The timing of this review could not be more appropriate. It is spring, and the warm sunshine on my face makes me feel alive and renewed. It is a pleasure to be outside. The subtle oppression of being closed in over the long winter months is quickly fading. It is time to open the windows, let the fresh air inside the listening room, and take a new look at the world as the flowers come into bloom and life renews.
Go outside. Your bare feet in the grass feel wonderful after months of shoes and hard floors, and… no ceiling. The sky is clear and the sunlight is intense, but without the glare of incandescent lamps. You feel more alive right now than you have in several months. You embrace freedom.
This is the essence of the sound of the Zyx (pronounced "ziks") Airy 3x-SB moving coil phonograph cartridge. If your system is ready, here is what you can expect after about 100 hours of break-in.
The natural detail and extension is almost startling after years of living with Benzes and Koetsus and Clearaudios and Shelters and van Den Huls and whatevers. This is one major area that drives vinyl lovers to change cartridges to find that ideal balance between enjoying fine detail and life-like resolution, but without any artificial harshness and glare.
Now you must keep in mind that a lot of the harshness you hear from vinyl is in the grooves and part of the recording. This comes from all of the gear that was used to record, mix and manufacture the record itself. As your vinyl playback system improves, some records will sound worse. There is no escaping this fact. The goal is not to make bad or marginal recordings sound less bad, but to make really good recordings sound sublime. You could use a cartridge to band-aid poor recordings, but your good recordings would suffer by never being allowed to show you their potential.
The obligatory dissection. The bass is very strong, powerful, rich and highly detailed. A significant improvement over the already stellar Shelter 901, and very competitive with the Clearaudio Insider Gold. The midrange resolution and tonal balance are superb and mark the Airy 3x as a player in the very top echelon of today’s cartridges. High frequency detail and extension are seemingly faultless and perfectly in keeping with the excellent abilities in the lower frequencies. There is no darkness or muted highs, but no artificial or unpleasant brightness either. This character might be called speed and agility, or simply natural resolution. There is a continual sense of clean resolve that unfailingly gives the listener an exceptionally well developed sense of the original recording space. Some gear presents the depth of a soundstage as distinct layers – front, middle, back. The Airy 3x has obviously higher resolution, presenting a continuous flow of sound from the front of the stage to the rear.
I have often used the sound of the cymbal as a gauge for high frequency resolution and purity. Components that are less than excellent often make cymbals sound like white noise. The Airy’s reproduction of cymbals is far too refined to ever descend into white noise. A new test was needed. Have you ever noticed that the electric organ sometimes sounds more like an angry cat than a musical instrument? Thin, flat, lifeless, and sometimes, actually annoying? The Zyx is one of very few cartridges I have heard that allows this artificial instrument to sound like a musical instrument.
The same thing is apparent with horns. French horns now sound very different from altos and trombones (try to pick them out in a lively orchestral piece), and trumpets are not cornets. A saxophone sounds like a wind instrument, not like a sandpapery electronic artifact that grates on your nerves like a crying baby does. (It is OK: its genetic. You are not a bad person if crying babies bother you.) Voices, whether bass or soprano, have a rich, colorful feeling of tactile reality that can make any decent recording sound like a heavy vinyl audiophile pressing. The focus and dimensionality of all voices is extraordinary.
When I was installing the new Graham Phantom arm, I forgot that the instruction manual (yes, Bob, I did read it!) clearly and emphatically warns the user not to adjust the azimuth during play. It took just a fraction of a second for that warning to scream in my head. Unfortunately, it was a fraction of a second too late. The Zyx hopped, skipped and jumped from the lead in groove to the record clamp. Oh, #$%^, I thought. Busted the cantilever or at least damaged the stylus. To my great relief, the cartridge was fine; no damage at all. I did no further “reliability testing”, but I feel very confident as I tell you that the Zyx is not fragile!
And another thing. This is the first cartridge that sounds best with the tonearm exactly parallel to the record surface. Why do most other cartridges sound better with the tonearm tilted down in the rear? It is due to the deflection of the cantilever caused by the VTF (vertical tracking force). It seems most manufacturers adjust the cantilever angle when the cartridge is sitting in the box, but the Zyx is designed for the correct angle when the cartridge is in use. Well done!
Housekeeping. The 3x-SB sells for $2,670 direct from the US distributor, SORAsound. The cartridge came with a uniquely complete owners manual, not the single sheet of paper that comes with most cartridges, but 11 pages of useful information including performance graphs. The design features include a "Real Stereo" generator system that provides one of the most believable sound stages from any cartridge design. It effectively eliminates time distortion in the cartridge generator system. There are 7 patents pending on this design. The magnets are cryogenically treated to improve their molecular consistency. The coils are wound from either 5-nines silver or 6-nines copper wire. The wire is also cryogenically treated. The cantilever is a solid boron rod, and the stylus is a Micro-Ridge. What looks at first glance to be an inexpensive plastic body is actually finely engineered to hold the internal parts securely while minimizing any harmful resonances. Frequency response is spec'd at 10-100,000 Hz, with a tolerance of +/- 1 dB at 20-20,000 Hz. Channel separation is >30 dB, and channel balance is <0.5 db="" both="" at="" 1="" khz="" p="">
On the Graham 2.2 arm, there was some mistracking when the VTF was set at 1.8-1.9 grams, and 2.0 grams worked well most of the time. I finally set it at 2.1 grams and then left it alone. On the new Graham Phantom arm, 1.9 grams provided the best compromise between minimal tracking errors and an airy sound. Both of these VTF settings are well within the recommended range of 1.7 to 2.5 grams. Cartridge loading was not too critical, although it was simple to hear the difference with different loadings. I used 100 ohms, or its transformer equivalent, with the Conrad Johnson Premier 15 Series 2 phono preamplifier with Jensen transformers installed. The Airy 3x sounds very good right out of the box, and only improves as the hours accumulate. A fine grain in the lower treble is the last remaining indication that the cartridge needs further use. When this grain is gone at about 100 hours, you know that the break-in period is behind you.
The only downside to the sound of the Airy is that it probably could sound a bit forward or aggressive in a system that is not neutral to begin with and is already too bright or "transparent". Of course, this is not a fault of the cartridge, but since you don't listen to a cartridge - you listen to an entire system - it is worth noting. It is also worth noting that if your system sounds bright after installing the Zyx, then fix the problem and this cartridge will sing for you.
A quiet, high gain front end is needed to get the full measure of this fine cartridge which has an output of .34mv (5cm/sec). There are two “3” models: the 3s, which has the coils wound with silver wire and the 3x, which uses copper. I consulted the distributor, Mehran, about the sound of these different cartridges. Mehran was very gracious and patient, and working with him to acquire the Zyx cartridge was a real pleasure. He explained that "copper is more neutral and silver is a bit warmer. Also, maybe if you listen to classical more, copper would be a better choice. If you listen to jazz and rock more, then silver may be a better choice." The “SB” stands for Silver Base, which is a piece of silver affixed to the top of the cartridge that increases the weight from a light 5 grams to a more normal 9 grams. The silver base is said to improve the sound, too. I had no trouble balancing the cartridge on either the Graham 2.2 or Phantom arms, which were mounted at various times on a Kuzma Stabi Reference turntable.
Yes, the Airy 3x is a terrific music maker by all the standard parameters. But the overwhelming feeling of openness and freedom from any sense of hi-fi intruding on the musical message is the real strength of this wonderful cartridge. It makes you want to listen to music, lots of music. The Airy 3x is Captain Christopher Pike on Talos IV, freed of his life-support wheelchair. Unfettered.
There is another Zyx higher in the line called the UNIverse. If I didn’t know it existed, I would probably stop auditioning and reviewing phonograph cartridges. I may anyway. In the right system, it is one of the most accurate and musical cartridges in our audio world today. Add in the low price for this very satisfying level of performance and the Airy 3x is a real winner that merits your serious consideration.
Overall Rating: 9 LPs