Product: Hana SL Low-Output MC Cartridge
French Distributor: Karl Becker: USA distributor: Mockingbird Distribution.
Cost, approx: 700 Euro (YMMV)
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: June 2016
Sitting on my shelves in my music room are around 2000 records. They vary in age, wear and quality, but to me they are the most important part of my hi-fi. Many of these were bought in an orgy of collecting in the late 80's early 90's when people threw out their record collections to replace them with CD. At the time shelling out 50p for a mint copy of DSOTM seemed a lot – suddenly my squirreling away of vinyl leaves me with a pretty major investment.
So of course it is very much worth trying to extract the best from them and that is the main motivation in my long-travelled road of hi-fi upgrades. But what is disappointing is that in the world of vinyl reproduction there are few real bargains – electronics get cheaper and cheaper, but quality engineering does not, and the chain of Cartridge/Arm/Turntable is almost wholly reliant on relatively simple, but very high-precision engineering.
Readers will know that my search for a bargain 'High-End' tonearm has born fruit in the form of the Audiomods Arm which at under £500 (still a lot for some people I know) really will get the best from your records. Turntables are always more tricky but are good second-hand buys and there are some promising designs for under £1000 out there.
The major stumbling-block for me is the cartridge. Lots out there will do a job (the Rega Carbon at £30 is fun) – but from my experience there are good cheap-and-cheerful cartridges - all Moving Magnet (MM) which will allow you to enjoy music but miss an awful lot. Then there's a middle ground where some decent Moving Coil (MC) cartridges reside and provide a lot more. Finally the stupidly expensive arena where exotic MC's begin to draw something magical from discs if you have the system and the discs to warrant the expense.
My contention is that those broad groups are quite distinct and that moving from one cartridge in say the 'cheap-and-cheerful' range to another more expensive device in the same bracket doesn't always make sense sonically. So for example jumping from the aforementioned Rega Carbon to a £200 MM cartridge doesn't make as much difference as you'd hope – but going to a quality moving coil like the Dynavector 20x2 is a BIG difference. The inevitable snag is that at around £800 that is a big jump – but my point is that the jump is fundamental, unlike the change to the better MM.
So what we are looking at is something that does the 'Big-Jump' out of the cheap and cheerful category but without the cost. Well – you'll be pleased to hear that I think I've found the answer...
At something around £500/700 Euro we're not talking bargain basement here I'm afraid, but lets have a look at what you get for the money.
Hana is a new name in Cartridges but apparently the company has been making OEM cartridges for over 30 years – I'm only speculating, but that dates it directly to the time when vinyl was supposedly in its death throws and major manufacturers were either abandoning their cartridge lines completely or farming them out to smaller outfits. I mean – did Denon, Technics, Sony et al continue to make the cartridges that bore their name in-house?
For their first range of cartridges under their own name Hana have produced something conventional with no surprises. The range consists of four cartridges all sharing the same basic body and major components such as the Aluminium cantilever. They differ in that the two base models EL and EH (L-Low output, H-High-output) use an elliptical stylus, the SL and SH using a Shibata. This stylus was the first 'Line-Contact' profile – where the stylus is more triangular than round, and mimics the original cutter in order to match the groove wall in a vertical line rather than an oval, thus playing more of the groove and yet having a lower contact pressure. This results in lower wear of the record, a longer life for the stylus, the possibility of playing unworn parts of a record and the ability to track frequencies up to 40,000 Hz (originally needed for Quad recordings) and finer groove detail. The Shibata was the original, and other supposedly more sophisticated Line-Contacts have come into fashion since, but the Shibata has many fans.
Magnets are fashionable Alnico and windings appropriate to Low or High (MM level) output. The Review sample was the SL and generally the lower mass of the smaller coils needed for a Low-output allow slightly better tracking and detail performance.
The body looks solid and classy, rather resembling some Linn carts of old (Karma for example) and yet isn't so bulky as to cause problems in most headshells. But what this initial appearance hides is that the body is plastic. Yuk! I hear you say, but apart from being a 'cheap' material plastic has a lot going for it. It's low resonance, not too heavy and as I think it's safe to assume that the Hana is rather high quality plastic (let's call it resin – sounds much sexier) capable of being made to considerable accuracy. Looking at it, the only giveaway to this lowly material is the use of nuts and bolts for mounting – it's difficult to produce a reliable thread in plastic. It makes mounting fractionally more complicated and you can't clamp it down as hard as a metal-bodied cartridge, but then the same applies to many exotics that use wooden bodies – and of course from a Acoustic-Impedance/resonance point of view the resin is closer to wood than the usual Aluminium body.
Mounting is helped by a sensibly designed stylus protector (hooray – the only cartridge I've ever broken was wrecked by putting on a stupid stylus protector...), and the flat front of the cartridge helps alignment a lot. Once bolted to the Audiomods arm it looked very classy and fitted rather well with the contours of the headshell. One thing of note is that the cartridge rides very close to the record – closer even than the Dynavector DV17 with its 1.7mm cantilever – it's low enough to bottom out on very warped records and it's possible to get a build up of fluff underneath. It didn't happen often, but as with any new cartridge it does tend to pull up rubbish from the groove that the previous cartridge missed because of a different stylus profile. Yes I know – clean your records, but in my very dusty house (wood fires, old furniture, kids etc) sometimes it gets forgotten;-)
At 5 grms it's at the lighter end of the scale so widely compatible.
The last interesting thing in the spec is the output. This is a Low Output Moving coil, but these typically have an output around 0.3 mV as with the Dynavector DV-20x2. The Hana pumps out 0.5 mV (the high-output version is 2.0mV) and though still low it does mean that some MM stages – especially valve which tend to be MM only – will be able to generate enough gain.
Very easy to set up and align on the Acoustic Solid turntable and I found myself using a slightly higher than recommended VTF (Vertical Tracking Force) of 2.2 grm – often the case as my room tends to be cooler than the average centrally-heated home. Other than that I settled on the arm being level and just got on with the fun. I used the Nibiru phono stage exclusively and as that is current amplifying and doesn't offer variable load I didn't play with loading. The cartridge was run-in for 30 hours on a locked groove, but for the next month was my main cartridge so probably racked up another 70 hours in that time. The result is that this is a test of a fully run-in cartridge which is extremely important – many components benefit from proper running in, but none more so than cartridges. Cartridge resonance was around 9 Hz on the Audiomods so well placed to avoid low frequency colouration and skipping due to warps.
The first and most obvious thing that struck me was a very low level of surface noise, even on some of my poorest vinyl. In these days where the best vinyl is often used and abused rather than some dodgy re-issue this is important. The fancy stylus profile is a factor in this sort of thing, but all all the cartridges I use have similar line-contacts it doesn't explain the effect fully.
The next striking thing was the the 'ease' of everything. I'm not talking about slugged or rolled off sound, but the ability to sound effortless right across the disc – including the end of side where the vibrations cut in the groove are at their smallest and most tricky (lowest sampling frequency would be the digital equivalent). Now with many cartridges there comes a point where the sound becomes a little bandwidth-limited, shut-in or even fuzzy as the stylus fails to negotiate the tightest corners, but here the fidelity remained across the disc in a manner that only the best cartridges manage.
It also sounded very nice;-) And it was from then on that I started to get a little excited with what was going on. My main listening uses the Dynavector DRT-1t – ranked by some people as the best cartridge in the World. You can imagine that for a poor reviewer the temptation is always to listen to the review cartridge then after a side go back to the real pleasure of the DRT-1t sitting on the SME v12/Blackbird combination – but I have to confess that much to my surprise my listening 'pleasure' for the month-long period was almost exclusively provided by the Hana and Audiomods arm on the Acoustic Solid turntable. If you're counting beans the main front end would cost 7 times the Hana system and a big chunk of that would be the cartridge. The bottom line here is that for my ear's the cheaper system was good enough...
But in the review period I also compared the Hana to the Dynavector 20x2 and D17, and the Music Maker 'Classic' – all considerably more expensive. In all cases these more expensive cartridges shone brighter in certain areas, but overall it was the Hana that I preferred.
So I guess it's time to drag out my listening notes and for once I'm going to produce my listening notes verbatim as I think they give an accurate feel for what the cartridge is doing.“Great sibilants – smooth, natural, no spit or edge” “Warm, rich, perhaps slight upper-bass lift” “Image large and slightly diffuse – natural rather than hi-fi” “Tuneful bass a little lacking lowest octave” “Fabulous tracking” “No 'bloat' (on Mary Chapin Carpenter's 'Come on, come on' which is notorious for exposing this)” “Linn 'Karma'?” “Does Nancy Griffith without nails-down-a-black-board” “Good image depth but lacking a little air” “Great end-of-side performance” “Brilliant suppression of surface noise” “Fast midband giving good bass leading-edges” “Lovely to listen to”
And that last comment should be in bold, because although the Hana does have character – and along with speakers cartridges are the most characterful part of most systems – it is absolutely charming to listen to. Over the month I used it I didn't come across a record it didn't seem to be happy with – right down to some of my most worn and tired pressings.
Yes sure, some records showed far more fidelity than others, but that's a given, but the Hana made is possible to ignore most of this and allow you to listen to music. Not only this, but it was better at it than any cartridge I've ever heard regardless of price.That's a big statement and I'm talking from experience of maybe only 10 or so very expensive cartridges – all costing multiples of the Hana, but where the Dynavector DRT-1t might leave you frustrated with a compressed recording, or where someone has overdriven mics and the like the Hana doesn't so much smooth over it, but make it less important, almost to the point of “so it's a crap recording, but just listen to that music!”
Don't get me wrong, cheap cartridges that blur over faults and miss half the music are deeply frustrating – the editing they inevitably do being inconsistent and coupled with a lack of grip.
The Hana on the other hand makes you forget the nature of the reproduction chain – its handling of the most tricky elements of vinyl recordings – sibilants, surface noise, end-of-side wear inevitably help here, but it's more than that. On some recordings I found myself preferring it to all other cartridges regardless of price, and given that the Hana is right at the bottom of the Moving Coil pile price-wise this is nothing short of astonishing.
One of my favourite test tracks (and musical ones) is Tears for Fears 'Woman in Chains' – a fabulous studio recording with lots of high-level female vocal (hard to get right), studio 'ambience', massive sound stage and crashing dynamic range. This I listened to over and over with the Hana against the DRT-1t to see what it could do against one of the best and most expensive cartridges in the World when faced with a quality piece of vinyl.
Comparing the two there was a difference and of the level you could hear from the next room. Both produced beautiful music which at times had the hairs on the back of my neck lifting. In direct comparison the DRT was more precise both with fine detail and definition especially in the bass. At the very top-end the DRT was more extended and detailed. Some low percussion was pushed back in the mix with the Hana and the feedback on the guitar less edgy than I expected or would have preferred.
But then the midband... And here is where the real music is, and the Hana gave nothing away to the DRT. Then there's Oleta Adams' voice – power, dynamics, soaring majesty, fabulous technique and it all came across as well as I've ever heard it.
It's this ability that prevents the Hana coming across as one of those rolled-off cartridges that's covering faults – no! Here it was fully capable of humbling many more expensive designs.
It's very east to end up ranking equipment by the purchase price. Personally, if I had my way, I'd not know the cost of anything before I reviewed it, but the fact is that in most cases you can guess costs by the physical appearance and feel of a component. In the case of the Hana its plastic body belongs to a budget cartridge (though it looks like Aluminium). So I'd be tempted to compare it with other plastic bodies cartridges in the same price range. Luckily I only had one such cartridge to hand (an Ortofon) and the Hana dismissed it as a rival in 30 seconds. During the month I had it, it played alongside the Music-Maker Classic, Dynavector 20x2L and Dynavector 17D3 – all more expensive and in the end I preferred the Hana to them all for its consistency, all-round ability and forgive the vague term but I can't think of a better one - 'completeness'. The others all proved better in one area or another, or better on some tracks, but overall it was the Hana I kept coming back to in preference and to be blunt it was an easy choice.
Against the DRT it was a rather different story. The big Dynavector is really something else, and there is a feeling that it's getting everything off the disk and in a thoroughly even-handed way without colouration or bias. But in the all-important midband the Hana is toe-to-toe, and elsewhere is more forgiving of much of my sub-optimal vinyl. To compare the Hana with a cartridge costing 10x as much seems madness, but 'blind' I would have believed they were in the same class – extraordinary.
I could live with the Hana... If tomorrow all the other cartridges I had disappeared I would be quite happy to continue listening. I wouldn't feel short-changed, and though I might miss certain things they wouldn't 'bother' me so much. No other cartridge under 1500 Euro has passed this test. That the Hana is well below this limit is quite an achievement.
Lastly – the other reason that I am so excited about this new find is that it matches beautifully with the Audiomods arm. I'm here to tell you that for around £1000 it's possible to have a true, high-end combination of arm and cartridge. You could do better, but not a lot better and only with much greater outlay, and get it wrong and you could spend thousands and get nowhere close to the synergy of the Hana/Audiomods. That makes the Hana an absolute bargain in my book...
© Copyright 2016 Geoff Husband - Geoff@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com