There is something about a curry. Sorry, but for some reason when I started making serious notes about the sound of the ZYX Ultimate 100 moving coil phono cartridge, I thought of food. I love Indian food. I find it incredibly satisfying. It must have something to do with the sheer number of spices that have to be skillfully blended to result in a concoction with the effect of a single, complex explosion of flavor to the taste buds.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
Other culinary experiences are of a simpler nature. A piece of fresh fatty tuna sashimi that melts in your mouth. The bowl of perfectly prepared black beans and rice. Lightly steamed, fresh organic broccoli served with a squeeze of lemon. Homemade flour tortillas, hot off the pan.
In a vinyl oriented system, I like to think of the phono cartridge as not only being the first part of a complex chain to retrieve information out of the groove, but also the spice that defines a certain kind of cuisine one might choose to metaphorically use when cooking up one’s system.
Hisayoshi Nakatsuka: Parts Unknown
To those of y’all unfamiliar with the ZYX brand (pronounced ZICKS and made in Japan), it’s a company devoted to one purpose: elevating the design and manufacture of phono cartridges to high art. I’m not an expert on Japanese culture and art, but I do know that they take that stuff seriously. Calligraphy, watercolor, fine porcelain ceramics, Zen temple architecture, Samurai swords, master Sushi chefs, I mean c’mon.
In the long and illustrious tradition of Japanese phono cartridge makers as artists, the name of Hisayoshi Nakatsuka deserves to be acknowledged as one of the greats. As chief designer and head of ZYX (founded in 1986), Nakatsuka-san has 15 patents for innovation in cartridge design including the world’s first optical cartridge which he designed for Kenwood. Later, working for Ortofon, he developed the famed MC-20 and then worked for Namiki Precision Jewel building OEM carts for other companies. The dude KNOWS his stuff.
So what kinda spice has Nakatsuka-san cheffed up for this little wonder of a cartridge? Something special enough to give my taste buds a massive eargasm.
I was not unhappy with the Dynavector 10X5 that I was using on my Rega P10 but had planned at some point to move up the ladder a bit. Especially since my audiophile crew liked to talk about how the P10 deserved so much more. That poor Rega having to use a little ole entry-level high output MC, bless it’s little heart. When the ZYX arrived I was excited to open the box and see a gorgeous dyed silk pouch containing an artful handmade-looking hardwood cube with a clear plastic cover exposing my new little Japanese masterpiece. I told y’all they take their art seriously, what did ya expect?
Currently, I’m using a stunning sounding phono pre from Poland, the Sensor 2 MKII made by RCM. This is very kindly on loan from Mehran at SoraSound since my Simaudio 310LP is having some tech work done to correct a channel imbalance. This Polish heartbreaker and the Ultimate 100 are currently in the throes of a torrid love affair. When the Simaudio gets back from repair, sparks of jealousy will fly. Tears will flow. Things may get thrown. You know how jilted lovers can be…
What It Doesn’t Do
If I have to characterize the sound of this cartridge, I’ll need to talk a little about what it doesn’t do. Even with its low .24 mV output, neither the Sim nor the RCM had any trouble noiselessly amplifying the ZYX Ultimate 100 up to S.Z.L. (Satisfying Zeppelin Levels). I was pleasantly surprised. Geek level 3 was activated as I tested a few loading options and settled on the recommended 100 ohms. I even tried it with a Schiit Mani phono pre and it was happy. Not thrilled but not despondent. So it’s not finicky about amplification, although it clearly wants top-shelf stuff.
My current system consists of QLN Prestige Three loudspeakers, driven by either a pair of Pass Labs XA-60.8 amps or an Audio Hungary Qualiton APX-200. Either amp sounds amazing while each having very different qualities. I can have fresh organic greens with aged balsamic and extra virgin olive oil or Texas BBQ just by switching a few connections. The power amps are fed by a PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell line preamp, typically using balanced connections.
With the ZYX in the driver’s seat, and for what I like to hear, near perfect system synergy is achieved.
- The RCM phono pre is straight wire sounding perfection.
- The PS Audio pre while maybe not the final word in refinement or vibe, is clean and neutral enough to not hamper information throughput.
- The QLN’s are highly resolving, reach down to the low 30hz area and have holographic imaging while tonally sitting right in the middle of this yin and yang meal.
- The Rega is super articulate and while never thin or bright, skews slightly towards the cool side with it’s almost complete lack of any information obscuring resonances.
- The Pass Labs are my reference for uber clean and precise yet ultra listenable Class A solid state excellence
- The Qualiton APX-200 is 100 watts a side of quad KT-90 pure tube goodness if I want some more sauce on the ribs
It just so happens that the special flava of the Ultimate 100 is the perfect spice to bring this meal up to about a 5.0 Star Level.
Hold My Sake
Having the world’s first carbon fiber cantilever must be part of what gives the ZYX the same kind of astonishing lack of information killing resonances that I find so seductive about the sound of the P10. Less is more. Mr. Nakatsuka, in his quest for ever more exacting performance, uses a total of 15 critical design points to enable the micro ridge diamond stylus to trace the groove and generate a signal almost completely free of extraneous colorations.
All the musical information is presented with what sounds to me like an insanely flat frequency response. I wouldn’t call the Ultimate 100 overly warm or romantic, yet it’s not a shred bright. Not even a hint of extra energy way up top that gives many carts a sense of increased detail or resolution. Yet the ZYX has resolution o’ plenty while sounding smooth as handmade Japanese silk. It doesn’t have any increased sense of forwardness. It doesn’t have any sometimes fun bumps anywhere in the lower mid-upper bass region.
If this is starting to read like a very nice, but polite and maybe a little boring presentation, you’re dead wrong.
An Appetizer Tray Of Listening Impressions
I found the ZYX Ultimate 100 manages to pull off a trick by sounding huge and exciting while being so smooth and clean. The low end is tight, slammin’, and subterranean. Highs are detailed, clear and smooth. Sir, may I have another? Pudding, that is.
In the ZYX literature, it says one of the main design goals is super tight channel matching. I can tell ya right now, I’ve never heard a more stable, fully fleshed out phantom center image with loads of texture and detail. Any ambiently dry vocal or instruments panned up the middle are reach out and touch me close. If something was playing while I got up to change the record, I was almost afraid I’d bump into the singer.
Also, much like the Rega, when things get dense and high energy, it’s never messy. The combo of the ZYX and the Rega elevates this control, clarity, and ease during big dynamic crescendos to a downright ecstatic level. Maybe because of this, I found myself wanting to turn things up – even on records that are not so midrange and treble friendly. Yes, the glassy sound of a less than great recording was there but it was somehow minimized and rarely annoying with this cartridge.
At the very beginning of the ZYX ‘n Rega collab, I had a vague feeling of the cart sounding a hair tight like it might be better with some break-in time. At this point, maybe 40 hours in, I can’t say for sure that much if anything has changed. Maaaaybe the low end is a hair less damped sounding in a good way. I don’t know. It certainly hasn’t magically opened up or anything – then again it’s been mega impressive from day one.
What I Feel I Can’t Say, But My Love Is There for You Any Time of Day
As usual, I had to spin my short list of tried and trues. But this time everything sounded so good, I quickly skipped ahead to some deeper listens.
Freddie Hubbard – Ready For Freddie
This is a great example of classic bebop, with one exception: it’s really well recorded. I don’t know what the deal was with jazz engineer legend Rudy Van Gelder cause he documented a bazillion of the greatest jazz recordings of the 20th century but I feel like his sounds are hit or miss. A fair amount of them don’t sound all that great to me.
This one however is amazing.
The Ultimate 100 nailed every ounce of instrumental texture and dynamic contrasts with an authoritative yet subtle presentation. Plus, the ZYX paints a wide and deep stereo image on this recording in an especially engaging way. But for me the real star here is the propulsive, almost explosive rendering of Art Davis’ upright bass. The ZYX served up so much of a defined shape and focus to the bass sound on these tracks, I was groovin’ my ass off.
Genesis – Trick Of The Tail
I fully embraced Prog Rock as a freshman in college. The same year the Sex Pistols sneered and spit their way into the scene. It was all so confusing. I had my way with Punk of that era like a lot of other folks, but I don’t seem to return to it as often as I peek back into Prog, which I consider every bit as juvenile as Punk. Maybe more so.
I hadn’t listened to Trick Of The Tail in an eternity so I was very pleasantly surprised at how well it holds up for me. Back at school in Bryce’s dorm room, the Dynaco Stereo 70 with A25’s and a Garrard turntable we used to spin this record (along with AC/DC and Beatles) made it into a lush surrealistic panorama of strange British affectations. Maybe the weed was part of the equation. Whatever it was, I loved it.
Listening on my current system, it still has all the charm it had, but now I can actually hear all the layers of instruments and effects blended with that signature late 70’s, proper English way. Shocking.
Big Star – Radio City
Oh My Gawd. This one shows off everything about what the ZYX brings to the dinner table.
I would have thought that something as refined as the ZYX which shows such an ability to portray delicate details in recordings would be ruffled and get downright blustery when asked to take on a raging band of drums and guitars compressed through Fairchild 670s within an inch of it’s life. Nope.
The ZYX playing the cut “Mod Lang” simply turned one of my speakers into a Fender Vibrolux and the other into a Vox AC-30 and laughed. Even the super glassy and somewhat irritating Fender Strat guitar sounds on “Back Of A Car” had a sweetness I have never previously heard.
Elvis Costello – Armed Forces
I’ve been a big Elvis fan from his very first album, My Aim Is True. For me, his arc to icon status is reached around the Armed Forces and Imperial Bedroom period.
My copy of the current garden variety Columbia pressing of Armed Forces is not particularly great and I detest the MoFi versions of most of the Elvis albums, so I’m content to play what I have. Again, I was surprised at how well the ZYX reproduced the brilliant but heavy-handed sonics of this record. I usually ignore the edgy quality to the vocals which may be somewhat exaggerated by the origin of whatever generation of tape copy and assembly line cutting and pressing took place here, but this time it sounds great! ZYX and RCM phono stage to the rescue. Bonus points for the pounding, deep and tighter than I’ve ever heard low end on cuts like “Senior Service” and “Green Shirt.”
George Harrison – All Things Must Pass
I have a great sounding German reissue of this set and when the mood strikes it always brings a smile. Another one that I haven’t played in a while so it was very gratifying to hear the ZYX breathe new life into this classic. The cartridge exhibited its now familiar smooth, liquid midrange vibe with just the right amount of detail on a recording that doesn’t have a lot of detail. Even the Phil Spector low mid murkiness was defined without seeming too washed out.
I haven’t said anything about the price of my new Japanese heart throb, but she’s not a cheap date. At around $2,200 the Ultimate 100 is the entry level in the upper Ultimate line of ZYX carts going all the way up to the Universe Optimum at a cool $16,995.
How you like me now? I like you just fine.
If you spend lots of time listening to records and you’re anything like me, you need that aural feast to please in a particularly special way. Getting an ultra performer like something in the ZYX line will seal the deal.
I honestly didn’t set out to spend this much and initially decided on a ZYX Bloom 3 which truth be told is one of the best price/performance ratios in all of front end analog hifi. But an Ultimate 100 is all that and more for a moderate bump up in price. Who doesn’t want more?
Now would be a good time to mention that ZYX claims their diamond Micro Ridge geometry stylus lasts over 4000 hours before a retip, so there’s some more value for ya.
What I’m hearing from the Ultimate 100 is not only exactly what works in my system, I’d go so far as to say there are very few cartridges at any price that perform as well. Nakatsuka-san has created something very special with his artistry that I will enjoy and treasure for many years to come. My highest recommendation. Arigatōgozaimashita.
Now pass me a napkin.