Gramophone Dreams #29: Etsuro Urushi & Hana phono cartridges Page 2

The 1:10 version of EMIA's Phono step-up transformer ($2400) was a Goldilocks-caliber "just right" match, combining punch and excitement with ease and refinement in ways the others didn't quite equal. I'm certain that part of its ability to excite came from its 80% nickel core; I'm just as sure its refinement came from its just-right damping. With the Etsuro Urushi, the EMIA transformer presented a festival of subtle dynamic inflections and transient nuance I had never noticed, on records I've heard countless times. Piano became the fiercest and, simultaneously, the most delicate of instruments. The notes coming out of Martha Argerich's Steinway on Maurice Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales (Deutsche Grammophon 2530 540) were powerfully alive and completely animated. There was so much vibrating presence, I thought I could feel Martha's body and hands at the piano.

On top of all that, the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue plus EMIA Phono SUT generated that beguiling high-nickel radiance I so enjoy. When I noticed the luminous aureole surrounding each of Martha's notes, I thought it complimented Argerich's luminous playing.

I felt the Cobalt Blue had found its perfect transformer match.

In my world, the prime beauty of live music resides in its physical- ity: overall tone, force, and perceived textures. Therefore, those are the main traits I look for from my stereo. To check for these traits, I played Todd Garfinkle's exquisite recording of Ito Ema playing J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (M•A Recordings MO24A V). The Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue reproduced the decay components of Ito's notes exactly as I imagined they should be, not too long or too short. The force, density, and texture of each note felt precisely correct. Ito's piano occupied my room with surprising weight and dimension.

My observations for this report took place over nearly a full year of almost daily listening. During that time, I never once took the Cobalt Blue's beguiling occupy-the-room presentation for granted. Every day it pleased me. Every day I thought, This cartridge could compete with any cartridge at any price. I also wondered what its more expensive siblings might sound like.

Hana ML
In lieu of costlier Etsuro Urushi models, I will tell you instead of another cartridge, this one much lower in price but also manufactured by the Excel Sound Corporation of Japan: the new Hana ML moving-coil cartridge ($1200).

In previous Gramophone Dreams, I've raved about how Alnico magnets and aluminum-pipe cantilevers contributed to pleasurably burnished tonalities from not only the Denon DL-103 ($299) and the modified Zu Audio Denon DL-103 ($499), but also the Hana EL ($475) and SL ($750).


I explained how the low-output SL's nude Shibata stylus scraped copious detail from my record grooves, even in that cartridge's mono version. I described all these cartridges as offering high value for the dollar. I recommended them to friends.

This new Hana ML looks and feels substantially more upscale. It features an injection-molded Delrin body topped with a brass cap and fitted with threaded brass inserts for the cartridge-mounting bolts. The ML is heavier (9gm) than the EL and SL, both of which have bodies made of ABS plastic and weigh 5gm. The ML retains the EL and SL's aluminum-pipe cantilever, 10x10–6cm/dyne dynamic compliance, and Alnico magnet. According to Excel, the ML version adds "cryogenic processing" to both the Alnico magnet and the iron bits of its magnetic circuit. Most important, the ML features a nude Microline stylus and a new coil design using 30 micron high-purity copper wire for an 8-ohm impedance and a 0.4mV output. Other specs include an 8-ohm impedance and a 0.4mV output. (Hana's EL and SL cartridges use a 15 micron 4N copper wire and have a 30-ohm impedance and a 0.5mV output.)

The Hana ML's specs call for a load of greater than 100 ohms, but I initially set the Phonomena II+ phono stage at its lowest (59 ohms) setting, just to see how the ML would behave fully loaded. I used my original pressing of the Grateful Dead's American Beauty (Warner Bros. WS 1893) as a starting test for correct tonality: If American Beauty sounds rich and real—if I get that authentic Dead guitar sound— then the component gets a gold star. At 59 ohms, the Hana was a little less flowing than I prefer, but its large-scale punch and grab were impressive.

When I switched the ML's loading from 59 to 121 ohms, it immediately earned a gold star. And at 121 ohms, the ML allowed The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker (Riverside/Electric Recording Company RLP 12-838) to sound breathier, more wide-range, and more transparent. It increased the clarity of analog tape hiss (in the background) and made John Lee Hooker more there (in the foreground).

I tried the Hana ML at 243 ohms, where it became cleaner, more precise, and even more transparent. But I preferred 121 ohms, where the left hand of Ito Ema's piano was better toned and more commanding than with either the Hana SL or EL. What most distinguished the Hana ML from its popular, lower-cost siblings was how forceful and dynamic its bottom five octaves were.

The ML's power and naturalism really showed themselves when I played one of the most spectacular recordings in my collection: The Music of Edgard Varèse (Columbia MS 6146, in a six-eye pressing). Composed in 1930, Ionisation is the first classical composition to employ only percussion. It employs kettle drums, snares, gongs, bells, and police sirens. Instead of tone, it focuses on impact, power, and masses of high-energy sound. The Hana ML presented this dazzling display of avant-garde invention with unusual force and extremely pure transients.

On the Varèse and every other recording I played, the four-timesmore-expensive Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue excavated instrumental textures with extremely high tactility factors. In contrast, the Hana ML demonstrated a noticeable tendency to smooth out or generalize those same textures. I observed this low-grade smoothing using the super-resolving, quasi-ribbon, Magnepan LRS loudspeakers as well as my reference Harbeth 30.2 monitors, both driven by Pass Labs' XA25 stereo amplifier.

Curious whether this smoothing might have been caused by the Musical Surroundings phono stage, I connected the Hana ML to the combination of EMIA Phono transformer and Tavish Design tube phono stage.

The first record I played with that combo was Ito Ema playing the Goldberg Variations—and once again I remembered why I like SUTs (and why I think Todd Garfinkle got the microphone placement on this recording exactly right): With the Phonomena II+ phono stage (set for 121 ohms), the ML sounded clear and strong and undistorted, but maybe a little too straightforward — yet with the EMIA SUT, the ML's sound acquired a full dose of that high-nickel-content radiance: something I first encountered ages ago while listening through Western Electric 91A amplifiers. The Hana's Alnico magnet coupled to the EMIA's dense nickel core gave notes from Ito's 1903 Steinway a halo-like shimmer that I could bathe in for days. It brought new details into the light. It gave music a super-3D, apparition-like presence. The ML-EMIA combo showed me a level of nuanced phonographic beauty I never imagined possible at anywhere near this price. It was maximally satisfying.

I like my music brilliant and conspicuously in the room, which is exactly what John Renbourn's The Lady and The Unicorn (Transatlantic Records TRA 224) sounded like with the Hana ML. I was most enamored of the supervivid presence of Tony Roberts' and Ray Warleigh's flutes, as well as John Renbourn's guitar, on "Scarborough Fair." This is the record and the song you want your system to reproduce. On a fine system, with a strong-but-elegant-sounding cartridge like the Hana ML, you should be smiling and dreaming all the way through. Think weighty and flowing, with the sound of each instrument subliminally enhanced by a perfect halo of Alnico luminescence.

Overall, the Hana ML produced a beguiling, tubelike sound, similar in feel to the Zu/Denon DL-103, which I always use with the EMIA Phono SUT. The EMIA-Zu/Denon phono system generates happy hormones.

It runs like a wolf and dances like a bear. It has conspicuous life force. And! The Denon DL-103's Alnico magnet generates that nickel radiance I keep referring to. Unfortunately, it does not recover a generous or nuanced spatiality. It does not expose textures in shadows or detail in the treble. It suppresses distant low-level sounds. The $1200 Hana ML picks up sonically where the Zu/Denon leaves off.

I compared the Zu and the Hana cartridges on the same Feickert Blackbird turntable, with the same Jelco TK-850L tonearm and the same AMG Reference tonearm cable, connected to the same EMIA SUT. What I found was that the ML could not out-rock or out-reggae the Zu/Denon: The ML had lower chi. But the ML did excavate more detail from the shadows and expose more instrumental texture and subtle gradations of tone. Compared to my beloved Zu/Denon, the Hana ML was simply more nuanced, subtly detailed, and suave.

Similarly, the beauty of the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue is how it picks up where the Hana ML leaves off.

I compared the Zu/Denon, the Hana ML, and the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue on the same Feickert/ Jelco/AMG/EMIA rig described above. What I found was that all three cartridges generated a burnished, liquid sound that occupied the room in a distinctively unmechanical fashion.

All three cartridges reached into the grooves and recovered the physical reality stamped on the vinyl—the low-level evidence of analog tape recorders and the corporeality of the musicians. All of that contributed to an extraordinary tactile presence—that meaningful touch that bb told me about.

In like manner, these cartridges exposed the sonic-texture grain structures I associate with their own magnet and cantilever materials, easily demonstrating such things as the change that occurs when switching from an aluminum cantilever (on the DL-103 and Hana ML) to a sapphire cantilever (on the Etsuro Urushi).

More than anything, all three cartridges reminded me how much I love acquiring, touching, and playing LPs. Every time I cleaned their styli and lowered the tonearm, I got excited and memories started flowing.

I could dream away my sunset years listening only with the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue: It does everything I desire. Unfortunately, during those years I will need what the Cobalt Blue costs to pay for Blue Cross, fishing tackle, and upkeep on the Airstream. Therefore, I'll just have to be 80% content (haw!) with the overachieving Hana ML: a stunning-sounding, artfully engineered phono invention that loves all music, and a fantastic bargain.


Glotz's picture

Alnico magnet saturation... noted.

audiocaptain's picture

Herb I just installed a Hana ML in the Funk FX3 and it just sings. After about 50 hours and some new and old records I must say I'm sold on fairly priced MC's. I am expecting the Analog Majik setup program and records tomorrow and look forward to hours of sonic bliss.

anomaly7's picture

Herb, your review of the Etsuro Urushi's Cobalt Blue cartridge inspires me to spend money, not only on the cartridge but also on another SUT. You have conveyed your appreciation for the product in a way that makes this reader say, I too want that experience in my system. Bravo.

Djape's picture

Herb, have you seen levitating turntables

Ed Oz's picture

Hi Herb,

First of all...I always enjoy your reviews in which you try different combos of equipment and work hard to clarify the differences you do or don't hear. (This, even though I don't understand how "chi" or "yin and yang" relate to sonics.)

In any case...since you also play polystyrene singles...the Hana ML with its microline stylus profile will damage certain polystyrene 45s.

I performed thorough tests in which I cleaned some singles before and between multiple plays and compared the results with other singles that weren't effected.

I then sent the test singles to a friend and designer/manufacturer of my turntable, who is also a Hana dealer. He had the same results.

Some comments to an online audio forum post resulted in replies from owners of other brand cartridges with microline/microridge styli saying that they, too, had damage issues with polystyrene singles.

With previous conical, elliptical, or shibata styli, I have never had an issue. I don't have problems with my backup vdH One shibata nor does an audiophile buddy with his Hana SL.

I am now awaiting the arrival of a replacement Hana SL.

Note that damage does not occur with all polystyrene singles, but it's very real (and visible) on those where it does.

My test singles included polystyrene discs from the 1970s and 1980s from major labels, so the problem is not confined to 1950s and 1960s 45s.

Keep up the good work!