June 9, 2013 :: Comment
The ZYX Universe II X is the finest cartridge I have ever heard, in my own system or elsewhere. In fact, for only the second time, in my long audio life, I have heard a cartridge which has no weakness, even subtle, compared to the competition. More incredibly, and unlike the first cartridge to achieve that milestone, only a tiny number of cartridges I know of even match it in anyperformance area. The UNIverse II obviously breaks new performance ground, but before I examine those areas in detail, I would like to discuss the last 20 years in my personal cartridge history, which will provide the perspective that I feel is necessary to fully appreciate the UNIverse II’s important achievement.
The first cartridge I heard in the “modern era”, which had no “serious” sonic weakness, was the Benz-Micro Ruby. While some other cartridges still had minor advantages in certain areas, the Ruby had no “obvious” weakness, which I define as some sonic “problem” that any serious listener could hear, without even having to listen for it. Prior to the Ruby, every cartridge I had heard, at any price, had at least one (or more) fundamental flaw; lack of body; poor dynamics; loss of detail; veiling; no depth and/or focus; poor decay; loss of natural harmonics; lack of immediacy; missing and/or distorted deep bass; treble roll-off etc. The Ruby was different, it was “excellent” in every area, which meant that, for the first time, you didn’t have to choose, and then live with, one unavoidable sonic “poison” (at a minimum). This was a huge technological breakthrough at the time. Later in the decade, after a few other cartridge changes (now irrelevant), came the next important step forward…
The Transfiguration Temper was the first cartridge I heard with not even one weakness, obvious or subtle, compared to any of its known (to me) competitors. I simply loved this cartridge. It did everything as well, or better, than anything else, which is extremely rare in audio. Predictably, that desirable status lasted only a few years, and ended (for me) after I heard the top models from ZYX. While the finest ZYX cartridges were superior overall to the Temper, or anything else I had heard, they still had some sonic weaknesses compared to the best of their cartridge competitors.
Each ZYX model I* heard improved on the previous model, starting (I believe in 2004) with the FS Fuji; then the Airy 2; then the Airy 3; then the UNIverse .48mV Silver; and ending, in 2007, with the UNIverse .24mV Copper. However, even the UNIverse Copper had noticeable weaknesses compared to the outstanding Dynavector XV-1S (and later the XV-1T), and this finally brings us (6 years later) to the UNIverse II X, which is the upgraded “II” version of the (original) UNIverse .24mV Copper. Finally, to be clear, and consistent, the UNIverse II has no disadvantage (or “downside”) when compared to the I.
*One of my associates auditioned these top ZYX models, in his own system, before I did.
1. More Natural Body, “Guts” and “Substance”- This is heard immediately, especially with male voices, or any other instrument within that range*, but it can also be observed at all frequencies. Just as important, this change is entirely “natural”, which I believe requires a further explanation, since this also involves the UNIverse I and other cartridges.
The critical point is that the UNIverse II has no “fat” tagging along with the extra body. This problematic “melding” happens with every other cartridge I’ve heard, with the one exception of the Dynavector XV-1S. The II is “light on its feet”, yet it still has true substance, and having this combination is one of the rarest qualities in cartridges, or audio components in general for that matter. Audiophiles almost always have to choose either flexibility or solidity, and then learn to live with a noticeable deficiency, but not this time. This is an achievement that only the very finest of components have ever accomplished.
So, to be clear, the UNI 1 was always “leaner” than the ideal (“perfection”), but outside of the Dynavector XV-1S, every other cartridge I’ve heard with supposedly more “body”, actually had more “fat” instead. Now some audiophiles may still prefer “fat” to “solid and lean”, but, from my perspective, this “cure” was worse than the problem, which is why I felt (and still feel) that the UNIverse I was a superior choice, overall, when it came to reproducing music naturally. For those listeners who place “musicality” as their highest priority, this will be the most important improvement.
*I listened extensively to the (Pure Reference Extreme) monitors by themselves, with the matching subwoofers turned off. This allowed me to isolate the different frequency ranges and thus avoid confusing one sonic change for another.
2. Greater Power, Weight and Impact in the Bass- This is also immediately heard and felt. In fact, it’s probably the first sonic difference a non-audiophile will notice. The bass may also go a little deeper, but I’m not certain of that, since what I’m observing could be a psychoacoustic reaction to simply hearing more power and weight at the very lowest frequencies. For many audiophiles, this will be the most important improvement, though that is not the case for me.
3. Greater Dynamic Force*- The UNIverse II has much more “balls” than the UNIverse I (which was already excellent in this area). The UNIverse II can actually sound “violent” at times, like a physical assault, bringing it noticeably closer to live music. It’s the least inhibited cartridge (or most uninhibited cartridge) I’ve ever heard. It has the power to startle like nothing I’ve heard. This improvement is easily noticeable at all frequencies (and with all instruments**).
For many audiophiles, and this includes the writer, this (unprecedented for me) dynamic capability will be almost a revelation. For those audiophiles who trust their “gut reactions” to a component above all else, this will be the most important improvement.
*Directly Related- Subtle and short-lived dynamic changes are also more noticeable and easily heard, so the music sounds more “expressive” as well, which many audiophiles will feel is another important improvement, though it’s not as “in your face” obvious.
**Though not with all records. Some records actually sound transformed, while others sound basically the same dynamically. This cartridge, like all cartridges, is obviously limited to what is already in the grooves.
4. More Information, and Better Focus, at the Soundstage’s Two Lateral Extremes- The UNIverse II has the most uniform quality of image, from the extreme left to the extreme right, I have ever experienced. The lateral extremes are reproduced with an unprecedented (for me) focus, solidity and separation. If there are any remaining differences between the musicians in the center, and the two sides, they are now subtle. The UNIverse II also sounds “larger” because of this, mainly due to the two far sides now being as real and as “active” as the center. The UNIverse II’s superiority over other cartridges in this area is very noticeable.
Visual Analogy- Think of a widescreen movie, which is out of focus and “washed out” on its two far lateral sides, suddenly appearing larger when those same two sides become focused, colorized and “solid”. This improvement will be most important to those listeners who value “imaging” above all else, especially focus, image size, separation and organization within that image.
There is a little more precision and control (already a ZYX “strong suit”), which is especially noticeable during loud and complex passages. Finally, there is a greater capture of natural harmonics, so the individual character of the instruments is more easily heard.
The UNIverse II is a significant advancement over the (already outstanding) UNIverse I. I would categorize it as a strong “Level 5” Improvement (which means it is even more noticeable, and important, than the “II” upgrade of the Reference Lenco that I posted two months ago).
Level 5- The improvement can be heard at all times by anyone with healthy hearing, including listeners with no interest in sound quality. The improvement is now always “significant”; meaning an audiophile can no longer enjoy their system without this specific improvement.
On a purely subjective note…
The UNIverse II provides me the widest range of listener responses that I can recently remember from one component change, since hearing the (original) Reference Lenco/Graham Phantom back in2010. Examples: “Goosebumps” have become much more common, and this is the most involuntary “gut” listener reaction I can imagine. I also find myself loving, or hating, certain recordings more than I did prior to the II, mainly because I now better appreciate the musicianship I’m hearing (or the lack thereof).
From another, more philosophical, perspective (though with practical consequences), the UNIverse II receives my highest compliment: It is a most surprising and unpredictable component, which is extremely rare praise from me. In fact, there has even been a delay in my evaluation schedule* directly caused by this cartridge’s sonic unpredictability (or else there could be some confusion). While other extenuating circumstances were also responsible, I don’t remember if I ever took such an inordinate amount of time to “digest” any component before moving on, but the UNIverse II has achieved this unusual, though highly telling, distinction. Make that “the last word” on it, for now.