Another ceiling has been shattered, another mountain conquered, and another superlative surpassed. The new ZYX UNIverse Optimum moving coil phonograph cartridge has risen above the very high pinnacle of performance set by the ZYX UNIverse Premium, reviewed here on 10 Audio. I encourage you to read the Premium review, as this review will only attempt to detail the differences between the $14,995 Premium and the $16,995 Optimum.
The cartridge is labeled with the distributor’s name because SORAsound is the exclusive worldwide distributor for all UNIverse models. Mehran at SORAsound has been a friend for many years and is always a pleasure to deal with for cartridges or other gear. Apparently, there is some black-market activity in cartridges, so do yourself a favor and contact Mehran about your ZYX wish list.
Immediately after replacing the well broken-in Premium with a brand-new Optimum, two characteristics were noted. First is speed and dynamics. The Optimum is noticeably more dynamic and responsive than the Premium. This is especially noted in the quieter or less bombastic parts of a composition, where each note is livelier and more articulate. All instruments have more character that stands out from other instruments in the performance. The leading edge of every sound is more precise, and with greater “jump factor”. Music is more exciting and evokes a greater emotional response.
The second significant sonic upgrade offered by the Optimum is resolution. This is noticed from the low bass to upper treble. The bass is tighter, with a more solid grip on a vibrating bass string or the thunder of a tympani. In the upper frequencies, harmonic trails and fade-outs last longer. There is a huge increase in openness and air, as if the size of the recording venue has doubled in volume. The feeling of being present during the performance and having the musicians in close proximity to the listener is profound.
The intelligibility of words is improved over the Premium, with each voice standing out from other vocalists to a greater degree. I could understand lyrics that I thought were lost in the mix, and more easily “see” individual singers in a chorus. This is not a minor upgrade, and made more important when referenced to the outstanding UNIverse Premium.
The XYX UNIverse Optimum SE reviewed here has 1 Ohm DCR (coil resistance) and 0.15 mV output. Only a few cartridges made – so far – share this range of specs. The Optimum SE seems to be a perfect match for the BMC MCCI ULN phono preamplifier, which amplifies current instead of voltage. Because of the current amplification, the very low output voltage and low DCR are not a problem. In fact, the combination of the Optimum and MCCI seems to bring out the best performance of each. The low voltage output and very low coil resistance means less moving mass for the moving coils, which could account for the benefits noted here.
There is also a version of the Optimum with more standard 4 Ohm DCR and 0.24 mV output. The Optimum was also used for the upcoming review of the Aurorasound $1,299 VIDA-prima phono preamplifier switched to the 47k Ohm input impedance, and the combination was very satisfactory, with vanishingly low background noise and very good transparency.
The sound with further break-in improved to a much smaller degree than with any other cartridge, or component, in my experience. Where the Cardas Test and Burn-in LP is usually used to break-in phono cartridges using the locked grooves on Side 2 for 100+ hours, there was absolutely no pain from breaking in the Optimum by listening. There were small improvements in even greater resolution and micro-dynamic performance with more play time. But really, the sound was so fine from day 1 that the normal break-in routine was not considered important. I didn’t want to waste a minute of beautiful and satisfying music by using the cartridge for background listening or using the Cardas LP to accelerate the break-in process.
The Optimum was auditioned on three tonearms: a Kuzma 4-Point, VPI 10 inch 3D, and Tri-Planar VII SE. The Kuzma brought the upper frequencies forward just a bit, the VPI 10 inch printed arm was quite reticent in the treble, and the Tri-Planar is supremely neutral and articulate.
Most folks will deem the $14,995 list price of the UNIverse Premium is an outrageous amount to pay for a phono cartridge. Once we clear that mental price hurdle, and you compare the Premium to the UNIverse Optimum, you will consider the Optimum a bargain. The $2,000 upcharge is negligible for the easily apparent increase in performance.
There were are couple of component changes during the review period. The Valvet E2 amplifier was replaced with a new Valvet E2 SE. And to take better advantage of the higher performance of the SE amplifier, the Focal Sopra 1 speakers were replaced with Magico S1 mk II speakers (review in progress). The ZYX Optimum proved to be an excellent tool to help identify the unique characteristics of the amplifier and speakers and contributed significantly to the reviews of those components.
The sound field, and size and precision of the performance stage grew even larger with the Magico speakers. The stage became wider and deeper and often reached out to envelope the listener. I have never before heard a sound stage that included the listener in the same acoustic space. This is transformative and sets a new paradigm for the soundstage. NOW we’re having fun!
At the risk of sounding like a character from The Lego Movie, everything is awesome with the ZYX Optimum SE!
Take the outstanding ZYX Premium, increase dynamic energy, and raise the resolution even higher and the result, for your unending listening enjoyment, is the ZYX UNIverse Optimum. This sounds more like advertising copy than a review, so is there anything negative, any weakness, to report? No.
Overall Rating: 10+ LPs
Link to distributor: SORAsound
This review would not have been possible without the very kind support of SORAsound. Thank you, Mehran!