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Review by Scot Markwell

Analog Capsules: ZYX R100H Moving-Coil Phonograph Cartridge and Coph Nia MC Phono Preamplifier

In these heady days of the best LP playback equipment that has ever existed on the planet, many who might otherwise want to get into (or re-enter) the world of vinyl are daunted or stopped cold by how much it costs to get really first-class sound. So many high-priced phono sections and moving-coil cartridges are now showcased so often in the press that you might think affordable components are in the minority or are hopelessly inferior to the high-priced spread. It’s nice to read about these ambitious designs and what they can do, of course, but most consumers want to have their cake and eat it, too. This is a natural desire, but nearly impossible to attain. Nearly, I said. It is not completely impossible.

Enter the Japanese ZYX R100H medium-output MC cartridge and the Swedish Coph Nia MC Phono Preamplifier. At $995 and $1295, respectively, these two products are placed somewhere in the bottom third of retail price structure for such devices. You can buy similar components for several hundred dollars less, but the pieces under consideration here are so good that their ultimate value is much higher than many similar components that are less expensive. In many respects, both of these products will not only keep up with much of the more expensive competition, but in some ways, they perform well above their price level, particularly the R100H cartridge.

This cartridge initially gave me fits. I was, I must confess, somewhat prejudiced against it before I heard it, because I had not had the best of luck with its higher-priced, similar-looking brother, the R100 Fuji FS, in Harry Pearson’s system several months ago. That cartridge had seemed a bit dull and lacking in focus; we eventually returned it. And the same thing happened with the R100H-that is, the subject of this review. When I first installed it, I could get nothing but a rather soft and overly laid-back sound that was lacking in instrumental weight and body, and had not much in the way of a true midbass foundation. The sound was thick, slow, and veiled.

I tried several phono sections, including the Hagerman Trumpet, the Coph Nia under review, the Plinius M14, the Clearaudio Balance, and others. Each time, I did not have the patience to wait it out to be sure it didn’t need more running in; I simply removed it and substituted another MC that I had on hand at the time. Finally I recognized that I was not giving the cartridge a fair chance. Others whose ears I trust report it as very good, indeed. So I put it into the system once more, this time in a true balanced configuration into Ralph Karsten’s stunningly good AtmaSphere MP-1 all-differential, all-tube, full-function preamplifier.

Well, I was stunned as soon as I set the needle down on the first record. I could not believe what I was hearing; I pretty much still do not. I know what you are thinking: that the AtmaSphere is a much better a phono section than the others, and therein lies the difference. It’s true that the MP-1 is a superb preamplifier, but ultimately, this is a tale of proper adjustment and (unexpectedly long) cartridge break in.

At .34 mV output, the R100H has enough signal capability so that it will exhibit a better overall signal-to-noise ratio in an MC phono stage than cartridges of lower output. But make no mistake?this is still a puny signal, in this era of line-level outputs of several volts. An illustrative story: The MP-1 I alluded to above, while sounding gloriously lifelike in many ways (and with over 60dB of overall gain for phono reproduction), nevertheless has audible tube rush discernable from the listening position at even medium playback volumes. Some will find this level of noise unacceptable. I decry it intellectually, but in practice, though it is a bit of a nuisance, I do not find it overly obtrusive. Not any more, any way. I remember being really irritated one day and complaining to Karsten about the hiss level. He didn’t bat an eye, just asked me if the residual noise floor of the record was louder, at its softest point, than the tube hiss. I said that 95% of the time it was, and he pointed out that the tube hiss did not, therefore, make any real difference. My brain has trouble with this, but my ears are so entranced by the sound that I am no longer annoyed. I thought that this rather high noise level, to one accustomed to the almost-silent background of the solid-state Plinius M14 phono stage, would be an impediment to the recovery of fine detail from my records, but it turns out that that was not the case at all. The resolution of the system shone through the hiss of the tubes as if it was not there.

How then, does this transparent (as in see-through acrylic body) little wonder of a cartridge sound? The best description I can summon is that it gives me more of a true sense of the music, its essence, if you will, than anything else I have used in the past several years. To drive this point home, I want to reiterate that not only was I predisposed to dislike this cartridge, but it actually did sound decidedly less than impressive the first few times out. The difference, I remind you, lies in the fact that it has been played enough to be truly run-in, as well as being partnered with a superior phono stage?and I am referring not just to the expensive AtmaSphere, but to the little Coph Nia, priced most reasonably, discussed below.

Dynamic contrasts, in particular, are rendered in such a manner as to suggest real instruments and musicians, especially with the best Direct-to-Disc recordings, such as those from Sheffield Lad and Crystal Clear. The Sheffield Lab Prokofiev Excerpts D-to-D LP sounds so open and alive with the R100H as to start to suggest the presence of the orchestra and the sonically amazing MGM soundstage it was recorded on, warts and all. I have also been listening to several Japanese D-to-D recordings manufactured by Toshiba/EMI, and they are stunning in their transient impact, transparency, and faithfulness to the real thing. Take the “A” Train by The Third is a good example. The musicianship is a bit hokey, but all the various percussion and wind instruments sound alive and are possessed of a high degree of “snap” and a rightness to leading-edge transients that makes the music sound closer to live. Natural hall ambience is rendered with an ease and bloom that allows the instruments to bask in their own glow. If you are playing a pop/rock album, or anything recorded in a deadish studio environment, you can easily hear the artificial reverb that has been applied to the recording, especially if it is one of the old plate reverb units that have such wonderful trailing-edge signatures. There is less of a residual mechanical quality to the R100H than many of its MC brethren, including some that cost many, many times more. Music through this transducer has a presence and a vivacity that is neither unnaturally bright nor unnaturally projected; it is merely realistic and engrossing in the same manner as real music. While the R100H will never be described as a detail-freak's cartridge, it nevertheless manages to elicit enough information from the grooves that I do not cry for more. I do feel that I may be missing the very last word in resolution here, but the net effect is so well balanced that I can easily and willingly live with it.

The R100H renders music’s foundation, be it orchestral, jazz, big band, or pop/rock, with a weight, precision, and realism that defies almost all others, save the 47 Lab Miyabi, and that is four times the modest cost of the R100H. Along with this impressive reproduction of the lower frequencies comes a delicate balancing act with the rest of the musical spectrum in the sense that the R100H is never upset into intermodulation distortions when playing strong bass lines, as when reproducing a chorus singing at full tilt while deep and loud organ pedals are being played and held. The voices and the pedals both sound super-clean and remain correctly separated in the spatial and textural planes.

There is a sweetness to massed strings that I have truly never heard rendered as well in my system. Not sugar-sweet, as if the notes had been dripped in honey, but with the natural rosin-y intensity of real music. Mind you, this quality is almost wholly dependant on the recording, rather than being a featured “sound” of the R100H, and if the record in question has poorly-recorded string instruments, then you will get that, no veiling or sugar-coating. However, if the recording is up the task, you will hear, with R100H, a greater fidelity to violins, bass guitars, violas?the whole lot?than with almost any other MC I have experienced.

Oh, I almost forgot: I tried this cartridge with a variety of resistive loading on both the AtmaSphere MP-1 and the Coph Nia, and I always liked 47K/oms best. Your response, based on your taste and system balance, may be different, but I felt that this “wide-open” loading brought out the cartridge’s best performance in dynamics and treble extension, without imparting any overly-etched quality to the upper midrange.

You may now be wondering where the Coph Nia MC phono section figures in all of this. I did not intend this review to partner these two pieces as a front-end system, though they do sound exceptionally well in such a configuration. Rather, I have put the two products together to illustrate the fact that there exists, in a lower price structure than is the norm for such quality, both a modern MC cartridge and MC phono section of some distinction.

That being said, the Coph Nia, when partnered with the R100H (or any other MC that I tried it with), was as silent as a tomb. It does not sound quite as good as the AtmaSphere MP-1, but at just over 1/10th the price of that two-piece tubed unit, this slim and tidy solid-state phono stage is way better than 1/10th as good. Used with the R100, the Coph easily allowed the musicality and transparency of the cartridge to come through.

So, yes, this MC stage is another reasonably priced gem. It is good enough to use with your choice of an MC cartridge, and you can upgrade to even more expensive ones and still get good results from the Coph Nia. It is transparent enough to easily pass on a given transducer’s sonic signature. And that is, in fact, the hallmark of the Coph Nia: transparency. This phono stage is so quiet, and blessed with such a see-through quality, that it manages to retrieve every nuance of a cartridge’s performance envelope and paint a different sonic palette for each one. It is also almost overly sweet in the upper midrange and lower treble, to the point of seductiveness and at the slight expense of accuracy. But in many systems, especially those built at this price point (say around $7000-$9000 for a full system including a decent CD player), this quality will seem a natural balm to many recordings. Especially crystalline and grainless in the extreme highs, if ever-so-slightly soft, the Coph Nia falls down in comparison to the very best only in its rendition of the highest musical harmonics and its slight lack of weight in the mid- and lower bass.

These are not serious failings. To put things in perspective, if you listen to the Coph Nia in Harry Pearson’s reference system, you can easily hear that is a tad light in the bass and that it is not as harmonically developed as, say, the Groove+ (which sells for almost five times as much), or the AtmaSphere MP-1 in my system. On the other hand, in a bit more modest system, the Coph Nia acquits itself well, indeed, with a lightness and deftness of touch that brings natural detail to the fore and then integrates it into the overall sonic cloth without calling undue attention to any part of the frequency or spatial spectra. It is more of a graceful Fred Astaire dancer with the music, if you will, than a powerful Gene Kelly. Maybe Astaire could stand to gain a couple of pounds, but his fluidity and grace are unsurpassed; beside Astaire, Kelly appears almost clumsy and slow. The Coph Nia's tonal balance, while lean, is unfailingly honest and squeaky-clean; it sings with a true voice, if one perhaps not quite as full-blooded as some of the competition.

The Clearaudio Balance, for instance, at almost exactly the same price, is another compact MC stage of solid-state origin, although it comes with a separate dual-mono power supply. As might be expected, it does hit harder in the bass and can seem to have a wider dynamic range than the Coph, but often at the expense of sounding, in comparison, a bit contrived or overdone. It can also, at times, sound more exciting and spectacular. Perhaps just a bit too exciting at times. The Plinius Jarrah, at about $800, is in between: It is not as sweet as the Coph Nia, but it does have more of the dynamic wallop of the Clearaudio. Yet, side-by-side with the Coph, it loses in terms of smoothness of the highs and transparency to source; the Coph Nia is a little more refined, with more of a see-though quality to its reproduction of the soundstage.

So it is fully competitive in its market segment, this little phono box; its selection by a purchaser will be based not just on its price, but on its sophisticated and seductive style of phonograph-record reproduction. If your taste in LP reproduction leans to the side of transparency, sweetness of texture, low noise, a mid-hall perspective, with an overall polish of sophistication and lack of grain, you will find much to admire here. Likewise, if you place more stock in hard-hitting dynamics and a more spectacular and close-to presentation, then you may wish to look elsewhere. In the final analysis, however, the Coph Nia will leave you smiling and wanting more, while its rowdier stablemates may well leave you wanting a break. The Coph Nia is a great value for the money and a winner in most respects. And if you have a good subwoofer in your system, and know how to adjust it, then its slight lack of bass weight is easily compensated for.

I remain bedazzled and amazed that we have such a plethora of superb phono-reproduction equipment available, and at almost every price range. The ZYX R100H MC cartridge and the Coph Nia MC phono section are by no means cheap or casual products. But they are both genuinely high value, in the sense that you are getting a whopping lot of innate goodness and musicality in both products. The R100H is an out-of-the-ballpark home run, as far as I am concerned (though its performance doubtless will, to some degree, vary depending on the level of the rest of your phono equipment; it sounds great with affordable gear and stellar with the best stuff), and the Coph Nia is an excellent unit for a refined, reasonably scaled system. You might be able to get both for a not-inconsiderable discount (I have seen the Coph Nia for less than a grand, for instance).

High-End performance at reasonably accessible prices. Bread-and-butter products whose savor places them well above their station.

Manufacturer Information

Both products distributed and sold in the USA by:
Music Direct
318 N Laflin St., Chicago, Illinois 60607
Phone: 800-449-8333 or 312-433-0200
Fax: 312-433-0011
twolff@amusicdirect.com
www.amusicdirect.com/default.asp
Prices: Coph Nia MC Phono Stage: $1295; ZYX R100 medium output: $995

The individual product web sites are:

ZYX cartridges: www.bertrandaudio.com/Products/ZYXPhono/ZYXPhono.htm
Coph Nia: http://hem.fyristorg.com/cophnia

Associated Equipment:

VPI HW-19 MK IV turntable w/VPI JMW Memorial 10.5 arm; Clearaudio Harmony Wood and Insider Master Reference Wood, Van Den Hul Colibri, and Madrigal Carnegie 1 MC cartridges; Plinius M-14 and Clearaudio Balance(SS), Hagerman Trumpet (tubed), and AtmaSphere MP-1 (tubed) phono sections; Plinius M-16 (SS) and AtmaSphere MP-1 (tubed) line stages; Ayon Audio Classic 32B, Viva 300B, and Vaic VV52 B SET amplifiers; Tom Evans Audio Design Soul 30 wpc Single Ended Tetrode (tubed) amplifier; VAC PA 100/100 tubed push-pull amplifier; Forsell Air-Bearing CD Transport and EAD Theatermaster DAC; Reference 3A Royal Virtuoso, Horning Agathon, and Living Voice Avatar OBX loudspeakers; Chase Technologies CH-1 passive surround decoder with a pair of small Radio Shack Minimus speakers for surround sound, SLM/Janis subwoofer with Crown Macro Reference amplifier; Siltech Gen III, Audio Magic, Acoustic Zen, and Stealth Technologies cables, Arcici Suspense Rack.

Product Specifications:

ZYX R100H MC Cartridge
(H = High output version) Type Moving-coil (dynamic) REAL STEREO Generator System
Output Voltage 0.24mV (H = 0.48mV) [3.54cm/sec., 1kHz] or 0.34mV (H=0.68mV) [5.0cm/sec., 1kHz]
Frequency Response/( +/- 1dB) 10Hz ~ 80kHz (20Hz ~ 20kHz) 10Hz~100kHz (20Hz~20kHz)
Channel Separation > 30dB [1kHz]
Channel Separation < 0.5dB [1kHz]
Recommended Tracking Force 2.0gm [20 ~ 25 degrees Celsius]
Tracking Force Range 1.7 ~ 2.5gm
Compliance horizontal (vertical) 15 x 10-6 cm/dyne (12 x 10-6 cm/dyne)
Trackability > 80?Em/2.0gm
Internal Impedance 4 ohms (H = 8 ohms) 3.5 ohms (SH, H = 7.0 ohms)
Recommended Load Impedance > 100 ohms
Cantilever Material Boron rod 0.3mm dia. Diamond Square Rod 0.22mm sq.
Stylus Microridge Solid Diamond 0.07mm sq.
Net Weight: R-100 4.2gm

Coph Nia MC Phono Section Variable input load from 22 Ohms to 47k Ohms
Gain 60dB
Very accurate passive RIAA equalization
Ultra low noise
Phase correct
Separate power supplies for each channel
Mains filter
Only highest quality audio capacitors
Shielded internal signal cables
Gold-plated RCA in and outputs
W 3,5" / 9cm H 3,5" / 9cm D 12" / 30cm
Weight 5 lbs / 2,2kg

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