Sumiko Rainier - MM Phono Cartridge

How little can you spend and still enjoy a truly musical cartridge?

[Italian version here]

Product name: Sumiko Rainier Moving Magnet Phono Cartridge
Manufacturer: Sumiko - USA
Price: $149 USD
Reviewer: M.L. Gneier - TNT USA
Reviewed: March, 2023

[Sumiko Rainier]

How does $149 work for you?

It worked pretty damn nicely for me, but let me give you a little background. I am a man with two phono stages, two phono preamps, two turntables and, you guessed it, two cartridges. Toward the end of last year I noticed that both of my cartridges, one low output moving coil and one high output moving coil, were starting to sound a little, well, tired. I decided to have both retipped at the same time. This meant that I needed a suitable substitute while I reviewed some interesting phono preamps. The retip work was surprisingly expensive, with both cartridges needing addtional work, and the time estimate was longer than I anticipated at over a month. It had been quite a while since I had used a moving magnet cartridge and I rationalized the idea of having a back-up cartridge so I decided to see how low I could go, owing to the fact that the cartridge I purchased was likely to be used for a short period of time.

The Sumiko Rainier sits near the bottom of Sumiko's offerings. Interestingly, the styli of the Sumiko Moonstone and Olympia are interchangeable with that of the Rainier. That creates a seemingly clever upgrade path for buyers of the less expensive offerings. That said, Sumiko doesn't say much about how those styli might or do in fact differ so that may be more clever marketing than generosity toward users.

The humble Rainier looks and feels a little plasticy, very much befitting the fact that its body is plastic, after all. Thankfully, the body is threaded. I, among all of my long-time cartridge-installing brethren, are so glad that the days of dealing with fumbly cartridge nuts is largely over. Thank Goodness. There was a time in my life when I occasionally setup turntables for a local friend who was and still is the owner of a high-end store but also in possession of two left thumbs. It was never a problem, except with a certain brand of turntable (Well Tempered...sorry, Bill) and cartridges that used nuts. Those tables and that variety of cartridge encompassed the only times that those in-home setups could not be done with a glass of fine pinot, or better yet a rye whiskey, in hand. Those, in fact, were the good old days.

But, no matter how amusing this is to me, I digress. The Sumiko Rainier all but jumped out of its box and mounted itself thanks to those very threaded inserts. The body is relatively straight-sided but not quite. Still, alignment was easy. I was slightly surprised by the Rainier's overall height. This is a cartridge designed mostly for entry-level tables, the very same tables that offer little to no accommodation for the adjustment of VTA. I suffered from a little trepidation as I cued the first record. What if the cartridge sounded, well, just plain bad? I didn't like the idea of wasting a month listening to something that was unworthy of being listened to. I need not have worried. The first track was from an LP of a simple jazz trio. No drama; just piano bass and drums. First of all, the Rainier has a lot of gain. I would guess significantly more than its specified 5 mV. Either that or I am used to such vanishingly low outputs that 5 mV seems like a lot. Who knows? The sound of the trio that leaped out of the speakers was big and very smooth. At first I feared the Rainier was so bent on being inoffensive that it lacked in dynamics but it got gradually better and more settled over the first 10 to 20 hours of use. After a week, I loosened the mounts and realigned the cartridge to nearly the same position but not quite. Then, the Rainier really began to sing. Its sound was effortless and musical if still a bit on the safe side.

I found the Sumiko Rainier was polite to the sound of female vocalists while adding a very subtle grain. I would say it was too polite but then I reminded myself of how little the cartridge costs. Then I'd allow myself to simply sit back and enjoy what it could do without going all audiophile on what the modest cartridge could not do. I mean, what's the point of expecting too much? A $149 cartridge is designed for someone who wants to spend exactly that amount of money while getting as much musicality as they can possibly get. I'll go out on a limb and report that the Rainier easily achieves that benchmark and succeeds in allowing as much musicality as is possible for its modest cost. I cannot imagine there's a better cartridge out there that costs less. In fact, there are likely many more costly competitors that would be bettered when going head to head with the Sumiko.

Now that got me thinking about two things. The first is whether I could review with the Rainier as my main source. Is it disappointing to read that I could not? The problem with these kinds of MM cartridges is that they are, by the limits of their physical implementation, incapable of resolution beyond a certain very reasonable point. Please note that I emphasize reasonable point. I think that for most listeners, with most systems and with most LP collections the Sumiko Rainier would work just fine, pleasing its owner for years. The second question is more tricky. Would I be happy listening to the Rainier if I never wanted to review again? This is another tough call and I can explain why. Reviewers, honest reviewers anyway, live in a very odd world. If they're trying to write informative reviews they tend toward systems that value resolution over musicality. There, I said it. We are trying so hard to get it right that we're prone to sacrifice the very reason we got into high end audio in the first place, to have the very best musical experience possible within the walls of our home.

A while back I read a quote from one of my heroes, Nelson Pass. He said, and I am paraphrasing here, "I like amplifiers with a little character." When I read that I thought, thank God, someone said it. Nelson Pass said it! But, at the same time, part of me realized that components with recognizable character tend to make reviewing significantly more difficult and unpredictable.

How does this relate to the Sumiko Rainier? Well, it's a fundamentally pleasing sounding cartridge. It's possessed of a relentlessly musical character. It doesn't need tons of gain because it has tons of gain. At the same time, it will cause you to miss details in your music that for some will be regarded as essential to the musical experience. Only you can decide how to strike the balance between resolution and musicality. In the same way only you can decide how to strike the balance between cost and performance. One of my favorite quotes has nothing to do with audio but everything to do with this question, if you're paying attention. The quote is: strong, light, cheap...pick two. How might this be applied to phono cartridges? Well, I can imagine a few different ways. One would be musical, resolving, cheap...pick two. There are a whole bunch of cartridges that can hit two of those three and none that can hit all three. That's not a bad thing. It's just the next thing that requires you, the listener who is actually parting with hard-earned money, to make a decision. What do you seek? What is your music collection like? How important is resolution to your enjoyment of music? How much do you want to simply forget about every damn thing there is, except your music?

I leave you now perhaps, to some, inconclusively on the subject of the Sumiko Rainier. If you know who you are and what you value as a music lover, I think you know whether it's the kind of cartridge that could be for you. If you're still unsure, perhaps you should ask yourself if you, like Mr. Pass, like components with a little character.

Listen well, but listen happy, my friends!

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