Product: Hana ML Low-Output MC Cartridge
Manufacturer: Excel Sound Corporation/Hana - Japan
French Distributor: Musikae - Karl Becker
Cost, approx: 1000 Euro (YMMV)
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: May, 2019
in 2016 I had the pleasure of reviewing a new cartridge on the market – the Hana SL low-output moving coil, and I think it's fair to say that it got a rave review. Whilst not a budget cartridge by any means it's firmly in the mid-market range at 700€ and yet seemed to me to happily hold its own with 2000€ competitors.
As sometimes happens the manufacturer (understandably) liked the review and sent me a prototype of a new cartridge to ask what I thought. I don't generally review prototypes but I now have the new production Hana ML here and this is one of the first reviews of it.
First off go read the original Hana review as it's quite detailed and will save me retyping 1000 words;-) Secondly this is a particularly interesting review as the prototype I received a few months back is actually much more of a half-way house to the original SL and so I'm in the unique position of being able to say with some certainty which modifications do what...
The first 'headline' change, and common to both prototype and production version was the replacement of the Shibata fine-line stylus with a more sophisticated 'micro-line' profile.
The next change was the use of threaded inserts in the Delrin body. Now I had mentioned this in the previous review and to be honest the use of nuts and bolts didn't bother me, but it's a little easier to fit the cartridge with captive inserts.
And that appeared to be the extent of the changes made to the prototype.
But the production ML has some further changes which could be of a fundamental nature. The first and most obvious is that there is a 1.5mm thick copper plate (gold-plated) set between the body and headshell. This is rigidly attached but I suspect no more than an addition (glued?) to the basic cartridge body rather than the sign of a different mechanical structure with the 'motor' hanging off the plate.
The other significant change is the cryogenic treatment of the motor system – this is very much de-rigour at the moment and is claimed to alter the crystal structure of metals to improve sound quality. Sounds like snake-oil to me, but it's really taken off and as my first encounter with the technique (a 300B valve excepted) I'm open minded about it. Beyond that high quality copper wire is used – not sure if it's better than in the SL (even at that cartridge's price point I think the budget would stretch to decent wire).
And that is it. The two cartridges look very similar until the copper plate catches your eye, but they are otherwise the same shape and overall design – after all the SL is so good why would you change it?
Well that's what I expected – especially with the prototype, and I was glad to find that that cartridge sounded very similar to the original that I'd fallen in love with. You don't make a giant-killer then mess it up. Where there were differences they were minor and of degree rather than fundamental. The prototype did seem to drag a bit more off the disc, and especially the very top end had more shine. The opening of 'So What' from 'A Kind of Blue' with its ride cymbal seemed more lively and open with a little more space around the drumkit. This sort of insight was repeated on other albums, but I quickly came to the view that this was a mild upgrade to the SL at best and though in isolation a superb cartridge (and thus good value) it would be hard to justify a large price hike over the SL. Moving to the production ML then I was a little concerned. I had no doubt it too would be 'better' but enough to justify a 30%+ price increase? As always people will pay the extra for more, but ultimately we had peas from the same pod.
But that was not at all the case – the differences between the SL and ML were considerable, and left me in the uncomfortable position having labelled the SL a giant-killer of having to recalibrate my value judgements.
I'll go into those differences in a minute but first let's look at the possible influence of the biggest change between those cartridges – the copper mounting plate – because that has some major effects on a physical level on the characteristics of the cartridge. For a start it makes the cartridge body 1.5mm taller so you need to correct for this at the arm. Luckily the Audiomods arm's micrometer VTA helped and that arm matched so well (as it had with the SL) that I didn't cloud things by arm swapping.
Beyond this the most blindingly obvious change is that the cartridge is MUCH heavier. The SL is 5 grm., the ML nearly double that at 9 grm. The immediate effect of this is that the arm/cartridge effective mass goes up by 4 grm. That will effect the way the suspension of the cartridge works – the resonance frequency and to a certain extent the moving of the counterweight much further back on the arm will also add to resonance changes in the system. The SL at 5grm is actually very light for a quality MC and so works well (brilliantly) on Rega derived arms which are primarily designed for much lighter MM (Moving Magnet) cartridges. In fact some 'super-arms' might struggle to balance something so light... The 9 grm of the ML is far more mainstream for a quality MC though far from a heavyweight.
The second is the affect on vibration transfer of having that copper plate. The manufacturer describes it as a 'damper' but there's a it more to it than that. I've written about the subject of acoustic impedance before, but here it is again.
All materials have an 'Acoustic Impedance', a function of their internal speed of sound, their density and elasticity. If two objects of identical acoustic impedance are joined then in theory 100% of vibrations will pass between them, so it would seem to be that an Aluminium cartridge would pass on all vibration to an Aluminium armtube that it was bolted to (and visa versa). However if we follow this argument it's obvious that for the point of view of passing vibrations from the cartridge, a difference in material will have a large affect - an Aluminium headshell on a Titanium tube, or carbon fibre tube will reflect more than Aluminium/Aluminium.
Now with plastic bodied cartridges (or wood for that matter) the difference between the Acoustic impedance of the cartridge and arm is likely to be great. What we do when we put in a layer of copper between the two is further isolate the actual cartridge body. Now I'm not in a position to say whether this is good or bad, but it IS a change over the SL and quite a big one in the way vibration will propagate through the cartridge and arm and we 'may' be able to attribute differences we hear to this as a possible cause?
Then of course there's the cryogenics – could possibly be significant?
But then I dug into the claimed output ;-) 0.5 mV for the SL and only 0.2 mV for the ML... Now assuming the spec is correct there's no way that the internals are the same. The ML must have fewer turns on the coils (I suspect) and thus have a lighter 'motor' – generally this is a good thing and is why low-output MC's generally sound better than their high-output versions. But of course if the coils are different there's no reason to suppose that there are other differences Hana isn't publicising???
And the reason for the previous paragraphs is that what would seem a similar cartridge has now taken on a quite different character and I need to find a way to rationalise what I hear ;-)
The original SL impressed me with its even-handed and really 'classy' reproduction. It was delicate when needed, detailed etc it's a really 'nice' cartridge. The ML is not a 'nice' cartridge – it's a far more dramatic beast. I was just taken aback by how much more dynamic it was – the best in this respect that I've ever heard. My son is at conservatoire studying jazz and his comment was 'dynamics is at the heart of big band jazz' and you could really hear what he meant as 'King James' went from the full blooded horn section to a whisper in a split second.
One of the wonders of the original SL was that I ended up comparing it with the Dynavector DRT-1t and finding it matched it in many areas and gave much more than a glimpse of the high end. Of course it was inevitable that I would do the same with the ML. What I heard wasn't a slightly toned down Dynavector but a full blooded, powerful cartridge that sounded so much louder it had me checking levels.
I've had the pleasure of a few high-end cartridges here but none produced this much energy. And it wasn't remotely edgy – something that can give an initial impression of dynamics for a while before you reach of the aspirin...
The classic example of this is jazz trumpet – the King James (Sheffield Labs) is a direct-to-disc acoustic recording and the power of Harry James' horn slices through the mix with power and body better than anything I've heard. My 2nd son (Sam) plays in a big band and he said it just sounded like a live instrument so authentic was it. The drum-kit backstage left, sounded bigger and more prominent especially the handling of the ride which seemed to gain a couple of inches in diameter.
“How on earth do they get that double bass sound?” – Sam asks - “it's just so powerful” - so we chat about the way the bass is doubled with the kick-drum and whether there was a reflector there and so-on but he starts to wonder at the skill of the player and the recording artist.
And there I started to ponder just a little. Is there artifice going on? Is there a little bit of a 'loudness' tilt to the frequency plot? We start ploughing through other records – Simply Red's 'Sad ol' Red” (love it or loath it it's a great test of a walking bass-line) showed the bass to be even through the scale and again a great drum-kit.
I suppose the word 'Technicolor' springs to mind. Going back to the big Dynavector I began to wonder if its reproduction (and interestingly that of the Hana SL) might not be more a reflection of real events.
It was a long and very pleasant evening but by the end we'd come to the conclusion that it couldn't be called artifice, but was definitely an alternative view of events. Sam likened it to being right in the front-row, or even the orchestra pit rather than half way back in the auditorium. With smaller scale Jazz ensembles there was no question – the ML just made you feel like the instruments were right in front of you in a small venue (as such performances should be) and were unanimously preferred. With larger works from Stravinsky to Nirvana I could see that the blood-letting delivery of the ML might be too much for some people and some systems but I have to say that I absolutely loved it.
After a while I suddenly realised that the ML reminded me greatly of what I'd experienced with the Pro-Ject Signature turntable and arm – as with that combination the ML just made everything sound so much fun! One example - I'd rather neglected Nirvana of late and that dynamics fest of 'Nevermind' just reminded me of what I was missing.
If all this makes the ML sound like a 'party' cartridge then yes it is, but it does all the other hi-fi stuff too. Left/right imagery was excellent and depth pretty good if not up with the DRT – after all with so much going on some subtleties have to take a back seat. Fine detail was truly excellent despite the sound-stage being full-of-stuff and the timbre of instruments really spot-on. Vocals were beautifully handled (or not as with Cobain) keeping the vocallist front-of-stage as it should be – Nina Simone being as large and powerful as in real life whilst her piano bounced along ('Baby just cares for me') again showing size and yet keeping the subtleties of the pedal and key strikes.
The ML kept the SL's superb ability to crush surface noise, and though perhaps I just got lucky as from the off it never miss-tracked or gave a hint of letting go at the end-of-side, thus I didn't spend hours trying to set the thing up... I just listened to music.
When I started this review I expected it to be a short piece mainly describing the sort of incremental improvement I thought the manufacturer probably was attempting. What has emerged is a review of a quite different cartridge and one that (having already stretched my vocabulary with the SL) leaves me struggling for superlatives. Circa 1000€ is not cheap, and cartridges are hard to value, but in my limited experience if you want a full-blooded cartridge of this sort of quality nothing else comes close. It isn't going to be perfect for everyone and obviously few components are as system dependent as a hifi cartridge. Be warned, this is the full-fat, high carb offspring of more reserved parents. It'll clear your ears out and make you get up and dance - and it I absolutely love it to bits;-)
© Copyright 2019 Geoff Husband - Geoff@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com