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Robinson's Positive Feedback Brutus Awards for 2018, Part the Third

12-22-2018 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 100


ZYX UNIverse Optimum X MC

What a year for phono cartridges 2018 has been.

I've already extolled the seductive charms of the Air Tight PC-1 coda and the return of the van den Hul Colibri Signature Stradivarius in this year's Brutus Awards. Magnificent achievements, both of these, whose awards were richly deserved.

But there was a third MC that also made its way to PF River-City-and-up-the-hill, from a company that I had not evaluated before. This was ZYX, who sent along a new reference cartridge, their UNIverse Optimum X. I'm well aware of ZYX, and Positive Feedback has reviewed various ZYX cartridges in the past, going back years. Both Myles Astor and Bob Levi have written commentary on ZYX.

But I hadn't.

Courtesy of Jonathan Tinn of Blue Light Audio, who has a connection with the US distributor, I was able to obtain ZYX's new UNIverse Optimum X MC reference cartridge. It was installed as part of a project involving a final prototype the brand new and quite wonderful Durand Tosca 10.5" Gimbal Tonearm on one of my favorite reference-level turntables, the Wave Kinetics NVS (see next entry below).

Frankly, I didn't have any idea of what to expect with the ZYX UOX. It was not a component that I had heard previously at an audio show, and so it arrived on spec. It was installed at the very beginning of September. I auditioned it throughout September, missed it during most of October due to an extended trip to Maui, and then again until mid-November, before it had to be returned. This would normally have been too short a time period for me to do a major review.

But in this case, exceptional excellence trumped my usual caution about too short Cutting to the chase here at year's end:  the ZYX UNIverse Optimum X immediately asserted itself as one of the very finest phono cartridges that I've ever heard. And that was right out of the box.

What amazing clarity! What tonal balance and impressive neutrality! What well-integrated harmonics, with a transparent presentation that made every album that I listened to for six weeks simply stand revealed for what it was! Frankly, I fell in love with what the ZYX UOX was doing, with nary a quibble or objection in hearing. This cartridge floated neutrality in all of its glory, without making it obnoxious…not a hint of the analytical, no glare, no midrange hump, no gush or lush…just analogical greatness.

My more extended review will appear early next year, after I'm able to get the review sample ZYX reinstalled on another turntable system. But I have to tell you:  in six weeks, the ZYX UNIverse Optimum X MC cartridge captured my heart and mind.

It's definitely in the front rank of my top-o'-the-heap phono cartridges. If you can afford the scratch, this is one that you should snatch!

The ZYX UNIverse Optimum X is a definite Brutus Award winner in 2018.

Durand Tonearms Tosca and Wave Kinetics NVS Reference Turntable (the third coming!)

The Wave Kinetics NVS Reference Turntable with Durand Tosca 10.5" triple gimbal tonearm and ZYX UNIverse Optimum X MC cartridge...in action with some great vinylmeplease.com in red!

The third coming of the Wave Kinetics NVS computer-controlled direct-drive turntable, which I've reviewed (see HERE) and given Brutus and Audio Oasis! Awards to in the past (for example, all the way back in Issue 58, 2011, seen HERE).

I have an enormous respect for the NVS, and have had it in to my reference listening room on several occasions for extended periods of time. It's exceptional neutral, transparent, and linear, and so is an ongoing turntable reference standard for me.

Joel Durand during the setup of the NVS/Durand Tosca/ZYX UNIverse Optimum X MC; Jonathan Tinn of Blue Light Audio is to the rear.

This time around, the NVS was delivered in tandem with Dr. Joel Durand's latest tonearm design, the 10.5" Tosca. The Tosca is Durand Tonearms' first gimbal mount design, with an extraordinary three-way gimbal system. It was fascinating to look at that mount during the setup. Joel personally did the setup and the mounting and dialing in of the ZYX UNIverse Optimum X on his Tosca tonearm. As always, his expert hand and remarkable sensibilities got the task done with beauty and grace.

The NVS and the Durand Tosca were the partners for the ZYX UNIverse Optimum X MC cartridge mentioned above. I am quite sure that many of the audio virtues that I praised there rested on the foundation of the excellencies of the NVS and Durand Tosca; there could hardly have been a more stable and linear platform for the ZYX UOX to have demonstrated its prowess.

Dr. Joel Durand after completing the turntable setup, with his new Tosca 10.5" tonearm sporting the ZYX UNIverse Optimum X Reference MC, both on the platform of the Wave Kinetics NVS Reference Turntable.

The results were truly stellar. I could live for a very long time with this ZYX/Durand Tosca/Wave Kinetics NVS combination, believe me.

And thus, Brutus Awards for all of them are richly deserved, and hereby given.

Pneuance Audio Pneupod Pneumatic Isolation Device

This is a newer company here in 2018, and a new product here in my listening room. The Pneuance Pneupod Pneumatic Isolation Devices were a design that I encountered while at AXPONA 2018. They were a heavy-duty, highly-engineered inflatable isolation device that could be adjusted for various loads via a screw-in inflation bulb that would allow the user to hoist audio components to a proper height for the best sonic performance.

I heard the A/B/A demonstrations of the Pneupods at AXPONA, and was sufficiently impressed by the improvement that I heard to be willing to say "Yes" when Michael Vamos of Audio Skies, Pneuance's USA distributor, asked me if I'd like to try them.

The Pneuance Pneupods, a set of four, showing the precision-machined uninflated units, together with the inflator/deflator.

When they arrived, I had to set them aside for a bit, looking for the best application to evaluate the audio virtue(s) of the Pneupods. Many of the components here are in constant flux as projects flow in and out; I wanted some stability, and preferred to have a near-field setting.

I finally decided that the best place to put a set of four was in my office reference system, which is definitely near-field. I placed them under our Playback Designs IPS-3 Integrated Amplifier with Quad DSD DAC. Previously it had been sitting directly on a Walker Audio Prologue Amplifier Stand, where it had been doing well for several years.

Pneuance Pneupods, with the inflation spacer used to get the proper elevation set once an audio component is placed on them.

It took some elbow grease working by myself…the IPS-3 is not a light integrated amp, at 42 lbs….but I got the job done. I had pumped up the set of four in advance of placement, to just under 1" of extension above the edge of the footer pod. The preferred setup is with the rubber feet down, and the Pneupod's aluminum chassis making direct contact with the chassis of the audio component. If you want to protect the finish of the underside of your audio gear, Pneuance provides spacers that prevent metal-on-metal contact.

Once the Pneupods are in position, you use the supplied spacer to get the elevation right. This requires a bit of practice, but I got it down pretty quickly. Adjusting the pressure only takes a few seconds, once you get the feel of it. (Don't over-read the documentation, by the way; it's a bit over-written, and might be discouraging if you spend too much time there.) Due to the weight of the IPS-3, once the Pneupods were in place (two in the front, two at the rear), I had to increase the pressure on the front two units, which needed another ¼" of inflation to fit the spacer template correctly. The rear units were fine.

The results were noticeable immediately, and reminded me of what I had heard during the A/B/A demos at AXPONA 2018. The sound of the SACDs via the ModWright two-box tubed OPPO BDP-105 that I used to feed the IPS-3 was clarified, with a small but definite layer of smearing removed. The noise floor was somewhat lower, and transparency thereby improved. I've used a different inflatable isolation platform in (many) years past…the venerable Townshend Audio Seismic Sink…but the Pneupods were more flexible, and provided a better sonic result than the Townshend Sinks had.

The sonic improvement of the Pneuance Pneupod Pneumatic Isolation system cannot be gainsaid. Given the fact that the IPS-3 was already sounding very well over time on the Walker Audio Prologue Platform, I took this as a very heartening development, one that warranted a Brutus Award here at the end of 2018.

Indeed, and done.

GamuT Reference Loudspeaker Cables (a second coming!)

Readers of my reviews over the years know that I have a particular affection for GamuT Audio and their designs. These reflect the audio genius of Benno Meldgaard, the lead designer for GamuT (and now also for Raidho). I had an absolutely fantastic time enjoying the full GamuT Reference System a couple of years ago, and gave high praise, a 2016 Brutus Award to the components separately, and a Circuitus Maximus Award for superior synergy to the system as a whole. My major review followed in 2017, which you can read HERE.

Benno Meldgaard:  a portrait

The GamuT reference electronics and the magnificent Zodiac Loudspeakers are long gone now, but one component from that system did remain:  a pair of the GamuT Reference Loudspeaker Cables, which were left by GamuT for ongoing use here.

These ended up in our desktop reference system, where I could enjoy them in near-field. Currently, that signal chain consists of the ModWright OPPO BDP-105 two-box tubed SACD/CD player, feeding the Playback Designs IPS-3 Integrated Amplifier and Quad DSD DAC via Synergistic Research Galileo UEF unbalanced interconnects. The output of the IPS-3 is then fed to our Evolution Acoustics MMMicro One Monitors deployed as desktop speakers on Wave Kinetics A10-U8 Isolation Feet courtesy of the GamuT Reference Loudspeaker Cables.

The GamuT Reference Loudspeaker cables that we have were terminated with bananas, with a single red and black connector pair at the amp end, and a bi-wire set of four connectors, two red and two black, at the speaker end. With the Zodiacs, which was set up with two pair of connectors, wiring was obvious. The MMMicro Ones have only a single pair of connectors, and so I stacked the bananas vertically to double them up…like this:

Cutting to the proverbial, I'm very pleased to say that the GamuT Reference Loudspeaker Cables brought along the renowned GamuT highly organic, wonderfully musical flavor to our desktop system. Always musical. Always.

Listening in the near-field while I work is an hours-at-a-time proposition; if something in that playback chain is not up to snuff, I'll know it quite quickly. Like…I work here, you know? Aural pain is not welcome, and I have no use for headaches. And this is a very revealing playback chain, which lets me listen into the recordings while I work for hours on end. I've had some loudspeaker cables in place here that were in…and then out…really fast. Zap.

But not the GamuTs! They have brought out the best in both the Playback Designs IPS-3 upstream, and the Evolution Acoustics MMMicro Ones downstream. It gives me a blessed reminder of the sound and feel of GamuT…and that is a really high compliment from me.

So much so that...while it might sound like a cliché...yes, I did like the GamuT cables so much that I bought them.

Queue up a 2018 Brutus Award for the GamuT Reference Loudspeaker Cables!

Kubala-Sosna Realization Series of cables

Joe Kubala (front) and Howard Sosna:  a portrait from AXPONA 2018

There are a ton of high-end cable companies on this planet.

Of those, there are a handful of really good ones.

Then there's my personal top-o'-the-heap list. It's relatively short. (Look at my archive of Brutus Awards; you'll see who they are, across the years.)

Kubala-Sosna are in the exclusive top-o'-the-heap group. Definitely.

For years I've been using and praising the Kubala-Sosna Elation! series. It's really stratospheric, with a cross-section of audio virtues that bring the best out of any associated components that I've hooked it up with. (And we have a lot of equipment that's come through here over that time.)

Over the past couple of years, they've come out with a new series of ultimate reference cables, leaping over the Elation! line. Called "Realization," my experience with this new line started out with the Realization USB cable in the PF Hospitality Room in 2016. They were in very limited supply, and the rest of the line wasn't yet really out there.

Bill Parish in action in his office in his reference-level listening room…don't get in his way!

I did finally get to hear a complete set of Realization cables in action back in October 2017, when I visited Bill Parish of GTT Audio in his magnificent reference-level listening room in NJ.

GTT Audio's amazing mountaintop listening room…all Kubala-Sosna Realization in play.

This was on the occasion of Bill installing a dual bi-amp setup of Audionet HEISENBERG Reference Monoblock Amplifiers(!!) and an Audionet STERN Reference Preamplifier.

The Kubala-Sosna Realization cables are clearly evident in this right-side rear view of a pair of the Audionet HEISENBERGs, and the YG Acoustics Sonja XV two-column reference loudspeaker.

Going into 2018, Kubala-Sosna's inventory of Realization has grown. Earlier this year Joe was able to send me a power cable and several interconnects, which we are using in several top-level projects, both LP and SACD/DSD-related.

Having heard the differences between the Elation! and the Realization series in my own listening, the verdict is clear:  as much as I have loved the Elation! over many years now, the Realization is simply better in every way. More detail. Greater transparency. An exceptional harmonic integration, with all tonal ranges feeling even better integrated that the Elation!...and the Elation! is truly excellent. What noise floor? Effortless dynamic ease, and breathtaking presence. And a sense of air and spaciousness that only the very highest level of cable design and execution can achieve.

I have a partial set here. (Hey Joe! Help an audiobud out!)

It's great, but with Kubala-Sosna there's a rule:  the more Kubala-Sosna, the better…but the best is all Kubala-Sosna! At that point, everything locks in.

Having heard a complete skein of Realization at Bill Parish's room, I can confirm the rule, and buttress my comment on the Realization. "Realization" is what will happen to you when you hear it. That's what has been happening to me for a while now.

So there's no doubt:  The Kubala-Sosna Realization Series is seriously in need of one of my Brutus Awards in 2018.

And now that's done.

All photographs and image processing by David W. Robinson; portrait of Robinson by John Robinson; drawing by Bruce Walker.