This is an article that first appeared in our new online PDF, downloadable magazine The Occasional this March in our Spring 2018 edition. We’ll be rolling out articles from it over the next several weeks in anticipation of our upcoming third issue – the Summer edition – which is scheduled for publication in May. We hope you enjoy this new, exclusive content, and that you’ll check out the current Winter Edition of The Occasional and its 140 pages of fresh high fidelity reviews, audiophile gear highlights, lifestyle stories, and editorial opinion.
Audiophiles love to gamble. And so do I.
The dealer from Far East
Once upon a time there was a young cartridge designer from Nagano, Japan called Hisayoshi Nakatsuka. He went to work for Ortofon and came up with some rather interesting designs, including the MC-20. When finally back in Japan he was hired by the most important OEM manufacturer of moving coil cartridges and diamond tips, namely Namiki. After heading the design team that produced some rather famous carts for several high end companies he went solo, starting his own company, ZYX. Some 15 patents in cartridge design came handy, along with the support of Namiki who still provides some of the best, if not the best stylus tips.
Legacy does not play music
In fact, this is the story of my system and my personal choice in cartridges. I tend to be a loyal customer and at the same time I love small gambles. Changed my smaller ATC speakers with bigger ones, changed a Kuzma Stogi with a Kuzma 4point, have had several ASR pieces of gear and yes, I had the fantastic ZYX 1000 airy3 before moving to the 4D Ultimate. Do you make acquisitions without demoing the product first? I do. You shouldn’t but I do. I trust some designers, they have a record of commitment to what they do, they have never failed me in the past so I give them credit for that, paying in advance and patiently waiting for my purchase to prove me right.
Gambling you say?
Well, yes. This is a bit of a gamble, not high stakes poker but then again, not peanuts either. The 4D Ultimate retails for $4,800 USD which puts it in the high rollers class for most audiophiles. It comfortably sits in the middle of the ZYX line up, above the 1000 and below the Omega, which packs a Lapis Lazulis stone acting as a “balancing weight to accord the sweet spot of the cartridge body and the gravity point of vibration system”. The Lapis Lazulis stone was a bit too much for my scientific background, I moved in for the 4D. So where’s the stakes? At the moment of purchase I had a fantastic sounding 1000 airy3 mounted on the Kuzma 4point. If you take a look at the specifications of the two cartridges you will realize that the differences are less than minimal, almost non-existent. The previous generation had the same magnets and coils, same highly polished micro ridge diamond tip, same output and impedance, channel separation, tracking force and ability, identical specs throughout. Differences? The new C1000 cantilever is made of carbon fibre which rumour has it was swapped due to the lack of boron (the market is running dry, more and more companies will have to find alternatives and soon). What else? Not much. So why one would put down hard-earned cash for an almost identical cartridge already in one’s arsenal? Enter the ZYX 100 Yatra II, a friend’s cart which also has the same identical specs with the 1000 Airy 3 while the sound is clearly rolled off in both the top and bottom octave when compared to the Airy. You see where this is getting, right? Specs mean nothing, for reasons obscure to me (not so obscure but anyway) there is a clearly audible difference between ZYX models, no matter what the specs suggest.
That’s one of the words I don’t fancy, same with platinum, diamond, reference, exclusive, supreeeeme and the like. Sick ‘n tired of these ridiculous adjectives. On this occasion the Ultimate marks the latest generation of ZYX designs with the aforementioned carbon cantilever. I will cut some slack to Yoshi for the Ultimate denomination due the sound of the 4D, which is in one word – unbelievable – or ultimate.
ZYX offers three choices of coil material, 6N copper, 5N silver or 24K gold and for both my carts I went for the copper version. There is a thing about copper, I prefer it to silver in most cases, the sole exception being the internal wiring of my tube amps. ZYX also offers two choices of output, low 0.24mV and high 0.48mV,. The low being exactly half the impedance of the high, meaning the exact same quality of coils used. Low output version sound better than the high output equivalents since there is less moving mass, the problem is that they require some serious amplification.
There is a catch here, ZYX measures output at 3.54cm/sec @ 1kHz while several other companies measure at 5cm/sec. This is very important as an equivalent f ZYX’s 0.24 measured at 5cm/sec would be almost 0.34mV, so while it still remains a low-ish output MC it isn’t as low as figures suggest. Still, a good phono stage or step up transformer is mandatory, same applies for cables. I use the ASR Basis exclusive phono stage, the one with the batteries. The cable connecting the tonearm to the ASR comes from Signal Projects, the Apollon model with industry-low resistance and inductance values. At his level the cable choice is critical.
Unpacking and first impressions
In typical ZYX fashion the 4D came in a bamboo box with plexiglass cover, wrapped inside a silk cloth, nothing new here. The looks with the exception of the cantilever were identical to the old version. I even ordered the same extra weight to be attached on the top of the cartridge as all ZYX bodies are made from plexiglass, meaning they tip the scale at less than 5gr. My choice is the so called Tin Base which pushes the overall weight to 6.8gr, perfect for most medium weight tonearms.
We’ve got game
I was starting to sweat. I was all in with this one and had nothing but a few outs, I mounted the cartridge and waited for the dealer to serve me. The tonearm was taking like forever to hit that first groove. I was sweating like a pig.
Bets are on
I was in, raising the 1000 airy3 with an additional fifteen hundred $, hoping to not steal the pot but to crack the game at the showdown. The river was merciless though, same packaging, same looks and nothing to be particularly excited about. The dealer, Hisayoshi Nakatsuka gave me nothing more than a seven and an ace, one of those hands I hate playing. For the retail price I would have hoped for at least something fancier in the packaging department, don’t know, maybe a clue that I was actually upgrading and not moving sideways. I was trying to play cool but I had to rush to my well known LPs. No space for experiments here, no new and exciting, never heard before records; I needed the same old stuff that was imprinted in my memory since ages. Where was that Liszt sonata on BIS?
All of a sudden that low pair with an ace on top doesn’t look that bad, I start to hear what made me fall in love with ZYX in the first place. I get that sensation of having something truly special on my tonearm, there is the famous ZYX speed, probably the cleanest and deepest bass I can think of. The BIS recording with Dag Achatz playing that glorious Bosendorfer 275 piano is a landmark in terms of real life bottom extension and has been a personal favorite for years, toping even my Clifford Curzon original Decca pressing both in terms of clarity and sheer scale. I remember describing the ZYX 1000 Airy 3 as a machine gun for how fast the playback was, and the 4D was at least on par. I could not accept loosing even one per cent of that glorious ZYX speed, I want my analog front end to be blazing fast.
There was more, there was a newfound sense of bloom in the piano strokes. My hand was looking better and better after the flop. A second seven was on the table. A miserable pair you might think, where you wanna go with that? Bloom was something that was missing from the Airy3, not that much anyway. The piano strokes were thicker, bolder and remained reverberating in free space longer. Yes, there was a longer decay time, the famous coda was plusher. Where is Billie Holiday when you need her? The first voice that comes in mind, the voice that makes or breaks the tonality question. You might think that all cartridges produce a natural timbre but this is nowhere close at reality. Yes, moving coil designs are hands down more natural sounding than digital to analog converters but there are serious differences among say a ZYX, a Benz Micro and an AirTight. Generally speaking ZYX comes out flat, Benz too, but with an added harshness on the upper-mids while the AirTight PC-7 that made it in my place for a few weeks projected those same voices a bit forward, putting them under a spotlight. I like evenly distributed energy throughout the frequency spectrum.
A seven, three of a kind for me. A grin was starting to form on my face, but I had to hold back a bit more. I had to check for sibilance, harshness, edginess and the like. There was none on Billie’s voice but I had to try out some not so well recorded albums, pop and rock music with a load of sibilance already in the grooves. Cartridges that add even a glimpse of edge on those records make them sound insufferable through my ATC 100SL speakers. The notorious British monitors take no prisoners and after listening to the likes of Metallica and Sivert Hoyem I had no doubt that the 4D Ultimate added nothing that wasn’t there in the first place. Apparently my Japanese dealer knows his game very well, he managed to push the dreaded ringing way above the audible frequencies, thus achieving a sibilant-free sound.
I needed something more, three of a kind is good but not what I was after. I was throwing swift glances at my cards and that ace was still there. I drew out of my collection Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, put down the needle and witnessed the dealer throwing another ace on the table. That was it, a full house and overall the best cartridge to play with my Garrard 401.
Everyone has a tell
I was moving my arms like a fool, taping my feet and singing the crescendos. How about that for a tell? Transported inside the scene, submerged by the violins and the violas, it was that sensation of knowing you had the game cracked.
After the initial adrenaline rush I tried to think the pros and cons of the 4D Ultimate. This is a complete offering, balanced and even top to bottom, fast like few other carts out there, with what I usually tag as “modern sound.” If you are into the old fashioned mid-rangy cartridges, the ones that reserve a special place for female voices and make ‘em sound lush, ZYX is not for you. This aspect of being clean but not lean, throwing a big soundstage and positioning instruments perfectly on the scene is my personal objective and ZYX truly excels in all aspects. The only con I can come up with is the output, the effective 0.34mV are on the low-ish side so one must be absolutely positive his phono stage will be able to handle such an output. There is also the loading issue, ZYX recommends more than 100 Ohm but my experience suggests otherwise, 47 Ohm are perfect here. Many phono stages won’t allow for loading adjustment and most of them usually have 100 Ohm as preset. In that case go for the high output ZYX 4D Ultimate which will work perfectly fine with less gain and 100 Ohms are spot on. Besides that the ZYX 4D Ultimate is absolutely amazing. Compared to the 1000 airy3 it creates a more impactful playback with richer tonality while maintaining all the other characteristics of the ZYX family unaltered.
So, who’s in for a hand?
ZYX 4D Ultimate specifications:
- “REAL STEREO” Generator System
- Cryogenic Treatment Temperature: -196 C (-320 F)
- Output Voltage: 0.24mV (0.48mV) (3.54cm/sec, 1kHz)
- Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20kHz ±1dB 10 Hz – 100 kHz
- Channel Separation: >30dB [1kHz]
- Channel Balance: < 0.5dB [1kHz]
- Recommended Tracking Force: 2.0gm
- Tracking Force Range: 1.7gm – 2.5gm
- Trackability > 60μm /2.0gm
- EQ Compliance horizontal: 15×10-6cm/dyn Vertical: 12×10-6cm/dyne
- Internal Impedance: 4.0 Ω (8.0 Ω)
- Load Impedance: > 100Ω
- Coil Wire X type:
- S type 5N Silver 0.035mm
- G type K24 Gold 0.035mm
- 6N Crystal Copper 0.035mm
- Cantilever Material: C-1000 Carbon 0.30mm
- Stylus: Micro-Ridge Solid Diamond 0.1mm
- Contact Radius: Life Time 3μm×60μm, 2000Hour/2.0gm
- Output Terminals: 1.25mm gold plated [EIA]
- Body – Terminal Board Glass Epoxy Plate:
- Dimensions 16.8mm(W)×19.0mm(L)×x15.6mm(H)
- Net Weight: 4.1gm, 6.8gm(TB2), 8.0gm(SB2).
- MSRP: $4,800 USD.