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Positive Feedback ISSUE
as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
A true bargain doesn't come along often in high end audio, but most bargains are flawed in some way that we overlook because of the product's strong points. Grado cartridges are a good example. Their mids are so luscious that we overlook the fact that the rest of the frequency range is only good enough to be satisfactory. The Lyra Helikon's detail retrieval is so good that its threadbare nature is passed over. The Benz Ruby 2 is so natural sounding that its caramel nature and tracking problems are ignored. If the sound of the megabuck Myabi 47 is your target but you can't afford it, I've found your holy grail transducer—the ZYX R100H. For $995, LP heaven awaits. Here are the specs:
Note the extremely light weight, the incredible frequency response, and the medium output. The R100 is also cryogenically treated (unique with ZYX cartridges), compliant enough to be used in almost any arm, and supplied with the smallest stylus I've ever not seen. It likes a load of 100-300 ohms, and runs level to the record surface for best sound. It is no longer supplied with a translucent clear plastic body, but is now black plastic, with straight sides for easy setup. It is ugly and cheap looking, but so what. Run it for forty hours before serious use, and track it at 2 grams. I used it with the E.A.R. 324 phono stage, with Kimber Tak AG phono cables hooked to my VPI Scout. I had to replace the Expressimo Heavyweight with the smaller VPI stock weight due to the ZYX's lack of weight. No setup problems were encountered by friend and turntable guru Dan Meinwald, who took only ten minutes to tweak it to perfection.
Audio gear in the 21st century is no longer designed to sound euphonic. We have entered the "Seinfeld" era of high fidelity, with equipment that amplifies, but is about nothing. Preamps and amps have headed this way for ten years or so. Front ends have taken a bit longer, since the closer you get to the source, the more colorations will be noticed. Source material, both analog and digital, has also improved, so that the best gear simply gets out of the way of the music. It is no longer necessary to impose a euphonic, rich, or liquid overlay to make the source listenable. We want the sound of the software at hand, and only that sound, and the ZYX fulfills this promise.
With my ModWright Sony 999, I have come to appreciate the power of neutrality. If you can achieve neutral sound with no loss of definition or texturing, you will hear the inherent sound of the software much more clearly. I have chosen components that attempt to do just that. The ModWright is the first digital device to do this, but the E.A.R. 324 and the VPI setup also do it. Neutrality can be exciting and subtle, but it's not your father's sound. Don't fight it by adding colored equipment, ancillaries, or cables. Work with it to achieve real transparency and a mastertape-like sound from your source.
The ZYX will not mistrack. It clearly out tracks any cartridge I've ever tried, owned, or auditioned. It is at home on difficult vintage Mercuries and on Classic Records' newest LP reissues. Definition and texturing are excellent. The ZYX is 90% as defined and textured as the best there is, at any price. You give up a tiny amount of the inner definition of $4000 cartridges, but get more than my Benz Ruby 2 had at $3000.
Backgrounds are black and quiet. The ZYX appears to reduce surface noise without taking away air or ambience. It has amazing depth perspective and 3D sound. The stage width is staggering, amazing, wonderful. Stage height is top notch. Imaging is precise and excellent—solid and secure, and close to the best to be had at any price.
The ZYX is very, very neutral. If white is the color of neutral, it is slightly off white. The Benz is caramel colored, Koetsus tan, Grados beige. The ZYX allows the hall sound of LPs to come through better than any other cartridge I've tried. Your cables may be vastly more colored than this cartridge. The ZYX is a joy and a challenge to the neutrality of great digital sound. This is the cartridge for a system maxed out in signal-to-noise ratio for digital reproduction.
The top end is excellent—ultra airy and delicate. Violins and flutes are spot on. I love the highs, and find them almost perfect. The mids are also excellent, with huge amounts of definition and great realism. Try a vintage Sheffeld that you haven't played in a while. The neutrality of the ZYX will enhance the sonic truth offered by many great LPs. Bass is deep, tight, and excellent, as uncolored as the mids, with superb impact. This is reference performance.
With respect to dynamics, the ZYX is in a league of its own. It is absolutely wonderful. It renders subtlety with great energy, and the big and bold with great authority. Contrasts between soft and loud sounds are dramatic and realistic. The ZYX reminds me of the London Decca of yore in this respect. Couple excellent dynamics with flawless tracking, and you have a wonder! It's hard to believe we are discussing a $995 cartridge, not one that sells for $3000 to $4000. The ZYX eclipses other $1000 cartridges by a gargantuan amount. I can't recommend anything that even remotely imitates it. You'd pay $1000 for a cartridge that tracks perfectly, but was flawed in other ways, wouldn't you? What would you pay for a cartridge that was a perfect tracker, and 90% as good as the best? $995 is looking pretty good!! Toss it in a VPI Scout for $1600, and you've got a fantastic front-end value!
Great things can come in small packages, but never great things in ugly packages. The ZYX R100H is great. It is everyman's phono cartridge. At $995, it is a bargain times four. It is either excellent or state-of-the-art in all performance parameters. It sets the standard in tracking and is almost as neutral as cost-no-object performers. The ZYX R100H is a true reference transducer. Buy it before the price is jacked up by adding a wood or ivory body. Actually, I'm growing quite fond of black plastic. Robert H. Levi