Gramophone Dreams #24: Hana & Musical Surroundings Page 2

Many collectors of 45s claim that styrene discs become noisy after only five or six plays, and that playing a styrene with a MicroRidge or Shibata stylus is a fast road to ruined discs. So far, my experience does not confirm this.

Before the Hana SL Mono, I played my 7" 45s with either my super-fine-line-tipped EMT TSD 75 SFL, or a Koetsu Rosewood Standard cartridge with quadrahedral stylus. I've played some of these styrene singles—eg, the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" (Garrett GA-4002) or Matt Lucas's "I'm Movin' On" (Smash S-1813)—scores of times, mostly with fine-line styli tracking at 2gm or more. I have not seen or heard any groove damage. The main thing I have noticed is that the Koetsu Rosewood Standard, the EMT TSD 75 SFL, and now the Hana SL Mono all play these big-hole styrene discs more quietly than do their conical counterparts.

Hana SL (stereo)
I'm partial to the burnished, vivid, almost glowing sounds generated by loudspeakers and phono cartridges whose magnets are made of alnico, an alloy of aluminum, nickel, cobalt, iron, and sometimes copper and/or titanium. High-nickel-content magnets and transformer cores make music sound more relaxed and naturally textured than ferrite/ceramic or neodymium magnets. To me, ferrite magnets sound rough and granular; neodymium sounds smooth and powerful, with a sort of intense but vacuous transparency that I find very hi-fi.


The use of alnico in cartridge magnets yields another quality I admire: it makes singers and instruments sound denser and more real. Art Dudley calls this "chunk." Whatever you call this tangibility, I love it—it makes reproduced music sound less reproduced.

I also think alnico enhances the reproduction of timbres. When I reviewed the Hana EL ($475) in my August 2016 column, I raved about how it "presented music with an alnico-like feeling of homespun organic rightness."

To my delight, the Shibata stylus of the Hana SL improved on the elliptical stylus of the Hana EL in two ways: with the Shibata profile, texture and detail were finer and less generalized. The SL excavated more microscale information, especially in the high frequencies.

Like the Hana EL and SL Mono, the Hana SL (stereo) exhibits all the above-mentioned alnico pleasures. I've just completed several months of playing records with a slew of $5000+ cartridges, and switching to the Hana SL ($750) did not feel like a depressing step down. In fact, I can imagine someone, somewhere describing the Hana SL as more accurate than some very expensive moving-coils. I wouldn't go that far, but while playing the title track of the Mascara Quartet's Barco Negro (Sazas VVE LP 001), for a moment I did think, Holy shit! Am I hearing right? Is this plastic-bodied Hana SL recovering more information, more naturally and more enjoyably, than those big-money 'coils? Of course, it didn't—but at that moment, it seemed as if it did.

The Hana SL had a unique sonic character: solid and straightforward, with a well-balanced energy throughout all ten octaves of the audioband. While not as vivid or as vivacious as a fancy Koetsu, the SL sounded naturally detailed, and generated large, well-articulated soundstages.

The Hana SL has a Shibata stylus, so be prepared to spend extra time dialing in the vertical tracking angle (VTA) and stylus rake angle (SRA). Use the innermost grooves of a quiet LP, and give more-than-usual care to offset angle, azimuth, and antiskate bias. If possible, use a Musical Surroundings Fozgometer azimuth-range meter and The Ultimate Analogue Test LP (Analogue Productions AAPT-1). When a Shibata stylus isn't traveling perfectly perpendicular to the groove center, it makes a faint, hissy-phasey distorted sound that you'll best recognize by its absence. Keep making micro-adjustments until you hear all the quiet, lucidity, and low distortion you paid extra for.


Like the Hana EL, the Hana SL and SL Mono delivered those old-school alnico pleasures I cherish: naturally supple viscosity and glowing vivid tone. In addition, both SLs delivered those new-school pleasures I associate with Shibata stylus profiles: "black" background quiet, seductively rendered top octaves, and exquisite inner detail. Each Hana SL played records as if it cost not hundreds but thousands of bucks.

Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ phono stage
I did all of my listening to the Hana SLs using another $750 product distributed by Musical Surroundings, this one made by them as well: the Phonomena II+ phono stage, designed by Michael Yee and manufactured in California.

According to Garth Leerer, president of Musical Surroundings, "The Phonomena II+ is the 3rd generation of the Phonomena line of products. The original Phonomena I was brought to market 20 years ago; a time when analog was dead. Only two turntables came to [the Consumer Electronics Show] that year."


How times have changed. Today at audio shows, there are more turntables than CD players. Hell, at High End 2018, in Munich, there were more open-reel tape decks than CD players.

Typically, moderately priced phono stages use integrated op-amps for gain and buffering. But Yee crafted the Phonomena II+'s RIAA signal path using 17 transistors (!) and over 100 parts per channel. Yee uses an active dual-pole filter that, according to Leerer, uses global and local feedback.

This is interesting—for three decades, I have believed that the best RIAA phono stages were two-stage, passive (no feedback) topologies using high-transconductance tubes. Michael Yee's design for the Phonomena II+ is the opposite of that.

The Phonomena II+ is extraordinarily adjustable: 13 different gain settings, from 40 to 60dB; and for moving-coil cartridges, 17 loadings, from 30 to 100k ohms. The DIP switches for making these settings are on the rear panel, labeled clearly enough for even an old man to see and set.


As its unusual topology suggests, the Phonomena II+ has an unusual sound character: It simultaneously sounds like a great tubed phono stage and a great transistor phono stage. The II+ consistently drew my attention to the texture and detail of instruments and voices. Soundstages were unusually deep (as from a tube stage). Even with the standard wall-wart power supply, it did bass power and dynamics like a transistor stage. Force and momentum were good, but not exceptional. The midrange was engaging but a little forward. On shouty, hard recordings, the high frequencies might sometimes flatten out. But overall, the Phonomena II+ sounded sweet, natural, rhythmic, and dead quiet. My main early concern was the highs, which could be a little unpredictable. This concern led my audiophile brain to focus on the Phonomena II+'s digital power supply.

Musical Surroundings Linear Charging Power Supply
The Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ comes with a wall-wart power supply. I hate wall warts. Whenever I see one, I imagine entire beaches along America's Pacific coast covered not with sand but with partially melted wall warts. A week after I installed the Phonomena II+, I e-mailed Garth Leerer: "No matter how well it plays records, I cannot bring myself to review a $750 phono stage with a wall wart and a switching-type power supply."

That was a lie. I couldn't tell Leerer, but by then I already knew that this little transistor-packed phono stage was playing my French EMI and Nonesuch Explorer LPs with power and aplomb. Run-of-the-mill phono stages tend toward the blah and the ho-hum. Yet even with the wart, bass through the Phonomena II+ was strong and detailed. The Grateful Dead's American Beauty (Warner Bros. WS 1893) sounded crisp and present, but not as luxurious or refined (or analog) as the Tavish Design Adagio ($1790), an all-tube, passive-active design that uses a transformer input for low-output MCs, and a separate linear power supply attached by a long, thick umbilical cord.

I told Leerer that wall warts are the devil's plague.

"Okay, Herb. I've got what you need—I'll send it right along."

He sent Musical Surrounding's matching Linear Charging Power Supply ($650), which had been designed for Michael Yee's statement phono stage, the SuperNova III. According to Leerer, "The LCPS can also be used as the upgraded power supply for the Phonomena II, Phonomena II+, and Nova II, to improve the sound; it includes a second DC output and cable to plug into the DC input of the aforementioned phono stages." Besides precision Linear Technologies voltage regulators, the LCPS uses a super-premium, Japanese-made Tamura power transformer.

With the LCPS my Phonomena II+ phono rig now cost almost twice as much as before—$1400—but seemed at least four times as enjoyable. With the Hana SL (stereo), Phonomena II+, and LCPS, the sound coming out of my Harbeth M30.2 speakers displayed a kind of subtle 3D glow almost like a tube amp's. Violins, voices, and electric guitars sounded more vibrant and lifelike than they did with the wall wart. With the wart, soundstages were less corporeal. With the LCPS, images became denser, finer grained, more colorful, more focused.

I tried the Phonomena II+ and LCPS with the Koetsu Rosewood Standard, the AMG Teatro, and EMT TSD 75 SFL moving-coils, comparing it with my reference Tavish Design Adagio. Not surprisingly, the AMG Teatro (another product distributed by Musical Surroundings) sounded less bright, more supple, and more colorful than through the Adagio.The EMT TSD 75, too, was more supple and colorful. I was deeply impressed.

I installed the Koetsu Rosewood Standard, set its load to 59 ohms, and heard something new and wonderful in a very old song: Ann Ronell's "Willow Weep for Me," as sung by Frank Sinatra on his Only the Lonely (Capitol SW1053). I sniffed the flavor of vintage Ampex sound. Back in the 1990s, I collected 15ips reel-to-reel tapes and retired professional Ampex recording gear, mostly from the '60s. Many of my tapes had been originally recorded on the very machines I played them on—the sound of Ampex tubed gear is imprinted on my brain. With the Phonomena II+ I heard that vintage Ampex sound emanating from the grooves of this Sinatra masterpiece—which was undoubtedly recorded on Ampex machines. No other phono stage I've tried has delivered that level of—how shall I say it?—inner detail.

That phenomenal level of insightfulness has made the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ with Linear Charging Power Supply my new reference phono stage.


Ortofan's picture

... evaluation samples of their 2M Mono and 2M Mono SE cartridges.
The standard Mono has a spherical stylus, while the Mono SE has a Shibata stylus.

oldtech's picture

Nice, but I'd be wary of playing my styrene 45s with anything but a spherical stylus.