In reviewing the Sumiko Songbird phono cartridge, the little brother/sister to the Sumiko Starling I reviewed in The Occasional, I encountered somewhat of a dilemma. Is it wise to start off with the flagship product from a manufacturer’s line and then work back toward entry level? If you move in the opposite direction, working your way up and going on The Journey, you have the joy of discovering better and better performance along the way. If you go the other way, your observations will revolve around what the lesser product doesn’t do in comparisons. It’s kind of a bummer.
In other words, you’re setting that product up for failure instead of reviewing it on its own terms. That’s one of the many reasons I try to avoid making direct comparisons between high-end audio components. That’s why I avoid answering questions such as “Which would you choose, A or B, and could you go into great detail why?” and “How did the Joseph Audio Pulsar2 Graphenes compare to the Stenheim Alumine 2s?” We audiophiles tend to obsess about comparisons, because we want to be absolutely sure we’re making the right buying decision.
The answers to those questions, however, aren’t as informative—or as interesting—as you think.
When I reviewed the $1899 Sumiko Starling last year, I was first offered the $899 Sumiko Songbird, which was released pretty much the same time as the next step down in the line. I pushed for the Starling because I had plenty of expensive TTs hanging around at the time and I didn’t want to clothesline the performance with a reasonably priced cartridge. (That sounds kinda snobby, but you know what I mean.)
Once I listened to the Sumiko Starling, which is a sterling performer at its price point, I started thinking more and more about the Sumiko Songbird. One of the reasons, strangely enough, is because that $899 price is meaningful to me. I’ve owned many cartridges at close to that price point, and for many years that was about the upper limit I could budget for a new cartridge without having to put it on a credit card. It helped that over the years you could buy an outstanding cartridge for that kind of money. Think about all the classics that could once be purchased for roughly $800.
These days, there are few choices at that price point and fewer examples of truly outstanding designs that stand out in the crowd. In many cases, $900 buys you something kind of anonymous in the middle of the line, a cartridge where people like the brand yet know nothing about the specific model. (Sound familiar? My audiophile journey, for some reason, has always included such products.)
The Sumiko Songbird becomes an intriguing subject when you take all that into consideration. It took a while for the Songbird to emerge cleanly from the shadow of its big brother, but it did, and I was left with a couple of new insights into the world of sub-$1000 cartridges.
“A living forest full of songbirds…”
There have to be major differences between the Sumiko Songbird and the Starling, the two models that sit at the top of Sumiko’s Reference Line. The latter, obviously, is more than twice the price. Both look very similar on the outside, with the Starling wearing a serious, button-down black body and the Songbird sporting a shiny, eye-catching electric blue finish. If you looked at them side by side, you might think the Songbird was the more expensive cartridge. (The metal pieces on the Starling are gold, however, while the Songbird’s are silver.) Visually, I prefer the Songbird—especially when I mounted it on the shiny metallic red Nasotec swing headshell on my Technics SL-1200G.
The “body” of the open-architecture Sumiko Songbird, which looks a lot like a mere mounting plate, is made from the same resonance control material as the Starling. I felt that the Starling was an exceptionally quiet cartridge, which allowed more detail to reach the listener, and much of that was due to that new material. That sounded promising.
The Songbird is an MC, like the Starling, but it’s offered in both low-output (0.5 mV) and high-output (2.5 mV) versions. (I chose the low output.) The Songbird has an elliptical stylus on an aluminum cantilever while the Starling uses a Micro-Ridge stylus on a boron cantilever. Outside of these differences, the two cartridges seem to share an overall design. It was time to mount the Sumiko Songbird on the Technics, the same ‘table I used most of the time with the Starling.
I still remember my first listening sessions with the Starling last year. My first impressions were of a cartridge with loads of detail and potent low frequency performance. Once I installed the Sumiko Songbird, I heard those two traits once again. Both cartridges conveyed a lot of slam when it came to low bass, the type of bass that rises up halfway across the listening space and smacks you in the chest.
Since the body of these two models are made from the same damping material, it makes sense that both cartridges unearthed oodles of detail against an almost silent background. I noticed this with the Starling as well—crank up the volume knob with the tonearm still raised and put your ear against the speaker and you’ll hear relatively little noise, even with tubes in the system.
Now’s the time to talk about the differences, and that pesky question of what the Starling does that the Songbird doesn’t. It’s hard to come up with a summary because the Starling isn’t around, but I do think the more expensive cartridge projects a bigger soundstage with more air. There’s simply more size to everything. It’s all so open. The Sumiko Songbird, in comparison, sounds a little small.
Okay, enough of that comparison stuff. Yikes. I’m breaking out into a sweat. It’s time to stop talking about the Starling entirely. Besides, no one’s going to talk you down from a Starling into a Songbird unless your turntable isn’t up to snuff.
The Sumiko Songbird, over time, blossomed into one of those $900 or so cartridges that I aspired to own one day during my journeyman years—or at least it reminded me of those old friends and unrequited crushes. (That list, curiously enough, never stopped existing even when I moved up to cartridges such as Koetsu and Transfiguration.) We’re talking about the kind of cartridge that’s perfect for a $4000 turntable/arm combination, and unlike $900 cartridges there are actually plenty of examples of such in today’s market. Case in point: the Technics SL-1200G.
The Technics sounded superb when I reviewed that other cartridge, the one I promised not to mention again. The solid, precise and stable sound from the SL-1200G, along with its propensity for tight yet deep bass, is very much aligned with the “Sumiko” sound. Well, the Sumiko Songbird possesses those same strengths thanks to that innovative body material that keeps everything quiet and in control.
Class M Planets’ new LP, Ravenswood, is gentle Americana with well-recorded acoustic instrumentation that reminds me of Wilco’s quieter albums such as Sky Blue Sky, especially since Adam Goldman’s voice often sounds like Jeff Tweedy with all its chipped edges and cautious charm. The Sumiko Songbird captured all of those special phrasings, the occasional crack in the voice, the sense that Goldman’s been through a lot and is still standing—but he’s weary and needs to find a soft, comfy place to sit. There’s a ton of atmosphere in this album, lots of echoes and the sound of natural movements, and the Songbird captured it all with ease.
As I’ve mentioned, the Sumiko Reference Line excels at deep bass. With the Sumiko Songbird, I felt that same brush up against my chest, the feeling of air moving quickly across the room, along the floor until it rises up to embrace you. LP after LP, and I kept thinking I was hearing new information way down low (“Private Investigations” from the new MoFi Love Over Gold, supplied a clear confirmation of that).
The Sumiko Songbird makes an excellent case for itself as one of the most intriguing sub-$1000 cartridges out there. It’s in a less crowded field than it used to be, especially since so many imported cartridges that were once $1000 are now getting closer to $2000. (One cartridge I bought a dozen years ago for $795 now retails, in a slightly newer version—for $2250. Man, that was a great $800 cartridge.)
That middle ground in the high-end audio marketplace is becoming larger and more sparsely populated than ever. I’ve had countless people in the industry tell me that audiophiles are buying budget gear, or they’re buying the crazy stuff at the top. The Sumiko Songbird walks into this dusty, windswept scene like Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, providing a clear choice for those of us who need an excellent cartridge that won’t make us weep openly when we need to send it in for a re-tip.
The Sumiko Songbird earns high praise for accomplishing Job #1 for a cartridge—extracting information from the groove. It’s also not easy for a cartridge at this price point to get the deep bass right. It’s not as warm as some of the other cartridges I’ve owned and loved, but let’s face it—it’s neutral and that’s an admirable goal for when price is an object. That’s how the Sumiko Songbird stands out from the crowd, and why you should give it a listen.