To understand why Part-Time Audiophile is taking another crack at reviewing the Hana Umami Red, especially just a few weeks after our own Mohammed Samji reviewed it in conjunction with his Technics SL-1210GAE feature, you have to go back a couple of years when I reviewed the Hana ML cartridge.
That was the previous flagship in the Hana line, despite only being $1200. Hana is sort of an anomaly in the Japanese cartridge world, a well-regarded company that offers models that start at just $475 and yet possess all of that desirable Japanese mystique and rarified performance. As I’ve joked before, their MSRPs seem like typos.
Within days of publishing my Hana ML review, I saw a news release about a new cartridge, the Hana Umami Red, that would retail for somewhere around $3950. The industry was buzzing about this cartridge, propelled by the singular idea that if Hana could achieve such incredible performance from their affordable line, well, how good would a $3950 Hana be?
After giving the Hana ML my thumb’s-up in my review and sending it back to Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings, the US distributor, I politely suggested that I would love to review the Umami Red as well. Heads nodded, plans were made, and then suddenly Mohammed Samji pulled a Dave McNair and had one in for review in conjunction with the Technics SL-1210GAE Anniversary turntable. (Dave, if you remember, had a history of keeping Qln loudspeakers out of my clutches because he kept buying them first, at least until I finally got to review the Prestige Ones earlier this year.)
Oh well, I thought, kicking at the dirt. Guess Mo can review the Hana Umami Red. I’ll find something else to do.
Once the review of the Technics SL-1210GAE turntable, with the Umami and the DS Audio HS-001 head shell (also supplied by Musical Surroundings), came out, I channeled Peggy Lee and thought to myself: I want to know more about the Hana Umami Red. This isn’t enough. Since I was going to follow-up Mohammed’s Technics review with my own comparisons with the Technics SL-1200G I’ve been using for the last three years, it seemed natural to give the Umami a try as well. To my surprise, both Mohammed and Garth Leerer went for it.
To put it succinctly, I thought the Hana Umami Red deserved a little more time in the PTA spotlight. Here we are.
A Bittersweet Pause in the Hana Umami Red Review
I’m feeling a little sad about completing this review of the Hana Umami Red, but only because the last few months have been so much fun with all of this analog gear flowing in and out of my system. The Red, in its own poignant way, is the reminder that it’s all coming to an end.
That’s right, that trusty Technics SL-1200G I’ve been using for the last three years is going back to its rightful owner, the Rev. Scot Hull, who has graciously put up with me hoggin’ the G for way too long. (Don’t worry, I vetted that statement carefully and it’s okay.) The Hana Umami Red will be reviewed by me on the Technics SL-1200G, and then the whole kit-and-kaboodle will be boxed up and taken away.
Here’s the crazy part. I sold my two back-up turntables, quite unexpectedly, and now the Vinyl Anachronist is sans turntable. Don’t weep for me yet—I’ll have the Brinkmann Taurus turntable and 12” arm in here shortly to use with the Brinkmann Edison Mk. II phono stage, which I’ve been enjoying over the last few months, so the analog is jumping up a level or two.
After that, I might just buy another 1200G. Yeah, I’m surprised by that, too.
DS Audio HS-001 Head Shell
Let me tell you a little secret about this DS Audio HS-001 head shell that stowed away with the Hana Umami Red. During the Technics comparison, I compared the $450 DS Audio with all of the other head shells in my stable that range in price from “free with the purchase of a Technics SL-1200G turntable” to nearly $800. (That’s another bittersweet notion, that I just discovered the world of premium head shells and now what am I going to do with all of them?) Over time, I shrugged my shoulders and kept using it for everything, basically becoming my favorite combination with the last three or four cartridges I’ve reviewed.
Why did I prefer this head shell for the Hana Umami Red, the Koetsu Urushi Black, the Sumiko Celebration 40 and the Sumiko Amethyst? It was easy for installation purposes, not tweaky or fiddly at all, and it has a beautiful fit and finish. I even loved the leads, which seemed as robust as you can get with these delicate little flowers nowadays. I’m not, however, 100% sure the DS Audio HS-001 made specific improvements in the overall sound, although I had absolutely no issues with tracking. I can’t say that about every head shell on the market. That alone affects the “sound” in profound ways.
While I still want to try the ZYX head shell for use with the ZYX Ultimate Airy X down the road, I could also see my head shell journey ending with the DS Audio. For the record, I’ve also asked Musical Surroundings if I could try one of their optical phono cartridges. Fingers crossed.
The Sound of the Hana Umami Red
I won’t spend a lot of time delving into the design, specs and features of the Hana Umami Red phono cartridge. Mohammed Samji already covered most of that in his review of the Red, and I urge you to go back and see his comments about the sound and how they compare to mine. As I mentioned, it was very easy to get the Red and the DS Audio mounted on the Technics SL-1200G—the same can obviously be said with the Technics SL-1210GAE—and since Mo had already put a number of hours on it I was digging the sound almost immediately.
My first impression of Hana Umami Red was that it sounded all warm and lush and breezy, one of those Bali Hai cartridges I’ve loved dearly in the not-too-distant past. I was surprised by this reaction, considering I had just swapped out that Koetsu. If there’s a Bali Hai cartridge out there, it’s Koetsu. To my ears, the Umami was just a bit warmer. When you’re talking about Koetsus, which most people agree veer from neutrality, you might be drifting into dangerous territory—it’s all too easy in this hobby to get too much warmth and lose all that information in the grooves.
So are we saying that the Hana Umami is warm, lush and therefore a cartridge that colors the sound? Hold on there. The system was already leaning a little lush—BAT VK-3500 hybrid integrated amplifier with its intriguing yet purist inboard phono stage and the high-efficiency TotalDAC d100 loudspeakers—so it might have been too much of a good thing for the Hana’s debut. But I enjoyed basking in those trade winds, especially with some of the exotica I’ve been obsessing over from Martin Denny and Henry Mancini. (It’s a phase, but it’s an entertaining one.)
On the new Analogue Productions 45 rpm reissue of Nat King Cole’s The Very Thought of You, however, I started to wonder who had ordered the extra syrup. This is one of those types of reissues I love, where it’s about the clear window into history as opposed to an ultimate sonic statement, so I was probably pushing my luck. I decided to bring in the big yet amazingly neutral guns from Pass Labs, the XP-22 preamplifier and the XP-27 phono pre, along with my Pureaudio Duo2 power amplifier, and suddenly I was hearing something more balanced, clean and transparent. Nat King Cole took a shower, put on a new suit, and sounded much more energetic.
I made one more amp change while the Hana Umami Red was in the system—I kept the Pass Labs XP-27 and used it with the Margules Audio i240 tubed integrated amplifer. This is one of those modestly powered EL-34 amps that I always used during my years as an importer and distributor, so I felt familiar with the soft and beautiful sound return to my system with that tinge of seduction. I felt that warmth slip in again. This time, it was more measured, and not at all opaque. That’s when I realized that I heard three different amplification set-ups with the Hana Umami Red with three distinctive sonic personalities, and the Red was bringing out those differences in the way a more expensive cartridge would.
The Hana Umami Red turned out to be a remarkably transparent cartridge, with little to no editorializing. It was nicely balanced, like the Hana ML, in a quiet and attentive manner. That is the answer to the original question—if the Hana ML, at $1200, sounds like a $3950 cartridge, then what does the $3950 Hana Umami Red sound like? Like very little and oh-so-much at the same time.
Let’s get away from prices because there’s that level where it’s not about being best, it’s about being best for you. But there is a vague, nebulous and ever-shifting price point that divides the good from the great when it comes to phono cartridges. The Hana Umami Red manages to skip effortlessly across that bridge and manage all of the things that great cartridges can do. Sure, that chameleonic charm can go a long way when you’re looking for a cartridge that allows the downstream components to shine in their own special ways, but secretly most of us hardcore vinyl lovers want a little more out of our cartridges. We want them to make an indelible impression on us so that we can jog our memory banks at will and recall how a particular piece of music sounded with that particular cartridge on that specific day.
Did I notice something about the Hana Umami Red’s character that stood out during those changes? I’ll have to go back to those first moments with the Umami, with that Nat King Cole LP, and remember what I noticed first—the immense size of the soundstage. There was a time, probably in my Brit-fi days, where I thought soundstaging and imaging were bells and whistles and tonal accuracy was everything—especially, of course, in the all-important midrange. Once you’ve spent seat time with great analog, you start to understand that imaging and soundstaging provide the natural space for those tones to make sense to our brains and sound like the music we love and hold dear.
Conclusions on the Hana Umami Red and DS Audio HS-001
Let’s get the DS Audio head shell out of the way, so to speak, by saying that if I do get another Technics SL-1200G, it’s my first choice. Or what if I got that nifty 12.7” Sorane tonearm I reviewed with the Gem Dandy PolyTable Signature? I really admired that arm’s simplicity, ease of ownership and affordable cost. Or what if I get some time with another tonearm with a removable head shell in the near future? These are all good excuses to rely on the DS Audio for a solid, dependable interface.
As for the Hana Umami Red, this cartridge is yet another model from this deservedly successful high-end audio company that offers almost insanely excellent value. I’m not fond of making number-based judgments on the sound of a component, so I really don’t want to say something insipid like “it competes with cartridges at twice the price!” But that’s what the little opinionated voice in the back of my head is telling me to write.
The Hana Umami Red, at $3950, reaches that top level of phono cartridges where it becomes about you, the owner—your priorities and tastes—will dictate whether it will be the cartridge for you. But I’ll say it clearly—if you are looking for cartridges in this price range and you don’t check out the Umami, you’ll always wonder if you made the right decision. I’m glad I made the decision to grab this cartridge from Mo and experience it for myself. Highly recommended.