until I was satisfied that the Doge.
-I listened to side 1 using the modified EE MiniMax phono preamp, at what I felt was correct volume
-I listened to the same side with the Doge set to my (so far) final settings
-I listened to some fragments on the modified EE MiniMax to verify my findings
Firstly, I am amazed every time I hear this record, just how well it has been recorded and how exquisite the musical interpretations and performances are.
Secondly, I'd like to emphasize that the reproduction through the Doge was clearly considerably better than several separate phono only preamps I've heard, including some which carry price tags way above the Doge's price tag as a combined line preamp and phono preamp.
The Doge provided a beautiful and captivating presentation of the soloists, choir and orchestra, with a deep and wide stereo soundstage and a real sense of drama and tension. Complex passages were well deciphered with instrumental lines and choral parts able to be easily heard across each other. And I was driven to turn the record over and listen to the other side, even though that was not part of the plan.
Nevertheless, the difference when listening to my reference was palpable. The musical textures were somehow more flowing and integrated. Yet every new voice or instrument seemed to impose itself into the mix as if everything had been waiting for it to arrive. There was a sense that the music was a carefully guarded secret to be gradually unhidden and divulged to me personally. Every moment was a mini-revelation in one continuous unveiling. And that is missing from the Doge (and from almost every other phono preamp I've ever heard - in fact, I've only heard one other phono preamp which did that for me).
Doge 8 Preamplifier
Custom Analogue Audio (JLTi & Joe Rasmussen Electronics, Speaker Kit and OPPO Upgrades from Austalia)
I have no recent audio evaluations to report. However, the worst of the summer weather is now over, which will finally allow me to conduct some audio experiments. I even have some important, and unexpected, new developments to report...
1. Coincident (New Generation) SET Power Amplifiers - I still expect to receive the Frankenstein Mk. III and Turbo amplifiers some time this fall, but I have no firm arrival date as of yet. As I stated earlier this year, I will audition the Turbo only after I have first fully completed my evaluation of the Frankenstein Mk. III. My first priority is a direct comparison of the new III to the older II, which is my current Reference (both amplifiers will be compared stock).
2. ZYX (New Generation) UNIverse Phono Cartridges - The ZYX UNIverse II became my Reference phono cartridge ("the best I ever heard") in 2013. Since 2014, ZYX has come out with three new UNIverse models (the "III", the "Premium" and the "Optimum"), which they have claimed to be sonically superior to the II.
A close audiophile friend, and associate, has recently purchased a Premium, and he had it sent to me for evaluation. I am now testing the Premium (which was discontinued in 2017), and I expect to post a detailed report on it in December or January 2020. I also expect to eventually audition both the current UNIverse III and the Optimum, though existing plans will delay these two evaluations until at least Spring 2020.
3. Degritter Ultra Sonic Record Cleaning Machine - I already purchased this machine and I expect to receive it sometime in November 2019. It is an "all-in-one" ultra sonic machine, cleaning (and drying) one LP at a time, which I have no experience with, up until now. I will compare the Degritter to the DIY Kuzma ultra sonic cleaning process I currently use.
I will also use this opportunity to update my overview of ultra sonic record cleaning in general, since I have now been utilizing this process for more than 3 years.
4. 2019 Updated "Masters" Speaker Set-Up - The anonymous author of the "Masters Speaker Set-Up Instructions", which has been posted on this website for many years, has sent me his latest thinking and advice, contained within a concise article. It is now posted in the Readers Letters, see below.
Coincident (New Generation) SET Power Amplifiers
ZYX (New Generation) UNIverse Cartridges
Degritter Ultra Sonic Record Cleaner
This important article will be reposted annually...
This is my best attempt at describing the different levels of improvement an audiophile may hear and observe during a comparison (assuming they actually exist in the first place). I also provide some examples that we (myself and one, or more, of my associates along with me) have experienced in the last few years, which will change over time to keep them recent and relevant.
The actual observations will constitute an objective reality to the listener. However, the listener's reaction to those same observations will, of course, always be personal and subjective, and may differ greatly from my descriptions, and from other audiophiles. In fact, in my experience...
For the most fanatical and enthusiastic audiophiles, a Level 3 observation may still trigger a Level 5 reaction. In stark contrast, some "objectivist" listeners will only acknowledge Level 1 to 3 improvements (at most!) to any component they hear, with the one exception of speakers, and react accordingly.
Important Note - It has been my long-term observation that it's easier to hear an improvement in sonics than to hear a deterioration. This is true, in my experience, for both veteran and novice audiophiles. This general rule is the reason why cartridge and tube deterioration, and many other sonic problems (some temporary), are not quickly recognized. This improvement/deterioration rule is also the foundation of a "Level 1 Improvement" (see below), and why many audiophiles feel uncomfortable with blind tests: Confirmation of what you just heard isn't as obvious or easy as you expected.
Now, from the most subtle to the most profound...
Level 1- The sonic improvement can be subtly, though still consistently, heard when switching to the superior component (A/B). However, the reverse matching deterioration is not heard when switching back (B/A) to the inferior component.
Example- Ars Acoustica Prototype I.C. Cable Vs. Coincident Extreme I.C. Cable (between the Jadis phono stage and the line stage)
Level 2- The sonic improvement can be heard when both switching components and then when switching back, but it is no longer specifically (or easily) heard after a short period of time; sometimes seconds, but almost always less than one minute.
Example- Coincident Extreme Shotgun I.C. Vs. Ars Acoustica Prototype I.C. (between the Jadis phono stage and the line stage)
Level 3- The sonic improvement can be heard at length, but an effort may be required to listen specifically for it, so it may not be "obvious" or inescapable. This improvement may or may not be significant; meaning there's a chance that an audiophile may be able to remove this improvement from their system and still not suffer from its absence.
Example- "The Truth" T3 Line Stage Vs. "The Truth" T1 Line Stage
Level 4- The sonic improvement can be heard all the time, and without any effort, by an audiophile. However, it's still actually possible for it to be not heard by ordinary listeners, meaning those people with no interest in sound quality. This improvement is still "significant"; so a serious audiophile will almost always suffer from its absence.
Example- Acapella TW 1S Ion Super Tweeters
Level 5- The sonic 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.
Example- ZYX UNIverse II Vs. "Original" ZYX UNIverse
Level 6- The sonic improvement is "transformational"; meaning not only would it be completely unthinkable to live without it, but the improvement actually alters an audiophile's thinking and perspective on both their particular system and "Audio" in general.
Example- Reference Lenco L-75 Turntable/Graham Phantom (Supreme) Tonearm Vs. Forsell Air Reference Turntable/Tonearm
These different levels do not correlate exactly with numbers or percentages. Personal preferences and a listener's subjective reaction always trump the listener's analytical judgment of a component's performance and whatever improvement(s) is/are noticeable.
As an example, let's say one component ("A") is noticeably superior to the Reference ("R") in 10 different areas, but only by approximately 1% in each case. In contrast, let's say a third component ("B") sounds the same as "R" in almost every way, but is better in one area by 5%. It is very possible that component "B" will still receive a higher level than "A" to the audiophile, especially if the improved area is more highly valued. In fact, it is not uncommon for some audiophiles to give up 1% of the performance across the board just to get that extra 10% improvement in the one area that really moves them and gets them "involved" with the music.
To make this more personal, I believe if I were to quantify the actual examples that were given above, the Lenco/Graham wouldn't receive the largest number, but I still feel it was transformative because it improved areas that broke new ground (for me), and which couldn't be replicated by any other component category (like going from a transistor amp to a good SET amp on the right speaker).
Also, while the first two Levels leave basically no room for "nuance", since they are so subtle and tightly defined to begin with, the medium and higher Levels (3 to 6) do have smaller iterations (or degrees) within them, such as 4.1, 4.2, 5.1, 5.2 etc. In fact, even a "difference in kind" still has some "variety" or a range, since their degree and impact are not all exactly the same, even if the practical end results are the same. Levels 3 and 4 are both very similar to each other, and the most common to experience when making actual comparisons. Further, a "strong 3" and a "weak 4" are basically the same in practice and interchangeable in effect.
Finally, below is how I used numbers to illustrate why I was so enthusiastic about the Graham Phantom Supreme compared to the earlier II it replaced, when the differences I described didn't appear to be that significant...
Let's assume the II is 95% "perfect", while the Supreme is 97% "perfect". Most audiophiles would agree that the difference between the numbers 95 and 97 is marginal. However, the difference between 5% (100-95) and 3% (100-97), which is a 40% reduction in imperfection, can be profound to an audiophile (or any "perfectionist" for that matter). Sometimes a change in perspective clarifies an otherwise confusing subject.
Further- Almost all of the Readers Letters that are removed from this file, after the standard 12 Month posting (such as the August/September 2018 Readers Letters), are subsequently posted in their respective Reference Component Files: Amplifiers, Cartridges, Speakers etc. They can be found under "Readers Letters". If the reader's letter discussed more than one type of audio component, I will place that letter in the file of the component that was the most discussed.
From a generous reader...
This is a simple two step procedure done with ears only that will result in a near perfect stereo music image from a large listening area. Best results are obtained when speakers are set along the long wall in a room and equidistant from the acoustic center of the room. A reference recording, Ballad of a Runaway Horse by Jennifer Warnes/Rob Wasserman is used, and makes the procedure much easier. However, any recording with an easy to hear bass line can be used for the first step. And any recording with a centered voice image can be used for the second step. A mono recording is also a very good recording to use for the second step.
INITIAL START POINTS:
1. Room Assessment:
Mentally assess the room for symmetry and note as best as possible the acoustic center of the room. Divide the room in half along the acoustic center of the room. Assess the similarities and differences of each side as to acoustic size, reflecting surfaces and furnishings. The more equal that each half is, in all aspects, the easier the setup procedure is likely to be and have a satisfying end result.
2. For initial speaker positioning, position the speakers equidistant from the acoustic center of the room. This doesn't have to be exact, just close.
3. Place speakers against the wall. Turn the right speaker 45 degrees out towards the side wall. Move the left speaker about a foot out in to the room.
4. Speakers need to move easily on the floor surface. Spikes need to be removed or set on to furniture sliders.
5. Sit in preferred listening spot that is centered between the speakers. And stay in this seat throughout the procedure.
1. Setting the Left Speaker as Reference and for best bass position.
Play the reference recording with speakers set as in number 3 above. Move the left speaker out into the room until all sound comes from this one speaker with both speakers playing. Voice will come first to this speaker but continue moving out until the bass is also from just this one speaker. Speaker is now decoupled from the wall behind. Place a piece of masking tape at the rear of the speaker. This decoupled area extends about another foot out into the room. Any place within this decoupled area is suitable for this left speaker position. This marks a kind of starting point. Listen to the song and focus on the steady bass line. This of course will depend a lot on the capabilities of the speaker-amp system. Move the speaker out into the room in small perpendicular increments and try to find points of smoothest bass/best bass/preferred bass, etc. I have often found that the 12th bass note of the first verse of the BRH song can vary a bit, and I use this as a listening cue. Try to get the smoothest bass possible. If in doubt, just go with what seems best and don't worry. When you find your preferred best bass spot, mark the speaker in place with masking tape at the rear and one side of the speaker. For reference, measure distance out from wall to front baffle of speaker and note this measurement. This will set the left speaker as a reference for the right speaker to complete the procedure.
2. Now to set the Right Speaker to get perfect stereo image
Bring the right speaker out into the room in two or three increments, noting how much the voice moves to the center with each move, until the voice centers in the middle. Mark this place with masking tape as a starting point. Slowly move the speaker out in small increments, say ¼ inch, paying attention to the voice in the setup song. Keep moving the speaker until the centered voice gets very strong and focused. I have found that the voice can get very strong at around 2:30 into the song. Note places where you think the voice is very strong with some kind of mark. You may have several marks. Keep moving the speaker out until the voice begins to fade a small amount. This will be the outer limit for moving the speaker. Now you need to move the speaker back toward the wall in very small increments, 1/8th or 1/16ths inch until you find the spot with the best and strongest voice. Keep fiddling with this until you get what you think is the best, strongest, most human like voice.
3. Now to check things
Just listen to the whole song once or twice and note how it sounds to you. If the sound is really really good, then proceed. Otherwise make a small adjustment trying to get it better. Only move the speaker 1/16th inch when you do this. Once you are satisfied, proceed on. Next is to move your listening position temporarily a bit side to side and note if the sound moves with you or not. A good check is to move 1 ½ seat positions to the right. Note if the sound moves with you or not. If the sound moves completely with you and your move, you've missed the magic spot and need to do Step 2 all over again after a break. Note your starting position marks and start there. If the sound moves just a tiny little bit to the right, just move the speaker in a small amount towards the wall, like 1/16th inch. Move it again the same amount if the first move was not enough. That should be good. Go back to center position and note the sound. You are trying to have the centered stereo image not move when you move seating positions. Little nudges may be necessary until you find this spot for the speaker. Mark the speaker in place with masking tape, same as for the left speaker.
5. Final Notes
Set the speakers in final position by replacing spikes, removing sliders, etc. Make sure that the final position matches both the tape markings and the measurements to the front baffles. Check and make sure the speakers are level. Adjust as necessary.
Do the procedure seated in the normal listening position. Move only as directed in the instructions.
I do the procedure myself. However, it can be helpful to do this with another person. One to listen, and one to move the speaker.
Toe-in has not been mentioned thus far. Toe in is variable. None is okay. A little is okay, but not too much. Go with the minimum and have each speaker the same.
It is okay to raise the front of the speaker, sometimes referred to as "rake angle". But fully level is likely easiest.
Take breaks as necessary to keep the ears and mind fresh. Don't get in any hurry.
Here is some more info that is worth a few minutes. You may or may not have heard about WASP, the Wilson speaker setup protocol that they have used for years. Here is a link to a you tube video about it, by the late David A. Wilson himself, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOI8py0DAC8
The only part worth paying attention to is where he describes the Zone of Neutrality, with regards to room boundaries, walls. Then the video shows a guy walking out into the room and placing masking tape on the floor. Just try this yourself. Stand with your back to the wall behind your speakers and count aloud one, two, three, four, five, as you slowly move away from the wall. Once you get about 2 feet out from the wall, notice how the sound of your voice changes. I was a bit skeptical about this until I did this myself. And I did it 3 times just to be sure. It correlates very well to when the left speaker gets moved out from the wall and then all sound appears to come from it with both speakers playing.
Anyway, I think it's worth a few minutes just to do this as I found it interesting.
Just a little bit more on the speaker setup procedure...............All I am doing is setting one speaker as a reference in a place of the least interaction with the walls, i.e. decoupled from the wall behind, and then adjusting the position of the other speaker to get a perfect stereo image. Once you get this perfect stereo image, a lot of things just naturally fall into place. Also, one reason I have stated that a mono recording works well for finding the perfect stereo image is that by definition a mono recording should be perfectly centered between the speakers at all times. However, this can only occur if both speakers are energizing the room equally. And that is what you are trying to do with the positioning of the second speaker. And if properly done, then the mono image will always stay centered between the speakers no matter where in the room you may be. Or, pretty close to that.
Perhaps some background information could be helpful here.
In the 1990's, Sumiko Importers of Berkeley started a training program for their dealers called M.A.S.T.E.R.S., which is an acronym for Modal All Simplified Training Electronic Retail Salespeople. It was never for public consumption, and graduates were sworn to keep it a secret. And that has pretty much happened as Google searches still give no hits for the term.
The term Master Set was coined by Rod Tomson of Soundings HiFi in Denver Colorado. I have no idea how closely this follows the actual MASTERS training. However an insight to the actual MASTERS methods can be found in a post on diyaudio:
https://www.diyaudio.com/forums/the-lounge/318975-john-curls-blowtorch-preamplifier-iii-1665.htm, go to post #16648.
Stirling Trayle is the former owner of Sumiko and started the MASTERS program along with John Hunter. Stirling now sets up speakers and audio systems as a business. He gave a talk at the San Francisco Audio Society the past March 2019, which is where the notes originated.
Rod T. started Master Set and has incorporated that into his audio business. I first heard speakers set up in this manner in 2007 at RMAF. Over time I learned the basics of the methodology and eventually have been able to get the desired results.
What I do bears some resemblance to Rod's Master Set, but I simplify things a whole lot. What I do is completely DIY, doesn't cost anything other than procurement of the set up song. It is easy to do but hard to get perfect. What I do can be done with any box speaker in any room.
There are a couple of useful links to share:
1. www.myspeakersetup.com, a website for Bob Robbins, a MASTERS certified former employee of Soundings HiFi, who does speaker setup with his version or Rod's Master Set.
2. www.audiosystemsoptimized.com, a website for Stirling Trayle, who now does speaker setup and a lot more.
Some good and bad news...
1. Coincident (Next Generation) SET Power Amplifiers - Bad News. In fact, really bad news! I will not "receive the Frankenstein Mk. III and Turbo amplifiers some time this fall". In fact, I will not receive the Frankenstein Mk. III until Spring 2020, at the earliest. It appears that the Mk. III model has been completely sold out until then. As for the Turbo mono amplifiers, it's even worse news.
According to Coincident, the "Anniversary" Turbo production run (only 25 pairs) has been completely sold out, and no more of them will ever be built. However, Coincident is planning to manufacture a replacement "845" amplifier, but there are no firm details as of yet. So, to state that I am "extremely disappointed" with this news would be an understatement.
2. ZYX (New Generation) UNIverse Phono Cartridges - A close audiophile friend, and associate, purchased a used (and now discontinued) ZYX UNIverse Premium cartridge, and he had it sent to me for evaluation. I have now played the Premium for over a month in my system. Preliminary Results - The Premium is, at this time, without a doubt, the finest phono cartridge I have ever heard and, importantly, it is still improving, so there's obviously some further break-in required. I will post a detailed report on the ZYX Premium in either late December 2019 or January 2020, depending, of course, when the break-in is completed. I also expect to eventually audition both the current UNIverse III and the Optimum, but that will have to wait until sometime later in 2020.
3. Degritter Ultra Sonic Record Cleaning Machine - I received the Degritter machine in mid-November and I have already began cleaning records with it. I can now confidently state that the Degritter's cleaning results are an improvement when compared to my previous DIY set-up. Important details to follow in the upcoming review, where I will also discuss my short history, and current perspective, on ultra sonic cleaning.
Coincident (Next Generation) SET Power Amplifiers
ZYX (New Generation) UNIverse Cartridges
Degritter Ultra Sonic Record Cleaner
This important article will be reposted & updated annually...
This article is a summary of the cumulative observations and recommendations included within this website as concisely as possible. Below is the best advice I can provide as this is written and it will be updated if and when necessary. This summary will be relevant if the ultimate goal of the reader is to maximize the natural, accurate and complete musical communication that is possible with modern audio components. It is designed to work with the largest variety of musical software available to us today, and particularly if it is acoustical in nature.
I obviously realize that there are other serious alternatives, and with easily noticeable advantages to my approach. However, in my experience, they all have a larger number of serious compromises with a greater variety of music. Further, none of the recommendations I make below have to cost a huge amount of money, and all the steps can be made over a period of time.
1. The Analogue source should be an Idler-Drive turntable (or a Reel-To-Reel Tape Deck)
Explanation- Idler-drives have a fundamental sonic advantage over belt-drive turntables; speed stability, which is grossly under appreciated by most audiophiles. Idlers' inherent sonic disadvantage, noise transference, has now been reduced to insignificance by using modern plinths, bearings and improved motor isolation. In short, idler-drives have overcome their original problem economically, while belt-drives have not and (apparently) can not. (Direct-drives are still an unanswered question.) Reel-to-reel tapes have even more sonic potential, but they're a serious hassle to use for most audiophiles and good software is also extremely limited.
2. A Moving-Coil (or Strain-gauge or Optical?) cartridge
Explanation- Moving-coils have several technical advantages due to their low-mass and low inductance combined with higher overall energy output, making them worth the extra expense under most circumstances. Strain-gauge and/or Optical cartridges may have even greater technical advantages, but I haven't heard a modern version of one of them in a controlled environment.
3. The Digital source should use the highest quality (OEM) Esoteric Transport that is affordable
Explanation- Every outstanding digital player we have heard has used an Esoteric transport. Until computer audio is finally mature, an actual digital disc player is still the best and safest approach, which means an Esoteric transport should be part of the equation. There are usually many used Esoteric players for sale at large discounts. They are also incredibly well built and reliable, which is another important factor. Esoteric (OEM) transports are also used in non-Esoteric players as well. The DAC, after it inevitably becomes obsolete, can always be updated.
4. The Electronics should be Separates, and using Tubes, with the one possible exception of the bass amplifiers
Explanation- Tube electronics still have noticeable and important sonic advantages over even the finest transistor models. Separate components offer both the greatest potential performance and flexibility, including mono amplifiers.
5. The Speakers must be HIGH-EFFICIENCY AND BOTH Bi-ampable AND SET-Friendly
Explanation- All the finest systems I've ever heard were bi-amplified (with subwoofers). This is not a coincidence. When the amplifier driving the midrange and tweeters is not effected by the (sub)woofers (which would have their own dedicated amps), there are important (if not fundamental) sonic advantages that any audiophile can hear. Even if the bi-ampable speaker can not be bi-amped when first purchased (for whatever reason), that option is still available in the future.
SET amplifiers have important and fundamental sonic advantages in the midrange and highs over any other amplifier design in my experience, especially with acoustical music. They have the lowest sound-floor and also are the best "organized" (and music is simply "organized sound"). Even if a SET amplifier is not used at first, the SET-friendly speaker will provide that option in the future.
1. The SET amplifier, in a bi-amplified system, must use NO FeedBack, allowing it to become "Dedicated" with a simple capacitor modification
Explanation- Some audiophiles may consider this as more of a refinement, but I don't feel that way. The cumulative sonic improvements, discussed in the article linked to below, are easily observed and much too important to ignore.
2. Audiophiles should experiment with a Passive transformer, or a LDR, line stage/volume pot BEFORE utilizing a serious active line stage
Explanation- Most systems require an active line stage for optimum performance, but a passive line stage, or volume pot, can be used if the source has the required energy to directly drive the amplifier(s). If successful, there will be both improved performance and money saved, so an experiment is always in order. See the Link below.
3. Audiophiles should experiment with high-quality Super Tweeters
Explanation- Most systems require a good super tweeter for optimum performance. Proper set-up and implementation are critical for success, so time, effort and patience are required. See the Link below
4. Dedicated Digital Systems should always have the signal remain in the "Digital Domain" for as long as possible
Explanation- Digital's most noticeable sonic weaknesses occur during the unavoidable conversions: A/D + D/A. Thus the most rational strategy is to reduce these conversions to the bare minimum; only one A/D and one D/A if possible, by remaining strictly in the digital domain from the first conversion (software) until the second and final conversion. This strategy also minimizes the length of the analogue chain as well, which is another sonic benefit.
Individually, most of these refinements will be subtle in effect, but collectively they will almost always be significant in their effect. They are usually the difference between the "Excellent" and the truly "Great" Systems.
1. All Signal and Power Cables- As short as possible
2. Capacitors - Teflon in the direct signal path and all film (metallized) in the high voltage power supply
3. Exact speaker set-up and Room treatments
4. Acoustical Isolation of both the Sources and the Electronics
5. AC filtering and even AC regeneration if necessary
6. All records should be cleaned first with an Ultra Sonic Record Cleaning Machine
These are the articles and essays which describe and explain, sometime in great detail, the respective experiences and reasons why I specifically chose each of the "Structures" and "Bonus Suggestions" mentioned above:
"Reference" Lenco L 75 Idler-Drive Turntable (#1 "Structure")
DIGITAL SOURCES (#3 Structure)
Coincident Frankenstein 300B SET Amplifier (#4 & #5 Structures)
Coincident Pure Reference Extreme Speakers (#5 SET-Friendly & Bi-Amping Structures)
Dedicated SET Amplifier Capacitor Modification (#1 Bonus Suggestions)
LINE STAGES (Active or Passive? #2 Bonus Suggestions)
Acapella Ion TW 1S Super Tweeter (#3 Bonus Suggestions)
Ultra Sonic Record Cleaning (#6 Refinement)
A related article that will also be reposted & updated annually...
I decided to both expand upon, and yet still simplify, my earlier article, seen above, titled: Building a Great Audio System. This time I will argue that there is a single most important choice an audiophile can make when creating a great audio system or, at the least, creating the finest audio system for the least amount of money invested. That critical choice is unambiguously simple:
There are several practical reasons why this is the best choice a serious audiophile can ever make, as well as actual science to support it. First we'll focus on the practical reasons, which almost all involve maximizing the flexibility and the unlimited options resulting from this initial choice:
1. This choice provides the flexibility to choose any amplifier you prefer and can afford; low power/high power, tube/transistor, feedback/non-feedback, SET/non-SET or Class A or A/B or D. All these amplifier types are compatible with this choice of speaker. The amplifier choice thus becomes strictly one of audio quality, not quantity, which eliminates the frustrating compromises that other audiophiles must accept and live with.
2. With a high-efficiency speaker, other formerly impractical options now become possible. The system may no longer require the extra gain of an active line stage, which means a passive line stage, or a hybrid model like "The Truth", is now an option. Low output (analogue or digital) sources, which may sound "dead" with normal/average efficiency speakers, are now also options.
3. Bi-amping the speaker is also an option; now, later or never, with the added benefit that the speaker can utilize any combination of amplifiers, based on your own musical preferences and budget. Remember- Bi-amping is a "Structure of a Great Audio System".
4. Lower power, everything else being equal, also means lower cost, so there is even a monetary advantage to this important choice. (Passive line stages are also less expensive than equivalent active line stages, obviously.)
I have now lived with high-efficiency speakers for over 25 years and I have never looked back. It is the most positively consequential choice I have ever made in my audio life. Countless other audiophiles have done the same, both before and after me, and it is unusual to learn of anyone who later reversed themselves. There are good reasons why these audiophiles remain "faithful": The advantages when using high-efficiency speakers are far too important in sonics, component flexibility and savings, to ever give up. Then there's the Science. It's all about Energy...
I am NOT a "scientist", though I do have a basic understanding of the science underlaying audio. Many other audiophiles can make the same claim as I, while others know far more about (audio) science than I ever will, but what I am about to theorize is something anyone can understand. My theory is based on an indisputable reality. Further, I believe it is rational, logical and thus irrefutable. Once again, it is founded on a simple truth and fact: High-Efficiency speakers require less energy to perform at the same level as "normal" efficiency speakers. Further, serious Audio is just about recreating, as closely as possible, the original energy, of the original performance, in your listening room.
High-Efficiency (HF) is the most important and critical advantage in audio. Why? HF speakers require less energy from outside sources to achieve the same level of performance. The energy from those "outside sources" is always imperfect and compromised. Accordingly, the less energy from "outside sources" included in the total energy created by the system, the less compromised the sound will be. And, to be clear, "outside sources" specifically mean electronic phono stages, DACs, active line stages and power amplifiers.
All of these electronic components are imperfect and "enemies" of music, though all of them are also unfortunately necessary for the reproduction of music using modern technology. In short, the less energy (or "influence") required from "outside sources" (electronic components), the higher the quality of total energy created by the system, everything else being equal. It's the classic "quantity versus quality" compromise and quandary.
To make my point as clear as I can, I need to use a highly unlikely scenario: Imagine a speaker with an unbelievable high-efficiency specification; let's say 130 dB/1 watt and, further, an ultra-low current requirement (while ignoring noise and other issues). Such a theoretical speaker could be driven by the preamplifier alone (or even the source*)! This scenario would actually eliminate power amplification all together. This is just a fantasy for now, but I'm arguing that even minor steps taken in this direction will have positive results.
*The ultimate scenario would be the phono cartridge directly driving the speakers, with the no electronics in between them. Only an attenuator would separate the two components. Anything else is a (necessary for now) compromise.
The less energy an audio system uses from "outside sources", the better chance that system has to be natural and faithful to the original musical source. So, the goal for serious audiophiles is simple: Reduce the energy required from your compromised outside power sources (AC), to the greatest degree possible. High-Efficiency speakers, more so than any other audio choice, achieve that goal.
Further- Almost all of the Readers Letters that are removed from this file, after the standard 12 Month posting (such as the October/November 2018 Readers Letters), are subsequently posted in their respective Reference Component Files: Amplifiers, Cartridges, Speakers etc. They can be found under "Readers Letters". If the reader's letter discussed more than one type of audio component, I will place that letter in the file of the component that was the most discussed.
More news of interest...
1. Degritter Ultra Sonic Record Cleaning Machine - I am almost 1/2 through my first draft of the Degritter review. I have already posted (see above) that the Degritter's cleaning results are an improvement when compared to my previous DIY set-up. Important details to follow in the upcoming review, where I will also discuss my short history, and current perspective, on ultra sonic cleaning.
2. ZYX (New Generation) UNIverse Phono Cartridges - I have now played the Premium for over two months in my system. Results - The Premium is the finest phono cartridge I have ever heard. However, it kept improving until early 2020, which has caused a delay in my original schedule. I now plan to post a detailed report on the ZYX Premium sometime in early March 2020.
Meanwhile, the UNIverse III arrived in January 2020. I expect to audition the UNIverse III sometime in middle/late February 2020. As for the Optimum, that will have to wait until sometime much later in 2020, assuming I even receive a model for audition.
3. "Ultimate Lenco" by Jean Nantais - I have now committed to purchasing this model, and will receive it sometime in late April or May. I will also have to install a new tonearm on the Ultimate, since it has an oversized ("transcription") platter.
4. Coincident (Next Generation) SET Power Amplifiers - Sadly, more bad news! I will not "receive the Frankenstein Mk. III in the Spring 2020". It appears that the Mk. III model is still completely sold out, so the earliest I will be able to receive a pair is late Summer or this upcoming Fall. Further, I now seriously doubt that I will ever audition the Anniversary Turbo mono amplifiers.
New Posting Schedule and Summary of the Above:
January 2020 Recent File - Degritter Review
February/March 2020 Recent File - ZYX UNIverse Premium Review
April/May 2020 Recent File - ZYX UNIverse III Review
June/July 2020 Recent File - Ultimate Lenco/New (?) Tonearm Review
Fall 2020 (?) Recent File - Coincident Frankenstein Mk. III Review
Finally, my long time Reference, the Coincident Statement Line Stage, is now for sale. For all the details: go to USED COMPONENTS NOW ON SALE.
The "Ultimate Lenco" by Jean Nantais
Further- Almost all of the Readers Letters that are removed from this file, after the standard 12 Month posting (such as the December 2018 Readers Letters), are subsequently posted in their respective Reference Component Files: Amplifiers, Cartridges, Speakers etc. They can be found under "Readers Letters". If the reader's letter discussed more than one type of audio component, I will place that letter in the file of the component that was the most discussed.
An Important Advancement...
The Degritter is the most evolved ultra sonic record cleaning machine that I and my associates are aware of at this time. It is, for now, the state-of-the-art record cleaning device. I've also spent extensive time researching the Degritter on the Internet, reading every anecdotal experience directly concerning the machine. These anecdotes have, unanimously, confirmed our positive experiences. In fact, it may not be possible to surpass the Degritter's performance for now with any current record cleaning technology known to me. Next, the important and relevant supporting details...
I have been cleaning my records with an ultra sonic system (the Kuzma) since 2016*. Like many other serious audiophiles, I immediately experienced the easily noticeable sonic improvements when records are properly cleaned with an ultra sonic device, even if they were previously cleaned using any of the long popular wet/dry machines. I also immediately recognized that ultra sonic cleaning was an absolute "Requirement" for all records, and not just another marginal, or even useless, "audio luxury" that one could safely ignore.
*Our Ultra Sonic Record Cleaning Experiences
However, as much as I liked the Kuzma cleaning system (which could clean up to 10 records simultaneously), I eventually realized that it still required a true drying system for optimization. I discovered that air-drying the records (which Kuzma recommended) tended to leave tiny particles stuck on some LPs, which were difficult to see and remove, no matter how clean was the dedicated drying room. Accordingly, I decided I also needed another device which was dedicated to drying the records.
After some research on current trends in the record cleaning market, I originally planned to purchase an Okki Nokki wet/dry cleaning machine, to augment the Kuzma. However, in the end, I decided to purchase the Degritter instead, and below are the reasons which explain this decision.
I first learned about the Degritter on Audiogon (in the "Analog Forum"), and I was almost immediately intrigued with it. I then made the mandatory Google search/investigation, reading every article and/or post I could find about the Degritter. I waited a few months before I made an irreversible move. I wanted to be as absolutely certain as possible that there would be no long-term problems with this (newly designed) machine (especially considering that the Degritter is manufactured in Estonia).
Several important attributes sold me on the Degritter (all of them anecdotal at that point): The owners/users claimed it had an unparalleled cleaning potential, even when directly compared to its best known (and reviewed), and much more expensive, competitors. It also had a small "footprint", and was highly flexible and convenient to use. The pleasantly surprising fact that it was also around $ 2,000 less expensive than other competitive "all-in-one" models was obviously another critical factor.
I was also impressed by the short Degritter videos posted on-line, as well as other pertinent details and information I found on Degritter's website. Further, while this is admittedly only a subjective feeling, I came to believe that the creators of the Degritter began their project with no "dogmas" or prejudices, and eventually utilized any technology, and/or methodology, they felt would work best.
What ultimately convinced me was that the Degritter was designed explicitly, and dedicated only, for cleaning records and nothing else. In aggregate, my entire investigation gave me the confidence that the Degritter cleaning machine had been extremely well thought out from the ground up and, just as important, the end results of this process had been verified through thorough and vigorous testing. Accordingly, I made the monetary commitment* and the Degritter arrived in November 2019.
*I received around a 20% accommodation discount as a veteran audio journalist.
Before discussing the cleaning details and results, I must first reveal the current state of my (3,000+) record collection, which is very pertinent to my experiences and personal perspective on record cleaning.
When I received the Degritter, every single LP I owned had been already cleaned on either the Kuzma DIY devices and/or an older wet/dry system (VPI, Nitty-Gritty, Clearaudio etc). This includes all the records I ever purchased brand new (and even the LPs I now have "for sale", which I do NOT count as part of the 3,000+ collection). On the day the Degritter arrived, I would estimate that around 40% of my collection had been cleaned with the Kuzma ultra-sonic system, while the remaining 60% were cleaned only using a traditional wet/dry system.
To make any comparison as fair and objective as possible, I listened to a wide variety of records before the Degritter arrived. After the Degritter arrived, and I was both confident it was working properly and familiar with its operating protocols and options, the majority of my direct comparisons were between records previously cleaned with the Kuzma system, and then cleaned once again with the Degritter. The "Big Question" was obvious: Could the Degritter improve on the already outstanding Kuzma system (which had previously proved to be superior to any wet/dry system I've ever had)?
The answer came quickly: Yes, the Degritter even improved the records previously cleaned on the Kuzma system. These are the details...
The sonic differences were generally minor between these two machines, but are still easily noticeable, and that's what counts. If I had to put these differences in numbers, I would say that if the Degritter is removing 100% of what is only possible to remove on a LP when using an ultra sonic machine (in contrast to a wet/dry machine), then the Kuzma system removes around 90% of that same material, depending on the record.
This small difference equates to sensing that last degree of sonic and musical "directness" and "nakedness", which is important to many audiophiles, plus another noticeable reduction in standard record noise. When using descriptive audio terms which are more normal; this equates to a slightly lower sound-floor, where a little more musical and hall/studio information is both heard and sensed, and with the further bonus that the recording may sound a little more realistic at softer volume levels (which is also very important to many listeners, including me).
It must also be emphasized, even though it is obvious and self-evident, that a "perfectly" cleaned record will still have some extraneous sounds, mainly from LP damage from previous play and also the defects from the original pressing. Sadly, no cleaning machine can ever reverse and eliminate these problems.
For the records previously cleaned on the Kuzma system, I chose the "Quick" cleaning option (5 minutes total cleaning time, including the drying cycle). For those records cleaned only with a wet/dry system, I chose the "Medium" cleaning option (6.5 minutes). Finally, for those rare records that either had an unknown cleaning history, or I knew (through my notes or memory) to be unusually "noisy", I chose the "Heavy" cleaning option (9.5 minutes).
In a few instances, where the records had foreign objects stuck on them, I utilized a hand-held brush to remove them during the cleaning cycle (while the LP was wet). This experimental method duplicated a standard wet/dry cleaning machine, and was successful in removing the foreign objects.
Further, whenever I used the "Heavy" cleaning option multiple times (within a short period of time), the resulting rise in water temperature was noticed by the Degritter's internal sensors. Prudently, a "fail-safe" mechanism would be triggered if the increased temperature was considered dangerous to the LP being cleaned. If so, the Degritter then "cooled" the water by taking extra time during the cleaning cycle (with clear notification on its right-side digital display), with the ultra sonic devices shut off during that cooling period.
Important Note - The differences in cleaning times between these three options is dedicated only to the cleaning cycle, which means the drying time is exactly the same for all three options. The drying time can also be adjusted depending on how much noise you can tolerate during the drying cycle. So, to be clear, the louder the drying noise, the quicker the drying finishes.
Price Disclosure - According to my correspondence with Degritter, the current (2020) cost of the Degritter is now $ 3,000, which includes shipping to the USA.
One "Issue" - I had one small problem with the Degritter. The guide/roller on the right hand side of the LP slot (see pictures) was slightly skewed and off-center (the left hand side was centered correctly), so the record could get wet when it was removed. Degritter relayed some simple instructions and I was able to reposition the roller slightly, which solved the problem.
The Degritter is the most effective record cleaning machine I have ever used. I only wish the Degritter (and ultra sonic record cleaning itself) was available decades ago, since the basic technology existed back then, even if it would have been somewhat cruder in its appearance and ergonomics.
What is important to focus on is this: The designers/manufacturers of the Degritter have appeared to consider all of the critical factors of ultra sonic frequency, positioning and water temperature, filtering etc, which are relevant to optimizing the cleaning of records, and the outstanding results that we (and many others) have experienced are the ultimate proof that they were correct in their choices.
From a really broad perspective, the Degritter even shares one highly desirable attribute with the Accapella Ion Tweeter. How? The Degritter is one of those ultra-rare devices that could be considered "a final purchase", because there is no remaining available option for further improvement. I find this highly satisfying, both in practical terms and emotionally as well.
In short, the Degritter does everything it is supposed to do, does it as well as it can be done, and is an unsuspected pleasure to use. It is also upgradeable with easy to install firmware upgrades, and even shuts off automatically, when unused, to save power. I find it difficult to think of something even more to ask for at this time, but I promise I won't give up trying.
No cleaning machine, no matter how great its efficacy, and no matter what its price, is the best choice for all audiophiles and for all situations. There are too many variables between LP collectors for only one solution to satisfy all of them. The Degirtter is the best cleaning solution for my record collection at this time, and I assume for the rest of my life. In fact, I literally can't even imagine another machine which would better suit my current and future requirements. This may be the case for many other serious audiophiles, but certainly not for all of them. Here are the other common record cleaning options:
Classic Wet/Dry Machines - Such as VPI, Nitty-Gritty, Okki Nokki and more expensive models from manufacturers like Keith Monks and Clearaudio. These machines, if used on their own, are now the bare minimum required for all serious record collectors because, even at their best, they don't (and can't) equal the cleaning ability of any decent ultra sonic machine. However, they are not obsolete and, in fact, are still a requirement for almost all owners of DIY Ultra Sonic machines. Why? For two reasons:
1. A good ultra sonic machine may not be able to remove the heavy-duty "gunk" found on many used records of unknown origin (from yard sales, Goodwill, record stores and the Internet). These records may require a wet/dry machine to provide a true "scrubbing" for any chance of recovery (assuming the gunk removal is even possible in the first place, which it sadly isn't in many instances). In this "worst case scenario", consider ultra sonic cleaning only as the ultimate and final step in the cleaning process. (This was my own reality for decades.)
2. Wet/dry machines are also a necessity for all the DIY ultra sonic machines which require quick drying (see below). This means that wet/dry cleaning machines, for two good reasons, will be around indefinitely but, again, should not be used on their own.
DIY Ultra Sonic Machines - Such as the Kuzma and now countless other versions available on the Internet. This option is best for those owners of large record collections, in generally good condition, but have never been previously cleaned by ultra sonics. This was my own situation just before I purchased the Kuzma system (and also the situation of one of my associates, who recently purchased the Kuzma system from me). Almost all DIY machines have one huge and critically important advantage over any other cleaning device...
They have the capability to clean multiple records simultaneously. Accordingly, these machines are the most practical solution for large (and growing) collections. Further, they are also relatively inexpensive, making them the best bargain in record cleaning machines. It is then no wonder why they are so popular at this time. DIY is obviously the best choise if the goal is to clean as many records as possible, as good as practically possible, in the shortest period of time, at the least expense, and all of this, incredibly, at the same time.
However, as I experienced myself (and as I discussed above), a basic wet/dry machine is still highly recommended to augment the DIY machine (in fact, I believe it is a requirement). Such a machine is required for quick drying and also for cleaning those records in truly awful condition, where physical brushing may be a necessity.
Self-Contained and Dedicated Ultra Sonic Machines - Such as the Degritter, Audio Desk and other similar models. These designs provide the highest level of record cleaning currently available at this time, along with the most convenience. They are also the most expensive option. The Audio Desk even provides standard brush cleaning as well (though for an extra financial cost and greater complexity).
Degritter's Web Site
Our Ultra Sonic Record Cleaning Experiences
Further- Almost all of the Readers Letters that are removed from this file, after the standard 12 Month posting (such as the January 2019 Readers Letters), are subsequently posted in their respective Reference Component Files: Amplifiers, Cartridges, Speakers etc. They can be found under "Readers Letters". If the reader's letter discussed more than one type of audio component, I will place that letter in the file of the component that was the most discussed.
A New Standard...
The UNIverse Premium is the finest cartridge I have ever heard. The Premium outperformed the UNIverse II, my previous "Ultimate Reference", from the moment it was installed in my system, even though it was not fully broken-in at the time. The relative performance gap between the two cartridges further expanded during the extensive break-in period. So, to be clear, the detailed descriptions of the Premium's performance, seen below, are only completely accurate and consistent when it is fully broken-in, though they are still noticeable, to a degree, before then.
The UNIverse Premium was introduced in 2014, and eventually discontinued (and replaced by the current "Optimum") in 2017. I have no "inside information" as to exactly why ZYX chose the name "Premium" instead of the expected "UNIverse III" at the time, though I believe it is safe to assume the goal for ZYX was to establish their latest UNIverse cartridge in the >$ 10,000 price range, while also retaining the older (2012) UNIverse II in the <$ 10,000 price range (see below for a specific discussion of the retail price). Further, it may also be relevant that the Premium has a metal body/frame, unlike the plastic bodies of the UNIverse I, II (and now the III).
Then, in the fall of 2019, without any input, knowledge or assistance on my part, a close audiophile friend, and associate, purchased a used Premium, and had it sent to me for evaluation, since his own phono system was not operational. At the time, late October, none of us, including the previous owners, knew exactly how many hours the Premium was played, though we assumed it was mainly broken-in. We were wrong. It took almost another 3 months of (irregular) play for the Premium's performance to "plateau", finishing by the end of January 2020*. This surprising turn of events, naturally, caused the delay of my final evaluation of the Premium (and this review of course).
*Estimated total play time for break-in: 200 Hours.
As reported above, the Premium was noticeably superior to the UNIverse II even in its first listening session in my system, and the sonic performance gap just kept on growing after that. Now, for the details...
The Premium outperforms the II in many important sonic categories, and while the II is equal to the Premium in a few, it is superior in none. (However, the Premium's output is slightly reduced in comparison to the II, probably between 1 and 2 dB.)
To be specific, the Premium is more immediate, detailed and cleaner than the II. There is also a greater separation of the musicians. The Premium is superior in its reproduction of natural harmonics. It also has a better "flow" and sounds less mechanical. The Premium is more intelligible than the II, making lyrics easier to understand. Dynamic energy, and especially percussion, is also better focused and cohesive with the Premium, making it sound more like real life. There's even more...
The Premium has a lower sound-floor than the II and it also, accordingly, sounds less "electronic". The UNIverse II, by comparison only, sounds more "digital" and analytical. The Premium also has a better defined, and a more obvious, "sense of space". The Premium's individuation of the instruments and vocalists, a high priority of mine, is the best I've ever experienced. Still more...
The Premium is more dynamically effortless than the II. Thus, it also has greater integrity during difficult passages, much like the usual differences which are heard when comparing low and high power amplifiers of similar quality. Further, the Premium feels "relaxed", even during the most challenging passages, in a manner I've never experienced before, short of actual master tapes. The main cause for all of this is probably simple; I believe the Premium must have improved tracking ability, though it's possible that there's more to this than better tracking alone.
The Premium also has more natural body than the II, which is an "issue" I feel is important enough to discuss in greater detail (see below).
In the 4.5 months I had the Premium installed in my system, only one other audiophile listened to it besides myself, and that was the associate who had actually purchased it and had it sent to me. He visited me three times, the first being around 5 weeks after the Premium was installed in my system. His two other visits both had 6 week intervals, allowing him to more easily observe, and appreciate, the Premium's break-in process. While I realize that he may be considered biased since he has a financial stake in the outcome, I have found that while my associate may sometimes exaggerate the strengths of his own personal components, he doesn't ignore their weaknesses, plus he is a highly astute listener, so I still feel that his observations would be helpful overall. While I didn't record him verbatim, I can accurately paraphrase my associate:
"The Premium makes things much better than I ever imagined. The bass, tracking, speed are the best I've ever heard. The Premium makes digital recordings sound better than I have ever heard, like analogue. Also an increased dynamic range, and with more body and more harmonic completion. More natural."
However, my associate also felt that all the Premium's sonic improvements could be a mixed blessing (though I did not feel that way myself). To once again paraphrase my associate:
"...Other music, that I used to think was great, doesn't sound as great and enjoyable as before, because there are now intrusions that are exposed. Maybe being so good can be dangerous".
I stated above that "the Premium also has more natural body than the II". I could have just left it at that, but this would mean avoiding a difficult issue. Why and How? Something was bothering me: I had never previously claimed that the UNIverse II was "lean", in any manner. So, was I contradicting myself, or was I (indirectly) admitting that only after hearing the Premium was I then (very conveniently) able to finally observe that the II was lacking "body" (and thus, it was therefore "lean" all those years)?
Actually, neither premise is true. The UNIverse II had "body" when I wrote my initial review in 2013, and it still has "body" today. It's understandable for a reader to now be confused by this apparent dilemma (as was I for a while), which is why I decided I must discuss this important issue in greater detail.
First, the attentive reader will have noticed I used the phrase "natural body" instead of just the single word "body". This focus on "natural" is the key difference between the two cartridges, because while both cartridges have basically the same quantity of "body" (in the strict sense of that word), the quality of their reproduced "body" is decidedly different.
The Relevant Details - The Premium is noticeably "tauter" and more "solid" than the II, and with less "fat" (think of the difference between Michael Phelps (2008) and an average man of his same general size). So, this is my best theory to explain what we (I, and my associate) are hearing as of now, and its related cause...
The UNIverse II's "body" must include some added resonances (distortions), which make it sound relatively "fat" (and "inflexible"), though only when it's directly compared to the Premium. Meanwhile, the Premium has less noticeable resonances, so it must be elevated (compared to the II) in the frequency range that reproduces "body", which is why it still has the same amount of body, yet sounds more "natural". This means that the II, in turn, must be depressed (attenuated) in that same ("body") frequency range, but its inherent resonances make up the difference in total amplitude ("quantity"), which, overall, basically matches the Premium.
In effect, the two sonic deficiencies of the II (frequency range depression and added resonances), by sheer coincidence or deliberate design, combined to make it appear to sound accurate, though it wasn't. The II only sounds "right" by comparison to other cartridges, which (almost all) have even greater problems in those same "body" related frequencies (which are so difficult to accurately reproduce).
Further, below is an attempt to describe this theory using numbers instead, which may help some readers to better understand some of the above:
UNIverse II - "Body" Frequency Range 7/10 + Resonances 2/10 = 9/10*
UNIverse Premium - "Body" Frequency Range 8/10 + Resonances 1/10 = 9/10*
Explanation - Both cartridges have the exact same (9/10*) total amount ("quantity") of "body". However, the II has a 2/10 amount of resonances while the Premium has only a 1/10 (all the numbers are only crude estimates to clarify a point). The extra (1/10) amount of resonances is the main cause of the II's noticeable "fat", while its absence is the reason why the Premium's "body" sounds more "natural" than the II.
Finally, after directly experiencing this "natural body" phenomena myself, and realizing I have been "fooled" for years by something that turned out to be inaccurate, I can't help but wonder if this is also happening, and has happened, with other components, now and in the past.
*10/10, or a "perfect body", is not possible.
The retail price of the Premium was $ 15,400*, while the retail price of the UNIverse II was $ 8,500*. That's quite a jump in the retail price (80%+). So, the obvious question: Is there any justification for such a serious price increase, especially since there was only a two year gap in their initial release; the II-2012 and the Premium-2014 (which eliminates inflationary considerations)?
I don't see any justification myself, since they appear identical, at least from the outside (even when magnified), with the single obvious exception of the plastic versus metal bodies. In fact, it occurred to me that if you could modify a UNIverse II with the same metal body as the Premium, and also reduce its windings (which will reduce its moving mass/inertia, and its output, as I mentioned above), it should sound similar to the Premium, at least in theory. How and why? The metal body should reduce resonances and distortion, while the lower mass/inertia increases speed, delicacy and purity. Is that all I think actually happened? No, I believe it's more complicated than that. However, my actual working theory for the large price increase is still somewhat cynical...
I believe the Premium (and the Optimum) do cost more to manufacture than the UNIverse II/III, mainly due to their different parts, but no where close to 80%+. In my opinion, the truth is simple: The price increase was mainly due the perverted reality of the ultra high-end cartridge market, where the mainstream audio press (and their brainwashed followers) make a big distinction between cartridges that have "retail prices" of less than $ 10,000, and those with a retail price of over $ 10,000. In short, the mainstream audio reviewers don't take the under $ 10K cartridges "seriously", which means they will rarely, if ever, acknowledge that any one of them is equal, let alone superior, to the above $ 10K models.
So, what does a cartridge manufacturer/distributor do if they want the reviewers (and far too many consumers) to treat their best cartridge "seriously" (meaning fairly)? They give the cartridge an "official" (read "artificial") retail list price in the same general price range as the other top-of-the-line competitors (the actual consumer selling price is almost completely irrelevant). This unwritten protocol/rule is important to the mainstream audio press for one critical reason; it protects their "reviewers", since they will never be publicly embarrassed by being put into a position where they must admit (assuming that they are even honest in the first place) that a new $ 5,000 cartridge is superior to the $ 15K cartridge they "highly recommended" just 3 months earlier**.
*Of course, no one actually pays "the retail list price", but these are the only consistent dollar prices that originate directly from the manufacturer/distributor, so they are authoritative in relative terms. (Current UNIverse Price Line: The III has a retail price of $ 9,500, while the Optimum has a retail price of $ 17,500.)
Further, from a larger perspective, I've never been convinced that any phono cartridge should ever have to sell for more than $ 5,000 (and that's being generous), no matter how well it is built (assuming the only ambition is to make a "normal profit"). Any excess above that is common greed, somewhere along the chain (FYI - Grado originated this "Paradigm" in the 1980s). However, many audiophiles will pay the unjustifiable (if not obscene) prices because, ultimately, life is short, the cartridges are still affordable for some, and there is no alternative if you must experience "the best possible" sound. Of course, not just "audio" has this type of "excess" (the actual cost having no relationship to the selling price). It's the same story (and the same supply and demand reality) with gourmet food/wine, high-end computer chips, fancy sports cars etc.
So, in the end, while we audiophiles will (usually grudgingly) grossly overpay for certain components that we lust for, that doesn't mean we should ever ignore, or forget, the sad reality that we are the all too willing "marks", if not actual participants, in a game we don't control.
**This same protocol/rule, designed to protect mainstream audio reviewers, also applies to most other components, and especially cables, which are another ultra-high-markup item. An Obvious Example of the Unwritten Protocol in action: "The Truth" line stage, which sells for around $ 1,000, is strictly avoided and/or ignored by the mainstream audio press. Why? How can they honestly explain, and fairly review, a $ 1K+ line stage which easily outperforms all the $ 20K+ models they have recommended purchasing, on a routine basis, for years, without any consequences for themselves, let alone for the magazines and websites they write for?
The UNIverse Premium is an outstanding audio achievement. Further, if I had to condense all of the Premium's many sonic attributes into a single and simple descriptive sentence, which any serious audiophile can understand and appreciate, it is this: The Premium is disarmingly natural, even to a degree that may be beyond my ability to fully express at this time.
However, I can still understand why some audiophiles will feel this entire review is both years late and irrelevant as well, since the Premium is now long discontinued, but they could not be more wrong. Many audiophiles make a serious mistake when they ignore, and/or dismiss, components that have been discontinued (and/or replaced with newer versions, which are also usually more expensive). The reason is simple: Most discontinued components can be found at huge discounts, and this is especially true with phono cartridges, and that definitely includes the Premium (or this review would not even exist).
While it may be next to impossible to find a brand new (and unused) Premium, my associate/friend found a mint model for a fraction of the original selling price (and it wasn't even broken-in, see above). There are other good options as well, the most obvious being going direct to the ZYX UNIverse distributor, Sorasound (see link below), and notifying the (highly accommodating) owner, Mehran Farahmand, that you are interested in a refurbished model of the Premium. It is safe to promise that one of them will eventually become available, and offered at a substantial discount from the original selling price.
In fact, I myself may be taking this same Refurbished/Premium route (via Sorasound), depending on what exactly happens next...
I now have the UNIverse III in my system. The III was installed on March 8 (the same day I removed* the Premium), which is more than a month later than the original listening schedule. Unlike the Premium, the III had NO hours on it. At the time this report is initially posted, the III's playing hours are just over 50, but this number will quickly increase now that I've completed my other prior commitments, plus the stay-at-home pandemic protocols will provide some extra unscheduled time.
As for my listening observations so far, all I can confidently state, at this time, is that the III already has some sonic advantages over the II, but it is much too early to directly compare the III to the (fully broken-in) Premium. As can be expected, the direct comparison of the UNIverse III and the Premium will be given my highest priority, but, as usual, I will not post a report until I am confident in its veracity.
*Premium Settings - The Vertical Tracking Force (VTF) was 2.03 grams as of that date, using the Graham Phantom II Supreme tonearm (after much experimentation). The Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) was the same as the II, again only after numerous experiments at other heights, and with different recordings. Estimated break-in play time: 200+ hours.
Sorasound - ZYX (New Generation) UNIverse Cartridges
My Audio System
Reference Phono Cartridge File
Further- Almost all of the Readers Letters that are removed from this file, after the standard 12 Month posting (such as the February 2019 Readers Letters), are subsequently posted in their respective Reference Component Files: Amplifiers, Cartridges, Speakers etc. They can be found under "Readers Letters". If the reader's letter discussed more than one type of audio component, I will place that letter in the file of the component that was the most discussed.
A New Method...
A reader recently sent me an interesting new method to build a multiple Polk speaker cable (my Reference for 30+ years), using each entire cable as either the (+) or the (-), rather than the traditional method of wiring the Polk cables in parallel. It is a method I haven't tried myself, nor can I with the amount of cable I have on hand. Here's his letter with some minor editing and my bold:
"...I tried a different way of paralleling the Cobra cables that may be better...
Just a short back story. My best friend, who has a high-end solid state system (Krell Pre-Power driving Revel Ultima Salon-2 speakers), wanted to try Polk Cables after he heard them. He is happy after I made him a pair (for bi-wring) and retired his Transparent Cables. And then (too much time with the stereo due to lock-down?), he wanted to try the 6-parallel like that in my system. I told him that it will probably kill his Krell due to the 30 nF capacitance, but he suggested that there must be a way to parallel the cable without increasing the capacitance (he is an Electronics Engineer by training). So I tried to think differently (with a lot of lock-down time at home), and came up with a new way of paralleling the Cobra. Please see the attached report."
Personal Notes - This generous reader also sent me a PDF file with all his measurements, drawings, pictures, instructions etc. Any reader interested in the PDF file can send me a request and I will forward it to them. Finally, here are some pictures, from the reader, which will help clarify his new method.
Polk Cobra Cable Blog
A reader recently sent me some news concerning an interesting new speaker model from Apogee Acoustics, which is located in Australia. There is also a second letter from Graz (Graeme Keet), the owner/designer of Apogee, plus a picture of the new speaker, and the relevant links. My bold:
"...my main reason for this correspondence is to alert you to a new Apogee speaker made by Graz. He redesigned the Apogee Diva as what he calls his Advanced 9 speaker. He made the initial prototype for me, a mission that has taken over three years, but what he has achieved can only be described as sensational. I have included a photo with this email...
I know that you are an Apogee fan, so some specifications which I hope Graz will officially confirm in his release material. Nominal impedance 4 ohms. Weight approximately 250 kgs each. The MRTW array comes separate from the bass panel and are then fitted and bolted on to it. The crossover components are potted to eliminate as far as possible any vibration induced distortions. They can be bi-amped.
I have no commercial interest in this, other than these being my final (for life) pair of speakers and a hope that I can help Graz by alerting the audio world to these amazing speakers."
2nd letter...this time from Graz of Apogee..., after I asked the reader about the efficiency of the Advanced 9...
"Efficiency - now that is an interesting one as it changed literally with every crossover change. The final crossover was by far the most efficient. It is important to know line source measurements are different, dipoles even more so, and the room plays a considerable part in the equation. It is literally more relevant to compare volume position on a given monopole speaker of known values for subjective loudness imho, especially as an Apogee has different tuning to different heights of the bass panel. Final efficiency was equivalent to 88-89dB of a conventional speaker, around 1.6-2dB more than the original Diva. A high current 250w/8 amp can drive it to it's potential."
Personal Notes - I really wish this speaker line, which are custom made by order only, was generally available to be auditioned and purchased in North America. The earlier top-of-the-line model from Apogee, the Definitive, is still available. Unlike the Advanced 9, the Definitive is also highly efficient, and is actually able to be driven by low power SET amplifiers! It may be the best overall speaker in the world, and it is certainly, at the very least, the most unique.
Advance 9 Announcement and Discussion
Some News of interest...
1. ZYX (New Generation) UNIverse Phono Cartridges - The UNIverse III arrived in January 2020, and was installed in March. As this is written, I now have over 270 hours of play. I have began my final evaluation of the UNIverse III, using my most familiar reference recordings. After this process is completed, I will then play the exact same recordings with the UNIverse Premium (reviewed above), which will constitute a direct and fair comparison between them.
I expect to post the review sometime in the middle of August. As for the Optimum, I have now been promised a model for review, but it will have to wait until sometime much later in 2020 (or even 2021). Why the delay? I want to audition it on the "Ultimate Lenco" (see below).
2. Aural Thrills Audio Interconnects - These are unique cables from a small company in Texas. My/our listening tests are basically complete. However, I still require more time for some research, in my attempt to hopefully understand (and then explain) the results, which are both surprising and inconsistent. My report should be posted sometime late in the Summer. (See link below.)
3. "Ultimate Lenco" by Jean Nantais - I have now purchased the "Ultimate", but the pandemic will obviously delay the actual delivery, installation and any serious evaluation. I still hope we can complete everything sometime this Fall. I will also have to install a new tonearm on the Ultimate, since it has an oversized ("transcription") platter. (See below.)
4. Kuzma 4Point 14" Tonearm - I chose the Kuzma after an extensive amount of research. I required the 14" version because the Ultimate has an oversized ("transcription") platter. (See link below.)
5. Coincident PRE Mk. II Speakers "Doubled-Up" - I purchased a second pair of the PRE Mk. II, which will be stacked on top of my present (2018) pair. This second pair will arrive sometime in September (after Labor Day). My second pair of the "Original" PRE speakers are still for sale at $ 10,975. This is the lowest price I will ever sell them for. (I now plan to use the PRE in my Home Theater System for the indefinite future.)
6. Coincident (Next Generation) SET Power Amplifiers - It appears that the Mk. III model is still completely sold out, so the earliest I will be able to receive a pair is this upcoming Fall. Further, I now seriously doubt that I will ever audition the Anniversary Turbo mono amplifiers.
Latest Posting Schedule and Summary of the Above:
July 2020 - ZYX UNIverse III Review
Late Summer 2020 - Aural Thrills Audio Interconnect Cables Review
Fall 2020 - Coincident Pure Reference Extreme Mk. II Speaker "Doubled-Up" Review
Late Fall 2020 (?) - Ultimate Lenco/Kuzma 4Point 14" Tonearm Review
Winter 2020/21 - ZYX UNIverse Optimum Review
Winter 2020 (?) - Coincident Frankenstein Mk. III Review
Kuzma Audio (4Point 14" Tonearm)
Aural Thrills Audio (Unique Cables and Electronics)
From my long-term observations, the primary distinction between myself and all other audio journalists, writers and reviewers, past or present, is the strong and unprecedented emphasis I have placed on the reproduction of (very) soft and subtle sounds. There are many other differences between myself and the others, which is normal and to be expected, but none of them are as pronounced, evident and important. In fact, I even coined a new expression for the concept of accurately reproducing "soft sounds", after I realized that the default generic term, popular with most audiophiles, was both ill-defined and misleading: Here's the relevant article and direct link: THE "SOUND-FLOOR"-THE ULTIMATE KEY
Music requires soft sounds to be complete and, just as important, an audio system, if it is to be honesty judged as "outstanding", must have the ability to play at (very) soft volume levels without "dying" and still sound real and alive. My 50 years of experience with tube electronics, along with the countless positive results I've had modifying these same electronics, taught me the critical importance of this highly neglected sonic virtue. However, the various experiences I had with literally thousands of fellow audiophiles are the real foundation for my conviction concerning this issue. It has been my consistent observation, for decades, that the more sensitive and experienced the listener, the more they appreciate hearing all the subtleties of soft sounds. This is the indisputable confirmation that provides the confidence for my conviction.
I also highly value (or highly prioritize) the organization of sounds because, at its most fundamental definition, music is simply organized sound. I share this value of organization with (too) few contemporary audio journalists. Both are equally necessary, because soft sound information is mainly useless unless it is properly organized and there isn't as much value to proper organization when much of the information that is supposed to be organized is missing. Three components, the Morrison speaker, the Golden Tube SET amplifier, and the Reference Lenco, specifically and jointly, taught me the importance of this value.
However, I also realize that most audio writers, and audio enthusiasts in general, have very different sonic priorities than mine. The most common sonic priorities, by far, are "the basics" as I define them; the ability of an audio system to play loud, deep and high.
In actuality, when you think about it, it's relatively easy to create an audio system that has the ability to play loud, sound "big" and also go both deep and high. You simply have to use a large assortment of speaker drivers, utilize both large speaker cabinets and woofers, and have a large amplifier output stage, either transistor or tube. It's much more difficult, and expensive, to accomplish the next logical step: Have that same type of audio system also play consistently clean and smooth. Those important upgrades require improved drivers and passive crossover parts, deader cabinets and better power supplies. In recent times, two of the most well-known audio reviewers, (the now late) Harry Pearson and Michael Fremer, had/have a strong preference for systems with those strengths (which also cost a fortune), but I don't share their highest sonic priorities.
In contrast, it's my long-time experience that the most difficult audio accomplishment is for an audio system to accurately play both softly and organized simultaneously, which takes real thought, numerous experiments, research, along with really high quality (and expensive) parts. This is why the vast majority of audio designers simply ignore and/or avoid the attempt to reach, let alone to master, this particular goal. Why is this goal so difficult to achieve? Simple: There is no room for any error; one mistake, anywhere in the long audio chain, means failure.
Example 1: It's wonderful to have deep bass and extended highs in an audio system, as I have and enjoy them myself, but not only are these frequency extremes virtually useless unless they are time coordinated to everything else, specifically the midrange, they actually become an audible distraction if they are out of place and bring attention to themselves as "alien" to the remaining complete sound.
Example 2: Most audio systems, regardless of cost, have to play louder than life to capture the details and excitement in the original recording, and they subsequently "die" when the music volume is soft. This is because they are missing sonic information due the complexity and problems with the signal path, in the speakers and in the electronics, and this missing information is never completely recaptured when playing loud, though it may be less obscured. Meanwhile, a superior system can play at realistic levels and still not sound dead when the music inevitably becomes soft in volume.
In my experience, the most evolved audio systems in theory, which are also the rarest in actuality, can play at an even lower volume than the musicians normally play in real life and still sound alive. This is the goal I have achieved over several decades and which other serious audiophiles can also replicate, though everything in the system has to be just right, with not even one weak link, for this reality to occur.
My article, "Building a Great Audio System", is the best advice I can provide at this time to reach this goal in any system, and it does NOT require huge expenditures. Instead, if the various structures are followed, the sonic results will also inevitably follow, in general, even if they don't quite equal what the (theoretical) very best can do at any one time.
Almost as important as the above, a truly outstanding audio system requires the ability to reproduce instantaneous and uninhibited dynamic shifts, which can induce involuntary "goose bumps" and the complete attention and involvement of the listener. Finally, this same outstanding system requires a consistent neutrality. Thus there is no unnatural emphasis, or de-emphasis, of a specific frequency and/or a frequency range ("consistent" because it doesn't alter with either the frequency and/or volume levels). These final priorities of "uncompressed sound" and "level sound" basically completes the fundamental sonic picture.
So for now, it may be considered as my personal, four leg "Sonic Stool" - Complete sound, Organized sound, Uncompressed sound and Level sound*.
*Though I strongly believe that "Audio" is far too complex a subject for any simple equation, no matter how thoughtful, precise and true, to ever fully encompass and define it.
Further- Almost all of the Readers Letters that are removed from this file, after the standard 12 Month posting (such as the May/June 2019 Readers Letters), are subsequently posted in their respective Reference Component Files: Amplifiers, Cartridges, Speakers etc. They can be found under "Readers Letters". If the reader's letter discussed more than one type of audio component, I will place that letter in the file of the component that was the most discussed.
Until I find a list which is more definitive, and objective, here are some speakers that I, and mainly the Readers of this websire, have found to work very well with low-powered Single Ended Triode (SET) amplifiers;
AcuHorn rosso superiore175
Affirm (formerly Maxxhorn) Lumination & Immersion
Apogee Acoustics Definitive Ribbon Speaker (very expensive)
Aspara Acoustics HL1 Horn Speaker
Audio Note ANE SEC Signature
Avantgarde Duo and Trio (All Versions)
BD-Design Oris and Orphean Models
Bottlehead Straight 8s (Discontinued)
Brentworth Sound Lab
Cain & Cain BEN ES (and other models)
Cardersound Madison (Single-Drive Back Loaded Horns)
Coincident (Total) Victory II & Pure Reference Extreme (and most of their other models)
Classic Audio Loudspeakers (All Models)
Decware (Various Models)
(DIY Hi-Fi Supply) Crescendo Ribbon Horn Speaker System
Fab Audio Model 1 (Toronto, Canada)
FAL Supreme-C90 EXW or EXII
Goodmans of England 5 or 612s
Hawthorne Solo and Duet
Horn Shoppe (Two Models)
Horning Hybrids (Various models)
Klipschorn and La Scala (All Versions)
Living Voice OBX-R2 (UK)
Musical Affairs Grand Crescendo
Omega Speaker Systems
Pi Speakers (Various Models)
ProAc Response Two*
Reference 3A MM de Capo i
RL Acoustique Lamhorn 1.8 (Montreal, Canada)
Sonist Concerto 2
Sunlight Engineering 308
Supravox Open Baffle
Teresonic (Various Models)
Tonian Acoustics (Various Models)
WLM (Various Models)
*Recommended by a reader and Gordon Rankin (Wavelength Audio), a veteran expert SET designer, despite its 86 dB sensitivity.
I would appreciate finding out about any other models, that readers have actually heard for themselves, to add to this list. This list is not a temporary project. It will be kept permanently in the Speaker Files. Further, don't expect to see the speaker models posted here a day or so after your e-mail is sent to me. Please remember that I'm usually behind in ALL my correspondence, including even the brief and helpful information letters. I will keep my own "SET friendly list" because at least one list should have no commercial foundation, temptations or considerations**.
Important- I would like to know if any of the above models can be bi-amped. This is critical, because I am convinced, based on decades of experience, that speakers with the capability of being bi-amped have far superior potential, assuming everything else is equal.
**For example, another website placed the Merlin speakers on their list, which, despite all their enviable qualities, still did not work well with low-powered SET amplifiers. I know this with certainty, because I tried them, more than once. The sensitivity was just too low. Merlin, themselves, used the excellent CAT amplifiers, which are pentode based and push-pull, at their audio show demonstrations. Merlin was a company that any serious audiophile should trust to know how to optimize their own speaker designs.
An Alternative New Standard...
The UNIverse III is one of the two finest cartridges I have ever heard in overall performance. The III also sets new performance parameters in a number of important sonic categories. These new performance standards were observed when the III was directly compared to both its predecessor, the UNIverse II, and even my most recent top Reference, the UNIverse Premium (see review above). However, it is also important to note that the III was itself outperformed by the Premium (though not the II) in other important sonic categories.
So, after an enjoyable (and unusual) 8 year period (2012-20) of no known sonic compromises with phono cartridges performing at the highest of levels, we are back to normal; They each have sonic compromises, so the final choice will have some unavoidable sonic consequences we must simply accept and live with (or have a self-induced nervous breakdown). Accordingly, the primary purpose of this review is to hopefully assist any interested reader in making the correct and satisfying choice, between these two models, for themselves.
To this end, I have directly compared the two top Reference cartridges, the UNIverse III and the UNIverse Premium, as comprehensively, and as fairly, as I am capable of conducting. I even went one step further than I ever have in the past to make certain the results were not compromised.
The UNIverse III was introduced in 2017, replacing the II (my long time Reference from 2012). The III has a suggested retail price of $ 9,500, which is a $ 1,000 increase over the II's price of $ 8,500. The III also retains the plastic body of both the UNIverse I and II. In a significant contrast, the (now discontinued) UNIverse Premium cartridge has a metal body/frame.
I received the ZYX UNIverse III in January 2020, but I wasn't able to install it in my system until March 8th. The delay was caused by the longer than expected break-in, and the subsequent evaluation, of the UNIverse Premium, which I had received in the fall 2019.
From the day the III was installed on March 8, until it was removed, and replaced, with the Premium (on July 28), it was played a total of 280+ hours, using the greatest possible variety of music, labels, pressings etc that I possess. During this entire 4+ month period, no other changes were made to my system, with the obvious exceptions of the necessary VTA and VTF adjustments to the III for sonic optimization. (Compared to the II, the III has a lower VTA and a higher VTF.)
To make certain the comparisons between the III and the Premium were both fair and comprehensive, I not only duplicated the same reference records for audition (which is obviously required and routine), I further duplicated their exact order of play. I then undertook what I now believe was the ultimate (and maybe even unprecedented) process required for fairness. It was a procedure which I had never used before, even with all of my prior decades of making direct comparisons...
On the final evening of auditioning the III, I noted the exact time I began playing the last three records, to the minute. I later duplicated those specific times when I eventually played the same final three records with the Premium. I followed this new routine to make certain that the time of the evening would have no (or minimal) influence on the outcome. Why did I go to such lengths? I felt this extra step was necessary, at least in my case, because my system consistently sounds increasingly better from between 11 PM to 1 AM.
So, if anyone is interested, here are the last 3 reference records, and their respective start times, that I auditioned, originally on July 28 with the III, and later duplicated on August 2 with the Premium:
Kodaly/Hary Janos/Kertesz/Decca/Speakers Corner Reissue; 11:45 PM
Villancicos/Paniagua/Harmony Mundi/Original Pressing; 12:00 AM
Mobile Fidelity/Pictures Exhibition/Firebird Suite/Muti; 12:30 AM
Final Vertical Tracking Force Setting: 2.25 Grams (Installed on Graham Phantom II Supreme)
Below are the details and final results of all these tests and comparisons, along with my related observations and any other thoughts I felt were relevant.
Let's start with my most important observation: Neither the UNIverse III nor the Premium is clearly superior to the other. Even more frustrating, for a serious audiophile to accept, is that they sound noticeably different from each other, even though neither performs at anything less than "excellent" in any sonic category.
As for the comparative details, they will sound familiar to many experienced audiophiles, since the two cartridges share the same relative advantages, and relative disadvantages, as have countless other components, of all types, when they were compared to each other in the past five decades.
Let's start with the UNIverse III's sonic strengths, which are also important performance "breakthroughs", for phono cartridges, in my experience.
Here they are listed in general order of importance (to me):
1. The III is the most immediate and "alive" sounding cartridge I have ever heard. Using an alternative expression; The III has the greatest amount of "gut presence" I've yet experienced.
2. The III is the fastest, most detailed, most articulate and most precise cartridge I have ever heard, and at all frequencies.
3. It is also the most "intelligible" cartridge I have ever heard, which means that lyrics are easier to discern than at anytime in the past.
To add some additional context to the above, here are some of the exclamatory adjectives, that I used in my contemporaneous auditioning notes, which may prove helpful to some readers: "incredible"; "stupendous"; "stunning"; "breathtaking"; "spectacular" and "unprecedented".
And there's more to report...
The III is also extremely clean, with great separation, and unprecedented delicacy. Certain veils, which I have observed for decades, were now gone. The highs were the most extended, and the purest, I have ever heard, while the bass is the tightest (and as deep as) I have ever heard. At its best, the III could be both natural and spectacular. Also, depending on the record, and the perspective, the III is the most revealing cartridge known to me.
On a practical level, some records sounded like a "super pressing" of themselves or, using a different audiophile standard, the closest to a direct-to-disc version that I have experienced. If I were asked to describe the III's general performance using a loudspeaker analogy, it would be simple; The III sounds like a good electrostatic finding itself in a universe of speakers previously using only dynamic drivers.
However, as an alternative, it may be more revealing for some audiophiles if I were to instead use a power amplifier analogy to describe the III's general performance. In that instance; The III sounds like a "breakthrough" transistor amplifier in a universe of countless transistor and tube amplifiers, of various quality. And if this second analogy appears understandably familiar, it now brings us to the equally important, and required, second part of this section, in which we now shift our focus to the Premium...
The UNIverse Premium has one major, and all-encompassing, sonic advantage over the III, and any other cartridge I've ever heard: The Premium is still, without a doubt, the most natural sounding cartridge in my experience.
The details and examples, of this serious advantage, are critically important:
1. The Premium has more natural body and weight than the III. This is almost always noticeable, on all instruments, though it's particularly observable on (male) voices. In fact, even transient notes have greater substance, body and weight.
2. The Premium sounds larger, more powerful and more forceful than the III. The Premium's bass is no deeper than the III's, but it sounds more prominent, as if the subwoofers have been turned up somewhat in volume.
3. The Premium is more likely to sound overpowering, overwhelming and awe inspiring, when this is possible. It is also both more startling at times, and less predictable. While this is admittedly purely subjective; the Premium induced more involuntary reactions to the music from me, such as "goose bumps" and "mouth dropping".
4. The Premium is not as articulate as the III, but it still reproduced more of the individual textures of each instrument and voice, yet the surface noise appears to be reduced.
5. The Premium has less homogenization and, accordingly, has greater separation of the instruments. This is noticeable at all volume levels, but especially during loud passages.
6. The Premium is superior in reproducing the rear soundstage in its totality. It better captures the entire recording space and all of the natural decays, which "hang in the air" longer than the III.
7. The Premium is more effortless and relaxed than the III, at virtually any volume level. There is less strain and there is, correspondingly, fewer noticeable sonic changes during the continually varying volume levels. Its sonic consistency is closest I've observed to a master tape.
8. The Premium has a lower sound-floor than the III, with a darker background. It thus sounds more complete, capturing more of the unique character of various voices and instruments, including the harmonics and the subtle and expressive dynamic inflections.
9. The Premium is still the best at individualizing all of the instruments and voices, my highest priority. Digital sourced records also sounded more like analogue sourced records with the Premium.
10. The Premium favors, or disfavors, relatively nothing. The entire frequency range, from bottom to top, is outstandingly reproduced, and so are all the volume levels. Accordingly, both the extreme PPP and FFF sound levels are more convincing than with the III.
The Premium is extremely fast, articulate and detailed, as I described in my review of it earlier this year. The Premium can only be described as relatively "slow" when directly compared to the (unprecedented) performance of the III, which is simply in a class of its own, in my experience.
Further Thoughts on "Natural Body"...
I've already clearly stated above that the Premium has more natural body than the III. However, I believe a more detailed explanation is in order. To do so, we must go back to my earlier Premium review (above), in which I describe our observations concerning natural body using numbers.
Here are the numbers, describing observed body, now updated with the results from the UNIverse III:
UNIverse II - "Body" Frequency Range 7/10 + Resonances 2/10 = 9/10*
UNIverse Premium - "Body" Frequency Range 8/10 + Resonances 1/10 = 9/10*
UNIverse III - "Body" Frequency Range 7.6/10 + Resonances .9/10 = 8.5/10*
Explanation - Both the II and Premium cartridges have virtually the exact same (9/10*) total amount ("quantity") of "body". However, the II has a 2/10 amount of resonances while the Premium has only a 1/10 (all the numbers are only crude estimates to clarify a point). The extra (1/10) amount of resonances is the main cause of the II's noticeable "fat", while its absence is the reason why the Premium's "body" sounds more "natural" than the II. So, what about the III?
The III has noticeably less body than the Premium (and the II), but it is not large enough to be described as "dramatic". This is why the III's total body is reduced by .5/10; from 9/10 down to 8.5/10. Further, the III also has a slightly lower amount of "resonances" than the Premium; It goes from 1/10 down to .9/10.
Accordingly, I believe the primary reason why the III has less body than the Premium is because its frequency response is slightly attenuated in the body/bass frequency range (8/10 - 7.6/10 = .4/10). The III's further reduction of added resonances (1/10 - .9/10 = .1/10), even though it's relatively subtle overall (and a sonic positive as well), makes this body/bass attenuation slightly more noticeable (.4/10 + .1/10 = .5/10).
*10/10, or a "perfect body", is not possible.
So, in the end, what am I going to do, personally? Actually, I'm doing nothing for now (Summer/Fall 2020), since I am keeping both cartridges for the indefinite future (see below "Addendum" for the reasons and details). However, I will still (of course) answer the most important, and inevitable, question: Of the two best UNIverse cartridges I've heard, the Premium and the III, which would I prefer to live with, if I could only choose one of them?
The ZYX UNIverse Premium. Here are the reasons for this choice, which are both purely subjective and relatively objective:
Consistent with my observations, the Premium is superior to the III in a larger number of sonic categories, which can be confirmed and verified from the descriptions and comparisons seen above. Just as important, the Premium's sonic advantages are larger in degree, and thus more obvious and noticeable than those of the III.
If I were to use numbers for greater clarification; the III may have a 2 to 3% advantage over the Premium in its strengths, while the Premium may have a 4 to 5% advantage over the III in its strengths. In short, the Premium's sonic advantages are greater in both their number and in their degree. This is the "relatively objective" reason for my personal choice of the Premium. As for the "purely subjective"...
Even if the III had an exactly equal amount, and degree, of sonic advantages, I would still choose the Premium. Why? Because, in the end, though it is a tough and cruel choice, "naturalness" (or "completeness") is more important to me than "immediacy". Veteran readers will be aware that I made this personal choice of priorities clear, when this website originated, over 20 years ago, and I still feel the same today, and not just for the sake of (dogmatic) consistency. For me, the Premium has a "magic" that the III lacks, even when acknowledging all of its unique and unprecedented strengths. However...
I still recognize that other serious audiophiles, if directly comparing these same two cartridges themselves, in their own systems (or even mine), could feel differently than I do, which inevitably brings us to the next section of this review. It's now time to address an important and relevant audio issue which I have neglected in the past...
This is a complex issue, which could easily justify an entire essay, but that is a potential project for the future. At this time, I will first focus on the two cartridges discussed in this review. I will then attempt to provide a brief general overview, and perspective, on this important subject.
Focusing only on the UNIverse Premium and III, when and where is "matching" relevant? In my own case, I believe it has no relevance. Due to the strategic evolution, and the existing level of performance, of my present system, I am not seeking anything "specific". (The only exception, if it can described as that, is the cartridge's output must match the gain requirements of my current system.) However, what about other serious audio systems, in which the audiophile owner has highly personal performance requirements and goals?
This audiophile may be searching for something highly specific in performance, either to have even a greater amount of a desired sonic attribute which is already possessed (which is relatively simple and easy to achieve) or, alternatively, to "offset" something that they consider to be a weakness in their current system (which is much more difficult to achieve).
For some (obvious) examples of the latter (with the highly artificial assumption that the UNIverse III and Premium are the only two possible options), let's imagine an audiophile who feels that their system's major weakness is that it's "leaner" than it should be. In that case, the Premium, with its uncanny reproduction of natural body, would be the obvious choice. Again, alternatively, if another audiophile feels that, although generally satisfying, their system is still (relatively) "slow and heavy", and would like their system to be a little lighter, faster and "quicker on its feet", than the III, with its unprecedented speed, would be the obvious choice.
However, this brings us to the real issue, and the big question: Even if the tactic of using audio "offsets" works well at times, and the final results are considered successful and satisfying, is this still the ideal method to reduce system weaknesses?
Based on my five decades of experiences with direct audio comparisons (at home, at my former audio store, at other audio stores, at customers/friends homes and at audio shows); modifications; phono optimizations and general experimentation, I believe that audio offsets can work, at least in some highly specific circumstances, to reduce noticeable system weaknesses. However, using offsets is not "the ideal method" of improving an audio system. Here are the reasons to support my opinion...
For decades now, I've had the same first priority when it comes to choosing to purchase a component: What is the ultimate performance potential of that component, and how easy/difficult is it to realize? The problem with components which have a serious sonic weakness, and the main reason I avoid them, is that these flawed components are almost accompanied by other serious sonic weaknesses, and usually only one of them can be "corrected", meaning all the other sonic weaknesses are then made permanent. So, hoping two weak links offset each other to create "magic" is an audio "dead end". It doesn't work that way, you just end up with two more weak links. In short, audiophiles dig themselves a proverbial "sonic hole" when using such flawed components.
Does this mean matching components, and particularly using offsets, has no place for a serious audiophile? No, they still have a place, though only as a short-term expedient. In fact, I've not only used them myself, but have done so on many occasions. When and where? In my own system, no. I have no clear memory of using offsets for many decades. However, I have made some "adjustments" when using electronic crossovers, specifically to offset noticeable system/room interaction problems, especially in the bass frequencies. Now, what about the two decades I spent in my audio store?...
A completely different story, especially in the 1980's. Virtually all the audio components available in that decade had easily noticeable problems (even "the best"), though I took great pains to studiously avoid those components with serious and glaring weaknesses, which even non-audiophiles could easily hear. Still, to present each of my chosen components at their best for my customers, I spent countless hours matching them with other components; speakers/amplifiers, tonearms/cartridges, preamps/power amps, cartridges/preamps, cables etc.
I accomplished this by matching audio tendencies that would work well together, such as the examples I provided above with the UNIverse cartridges. For example, certain overly warm speakers usually sounded most natural with a good transistor amplifier, while I noticed that some speakers (and transistor based preamplifiers) sounded their best when matched with a full-bodied tube amplifier. I am also confident that I was not doing anything "nefarious". In fact, on many occasions, I demonstrated to the customer how different a component could perform when improperly, and then properly, matched. The key is matching "tendencies", not glaring weaknesses, which is a fool's errand. However, I did use audio offsets myself on a regular basis, as I admitted above. Why? I had no choice at the time, as some of the store's trade-ins* did have serious problems, so experimentation was my only option, unless the customer was proverbially deaf or didn't care.
*My store had an extremely generous trade-in policy: To assist in extra sales; for my many customers who only purchased "used" and out of sheer audio curiosity on my part.
Virtually all audiophiles use this same matching procedure to some degree, whether they freely admit to it or not. Some audiophiles even swear by it, feeling it is the most important audio skill or goal. However, offsetting serious sonic weaknesses is very different. In effect, you have taken upon yourself to become a secondary "audio designer", by attempting to reduce, or even eliminate, the inherent problems with the components and/or system. Short Term: Fine, it's better than doing nothing. Long Term: Begin a serious search for better component(s), with more subtle weaknesses and greater potential.
Finally, never confuse routine matching, and especially using offsets, with Audio Synergy, which is the highest and ultimate level of component and system interaction. The best, and most common, example of audio synergy is using SET Amplifiers* with SET Friendly Speakers*. Audio Synergy is the (highly satisfying) result when you have realized both the highest possible level of performance from any given component and, ideally, another component at the same time. A system in which all of the individual components are synergized should be the ultimate goal of all audiophiles (even if it is impossible to achieve). It certainly is my "ultimate goal" at this time, and has been as long as I can remember.
*A Non-SET Example? - While attending the 2004 CES show in Las Vegas, one room demonstrated Vandersteen speakers amplified by Audio Research (ARC) electronics. Until then, I had never heard either brand sound so natural and accurate overall, which is the entire point of matching components to the highest level of Audio Synergy. In fact, at the time, I wrote on this website that I wished I had thought of that specific combination myself!
Some background first - In 2001, the final year that I owned/operated my Toronto audio store, I decided to conduct some listening experiments with interconnects. I did this mainly out of curiosity, though I also wanted my customers to experience themselves whether the claim from virtually all the "audio skeptics" ("all cables sounded the same") was true or not. My first experiment, with around two dozens listeners (almost all of them customers), directly addressed this issue.
It was a comparison between the first Coincident (copper) interconnect and the Wireworld "Gold" (silver), both of them 1 meter in length. The results of this experiment, which I posted on this website around 4 years ago, were straightforward: All the listeners could consistently distinguish the two cables from each other, using a "blind test", and all but one of them preferred the Coincident. However, I also conducted a second experiment a few weekends later, which I have never discussed on this website.
This second experiment had far fewer listeners (around 10), and this time the test focused exclusively on cable "break-in"; Did it make a sonic difference or not? I thought so myself, based on previous experiences, but I wasn't certain. Further, I didn't recall then, nor now, whether any one else had ever conducted an experiment which focused on the effects of "break-in" alone. Accordingly, I thought the time had come to do so, and arranged the test as carefully as I could.
This was the protocol: When my next order of Coincident interconnects arrived, I put one pair aside, while a second pair was played continuously, 24 hours a day, with a CD player on "repeat", for over two weeks. This second cable would be directly compared to its "sister cable", which had been put aside, with no hours of play. What would happen? Was there a real difference, and was it important? I was excited myself to learn these answers!
Yes, there was a difference. All of the listeners were able to distinguish the two cables from each other in a "blind test". However, while all of the listeners, including myself, preferred the cables that were broken-in, none of us felt the sonic differences were as noticeable, or as important, as the sonic differences between the Coincident and Wireworld cables in the earlier experiment. So, while cable break-in was confirmed to exist, and also provide a real sonic improvement, it wasn't deemed to be as truly important, at least in this specific circumstance, as the initial cable choice. This bring us to the present, and the UNIverse III in particular, which inspired this issue. Why and how?
While going over my UNIverse III's listening notes, I noticed that I used the exact same term, "incredible immediacy", on both the first and the last night of my auditions. When I first recognized this unexpected coincidence, I was somewhat shook up. What could this mean? I also experienced (and noted in detail above) the III's gradual sonic improvements as it broke-in, so was this "unexpected coincidence" something that could be rationally explained or, alternatively, was it a contradiction and/or just one more "audio mystery"?
Answer: - I believe it can be rationally explained...
In the case of the UNIverse III* specifically, while the III's performance, overall, definitely improved during its lengthy break-in process, its basic "gut character" (or my "first impression"), which I described as "incredibly immediate", did not change. Further, I don't believe it will ever change, no matter how many hours of play it has. In fact, it may even be technically impossible for it to change. So, to answer my original question: "What could this mean?".
I believe it means that your first impression of a component's basic character, even when it's virtually brand new, and with low hours of play, will still be true no matter how many hours it is later played. (This general rule assumes the component is optimumally set-up and also matched properly with other components.) So, while new audio components will almost always improve with play (the "good news"), we must also accept the related reality that their basic character will rarely be "transformed" during this same break-in period (the "bad news").
*I had a very similar experience with the ZYX UNIverse Premium. It also noticeably improved, as I noted in its review, but my first day's listening notes could have also been written on the last day as well. Confirmation!
I believe the UNIverse III will be compatible with, and noticeably improve, the majority of the most serious existing phono-centric systems, regardless of their current performance level, and/or the owners' audio priorities and "taste". In the case of the UNIverse Premium, I believe that the "majority" would be even larger (even to "vast"). In my personal case, both cartridges provided a highly satisfying improvement over the UNIverse II (even as outstanding as it is), though what the Premium offers was larger and more important to me, as I discussed above.
While both cartridges are "References", in the highest sense of that term, both may also outperform the other, depending on the system and listener priorities. However, in the end, I also believe that the Premium is still unique in that it is truly "Universal" (no pun intended), while the III is not Universal and, to be clear and fair, neither is any other cartridge I'm aware of at this time.
The new generation ZYX UNIverse cartridge evaluations are not finished with this review. I have two more important experiments to perform in the future:
1. When the new Lenco/Kuzma turntable/tonearm combination is finally set-up (the pandemic is holding this up for now), I will directly compare the Premium and the III to each other once again, even if it's only for confirmation, though there could always be some surprises. It will be easier to directly compare the two cartridges, since the Kuzma comes with two headshells for fast switching. There will also be an added bonus, in that the entire system will be more revealing (I expect an improved phono source and speakers).
2. The UNIverse Optimum, the current ZYX top-of-the-line, has also been promised to me as a loaner. I have decided to delay receiving and installing it until I have the new Lenco/Kuzma set-up and the first experiment, above, has been completed. I want to hear the Optimum only after I am confident that I have heard the Premium and III at their very best, or there could be some unnecessary confusion as to the results.
Sorasound - ZYX (New Generation) UNIverse Cartridges
My Audio System
Reference Phono Cartridge File
Further- Almost all of the Readers Letters that are removed from this file, after the standard 12 Month posting (such as the July 2019 Readers Letters), are subsequently posted in their respective Reference Component Files: Amplifiers, Cartridges, Speakers etc. They can be found under "Readers Letters". If the reader's letter discussed more than one type of audio component, I will place that letter in the file of the component that was the most discussed.
A veteran reader sent me this letter with the latest updates to the critically important issue/skill of speaker positioning. Here is his letter with minor editing and related links (my bold):
"I have additional information on the speaker positioning procedure I have championed for the past few years...
...Post #2 in the linked thread below contains a write up of the procedure that is exactly as it was first explained to me back in 2007-2008, when I first heard the results and asked questions about how to do it. The write ups that I sent to you are slightly different, though they do reflect my own trials and errors. After finding the linked post, I re-did the procedure following the steps exactly as written. While I am quite familiar with the general procedure, I did have to listen for slightly different audio cues.
In the end, I had very good success with following the steps exactly as written. I would have to say that it is a better way to do the procedure than my own previous write ups. Everything just seems to be a little bit better. I used only the song on the set up disc that I sent you. I have yet to play a mono recording, which I still tend to think is a good double check on proper balance of the speakers. I think you will find this linked write up to be helpful.
There is also a newish You Tube video that is good to watch. It is a good introduction before attempting to do the procedure the first time."
Speaker Positioning Update Thread
Video Introduction to Speaker Positioning Update
These are the most recent LPs to join The Supreme Recordings. They are too new to place in one of the two upper categories, and there usually aren't any detailed descriptions ready either at this time.
And Yet Even More Direct Evidence On...
I realize this post can be viewed as "piling-on" (or even a "beating a dead horse") to any objective observer. However, it's difficult to resist embarrassing the few remaining "Decca Was Superior to London" dead-enders (whom have spread malicious and damaging misinformation to audiophiles for decades). Here is a recent post on Vinyl Asylum. There is no editing, but my bold:
Posted by Botanico92007 (A) on July 19, 2019 at 17:34:17
In Reply to: Look at the pictures in his original post.... posted by ghost of olddude55on July 19, 2019 at 03:33:37:
"I also have compared UK pressed Decca vs. London. They sound the same when pressed from the same master. I have a friend in England whose uncle was on the board of directors of Decca. My friend insists that Decca never did separate pressing runs for either country. The vinyl formulation was the same. In fact, the US was often favored with early pressing runs because the market was much larger and Decca wanted favorable US reviews to sell more copies in the UK. What is true is that the very early pancake pressings with no raised outer edge do sound better, but it's not the label, it's the vinyl profile. These are very rare because Decca quickly dropped the flat profile and went 100% to the raised outer edge to keep the stylus from slipping off the record and from being damaged with careless users."
*Excellent overall. One of the finest digital orchestral records I've ever heard.
**Excellent sonics, with natural vocals, but not one of Harmonia Mundi's finest.
Another outstanding recording, typical for Decca in every way, though not at their very top. This LP also has almost a full hour of music, while still avoiding the typical (and usually unavoidable) sonic compromises. Unfortunately, this record is quite rare in North America, mainly because Decca never came out with a "London" pressing equivalent, so it will be relatively difficult to find. Some good news though, I have the 4xCD Decca box set of the complete Prokofiev/Weller symphonies, and it is suprisingly excellent.
*This album has very "alive" and dynamic sonics. The music has many unexpected moments and is very unlike (decades earlier) Baroque orchestral compositions.
*This 2-disc digital album has a huge soundstage, a wide frequency range (with tight bass) and it also has spectacular dynamics. However, it's not quite as natural as EMI's best recordings.
*Very immediate, clean and "alive" sounding, with extended high frequencies. More "spectacular than natural", as (the late) Harry Pearson used to say.
Further - My most recent column is devoted to a late critic of this website, Charles Hansen of Ayre Acoustics, who disclosed his true thoughts and feelings about Stereophile, John Atkinson and the audio press only a month before his death. It should not be missed: CHARLES HANSEN'S FINAL POSTS ON AUDIO ASYLUM.
Austin Stereo (Sales and restoration of Vintage stereo equipment.) NEW 11/19
ViRa High End (Aidas Phono Cartridges, ViRa Radiant Tangent Tonearms + Used Analogue Equipment.) NEW 11/19
Classic Audio Loudspeakers (High-Efficiency Horn Speakers, Drivers and Parts) NEW 02/20
Aural Thrills Audio (Unique Cables and Electronics) NEW 04/20
Polk Cobra Cable Blog (A Blog Dedicated to Polk Speaker Cable) NEW 05/20
Doctor John Cheap Tube Audio (An Interesting Audio and Musical blog) NEW 05/20
These cables are 1 Meter in length, and are terminated with banana plugs. They are in excellent condition and have been fully broken-in.
These cables are only sold direct from the manufacturer for $ 1,200. My selling price is: $ 600.
Shipping to the 48 contiguous states, by the Post Office, is $ 12.00.
The Coincident Pure Reference Extreme (PRE) has been my personal reference speaker since 2009. They are in excellent condition and have never been abused in any manner. I am selling them for only one reason: To replace them with the newest model, the PRE MK. II (see the related link below). I originally had two pairs of the PRE, stacked, but one pair has already been sold.
The PRE is rarely for sale on the used market. In fact, I haven't seen a used PRE for sale in literally years. This is not surprising, because of the PRE's outstanding overall performance, value, practicality and sensitivity (see the link below for my PRE review). In the rare event a PRE is being sold used, it's almost always because of some peripheral, life-changing or domestic issue and not because of any audiophile dissatisfaction with its performance.
However, there is one issue with this PRE. The cosmetics, specifically the front veneer panel joints on the two subwoofers, are second-rate (see pictures). This cosmetic problem has no effect on the sonic performance of the PRE, obviously, but it will still require some rudimentary woodworking (sanding, staining and re-oiling) to bring them back up to par. Accordingly, I will offer a generous allowance on the selling price.
According to the manufacturer, the price for the used Pure Reference Extreme pair, if it was in excellent cosmetic condition, would be $ 14,750. However, due to the cosmetic flaws, I reduced the price to $ 10,975. This is my final price. It is a savings of $ 3,700+, which can then be used for a local woodworker. For those who are handy, it's a $ 3,700+ savings for a simple DIY woodworking job. Some audiophiles, like myself, may not even be bothered by the cosmetics in the first place.
Further Thoughts - Some audiophiles will understandably prefer to purchase the Pure Reference Extreme Mk. II, but don't have all the required funds, $ 30,000, so here is a practical suggestion. The Mk. II could be purchased in two steps:
1. The PRE Mk. I above, for $ 10,975, and later...
2. The Mk. II factory upgrade, which costs $ 12,000, making the...
Total Cost = $ 22,975.
Not only does this method avoid one large expenditure, it even provides the additional bonus of a $ 7,000+ discount from the Mk. II's original selling price.
Caveat - The PRE speaker system, which is two subwoofers and two monitors, does NOT include either the stands for the monitors or the spikes for the subwoofers.
Shipping (390 lbs) of the PRE is extra. The PRE is located in Florida (34986). Local pickup can also be arranged.
My Comprehensive Review of the Coincident Pure Reference Extreme Speakers
Coincident Speaker PRE MK. II Update Announcement & Further Information
The Supreme Recordings
My Audio System
My Audio Philosophy
Purchasing Used Classical Records
Reviewing the Reviewers
Used Components for Sale
Tubes for Sale
If you have a question, or want audio advice and/or consultation:
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