REVIEW: HANA SL PHONO CARTRIDGE

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by Peter Familari

2 months ago

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REVIEW: HANA SL PHONO CARTRIDGE

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Ask a bookkeeper to assess the worth of Hana’s SL MC cartridge and the reply could please or pee you off.

It all depends on your disposition.

Bottle-half-empty type of guys or gals will be chuffed by the ledger keeper’s report. But if you’re a bottle-half-full chappie or missy, your response is likely to include a large dollop of consternation and righteous anger. And justifiably so.

Because whatever way you slice and dice it, these Lords Of The Abacus will delight in telling you the Hana SL will cost you about 50 cents per hour each time you play one of your cherished LPs.

The figure is premised on the cost of the Hana that is $895, and the 2000 hours average life expectancy of a high-quality diamond stylus, before it goes to God.

Creatives have debated the Ledger Keepers’ delight in a profit and loss approach to audio and maybe even existence over the centuries. 

Take Russian novelist, Dostoevsky, who for one of his novels created a character who spent his life proving the existence of God using maths.

Everything to them makes perfect sense ‘’…measured in dollars and cents, pounds shillings and pence,’’ as Roger Waters opines in the album, Amused to Death.

What else would you expect from these Ebenezer Scrooge’s of the human spirit? 

Not much, if my experience with one “music lover” counts for anything. And they wouldn’t be Hana buyers. 

Way back when I worked at an audio store, before making the plunge in and out of teaching and then settling on a career in the print media, an older gentleman bought his speakers in to be repaired.

The customer was an uber-rich retired surgeon unhappy with his speakers. They lacked treble, he told me. Removing the grills showed one of the pair was missing a tweeter. When an upgrade to a pair of $495 Mordaunt-Short speakers was suggested, he baulked. 

He didn’t buy new speakers. But I hoped he was smart enough to avoid returning to the city store at the top end of Melbourne that had built him a pair of speakers with a single tweeter. The irony of measuring musical pleasure with dollars and cents still rankles to this day.

Even in the cost-cutting formula used by these hollow men and women of numbers, there is a case to be made for the price of owning a Hana or a similarly priced cartridge. 

Especially when it costs very little Do Re Mi to get you up close and personal, as well as comfortable to the recorded music version of any orchestra, group or performer in your living room.

If it costs a few cents an album to revel in the sheer hedonistic joy of your favourite music in the comfort of your own listening space, give me more Hanas, I’d say.

Of course no one should ignore the cost of buying, repairing or refurbishing audio gear. The point is to be rational about pricing and not obsess about it.

As to this particular moving coil cartridge, it’s built by Japanese brand Excel and marketed under the Hana brand. All of which raises some interesting questions about the state of cartridge manufacturing since oh, about 1984 when CD made its pompous entrance into the world of audio and music.

From that date, cartridge manufacturing went into a steep and for some illustrious brands, a terminal decline. Did Audio Technica for example, allow its experienced cartridge designers and builders to shuffle off into a Tokyo sunset? And if they did, what relationships do these skilled craftsmen and women have vis-à-vis Audio Technica’s current batch of cartridges?

An educated guess suggests it’s, ‘’zip”.

Most cartridge brands laid off their skilled workers and closed up shop long ago. The brands that continued to ply their trade include Grado, Ortofon, Denon, Stanton, Shure, Excel and perhaps a hand full of others. But to what degree these survivors retained all the accumulated experience of manufacturing cartridges over the decades, is questionable.

Be that as it is, Excel has been making cartridges for other brands for nearly seventy years. Closer to home, some may recall the original Garrott cartridge which I think was from Excel’s ES70 series. 

An underrated cartridge at the time, but as a Garrotised ES70, a bit of a moving magnet giant killer. Some new old stock of the ES70 is still available if you search hard and smart, and well worth buying ‘cos it’s much more than a trip down memory lane.

Time does move on. So it’s hardly a surprise given the ongoing vinyl revival, that Excel is making and marketing its own select cartridge range. Within this four-model range, the Hana SL is a bit of a standout.

You’ve got to love the simplicity, elegance and prices the range. There’s nothing confusing about a choice between the low output Hana SL or its high output version called the SH. Or, the cheaper EL low output, which comes in a high output model, called the EH. 

Or the pricing which is $895 for SL and SH models and just $590 for the EH or EL.

Specs for the exact people

The Hana SL carries a classy Shibata Nude Diamond stylus on the end of an aluminum cantilever. Say what you will about boron, diamond, or other exotic cantilevers, but approached rationally rather than obsessively, humble aluminum is pleasing for a couple of reasons to do with sound and cost.

Used on the end of a solid cartridge design, the resonance of an aluminum cantilever fitted with a quality diamond stylus is frankly pleasingly musical. Make of that what you will. But as Ken Kessler defending his addiction to valve amplifiers once said after someone helpfully pointed out he was listening to distortion, “If it’s distortion, then give me more…’’.

I understand what the boron cantilever on my Garrottised, very early Sugano period Koetsu Rosewood Signature contributes to its sound in the way of greater neutrality, transparency, and detail.

But frankly I don’t give a toss. But I very much care about cantilever material when the time arrives to pay big bucks to have it retipped or replaced. And as to the cost of retipping and refurbishing cartridges universally these days, it’s fair to say it’s expensive.

It’s almost as if these talented craftsmen have formed an unofficial cabal. The truth is cartridge refurbishment is a painstaking, highly skilled craft and more importantly, it’s labour intensive. Hence the high cost of the process. 

The alternative, the cartridge trade-in scheme offered by some brands makes even less sense. Why so? Because the scheme operates by way of trade-in prices that are usually meagre rather than generous. Some consider the whole notion insulting.

Personally, caught between two unaffordable options, I typically chose refurbishment rather than trading-in a cartridge I’ve grown to love and cherish through habitual use. 

This assumes Father Time hasn’t hardened the dampening rubber suspension used in Moving Coils.

Brian Garrott used to lubricate weathered rubber suspensions by applying a jot of arm dampening silicon using a match honed with a razor blade to a point. A process I watched him accomplish with awe many times when they were living near Ballarat in Victoria.

Either way, if you buy a Hana SL the aluminum cantilever will be cheaper to retip/replace, and it contributes to an ear-pleasing, musical sound.

Your money also buys a cartridge finished with a high quality nude natural diamond Shibata-stylus. Under a microscope, it’s a thing of beauty and mounted without a hint of excess adhesive.

An output of 0.5MV at 1KHz qualifies the Hana SL as a low output model requiring a step-up. Output balance is 1.5dB at 1KHz and recommended tracking force is 2grams. Channel separation is 25dB at 1KHz and frequency response is said to be 15-32,000Hz.

Suggested impedance is 30Ω at 1KHz and a load Impedance of 400Ω is recommended. Figures that turned out to be spot on in use although the Hana SL sounded mighty fine at 300 Ohms in the context of the review system. With an overall weight of 5 grams the Hana SL is a medium compliance cartridge that will perform well in a huge number of affordable tonearms, and excel bolted to the more expensive models.

Our review sample Hana was used at the end of a Rega RB300 before the bulk of the review was completed with an SME V tonearm. The sound was highly detailed on the Rega arm but even more assured and accomplished via the SME V.

The Sound

The Hana was installed in our resident SME 20/2 turntable and the SME V tonearm. The rest of the system comprised the never less than excellent sounding RCM Sensor 2 phono stage, Elektra Audio PNYX preamplifier and matching Reference HD amplifier driving a pair of Wilson Audio Series 1 Sasha speakers.

Goldring’s Eroica low output moving coil priced at $899 provided a handy comparative cartridge to the $895 Hana. The two cartridges are very different and exhibit two opposing types of personalities.

The Hana is the more even tempered of the pair, with an audibly flatter frequency response, loads of transparency and plenty of overt detail if lacking some of the subliminal detail that’s a characteristic of much dearer, more credentialed cartridges of the calibre of Ortofon’s Quintet Black.

The Eroica had its own hand to play. Whilst it wasn’t as detailed and had a slight lift in the upper treble, it was dynamically more alert and its personality was vibrant where the Hana’s was more composed. As the review proceeded it was clear the Eroica’s character was part of the musical presentation and no less enjoyable for that.

But with the Hana, one got the sense that it allowed the music to provide the excitement and involvement. Leading to the notion that the Eroica is a perfect foil for systems with a laid-back character, and the Hana exhibiting all the traits that would suit systems that are intrinsically dynamic. 

It’s fair to say the Eroica is a very British sounding cartridge with a lift in the treble and a real-life midrange supported by decent if underwhelming but informative bass, underpinned by exquisite timing.

The Hana’s sound falls into the best of the Japanese approach to audio with its abundance of detail, balanced frequency response, loads of transparency and even temperament ensuring a cartridge for long, non-fatiguing listening sessions. 

The Hana takes you further into the inner structure of the music. It’s both informative and neutral in the best sense of these audio concepts. And while the Eroica has soul, the Hana has composure in spades a quality that will take you further and deeper into your music.

Playing Dylan’s dirge-like track ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’ from his Time Out Of Mind album amply showed the Eroica’s ability to entertain and the Hana’s manner of privileging of informing but letting the music provide the spark of entertainment.

This track features insistent and repetitive guitar chords underpinned by insistent and repetitive bass. It has all the character of a funeral march and the title leaves no one in any doubt that Dylan is exploring the coming darkness. You have to wonder if his prophetic artistic vision envisioned the coming of the Trump thugs well before these gangsters were primed to take office.

Whatever the case, the Eroica plumbed the darkness of this melancholic track, but the Hana showed you how the darkness was musically created.

And speaking of albums exploring themes well before their times, The Who’s Quadraphenia is again finding favour with music lovers and those who haven’t failed to notice that Western youths are restless and on the move mainly for worse rather than better.

The album’s eponymous tack, ‘Love Rein O’er Me’ has a power and majesty carried by soaring guitar riffs, unsettling percussion and powerful, poetic lyrics presented by gut wrenching vocals.

The Hana, with the supporting cast of the Elektra pre/power combination effortlessly driving the Wilson Sasha, yielded a huge soundstage with wall-to-wall lateral imaging and commendable back-to-front depth.

The Eroica’s soundstage was smaller laterally but by comparison it had cavernous depth. And again, the sense was that the Eroica was adding its character to the unfolding musical drama, while the Hana retreated allowing the music to shape and move the emotions. 

Female vocals are nearly always a hurdle for inferior cartridges because they fail to penetrate the heart of the lyrics, lingering instead on the shallow periphery of the singer’s intonation and phrasing.

The Hana swept into the spiritual centre of the track ‘My Best To You’ from Joni Mitchell’s album, Taming The Tiger. Each change of phrase accompanied by dynamic micro and macro shifts in Mitchell’s voice, were preserved and reproduced with ease. 

A major part of the track’s dramatic impact derives from larger than life, closely miked guitars that flank, as it were, Mitchell’s vocals. The track is a generous paean to old friendships and has an alluring pathos that invites several playings at the one sitting. The music will flow over you like a warm summer breeze, if the system it’s played on is alluring by dint of its tonal veracity.

But borrowing a phrase from the Linn Hymn book, the sonic character of any system begins at the source, in this case the turntable, arm, and cartridge. I also agree with Linn’s ideology that you can’t plonk an expensive cartridge on a budget tonearm and turntable and hope to hear the best that cartridge has to offer.

The Hana and Eroica’s are mid-priced, mid-level cartridges and if the Linn gospel is correct, and I think it is, you can mount either in a top-ranking arm the caliber of the SME V and hear them working to their full potential.

Of course, this route also highlights any sonic weakness. Which is what happened playing the track ‘Let The Mystery Be’ from the Iris Dement album, Infamous Angel.

While it’s musically an unsophisticated country music track, ‘Let The Mystery Be’ is superbly recorded and Dement’s backing group’s playing is as tight as the proverbial drum. 

The Hana, compared to the Koetsu Rosewood playing back the same track lacked this classic and much more expensive cartridge’s, tonal weight, and frequency extension. The Eroica exhibited the same foibles adding a slight coarsening to Dement’s occasionally abrasive and nasal vocals.

But with both the Eroica and Hana mounted on the Rega RB300 tonearm installed on a MK2 Gyrodec, this lack of frequency extension passed unnoticed though the Eroica’s slight treble lift remained.

Adding it all up

At 50 cents an hour of playtime, the Hana cartridge provides a sophisticated performance and yields much more than a taste of what’s on offer from much more expensive moving coils.

What your money buys is a mid-priced, mid-level Japanese cartridge that’s solidly built and has a sonic performance that is smooth, highly detailed and assured.

Like the better Japanese moving coils, the Hana has impeccable manners and if used with complimentary equipment will rarely offend. As stated previously, the Hana allows the music to provide the excitement and this prized quality invites long, listening sessions.

Measured against cartridges twice the price, the Hana doesn’t plumb the frequency extremes and lacks the ability to give the ultra-discerning buyer all the subliminal detail carried by well-recorded music albums.

What it does give is a taste of what the elite cartridges offer thanks to its even frequency response, lucid tonal balance, commendable soundstage, and great level of transparency.

But there is a caveat: install a Pagani-class cartridge like a Koetsu Agate, Kiseki Purple Heart or a top end Lyra on an elite tonearm mounted on heavyweight turntables such as the Air Force 1, and that fabled sonic window disappears replaced by gigantic panoramic sliding doors. The music and performers are all there with nothing between you and the music.

The Hana and cartridges priced to about $2200 do open a sonic window into the performance, but you can’t amble through it. All you can do is lean in and enjoy the music. But you’ll still remain on the outside.

The difference between the sliding doors or a window is down to the incrementals the very best cartridges exploit. What appears as slightly more detail, air, neutrality, and soundstage solidity from a top-flight cartridge mounted on a mid to upper-mid fi turntable is misleading.

Use the same cartridge with the best turntables and tonearms and those incremental gains become monumentally audible. So much so you cease thinking about more air, better imaging, transparency or working dynamic response for a simple reason: the reproduction becomes so life-like, so real mundane audio concepts no longer matter because they can’t describe a totally, sensual immersive experience that envelopes both the body and the mind.

But all things being equal, the Hana is the perfect candidate for anyone with a mid to upper mid level turntable and arm combination who is on the hunt for a value-for-money moving coil cartridge. 

With a performance close enough to challenge cartridges priced to $1500, the Hana SL punches well above its weight division and represents good value for money, and as such comes warmly recommended.

For more information visit the Hana brand page.

Peter Familari's avatar

Written by:

Peter Familari

One of the veterans of the Australian HiFi industry, if there's a speaker he's likely heard it or owned it at some point in his career. Peter was formerly the audio-video editor of the Herald Sun for over two decades.

Posted in: Hi-Fi
Tags: hana cartridges  audio magic 

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