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ZYX Omega-S Cartridge Review

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ZYX OmegaS CartridgeOne of the earliest recollections of my childhood has to do with a red and white portable record player and a bag of steel needles. I used to play my 45’s on that record player. There was nothing cooler than sitting on the front porch on a hot summer’s day and playing the Beatle’s “I Feel Fine” on that record player, as I stared mesmerized by the Capital swirl label. I recall being instructed by my father that when it didn’t sound right, it meant it was time to get a new needle out of the bag and change the needle. This was the beginning of what was to become a fascination or perhaps even obsession with phono cartridges, styli, and turntables. In fact, I cannot recall a single moment in my adult life when I owned merely one phono cartridge. Today, even after thinning the herd a bit this past year, I still have a stable of six or seven cartridges and four tonearms / wands to swap in and out of my system.

You may think that ZYX is this brave new phono cartridge manufacturer, but its founder and chief designer, Hisayoshi Nakatsuka, is far from being a newcomer. In fact, he has probably been responsible for some of the most highly regarded and famous moving coil cartridges ever made. As lead designer for Ortofon in the 70’s, his design patents range from coil winding configurations to stylus suspensions and assemblies. After his Ortofon stint, he hung his hat at the largest OEM supplier of motors, coils, and stylus assemblies, Namiki Precision Jewel Co. Later, after Namiki changed their business to concentrate more on the design and manufacture of specialized industrial motors (probably a move necessitated by the advent of CD and the need for self-preservation), Nakatsuka left and founded his own cartridge manufacturing company, ZYX.

In the late 70’s and for most of the 80’s and 90’s, Nakatsuka-San designs can be spotted in the form of the famed trio (pun intended) of Accuphase cartridges and the very closely related Monster Cable cartridges, just to name a few. To my ears, there are at least two other highly regarded lines that he likely penned as well, but I have never been able to confirm that as fact.

Back in the 1979 summer CES, I was first introduced to a Hisayoshi Nakatsuka-designed phono cartridge, the Accuphase AC-1. I really didn’t understand at the time the whole nonsense of low output, low impedance cartridges and step-up transformers. However, what I did know was that even though the Accuphase was no Shure V15 or ADC XLM when it came to tracking ability, it sure as heck sounded great. In fact, it even sounded better than any of the Grados and Grado Signatures that I had heard, simply because it sounded more “real”.

Since it was well beyond my means back then, I merely admired the Accuphase from afar. Many many years afterward, when I had the means and desire to have a cartridge of the caliber of the AC-1 well after they had disappeared from the marketplace, I aimlessly stumbled through a veritable who’s who of phono cartridges, such as a Koetsu, several wood-bodied Grados, a few wood-bodied Benz’s, and a host of other moving iron and moving coil cartridges of all vintages and walks of life. The list goes on and on. Meanwhile, I found myself climbing up the pecking order in the MartinLogan electrostatic speakers line and becoming more and more frustrated with the endless parade of poor-tracking and highly colored phono cartridges making their way through my system. You see, I’ve got this thing about transducers. In my book, they need to be absolutely neutral and as low in distortions as possible. Any embellishment or color in my system needs to be present in the source material. Otherwise, I don’t want to hear it. This is my way of ensuring that the system is not “voiced” for any single particular type or genre of music. I would rather it have the ability to competently reproduce all music equally well.

I eventually came to be reacquainted with the Accuphase line of cartridges and in fact, even sourced a “New-Old-Stock” Accuphase AC-3 which to this day remains as my reference cartridge.

So by now you are probably wondering, “What the heck does all of this have to do with the ZYX Omega-S”? In a word, everything. The latest ZYX 4D phono cartridge line debuted in 2007, and the Omega models are a part of this line of cartridges. In fact, the Omega’s are the latest and indeed a culmination of over 30 years in design and engineering by Hisayoshi Nakatsuka.

As has been his M.O. for most of his design career, the Omega-S sports a non-resonant outer structure, boron cantilever rod with a Micro-Ridge stylus. What sets the Omega apart are the enhancements to his standard formula.

The latest philosophy of ‘Real Stereo” as envisioned by Nakatsuka dictates changes in all aspects of the design and construction. This new 4D line of cartridges sport a unique patented coil winding scheme that is said to preserve temporal accuracy (the “Z” time dimension) as well as Y (amplitude), and the X (frequency bandwidth) properties of the sound. There are also upgraded materials such as coils that are wound with cryogenically-treated silver wire, output terminals that are now gold plated, and a platform plate that is silver in lieu of the usual machined aluminum. The non-resonant polycarbonate body is no longer an actual body, but rather a frame. The generator and coil wires are actually exposed as is the case with “nude” cartridges. Of course, there is also this unmistakable protrusion to the front of the cartridge in the form of a 1 gram sphere of lapis lazuli that acts as a concentrator and “drain” of any unwanted resonances. Yes indeed, this is one different animal.

The Dating Game

Extracting the cartridge’s true sonic qualities and obtaining the best possible performance levels requires that it be mated with the a tonearm that matches the cartridge requirements and can therefore work together as a playback system without compromise. With many cartridges, it’s a numbers game. Does the mass of the cartridge fall within (preferably somewhere in the center) the dynamic balancing range of the tonearm? Does the cantilever’s suspension compliance (horizontal and vertical) fall within the recommended frequency range and amplitude of the tonearm so that the resonance frequency and amplitude result are at an acceptable frequency and low amplitude? Some tonearms do not even offer this specification.

Of course, in many instances, you will have no choice in these matters, so you will need to carefully match any cartridge you buy, with the tonearm that you already have. Therefore by sheer necessity, these questions need to be asked prior to considering the purchase of a phono cartridge. After all, why would you want to buy a cartridge that will sound well below its optimum in your record playback system? If you don’t put together a turntable / tonearm / phono cartridge playback system that works well together, then you will be greatly disappointed with the results.

For me it’s usually a simple numbers game. I have all of the relevant specifications I need in order to match a phono cartridge to a tonearm wand. My vintage tonearm system has 4 different tapered titanium tonearm wands of various masses and resonance characteristics. So it’s typically not too difficult at all to get a good match on the first try as long as the cartridge manufacturer is detailed enough to provide relevant specifications. Thankfully, ZYX supplies all that is needed in those terms to get the tonearm and cartridge matched correctly …and then there is the Omega-S.

A Marriage of Inconvenience

As I mentioned, this cartridge is indeed a different animal. The standard ZYX 4D cartridge starts off at a svelte 4.0 grams of mass. A real lightweight as MC’s go. The horizontal and vertical compliance of 15 and 12 respectively points this cartridge firmly as a candidate for matching up with a relatively “normal” medium mass tonearm. However, a silver platform plate has been added to the Omega-S which raises the mass of this cartridge to a rather portly 7.9 grams. If that weren’t enough, a 1 gram boulder of Lapis Lazuli is attached squarely on the front of the cartridge and a Sapphire terminal plate at the rear to make it a total of 8.9 grams of mass! All of a sudden, this cartridge is now outside of the normal operating range of many, many tonearms. After a bit of experimentation with both the medium mass and super heavyweight mass tonearm wands in my tonearm system, it became obvious almost instantly that the Omega-S requires a tonearm of very high mass.

Listening to this cartridge perform on a tonearm of 10 grams of effective mass (medium), was disconcerting, the sound lacked body and impact. In other words, it was anemic and thin. However, mount this cartridge on a heavy beast of a tonearm, in the case of my reference A501G 15 grams, and you have unleashed a cartridge that couldn’t be more opposite in sonics than that anemic weakling experienced earlier. More about that, in a minute…

The Set-up & Break-in

Installing the ZXY Omega-S onto a tonearm wand is very straight-forward as was setting up proper overhang, VTA, and SRA. As a 50-year old with marginal eyesight for such detail, I depend heavily on digital macro photography, a printer, and drafting compass as additions to the usual cartridge set-up arsenal. (You look considerably younger than me. –Ed.)

As far as cartridge loading is concerned, the basic rule that I use is that I initially apply impedance load as recommended by the manufacturer. If the specification is in the form of range or a “greater than” or “less than “ kind of specification, I just choose what’s within that spec. I follow the same rule with Vertical Tracking Force (VTF). There really is no sense in trying to tweak the cartridge to anything prior to a proper break-in.

In my experience, the break-in period for a phono cartridge can vary greatly. Cartridges from the same manufacturer tend to follow the same course as far as what should be expected during break-in and how many hours a cartridge needs to be played before it is truly sounding at its optimum. This is because the length of the break-in period is largely dependent upon the materials employed in the cartridge that are equivalent throughout the cartridge line, such as cantilever suspension materials, coil wires, etc.. In my experience, the break-in period for a Nakatsuka-designed cartridge is both lengthy as well as a bit of a rough road.

Fresh out of the box, the Omega-S gave very little indication of its true nature. There’s no sense in getting into the graphic details of what it sounded like. However, I can summarize by saying that its linearity in terms of frequency response was immediately evident but the imaging was relatively flat, tonality was dry and somewhat forward, and in terms of timing and pace the sound was somewhat lifeless. As I said, this is normal.

The Method

After just 15 or so hours of play time, you already get somewhat of a sense that there is something very special going on with this cartridge. However, in order to avoid any pre-conceptions, I did not begin official observations until burning through 150 sides, roughly 40 hours of play time. Note: Cartridge break-in duty is the fate that befalls any vinyl records I purchase that turn out to be duds! Obviously, it’s a slow process since it is all done in real time.

Once I determined that the Omega-S was sufficiently broken-in, I went back to square one (well, sort of). Since one of the reasons for the break-in process is to allow the cantilever’s suspension to loosen up and settle in, the result is that the stylus will need to be re-checked for overhang, VTA, and SRA. So I get out the ole digital camera and repeat the set-up process and tweak everything up as needed.

The final step in the set-up process is that of optimizing the response and signature of the cartridge through cartridge loading. In my particular case, the phono stage I currently have on hand is not very flexible when it comes to impedance adjustments. Through listening trials, I came to the conclusion that the optimal impedance setting is likely around 2,000 ohms which was also the case with my Accuphase. Unfortunately, the ASR has a 475 and a 47,000 ohm setting and nothing in between. I settled on the 475 ohm for purposes of this review.

The Sound

From the moment stylus touched record in my first true listening session with the optimized and broken-in ZYX Omega-S, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

I have a very specific group of LP’s that I use as my reference when I want to put a phono playback system through the ringer. Luckily, I not only enjoy these albums musically, but I also had the presence of mind to buy several back-ups whenever possible. That said, my general impression of the Omega-S is that it presents a beautifully graphic, detailed, and finely nuanced image like no other cartridge I have ever encountered. It portrays refinement and delicacy when the musical selection calls for such finesse. However, things immediately change when called upon to rock out.

One of 70’s most progressive of prog rock bands, Gentle Giant, produced a suite of albums that were both musically genius and extremely well recorded, but were also, it seems almost intentionally so, nearly impossible to track cleanly the closer you get to the inner grooves. For instance, in playing the highly demanding “The Boys in the Band”, the first track on Side 2 of the record Octopus, you become intensely aware of the weight, ambient surroundings, and the textural sounds of the coin spin and ensuing explosion of a lively jazz-rock instrumental.

The last innermost tracks of side 1, “River”, and of side 2 “Knots”, an homage to RD Laing, are musically wonderful but are jam packed with musical density that in the very worst cases cause cartridges to hop or skip the demanding grooves. As I was soon to discover, these posed no threat at all to the musical and tracking prowess of the ZYX Omega-S. The mix of voice, xylophone, and violin in the song “Knots” enables the ZYX Omega-S to showcase its talents in portraying the raw energy this cartridge can unleash at a moment’s notice. However, this raw energy is only surpassed by the cartridge’s seemingly unlimited low-level detail retrieval and tracking capability. I never thought that I would find a moving coil that could ever equal the tracking talents of my Accuphase AC-3. In the case of the Omega-S, it has been surpassed quite handily.

In fact, what I find is that not only will the Omega-S out-track any moving coil, moving iron or moving magnet cartridge I have ever heard, but it will do so at such low distortion levels that you could easily feel like you are hearing a recording for the very first time. For instance, on several tracks of this LP, the ZYX made me keenly aware that most of the tracks on this record were mutli-tracked in sections and some in small sound booths. The low-level detail information the ZYX extracted from the grooves in the record enabled me for the first time to hear the walls and relative close quarters in which each instrument was recorded. Yes, for the sake of enjoying the music, this new-found detail and nuance in the recordings was actually distracting. However, I came to appreciate the entirely new experience of hearing this record as well as many other recordings with the many musical instruments and associated ambient information laid bare for the first time.

Next came Gentle Giant’s In a Glass House. The inner tracks “Way of Life” and “In a Glass House”, as well as “A Reunion”, are noteworthy in the way they are portrayed by the ZYX. This cartridge generates an extremely convincing image, sound, and weight of a piano. Again, the Omega-S reigned supreme as it played through this highly dynamic recording as no other cartridge I have ever encountered. In fact, I can honestly say that the combination of this cartridge along with a cable system that I am currently evaluating, due to a newfound “black” background, allowed details to emerge from this particular pressing that had been masked in the noise floor and tracking distortion, even when compared to my reference Accuphase AC-3. An astonishing accomplishment.

Switching gears, I moved on to a favorite old recording that’s mostly “live in the studio” by Ronnie Lane and Pete Townsend, Rough Mix. This recording is about as unembellished, honest, and tonally true as they come. The ZYX is tasked with reproducing the fairly difficult intonations of Pete’s closely-miked voice in “Street in the City”, and “Misunderstood” without letting errant resonances and tracking difficulties get in the way of the performance. The Omega-S captures Peter’s voice beautifully without any trace of honkiness, midbass hangover, or in another extreme, dryness, that afflicts most cartridge/tonearm combos when playing this track. Again, in this song and in others such as “Street in the City” and “Til the Rivers All Run Dry”, the ZYX Omega-S allows the music to flow without effort and with an astonishing amount of detail and ambient information. The sheer size and clarity of the images I was hearing from this record contributed to a “you are there” factor that quite frankly never encountered before with a mainstream studio recording. Again with this record, the Omega-S sets a new standard in imaging, detail, and tonality in my vinyl playback system. To my ears, this record has never been better served than by this cartridge.

The fourth record in my cartridge testing arsenal is a compilation album from the 80’s Jazz/Prog-Rock band Brand X, Do they Hurt? This is an album that included pieces of music that are cherry-picked from their body of work. The recording and quality of the pressing are absolutely first rate. This is yet another one of those records that plays well into the ambient music realm with chimes, cymbals, and other percussion instruments placed well to the rear and broadly throughout the width of the soundspace. Of course, there are also very swift and sudden explosions of densely recorded grooves of jazz-rock here as well. Here the Omega-S once again sets itself apart with very generous amounts of low-level detail retrieval and gobs of ambient information that allows it to produce a very dynamic, focused, 3D image of a band.

The final three records in the arsenal are Ricki Lee Jones’ self-titled debut album, Janis Ian’s Breaking Silence and Patricia Barber’s live album, Companion. The three very different vocal ranges of these three female voices are each difficult to manage by many well-regarded phono cartridges. The Omega-S handled these records beautifully. Janis’ voice can be peaky and overly sibilant when cartridge’s can’t handle it, Ricki’s voice can be a bit hard and strained when cartridges have trouble with her voice, and Patricia Barber’s voice can get overly husky and downright honky when there are resonance problems anywhere in the playback system, or if the cartridge adds some artificial warmth characteristic. The ZYX Omega-S gets it right! No caveats, period.

Summing it all up

I’ve listened to more vinyl in the past month than I had in the previous six months. It’s not too difficult to glean from this essay that I really dig this phono cartridge, and just as important is the fact that my current phono playback systems digs it as well. This is actually the most important take-away from this review. The ZYX Omega-S is indeed a stellar example of edge-of-the-art phono cartridge design and the results are phenomenal. However, it requires lots of patience during the break-in process, and it requires a very specific type of tonearm in order to attain this performance level. Thankfully, the market is currently blessed with a wide assortment of high mass tonearms that will likely fit the bill quite nicely. Kudos to ZYX and to Hisayoshi Nakatsuka. There is finally no reason for concern when my Accuphase AC-3 wears out.

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