The ZYX UNIverse Premium moving coil phono cartridge is the latest evolution in the long history of ZYX of Japan. High performance is always expensive, and in this case, sonic perfection carries a “premium” price tag. Based on other upper high end cartridges that I have heard, the UNIverse Premium is worth it because it meets or exceeds every expectation I ever imagined for the sonic potential of the vinyl LP.
The list price of the Premium is $15,400. The version under review has the X/SB2 option. This decodes to 6N crystal copper coil wire (X). The Silver Base (SB2) adds 4 grams to the cartridge weight for a total of 8.2 grams. The cartridge is cryo treated. The terminal board is made from a pure sapphire plate and the output terminals are solid 18K gold. The internal impedance is 4 Ohms which suggests a loading of 100 Ohms or greater. The 0.24 mV output voltage is sufficient for most moving coil phono preamplifiers.
Other components on hand during the review period include a VPI Aries 3 turntable with a Kuzma 4-Point tonearm; Miyajima Madake, Clearaudio Titanium V2, Lyra Atlas and ZYX UNIverse II moving coil cartridges; Pass Labs XP-25 phono preamplifier; custom Windows 7 music computer running JRiver Media Center 22; Cary DAC-200ts and Mytek Brooklyn DACs, the latter with external power supply; Lynx Hilo AD/DA converter; Mark Levinson No. 52, Spread Spectrum Thoebe II, and Bent Audio Tap-X preamplifiers; Rogue Audio Stereo 100, McIntosh MC152, Bryston 2.5B Cubed, and Spread Spectrum Son of Ampzilla II power amplifiers; and Emerald Physics 4.7, Magnepan 3.7, and Focal Chorus 714 loudspeakers. The cabling is Audioquest WEL Signature, Nordost Valhalla 2, the very new Audience SX, and Mogami interconnects and speaker cables. Power protection and purification are provided by a PS Audio Dectet for the preamplifiers and source components, and a PS Audio Quintet for the power amplifiers. The latter provides remote turn-on and -off of power amplifiers that lack a 12V remote trigger.
The Pass XP-25 phono preamp is set for 66 dB of gain and 320 Ohms loading. Very precise settings for vertical tracking force are easy to obtain with the small threaded counterweight on the Kuzma 4-Point tonearm, and VTF is set at 1.95 grams.
Breaking in new components is tedious, especially speakers because the effectiveness of break in depends on the volume at which they are played. One hundred hours of play at high volume might have similar effectiveness as 500 hours playing at a low volume. Fortunately, for a phono cartridge, hours are hours. I use the Cardas Test and Burn In LP and let the cartridge run in the locked grooves on Side 2 for several days, cleaning the stylus and changing which groove the stylus rides in several times a day. One LP is good for breaking in 2-3 cartridges until the locked grooves are worn down to near-silence. Break in is required to get the best performance from the Premium, as with any phono cartridge, but it sounds good right out of the box and just keeps getting better.
Let’s skip talking about the sound quality as the cartridge breaks in and jump right to the 100 hour age. The sound has mostly settled down with this amount of break in and is very listenable. Very! The listener starts to appreciate the tremendous depth to each note in the midrange which imbues every singer with an awesome sense of reality. There is exceptional bass definition with powerful sustain. During break in, the upper frequencies sound somewhat disconnected from the midrange, but now they sing with the same voice and character. This very apparent and natural cohesiveness and lack of highlighting of any particular frequency range offers a stunning connection with fully formed voices and the singers who are right there, entertaining you.
Huge dynamics explode in my listening room. A “go to” cut is “Glory! Glory!” from the Underworld LP Underneath the Radar. The album is worth buying for only this one cut. Another is “Peace Frog” on The Doors LP Morrison Hotel. The very fast attack readily delivers a “punch in the gut” sensation that encourages a physical reaction to the performance. You feel the music. Powerful and fast, there is no blurring or reticence in communicating the power and drama of any cut. The Premium combines this dynamic ability with a fully rich and deep-into-every-note, tonally saturated very complete performance.
All of Matt Bianco’s LP Who’s Side Are You On is a treat. The vocal compositions in this jazz-rock fusion brought a smile to my face many times due to a very real and complete sound. Notes from individual piano keys are audible which makes every chord all the more interesting and convincing. This is rarely audible with other upper end cartridges. Listen to side 2 of Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police. This 1980 LP offers exquisite drum and electric bass duets, along with the vocals of a younger Sting. The multi-track mix results in an engineered sound image, but is on par with many other studio albums: very good instrumental focus, but with little air or ambience. The fact that the UNIverse Premium lets us hear both the good and not-so-good aspects of this recording is a very good indication of the essential neutrality and excellent resolution of the cartridge.
This cartridge really delivers cutting edge tonal quality and quantity. From the upper bass into the low treble, there is exceptional warmth and depth to all vocals, male and female. The treble benefits from less than average loading, as my usual setting of 320 Ohms suggests. There is a fine line for almost any moving coil cartridge where too low a resistance value (higher loading), such as 10 Ohms, results in a dark and dull sound that limits the amount of upper frequency harmonics and air we hear. Too little loading, such as 47,000 Ohms, offends with a brittle, harsh or bright sound. However, as the loading decreases, for example, from 50 to 47,000 Ohms, more openness and air is present. The key is finding that lowest cartridge loading/highest resistance setting that gives maximum air and high frequency resolution and feeling of openness and unlimited resolution and extension, but is just low enough (lower resistor value) to kill the glare and harshness.
Every time I have optimized cartridge loading using this formula, the sound has improved. The final value is usually in the range of two to five times the recommended value.
Instruments have outstanding clarity on The Doobie Brothers Living on the Fault Line LP. These instruments maintain their character and depth of tone throughout their ranges. This apparently perfect linearity – from the lowest bass to ultrasonic - avoids any sense that the cartridge even has a character, much less one that is identifiable. It seems perfectly neutral with all recordings.
The sound stage is maximally wide, deep and tall. On "Danse Macabre", the Saint-Saens standard audiophile test track, there is an easy ability to focus on any specific sound or instrument, so highly resolved is everything in the recording. But the sense of a complete sonic whole never suffers. This is both analytical and entirely musical, a very rare combination. You can always see the forest, but the trees never lose their individuality and distinction. The words in most vocals that you previously thought were buried in the mix are suddenly brought to life and separated from the background and are now intelligible. Instead of a mildly amorphous background sound, the original session players and musicians are back.
The UNIverse Premium exceeds even the high standard set by the UNIverse II in the upper frequencies, were there is a more refined and relaxed, more free and unbounded presentation. The Premium is far warmer and rich sounding than the cool and harmonically shallow character of the $8,000 Clearaudio Titanium V2. The $12,000 Lyra Atlas sounded very similar to the Premium when the Premium was breaking in. After about 50 hours of use after the initial installation on a tonearm, the sound quality of the Premium pulls ahead of the Atlas in midrange to upper frequency resolution, bass depth and power, and dynamics, leaving the Atlas in a distant second place. Please keep in mind that it is entirely possible that my analog system is not optimum for either the Clearaudio or Lyra cartridges. Overall, the Atlas and UNIverse II operate on a similar performance level, although their unique characters are dissimilar, the Atlas sounds sweet and mild, the UNIverse II is more energetic and colorful. The neutrality of the Miyajima Madake, a long time reference here at 10 Audio, is similar to the Premium, but the latter’s superior bottom to top resolution and awesome purity of tone puts it in another class. We should expect this as the ZYX is almost three times more expensive than the Miyajima cartridge.
The ZYX enables a strong connection to the performers who are creating the sound. Smiles on the faces of listeners are common. The tangibility and believability of the musicians is possibly at the highest level attainable from LP at present. It is not simply superb at every audiophile benchmark including bass, midrange, treble, soundstage, dynamics and resolution. Here is the key to this cartridge’s overwhelming success: It integrates them all into a cohesive, integrated whole with a dense sonic tapestry of intricate phrasings and nuance. These are imbedded in the walls of the LP groove and they require the flawless performance from a phono cartridge to convert them into superior music. The ZYX UNIverse Premium meets this challenge without ever sounding strained or approaching its performance limits. The ZYX UNIverse Premium is currently the state of the art for moving coil phono cartridges.
The ability of the LP to carry and convey realistic levels of information defines the performance of the ZYX UNIverse Premium phono cartridge. All LPs sound better than they ever have. Standard commercial pressings are elevated to “Original Master Recording™” status, and above average recordings sound shockingly, wonderfully good. If the ZYX UNIverse Premium offers a level of sound quality that is as good as the sound of LP ever gets, if this is a sign of the maturity of LP technology, if this is the end of the road of product improvement, then this is an acceptable level of ultimate performance. The sound of the ZYX UNIverse Premium meets or exceeds every expectation I ever imagined for the potential of the vinyl LP. It leaves me wanting for nothing. The ZYX UNIverse Premium is the most perfect and most successful audio component that this lifelong audiophile has heard. It is staying for the long term.
Overall Rating: 10 LPs
Link to distributor: Sorasound
This review would not have been possible without the very kind support of Sorasound. Thank you, Mehran! It was truly a pleasure working with you on this review.