This isn’t the first time in the last few months where I had to explain my reasoning behind reviewing a certain component. Take this new Sumiko Amethyst cartridge, a moving-magnet cartridge that retails for a very reasonable $600. (That is, however, expensive for an MM.) I have a number of extraordinary low-output MC phono cartridges in for review right now such as the Allnic Audio Amber, ZYX Ultimate Airy X, Goldenberg Classic, Hana Umami Red, Koetsu Urushi Black and yes, even the new $2799 Sumiko Celebration 40, which just showed up.
Plus, I have a number of very able and willing phono stages at my disposal—Allnic Audio H-5500, Brinkmann Edison Mk. 2, Pass Labs XP-27, Hagerman Trumpet MC, the HP phono card in the Rowland Capri S2 preamplifier and I might even see two more show up before the end of the month.
(These are halcyon days for my vinyl hobby. This is Josh Baskin on his first visit to FAO Schwartz. This is a blast.)
It almost seems that there’s no room for an affordable MM cartridge in the mix, but my reason for taking on the Sumiko Amethyst is simple: I’ve always appreciated an over-achieving high-output MM design. I’ve owned quite a few over the years starting with a Shure V-15 Type III in 1977, a Grado Signature 8M through college, and most of the Rega cartridge line (I used the Exact for several years). I’m also a big fan of the entire Ortofon 2M line and I even represented a single MM cartridge during my importing and distributing years—the Unison Research UN-1, which was a modified Clearaudio Virtuoso with a “tonewood” body. I used that for one years as well.
Here’s a more specific reason to tackle the Sumiko Amethyst—it’s been a few years since I’ve spent time with an “upper-echelon” MM cartridge. When people ask me about the advantages of low-output MCs over MMs and even HOMCs, I’m reaching far, far back into the memory banks to deliver a meaningful answer. I’ve been in the LOMC world for a long time now. I want a better answer for that question because MMs, it seems, are getting better.
Something about the Sumiko Amethyst caught my eye. It’s positioned at the top of the Oyster line, which has been around for decades, which almost implies and they’ve taken this design as far as it can go—at least until the Amethyst Mk. 2 comes out in a few years. That sounds a little sarcastic, but it’s not. Going back to all of those wonderful MM phono cartridges in my past, I know that a great MM can blur the performance line between it and a merely good MC if you merely take care of the basics, such as the resonances in the body and the stylus profile.
Let’s see if the Sumiko Amethyst crosses into that frontier and closes that gap.
Inside the Sumiko Amethyst
As I mentioned, the Sumiko Amethyst sits at the top of Sumiko’s Oyster line, which is their budget MM line. If you don’t know the budget line, it starts with the basic Oyster cartridges that you’ll still find as a gimme on some of those plug-and-play entry-level turntables. You can buy an Oyster for $79 and it’d be just as solid as any inexpensive Shure, AT or Grado out there.
The Oyster line, however, is also where you’d find the legendary Blue Point and Blue Point Special cartridges—always a popular choice for mid-priced analog rigs. The Sumiko Amethyst, however, is a further refinement of the design used for the Moonstone, Olympia and Rainer models.
The Amethyst has a slightly lower output (2.5mV) than those models, which also reduces “extraneous noise.” The housing of the Sumiko Amethyst is similar to those mid-level Oysters, but they’ve spent a little more time on controlling resonances. In addition, the generator has now been optimized for the stylus and cantilever. To top it off, the Sumiko Amethyst uses a nude line-contact diamond stylus—Sumiko says this gives the Amethyst a more nimble feeling that will get you closer to the performance of similarly priced MC cartridges.
It’s been a while since I’ve set-up an MM cartridge like the Sumiko Amethyst. It’s a surprising statement to declare since it’s objectively far more simple, but for the last few years I’ve been using the Pureaudio Vinyl phono stage as my reference and, well, it doesn’t really like high-output carts. It’ll work, but for the most the design isn’t optimized for it. As Gary Morrison once told me, “We assume that at $4500, the Vinyl isn’t going to be used with an MM cartridge.”
Since I haven’t used a high-output or MM cartridge in my system for many years, I stopped thinking about needing a quality MM input–other than using the occasional SUT. A few of the phono stages I’ve had in for review, for example, were MC only. I see that as a growing trend. But one of the stellar phono stages I have in right now has TWO MM inputs as well as TWO MC inputs. We’re talking about the utterly magical Allnic Audio H-5500, which is also $4500. That had me wondering if the Allnic’s MM section was anything as special as the MC section, or did they just phone it in?
If you have any experience with Allnic, you’ll know this is an absurd question.
I installed the Sumiko Amethyst into a killer-diller of a system, one that I’ve been truly enjoying over the last few weeks: Allnic Audio T-2000 30th Anniversary integrated amplifier, TotalDAC d100 speakers and my Technics SL-1200G turntable. For headshells I used both the stock Technics and the DS Audio that Mohammed Samji used to review the Hana Umami Red on the Technics SL-1210GAE. Cabling was a mixture of Furutech and AudioQuest, power conditioning was handled by an AudioQuest Niagara 3000.
All right, let’s revisit that oft-asked audiophile forum chestnut: why are MCs considered to be better than MMs?
When I moved up from MMs to MCs—a Koetsu Black was my first, so I jumped in with both feet—I never really stopped to think of a good answer. I made some rather large upgrades to my system at the time I bought the Black, and my hi-fi had reached a new level of performance. I went from a Rega Exact to a Koetsu, after all. Order of magnitude, blah blah blah.
Also, I’ve had plenty experience with the Ortofon 2M series in the last few years, so it’s not like I haven’t heard a good MM phono cartridge in a while. (Both the Fluance and the Andover rigs had them.) But as much as I love high-value carts like the 2M Blue and the 2M Red, I could always hear their limitations when installed in quality analog rigs—especially in terms of macro-dynamics and the dreaded noise floor.
Going back the other way and listening to the Sumiko Amethyst MM cartridge after years and years of LOMCs, I knew I would hear those differences right off. (That’s my protocol for evaluating gear, if you haven’t noticed. Subtraction over addition.) What did these cartridges from Allnic and ZYX and Hana and Goldenberg have that the Amethyst lacks?
The first difference, which didn’t surprise me after all the earthing equipment tests in my listening room, was a slightly higher amount of noise coming through the TotalDAC d100 speakers. These have a 98dB sensitivity, but they were dead silent before the Amethyst was mounted and aligned. That’s one of the main advantages to LOMCs, that incredibly low noise floor.
I also detected that slightly familiar lack of dynamics and perhaps airiness, that sense of tremendous space between instruments and room boundaries. Also, the extreme high frequencies were nowhere as sweet and infinite as they were with something like the Allnic Audio Amber. But none of this should be surprising when you compare a $4500 MC cartridge to a $600 MM cartridge.
In fact, the Sumiko Amethyst surprised me right out of the gate with a tight, punchy and rhythmic sound. Low frequencies were smooth and controlled and extended—this was clearly evident with the first drum beat from Dead Can Dance’s “Yulunga,” which I discuss further in my upcoming review for the Qln Prestige One monitors. Swapping between the Amethyst and the Amber, I sensed no great difference in the weight and definition of that big soft soothsayer of a boom.
Here’s the thing, just on the heels of my guest appearance on The Occasional Podcast, the one about Brit-Fi. While listening to the Sumiko Amethyst, I was reminded of PRaT, something we audiophiles used to talk about until quite recently, it seems. (I’ve brought the subject up a couple of times with other audiophiles recently and I was met with blank stares.) I’m talking about pace, rhythm and timing.
I won’t get into the controversy of that phrase, which probably wasn’t that interesting of a controversy in the first place, but for me PRaT was always about drive and momentum and whether or not the the music kept the beat. Some people used to refer to this as “holding onto the note,” but that’s dumb. Don’t use that phrase anymore, please.
So the Sumiko wasn’t as dynamic and open as all those $2000-$6500 moving coil cartridges I have sitting around, but it was tight and punchy and direct and powerful—and not at all stingy with the information in the groove. In fact, it did remind me a little of that old Rega Exact I once had, except much quieter.
Listening with the Sumiko Amethyst
Once I realized that the Sumiko Amethyst wanted to rock, I acquiesced. The Amethyst spent a lot of time digging out the wonderful electronic eccentricities from the new Trees Speak album, PostHuman, which sounds primarily like electronica played by a ‘70s prog rock band. We’re talking subterranean beats to a certain extent, and the Amethyst didn’t blink an eye. At the same time I was still able to separate the layers of bass energy and clearly hear the differences between the beat and the room’s reaction to the beat.
I promised I wouldn’t bring out “Private Investigations” from the MoFi remaster of Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold again, but I wanted to hear John Illsey’s single bass pluck halfway into the song, the one that marks the beginning of the sonic fireworks during the second half of the song. It’s like the Yulunga of bass notes. Not only did the Sumiko Amethyst deliver the note how I like it—deep but somewhat distant—but when Illsley starts plucking the subsequent notes I was able to hear deeper into the finger work, the stubborn pull of the thumb across the thick metal string, almost as if I’ve never really noticed the fleshy bit before.
The Sumiko Amethyst was always an exciting choice, especially when I started pulling out classic rock album after classic rock album. In a way, the Amethyst was a time machine, taking me back to those days where I used nothing but excellent moving-magnet cartridges and my hair was past my shoulders.
Sumiko Amethyst: Conclusion
While a $600 moving-magnet cartridge might sound like a relatively rare thing, it’s not. The Sumiko Amethyst certainly has a lot of worthy competition—the Ortofon 2M Bronze, the Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood, MoFi Master Tracker and many more. We’re not even going to mention the MC cartridges that are out there for the same money, because that’s a long story. If you’re looking for a moving-magnet cartridge specifically, it probably has something to do with your phono preamp and whether or not you can use an MC.
I’ve even met a few people who prefer the sound of MMs over MCs, or they don’t hear a big enough improvement in MC sound to warrant the extra cost of a MC phono stage. Or, and this is a big one, maybe these people are into vintage gear. Old ‘70s receivers with built-in phono sections. Even contemporary preamps and integrated amps often have inboard MM stages. Heed Audio does that with the Elixir, and I’ve used it with MMs and had excellent results. I think the idea is to stop talking about high-output moving-magnet phono cartridges as if they’re black-and-white TVs. I think MM will be around for a long time, thanks to thorough and careful designs such as the Sumiko Amethyst.
The Sumiko Amethyst has so many strengths as a moving-magnet cartridge that it’s difficult to ignore. The bass response is superb. It’s one of the quietest MMs I’ve ever used (although it does fall short of the MCs I have). If you’re still loyal to MM, the Sumiko Amethyst has to be one of the most musical and balanced choices you can make.