Review: ZYX Airy2 and Airy3 Cartridge
This is a comparison of two ZYX R1000 series moving coil phono cartridges, whose full model designations are:
In early September we acquired a new Airy2. Shortly thereafter SORAsound, ZYX’s USA distributor, asked if we’d like to audition one of the first Airy3's to arrive in this country. They were seeking a comparison by some independent listeners. Both my ears and those of my partner Paul were used to challenge and verify impressions. Our two Ocicats, Neko and Moki, participated in but did not contribute much of anything useful to this review.
Basics, but not Boring
Each ZYX R1000 Airy cartridge offers several options which must be specified at time of purchase. Using the cartridge model numbers above as a reference:
Represents copper coils. Silver coils are available for the same price and would be designated by an "S". We chose copper simply because our tonearm and stepup transformer wires are also all copper. YMMV of course. We have not heard the silver coils and can offer no comparison.
Both Airy’s are available in either low (.24mv) or high (.48mv) output versions. The HO versions are designated by an “H” immediately after the “X” or “S” coil designation. We chose the LO versions and, provided you have enough gain in your phono stage, you probably should too. The lower output version of most MC’s tends to have less moving mass on the cantilever and is thus more responsive to fine groove modulations.
Represents an integral silver headshell weight. This $370 (list) option brings the fairly light (5g) Airy cartridges up to a more normal 8g or so. There is also an optional gold headshell weight for $1,200 (list) or you can opt for no headshell weight at all. This allows the buyer to tune cartridge and tonearm for optimal resonance frequencies without the loss of mounting rigidity that could result from add-on headshell weights. This flexibility and their medium compliance suspensions (12cu vertical, 15cu lateral) means that an Airy can be configured to suit most modern tonearms.
Mounting, setup and other trivia
After receiving our new Airy2 I mentioned to SORAsound that installing this unthreaded, open slot cartridge was nerve-wracking and of uncertain rigidity compared to a threaded Shelter or Koetsu. The demo Airy3 had already shipped, but going forward every ZYX cartridge will include permanent mounting nuts. This welcome upgrade will ease installation and ensure solid headshell coupling. The near instant response from ZYX and SORAsound to my suggestion is hereby noted and lauded.
The Airy's have the same tiny, micro ridge stylus used on other ZYX cartridges. This helps makes them the best groove tracers we've heard. This stylus also makes the Airy’s quite responsive to adjustments in SRA (formerly known as VTA). When set just right the sound of each instrument and voice is wonderfully realistic and present.
The Airy's are also very sensitive to changes in vertical tracking force. On our rig we play them both between 1.90 and 1.95g and have no difficulty hearing VTF changes of .02g or even less. Too much downforce reduces high frequency extension, which makes the music go a bit dull. Too little downforce and the highs start to get a bit too lively.
ZYX recommends an impedance load > 100 ohms if playing through an MC gain stage. When we played the Airy’s on a friend’s MC phono stage 100 ohms seemed best, though the Airy3 might have benefited from a very slightly lower load.
We play through stepup transformers, however, which is a very different thing. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this review, but the optimal impedance load for an MC cartridge feeding a transformer typically falls somewhere between 1x and 3x the resistance of the cartridge coils. Both Airy’s have an internal impedance of 4 ohms (8 ohms for the the HO versions). I started both cartridges at 10 ohms. This happened to be excellent for the Airy2. With the Airy3, however, changes during break-in were so rapid that we used seven different impedance loads in the first 60 hours! The optimal impedance for frequency-balanced response moved steadily downward from about 8.5 ohms to about 6.6 ohms before stabilizing.
ZYX warns against using alchohol-based stylus cleaners, which might damage the suspension. They include a nifty stylus brush with each cartridge and SORASound also includes a safe, ZeroDust stylus cleaner at no extra charge. We actually prefer Paul's DIY stylus cleaner. It's nothing but a piece cut off the white portion of a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, which can be found amongst the household cleaning products at your supermarket. Used carefully, this works better than any commercial stylus cleaner we’ve tried and it's virtually free!
Sonics – Finally!
Breaking in both Airy’s was blessedly painless, especially compared to some cartridges which give a fair impression of fingernails-on-a-chalkboard when new. Not with a ZYX. Both were enjoyable and eminently musical from the very first side. The Airy2 started off sounding a bit distant, but it relaxed easily and predictably from hour five to hour fifty. The bass and treble opened up, which moved the apparent listening seat steadily forward from the back rows to the front rows. That was it, no other changes were apparent. The Airy3 was more changeable, as noted above in the discussion of impedance loading. High frequencies opened up more and more, which required a steady series of adjustments to keep things in order. Stability seemed to arrive around hour 75, when the truly “airy” space around each very detailed instrument filled with the rich harmonics of instrumental and hall decays in a most natural and enjoyable way.
Both Airy’s are wonderfully musical and involving. The midrange is very smooth and yet present. Vocals and vocalists are definitely a strong point. In a well-matched and optimized system an Airy can nearly disappear behind the music. I have rarely been less conscious of the fact that I was actually listening to a groove being dragged past a pointed rock. When I remembered to think about it, the overriding impression was one of honest, uncolored neutrality. Much of the time I forgot, being too captivated by the music.
For those who have battled inner groove problems, say goodbye to all that. Both Airy’s flew through my toughest inner groove test LP’s with complete aplomb. ‘Les Plaisirs de la Renaissance’ (Harmonia Mundi, HMU 963) includes Alfred Deller's crystal pure countertenor and a closely miked alto recorder doubling and harmonizing off his vocal line, all in a stony and reverberant acoustic. For some sadistic reason HM put the most challenging tracks on the innermost grooves. This torture test (or “that flippin’ la-de-da record", as Paul puts it) has embarrassed some very costly cartridges. Those flippin’ la-de-da's can too easily distort into earsplitting horror. Both Airy’s played them cleanly without effort, though only with the Airy3 did we both remark, "Aha! That's what the musicians were doing!"
Another thing these cartridges do well is play low level passages really, really quietly. When the musicians are playing ppp the Airy’s portray it with a wonderful, hold-your-breath hush. If a mouse whispered you'd hear it. The Airy2 is especially magical in this regard. Any musician knows dynamics is about more than playing loud. Playing softly when the music demands it is a more difficult test, one at which the Airy’s are sublime.
Both Airy’s image and soundstage brilliantly. The Airy2 measured 0.2db of crosstalk using Wally's Analog Shop and the Cardas record. Read that number again folks, 0.2db! That is astonishing performance for a physical transducer. Images are tight and they stay tight. Instruments are right sized and solidly placed, with miles of air between them. On one large-scale recording after another we hear instruments outside the speakers and all the way to the back corners.
The Airy2's bass is very articulate, but to get full bass power requires careful tonearm matching. More on that below. The Airy3’s bass is more articulate and extended and is much more powerful. In fact, given the right tonearm, the Airy3 outplays the Airy2 at both frequency extremes.
The Airy3 reveals more details than the Airy2, though with both cartridges the details are always integrated into the musical tapestry. Some cartridges throw details to the front of the soundstage even if they don’t belong there. The Airy's play very low levels of detail, but they place those details within a deep and broad soundstage and keep them in proportion.
2 for the money, 3 for the show?
The Airy2 on a friend’s Graham 2.2 was as full-bodied and impactful as anyone could wish. The music truly came to life. On our Tri-Planar VII, however, (and reportedly on a Moerch DP-6) the Airy2 sounds slightly “reserved”. Rockers would just say it lacks balls. On big drum hits it was ever-so-slightly holding back from thumping us in the gut and stampeding the cats. (Okay, I lied. Neko and Moki did contribute to this review, if only by napping.) It seems the Airy2 may be especially well-suited to unipivots.
The Airy3 is more energetic. The maker says he redesigned the magnets to give the Airy3 more “freedom” without sacrificing any of the Airy2's neutrality. He succeeded. The Airy3 on our Tri-Planar let the music kick us in the chest and frighten those poor cats. Bass guitar and drums were as rockin’ as with any cartridge I’ve heard. For you classical rockers, listen to eighteen tuned anvils on Solti's 'Das Rheingold'. Terrifying. Janos Starker's Bach cello suites were rich and engaging with the Airy2. With the Airy3 Starker had us dancing on the coffee table. Now that’s a rockin’ cartridge. It was too much for the Graham 2.2, however. Despite all efforts at damping the sound was a bit edgy. As usual, it’s all about synergy. This experience suggests the Airy3 will be most rewarding on very stable arms like the Tri-Planar, Moerch DP-6 or perhaps a top SME.
The Airy2 or Airy3 deserve a spot on the short list of anyone seeking a top caliber MC that is honest, uncolored and musically involving. In our recent listening they easily outplayed some famed cartridges that list for nearly double the price. Proper equipment matching and careful setup are required, as noted above. If your system can handle its full-bodied energy the Airy3 is the “better” cartridge. Otherwise, or if you simply prefer a beautifully musical presentation that stops just short of laser-like detail and rock-the-house dynamics, the Airy2 is immensely satisfying. They both offer superb groove tracing, a choice of low or medium output to suit your phono stage and the ability to tailor cartridge mass to suit most tonearms. Highly recommended.
SORAsound gave us the option to purchase a cartridge at cost and has offered a further relationship if we want one. Since SORAsound sells directly through their ads on Audiogon, rather than through traditional retailers, you can also get a discounted price yourself.
We ended up buying a UNIverse, the new top model from ZYX whose performance is in a class beyond the Airys, perhaps even in a class of its own. To our ears and those of four friends with much experience, these cartridges all outplay competitors that list for even higher prices. Getting one for a substantial discount from list represents excellent value for the money.
A word from Paul
Both of these cartridges share the same electrically symmetrical coil windings that provide stunning left and right channel separation. This is the first attribute heard on listening to one of these cartridges and contributes to a great sound stage. They also share the same micro-ridge diamond stylus which allows for superb tracing of the record grooves. They are both detailed and articulate with no inner groove distortion problems. However, their different generators produce two distinct sounding cartridges.
The Airy 2 sounds good out of the box and becomes more detailed and powerful as the cartridge breaks in during the first forty hours. During this time the listening position moves from the middle of the auditorium to a front row seat. It is completely natural, neutral and with no coloration. The music emerges from a very natural unified sound stage. Everything is both detailed and in the right place. Along with the detail comes a revelation of the subtle nuances musicians use to infuse their performances with emotion. It is a fulfilling musical experience that is completely engaging. One can hear that a choir is made up of individual voices, but the Airy 2 can also present the overall voice of the choir. Subtle inflections by soloists are reproduced beautifully. Instruments quietly playing in the background are detailed and remain in the background. The ZYX Airy 2 has an astonishing ability to play the quiet notes quietly and with detail. There is a genuine jolt when a note is suddenly played loudly. The power is there when needed and is always well controlled. Everything is presented with such an open and free naturalness that is easy to stop listening to the detail and be swept up into the music, fully appreciating the overall intent of the composer.
The Airy 2 is always in control. It will never “bloom” a note, nor is it in its nature to sound shrill or blaring. The control always keeps the sound polite. It is a safe cartridge to listen to – it will not produce an unpleasant sound. The extraneous detail that the microphones pick up such as the clicking of clarinet keys or the wheezing of the violist are there, but are held back behind the music. The bass is tight, focused and detailed but needs about forty hours of break-in to fully develop. For music lovers who enjoy the emotional experience of listening and can live without the need for the bass to rearrange the furniture, this is a wonderful cartridge.
The Airy 3 has a different generator design which allows for greater freedom. The immediate difference heard is the extra weight and solidity behind the sound, particularly from the mid range down. The Airy 3 can really retrieve bass detail and present it with true power. The barely perceived gossamer veil of control of the Airy 2 has been removed. The sound pours out of the speakers. The Airy 3 is freer to respond to the full dynamic swings of the bass grooves without losing any detail. For detail aficionados this cartridge delivers. If the microphones picked it up and it made it onto the LP, you will hear it. It is amazing to hear the hang time and decay of a triangle over a full orchestra. On listening to Bach Cantatas it easily differentiates the cht, ch and sch endings of the words. Also the changes of the ch sound as it is modified by the preceding vowel as in ich, nach, auch is well resolved. It is not just detail, but the subtleties of nuanced detail that the cartridge can bring forward. It is not just a voice with vibrato - but the vibrato itself is clear and presented in a totally natural way. It is an amazing experience. The improved bass power of the Airy 3 really brings out the rhythm of the bass line produced by the cellos, basses and double basses; all with finesse and fine detail. The differentiation between the vibrating string and the harmonics of the wood body of violins, violas and cellos is now extended to the basses and double basses. The Airy 3 is more detailed across the board, but it is particularly noticeable in the bass. At the start of break-in the listening position is pretty much where the microphones were placed, producing quite a thrill ride. After roughly seventy hours the space between the instruments fills in with the complex tapestry of decays and room reflections, creating a unified sound environment. With this extra ambient detail the listening position backs off from the microphones and moves to the conductor’s podium. A little patience is needed before all the magic of this cartridge is revealed. The Airy 3 shares the same natural sound as the Airy 2. It is neutral and without coloration. The Airy 3 can also play with finesse and delicacy. It is not all about power and detail.
A note about setup
I am not sure how appropriate it is to discuss setup in a review on how a cartridge sounds. The usual disclaimer “Individual results will vary” may be sufficient. We are on the fanatical side for setting up a cartridge to get the best possible sound from each LP. It is just a magically transcending experience when everything from the loading, tracking force and arm height is set to optimum. This level of attention to detail may not suit everyone, and your results may vary from ours. Other reviews of the Airy 2 have claimed the sound is somewhat flat and not very dynamic. This is true if the arm height is off. The Airy 3 has enough power and dynamics that an imperfect arm height doesn’t necessarily result in a flattening of the sound with diminished weight behind the dynamic peaks.
In addition to our own system (listed)
we also demoed these cartridges on:
Marc Levinson Amp (200wpc, forget model)
Sonus Faber Extrema
NBS Statement cables
with some other good stuff
Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum
Four co-listeners have heard many others