US $16,995.00. There, I’ve said it, in bold. That’s nearly seventeen thousand dollars for a phono cartridge. I still remember the first turntable I bought back in 1981, it was a Luxman PD-284 which cost me $150 dollars. If I had known that 36 years later I’ll be laying my hands on a $17,000 cartridge, I would have taken up aerobics or knitting instead. To put it into perspective, the price of Gold closed trading at $ 1,225 per ounce at the COMEX exchange today. At approximately 9g (or 0.317 Oz) the ZYX UNIverse Optimum cost nearly $53,500 per ounce, that’s 43.7 times the price of Gold. Obviously, we are dealing with ultra high-end audio equipment here, and it is likely the most expensive phono cartridge on earth.
Words and Photos by Richard Mak
Yet, the same $17,000 will barely buy you this Hermès Togo Birkin 30 Gris Tourterelle handbag, or two bottles of 1982 Château Pétrus, or the Caran d’Ache Horlogerie 1010 Rhodium Fountain Pen, and let’s not even begin to talk about expensive watches. So I want to state at the outset that my review will not be an attempt to pass judgment on its price or value. That is a question you have to answer for yourself.
I will, however, make the case that the ZYX UNIverse Optimum is one of the finest phono cartridges I have ever heard, and it stands tall amongst the top cartridges I have in my arsenal, including the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement ($16,000), the Kondo IO-M ($9,000), Lyra Olympos ($10,000), My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent BC ($6,500), and ZYX’s very own UNIverse Premium ($15,000) which I reviewed on TONEAudio Magazine’s 77th issue.
The 0.24mv output UNIverse Premium, the immediate predecessor to the ZYX UNIverse Optimum, is already a titan amongst phono cartridges. In the 2016 review, I said “the ZYX Premium has achieved tonal perfection, with no identifiable weakness whatsoever,” and rightfully so. From its endless frequency extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum to its remarkable neutrality in tonal balance, to its vivid realism in instrument separation and sound staging, to its ability to render minute details, I truly could not find fault with the ZYX Premium cartridge.
Current vs Voltage
But in my subsequent review of the 4 chassis CH Precision Phono stage for Mono & Stereo Magazine in December of the same year, I discovered that current amplification circuitry, if well implemented, will allow ultra-low output cartridges to outshine normal cartridges in the rendering of fine inner details and transient responses. Most phono stages on the market rely upon voltage amplification circuits, which magnify the voltage generated by MC cartridges 1,000 to 10,000 times. High output cartridges require less amplification, but their large internal coils reduce the agility of the cantilever, thereby reducing transient response and low-level details. Low output cartridges have much better cantilever mobility, but amplifying the signal becomes very difficult as they are easily subject to distortion, noise and hums. Generally speaking, cartridges below 0.2mV are considered ultra-low output and will usually require step-up transformers, which will obviously open another can of expensive worms.
Current amplification phono stages (such as the CH Precision P1) operate in the exact opposite fashion as voltage amplification circuits. Amplification is based on the amount of current generated, which means a low output cartridge can actually generate a higher gain because smaller coil windings have a lower internal impedance and resistance. Ultra-low output cartridges with their super small coil windings are no longer subject to the usual amplification constraints; they can deliver very high gains without the need of any step-up transformers, essentially turning a weakness into an advantage.
In the review, I experimented with 4 ultra-low internal impedance cartridges on the CH P1’s current Inputs: The MSL Ultra-Eminent BC (0.6Ω), the Kondo IO-M (1Ω), and the Haniwa HCTR01 (0.8Ω), and an even lower output 0.4Ω version of the Haniwa. Paired with the CH P1’s current input, they delivered micro-dynamics and transient responses which I have never heard before, outperforming cartridges with higher internal impedance. I even preferred the sound of the CH Current input over the use of their corresponding Step-Up Transformers. The UNIverse Premium with a higher internal impedance and larger coil windings faced an uphill battle, it essentially fought with a handicap. The aforementioned 4 low impedance cartridges going through the current amplification circuitry clearly had the upper hand over the UNIverse Premium.
SORAsound steps in
I immediately gave a call to Mehran at SORAsound (North American distributor of ZYX) and asked if ZYX’s chief designer, Nakatsuka San, is willing to make an ultra-low output version of the UNIverse Premium. His answer was, “We shall see.” Things went quiet for nearly a year, but towards the end of 2017, I received a phone call from Mehran. He said, “Sir, I’ve got good news for you, Nakatsuka San granted you your wish, the ZYX UNIverse Optimum has been born! The ZYX UNIverse Optimum comes in a regular version with a 4Ω internal impedance and an output of 0.24mV (same as the UNIverse Premium). But he also created a very Special Limited Edition for you, with a 1Ω internal impedance and an output of approximately 0.15mV.”
As I hung up, I can hear the Angels in heaven singing Hallelujah!
When asked about the technical difference between the Optimum versus the Premium, Nakatsuka San remained coy as always. Other than the obvious lower internal impedance, he divulged no information on the technical differences between the two cartridges. I do notice the Optimum no longer shares the semi-nude body of the Premium, it has gone back to a fully suited body which does not expose the internal coil windings.
To amplify the signal of a 1Ω, 0.15mV cartridge is no easy task, that’s 0.00015 Volt!. The 0.15mV number is established with a 1khz test signal, but the output at a different frequency range could be even smaller. Not too many phono stages on earth can deliver enough gain above 72-74 dB without generating a significant amount of distortion. In most cases, it will almost always require a step-up transformer. I mounted the ZYX UNIverse Optimum on the DaVinci Master Reference Virtu tonearm and began an exercise of A/B comparison with the ZYX Universe Premium through swapping interchangeable headshells. On the Tenor Phono 1 with the gain set at the highest setting (70 dB), the 0.15mV Optimum fared extremely well with the 0.24 mV Premium. The Premium has the upper hand when it comes to dynamic contrast and bass impact, instruments carried more weight and exhibit more vibrant colors and spatial separation. The two cartridges basically have a similar tonality and are both remarkably neutral. The 1Ω Optimum has a smoother presentation on human voices and at times seem more rounded and relaxed. Whatever sonic superiority there may be, they have been offset by the limitations of inadequate gain on my 70dB phono stage. 1Ω vs 2Ω may not seem much of a difference, but mathematically they represent an output level of approximately 100% more. A true comparison with the Premium would require the regular 4Ω 0.24mV Optimum model, with the same output and internal impedance.
ZYX Universe Premium
ZYX Optimum 1Ω SE
Music of pure magic
The magic of the 1Ω ZYX UNIverse Optimum, however, began to unleash itself when I switched over to the CH Precision Phono Stage with the current inputs. The barrier constraints of low output cartridges are removed under the operation of the voltage amplification circuit, it became rather obvious I am hearing transient responses previously unattainable by UNIverse Premium, due to the physical limitations of its larger coil windings. The Optimum has launched the sound of the UNIverse into uncharted territory, as if Zeus has released the Kraken! It is ready to take on anything standing in its path, and the 4 ultra-low output cartridges have finally met their match!
In my book, the My Sonic Lab Ultraminent BC and the Haniwa HCTR01 are undisputed champions when it comes to delivering lighting fast transient responses. I suspect they are identical cartridges other than the slight difference in internal impedance (0.6Ω vs 0.8Ω), as they are both made by Matsudaira San of Japan. I spun Michael Rabin’s Kreisler Caprice Viennois performance on the famous Magic Bow recording (Capitol SP-8510) and found the Optimum to be equally agile and responsive. Yet, I feel the Optimum may even have the upper hand as it seems to render more of the nuances and imperfections as the holographic image of the violin hangs in mid-air with a sharper image and a higher resolution.
The UNIverse line of cartridge has certainly come a long way since the early days of the UNIverse I, which I find somewhat lacking in midrange body and warmth, but each UNIverse model has successively improved over the previous, with the Premium having the best qualities in the entire Universe lineup. But when the Optimum is combined with the CH P1 current input, the mid-range magic has definitely reached a new peak. As I play record after record from Johnny Cash’s song “Hurt” (American IV: The Man Comes Around), to Joan Baez’s rendering of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” (Farwell Angelina, Cisco VSD-79200), to Emmylou Harris and Don Williams’ rendering of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” (Cimarron, Warner Bros Records BSK-3603), to Of Monster & Men’s “Organ” (Beneath The Skin, Republic Records 472742-5), to Giuseppe di Stefano’s rendering of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma in Turnadot” (Operatic Recital, DECCA SXL2111), the midrange richness of the Optimum is capable of delivering wave after wave of human emotions rivaling that of the Kondo IOM. The Kondo IOM has long been my cartridge of choice when it comes to conveying human emotions, very few can rival the IOM save perhaps a couple of the stone body Koetsus, but the Koetsus has their own limitations with frequency extensions. Never have I ever imagined that the day will come where I could compare a UNIverse with a Kondo IOM, yet this is exactly what the ZYX UNIverse Optimum is capable of doing. The Kondo and the Optimum differ only in shades and colors, with the Kondo being more voluptuous and laid back, and the Optimum more forward but with greater sense of realism.
The Optimum doesn’t stop there, with orchestral presentations such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan – Suite Op. 57 (DECCA SXL 2221 ED1), or Albeniz’s Iberia (LSC-6094), the dynamic contrast exhibited by the Optimum invades the territory of the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement and Clearaudio Titanium, but it does not reach as far as the Clearaudio Goldfinger V2. This may actually be a good thing because but the ferocious explosive dynamics of the V2 come with a price, at times the V2 can be overly edgy and analytical. The Goldfinger Statement is a much tamer version of the V2, it has a much more balanced tonality versus the V2’s larger than real life dynamism.
On frequency extensions, however, the 1Ω Optimum totally steals the crown. It is easily demonstrated with Prokovfiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Act I “The Fight” (DECCA SXL 6620-2) with its remarkable dynamics, or Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar Soundtrack – “No Time For Caution” with its deep organ low frequency extensions, or Torsten Nilsson and Oscar’s Motet Choir’s “Stille Nacht” on Proprius’ famous Cantate Dominos album, with its top end frequency extensions and hall ambiences. There are simply no limits on how far the Optimum can reach at both ends of the frequency spectrum.
Finally, the Optimum reaches the performance level of Lyra Olympos in terms of realism and live presence. If you do not own Cigarette After Sex’s I album, I urge you to buy it for its musical style, unusual acoustics and hall ambience. Playing the song “I am a Firefighter”, the Optimum literally transported me back to the recording venue, the four-storey stairway of Greg Gonzalez’s alma mater, University of Texas at El Paso. The band cites The Cowboy Junkies’ album The Trinity Session as an influence. I’d be so bold to say that no other cartridges I’ve heard come close to the Lyra Olympos in recreating a sense of live presence, but the Optimum has firmly invaded this territory, solidly planting its footing, making Lyra Olympos and the ZYX UNIverse Optimum my go to cartridges for holographic realism.
ZYX UNIverse Optimum
I wish to close this review with two warnings for potential buyers of the ZYX UNIverse Optimum 1Ω Special Edition. First, you must have a phono stage with a high enough gain to handle super low output cartridge (such as the CH current input Phono stage), otherwise stick with the higher output regular 4Ω version of the Optimum. Secondly, be prepared to spend $17,000 dollars, otherwise it would be best not to listen to the ZYX UNIverse Optimum unless if you want to suffer from “Audiophile Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”. The Optimum has definitely rocked the boat of my arsenal of top cartridges.
ZYX Audio: www.zyx-audio.com
And see our review of the ZYX 4D Ultimate MC Cartridge here!
- ZYX UNIverse Premium
- ZYX UNIverse Optimum 1Ω Special Limited Edition
- Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement
- Clearaudio Titanium
- LYRA Olympos
- My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent BC
- My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum
- Kondo IO-M
- Haniwa HCRTC01
- Haniwa HCRTC01 Mk II
- DaVinci Master Reference Virtu 12”
- DaVinci Grandezza 12”
- Reed 3P Ebony 12”
- Rossner & Sohn Si 1.2
- Primary Control
- Graham Phantom II Supreme B-12 12”
- Thales Simplicity II
Phono Stage / Step-Up Transformer
- Kondo KSL SUT
- Stevens and Billington TX-103 Silver SUT
- Kondo M7 Phono Stage
- Tenor Phono 1
- 4 Chassis CH Precision P1/X1
- McIntosh C1000
- McIntosh MC3500 x 4 Passive Bi-amping config, or
- McIntosh MC2KW x 2 Mono config
- Peak Consult Dragon Legend
- Kondo Silver Wire
- Purist Audio Design Venustas
- Rossner & Sohn Phono Cable
- Nordost Silver Wire for Phono
- Purist Audio Design Venustas Speaker Cables
- Purist Audio Design Aqueous Speaker Cables
- Furutech FP-Alpha 3
- McIntosh MP1500
- Equitech 2Q