The first time I listened to the ZYX Ultimate Airy X cartridge it instantly reminded me of Scot Hull’s wife, Julia. I know that sounds strange, and even Scot’s probably thinking “WTF, Marc?” right about now, but hold on and let me finish. This won’t be creepy at all.
When Scot Hull was ordained last year, Colleen and I traveled down to Frederick, MD to attend. Toward the beginning of the ceremony and services, Julia went to the front of a church and began to sing a hymn/spiritual and for one second, frozen in time, I thought to myself hey, what do I really know about Julia? I know she writes and has an interesting career—so does Scot, for that matter—and I’ve met her a few times. That’s about it.
In other words, for that stretched-out moment I could only think of one thing: CAN JULIA SING?
The answer, as Scot sometimes says, was “Oh. My. Lawd.” This wasn’t like oh, the boss’ wife has a pretty good voice. I should probably say something nice to her to get on his good side. No, this was “Excuse me, Julia? Hi, I’d like to buy one of your CDs!”
It’s crazy that I thought of that very specific moment the first time I listened to the ZYX Ultimate Airy X low-output moving coil cartridge from Japan. I had just mounted it on the Gem Dandy PolyTable Signature and the Sorane arm has a detachable headshell so I thought it would be easy to switch the Airy to my Technics SL-1200G as other analog rigs arrived.
I mounted and aligned the ZYX Ultimate Airy X—it was the first time I used Richard Mak’s AnalogMagik software, by the way–and I have a confession to make. I’m not really the type of reviewer who says “I don’t even listen to a component until it has at least 100 hours on it! I won’t cloud my impressions with such a rough beginning!” No, I’m the guy who tries to be listening to tunes twenty minutes after UPS first knocked on my door and handed me a package with audio goodies inside.
So I double-checked all the set-up parameters, cued up an LP and lowered the ZYX Ultimate Airy X with the cueing level of the Gem Dandy. In that moment of anticipation, a voice in the back of my head asked, “Can this cartridge sing?” Again, it was a very long second.
Why the ZYX Airy Ultimate Now?
I’ve been using the ZYX Bloom 3 as my reference cartridge since I reviewed it in The Occasional a couple of years ago. It’s a fantastic low-output MC cartridge, especially for its now $1200 price—I can’t think of anything I’d rather own, except maybe another ZYX. The Bloom 3, you see, is the entry level ZYX. The prices further up the line start reaching brand new compact car levels before you get all the way to the top.
This is where I blame Dave McNair for the reason why I’m now testing the ZYX Airy Ultimate X. When he first came aboard, one of the first things he asked me was my opinion for a new cartridge for the Rega P10 turntable he had just purchased—after he reviewed it, of course. That was Dave’s first review for PTA, in fact.
I put Dave in touch with the great Mehran of SORAsound, North American distributor for ZYX, just as Richard H. Mak did for me when I asked about getting new cartridge for reviews. Well, Dave didn’t get the Bloom 3. He went one step further, to the Ultimate 100. I was split between “Great, Dave bought a ZYX, and that validates my tastes in cartridges!” and “So, the new guy had to one-up me. Curious choice.”
Moving ahead about a year, I ran into a concern while using the Bloom 3 to review other turntables and tonearms and phono stages. When I kept the Bloom, I imagined that I would continue to review mid-priced (for high-end) analog rigs while people like Richard and Panagiotis Karavitas continue to cover the top shelf gear. But as the months passed, the gear got more and more serious, and I had a singular thought. Should I be reviewing five-figure phono stages with $1200 cartridges—even if it’s my favorite cartridge anywhere near its price? In addition, a few cartridges have passed through here and more than a couple have really captured my enthusiasm. But did they offer me the same level of musical satisfaction?
When it came down to getting something I truly wanted, I knew I was going to have to explore further up the ZYX line, one of these very special cartridges from the mind of Hisayoshi Nakatsuka. I knew I was going to have to get my revenge on Dave. So what’s above the Ultimate 100, the Airy? And oh look, there’s a brand new version of the Airy, called the Ultimate Airy X. That would be the perfect cartridge to review the fancy rigs.
ZYX Ultimate Airy X!
At $3295, The ZYX Ultimate Airy X is a big step up in price from the Bloom 3. At the same time, it’s not expensive in the context of high-end audio, especially with this recent influx of handmade Japanese cartridges that push well into the five-figure range. The Ultimate Airy X can still be considered the low part of the range—it’s third from the bottom and there are five more above it. But as I found out with the ZYX Bloom 3, these cartridges are not only among the finest on earth, they’re often quite affordable for the level of performance they offer.
The ZYX Ultimate Airy has changed considerably since the last generation of the Airy. First of all, the new “ultimate” designation for the new line refers to the new carbon cantilevers that are made from 1000 pieces of carbon fiber. This creates a “C-1000” cantilever that is far more rigid than other materials such as titanium and aluminum, with “a specific gravity just half that of boron.” ZYX explains the improvements thusly:
“The carbon cantilever gives us the widest frequency range and a superior tracking performance. A further major benefit is that the mechanical sound signal picked up at the stylus can travel through to the coil in a straight and direct fashion by way of the 1000 pieces of mechanical carbon lines. This ensures the reflected, repeated or modulated mechanical sound signals are completely absent.”
Other improvements include a double-structure body that isolates the generator from outside vibrations, and a “high-speed reproduction engine,” also known as the magnetic circuit, which eliminates time delays in the signal. The diamond stylus has a Micro-ridge profile and ZYX claims it has a longer life expectancy of about 2000 hours. Purity has also increased for all of the copper, silver and gold wiring in the ZYX’s coils. All three materials have been cryogenically treated.
The output voltage of the ZYX Ultimate Airy X is 0.24mV, and the tracking force was set at 2g.
What’s with the X?
When the ZYX arrived from SORAsound, I noticed that big X on the end of the name on the box. I didn’t think much of it until Richard Mak asked me which version of the Ultimate Airy I received. It took me a bit to sort it all out.
The ZYX Ultimate Airy line features a version of each of the aforementioned three materials used for the coil wiring—X is for copper, S is for silver and G is for gold. You can also get an HO version of the Airy which bumps the output from 0.24 to 0.48. (Mine was the lower output model.) In addition, ZYX also offers an “integral silver headshell weight” for $370. This is just a plate that fits between cartridge body and the headshell and offers an additional 3g to the already very light (5g) Airy. You can also get the headshell weight in gold for $1200.
To summarize, I have the ZYX Ultimate Airy X with copper coils, low output and a silver headshell weight.
The ZYX Ultimate Airy X has been in the system for a few months now, and it has seen a lot of action. It was first mounted on the Gem Dandy PolyTable Signature with the 12.7” Sorane arm and a Nasotec headshell, where I compared it to the ZYX Bloom 3. After that it spent time on the LSA T-3 turntable and arm combo. Finally, I mounted it on my reference Technics SL-1200G turntable, which has been hosting the Bloom 3 for the last year or so uninterrupted.
Phono stages were many: my reference Pureaudio Vinyl, the Parasound Halo JC 3+, and the Pass Labs XP-12 and the new XP-22, which has just arrived. (There’s your first five-figure phono pre right there.) I also used the inboard phono stages of the Jeff Rowland Design Group Continuum S2 integrated amplifier as well as the Rotel MICHI X5.
In addition to using the ZYX Ultimate Airy X in a comparison with the Bloom 3, I also used the Airy to compare the two Bryston 4Bs in my recent review, and the ZYX Airy Ultimate was also my reference when the Technics SL-1210GAE arrived, and I started listening to differences between it and my 1200G.
In other words, I’ve been listening to this cartridge a lot. And for a good reason, something to do with how well it sings.
Listening & Sound
Here’s a prime example of how the ZYX Ultimate Airy X elevated my listening experience. Many years ago I found a used copy of Deodato’s Prelude—yes, it’s the one with “Also Sprach Zarathustra”—at a rather nice LA record store that’s no longer there. The price was high, and of course that was interesting to me. The proprietor nodded approvingly when I brought it up, saying it was “an audiophile masterpiece that many have yet to discover.” I took it home, played it a handful of times, thought it was cool—especially because Hal Ashby’s Being There is one of my favorite films.
Then I forgot about it for years, unfortunately.
I’ve recently pulled it out and folded it into the rotation. It’s a little lean overall, but the incredible soundstage width and depth is intoxicating and there are so many details to brush off and examine. I decided to play this album once the ZYX Ultimate Airy was installed and broken in—I had a hunch that proved to be correct. As I mentioned, I made the Deodato purchase because I was a fan of a film, not because I was a fan of Eumir Deodato, or even Strauss. Now, I can’t believe what a tight, dense jam it is and how drummer Billy Cobham’s performance should be studied and celebrated. The Airy just seemed to fill in all that missing information, form it into an easily listenable whole, and then write you a post-it note that says hey, you’ve got plenty of other hidden gems in your LP collection and it’s high time you give them a spin.
Another moment of clarity and wisdom occurred while using the ZYX Ultimate Airy X while listening to the superb Danish jazz piano trio Little North on their new album, Finding Seagulls. This album is deep and introspective jazz, quiet with huge floating spaces between the performers, This was among my first opportunities to directly compare the Ultimate Airy to the Bloom III to find out what ZYX can do at three times the price. (That’s a cynical way to put it, but it was weighing heavily on my mind.)
Here’s what I sensed with the Ultimate Airy X. Little North’s album is full of quiet music, told in panoramic Scandinavian style, but that doesn’t mean a lack of low bass heft or overall dynamics. That’s what I felt—sure, we’re playing quietly, but that doesn’t mean that certain sounds shouldn’t have a visceral impact on the listener. Playing softly doesn’t create a vacuum of sound, it opens up the world so you can hear deeper. The Airy simply captured that sensation, of big and quiet and out in the real world, just a tad better than the Bloom 3. That’s an impressive accomplishment, and it’s well worth the uptick on price.
When Dave McNair chose the ZYX Ultimate 100 cartridge over the Bloom 3, he explained that while he loved everything about the lower priced cartridge, the Ultimate 100 just had a slightly bigger helping of all those same lovable traits—musical balance, delicacy and an uncanny sense of sounding the way things are supposed to sound.
I still haven’t heard the Ultimate 100, but I can also see that ZYX cartridges have a signature sound up and down the line, and when you spend more you get bigger dollops of truth without changing the basic recipe.
My objective for reviewing the ZYX Ultimate Airy X cartridge should be pretty clear by now. I needed a new reference as I started reviewing loftier gear. Again, that’s a cynical way to put it. I chose the ZYX because the idea of something that sounds just like the wonderful and illuminating Bloom 3, but with MORE EVERYTHING, sounded like the way to go.
I’m not going to cheapen the impact this cartridge had on my analog rig by making superficial comments about it being the my favorite choice for under $5000, which it probably is until I have a listen to the next ZYX up the line, the Ultimate 4D. I’m just going to say that the ZYX Ultimate Airy X is the cartridge I need now, the one that makes me deliriously happy for a very reasonable price, the one that’s accompanying me to the next level of analog playback.
Obviously, a Reviewer’s Choice here.