Review: ZYX Atmos X-SB (low output) Cartridge

Category: Analog

When Mehran told us ZYX was introducing a new cartridge I wondered where it could possibly fit in an already full lineup. “Not to worry,” he said, “it’s a new design. I think it will sound very different.”

Those familiar with my enthusiasm for the UNIverse and its lower priced siblings can imagine my reaction. Why would I want to hear a very different sound? Well, they’d revoke my audiophile card if I refused to listen to something new. When he offered to let us audition his demo copy of the new beast - well - who among us would refuse?

The Atmos’ specifications are pretty much identical to other low output ZYX’s, but when I opened the box it was obvious that Mehran was right: this is indeed a new design. The Atmos has a body quite unlike the enclosed acrylic shell of other ZYX’s. Oh it’s still acrylic, but there’s barely anything to it. There’s a top, to hold the permanently installed mounting nuts, and a face and back. That’s about all. The bottom is vestigial at most. The sides are virtually nonexistent, so don’t go poking at them. It does have a removable stylus guard so some thought was given to safety, but it’s no cartridge for a klutz.

Knowing how much sonic freedom the semi-nude UNIverse has, I was quite excited by the sight of an almost fully disrobed cartridge. (I know what you’re thinking, so stop.) Before mounting it up I anticipated big dynamics and impact. Was that expectation satisfied? I’ll let Paul describe what we heard.

* * *

My first impression on hearing the Atmos was that this would be a great rock cartridge. Even though I was listening to a solo harpsichord at the time, the power, weight, authority, punch and bass were clearly evident strengths. Switching to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ confirmed my initial impression. The Atmos really delivers when it comes to rock. There is no need to turn up the volume to feel the heart beats.

The Atmos is a different kind of ZYX. It is not just an improved Airy 3 and it is not quite a UNIverse. Its level of performance puts it significantly closer to the UNIverse than an Airy 3. However, the sound does not lie between these two cartridges; it has its own sound. This is due in part to a new body shape that is even more open than the semi-nude UNIverse.

As a classical music listener this cartridge has been an eye opener for me. I now have a better appreciation of why the goal of ever greater detail retrieval does not necessarily work for all genres of music, or for all listeners. The strengths of the UNIverse are its speed, detail retrieval, lack of sonic overhang and phenomenally extended highs; all of which work well for classical music. Friends who bring over rock albums all delight in hearing new detail on their LPs, but they are not always bowled over with the UNIvese. I now get it. The UNIverse can be too revealing. It is not a problem of detail overload. The problem is the resolution of the separate tracks that make up most rock recordings. Each track is revealed as a separate entity. Illuminating how an album was put together doesn’t always provide the full visceral experience.

Enter the Atmos. Unlike the UNIverse’s exceptional ability to drop every note when it is finished, the Atmos, like virtually all other cartridges, has a sonic overhang. The energy built up in the cantilever and coils keeps a note going a little longer after it has actually finished on the LP. This overhang is very short with the Atmos and is shorter than that of the Airy 3, but it is just enough to blur the edges of separate sound tracks and present a unified sound. With weight, power, authority, punch and drive coupled with a cohesive sound the Atmos delivers a highly satisfying rock experience. For rock many listeners will prefer the Atmos to the UNIverse.

The Atmos outplays the Airy 3 for all genres. The Atmos has more speed, weight, power, authority, punch and drive. The Atmos is also more forgiving about VTF and VTA. As with all cartridges, time spend finding the best VTF and VTA will be rewarded with the best sound. This is true with the Atmos, but there is less of a drop off in performance when slightly away from optimal.

So, how is the Atmos when it comes to classical music? It is very good and falls just short of the UNIverse. The initial trial with the solo harpsichord was very revealing. The Atmos doesn’t quite have the speed of the UNIverse and lacks the phenomenally extended highs. The Atmos didn’t convey the shimmering air around the strings as they were plucked. Without the extended highs the Atmos presented a slightly bass heavy, darker sound. The creaks and groans of the instrument as the pedals were pressed were more present with the Atmos. There was also that very slight sonic overhang at the end of each note. This small trailing tail prevents the full resolution of the gaps between the notes. There is more of a continuum of sound; a background ambience that holds the notes together. For highly energetic performances such as organ works this results in a less resolved and slightly muddy vibrato when compared to the UNIverse.

On most classical recordings we missed the extraordinary extended highs of the UNIverse when listening to the Atmos. To even the playing field I brought out re-released pressings of recordings made in the early fifties, The Kubelik Legacy on Mercury (MG 3-4500 & MG 3-4501). Not only are these great musical performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but the recorded sound is exceptional. Virtually the only thing missing are the extended highs. The weight, power, punch and drive of the Atmos breathed real vitality and presence into these performances. The Atmos picked up the bass line, drove the rhythm with great ease and provided an extremely satisfying listening experience.

So, for rock the power-punch of the Atmos delivers a highly enjoyable visceral experience. There is no need for most rockers to spend extra money for the UNIverse to get features which, in the end, may detract from their rock experience. For classical music the UNIverse is still the best ZYX cartridge, and one of the two best cartridges we have heard.

That was going to be the end of this review until both proof/goof readers asked the same question. What about jazz? Well, jazz listeners have an interesting choice between the UNIverse and the Atmos. For those who revel in the detail of wire brush strokes, vocal timbres and cymbal hits with natural, extended decays the UNIverse is the clear cut winner. For others who prefer a more relaxed, jazz-in-a-smoke-filled-club atmosphere, with the emphasis on the rhythm and drive from the double bass the Atmos will deliver the sound you enjoy.

* * *

Doug’s postscript…

I heard pretty much exactly what Paul described. To put it simply, this baby KICKS, big time.

It would be great fun to A/B an Atmos with a Dynavector XV-1S or Transfiguration Orpheus. My guess is that the impact of the Atmos would impress the fans of those two excellent cartridges, while the tonal accuracy of all three would otherwise make them more alike than different.

My friend and fellow Audiogoner Mothra recently pointed out that at least some rock listeners prefer transparency to the source, phase coherency and a very low sound floor even at the cost of some impact and apparent cohesiveness. As a professional recording engineer he values the ability to hear everything on a record. For his priorities, which I share even when stompin’ to one of my 3 rock LP’s, the UNIverse is still the more satisfying cartridge. But I suspect this is a minority view among rockers. If they flock to the new ZYX instead they’ll be very satisfied.

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Doug, thanks for the review. I have really come to respect your system and listening tastes.
I just spoke to mehran yesterday about upgrading from the airy 3. Sounds like I can't go wrong with the atmos and since I don't own any classical records, i probably won't be missing out any.
Any thoughts on how the atmos did with blues? This is one of my prefered genres of listening.
Lastly, I am about to have a doshi pre/phono built for me. Any thoughts on how I should have that configured for the low output Atmos? Any thoughts on amps that have matched up well with the sound of the doshi. I want to get into tube amps but my current speakers are 89 dB sensitive so i need to be wary of power. I plan in the future to upgrqade somewhere in the verity line but thats distant future, so for now i have to settle on a more powerful tube amp or an ss amp that has a similar sound. Any thoughts would be appreciated particularly matching the Doshi which i am anticipating will be the heart of my system.
I know this is a bit out of the theme of this thread so excuse me. Possibly we could correspond by phone.

Thanks for the review! And thank Paul for explaining the cohesive thing very well. Even I understand what he means now.
Hi Peter, thanks for reading my babbling.

We didn't happen to spin any blues but my guess is the Atmos would be terrific. As we said, it outplayed the Airy 3 in every way, and the biggest difference (visceral impact and bass) would make a blues experience much earthier.

Please email me with your other questions, just to keep this on topic. I have some suggestions, including a very good one for an amp.


Mothra once called this effect "glue". It's imposed by a component but it's welcomed by many. Paul finds it makes rock much more rockin' and I agree. I also find it artificial and annoying, but I know I'm in a minority. Most systems we've heard have much more "glue" than ours, usually because the owner likes it.

Thanks to you both for the usual thoughful review.

The cartridge sound very intriguing. As my listening is weighted toward jazz and rock, I know that people are looking for a certain about of friendliness when it comes to, say, "Physical Graffiti". The question here is that is it the fault of the cartridge? Should you be choosing a cartridge with more slam or should that be regulated to the rest of the system. That's hard to say and while the atmos sounds very intriguing and is a good 1300 bucks cheaper than universe,I am of the mind that the cartridge should be as neutral as possible getting all the details out of the grooves. If I want a little more midbass, on occasion I have switched to my B&W's for it, which are more cohesive than the dunlavy's but far more neutral than my quads or spendors.

My mastering engineer, who knows more than anyone I know about audio in general, masters on Duntech sovereign's, a close cousin to my dunlavy scIV-a's.

He has mentioned and i agree, that the dunlvay's draw you so far into the detail of the midrange than you are able to hear things almost track by track. This, we both agree, would make them impossible to mix a record on, as mixing requires a neutral speaker but one with enough glue not to distract you so much you can't hear the whole picture. I have found that records mixed on B&W's will sound good on dunlavy's, but I wonder if it would go the other way.

Anyway, My rambling is just the note that the Atmos sounds very tempting. As i have a universe, I don't know if I'm ready to trade down for less resolution and more color. I am sure it is a great cartridge, but I would also note that people naturally voice their systems for the kind of music they like. I never liked Krell amps, but people will "soft speakers" often like to mate the brighter sounding krells with them. I find the bass in Wilson speakers in my limited experience to be unnatural and strange, but lovers of "big bass" and the music that accompany's it may find them just the thing. maybe a am amp is a good way to voice a system for the music you love.

I think a cartridge should just pick up everything that's there. If you've ever been around when a record is being cut it seems like Records are so primitive a technology it's amazing there is so much to be found in those grooves. Cartridge design is a black art. I wouldn't want the job!

bright moments,
I too would like to comment on the ZYX Atmos, after a accident where my Airy 3sb was destroyed by a new cleaning lady I was forced to make a change. Mehran was called and was unable to repair the airy(the stylus was ripped off the cart)nor did he have a Airy 3sb in stock so he suggested the Atmos. I was going to Chicage that weekend so I packed the broken cart and hit the road. Mehran was great he brought the new Atmos to me. Upon arriving back in Michigan I installed the new Atmos it only took a few min to realize what a big improvement this cart is over the airy... much larger soundstage, digs much much deeper into the music!!! This cart alone elevated my vinyl experence to such a degree that I find it hard to describe with words. If fate had not interviened (I was not going to change out the Airy for I felt that the improvement would only be a small one... ie the law of deminishing return) I would not have bought the atmos and I would have missed one of the truly special events in this hobby...
I also must again say what a pleasure is is meeting Mehran, not only is he a solid dealer but one very nice person.
This is good news to hear. I had the (much less expensive) R-100 Fuji FS Silver and ended up selling it because it was too restrained or polite for my (musical) tastes. I listen mostly to jazz nowadays, but still toss in a healthy dose of rock, hard rock, and alternative - not exactly the Fuji's forte.

I probably could have gotten more meat out of the Fuji with the extra headshell weight, but that pushes it up into another price range where there are many other alternatives.
If I am reading you correctly, the Atmos is more dynamic than the universe. Is that correct???

Doug and Paul

thanks for the very detailed response

I'm a few weeks away on getting my Galibier Gavia table and will be mating my Universe / Triplanar to it.

I initially had some lacking on dynamic passages and attributed it to the "ZYX" house sound (people here talked about). After replacing my amp with a Moscode 401HR - I don't have any issues. The Universe is detailed and dynamic, I think I may have been hitting threshold on my old arc d200.

Anyway would love to hear the new Atmos

I listen to a lot of Jazz and the Universe doesn't sound constrained - it delivers in a very convincing way.

Warning though, less source material will be quickly exposed

Hope Mehran gains a whole new 'rock crowd' for ZYX

thanks again Doug and Paul

Thanks for sharing that experience. Your take on Mehran is my take on Mehran, and everyone else's too: one of the genuine nice guys in or out of audio. Also glad you heard a clear jump in performance vs. the Airy 3, as we did.

The Atmos is more MACRO-dynamic than the UNIverse. More raw oomph and power. It doesn't have the UNIverse's extraordinary MICRO-dynamics, which reproduce vocal and instrumental timbre, texture and harmonic complexities - but neither does virtually any other cartridge.

The UNIverse's micro-dynamic speed and subtlety allow it to portray instrumental and vocal character and immediacy at a rare level, but hearing this requires a neutral, uncolored and non-smearing system from front to back and top to bottom. Any weakness in the chain or any flaw in setup can mask the UNIverse's strengths. The Atmos's strength, being strength itself, will probably push its way through less revealing systems or less painstaking setups.

Quite agree on the UNIverse revealing lower quality source material. That really bugs Paul on most rock LP's. Even the best ones tend to be artificial constructs thrown together in the mixing process. The UNIverse won't hide that. The Atmos does, just, which makes it possible believe you're listening to a coherent musical event - even when you're not.

I also love the UNIverse for jazz. It brings out everything that every musician is doing better than any cartridge I've heard, and puts them live right there in front of you.

Cheers and thanks for reading...
I don't understand how any Airy 3 can not be repaired???

Good question. I was once told there was a re-tipping/rebuilding service...
Just ordered a new Atmos X-SB low ouput to replace my Airy 3S-SB. Really looking forward to it. Will keep in touch.

I think you'll find the Atmos is quite an upgrade from your Airy 3, especially as you're changing from silver coils to copper. Loading should be the same (assuming your Airy 3 was also low output).

I could predict what I think you'll hear, but it'll be more fun for you to discover for yourself, and more useful for others to read a report in someone else's words. Please do report!


Update to my 7/1/07 comment about retipping:

Due to the extremely exacting alignment of stylus to cantilever necessitated by the ZYX micro-ridge stylus, retipping is not available. Fortunately, the way the stylus is cut makes it several times more resistant to friction and wear than conventional styli. It should last much longer.
A great review Paul and Doug. Having a Universe myself, I can immediately 'place' the characteristics of the Atmos simply from your excellent descriptions and comparisons. Thanks for taking the time to share.
Halcro, thanks for visiting.

As you know from your very fine system (love your speaker description) the UNIverse is capable of extraordinary dynamics, but releasing them requires genuinely top performing components throughout.

One of our fellow A'goners, Stltrains, recently tried an Atmos after an accident destroyed his UNIverse. He's a rock listener and heard the same qualities we heard, but ultimately couldn't live with it and bought another UNIverse. It's very hard to go backward.