Review: VAS Nova Ultimate Reference LOMC
I've always felt that VPI is like the "hot rod" shop of the turntable industry. They have a broad line of turntable options, but then offer MOPAR-like options catalog, complete with tonearms of different sizes, materials, and girth, different footers, various motors and belt options, platters...and I'm sure I've missed a bunch. They make owning one of their tables fun with the ability to make it your own.
Well if VPI is a muscle car manufacturer, Steve Leung's VAS is kind of like DINAN is to BMW. He makes lot of cool stuff that just works with the VPI tables. I have been a big fan of his NOVA line of cartridges, having owned two of them so far. I recently upgraded my system (Covid shopping from home is killing me) and decided that it was time to jump to a higher level of cartridge from my Cadenza Black and VAS Nova Signature. I was thinking about one of the Lyras, but decided to ask Steve first about if he had any higher end cartridges in the works. It turns out that he has a new design that he has quietly made a handful of, sold to some of his more regular customers that buy a lot of cartridges. He calls it the VAS Nova Ultimate Reference, and it's basically his cost-no-object version of the Nova. The cartridge body may look familiar, but this one is made entirely of stainless steel. The internal wiring is of a higher grade than in the standard series (I believe he uses a solid conductor wire). He uses a boron cantilever, and the buyers choice of a line contact or micro ridge stylus (I went with the line contact). The suggested output is 0.25mV (very low output), but he can accommodate whatever output the buyer wants or needs. The resulting cartridge is heavier than the other Novas, and requires the heavier counterweight (if you don't already have one). The retail for the Ultimate Reference is $4,000 - about a thousand higher than the previous TOTL Nova Sig. Steve had promised that the design was very musical, and very fast, with a huge amount of separation - but also with the trademark VAS smoothness. He went as far as to say that the overall character was not unlike the Lyra Atlas.
I was a little concerned that the combination of the the line contact stylus, stiff boron cantilever and metal body would yield an overall sound that was more suited to analytical listeners. I kind of straddle the line between wanting a smooth, non-fatiquiong sound but with copious amounts of detail. I brought Steve my tonearm, which is one of the very original 10' 3D tonearms (the tapered one), and he mounted up the cartridge for me. I only had to play with the VTA, tracking force and azimuth. I used a Fozgometer to complete the setup.
Gotta admit - I am kind of shocked at just how much better the Ultimate Statement is to from the Nova Signature in every respect, and yet how it still maintains the same overall VAS house sound. There is a crazy amount of detail to be discovered with this cartridge, to be sure. Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" recent One Step release is mind blowing, and took another leap forward since the last time I had spun it a week earlier. The gourd percussion in "Right On" goes from being a well recorded trap instrument, to literally being able to determine the direction and weight each time the stick passed over its scales. Details like that are what makes music really become alive, as if the performer is right there. On Norah Jones "Gonna Be Sinking Soon," a great test of the unfolding of background vocals, there were additional vocal tracks that I hadn't noticed before which were suddenly separate, distinct. Jazz is ridiculous- I have enjoyed a bunch of records from older Miles Davis, to the Mingus "Ah Um" UD1S, to an original UHQR of Earl Klugh (which has never, ever sounded as good as it did the other night). Suffice to say, you will be going through your stack again to rediscover your music.
The cartridge is honest and accurate, and like Steve said, it is very fast. That speed helps create that illusion of "being real" because the instruments and voices can assume their original shape and texture, not being blurred in the least by the pickup. Despite the speed and accuracy, though, this is not a bright sounding cartridge. It will not punish you if you have a system on the bright side, or the warm side, or anywhere in between. The highs are there, when they are on the record. There is no fatigue, no motivating factor to make you want to turn the volume counter clockwise. The midrange is actually sweet, but not overly so. There is more body to this cartridge than, say, my Cadenza Black. The Cadenza is a wonderful cartridge in all its brutal honesty, but it can leave you wanting for a little more meat on the bone at times. The Ultimate Statement gives you a good sense of weight and energy. The soundstage also became quite a bit wider (not even sure how). On a live jazz album, the crowd noises and tinkling of glasses and silverware were all around me.
Steve had also said that the better cartridges like better quality records, and that the line contact will pick up noise on records in not-so-great condition. I don't really spin anything that isn't in decent shape, but I did notice the same effect as my Cadenza and other VAS Signature of seeing to go deeper into the groove, away from any surface wear. It is a very quiet cartridge overall.
I thought I would pass this on, as I know Steve has many fans on this forum. I think this newest design is a giant killer, honestly. There is great synergy with the VPI 3D tonearm, probably because that is what Steve voiced the cartridge on. So if you are looking for that next mod that will add a few more HP to your rig, this cold be your ticket.