ZYX UNIverse Supreme ll / SME 3012R versus Ortofon Anna /Graham Phantom Elite

Ron Resnick

Site Co-Owner, Administrator
Jan 24, 2015
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THE CONTENDERS

I compared the ZYX UNIverse Supreme ll, 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 Supreme 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 RING

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.


THE MUSIC

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.


OBSERVATIONS

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.


CONCLUSION

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.

PS: Steve's system sounded the best I have ever heard it! I suggested that he not change a thing!
 
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Great read, as always, Ron. What a fun session. I like the figure skating analogy. I remember well the two skaters you mention.

I found the information very interesting. I have been asking a lot about the vintage SME 3012R lately and how it might compare to my more modern SME V-12. Comments have been that the vintage arm sounds more natural, is warmer, smoother and lighter/airier sounding, while the modern arm has more extension, a bigger presentation, and is more precise sounding. Those descriptions seem to correlate more or less with your comments about the different combinations you heard.

When you were listening to the tracks and Steve was playing DJ, did you know which combination you were hearing, or did Steve tell you afterwards? How did that work? Did you form your impressions being unaware of which combination you were hearing or did you know and find that these observations were consistent for all of the music selections? Did one combination sound more the same for all recordings while the other revealed more differences between the recordings? That might speak to transparency.

Also, could you notice any differences in scale, dynamics or extension?

Sounds like another great time at Steve's place. His system must sound wonderful and to think he has just recently jumped back into analog. Incredible.
 
Hi Ron and thanks for spending the day together. It was fun. For me there is more alike with these two cartridges than there is different. I too have made my go to the ZYX on the 3012R. But like you I still have an amazing fondness for the Anna
 
Nice write-up, Ron. I particularly enjoyed the metaphor comparing the carts with the age of McBroom's voice. :b
Much has changed since I've last had the pleasure of visiting Steve...soon, again -- I hope! :cool:
 
nice write up, Ron. I got a real clear sense of what you heard.........how those particular cartridges sounded on those arms. and both sounded very well indeed based on your comments. must have been fun.

I wonder how it would have gone had both cartridges been on the same or more similar sounding arms?

I'm no expert on that particular Graham or that particular SME but do have a sense of the 'family' character of each tone arm and would expect that to be a significant part of the equation of your session. I do know how the MC Anna sounds in my system on my arm.
 
.... and to think he has just recently jumped back into analog.....

With an AirForce One! Now there is a man that doesn't mess around! Congrat's Steve.

Great read Ron, I have a narrowing sense of the differences and the similarities thanks to your excellent description.
 
Great review, Ron - one I really appreciate because I have the Zyx Universe Premium and had wondered what the A95 might be like. I know how the A95 compares to the Anna (at least by reading accounts of those who have compared them) but didn't know how they might compare to my Zyx.

I had thought my Zyx was extremely neutral - and compared to my Dynavector XV-1t it has less warmth. I would have thought the Anna would have more meat on the bones, but I guess I'm wrong - which means I probably wouldn't be interested in any Ortofon since I consider my system to be on the lean side of neutral already.

Great read!
 
I had thought my Zyx was extremely neutral - and compared to my Dynavector XV-1t it has less warmth. I would have thought the Anna would have more meat on the bones, but I guess I'm wrong - which means I probably wouldn't be interested in any Ortofon since I consider my system to be on the lean side of neutral already.

Ian, I would hesitate to make specific conclusions about the Ortofon Anna based on this write up. I'm sure Mike thinks his Anna has plenty of "meat on the bones." The arm (and rest of the system) certainly played a big part of this listening session. I think this is an extremely good account of two specific cartridge/tonearm combinations directly compared to each other in the same excellent system. If one, or both, of these cartridges is fairly transparent and tonally neutral, then Ron's comments say much more about the arms than they do about the cartridges. And, it is not clear to me if the tonearm cable was even the same.

This is great information to add to other impressions one reads about these components, but one should qualify all such comments if the comparison is not direct and isolated in a controlled evaluation. The sense that I have from reading this is that Ron really enjoyed the listening session, that both combinations make great music, and that both Steve and Ron slightly prefer one combination to the other. Oh, and Steve is one lucky guy to own this kit, and Ron is one excellent writer with great observational skills.
 
To Peter, Ian and Mike

I agree about the best comparison is to compare the two cartridges on each arm. Don't get me wrong about the Anna sounding lean. That is not a proper word. I would say it is as neutral as it gets. With the big difference in output volume of the two cartridges we found that in order to compare the two properly I had to turn the preamp down about 7 clicks which is ~2 DB. Once we did that and compared there seemed to be more resonance and timbre with the ZYX. As I said these cartridges I have found have a lot in common rather than striking differences. I am convinced the 3012 is a big factor as well
 
Ian, I would hesitate to make specific conclusions about the Ortofon Anna based on this write up. I'm sure Mike thinks his Anna has plenty of "meat on the bones." The arm (and rest of the system) certainly played a big part of this listening session. I think this is an extremely good account of two specific cartridge/tonearm combinations directly compared to each other in the same excellent system. If one, or both, of these cartridges is fairly transparent and tonally neutral, then Ron's comments say much more about the arms than they do about the cartridges. And, it is not clear to me if the tonearm cable was even the same.

This is great information to add to other impressions one reads about these components, but one should qualify all such comments if the comparison is not direct and isolated in a controlled evaluation. The sense that I have from reading this is that Ron really enjoyed the listening session, that both combinations make great music, and that both Steve and Ron slightly prefer one combination to the other. Oh, and Steve is one lucky guy to own this kit, and Ron is one excellent writer with great observational skills.

+1.

3 recent visitors all commented on how lush and full sounding my MC Anna on the Durand Telos Sapphire tonearm sounded. Jazdoc, David Robinson, and Chad Kassem. and i'm using the new darTZeel NHB-18NS battery powered preamp/phono which is solid state. and solid state amplification too. of course; they were commenting on the total 'system' sound.

you particularly cannot separate the sound of a cartridge from the sound of a tone arm.
 
Mike

you are right on as Ron and I asked our selves each time the effect of each arm as we just didn't know

Lean is a terrible word for the Anna. I fell in love with it last April when I heard it at your house . As I said when you do sound level adjustment for each and then compare they seem to be more similar than different.

For those needing more gain the ZYX would be the way to go . As I said there is almost a 2 DB difference between each
 
Indeed Anna Netrebko's Verdi Vinyl is superb-- re the Cart comments in the (another!) excellent review from our RonR I'd rather go with the Anna myself--

I've owned the A90 (the A's little genes!) and run the Madake and SPUae currently and would suggest if you can put the Anna in say the K4point, Durand or Schroeder --the Anna will come alive

Not fan of the Grahams-and I've heard a few of them in different systems.

Merely my opinion:)

BruceD
 
you particularly cannot separate the sound of a cartridge from the sound of a tone arm.

That is certainly my observation over the many years I have played with vinyl, although in much more modest waters. I'd even go so far as to say the TT wire, and phono match to the wire and cart also matters. In other words - for me at least usually frustratingly :p - it all matters. But boy - what a choice to have to make - hmmm today I feel like some Anna? or some Universe?

I got a very good sense of the cart + arm differences between the two by Ron's excellent write up - nice to see an elegant turn of phrase, well thought out, and well structured. A pleasure to read.

Cheers
 
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Great read, as always, Ron. What a fun session. I like the figure skating analogy. I remember well the two skaters you mention.

I found the information very interesting. I have been asking a lot about the vintage SME 3012R lately and how it might compare to my more modern SME V-12. Comments have been that the vintage arm sounds more natural, is warmer, smoother and lighter/airier sounding, while the modern arm has more extension, a bigger presentation, and is more precise sounding. Those descriptions seem to correlate more or less with your comments about the different combinations you heard.

When you were listening to the tracks and Steve was playing DJ, did you know which combination you were hearing, or did Steve tell you afterwards? How did that work? Did you form your impressions being unaware of which combination you were hearing or did you know and find that these observations were consistent for all of the music selections? Did one combination sound more the same for all recordings while the other revealed more differences between the recordings? That might speak to transparency.

Also, could you notice any differences in scale, dynamics or extension?

Sounds like another great time at Steve's place. His system must sound wonderful and to think he has just recently jumped back into analog. Incredible.

Thank you, Peter!

"Comments have been that the vintage arm sounds more natural, is warmer, smoother and lighter/airier sounding, while the modern arm has more extension, a bigger presentation, and is more precise sounding" would be consistent with my observations, except I did not hear the ZYX/SME to be "lighter/airier" sounding.

We did our best to try to prevent me from knowing which tonearm/cartridge combination was playing at a particular time. Fortunately, once I discerned the differences between the two tonearm/cartridge combinations I found those differences to be consistent and I guessed the correct tonearm/cartridge combination each time thereafter.

I was not aware that one combination sounded more the same for all recordings than the other combination.

I did not notice any difference in scale. I think the Anna/Phantom Elite combination was a little bit more dynamic. I think the Anna was more extended at both ends of the frequency spectrum.
 
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nice write up, Ron. I got a real clear sense of what you heard.........how those particular cartridges sounded on those arms. and both sounded very well indeed based on your comments. must have been fun.

I wonder how it would have gone had both cartridges been on the same or more similar sounding arms?

I'm no expert on that particular Graham or that particular SME but do have a sense of the 'family' character of each tone arm and would expect that to be a significant part of the equation of your session. I do know how the MC Anna sounds in my system on my arm.

I agree that it would have been much more informative and dispositive if we could have compared both cartridges on each tonearm.
 
. . . you particularly cannot separate the sound of a cartridge from the sound of a tone arm.

This is absolutely true. We did the best we could do.

I do think that the tonal balance differences are due, at least in part, to the cartridges. However, if, in fact, the SME 3012-R is a warm-sounding tonearm that certainly could be part of the reason for the richer sound of the SME/ZYX combination. But I think the observations about tonal balance are at least directionally correct.
 
Considering that a fair amount of time would lapse while moving a cartridge to a different arm, arriving at any high-confidence conclusions about the differences in arms might be tough.

Side note: how many of us have been able to notice variations in sound between two samples of the same cartridge?

Lee
 
I know both arms/cartridges, and tt. Elite is game changer tonearm, sme is not. IMHO Zyx uni is a better cartridge then Anna, you should compare both on the Elite. I am not saying Anna is a bad cartridge, but zyx is more natural and more lifelike. Also getting best from elite, you should you use with very good tonearm cable(i am using with nordost odin, and i am very happy).

Zyx uni and Anna are (very) low output cartridges, like you mentioned. I think this kind of cartridges have to be used with step up transformers. With Miyajima Kansui, Phasemation PP-1000 i never get the best of them without sut(used them with asr, burmester, ar ref2 se etc..) when my ypsilon vps-100 and sut's came, then i realized these are very special cartridges. I have no idea about lamm, maybe it is extracting the best of these cartridges, but if you find a chance to listen this cartridges with a proper sut, do not miss :)
 
I know both arms/cartridges, and tt. Elite is game changer tonearm, sme is not. IMHO Zyx uni is a better cartridge then Anna, you should compare both on the Elite. I am not saying Anna is a bad cartridge, but zyx is more natural and more lifelike. Also getting best from elite, you should you use with very good tonearm cable(i am using with nordost odin, and i am very happy).

Zyx uni and Anna are (very) low output cartridges, like you mentioned. I think this kind of cartridges have to be used with step up transformers. With Miyajima Kansui, Phasemation PP-1000 i never get the best of them without sut(used them with asr, burmester, ar ref2 se etc..) when my ypsilon vps-100 and sut's came, then i realized these are very special cartridges. I have no idea about lamm, maybe it is extracting the best of these cartridges, but if you find a chance to listen this cartridges with a proper sut, do not miss :)

The Lamm LP1 does use two different SUT's
 

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