Review: ZYX UNIverse-X-SB Cartridge

Category: Analog

Many Audiogoners have already heard about this cartridge, from discussions here and elsewhere. If this review had appeared when it ought to have, three or four months ago, it would have been more newsworthy. My apologies to Mehran of SORAsound for taking so long about it. My only excuse is that our UNIverse has been playing virtually non-stop since November. It is a cartridge that is easier and more enjoyable to listen to than talk about. When it’s been off our arm for any reason, our only desire has been to put it back on as soon as possible.

This article assumes familiarity with our prior [url=] review of the ZYX Airy 2 and Airy 3[/url]. Previously described sound characteristics of the coil windings and the micro-groove stylus have not been repeated. Nor will we say much about set up and fine-tuning, since these are very similar for all ZYX cartridges.

ZYX was challenged by SORAsound (ZYX’s US Importer) to design and produce a world class, no expense spared, phono cartridge. They succeeded. The UNIverse is not an evolutional tweak to the Airy 2 or Airy 3. From the solid gold cryogenically treated pins and semi-nude shell to the sapphire terminal board, this is a cartridge on an entirely different playing field. The Airy 2 produced great music, the Airy 3 added speed, detail and articulation. The UNIverse leaves both siblings in its wake with a great top to bottom frequency response and phenomenal speed. Music, detail and articulation with finesse and refinement are just the start. There is true weight and authority behind every note. This cartridge puts you in the same sound space as the performance. There is no barrier between you and the music. You are not on the outside listening in on the performance. Close your eyes and the instruments and voices are in the room with you. The UNIverse has not lost its ZYX heritage. It is neutral and produces a wonderfully deep and natural sound stage. Nothing is thrown forward to make you part of the sound space; it is just that the front edge of the sound stage is no longer there.

As with all ZYX cartridges, the music comes first. The added speed allows more resolution of detail and really separates the instruments with their individual timbres. This inner detail adds to the musical experience. It is all part of the magic of putting you in the same sound space. The UNIverse is also fast enough to reproduce tape hiss as a gentle, silky, background hiss. No grittiness or graininess, just a silky smooth soft whisper. OK, no one gets into hi-fi analog to reproduce beautiful tape hiss, but it is a universal experience. For a musical revelation, those damn original instrument recordings now sound like real music. Oboes sound like genuine musical instruments; no more quacking ducks! High soprano choir notes are now fully resolved without a hint of shrillness. Just pure and natural sound. No missteps to remind you that you are listening to a recording.

Got Bass? You bet. Our speakers are only flat to around 42 Hz, but the UNIverse provides room-shaking power with authority and remarkable detail. This cartridge now allows the differentiation of the plucked string and the wood body resonances of double basses even in a full orchestra. There is appropriate weight and authority behind every note from the top to the bottom of the musical scale. It is not just the added weight to the rhythm; the melodic line played in the bass is now fleshed out.

On listening to a Bach Cantata with multiple choirs, orchestras and soloists it is quite remarkable that everyone is accounted for and their individual contributions are easily resolved. An old London blue back (CS-6153) of Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini revealed more of its hidden treasures when played with the UNIverse. There are staccato quarter and eighth notes all over the place. The UNIverse never missed a note, never missed a beat and revealed more of the subtle texturing of the notes than we have ever heard before, all with real presence in the room. Even with frequent doubling of instruments all melodic lines for each instrument are easy to follow, as are the wonderful subtle interplays between the various sections of the orchestra. Absolutely no blurring of one note to another, nor melding of two separate instruments into a single note. It is not just the notes, but the resolution of the quiet spaces between the notes. There is true anticipation as a musician creates tension with the slightest pause; completely drawing you into the music. To be perfectly honest, every single LP played with this cartridge has resulted in a significant revelation. The list just goes on and on. It is quite baffling that dragging a stylus through a groove can actually produce all this detail, power and presence. This cartridge really makes you stop and listen to the music. It is totally spellbinding.

Had cartridges like this been around 25 years ago, I doubt that compact discs would have so easily penetrated the marketplace. Be forewarned. A friend used to enjoy both LPs and CDs. Since the purchase of the UNIverse his Meitner has been collecting dust. We recently demoed a fully tube-modded Denon DVD-3910 against our stock DVD-3910 and our Arcam FMJ CD23. The ZYX handily dispatched all three without breaking a sweat, though I admit the Denons have an edge when it comes to picture quality!

It is difficult to write without reading like a babbling idiot, a sycophant or a shill. No, the UNIverse is not perfect. No cartridge is. How about the cost? This ZYX has surely joined the ranks of other obscenely priced cartridges, yet it provides outstanding performance for the money. How does the UNIverse compare with other cartridges? To give you some idea: an Airy 2 outperforms a Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum. The Airy 3 is a clear step ahead of that. The UNIverse isn’t even in the same ball park. I have heard one other cartridge that can just beat the UNIverse for speed, but that cartridge is no longer made and cost $10,000 in its day. We don’t have any other $10,000 cartridges for comparisons, but at one three-day listening session the owner of a Clearaudio Insider refused to mount that cartridge after listening to the UNIverse. He felt it would be a clear step backwards and did not want to waste our limited listening time.

The UNIverse is well behaved on a tonearm and is equally at home on a Schroeder Reference or Tri-Planar Mk VII. It makes great music on either arm while also revealing their unique sonic signatures. Since buying the UNIverse we have upgraded our speaker spikes, power amp and turntable. In each case the UNIverse instantly and clearly revealed the sonic differences. Each upgrade simply allowed the cartridge to show more of what it can do. The better the system, the more it gives.

Most of the above was written by Paul. I have little to add to his general comments about this cartridge, but perhaps some musical examples will be of interest. The UNIverse either made these revelations for the first time in our system or clarified what had been unclear before.

I’ll start with an imperfect record: Sibelius, ‘Finlandia’, recorded by Charles Mackerras and the London Proms Symphony for RCA (LSC-2336). The 180g Classic Records reissue suffers in some degree from a problem common to many of their re-releases, overly prominent highs. With previous cartridges Classic’s meddling with RCA’s equalization often made this record shrill and unpleasant. With the UNIverse, particularly when paired with a low-resonance table like our new Teres 320, the shrillness is much abated. The pushed highs are still very evident of course, but they are less shrill. The UNIverse’s refusal to collapse closely related waveforms into an inharmonious mass was never more welcome. Instead there is simply a near-holographic depiction of where the remastering engineers fiddled the response curve. The UNIverse makes this record easier to listen to while clearly displaying the engineers’ little tricks.

For an altogether pleasurable example I pulled out one of our best records, Bartok’s ‘Sonate Pour Deux Pianos & Percussion’ (French Erato STU-70642). Katia and Marielle Lebeque, brilliantly accompanied on percussion by Sylvio Gualda and Jean-Pierre Drouet, offer a rhythmic, driving, riveting performance of this 1937 avant-garde masterwork. This record rivals direct-to-disk releases for transparency and the dynamic range is shocking. Levels go from the barest whisper to ear- and room-shattering percussion impacts. If you don’t know this record I guarantee you’ll jump out of your chair the first time you hear it. Fine as the record and performance are, the music itself had always seemed to me more intellectual than emotional. No longer. The UNIverse coordinated Bartok’s intricate and extended rhythmic and melodic lines, and so brought them to real life. The UNIverse’s ability to play anything thrown at it, while maintaining proportion and relation, really allowed my system to make danceable, musical sense of this challenging score. Can your cartridge boogie to Bartok?

Lest anyone think we listen only to classical, I’ll mention the new drive and feeling the UNIverse brought to Clark Terry’s ‘Portraits’ (Chesky Records JR-2). These live-to-DAT sessions from 1988 prove not only that real music can be recorded digitally, but also that old trumpeters can swing and bop with the best of them. The UNIverse’s extraordinary bass response reveals that Victor Gaskin’s acoustic bass often drives the melody as well as the rhythm on ‘Jive at Five’. The UNIverse also resolves Terry’s trumpet and mute brilliantly on ‘Sugar Blues’. We all know the sounds of a muted trumpet. How many cartridges play the harmonic overtones of both trumpet and mute, separately yet simultaneously? This extraordinary clarity helps dissolve the barrier between listener and musician. You can almost believe you are there.

The UNIverse’s refusal to bloom or overplay a note also enhanced Louis Armstrong’s heartfelt, rich and breathy vocals on the 45 rpm Classic Records reissue of ‘St. James Infirmary’ (Audio Fidelity ST-91058). Other cartridges, even the well-controlled Airy 2, can make the tightly miked Armstrong sound larger than life. Not the UNIverse. Armstrong’s as close and sweaty as ever, but now he’s life-sized. This makes his heart-wrenching dirge all the more real.

One friend and fellow UNIverse owner complained to me, tongue in cheek, that it made everything sound like a harpsichord. Well, Satchmo ain’t no harpsichord but I know what he meant. This cartridge’s ability to play without compression, its clear portrayal of each fundamental and overtone without confusion, do indeed remind one of the richly varied yet transparent timbres and harmonics of that instrument. If the record actually contains a harpsichord you clearly hear key, action, plectrum, string and box, not to mention back wall echoes and the birds chirping in the rafters. Yet all these details are perfectly integrated to yield a convincing sonic impression of one thing, a harpsichord. In that sense this component is poetically well named. It sings every available tone and overtone yet all in one voice, as a UNI-verse should.

Associated gear
Click to view my Virtual System

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Doug / Paul,
Nicely done. Thanks for the time and effort put into your review and sharing your experience.

Always a pleasure going through your posts Doug. Kudos to Nakatsuka san and Mehran for their passion for music!
Wow, based on that review it seems the ZYX's are worth an audition. Thanks for taking the time to write this and for not babbling too much. : )
Doug,this review seems SO thorough that I'm going to print it out,and enjoy digesting it,in my car,while enjoying a rather lengthly lunch break,on Tuesday,when I return to the rat race.Thanks,for taking the time!
Thanks, gents. I was afraid this might read as yesterday's news to this group. If it does, at least SirSpeedy will have something handy in which to wrap his lunch.

We may not have made clear what a seminal role Mehran played in the creation of this cartridge. He inspired it. He took the risk to support Nakatsuka-san in making it. For that he should be given great credit. Ventures like this one make the vinyl revival satisfying beyond anything we could have imagined twenty years ago.

No one can say whether this is the "best" cartridge currently being made since, synergies aside, no one has heard all the contenders. But it seems clearly to be among the best. The fact that Mehran is selling it for "just" $5K or so makes it virtually a steal, if I may be pardoned for such a seemingly ridiculous statement.
While Doug's review is pretty much definitive, I'd like to add my two cents. I have the Universe mounted on my VPI-HRX/12.6 player and with one exception its the best cartridge I've heard (the exception being on mono records a Lyra Helikon mono cartridge). I previously had the Airy 2 and 3. While the Airy 3 was clearly better in sound quality from the Airy 2 on my system, it didn't mate too well and/or revealed other system problems I had (using all silver ICs, etc). The Universe not only mates fine with the record player it really represents a leap forward from the Airy 3. While too many recent system changes and downtime in recent listening prevent me from saying anything definitive, I would echo Doug's review by saying that the bass is extraordinary and the entire sound musically articulate without being strident, detailed or nervy in presentation.The sound is immediate and revealing (different records sound strikingly different) but natural. I haven't heard the other "contendas" (Lyra Titan for instance) but so far I have no complaints with the Universe. And let me lastly also thank Mehran for all his help and support--its good to have him in your corner.

I am extremely impressed with the level of your wonderful,and thought provoking review.It is clear,to me,that your knowledge of the "Art of music reproduction in the home" is great.This can only come from YEARS of experience,and a very good perspective, towards what makes for the "MAGIC", that so many systems are missing,regardless of the industry hype,in the never ending PUSH,to sell what may already be solid,and accurate music reproducing equipment.

I,particularly,was impressed with the emphasis on getting massed female vocals,in choirs,correct.This,without the typical shrillness,that plagues so many set-ups.An annoying sound that becomes really obvious when heard on an accurate set-up,that you two clearly have.The cartridge must,truly,be special,and I'll not question that apparent fact!

Thank you for taking the time to write such a professional piece.You,both, should be proud.I really enjoyed it.

By the way,I lied!!I didn't read it until Wednesday.Took a 2 hour lunch,too!!It's nice to be the boss!!
I,particularly,was impressed with the emphasis on getting massed female vocals,in choirs,correct.This,without the typical shrillness,that plagues so many set-ups.An annoying sound that becomes really obvious when heard on an accurate set-up,that you two clearly have.The cartridge must,truly,be special,and I'll not question that apparent fact!
If you're ever passing through CT please let us know so we can get together. Fellow A'goners are always welcome. We've learned something beneficial from everyone we've met, whether listening to our system or theirs. Our ZYX odyssey began when we met Cello. Neither he nor we ever dreamed where or how far that first meeting would lead us, or even how far it was possible to go. We're learning as we go and usually by sharing with friends, which is half the pleasure.

One of our reference LP's for checking any new component or tweak is a cantata from the Archiv Produktion 11 volume set of Bach. We know and love the record well, which makes it easy to hear changes. Differentiating multiple voices singing in unison is of course difficult for any component. Differentiating multiple sopranos singing in unison is especially difficult for a cartridge, since the groove modulations are smaller and more difficult to trace. If such a passage is on a tightly spaced inner groove you have the ultimate torture test.

Interestingly, the slightly lesser ZYX's (Airy 2 and 3) also play massed female vocals without that "typical shrillness" which, as you say, we all learn to dislike once we've heard a system that doesn't have it. Yet they cannot match the UNIverse's resolution of individual voices.
just a comment on the ZYZ Universe outclassing cdplayers.
the Denon dl 103 & Denon dl 103R, can do the same if set up correctly, i havent heard a cdplayer yet to do this, not even in the 10000$ class.
i would like to hear the Universe-x, but it would be difficult find here in Denmark.
Hi bmsko,
You are right of course. That wasn't a very significant comparison was it?

I've used a 103 and agree it's a fine cartridge, especially considering the cost. It is not, however, remotely comparable to a UNIverse.

Mehran has sold UNIverses to customers all around the globe. You might have luck asking him to put you in touch with one of them.

Hi Doug, got the Zyx UNIverse and you are right. It sounds very impressing right out of the box. I "cheated" a little bit with the "burn in" time, I did use the AT 637 for some time, but I think, it will increase performance still.
Anyway, I listened to quite a lot of Cartridges, Benz, Koetsu up to 11.000 $, Clearaudio, Allaerts and a few others - most with a Klyne 7 Phono Stage - and I know, that taste is different, but this one will chase all these down the block and back again. It shows, what Benz, Koetsu's, Clearaudio etc. really are: Overhyped, overpriced and more or less average. Even for the regular pricing ( 7500,--$ ) it is a top cartridge, for the price Sorasound offers, it is nothing less than a real top bargain. I know, this sounds strange, but it is true. In the world of Hype, moneymaking, cheating, overrating and not telling the truth ( or not knowing it ), this is an amazing exception. This cartridge definetly is a step forward for an analog lover, it shows, where God is:
In the Detail

Thank you for adding your review to ours. We've been listening to our UNIverse for 14 months now. It never changes yet it keeps getting better. ;-) Every new upgrade to our system has simply allowed this cartridge to reveal even more music. It has met every challenge. It plays big classical, small jazz and hard rock with equal facility, and we are never aware of listening to a cartridge. It's always about the music.

Another owner told me the UNIverse lets go of notes better than any cartridge he's owned (dozens). This lets it play the real decays and ambient information that are in the grooves, rather than ringing and providing a false or imposed "presence". Instruments are right-sized, tightly focused and - most important - always sound like the real thing.

Even for the regular pricing ( 7500,--$ ) it is a top cartridge, for the price Sorasound offers, it is nothing less than a real top bargain. I know, this sounds strange, but it is true.
Indeed, as we said ourselves above. When a cartridge that's available for $4500 matches or beats (mostly beats) cartridges that sell for $10-12K or more, what else can we call it but a bargain?

Regards and enjoy all the music,

I just got my Universe setup. Your review was so positive that it "scared" me into listening to it. I heard it and fell in love. I didn't want to believe it would be so great but it is. A few questions about setup. What VTF are you using and what VTA (level, back up or back down). Can you put me in touch w. someone with a Schroder & Universe to compare notes. The one I purchased seems to need a little more break in than the one I borrowed from a friend (which was also new out of the box).
Thanks for writing the informative review. Has anyone here since compared the UNI to the Magic Diamond?

Thank you in advance for any guidance.