If you’re a regular reader you probably know how often I find my audio priorities the same as the artisans of the Japanese high-end audio community. Their handiwork or better yet, their art, often seems unconventional to those who engineer audio equipment to meet specs. This alignment of priorities has been especially true for amps and preamps, but so far the only phono cartridge from one of the Japanese artisans that has stolen my heart has been Takeda’s Miyabi Standard. So it has been with great anticipation that I have waited for the arrival of ZYX’s 4D-G-SB2. The G stands for gold, and the SB2 for the newest silver mounting plate. ZYX 4D -G -SB2 is way too long to write or read every time I use it in this article, so from this point on I’ll just refer to it as the 4D.
Design and Description
The artisan and chief designer of ZYX phono cartridges is Count Hisayoshi Nakatsuka. Unlike the artisans of Shindo, Audio Note, Kondo, Koetsu, or Miyabi, Nakatsuka seems to be more into modern scientific design and materials. One of his major design goals is the elimination of what he refers to as “time distortion.” This is probably why ZYX refers to their cartridge motor system as “real stereo.”
ZYX is also the first cartridge builder that I have known to be into the cryogenic treatment of the different components of their cartridges. Another area where Nakatsuka uses modern materials instead of those popular with most of the artisan designers is in his choice of material for his cartridge bodies. Instead of exotic woods or stones, he uses acrylic for the cartridge bodies, and says the less that is used the better they sound.
Setup and Use
I ran the 4D straight into the Shindo Masseto’s built-in step up transformer and into the Auditorium 23 step up transformer connected to the moving magnet input of the Masseto. I found it to sound its best with the Masseto’s built-in transformer. I also found the 4D to track and work wonderfully with my Carbon Fiber Satisfy tonearm mounted on the Clearaudio Wood Anniversary CMB turntable. The 4D was very straightforward to mount and fine-tune. ZYX recommended a 2-gram tracking force, and I started with that, but found 2.2g to be perfect in my system.
The rest of the reference system the 4D was played in consisted of a Wavac EC300B amp powering a pair of Teresonic Ingenium Silver speakers, using Lowther DX4 Silver drivers. I used Teresonic’s Clarison 24-Carat Gold interconnects and the Clarison copper speaker wire, and Shindo power cords. For power conditioning I used the Audience aR6p-T.
Phono cartridges play a very special role in the audio chain. Unlike a tape head, or the laser in a digital transport, or a hard drive, or most especially a solid-state hard drive, phono cartridges are both mechanical and electrical devices. They have to accurately drive through terrain that’s curvy, bumpy, and mountainous. Sure, a VW Bug or a Toyota Camry could get you across those curvy mountains, but it takes a car like a Jeep or a Land Rover to let you track the road accurately. Now imagine if that Land Rover was attached to a high tech, maybe even a ruby, telephone pole that has to vibrate between magnets and coils, to mechanically produce an electrical signal that eventually produces music. To make this even more difficult, the entire vehicle is driven by a pole that is hundreds of time longer and heavier that is the tonearm. When you think about all this, it’s a miracle that analogue sounds so good.
The reason I shared all this is to make you consider how different the mechanical and electrical interaction of a phono cartridge is in the audio chain than any other piece of equipment. The interaction between the tonearm and cartridge affects everything about the sound. Then there is the turntable that the record turns on, and for factors no one complete understands and I have no trouble hearing, it affects the sound of the cartridge even more. Then last, but certainly not least is the interaction between the cartridge and the phono preamp and/or the step-up transformer. I’ve gone a long way to make the point that it is very difficult for me to know how a phono cartridge will sound in any given systems. The best I can do is tell you how it sounds in my system compared to other cartridges. So let’s start by talking about how the 4D plays the midrange.
I’ll start with the midrange, because for me if there are not huge flaws in the frequency extremes the midrange is what makes or breaks it for any piece of high-end audio gear. The 4D is to phono cartridges what the Vacuum State Electronics RTP3D is to preamps. In my review of this $20,000 preamp I said, “It’s not just a tube preamp that isn’t overly warm and lush and of course it’s not a transistor preamp that sounds like tubes. No it’s a tube preamp that combines almost all the qualities of the best transistor preamps.” I found the RTP3D to be the most tonally neutral preamp I had ever heard, and the same can be said of this ZYX phono cartridge.The midrange was very transparent and clear. Voices and instruments are right there in the room with you. They are tightly focused, articulate, and never etched-sounding.
The timbre and tonality of instruments is just so correct. The transient speed of the midrange is amazing. Still, in the end just like with the RTP3D preamp I prefer more bloom in the midrange. Allen Wright is quick to tell me that my beloved Shindo preamp is adding that bloom, and I expect Mr. Nakatsuka would say the same thing about the Miyabi or the Benz Ebony TR. They may both be correct, and anyway my job is not to tell you which one I like as much as opposed to what they sound like. I hope these comparisons make it easier to know how they each sound.
The treble is very extended and at the same time exceptionally smooth. The 4D does an exceptional job of letting you hear the metallic ring of a triangle or the timber of cymbals, still it just doesn’t quite have the air around cymbals, triangles, and strings that I’m used to. In a way, the top-end reminds me of the first time I heard a Shure V15/III mounted in a SME Type V tonearm. That is very extended, capable of retrieving incredible information from the groves, and still somehow as smooth as silk. This may be perfectly accurate, and I know many audiophiles and reviewers who publicly say this is the way the top-end of your system should sound, but I’ll be honest: it’s just a little boring to me.
With the ZYX, the bass of my system sounded very powerful and had a very piston-like drive to it. Neither was it every the least bit boomy. In fact, it was very nimble and controlled. As good as the bass was I still found that it lacked the last word in musical flow. What I missed most notably was some of the texture I get from the recordings using the Miyabi, Benz Ebony TR or the EMT JSD5. The ZYX 4D bass reminded me more of the very elite digital, and I expect for many that would be seen as an improvement.
Soundstaging and Imaging
The 4D spread an impressive soundstage from beyond the sides of each speaker. The depth and height of the soundstage was equally impressive. The scale seemed a little smaller than I am used to, but maybe it is just more precise. Image placement on the soundstage, however, was PRECISE. Overall, I think most audiophiles will be very pleased with the kind of soundstage it can allow your system to produce in your room, if your system is up to it.
Dynamics and Micro-Dynamics
The 4D was as dynamic any cartridge as I have heard in my system. It also seemed to have exceptional micro-dynamics. Yet, something prevented it from having that explosive force of the Miyabi or the complete effortlessness of the Benz Ebony TR.
I can confidently say that the ZYX 4D is the most tonally neutral phono cartridge I’ve had the privilege to hear. I guess for many that qualification in itself is all you need to know about the 4D. If tonal neutrality is your main audio priority then you’re in fine company. While I really understand that, I want more personally. I think I’ve made it quite clear in my reviews that I want that alive-sounding magic that allows listening to recorded music to be fun. In the end, the 4D is as smooth and easy to listen to cartridge as I have heard, but it isn’t the last word in terms of air and bloom. Perhaps in high-end audio, as in life, perfection is unattainable.
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