I have a long history with this iconic cartridge manufacturer and I have tested and tried many of their cartridges over the years. I must say that I have a particular fondness for these Japanese cartridges.
Still being an avid analog fan, I was happy to jump at the opportunity to try Zyx’s latest flagship cartridge product, the Ultimate Exceed Astro, especially since I reviewed the Zyx Ultimate Astro X cartridge not too long ago.
There is something very different about reproducing music with the lower output MC cartridges, and the Ultimate Exceed Astro proves that in the grandest of ways.
The man – The brand
Mr. Nakatsuka is the president and chief engineer of ZYX. He was born in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, and has many years of experience with audio equipment dating back to his early age.
After graduating from college, he worked in the development department of “Trio” (Kenwood), during which time he developed the world’s first “optical pickup”. He then worked for Ortofon in Denmark and developed an MC-20.
in 1976, he was hired 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 name ZYX translates to analog three-dimensional elements – time (Z), amplitude (Y), and frequency (X). For this reason, all ZYX cartridges feature the original system for generating true sound energy, eliminating time axis distortion through the use of several patented technologies. These unique patented approaches are combined with the latest additions such as a Micro-Ridge, Super High-speed reproduction engine, solid Diamond, etc.
Simply put, a moving coil pickup can be described as a type of transducer, a device that converts energy from one form to another. It induces a current that is proportional to the speed of vibration in the coil. This is aligned perpendicularly (at 90 degrees) to the magnetic field line by the mechanical movements generated by the stylus tip following the grooves of the record. In this way, a sound signal is generated and transmitted.
For faithful and high-quality reproduction, the magnetic flux density in the magnetic field (where the coil is located) must be uniform.
In today’s widely used MC cartridges, the coil former is made of a material that has high magnetic permeability and good high-frequency characteristics. This means that the bobbin is very sensitive and responsive to the applied magnetic field.
As a result, this type of coil provides six times more signal than a non-magnetic bobbin. Therefore, the number of coil turns can be reduced and the overall mass of the vibration system can be reduced, allowing for broadband reproduction.
When the magnetic coil former is used, the magnetic field and magnetic flux density (which ideally should be uniform) may be disturbed by the vibrations of the coil former, since the two coils used for stereo playback generate signals for the left and right channels in a disturbed magnetic field.
Since the left and right channels are arranged so that the windings are offset 45 degrees from the vertical axis, the ground connections of these coils are at different points separated by the coil length. As a result, the left and right audio signals are generated in two different disturbed magnetic fields.
To eliminate this phenomenon, the ground terminals for the left and right sides must be in the same magnetic field. This will cause the left and right coils to generate current in the same magnetic field, even if that magnetic field is disturbed.
ZYX is the first pickup manufacturer to develop and implement this unique “single point ground terminal dual output system” and is thus able to completely solve this problem, this new system has been implemented in all new Ultimate Exceed models, where the benefits of homogeneous sound reproduction of left and right channels generated in the same magnetic field can be heard instantly, experiencing what Mr. Nakatsuka envisioned as truly emotional analog sound, with striking, intense transients, sharp laser-like focus, and precise aural localization.
New gold-silver alloy coil wire (G-S)
With the traditional Ultimate series cartridges, there was a choice of three coil wires – crystal copper, gold, and silver. With the new Ultimate Exceed series, there are two coil types – crystal copper and gold-silver alloy.
Although the resistance value of the G-S alloy wire increases due to the alloy processing, you can enjoy the unique, fine, smooth, and broadband sound that combines the advantages of gold and silver.
New generator system
ZXY has designed to manufacture the generator system in such a way that the generator coils are no longer disturbed, by subjecting, for the first time ever, all parts of the magnetic circuit to a special treatment that neutralizes all harmful signals.
In the analog realm, the infinite time axis information (Z) of the recorded signal is possible coming intimately close to the original sound. However, the time information closely related to the sound quality can transform the original material into a nonnative sound due to a series of destructive phenomena caused by the various electromagnetic conversion systems.
The electrical reverse current is generated in proportion to the strength of the sound signal from the generator coils. Eddy currents within the coil promote this generation, as they cause changes in magnetoresistance and the magnetic flux of the DC magnetic field. Additionally, further magnetic field induction occurs due to eddy currents of the opposite poles.
All these disturbances occur simultaneously with the speed of light, and it is assumed that the time component of the original sound changes immediately in the sound quality.
ZYX introduces a novel symmetry-based structure with dampers located on both the front and back of the coil, which is a world first.
In conventional MC cartridges, the damper is normally located behind the coil body to mitigate the vibrations caused by the needle movement.
The damper itself faces mechanical challenges due to the material it’s made of. These challenges include a non-linear response in terms of compression and decompression speed, as well as a frequency-dependent response variation.
However, by damping the vibrations from both sides of the bobbin, the nonlinearity associated with the mechanical damping force of the material is eliminated. This enables the direct transfer of audio signal vibrations from the needle tip to the coil’s rotational oscillations, resulting in unprecedented linear response and delivering exceptional sound quality from delicate signals to dynamic signals with high response.
Lapis Lazuli Balancing Weight
At the front of the cartridge is a spherical object that serves as a balancing weight. Its purpose is to align the sweet spot of the cartridge body with the center of gravity of the vibration system. After careful material selection and extensive listening tests, ZYX placed a non-metallic lapis lazuli sphere with a diameter of 8 mm, a weight of approximately 1 gram, a hardness of 5.0, and a specific gravity of 2.5 in the most appropriate location to create the optimal pickup structure.
The Lapis Lazuli ball offers more than just balance. Thanks to its composition, which fuses different types of sodalite into a spherical shape, the vibrational waves are absorbed into the mixed crystal architecture, and the waves that propagate on the surface of the sphere are finally canceled out at the oposite pole.
Composite Carbon Terminal Board
As a world first, ZYX has introduced a hard terminal board that secures the output terminals and provides static support to effectively protect the device from external vibration. In addition, this terminal board can be grounded to the phono stage amplifier through the ground line of the right channel to ensure the purest sound by eliminating capacitance between the four terminal pins.
The World’s First C-1000 Carbon Cantilever
The ZYX Ultimate series (including 100, Airy, 4D, OMEGA, DYNAMIC, and ASTRO) features a groundbreaking carbon cantilever for the first time in a moving coil cartridge. The carbon rod is made of 1000 pieces of carbon fiber composite, which earned it the name C-1000 Carbon Cantilever.
This composite carbon fiber is stiffer than aluminum, iron, and titanium, and its specific gravity is half that of boron. This makes the C-1000 Carbon Cantilever an ideal material for analog record playback. It offers the widest frequency range and excellent tracking performance.
In addition, the mechanical sound signal picked up by the stylus is passed directly to the reel through the 1000 mechanical carbon conductors, ensuring that there are no reflected, repeated, or modulated mechanical sound signals.
Cartridge Case for REAL STEREO
The initial design particulars of the Astro place complex requirements on the electrical characteristics of the cartridge housing. To meet these requirements and prevent external noise from affecting the generator system and eddy currents in the enclosure from affecting the generator output signal, ZYX implements a non-metallic enclosure with two types of hard materials. This design also minimizes resonance on the surfaces of the enclosure.
Super High-Speed Reproduction Engine
This circuit is specially designed to minimize the magnetic resistance in the magnetic gap, allowing high-speed current generation without time delay over the entire bandwidth. It also effectively eliminates residual eddy currents.
Micro Ridge Stylus
In the Ultimate Series stylus, the edges of the diamond shaft are parallel to the sides of the cantilever, aligning it to the hardest axis of the crystal to serve as a contact point with the record groove, resulting in stable and smooth scanning and refined sound. It also extends the life of the needle to 2000 hours. The stylus is a micro-ridge type originally developed in Japan, offering top performance with a contact radius of 3 μm provided by a 6 μm thick ridge.
Pure 6N OFC Crystal Copper Wire Generator Coils
This crystal copper wire, manufactured in a special process, ensures a uniform sound balance over the entire listening range.
As usual, here are some of the reference music albums that highlight the qualities of the Ultimate Exceed ASTRO.
Alice Clark – Alice Clark
Alice Clark’s self-titled album is one of those rare gems that doesn’t appear on the usual radar. It’s also obscure because Clark only released this album and a few singles and then completely retired from the music scene.
ZYX Ultimate Exceed ASTRO not only presented an electrifying rendition of the album’s remarkable fusion of soul, jazz, and R&B but also provided a powerful emotionally charged, heartfelt, and enchanting vocal performance.
Ultimate Ultimate Exceed ASTROs potency allows listeners to connect with the heartbeat of each track, tracking a tight rhythm and fast tempo, bringing out every note, beat, and chord with unique clarity and also devising a handful of moments that send shivers down the spine.
From the soulful melodies of “Don’t You Care” to the contagious energy of “It Takes Too Long,” ZYX flagship cartridge depicted Alice Clark with exquisite allure and appeal.
Lightnin’ Hopkins – Penitentiary Blues
ZYX Ultimate Exceed ASTRO revealed and cemented its qualities with another musical gem, the timeless “Lightnin’ Hopkins Penitentiary Blues,” where the Japanese cartridge captured unadulterated, raw Delta blues with an impressively high level of sonic nodes and focal points that go far beyond the basics.
It’s not easy to fully convey the haunting rawness of Hopkins’ guitar playing, and the same goes for the weathered, gravelly vocals, along with an almost eerie atmosphere, perfectly capturing the aura of the time.
Ultimate Exceed ASTRO verified its distinctive qualities with the impressively vivid projection of the legendary Texas bluesman’s intimate world, profoundly revealing deeply etched life hardship and emotional struggles.
The ZYX top-tier cartridge delivers a no-nonsense, non-fragmented harmonic richness of Penitentiary Blues that seamlessly carries on Hopkins’ musical brilliance. A distinctive quality that alone deserves the high praise.
The New York Concert – Evgeny Kissin & Emerson String Quartet, Mozart – Fauré – Dvorák
The juxtaposition of The New York Concert’s sheer drama and feathery, flowing playfulness demands more than the usual cartridge qualities.
It was utterly entrancing to observe how seamlessly the ZYX Ultimate Exceed ASTRO cartridge handled the flow of the various timelines without the musical narrative breaking apart.
Particularly on The New York Concert, particular low frequencies modulate or cancel out certain mid and high frequencies, and intermodulation distortion is easier than usual to spot. As with other highly demanding tasks, the Ultimate Exceed ASTRO navigated through the works of Mozart, Fauré, and Dvorák with an ethereal weightlessness, effortlessly encompassing a fabric of musical energy.
The top-of-the-line ZYX cartridge handled the speed and pace for which ZYX cartridges are so well-known masterfully. It kept the tempo constant, and responded to minute changes with lightning swiftness, splendidly adopting both precision and a remarkable sense of the music’s vibrancy, resonating closely with the Emerson String Quartet on both the micro and macro levels while embracing the natural openness and musical expanse, always in tune with reality while pushing the boundaries of usual expectations.
High-end audio cartridges are by definition ignite marmite reactions, which are related to different sonic orientations and voicings, exotic materials, and last but not least the prices, making a lot of high-end audio aficionados and music lovers ambivalent about them.
With high-end audio cartridges, it’s all about the diversity of materials, approaches, and technical possibilities. All these factors contribute to the final sound to some extent but undoubtedly form their sonic leitmotif.
As might be expected, the fragility of these devices makes them very sensitive to the slightest changes, which are influenced by numerous factors.
I always emphasize that the analog front end begins and ends with the pickup. The rest of the analog equipment must be as transparent as possible because no matter how sophisticated, elaborate, or refined, each pickup determines not only the timbre, tone, and color, but also the flow of the music. Some analog aficionados feel that infinite resolution is different from digital, especially in the way it handles stepping and what lies between the ones and zeros.
The Japanese art of designing and manufacturing analog micromachines in miniaturized form is preceded by an undisputed reputation and ZYX continues this legacy.
Like all other ZYX cartridges, the Ultimate Exceed ASTRO is not just another product with assumptions based on probabilities but is designed from the ground up not to be limited in any way.
When I reviewed the ZYX ASTRO X, it offered extremely precise timing that was distinctly different from the digital domain and, more importantly, from other pickups.
The ZYX Ultimate Exceed ASTRO builds on these fundamentals and allows for an entirely new, previously unexplored sonic variety that further explores the vast pool of information hidden in the black grooves that always seems to remain partially undiscovered.
The Ultimate Exceed models bring the listener even closer to the real live music event, offering a special kind of organicity across the complete frequency spectrum. It functions with a kind of zen and glacier-like quality that never ventures into brittle territory while maintaining the weight in the mids and focused lower register foundation. Without a certain amount of focus, the naturally distributed frequencies just do not work, but Ultimate Ultimate Exceed ASTRO expands with exemplary frequency equilibrium.
Everything starts to make sense musically within the first few notes, and the continuous stream of music that unites the best threads of music continues from album to album, from track to track.
The Ultimate Exceed ASTRO invites the listener to immerse in the world of emotion, demonstrating with a unique reflexive acuity what a powerful reservoir any well-recorded and pressed vinyl possesses. It effortlessly gives momentum to music and provides crystal clear, true-to-source, extremely dynamic reproduction.
The Ultimate Exceed ASTRO has the uncommon ability to convey a powerful convergence of phrase-by-phrase dynamics, and reality-based voice and instrument quality that can instantly evoke deep emotional bonds.
The Ultimate Exceed ASTRO does music justice and makes it an integral part of the listening experience. Not something that can be linked even to more expensive cartridges. It simply delivers music reproduction that is more refined and informed.
ZYX flagship cartridge offers one of the most stress-free and transparent analog reproductions I have ever experienced, by delivering music without compromising the integrated nuances of the audio signal.
High-quality cartridges will never become obsolete, no matter how many attempts are made to cheapen or simplify them by all means, or to bring them into the realm of convenience. The convenience of replacing the first-hand experience will not go away, and ZYX makes a super compelling case for it.
ZYX Ultimate Exceed ASTRO is not just another expensive, exotic Japanese product, but a top-notch, savvy, well-versed high-end audio cartridge with a unique and refined way of delivering unadulterated musical information that instantly ignites the allure of vinyl exuberance and reveals the music in all its variations, articulations, and in a way that gets everything just right.
For the way the ZYX Ultimate Exceed ASTRO cartridge exceptionally tracks, captures, and transcodes the infinitely diverse, vast, and varied musical material captured in the grooves of records, I’m pleased to present it with the 2023 Mono & Stereo Editors Choice Award.
The review sample was kindly provided by SORAsound, the exclusive North American distributor for ZYX Co. products. ❖
- “REAL STEREO” Generator System
- Type Moving Coil (Dynamic)
- Cryogenic Treatment Temperature: -196 ℃ (-320оF)
- Coil Wire X type
- GS type
- X:6N Crystal Copper φ 0.035mm
- GS:Gold – Silver φ 0.035mm
- Output Voltage 0.24mV (3.54cm/sec, 1kHz)
- Frequency Response
- ±1dB 10 Hz – 100 kHz
- 20 Hz – 20 kHz
- Channel Separation ＞ 30dB 〔 1kHz 〕
- Channel Balance ＜ 0.5dB 〔 1kHz 〕
- Recommended Tracking Force 2.0gm 〔 20 ゜C-25 ゜C 〕
- Tracking Force Range 1.7gm – 2.5gm
- Trackability ＞60μm /2.0gm
- EQ Compliance horizontal 15×10-6cm/dyne
- vertical 12×10-6cm/dyne
- Internal Impedance X:4.0 Ω GS:24.0 Ω
- Load Impedance ＞ 100Ω
- 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)
MuSon Project, Inc.