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Positive Feedback ISSUE 49
may/june 2010



Omega Gold Low Output Moving Coil Cartridge

as reviewed by Myles B. Astor







Martin-Logan Summit.

Conrad-Johnson Premier LP 140M and ART amplifiers, conrad-johnson GAT preamplifier, TEAL 1bc phono section, PASS Labs Xono phonostage, Bottlehead Repro tape preamplifier (with Telefunken ECC88 and EF806 tubes) and King/Cello tape preamplifier.

Digital: Altis Audio CDT-III transport and 24/96 Reference DAC (with Telefunken ECC82 tubes) and Sony SCD-1 SACD player. Analog: VPI Reference Superscoutmaster turntable with 10.5 inch arm, rim drive and SDS, ZYX Omega S Gold LO, Lyra Titan i, and Air Tight PC-1 cartridges; Reel to reel: J-corder and Bottlehead modded Technics RS-1500US reel to reel tape machine.

Audioquest Amazon interconnects (Bill Low Signatures), K2, and Everest speaker cables, Cable Research Labs Gold interconnect, biwired Gold speaker cable and Mk. II AC cords, Phoenix Gold Arx 300 Series Bronze Level interconnects, Transparent Audio Reference MM2 speaker, Reference MM2 interconnect cables, and AES/EBU digital interconnect cable, MIT Oracle interconnect cables and phono cable, Cardas Golden Reference interconnects, Asterope interconnect cables, Dynastrand interconnect cables, ESP Reference Essence AC cords.

VPI 16.5 record cleaning machine, Sound Application AC outlets, Goldmund cones, Silent Running Audio VR Series IsoBases under amplifiers, phono section and turntable, Silent Running Audio Craz equipment stand, Symposium Acoustics Isis Stand for Technics reel to reel, Audio Physics cartridge demagnetizer, Thor Audio Phono burn-in, audiodharma cable burn-in, Lyra SPT, Kontak, AudioIntelligent RCF, MoFi Super Vinyl wash and Super Deep Cleaner, MoFi Stylus cleaning fluid, Marigo Labs Window damping dots, Dedicated Audio Cable Towers, Darklab hubs, Cathedral Sound panels and Hi-Fi Tuning fuses (for cj amplifiers).


What Goes Around Comes Around  

How many times does that old adage, "What goes around, comes around" strike?

In what now seems like another lifetime, I was sitting in an audiobuddies listening room auditioning his newly acquired Monster Cable Alpha 2 moving coil cartridge. Mounted in a Linn Ittok arm, the cartridge's rather puny for the day 0.3 mV output clearly tested the limits of his conrad-johnson Premier 3's phono section. Despite this deficiency, there was no doubt in either of our minds that the Monster Cable Alpha 2 was the real deal. The Monster Cable Alpha 2, unlike many cartridges of its generation, demonstrated that we were only tapping into but a fraction of the musical information in those record grooves. Well recorded guitar LPs had a better sense of speed, articulation, resolution and reproduction of harmonic overtones. Even more impressive was the Alpha 2's ability to recreate the original recording's soundstage and orchestral layering. In fact, the Monster Cable Alpha 2 was so good that it became the gold standard by which other cartridge's soundstaging was judged. (I'm really curious how the Alpha 2 cartridge would perform nowadays given proper break-in time, being mounted in today's far better designed arms e.g.. better resonance control, bearings, machining, wires, etc. as well as modern day phono sections capable of amplifying a low output MC cartridge without noise or dynamic constriction.)

Now the story doesn't end there. As it turns out, the ZYX Omega G moving coil cartridge is designed by none other than Hisayoshi Nakatsuka, the same person responsible for the design of the aforementioned Monster Cable Alpha 2. Long story short, Nakatsuka ‘s latest thoughts on cartridge design, the ZYX Omega G moving coil cartridge, turned out to be just as spectacular sounding in my present day system as did his Monster Cable Alpha 2 in my audiobuddies rig 25 years ago.

Back to the Present

Now don't mistake Nakatsuka's flying under the radar as meaning he hasn't been actively engaged in the design of moving coil cartridges. In the intervening years since the Monster Cable line of cartridges, Nakatsuka worked for a number of OEM cartridge manufacturers before striking out on his own and launching the ZYX cartridge line.

Nakatsuka's newest ZYX Omega series line (limited highest grade Model of 4D series) consists of three models differing in the material (silver, copper or gold wire) used to wind the coils; in addition, each cartridge is available in either a high (0.48 mV) or low output (0.24 mV) configuration. For this review, Tom Vu, the US ZYX distributor, submitted the low output, gold coil equipped version. Being that it would be difficult to review all three cartridges, it goes without saying that many readers are probably nonetheless curious about the sonic differences among the three cartridges. To that end, Tom Vu's description of the sound of the three cartridges went like this: "the copper is full bodied and a little slower sounding; the silver, smooth, detailed and extended but slightly leaner; the gold has the sweetness, body and texture of the copper combined with the high frequency extension of the silver."

First impressions often prove the longest lasting and in this case, there's no missing that blue, Lapis Luzuli ball adorning the front of the ZYX Omega G. In short, the Lapis Luzuli ball prevents vibrations from obscuring the most subtle musical signals. Nor would just any old Lapis Luzuli ball work! For the Omega series, Nakatsuka chose a spherical Lapis Lazuli ball (5.0 hardness, 2.5 specific gravity, 8 mm diameter and ~1 gram weight) and placed it at the cartridge's centroid of vibration e.g.. the cartridge's sweet spot.

As opposed to today's more common "nude" cartridges, the Omega G is a semi-skeleton transducer with the the sides removed so as to eliminate unwanted resonances. In both the Omega (and Diamond) series, Nakatsuka uses, "the super high speed reproduction magnetic circuit which was first introduced in the ZYX 4D series." According to Nakatsuka, this circuit allows for the reduction of time domain distortion, greater dynamics and more harmonic textures. Nakatsuka winds the cartridge's coils, "so as to be, electrically symmetrical around the horizontal axis and the signals in each channel are in phase with each other." In addition, "the wires do not cross over each other, thus avoiding any coupling effects." In addition, Nakatsuka opted for a "split" armature with two layers, "facing each other with opposite polarity, namely one laminate to face N-polarity and the other S-polarity forming mutually reversed phase positions in order to short-circuit and simultaneously dissolve both eddy currents in each armature." All the metal parts in the magnetic circuit, including the coils, armature, front and rear yoke, pole-piece and terminals, are cryogenically treated to -196oC. At the business end of the cantilever is a 3 µm by the ridge made with 6 µm thickness microridge stylus specifically selected for its smooth tracing.

Rounding into Shape

Mounting and aligning the ZYX Omega G cartridge in the JMW 10.5t arm was a breeze aided in large part by the cartridge bodies' straight lines, nuts mounted on either side of the cartridge body for affixing the cartridge firmly to the headshell (unlike the Miyabi 47 Labs that was a nightmare to align) and an easily viewable cantilever. An Audio Technica cartridge analyzer was used to set the cartridge's azimuth. Several VTFs were tried and the downward force yielding the best tracking/sonic effects was between 2.0 and 2.1 grams. And in fact, the ZYX was an exceptional tracker, never seeming to break up or sound frazzled on the most difficult low or high frequency passages.

New out of the box, the ZYX Omega G exhibited a lot of raw talent but it took some time for the cartridge's promise to be fully realized. Initially, the ZYX Omega G was a little on the lean side and as with most transducers, went through an initial period of sonic variability. With continued playing, the cartridge's extremes and then dynamics began to open up. The next quality to settle in was the cartridge's uncanny ability to recreate the three dimensionality of instruments and singers. The final quality to lock in, some 100 (or maybe a touch more) hours or so after installation was the instruments harmonic envelope.

It didn't take, however, anywhere near a hundred hours to uncover the cartridge's two quirks. To being with, record cleanliness is next to godliness. Like the Titan i, the ZYX Omega G does its best imitation of a road grader, digging out every little piece of schmutz lodged in the record grooves. Next, the ZYX Omega G (like the old Benz Ruby) sounds far more powerful than its modest 0.24 mV rating, in part it would seem because the cartridge's output is specified at 3.54 cm/sec while many other transducer's outputs are measured at 5.0 cm/sec.

Getting Ahead of the Curve

Several changes occurred to the reference system prior to the ZYX review that markedly elevated the system's resolution. The first change, as described in my latest Record Vault piece, was the insertion of MIT's Oracle MA phono cable and a mixture of MA and MA-X interconnects into the system. The Oracle interconnects, in particular the phono cable, substantially dropped the system's noise floor, improved the frequency extremes and revealed new aspects of different recording's spatiality.

Next was the arrival of Hi-Fi Tuning's new Ultimate3 VRO (vinyl resonance optimizer). In contrast to other record clamps, the VRO3 doesn't rely as much on mass loading to exert its effect as it does by serving as a vibration sink at the vinyl/cartridge interface (the VRO3's contact with the LP is minimized since it sits on one very small platinum tiptoe and two ebony tiptoes). As always, the proof of the pudding lies, however, in the listening and the improvements wrought by the VRO3 were far from subtle. For instance on Michael Schaffer's The Baroque Lute (MHS/Seon 4199), there is a far vast—and I don't use this term lightly—improvement in the sense of depth and resonating body on the Michael Lowe designed, 11 course, 20 string lute. That sense of a three dimensional radiating body is coupled with the retrieval of more low level information such as Schaffer's hands gliding over the strings (and squeaking) and a much cleaner and precise transient attack. In the end, the lute sounds more realistic because there is less of a mechanical and a far more relaxed feeling to the lute's strings.

Laurence Rosenthal's Rashomon (Carlton Records STLPX/5000), one of, if not the best non-Mercury mastering jobs ever (and everything points to the recording also being a Robert Fine recording; unfortunately, there's no credit given on the LP), also clearly demonstrates the sonic superiority of the VRO3. This early theatre score for David Susskind's Rashomon, completed with the assistance interestingly of Leonard Bernstein (Roger Feigelson, Soundtrack Magazine, Vol.7, No.28, 1988), exhibits an even greater sense of dynamic range, spatial and low level information with the VRO3. Take for example the opening movement when the Japanese stringed instrument to the right rear of the orchestra moves across the soundstage and offstage; the VRO3 now reveals a drum playing very softly in the back of the orchestra.

The importance of the phono stage (and in part gain) and its impact upon the sound of the ZXX Omega G shouldn't be underestimated. For example, with my reference conrad-johnson TEA 1bc tube phono section (53 dB gain/47 K resistive load/20 pf capacitive load), one hears more of the cartridge's ability to reproduce the three dimensional body of instruments, harmonic complexity, texture, midrange naturalness and sense of space. Conversely, with the newly arrived Avid HiFi Pulsare solid-state phono preamplifier (60 db gain/47 K capacitive load/15 nF resistive load), there's a much different sonic snapshot. Here the cartridge's low frequency extension and dynamics, vanishingly low noise floor, transparency and ability to resolve low level information from the recording come through in spades. (More on the Pulsare in an upcoming review.)

The last piece of the puzzle to be filled in was the long awaited arrival of Conrad and Johnson's latest beast from the East, the 275 wpc ART amplifier. After a 300 hour break-in period that is sure to try the patience of even the most patient audiophile, (and believe me all 300 hours are required for the amplifier to open up frequency wise and especially dynamically), the ZYX was taken to another level. The new ART amplifier brings with it an absolutely effortless quality. Transient attack and intranote silence are preserved with startling clarity. And the amplifier's soundstaging and natural sense of halls and studios and their boundaries are what we've come to expect from conrad-johnson.

The Shape of Things to Come

In a nutshell, the ZYX Omega G is one of the most musically engaging and satisfying cartridges that I've heard in quite some time. Many times I found myself unconsciously reacting to the music on the albums exactly like I would at a concert or jazz club. Head bobbing. Shoulders swaying. Wanting to applaud after an exceptional solo.

In retrospect, one of the main reasons I spent the time and money to assemble a real high-end capable reel-to-reel front-end was to establish a better sonic reference point for reviewing analog front-ends. After all, the records are cut from these master tapes and in reality, that's where the ultimate fidelity lies. In some cases, I've been able to directly compare say a 45 rpm pressing with the sound of an early generation copy of the master such as that produced by the people at The Tape Project. While I'm acutely aware that tape decks vary in sound as much as any other piece of electronics, I've put an extra effort into auditioning different machines in my system, different head blocks for my Technics reel-to-reel and both solid-state and tube tape electronics in order to get a better grasp of the medium's sound.

So what are a few of the biggest sonic differences between a top flight reel-to-reel deck plus software and an analog playback system? First and foremost, there's the 15-ips/2-track's sense of dynamic ease and range, especially in the lowest octaves. For example, there's no involuntary cringing when the music becomes dynamic. Accompanying the greater musical density e.g. information, comes a more realistic sense of a real body in space as well as harmonic overtones. Recordings are also far more transparent resulting in a greater ability for the mind's eye to see the musicians. In the end, this all adds up to a greater sense of musical involvement.

Like the master tape, the ZYX Omega G's defining signature is its dynamic capabilities. The ZYX Omega G has a unique ability to unravel complex musical passages as well as subtle harmonic complexities. Take for example, Carlos Chavez's "Toccata for Percussion Instruments," specifically the 2nd and 3rd movements from Super Percussion (King Records SSY 19) for example. With the ZYX Omega G, drums have a tremendous tape-like sense of dynamics and impact. Tonal differences between the different drums as well as the drum head resonance and the sense of space inside the drum are more readily revealed. At the same time, the ZYX Omega G is more than capable of resolving the softest playing of cymbals as well as recreating the exquisite delicacy and decay of triangles and chimes.

Rashomon serves again quite nicely to illustrate the ZYX's dynamic and resolution capabilities. As with the best 15-ips tapes, there's a great sense of dynamic gradations from soft to loud. As a result, that preamplifier's remote control will get a good workout. As with the best 15-ips tapes, there's an uncanny ability to reproduce the softest shaking of bells to the blaring of horns. And when those horns blare, the sense of recording space lights up like downtown Las Vegas at night! Harps and other string instruments seem to have had their governor's removed. And like the Monster Cable Alpha 2, the ZYX has an uncanny ability to separate orchestral layers such as the flutes doubling in the opening movement; differences in the tone between the two flutes is also eerily rendered.

Nor does the ferocious transient onslaught and decay of notes on "Ragtime Razzamatazz" or "Sweet Georgia Brown" from Ragtime Razzamatazz Vol. 1 (Wilson Audio W606) faze the ZYX Omega G for even a moment. Or try on the acme siren and its decay for size at the end of "Ragtime Razzamatazz." Unlike other cartridges that make this upright piano (intentionally retuned to match its relatives of yesteryear) sound slow, mushy and fuzzy, the ZYX Omega G, especially when coupled with the Pulsare phono stage, captures the speed, detail, ringing and resonances of the upright piano. In addition, the ZYX renders a realistic portrayal of the instrument's size.

On the very closely miked "Chelsea Bridge," from Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (ORG/Verve V6-8534), the ZYX really captures the smoothness, sense of body, reediness and mellowness of Ben Webster's tenor saxophone. Even more startling on this spectacular remastering job (cut using Bernie Grundman's recently upgraded mastering chain), is the ZYX Omega G's ability to place Mulligan and pianist Jimmy Rowles in the their own space as well as giving a convincing sense of space between the two stand outs.

If you're thinking at this point, that the ZYX Omega G is just a cartridge for jazz and classical fans, think again. The ZYX Omega G excels at reproducing the shocking dynamic range (for a rock album) on "School" or "Bloody Well Right," from Supertramp's Crime of the Century (MFSL 1-005). In my room, there's an absolutely humongous soundstage that extends beyond the room's side walls and the back wall. Bass guitar lines are easily discerned and the low end is big and ballsy. The electric guitars are razor sharp and synthesizers take on a new level of clarity and body. Without doubt, we have the JGH "jump factor" at play here on this rock album.

Cartridge Round Up

The ZYX Omega G wasn't the only game in town! Also on hand and mounted in separate JMW 10.5t wands were the similarly priced Lyra Titan i (my previous reference) and Air Tight PC1 moving coil cartridges. Both cartridges sport a bit higher output than the ZYX, and as a result, might work better in a wider range of phono sections than the ZYX.

Overall, the Air Tight PC1 is distinguished by a liquid, lush, sweet sound and an excellent sense of transparency and ability to recreate the dimensions of the original recording venue. At first blush, the Air Tight too sounds very pretty in the midrange; with extended listening, it becomes clear that the Air Tight PC1 sounds a little too pretty, reducing at times, sonic differences between albums. Other areas where the Air Tight PC1 falls short of ultimate include the ability to replicate dynamics at either end of the musical spectrum and reproduce the leading edge of instrumental attack, leading to a diminished sense of dynamic accents and resolution.

Now depending on your point of view, comparing the Titan i to the ZYX Omega G could be considered a little unfair since it's been four or five years since the roll out of the original Titan model—not to mention that the cartridge is slated for retirement later this year. Now depending on your system, the Titan might come off as slightly "cool" sounding—or to my ears, more neutral sounding. That said, the Titan i has remained through thick and thin, my reference cartridge. In contrast to the Air Tight PC1, the Lyra Titan i is big and bold yet a very nimble sounding cartridge. Like the Air Tight, the Titan i exudes transparency, soundstaging and sense of space. Perhaps the Titan i's greatest strength lies in its ability to preserve microdynamic accents and shadings of instruments. Oh yes, the Titan i also picks up dirt and dust in those record grooves just like the ZYX.

Take for instance, "The Worried Drummer" cut from Saul Goodman's Mallets, Melody and Mayhem (Columbia CS8333). You won't hear a trace of grain anywhere in the musical spectrum with the Air Tight PC1. The cartridge is smooth as silk, though again, a touch too smooth. Musical complexity fails to faze the Air Tight either. The cartridge has a very wide soundstage—but there's not as much soundstage depth as with the Titan i or ZYX Omega G. And the Air Tight PC1 doesn't have the same sense of dynamic ease, mid and upper bass tightness, upper octave extension and definition of bells and triangles as the Titan i or the ZYX Omega G.

Conversely, the Titan i reminds me of a Formula one race car hugging the track's chicanes. On "The Worried Drummer," the drums are very powerful and detailed; one literally feels the drum head resonating. At the other end of the frequency spectrum, the sleigh bells are less smeared and individual bells better defined with the Titan than the Air Tight. The cartridge's top end resolution also doesn't blur the ability to tell the difference between the tambourine and sleigh bells. And the cartridge is exceedingly transparent, allowing the listener to hear and easily visualize instruments in the back of the soundstage.

As good as the Titan i is, the ZYX Omega G reveals even more of "The Worried Drummer." Low frequency dynamics are oh so tape like and there's no momentary cringing on dynamic peaks. The one area where I prefer the Titan i to the ZYX Omega G here is in the mid and low bass region, especially on something like "Percussion Melee" scored for three tympani . But the ZYX is better in most other area including the ability to solidly anchor the piano in space and convey the sense of space around and between instruments. Wooden blocks sound more realistic eg. the wood has a defined thickness in addition to a radiating body. In the upper octaves, the ZYX Omega G exhibits superb extension and even better delineation of shaking sleigh bells and struck triangle than the Titan i. There's also a greater sense of the body and the metallic, shaking sound of the jingles (or zils) of the tambourine.

Switching to Bernard Herrmann's Four Faces of Jazz (MFSL 1-255), the Air Tight PC1 again tends to slightly sweeten the sound of the string section; the problem is that the Decca Phase 4 strings just don't sound this way. At the same time, the Air Tight PC1 really reveals both the recording's not so subtle multi-miking as well as the tremendous volume of the recording venue. As with the Saul Goodman, the PC1's upper octaves are slightly rolled off and transparency falls just a little short of ultimate.

With the Titan i, The Four Faces of Jazz is a bit brighter, but not unfaithful to the actual sound of the original Phase 4 recordings. String instruments are not as lush and a little leaner in the lower midrange than Air Tight PC1. Trumpets in particular, are more open and tympani are tighter, cleaner and deeper than the Air Tight PC1. The Titan i‘s unbridled speed allows for the faithful reproduction the transient attacks of string and percussion. The Titan i is no slouch either when it comes to soundstaging with greater depth but not quite as much width as the Air Tight PC1.

But again, both transducers suffer a little bit in comparison to the ZYX Omega G. The Four Faces of Jazz comes across far less colored with the ZYX Omega G than with the Air Tight PC1 or as lean as the Titan i. Strings have the smoothness and lack of distortion of the Air Tight PC1 combined with the detail and microdynamics of the Titan i. Upper octaves are beautifully extended and the record sounds like a Decca Phase 4, not a RCA Living Stereo Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording. There's great transparency especially in the lower octaves; at the other end of the frequency spectrum, percussion instruments in the back of the stage are easily visualized.

Finally the ZYX Omega G better differentiates the tone of the mandolin from the guitar on one of my favorite albums, and long term Picaflor: Latin American Music for Guitar and Mandolin (Titanic Mn-5) than either the Titan I or Air Tight PC1. By contrast, the Air Tight PC1 adds a heaviness to the guitar while slowing down the speed of the mandolin; on the other hand, the Titan i does a better job but lightens the sound of the guitar a smidge. Remember that electrostatics like the Martin-Logans are made for recordings like Picaflor and the ZYX Omega G doesn't disappoint. The ZYX Omega G doesn't blur the rapid fire playing of the mandolin, lose the feeling of fingers playing the strings or subtle mandolin resonances.

Déjŕ vu All Over Again

JGH found the Monster Cable Alpha 2 a "somewhat unexciting cartridge" that was smooth, open, detailed and had good imaging and soundstaging (Stereophile (vol.7, no. 8, 1985). Twenty five years later, I think it's safe to assume at least a part of JGH's hesitation about the sound of the Alpha 2 were traceable to the colorations inherent to that generation of tonearms ( in particular issues with out of phase resonances that affect dynamics, the mass of the arm and cartridge alignment) not to mention the lack of low noise, high gain phono sections.

The ZYX Omega G is a cartridge for those who are seeking neutrality and resolution coupled with musicality with a side order of dynamics thrown in for free. Unlike some other popular transducers, the ZYX Omega G is not going to sugar coat the sound of the record; one's records will be heard in all their glory. Or to turn around something  mastering engineer Paul shared with me recently, the ZYX Omega G will continue giving one rewards as the playback system improves. That's unlike other cartridges that have a ceiling and then begin to show issues in the design.

Where the ZYX Omega G falls slightly short of ultimate are essentially areas of omission rather than commission—something that I find far easier to live with and on the ears—than errors of commission! Yes, the ZYX could be slightly faster. Sure there's always room for improvement when it comes to transparency. And yes, the mid-bass could be a touch tauter and defined, though that depends to some extent upon the accompanying phono stage. But when one steps back and takes in the total picture, it's clear that Natakusaya's newest effort unquestionably advances the moving coil cartridge to a new level. Myles B. Astor

Output voltage: 0.24 mV (3.54 cm/sec, 1 kHz); Frequency response: 10 Hz to 100 kHz; Channel separation: >30 dB; Recommended tracking force: 2.0 gm (1.7-2.5); Compliance: 15 (horizontal) and 12 (vertical); Internal impedance: 4 ohms; Coil wire: 5 N Gold/0.035 mm cryogenically treated; Cantilever material: Solid boron, 0.30 mm; Stylus: Micro ridge, 3 x 60 µm.

ZYX Omega G moving coil cartridge (limited highest grade Model of 4D series)
Retail: $6500

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