$595 & $895
WHETHER YOU CONSIDER the humble phono cartridge to be the most important component in the vinyl playback chain or merely the icing on the cake, one thing we can all agree on is that they don’t all sound the same and must be chosen with care. You need to match a cartridge to your tonearm, your phono amp, your record collection and most importantly, to your own taste. Like little jewels attached to the end of the tonearm, cartridges are one of my favourite components in any vinyl-based hi-fi system, but serious consideration must be taken when deciding on what to get because no dealer in their right mind is likely to let you take one home for the weekend. Fortunately, there is a huge range of cartridges to suit every taste, budget and system… and opinion.
Hana is a new addition to the market and given their relatively modest pricing, they’re a most welcome one. Hana cartridges are handmade in Tokyo, Japan by Excel Sound Corporation, an OEM company who have made cartridges for other companies for several decades. So, it’s only natural during this vinyl renaissance that they would decide to create their own brand. Hana currently offer four cartridges, all moving coil, starting with the EH and EL (high and low output MCs) then up to the more expensive SH and SL (high and low output). The E series carts are housed in lovely moss green bodies and use an extremely rigid aluminium cantilever with a synthetic elliptical stylus, while the black bodied S series have a nude natural diamond Shibata stylus on aluminium cantilevers. Both types use alnico magnet transducers. New Zealand distributer Simon Brown from Design_Build_Listen sent me the EL and SL versions to play with, both of which worked well with my Auditorium23 SUT and Fi valve MM phono stage.
Both cartridges are surprisingly light, weighing just 5g, but are beautifully crafted. The recommended tracking force is 2g and while the light cartridge posed no problem for my 12-inch Apparition 12 tonearm, some people may need to add a little extra weight to their head shell to compensate. The SL and EL both have an output voltage of 0.5Mv and a recommended loading of >400ohms so a good moving coil phono stage – or even better, a step-up transformer (SUT) used in conjunction with a moving magnet phono stage – is a necessity. In case you are interested, the high output versions both put out 2Mv. Along with the Shibata stylus, the S version offers better channel balance and separation and improved high frequency extension. From past experience, I expected it to get right into the grooves and dig out more information, possibly with less surface noise, giving a tighter, more refined sound than the elliptical which I thought would be an excellent all-rounder with perhaps a deeper bottom end.
After sedulously setting up the EL on my Apparition 12 I settled in for some good old listening. My reference points being my EMT TSD-15n MC and Denon DL103 cartridges. Funnily enough, after spending many weeks with the Hana’s, I really feel they are a good mid-way point between the Denon and the EMT. The DL103, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is something of a divisive cartridge, having a cult following among its enthusiasts but also having its share of haters. Personally, I’m on the fence – it’s nowhere near as bad as the haters say it is but I’ve never considered it to be quite as good as its fans do. However, I do think it is a great cartridge for the money and a good starting point into the mid to higher end. At the other end the $2k-ish TSD-15n is very hard to beat without spending at least double the money.
It didn’t take long before the Hana EL showed itself to be a very solid performer, giving music a very pleasingly rhythmic, energetic and cohesive flavour. The midrange was enjoyable, with vocals and instruments sounding colourful and clear, allowing good tone perception. Not as full-sounding as the EMT which has the ability to make music seem more expansive and filled out but very good none-the-less and the Denon, by comparison seems a little bland and rustic. The bottom end, as I had anticipated, was very lively and enjoyable, going to respectable depths though I would’ve liked a bit more definition and clarity. Here again the EMT has the upper hand, so to speak, giving a more solid, well defined and tight-sounding bass performance. In terms of channel separation, both cartridges gave excellent stereo imaging with the SL seeming to perform slightly better – my ears being the only means of scientific measurement, but I trust the flappy little buggers emphatically.
Compared to the EL, the Hana SL is even more rhythmic, layered and lit-up, adding excellent image or instrument separation to the mix. Bass isn’t as pronounced as the EL but it has improved definition and detail. Just one example of the SL extracting more detail from the grooves with its Shibata stylus is Guy Clark’s South Coast Of Texas LP, where the female backing vocals became noticeably more prominent and some of the playful jauntiness of the music seemed more obvious and therefore more contagious. Sadly, the great Guy Clark joins David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder and my grandmother on my alarmingly long list of people I wish hadn’t died this year.
Kraftwerk’s ‘The Robots’ from Man Machine was gorgeous and I welcomed the extra bass offered by the EL, but when I ran the track with the SL, I was treated to a better insight into the delightful layers of electronic sound which teased and radiated from the speakers with captivating fluidity and clarity. I also had a better sense of space and dimension with sounds coming out at me further from the speakers. I remember thinking at the time that I could happily live with either cartridge, and I still hold that view.
Spinning ‘Why’d Ya Do It’ from Marianne Faithful’s Bad English was interesting. Aside from the explicit lyrics (don’t play this track to your children or grandmother) the music is visceral and raw and my EMT TSD15n gives the song plenty of body and depth with loads of energy and a solid bass section. The EL performed very well in relaying the cracking drum snares and the infectiously loping bassline along with the angry guitars and Faithful’s snarling vocals. It was a convincing and powerful performance. The SL gave improved attack and energy with more detail in the highs and slightly better instrument separation which increased the sense of involvement. There was a little more emotion evident in the vocal, with more emphasis on the abrasive nature of the delivery and the drums had more crack than the EL but in terms of timing and rhythm, both cartridges exceeded themselves in their relative price brackets. The EL revealed itself to be the smoother, more forgiving cartridge of the two, where the SL really dug in and brought out the subtleties, delicacies and such like of voices and instruments.
I was pleased to note that both cartridges performed superbly with all types of music from jazz and classical to rock and metal to highly processed pop – all of which can inflict their own specific demands on a system. The Hana’s just have that good all-round nature that gets the listener involved in the music and all its aspects like rhythm, timing, timbres and emotion. That’s something I always felt the DL103 often couldn’t quite manage: the last degree of emotion and involvement. It’s just a little too rustic for my liking – and obviously personal taste is always a factor because there are plenty of people who have nothing but love for the humble Denon. In saying that, if I had to live with a 103 I would do so without too much grumbling, and there are re-body mods which are said to improve its performance. You could say the Hana’s improve on the shortcomings of the Denon with better treble response, tighter bass and wider, more stable imaging, bringing them closer if not quite up to the heights of cartridges like the EMT and others.
Surface noise did not offend with either of the Hana cartridges, though again the SL proved a little better with any hiss or pops sitting nicely under the music without causing too much annoyance. May I refer here to that infamous John Peel quote because I really don’t get too hot under the collar about surface noise these days anyway; life is just too damn brief.
The Hana cartridges are a delight. Perhaps they may eventually become the cult go-to that the Denon DL103 currently is (and isn’t) for discerning audiophiles on a budget – they certainly deserve to.
For a system needing a little help in the bass department, the EL could be the perfect choice, with the bonus of a lift in other areas of performance, whereas the SL is possibly more suited for a well-balanced set up, again with the promise of a surprising upgrade in sound quality.
For realistic instruments, delicate layers of sound with sharp holographic images and, above all, emotional involvement with the music, you can’t go wrong with a Hana cartridge. I shall be watching the development of their status with interest. AW BAKER