My first experience with Hana cartridges of Japan came at the 2016 Newport Show when I had organized my Down Under Audio exhibit rooms for Colleen Cardas Imports. My idea was this—after visiting Australia in 2015, I was determined to create an exhibit room (or two, actually) that had nothing but audio products from manufacturers based in either Australia or New Zealand. We built two systems, a simple one with Axisvoicebox loudspeakers and REDGUM Audio electronics and cables, and another far more ambitious room that involved several of the other brands Colleen and I represented in the US—plus a few good friends.
We started with amplification from Pureaudio, loudspeakers from Brigadier Audio, an Audio Union Helix turntable from Mark Doehmann and tonearms from The Wand. The system would also be completely treated with Les Davis Audio’s constrained layer damping material. That left two holes—we needed a Down Under cable manufacturer and a Down Under cartridge manufacturer. I chose to go with Furutech of Japan for the cabling because they were always a willing room partner, and I already had plenty of their products on hand.
That left the phono cartridge. No one knew of a cartridge from New Zealand or Australia at the time.
The best I could do was bring my Transfiguration Axia cartridge—it was the finest cartridge that I owned. When I arrived in Newport Beach, I discovered that Simon Brown of Design Build Listen, the genius behind The Wand tonearm, had brought a Hana SL cartridge along for the ride. As he explained, he was sort of the de facto distributor for Hana in New Zealand, and that’s what he preferred to use with his tonearms. Since Simon had brought two of his arms to Newport, the Plus Series and the new Master Series, we decided to put the Hana on the Plus and the Transfiguration on the more expensive Master.
On set-up day, we compared the two arm/cartridge combos. Everyone in the room preferred the more expensive Transfiguration/Master match—there was no doubt that this combo yielded far more detail. But I was very intrigued with the sound of the Hana, especially in the low frequencies. The Hana SL was slightly soft and warm, perhaps too much so when directly compared to the Transfiguration, but I kept thinking that this was an exceptional cartridge for just $750. After hearing Hana cartridges once or twice more, I was so impressed with the price-performance ratio of the entire line that I chose the Hana SL as my 2016 Cartridge of the Year in my original Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever.
The Road to Hana
I’ve mentioned repeatedly that I was especially fond of the In Living Stereo exhibit room at the 2019 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, so much so that I currently have four pieces from that system in for review—the Mactone ML-120 power amplifier and XX-7000 preamplifier, the Trenner & Friedl Osiris loudspeakers and the Hana ML cartridge.
When I visited my friend Bob Clarke at RMAF to hear the Trenner & Friedl Osiris speakers he imports, I noticed a very quiet Japanese gentleman sitting in the back corner of the room, seemingly transfixed by the sound of the system. When I asked about the cartridge on the Clearaudio table, I was told it was the top-of-the-line Hana ML, which retails for a still remarkably affordable price of $1200. I mentioned my experience with the Hana SL at the Newport Show in 2016, and that gentleman perked up and came over to sit by me. That’s when I realized he was Hiroshi Ishihara, president of Youtek Limited. Youtek works with ExcelSound, the manufacturer of Hana in Japan.
We talked for a very long time, especially when Ishihara-san discovered that I love Japanese cartridges and that I own a ZYX, a Transfiguration and even a Denon 103. He never once said a word about Hana while I talked about the other Japanese cartridges I loved—he agreed that he enjoyed them as well. Then I started talking about Simon Brown, Down Under Audio and the success of Hana in the US over the last few years. I like to joke that we became BFFs at that point, and that’s probably not far from the truth.
A few weeks after the show, Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings sent me an email. (Musical Surroundings, of course, is the US importer and distributor for Hana.) Ishihara-san had requested that I receive a Hana ML as quickly as possible. Within days I had it mounted on my Technics SL-1200G, and then later the Palmer 2.5i turntable with the Audio Origami PU7 tonearm.
Hana currently has three moving-coil models in its line-up, the entry level E series ($475), that mid-level S series ($750) and the top-of-the-line M series ($1200). Each cartridge comes in a high-output (H) version with an output of 2mV and a low-output (L) version which has an output of 0.5mV. The E series and the S series look almost identical except for the body color—the E is blueish-green while the S is black. The E series features an elliptical stylus and the S features a Shibata stylus. When you move up from the E to the S, you’ll hear greater stereo separation and channel balance, with more extension in the high frequencies.
The M series, which was introduced later than the other two models, features “higher specification parts, advanced materials, unique technical treatment and superior mechanical interface.” Its body is also black, but the shape is slightly different than either the E or the S. To be more specific, the M series uses a nude microline tip, very high purity copper wire, and cryogenic treatment of the yoke as well as the front and rear assemblies. The body is made from Delrin, and that mechanical interface is improved with threaded fittings and a machined brass cap. These latter features provide better bass and dynamics according to the design team.
According to Garth Leerer, “One big difference between the SL and ML is that the ML cross-coil is wound with a higher purity copper (>4N) with a different diameter (@30 micron) than the SL (4N and 15 micron). This new coil has an impedance of 8 ohms where the SL coil is 30 ohms. Output level is almost the same at .5MV for the SL and .4MV for ML. The ML 8 ohm coil allows use with phono stages with a fixed 100 ohm input impedance and wider compatibility with SUTs.”
The Hana ML weighs 9.5g, which puts it around the middle of the pack in terms of mass. Because of that, the ML is compatible with most arms. In addition, the cantilever is aluminum and an alnico magnet is used.
By the way, Hana is Japanese for “gorgeous and brilliant,” and with the ML the company has realized a “further evolution” of that ideal according to their website.
The Hana ML arrived at a time when I had become infatuated with two other affordable yet over-achieving MC cartridges, the ZYX Bloom III ($1100) and the Sumiko Starling ($1899). As I’ve said repeatedly, I hate doing direct comparisons between products for a number of reasons—mostly it’s because there are too many variables to consider such as the interface between tonearms and phono stages and the like. That said, I loved all three cartridges for different reasons. The Sumiko was excellent at retrieving detail and for having deep, impressive low frequencies. The ZYX had a top-to-bottom coherence and a truly musical sound that prompted me to buy it.
The Hana ML, however, seemed to occupy the middle ground by excelling at each of these qualities. While I initially felt that the SL that I used in Newport was a tad soft and warm, and I do like soft and warm-sounding cartridges, the ML seemed to exhibit more of that gorgeousness and brilliance that Hana promises. It’s not soft and warm, but it is refined. The music doesn’t have rough edges which did contribute to a welcomed smoothness, but the soundstage was so relaxed and expansive that all of the detail in my favorite recordings could be easily observed.
The Hana ML became my cartridge of choice with the Palmer 2.5i and the Audio Origami, even though I noted in my review of the turntable/tonearm combo that I was slightly nervous about the Hana’s insistence with being mounted toward the back of the AO headshell. The Palmer/AO was such a solid, precise coupling and the Hana added to that sense of an optimal set-up.
I tried most of my usual reference LPs with the Hana SL, but the truly remarkable moments came when I was playing the Analogue Productions 45rpm 2-LP reissue of Billie Holliday’s Songs for Distingue Lovers. Most audiophiles know that this is a gorgeous album, but at the same time it doesn’t hide that it was recorded a long time ago. The entire band plays in the left channel, Billie sings in the center and the right channel is reserved for the soloists.
With the Hana ML mounted on the Palmer/Audio Origami rig, those first notes from soloists such as trumpeter Harry Edison and saxophone player Ben Webster leap out at you with surprising energy. They’re so independent from the rest of the mix that you’ll think they’re in your listening space hanging out with you, listening to Billie, jumping in when inspired. Webster’s sax is unusually breathy and vibrant, and so close you can easily imagine how he’s moving his lips as he plays.
Overall, I felt the Hana ML had a sound that was steady and dependable, but never in a boring way. There was a calmness and a poise to this cartridge, especially within an analog rig that I’ve already described as poised. Perhaps that’s why I stuck with this combination for so long. I always had the distinct impression that I didn’t want to change a thing. I just wanted to sit and listen for a very long time.
Like the ZYX and the Sumiko, the Hana ML was such a stellar performer that I immediately wanted to grab a big-dollar cartridge for review, something at least $3000 to $5000 or more, just to see what I was missing. I’ve owned and/or used plenty of expensive cartridges over the years, including two Koetsus and of course my reference Transfiguration Axia. Where did this $1200 cartridge fall short?
I’m not sure that it does, quite frankly. I’ve noticed there’s a new generation of state-of-the-art cartridges from Japanese companies such as Top Wing, Etsuro, My Sonic Lab and many others. These companies are releasing new models that push the envelope at prices that spill into the five-figure range. Established companies such as Lyra, Air-Tight and of course ZYX seem to be releasing new flagships every year. It’s a fantastic time for the development of great phono cartridges, but there’s also plenty of trepidation concerning those escalating MSRPs.
When I had that memorable conversation with Hiroshi Ishihara back in Newport Beach, I kept mentioning that Hana was making a huge splash in the US because these cartridges were offering top-level performance for a very low price. Ishihara-san was polite, and he was indeed flattered that I felt this way about the Hana ML as we were sitting and listening to music. He did not hint at any secret that day, but he did reply much later by email that the very nature of Excel Sound creates that value:
“Japan is a world famous MC production paradise with so many manufacturers with different brands, who are, in general, represented by personal artisan who does almost every aspect of work to make parts to assembling by himself, even including coil wiring. Products coming out from these personal studio shall be relatively high to cover their cost. On the other hand, production at Excel Sound is broadly divided into a separate section, attributed to different personnel (still many artisan levels in each process), as a team, all hand made and hand assembled. Consequently, production efficiency is much higher, yielding much more production quantity with stable quality, resulting in featuring competitive low price, keeping fairly high standard quality.”
Isihara-san went on to explain how this “Team Play Sequence” also leads to a much lower defective rate. Finally, the size of the company is described as “just right”–through the teamwork between Hana, Youtek and Excel Sound, an appropriate level of quantity and quality can be met while large quantities of raw parts can be purchased. This is why Hana offers so much for the money.
In any case, believe the hype about Hana. Yes, they make extraordinary cartridges that are very affordable, and I bet some Hana dealers are telling Excel that they need to raise their prices. Before that happens, you should listen to the $1200 Hana ML and decide whether you really need to spend more money than this. I’m not sure I do—I could easily live with the Hana ML for a long time.