ZYX ULTIMATE ASTRO X CARTRIDGE REVIEW

As much as the digital audio is being acquainted with the new developments, the analog counterpart is by no means slowing down. In the last two or three years, I have received many highly interesting cartridges, each of which has pushed the limits of analog reproduction by a not inconsiderable amount. When I was asked to evaluate the ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X cartridge, I did my homework before committing to the review, and the technological background and newly introduced unique features made this a no brainer. ASTRO X promises a lot of technical wise, and as you can read on during the review, it also delivers in a real-world scenario by introducing some unprecedented qualities of analog reproduction. 

While many famous and well-known cartridge manufacturers come from the land of the rising sun, the ZYX Corporation produces a different kind of analog miniature art. 

There is an undisputed reputation that follows the Japanese miniaturized art of designing and manufacturing analog micromachines. 

They all have different inner hearts, deriving fascinating and timeless pieces of information locked up under the vinyl surface. 

The president of Zyx Corporation Hisayoshi Nakatsuka has a unique and personal perspective on analog and digital reproduction. For him, the analog universe is the place where music simply follows the right path and if the dedicated knowledge and understanding of audio reproduction are there, it can deliver the utmost level of music enjoyment. 

I've quickly reflected 2012 when I've reviewed the ZYX Omega X cartridge and I clearly remembered that at that time it was much more than just another cartridge and could not be described as anything even remotely ordinary. 

Fast forward to the present and ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X again tickles the imagination. This time perhaps even more profoundly and more evenly addressing the left and right brain hemisphere.

There is a hidden complexity surrounding this particular Japanese MC cartridge. I'll try to break down the most important technical highlights and insights, before getting at the ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X cartridge sonic virtues. 

THE MAN - THE BRAND

Mr. Nakatsuka is the President and Chief Engineer of ZYX. He was born in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, and has a long experience with audio equipment that goes back to an early age. 

After graduating from university, he worked in the development department of "Trio" (Kenwood) and developed the world's first "optical cartridge" during this time. He then worked for Ortofon in Denmark and developed an MC -20. 

In 1976 he was employed by Namiki Precision Jewel  Company where he managed the OEM cartridge business for several manufacturers. In 1986 he became an independent manufacturer with the support of Namiki Precision Jewel Company. 

The origin of the name ZYX translates to analog three-dimensional elements - time (Z), amplitude (Y), and frequency (X). This is why all ZYX cartridges are equipped with the original system for generating real sound energy, in which the distortion of the time axis is eliminated by using several patented technologies. These unique patented approaches are combined with the latest technologies such as a micro-ridge stylus, boron cantilever, and the latest carbon cantilever.

NEW GENERATOR SYSTEM

With Ultimate ASTRO X, ZYX has developed a new generator system that does not interfere with the generator coils.  For the first time in the world, all the parts that make up the magnetic circuit are subjected to a special treatment that neutralizes all harmful signals. In this way, ASTRO was designed from the ground up to reflect the original sonic information hidden deep in the black grooves.

The Analog domain allows great density and infinite time axis (Z) information is adequately stored in the record. However, the time information that is intimately connected with sound quality can be too quickly altered due to numerous adverse aspects that are inherent with the electromagnetic conversion system. 

Eddy current in the coil bobbin that fosters the magnetic resistance and magnetic flux of DC field generation further changes in workings of opposite magnetic poles. 

All of these unwanted disturbances occur simultaneously and almost at the speed of light. It's assumed that all of these anomalies are drastically and instantly altering the sound quality. 

SYMMETRY DAMPING

Another world novelty of ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X is the symmetrical design of the dampers on the front and back of the coil bobbin. 

The conventional MC cartridges normally implement the damper, which is positioned behind the coil bobbin. 

Due to the nature of the material, the damper itself has its own mechanical defects. One of these is a non-linear reaction of the folding and unfolding speed and the inconstancy of this response over the entire frequency spectrum. 

By damping the vibrations of the coil bobbin on both sides, the signal is freed from the hubris of the mechanical damping force. The information can then be transferred directly to the torsional vibration of the coil. 

This enables a new level of density and linearity, allowing full bandwidth responsiveness and a much greater dynamic range.

LAPIS LAZULI BALANCING WEIGHT

An orbicular part appended to the front part of the cartridge is a counterweight that balances the sweet spot of the cartridge body and the point of gravity of the vibrating system.

After prolonged trials with the different materials and continuing listening, a non-metallic Lapis Lazuli ball with a hardness of 5.0, a specific gravity of 2.5, a diameter of 8 mm, and a weight of about 1 gram was chosen in the most suitable position to provide the best performance.

The Lapis Lazuli ball has another significant advantage over the center of gravity control. Due to its composition, which is made from of a few types of sodalite and spherical shape, the vibration wave that travels from the sphere's north pole is absorbed in the internally mixed crystal architecture, and the vibration wave that descends on the sphere's surface is finally canceled out at the sphere's south pole.

COMPOSITE CARBON TERMINAL BOARD

Another world's first is the implementation of a terminal board that locks the pins of the output terminals and that protect the micro machine against any kind of external vibrations and static charge. Furthermore, this terminal board can be grounded via the ground wire of the output of the right channel directly with the phono preamplifier.

This enables much purer signal transmission by eliminating the capacitance between 4 connexion pins.

ZYX Corporation is the first company to use a C-1000 carbon cantilever with the moving coil cartridge. The ZYX Ultimate series (100, Airy, 4D, OMEGA, DYNAMIC, and ASTRO) all use the carbon cantilever. The carbon rod is made of 1000 pieces of carbon fiber composite material, hence the name C-1000. 

This carbon fiber composite material is stiffer than aluminum, iron, and titanium. Moreover, its specific gravity is only half that of boron. Based on these facts, the C-1000 carbon cantilever was chosen as the ultimate and ideal cantilever material, which can derive a grander portion of the information from the record grooves. 

The carbon cantilever offers the widest frequency range and superior tracking performance. Another major advantage is that the mechanical sound signal picked up at the stylus can reach the coil directly and linearly via 1000 mechanical carbon particles. This ensures that reflected, repeated, or modulated mechanical sound signals are completely eliminated. 

In general, this allots the super refined, most natural, and extremely dynamic reproduction that is remarkably close to the original.

CARTRIDGE CHASIS

Everything that has been explained so far is of fundamental importance for the handling of complex electrical propensities. A non-metallic body consisting of two types of hard material prevents external disturbances from affecting the generator system. It also blocks eddy currents from affecting the output signal of the generator and eliminates the resonances that can occur on the surface of the cartridge body.

SUPER HIGH- SPEED ENGINE

The entire micro engine is specially processed to eliminate the magnetic resistance within the magnetic gap and allows fast current generation against signals over the entire bandwidth undeviatingly and without time delay. In addition, this engine can perfectly and immediately eliminate all remaining eddy currents.

MICRO- RIDGE STYLUS

The Ultimate series stylus edges of the diamond shaft are parallel to the sides of the cantilever. With this type of stylus, the hardest axis of the crystal is aligned to act as a point of contact with the record groove. This provides a stable and smooth scanning action and produces a most highly refined sound, as well as ensures extended life (2000 hours).

The Micro-Ridge type stylus was originally developed in Japan and grants the highest order of performance. The contact radius is always 3μm through the ridge, which is made with 6μm thickness. 

PURE 6N OFC CRYSTAL COPPER WIRE FOR GENERATOR COIL

A proprietary pure 6N OFC crystal copper wire was manufactured using a special process. This unique wire enables perfect tonal balance over the entire audible range.

THE MUSIC

As far as I know, the ZYX is the only MC cartridge manufacturer that has achieved an equal time axis between R and L channel and this is supported by fifteen patents (7 pending). This is undoubtedly one reason for the unusual fluidity of Ultimate ASTRO X.

If the digital sound is not executed in the right way, it can cause a feeling of discomfort and shows the traces of fatigue after listening for a long time. While analog sound does not work in the same way, an oversaturated or excessively distorted sonic imprint can also cause some discomfort.

On the contrary to such traits, it was a breeze to go through my record collection selection with ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X. There were no distractions that would have diverted my focus from the music. 

John Coltrane's Love Supreme emanate merciless power and crescendos of both the most sublime and severe powerful notes, which come not only from the saxophone maestro himself but also from the drum battery, piano, and double bass. The incredible language that emits from this musicality is the floating poetry of emotional impact. At no given time Ultimate ASTRO X has put any stop to the development of the notes or held back the emotional bond. 

Speed is one of the most important constants of any high-end audio component. The accurate emitting of speed uncovers all the musical micro-details and reveals the valid perception of space and time, and ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X has simply excelled at all these points. 

ASTRO X does not overblow a certain part of the audio spectrum and there is no artificial saturation associated. Thus Love Supreme could expand effectively and shed an immense aura, far above the accustomed criteria. 

At the top level of ultra-high-end audio, especially in the analog domain, the neutral and extremely revealing factor is the key quality. 

The immortal and timeless Bright Sized Life from Pat Metheny may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for me, even after all these years, it is still just as refreshing and captivating as it was my first encounter. This album offers deeper insights at cartridges evaluations with its frank but multifaceted scenery.  

This straightforward jazz includes three different musicians and embodies a puzzling harmonic sonic and music voyage. Metheny's guitar is frangible with forte clarity, Jaco Pastorius spreads an unforgettable, sparkling, emotional, and innovative mastery on bass and Bob Moses the drum articulation combines an eruptive yet subtle rhythm multiplexing. 

"Midwestern Nights Dream", "Missouri Uncompromised" and "Unquity Road" bring the essence of the jazz trio to the point and demand a tracker with a more advanced nucleus. 

Ultimate ASTRO X generously brought the reflective mood to focus and let the music sounds unfaded, engaging and unleashed with full potency. 

ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X unique and radiant inner core lets these three musicians fill the sonic canvas with pastose melody and with the meticulous formation of mass decays and delays without sounding atrophic. With ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X in action Metheny guitar, risen from the archaic heritage, cuts through the deep black tonal vacuum without stealing notes or igniting harmonic erasure.

My listening remarks highlighted a couple of times how unconventionally ASTRO X invokes intimate particularities in absence of a faint echo effect and allows the interaction with the music to unfold thoroughly. Many expensive cartridges decipher Bright Size Life as a chaotic mixture of chance and choice. In contrast, ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X governs the flow of music in equal parts with remarkable precision. A splendid quality alone worthy of all the high praise!

Georg Solti - Venice (Royal Opera House Orchestra) mastered by Willem Makee from the original analog tape and plated and pressed at Quality Record Pressings is off the charts reissue from Acoustic Sounds.

The album was originally released in 1959 and is characterized by exquisite tonal quality and illustrious dynamism. 

To say that the ability of the ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X cartridge to render thickly interwoven themes is a surprise would be an understatement. I was entranced by ASTRO X's capability to extract the seductive string sound in the first act of "Traviata". 

Many of the highly praised and acclaimed high-end audio cartridges reproduction feel like they evoke the emotions from the ghastly silhouettes and manifest tones as chaotic foliage. Not so with Ultimate ASTRO X. ZYX flagship cartridge masterfully reconstrued the real essence of the tone and higher-order credibility and believability factor. 

ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X is a music genre-free pickup system and can easily lock and respond to all types of music. It does not fiddle around with a certain frequency range, which makes it highly credible and superbly accurate in the presentation. 

Ultimate ASTRO X reveals a brilliant new way to hear the micro and macro details and to connect with the very core of the music. 

The ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X cartridge opens up a different kind of analog portal that materializes the elementary dimension of yarn tones and gargantuan dimensional proportions. 

It is by no means an ordinary, sounding, and performing cartridge. The ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X is a tour de force performer and crown achievement in the analog domain. 

CONCLUSION

For Mr. Hisayoshi Nakatsuka the basic quality of the high-end audio cartridge should not change under any circumstances. Even if this sounds like a compulsory task, in reality, the consistency of the pickups of MC is not per se. Not only during the break-in period but also in the way they act with different phono preamplifiers. 

Mr. Nakatsuka is also convinced of the advantages of analog technology over digital technology. It has been said that the biggest disadvantage of digital audio is the time smearing, and as has been researched our minds seem to be most highly perceptive to this. 

It seems as if ASTRO X with its most accurate timing not only vastly differs from digital audio but also from other cartridges. ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X appears to be the best advocate of this phenomenon, and how much-hidden potential for decoding analog information is encapsulated in the time domain. On the other hand, digital clocks for DACs, music servers are among the things that have received enormous attention in recent years. Some companies like CH Precision went even so far with their digital front ends to include connection to GPS networks where satellites are controlled by Cesium atomic clock. 

Yes, timing matters and ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X can easily outline the atmosphere and project an enormous sound space with projecting higher than the usual amount of anchor points.

The ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X pickup delivers the music with unexpected ease, impressive sound balance, and without any kind of frequency drift that can be spotted even with some of the highly-praised and well known high-end audio cartridges. 

As early as 2012, I wrote that the ZYX OMEGA has little or nothing to do with the so-called traditional Japanese warm-toned sound that even today still preferred by many. The same applies to the ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X pickup. 

ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X is without a doubt a modern-sounding high-end audio cartridge. It is also an untypical and untraditional sounding one. The neutrality and dynamics that lie outside the average are beyond the expected norm. But in order to manifest its true potential, the ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X needs a powerful phono preamplifier and a precise set up to reveal its ultra-dynamic and efficacious inner core. 

We are too often dealing with expensive products that are guaranteeing a lot. Glorified technical aspects, exotic materials, and so-called handmade artisan production are used again and again to market different kinds of high-end audio cartridges and to attract potential customers.

While the ZYX flagship cartridge is as Japanese as can be in terms of flawless workmanship, non-ordinary precision, and meticulous dedication, the true strength of the Ultimate ASTRO X is a genuinely world-class performance that delivers on its profound technical promises without compromising the audio signal. 

Various upper echelon cartridges explore to the nth degree the special qualities of transparency, speed, and richness of tone. The ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X cartridge simply goes beyond its features and focuses on delivering one of the most stress-free and translucent analog reproductions I have ever experienced. 

It was more than inspiring to rediscover my favorite records and reference albums with ASTRO X and to fill my listening notes with surprising discoveries.

The ZYX Ultimate ASTRO X cartridge offers a different way of immersion in the analog universe. With its characterless nature, ASTRO X permits the music to simply flow with the most refreshing signal stream, embodying a tremendous density that dissolves into an aural experience of exceptional credibility and a more distinguished degree of transparency and naturalness.

The Ultimate ASTRO X cartridge is a fantastic performer,  ZYX Corporation's crown achievement, and an exceptional analog micro machine, that opens up the gates to the analog universe in a grander way. 

Matej Isak 

THE PRICE 

- 11,000. EUR (Excluding VAT)

TECHNICAL DATA

  • Type Moving Coil (Dynamic)
  • “REAL STEREO” Generator System
  • Cryogenic Treatment Temperature: -196 ℃ (-320оF)
  • Output Voltage: 0.24mV (3.54cm/sec, 1kHz)
  • Frequency Response:
  • ±1dB 10 Hz - 100 kHz
  • 20 Hz - 20 kHz
  • Channel Separation: more than 30dB 〔 1kHz 〕
  • Channel Balance: less than 0.5dB 〔 1kHz 〕
  • Recommended Tracking Force: 2.0gm 〔 20 ゜C-25 ゜C 〕
  • Tracking Force Range: 1.7gm - 2.5gm
  • Trackability: more than 60μm /2.0gm
  • EQ Compliance: horizontal - 15×10-6cm/dyne / vertical - 12×10-6cm/dyne
  • Internal Impedance: 4.0 Ω
  • Load Impedance: more than 100Ω
  • Coil Wire:
  • X type: 6N Crystal Copper φ 0.035mm
  • S type: 5N Silver φ 0.035mm
  • G type: K24 Gold φ 0.035mm 
  • Cantilever Material: C-1000 Carbon φ0.30mm
  • Stylus : Micro-Ridge Solid Diamond 0.1mm
  • Contact Radius, Life Time: 3μm×60μm, 2000Hour/2.0gm
  • Output Terminals: φ1.25mm K18 Solid Gold 〔EIA〕
  • Terminal Board: Composite Carbon Plate
  • Dimensions: 16.8mm(W)×25.0mm(L)×16.5mm(H)
  • Net Weight: 7.9gm(TB2 pre-mounted), 9.1gm(SB2)

CONTACT 

MuSon Project, Inc.

Web: www.zyx-audio.com

Email:y-hontani@musonpro.com