I had an opportunity to audition both cartridges in my system (Avid Diva TT/Origin Illustrious arm) before buying. I chose to go with the Airy 3, which I subsequently upgraded to a UNIverse when I upgraded my turntable (Amazon Model 1/TriPlanar arm). Here are my comments from the audition (LONG), as told to the two gentlemen who let me borrow these cartridges:
>>Well the long weekend is over, and Ive had a chance to evaluate the Shelter 90X and the ZYX Airy 3, also know as A Tale of Two Cartridges, also known as Godzilla vs. Mothra!
First, these are both world class cartridges. I am amazed at the level of information retrieval, resolution at the frequency extremes and dynamics, to mention a few of the characteristics that immediately presented themselves. That said, Ive decided to go with the Airy 3. Here are some overall impressions of what I heard over the course of the weekend.
I think the Shelter 90X combines the best qualities of the 501 and the 901 cartridges. The 90X has that great midrange quality of the 501. It also has the frequency extension and bass control of the 901, as well as incredible transient response, which makes for an exciting and dynamic presentation. You were right in that its very easy to get this cartridge to sound good without much effort. Initial setup was easy (less than 15 minutes) and very forgiving in light of the fact that I have a suspended turntable and Origin arm, which means no precise method of dialing in setup parameters! I spent approximately 90 minutes fully setting up the cartridge and dialing in VTA, VTF, cartridge alignment, etc. before listening critically. I tried setting the VTF to 1.85, 1.9, 1.95 and 2 grams. I got the best results in my setup at 1.9 grams. Overall, the soundstage was wide, deep and vivid. I noticed a bit more surface noise using the 90X as compared to the Airy3. In terms of overall presentation, I felt as though I were in the 2nd or 3rd row; a very good seat indeed!. Imaging was locked and very well defined. To my ears, the imaging was slightly more delineated than Im accustomed to; not a bad thing, just different. Im sure this contributes to the overall sense of excitement this cartridge brings to the music.
The Airy3 is also very forgiving in terms of setup. I was able to get a good sound after 15 minutes as well. My initial impression was one of seamlessness. Nothing about the overall sound really called attention to itself. I thought the Shelter did a slightly better job of handling the bass frequencies in terms of overall weight. On the other hand, I felt the Airy was slightly more resolving in this area. In particular, it was easier to hear both the fundamental tone and the acoustic body of an upright bass on a number of my jazz LPs. I was also able to better discern the timbre of kick drums and the differences in recording techniques. I spent about 90 minutes fine tuning the key setup parameters of the Airy3 for critical listening. I got my best results with VTF set to 1.95 grams. Again, soundstage was wide, deep and slightly more palpable than the Shelter. I also detected a slight increase in the height of the soundstage. In terms of presentation, I would say that the Airy3 gave me a front row seat to the musical event. As with the Shelter, there was an incredible amount of information retrieval. While playing a selection from the LP version of Cassandra Wilsons latest album, Glamoured, I noticed a very low pitched growling sound that I had never heard before with my old cartridge or on the CD version. When I read the credits, I realized that what I was hearing was a close-miked washboard that had been mixed in with the rest of the percussion! I particularly like using this album to test low frequency resolution. Eastern and western percussion instruments are used extensively in lieu of a traditional drum kit. Imaging was locked, well defined and seamless. This sense of seamlessness is one of two differentiators for me. I tend to prefer imaging that closely resembles a live performance as opposed to imaging that resembles the typical recording studio process of acoustically isolating the performers during the session and assembling the presentation during mixdown and mastering. The Airy3 did a better job than the Shelter at approximating live performance imaging in my system. The other differentiating factor, for me, was resolution of surface noise. The Airy3 was quieter in my system than the Shelter was. I think the main factor here is the difference in stylus design. This is important to me since I have a number of original Jazz LPs from the 40s, 50s and 60s that belonged to my Dad. These records hold great sentimental value for me, and as you can imagine, are not in the best shape. Getting maximum musical information with minimal surface noise from these LPS is very important to me.
Either one of these cartridges would be an outstanding choice for any high end analog rig. As far as Im concerned there is no best cartridge. Its merely a matter of taste, and for my ears, my system and my media, the Airy3 is a better fit.<<
System components included Thor Audio preamp (approx. 79db gain thru MC stage), ASL Hurricane monos, Vandersteen Fives. There was a 3-5db decrease in gain comparing my vinyl to digital sources due to the low output of the the ZYX, but that was never a problem in my system.
Hope this helps you in making your decision