The winter haze in Eugene, Oregon, where I live, hangs like a veil of thin gray fog over everything, diffusing light, draining color from the landscape, and contributing to my moods a quality of vague gloom for months at a time. But in my nearly 30 years here I’ve grown mildly accustomed to its character, seeking joy and the brilliant colors of life in other things -- cooking soups and stews, reading good books, scribbling essays and poems, growing fanatical about all things audio -- to drive away the clouds of accidie and despair brought by months of winter weather.
Part of being an audio fanatic is following fresh developments in the lines of products made by the makers of the gear I prefer, checking out new iterations of electronics and speakers, etc., and deciding whether the changes warrant a new purchase. Often, the change amounts to little more than a swap of resistors or a slightly revised circuit in an electronics component, or the substitution of a speaker’s ceramic-dome tweeter for a beryllium dome -- not quite enough to justify an upgrade in my system. But, as manufacturers try new and varied materials, as designers tinker away and come up with redesigns that better optimize the uses of new materials in one or more of an audio component’s parts, I sometimes feel compelled to evaluate how these changes might improve my listening enjoyment. It’s not only the basic question Does it sound better?, but a related question whose answer might be even more important: With this change, can I hear more of the music?
So, not two months after I’d bought my new reference moving-coil cartridge, a ZYX 4D-X ($4000 USD when last available), when Mehran (he goes by only his first name) of SORAsound, ZYX’s North American importer, announced that ZYX had come out with a completely new line of upper-end cartridges, I felt compelled to investigate and requested a review sample right away. Mehran agreed, and shipped me the first review sample of ZYX’s new Ultimate 4D-X ($4395).
Background and description
A longtime Japanese manufacturer of moving-coil phono cartridges, ZYX produces several high-end MCs, the most famed of which may have been the top of their line, the Universe ($8000 when last available). For years I’ve been a fan of ZYX cartridges, having begun with the Yatra/R-100, at the low end of their line, and worked my way up through the Airy 3 to the 4D-X. I’ve found the sonic quality of the ZYXes well suited to what I like, from opera and orchestral music to jazz and some rock. Their greatest quality might be their evenness of frequency response -- without tipping up the highs or boosting the midrange or bass, ZYX carts maintain a balance of frequencies that gives them a versatility lacking in many other manufacturers’ cartridges that may sound terrific with rock, but screechy with orchestral violins and operatic voices.
Hisayoshi Nakatsuka, owner and chief designer of ZYX, began his career working at Trio/Kenwood in Japan. He went on to Denmark to design the MC-20 cartridge for Ortofon before returning to Japan to work with Namiki Precision Jewel Company, a manufacturer of fine pens. At Namiki, Nakatsuka worked on producing an OEM line of cartridges, and, in 1986, he founded ZYX Co. as an independent manufacturer, where he’s been at ever since.
The name ZYX derives from achievements made in three areas: time (Z), amplitude (Y), and frequency (X). Beyond these, Nakatsuka has defined 15 vital design points for an MC cartridge, including how the coils are wound, the use of acrylic for the body, and the cartridge’s grounding. The result, ZYX’s website claims, is a cartridge with a “real stereo” motor system in which time-axis distortion is canceled by the use of several patented technologies. These are combined with other technologies, such as a microridge stylus, cryogenic treatment, and a new carbon-fiber cantilever to replace ZYX’s previous boron cantilever. ZYX considers the new cantilever to be among the most rigid to date, enabling the fastest transfer of analog signals to the electrical motor system, thus canceling time delays and preserving the recorded impulses of the original music as closely as possible. The Ultimate 4D-X’s body of clear acrylic, which ZYX calls a “semi-skeleton,” has no bulky side panels.
The Ultimate 4D comes in three versions, all with coils wound of 0.035mm-thick wire of various metals -- 99.9999%-pure copper, 99.999%-pure silver, or 24K gold -- and all priced at $4395. However, Mehran thinks that the copper-coiled version, the Ultimate 4D-X, sounds the most neutral, and that’s the model I was sent. (The silver-wound version is the Ultimate 4D-S; the gold-wound version is the Ultimate 4D-G.) As the cartridge itself weighs only 4gm, ZYX offers as a $400 option the Silver Base (SB), a small, tidy plate on which the cartridge body is mounted; the SB brings the total price to $4795 and the total weight to 7.9gm, the latter compatible with most contemporary tonearms. The Ultimate 4D-X’s output is slightly on the low side at 0.24mV; a high-output version (0.48mV) is available. The internal impedance is 4 ohms for the low-output version, 8 ohms for the high-output version, and the recommended loading is 100 ohms. The diamond-tipped microridge stylus is claimed to last for 2000 hours of play; retipping it costs 60% of retail, or $2637 -- but “retipping” is a misnomer: SORAsound sends you a completely new cartridge. The warranty is one year parts and labor.
Inside the Ultimate 4D-X’s shipping box, wrapped in a cellophane bag, was an elegant drawstring pouch of multicolored, patterned Japanese silk. Inside that was another box, this one of thin cardboard labeled “ZYX.” In that was a third box, this one of clear acrylic, and visible inside that was the Ultimate 4D-X itself. Using a Phillips screwdriver, I unscrewed the lid of this third box, then spent a few minutes removing the Ultimate 4D-X from its base, during which a detachable plastic stylus guard protected the cartridge from any mishap. Under the box’s false bottom were extra plastic mounting washers, metal screws of various lengths, a tiny screwdriver, and a user’s guide.
Installation was easy. I attached the Ultimate 4D-X to the headshell of my TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm with one mounting screw, leaving the other screw fairly loose so that I could maneuver the ZYX. Using needle-nosed pliers, I slid the sleeves of the phono leads onto the delicate pins protruding from the cartridge’s rear.
Through the years, I’ve used various protractors and other schemes to set up cartridges, but not long ago I settled on the Geo-Disc alignment tool from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab as the quickest way. This LP-sized plastic disc has alignment grids for setting proper overhang and offset, with instructions for use stamped directly on the disc. To check alignment, I use a tiny magnifying glass. That done, I tightened both mounting screws, then set the vertical tracking force to the recommended 2gm, using a Winds Arm Load Meter. I checked the channel balance with Analogue Productions’ The Ultimate Analogue Test LP in conjunction with a handheld Phonic Personal Audio Assistant 2 device to meter test tones.
Right away, the Ultimate 4D-X sounded good -- so good that I wrote Mehran and asked if he’d run in the cartridge before sending it to me. No, he said, it was brand new -- I was the first to use it. Nonetheless, I played about 50 hours’ worth of records with the ZYX before taking any listening notes.
One of the first LPs I took notes on was Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’sCarnegie Hall Concert, Volume 1 (CTI 6054 S1). The Ultimate 4D-X proved a good tracker, its stylus holding the groove perfectly well -- the entire album sounded great. In Mulligan’s “For an Unfinished Woman,” his baritone saxophone sounded agile and throaty, with sweet, airy highs. He took the theme statement, playing calmly and lyrically, but the tune got busy as the band heated up, playing a hard, controlled groove that backed each soloist with a driving undercurrent as they each took off. Ron Carter’s double bass was a tight, big-assed presence, with a chesty resonance more like a singer’s than an instrument’s, while Baker’s trumpet sounded brilliant, with a beautiful metallic shimmer. Mulligan’s solo was sensitively done, riding like a buoyant craft over Carter’s ostinato bass line. The impression of spaciousness was off the charts -- individual sounds were more like complex realities than audio reproductions. The entire LP was rich in timbral colors, with a heft of musical momentum that demonstrated how well the Ultimate 4D-X could reproduce rhythmic coherence from a recording.
Women’s voices sounded outstanding, whether singing jazz, folk, or opera. I’ve always loved Sandy Denny’s recording of her composition “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,” a touching ballad she first recorded in the late 1960s with the Fairport Convention on Unhalfbricking (A&M SP 4206). The song has since been covered by Judy Collins, Nina Simone, Eva Cassidy, and dozens of others. In Denny’s original, her vocal shadings and dynamics were affectingly aching, airily beautiful, and handled effortlessly by my chain of audio gear -- beginning, of course, with the ZYX. I could hear her breathiness and nasal tones and distinguish her chest from her head voice, her shifts and ornaments seeming to go with or on the beat -- something I’d never noticed before. Throughout, the image of Denny’s voice was solid, slightly right of center, and stable as a Roman column.
Cleo Laine too, in Porgy & Bess with Ray Charles (2 LPs, Jazz Olanet/Rhino JP-1831), sounded grand and affective in “I Loves You, Porgy.” When she sings the title phrase, so dramatic when it comes, Laine’s natural contralto reaches plaintively, almost roughly for the exquisite high notes of her range, at times venturing into mezzo-soprano territory, her fragile glissandi showing all the more emotion for it. But Cecilia Bartoli’s new album with cellist Sol Gabetta, Cecilia & Sol: Dulce Duello (Decca 483 2467), provided the most convincing showcase of the Ultimate 4D-X’s prowesses in range, agility, and speed. “Di verde ulivo,” from Vivaldi’s opera Tito Manlio, shows mezzo-soprano Bartoli at her most astonishing, her performance full of rapid, palpitating trills and gorgeous ornaments sounding fresh as a leaping dolphin in la Serenissima’s lagoon. The ZYX cartridge was equal to every quivering jump of her acrobatic voice, with no gloss or smear, each note delivered as precisely as, I imagine, Bartoli sang them.
Men’s voices were reproduced with equal excellence, whether rock, jazz, or opera. The Ultimate 4D-X rendered Stevie Winwood’s high holler in the title track of Roll With It (Virgin 909461) with punch and verve, capturing his bold, dynamic shouts, and revealing the subtle doubling of this old Brit rocker’s voice in the choruses. In “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” from Porgy & Bess with Cleo Laine, Ray Charles’s voice is gritty with a touch of growl, and he uses lots of sophisticated slides, wails, and slurs that the ZYX was able to articulate with apparently perfect timing. And Jonas Kaufmann’s burnished tenor, in his duet with soprano Kristine Opolais on “O soave fanciulla!” from Puccini’s La Bohème in his collection Nessun Dorma (Sony Classical 88875092491), never sounded better. When I’d played this track before with other cartridges, Kaufmann’s top tended to sound closed-in, even tinny, with a slight metallic edge; with the ZYX it was always clear and open, and its natural vibrance shone through, with the pleasing gleam his voice is famous for. All the emotion of Bohemian poet Roldolfo meeting his true love, Mimi, came through as they sang in unison “Amor . . . A-ah-mor!” It was grand.
But with the occasional rock LP I found the Ultimate 4D-X a bit wanting. In Winwood’s “Roll With It,” for example, though the synth piano and bass sounded tight and locked together, and Winwood’s organ was clear and powerful and the brass were punchy throughout, it didn’t rock me as it usually does. This dance number, an homage to Junior Walker’s “Shotgun,” inspired a post-boogaloo style of voguing, yet somehow it lacked the necessary je ne sais quoi. I had a similar reaction with Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland (Reprise 2RS 6307). His Fender Stratocaster sounded liquid and beautifully clear in “All Along the Watchtower” and “Voodoo Chile,” even as it distorted. The impacts of Noel Redding’s bass were impressive, but in both tracks Mitch Mitchell’s toms and crash cymbals were muffled. Hendrix’s guitar seemed to expand to contain the entire band within its soundfield, becoming not only the lead instrument but the entire sonic environment, astonishingly clear and detailed as every bent string, every shard and shriek of feedback was rendered -- yet it felt relatively light in terms of grunt and growl, amplifier distortions reproduced more precisely than affectingly. It feels odd to say so, but the ZYX got all of the music’s psychedelic tapestry while overlooking some of its rhythmic jump.
Could it have been the recordings themselves? Possibly. One could say that Winwood, however soulful, is still no Junior Walker, and that Hendrix’s early Reprise recordings were engineered for mono and radio play more than for high-end stereo, and not be wrong. By contrast, Dave Mason’s Alone Together (MCA-11319) sounded great, with powerful rhythmic momentum and room-filling sound that didn’t quit. “Look at You Look at Me,” its title a kind of lightly mind-bending psychedelic koan, features crunchy acoustic rhythm guitar, punchy bass, a thumping kickdrum, a fluid lead electric guitar, and Mason’s big, clear lead vocal. The soundstage was off-the-charts big: 4’ or 5’ beyond the outer side panels of my speakers and about as deep behind them. And “Only You Know and I Know” really rocked through the ZYX, the bass rumbling and thumping out in waves, the snare drum clear and crisp, the tambourine providing accents and sparkle throughout. Mason added power chords and beautiful fills on his electric guitar lead, while the acoustic rhythm guitar locked with the bass and drums. This tune was head-bobbing, a prodigious mother lode of bounce through the Ultimate 4D-X, and countered my reservations about the ZYX’s ability to rock.
As uneven as the Ultimate 4D-X may have been in reproducing the sound and feel of rock, it was as consistently terrific with orchestral and chamber music. In the Poco adagio of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G, Op.25, performed by the Beaux Arts Trio with pianist Walter Trampler (Philips 6747 068 3), the strings were sonorous, the piano’s dark arpeggios light and crystalline. The music is pensive, achingly drawn out, with a slow build to a crescendo of strings as the piano bursts through the relative quietude with dramatic, Rachmaninoff-like keystrokes. Throughout, the sweetness of the strings remained a virtue, the ZYX never smearing either their forceful or their delicate sounds or turning them sour, as lesser transducers frequently do. It handled the wide range of frequencies and the textures of the instruments very well: the piano never sounded muddy, the strings always clearly differentiated.
Aaron Copland’s nimble, sprightly score for the ballet Billy the Kid, in the recording by the London Symphony Orchestra led by Antal Doráti (Mercury Living Presence/Speakers Corner SR90246), presented a somewhat different challenge. The work presents an array of tonalities, shifts in tempo, large swings of dynamic contrast, and a populous, busy soundstage packed with the modern orchestra’s full complement of instruments. Woodwinds were sweet and subtly piquant, while the tuba sounded grave and majestic in the opening fanfares. Timpani were deep and commanding as the piece built slowly to its first climax, the strings just on the verge of stridency, urgent and insistent. When the music breaks into a jig for piccolo, oboes, and bassoons, then a flute and clarinet echoing them, the sound turned jaunty, changing with varied instrumental timbres and a smorgasbord of orchestral sounds: cymbal splashes, gorgeous horn fanfares, crisp and resonant temple blocks, jingling sleigh bells, and a piano. Each instrument sounded distinct rather than moiled in a hash of semi-homogenized sound. Each instrument’s timing and position in the soundstage were so clearly rendered that I could appreciate all the intricacies of Copland’s meticulous orchestration. And that soundstage was magnificently broad and deep, extending 4’ from the outer edges of my speakers and 3’ to 5’ behind them.
I then swapped back in my ZYX 4D-X cartridge and, for the next couple weeks, played many of the same albums I’d listened to with the Ultimate. Jazz and rock sounded about the same, with subtle tonal differences; orchestral music and operatic voices were dramatically different.
In Mulligan and Baker’s take on “For an Unfinished Woman” there were very lovely shadings and fabulous sound throughout, great detail in texture, and an overall lively presence to all the instruments. Drums were snappy and piano comping was deft, rhythmic, at times thrilling. The sound was superbly liquid, with rounded single notes and buttery runs with dynamic accents in all the solo instruments. Mulligan’s bari sound was agile and rich -- I swear I felt the hollow of its bell and the length of its bore. Here, the older cartridge was no slouch.
Likewise, my old 4D-X performed capably with rock. “Voodoo Chile” had a huge, throwdown sound, with Hendrix’s screaming wah-wah lead like an airplane engine and lots of finger-scrambling notes. In “All Along the Watchtower” his guitar was clear and fluid, at times penetrating, his voice airy and strong. The old 4D-X seemed the better cartridge for rock.
But with women’s voices and orchestral music, the old 4D-X was not the Ultimate’s equal. Cleo Laine’s voice in “I Loves You, Porgy” was a touch more hoarse around the high edges -- part of her characteristic sound -- yet still full of richness and body down low, airy and exquisite higher in her range. I could hear more sibilance, though, and her rising notes seemed not as pure. Jonas Kaufmann’s top notes were somewhat tighter, not as open in “O soave fanciulla.” His midrange was just as beautiful, but a slight hardness seemed to have crept into the highs. In the Vivaldi aria, Cecilia Bartoli’s voice sounded a touch chalky in comparison to its sound through the Ultimate 4D-X, not quite as beautiful or liquid, with more sibilance and treble overhang and a slightly steely top. Finally, the strings in Copland’s Billy the Kid were far more strident and thin, with a slight edginess -- through the Ultimate 4D-X, they’d sounded simply urgent. Overall, the sound had a shade less touch and organicism, with highs less sweet and smooth. The 4D-X never sounded ragged, but the Ultimate was richer, smoother, with a more definite presence that felt more natural to my ears.
For listeners to jazz, opera, and classical music, ZYX’s new Ultimate 4D-X is a winner. Its sound is smooth, with great body to the mid- and bass ranges, and sweet, clear highs. It has the ability to track and organically reproduce the evolving notes, both subtle and dramatic, of most musical genres, render complex and shifting timbres, and reproduce the many different sounds of a full orchestra in a coherent soundfield. There is something flawless about its overall sound. One of its chief attributes is a fine frequency balance: no portion of the audioband is boosted or shortchanged. There is no hint of the forward midrange that many find pleasing with some music, nor are the highs heated up to artificially emphasize detail in jazz and rock to the detriment of orchestral string sound or operatic voices. While the Ultimate 4D-X is not the most consistently rockin’ cartridge I’ve ever heard (though it sounded great with more recent rock records), it conveyed orchestral dynamics extraordinarily well, with solid, stable imaging, and soundstages that were consistently wide and deep.
In the range of cartridges available for a similar price, the ZYX Ultimate 4D-X is my favorite for the kind of music I most prefer. I encourage anyone looking for sophistication, a wide timbral palette, and evenhandedness throughout the audioband to seriously consider it. Its merits don’t leap out at you, but its rewards are rich, deep, and lasting. With it, you can hear more of what’s in the music. I think it’s a significant upgrade from the prior 4D-X. I like it so much that I’ve made the ZYX Ultimate 4D-X my new reference cartridge.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Analog source -- TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable with TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm and ZYX 4D cartridge; Ortofon RS-309D tonearm and Miyajima Laboratory Zero cartridge
- Preamplifiers -- Zanden 3100 line stage and 1200 phono stage
- Power amplifier -- VAC 200 IQ
- Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR-44 Aktive with RST-5 ribbon supertweeters and MasterBuilt jumpers
- Power cords -- Audience: Au24 SX powerChord, Au24 SX powerChord MP, Au24 SE powerChord LP
- Interconnects -- Audience Au24 SX
- Speaker cables -- Audience Au24 SX and Audience Au24 SX jumpers
- Power conditioner -- Audience aR6-TSSOX with Au24 powerChord SX
- Record cleaner -- Loricraft PRC 4 Deluxe
- Accessories -- Box Furniture S5S five-shelf rack and amp stand, Pottery Barn four-shelf hardwood console, edenSound FatBoy dampers, HRS damping plates, fo.Q Modrate HEM-25B and HEM-25S Pure Note Insulators, Acoustic Science Corporation SoundPanels, Zanden AT-1 Acoustic Tubes and AP-1 Acoustic Panels, Winds ALM-01 Arm Load Meter, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Geo-Disc cartridge-alignment disc, Analogue Productions The Ultimate Analogue Test LP, Phonic PAA2 Personal Audio Assistant, Audio Intelligent Premium One-Step Formula No.6, Mobile Fidelity record-cleaning brush
ZYX Ultimate 4D-X MC Phono Cartridge
Price: $4395 USD; SB Silver Base, add $400 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
ZYX Co., Ltd.
North American distributor:
1807 N. Hoyne Avenue
Chicago, IL 60647
Phone: (773) 706-9705