ZYX UNIverse Premium/SME 3012-R vs. Ortofon Anna/Graham Phantom Elite

Our Senior Contributing Reviewer Ron Resnick compares ZYX UNIverse Premium/SME 3012-R and Ortofon Anna/Graham Phantom Elite. Enjoy…
I compared the ZYX UNIverse Premium, mounted on a SME 3012-R tonearm, and an Ortofon Anna, mounted on a Graham Phantom Elite tonearm.  The ZYX UNIverse Premium and the Ortofon Anna are two very highly regarded, top-of-the-line cartridges available today.
The ZYX UNIverse Premium range is a little complicated with, according to the ZYX website, three coil wire options (copper (X type), silver (S type) and gold (G type)) and three weight options (standard, SB which adds 4.2 grams and SB2 which adds 4.0 grams).

The cartridge I listened to has the copper coil wire with the SB2 weight, so it is the ZYX UNIverse Premium-X SB2.


The dedicated listening room of Steve Williams, of WhatsBestForum.com, is approximately 15’ wide and 20’ long, with a 9’ high ceiling.  The room was measured and fully acoustically-treated by Bonnie Schnitta of SoundSense, an acoustics analysis and design firm.  Drapes lined with Lumitex, a proprietary acoustic material from SoundSense, adorn all four walls of the room.  A layer of NoiseOut, another proprietary material from SoundSense, lies beneath the wall-to-wall carpet.
Both tonearm/cartridge combinations are mounted on a TechDAS Air Force One carrying the Duralumin platter.  Wilson Audio X-2 Series 2 speakers are driven by all Lamm electronics:  the LL1 Signature line preamplifier, the LP1 Signature phono preamplifer and the ML3 Signature monoblock power amplifiers.   (With 11 black boxes glowing with tubes the room looks like a Lamm showroom.)  The Wilsons are supplemented with a pair of JL Audio F113 subwoofers.  The Air Force One sits atop a heavy Critical Mass Systems rack.
I have never before heard either of the cartridges under review.  To help calibrate you to my listening preferences on cartridges I want you to know that for the last 16 years I have used a Benz-Micro Ruby II, mounted on a Graham 2.2 tonearm on a VPI TNT Mk. IV turntable.  I have always liked the Ruby II because I find it to have a slightly warm tonal balance, with a rich midrange which makes vocals sound real, and it has nothing bright going on up top (some would say it is rolled off on top).
The output of the UNIverse is .25 mv.  The output of the Anna is .20 mv.  (My Aesthetix Io might be up to the task of amplifying the UNIverse without too much tube noise, but it would be a big risk, while the Anna is out of the question.)
During the listening session we did not touch VTA, tracking force, cartridge loading or anything else.  I am a “set and forget” record-player operator.  I want to listen to music, not stress over VTA.


We played:
“Send in the Clowns” by Bill Henderson, Live at the Times (Jazz Planet Records/Classic Records)
“Amanda” by Amanda McBroom, Growing Up in Hollywood Town (Sheffield Lab 13)
”I’ve Got the Music in Me” by Thelma Houston, I’ve Got the Music in Me (Sheffield Lab 2)
“Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley, Grace
Steve graciously handled all of the disc jockey duties.  We both did our best to prevent me from knowing which tonearm/cartridge combination was playing at any particular time.  This quasi-blind effort was made more difficult by the higher output of the ZYX which required Steve to turn the line stage down by five or six steps (approximately 1.5 dB to 1.8 dB) compared to the line stage setting for the Anna.  But we really did our best to equalize by ear the volume each time the needle dropped.
We played each audition track twice, once by each tonearm/cartridge combination, one after the other.


Starting with “Send in the Clowns” the neutrality and linearity and frequency extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum of the Ortofon Anna were immediately apparent.  The Anna is a very precise and even and “clean-sounding” cartridge.  It may or may not do everything right, depending on your sonic preferences, but it certainly does not do anything wrong.
I do not think that the Anna emphasizes one frequency range over other frequency ranges.  This is not “code” for implying that the Anna is bright.  I am very sensitive to brightness emanating from anywhere in a stereo system.  I definitely would not categorize the Anna as “bright.”  (I do categorize the Lyra Atlas as “bright.”)  If I found the Anna to be bright in any way I would not like it at all.  The Anna is a modern cartridge in the sense that is it not rolled off in the highs and soft in the lows, with an emphasized midrange.
The Anna has a slightly lighter tonal balance than does the ZYX, and the ZYX has a slightly darker tonal balance the Anna.  Is the Anna neutral and the ZYX is a bit darker than neutral?  Or is the ZYX neutral and the Anna is slightly lighter than neutral?  I have no idea, and there is no way to tell.  But I can report that — one cartridge relative to the other — the ZXY definitely has a slightly warmer tonal balance than the Anna.  The ZYX has a noticeably richer sound than the Anna.  Steve agrees with all of these observations and says that he hears from the ZYX “ a little more meat on the bones” than he hears from the Anna.  I agree with his comment.
The Anna made Amanda McBroom’s voice sound a few years younger than her voice sounded when played by the ZYX.  Amanda’s voice sounded deeper on the ZYX.  The ZYX made all voices sounded richer and fuller.  I heard a little bit more sibilance on vocals from the Anna than I did from the ZYX.
If the Anna was flatter and more neutral than the ZYX, then in what way was the ZYX not as flat and not as neutral?  With the ZYX was the midrange neutral and the base and treble recessed, or was the bass and treble neutral and the midrange emphasized?   I could not tell.
Compared to the ZYX the Anna sounded a little bit “faster” and a little bit more detailed.  I am not sure but I think on “Send in the Clowns” and “I’ve Got the Music In Me” the Anna sounded a smidgen more transparent than the ZYX.  But it might just be that the Anna pulls a bit more information out of the grooves and that that extra bit of detail provides the illusion of slightly greater transparency.
On “I’ve Got the Music In Me” I heard from the Anna slightly greater definition and detail on drums than I heard from the ZYX.  The Anna separated out overlapping instruments a little bit better.
The Anna was a little bit more dynamic than the ZYX.  In summary I think the Anna gets a “10” on every one of the usual audiophile “checkboxes.”  I think it is technically a perfect cartridge.  I think the Anna wins the audiophile contest.
But I don’t listen for perfection; I listen for naturalness and the creation of emotional involvement.  In that realm, by that barometer, the ZYX excelled. 
When I asked Steve to play Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” I said:  “Now I’m going to try to listen in a different way.  I’m going to take off my ‘audiophile hat’ and relax and listen purely for emotional involvement.”  I love Jeff Buckley’s performance of “Hallelujah” under any circumstances, but I definitely was more taken in emotionally by the ZYX’s rendering of his voice than I was by the Anna’s interpretation.  With the ZYX Buckley’s voice was richer and a little bit deeper.  His voice was not more transparent, but somehow a bit more “live” and in-the-room sounding.  I found the ZYX to be a little bit more “natural” sounding.
Which cartridge sounds more “accurate”?  I don’t know.  I was not in the recording session when Amanda McBroom sang the song.  I do know that the ZYX made voices sound a smidgen more in-the-room and real.
With all of these observations now offered, how do I know that the sonic characteristics I am attributing to each cartridge are due to the cartridges themselves and not to the different tonearms on which they are mounted?  The answer is we do not know.
Neither Steve nor I is a practitioner of the black art of cartridge alignment, and there was no way we were going to swap each cartridge onto the other tonearm (both of which were mounted by David Karmeli, who is an expert in the black art of turntable and cartridge set-up.)  So the honest fact is that we do not know if these differences are due to the cartridge or to the arm or to the combination thereof.
However, I think that the tonal balance differences, at least, are due to the cartridges.  Perhaps the slightly greater detail I heard from the Anna is due to the Anna itself as well as to the differences between the Phantom Elite — a contemporary design, and the 3012-R — a vintage design.


I like both of these cartridges very much.  I could live very happily with either of them.  I think Steve was thoughtful and savvy in picking these two extremely likeable cartridges for his vinyl stable.
Which cartridge is better for you is purely a question of personal and subjective preference.  Questions of component balancing to achieve a certain overall system sound aside, if you are someone who likes solid-state electronics you probably would prefer the Anna.  If you are someone who likes tube electronics you probably would prefer the XYZ. 
The Anna has a more of a solid-state tonal balance (and I mean good solid-state — not edgy, hyper-detailed solid-state) and the ZYX has more of a tube tonal balance (and I mean good tube — not rolled off in the highs with a flabby bottom end tube).
People for whom the purpose of high-end audio is to reproduce exactly what is on the master tape I think would prefer the Anna.  People for whom the purpose of high-end audio is to re-create the sound of an original musical event I think would prefer the ZYX.
Let me attempt a rare (for me) sports analogy.   Kristi Yamaguchi was a technically perfect ice figure skater.  Her performances were more “correct,” but her performances were a little emotionless, a little soul-less, a little robotic.  Oksana Baiul, who was not nearly as perfect as Kristi technically, was more enjoyable and pleasurable to watch.
The slightly warmer tonal balance — the extra “meat on the bones” — of the ZYX makes the decision for me.  I like the slightly richer midrange and the more, to me, emotionally involving presentation of the ZYX.  Voices sound to me slightly more natural and more real through the ZYX.   I think the ZYX sounds closer to the Benz-Micro Ruby II than does the Anna.  The Anna is, in audiophile terms, the higher-scoring cartridge technically, but I would choose the ZYX for myself.
Ron ResnickMono and Stereo – Senior Contributing Reviewer