Gramophone Dreams #47: Hana Umami Red, Musical Surroundings Nova III, Ampsandsound Bigger Ben

At the end of Gramophone Dreams #46, I was lost in the pristine beauty of Decware's 25th Anniversary Zen Triode amplifier driving the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 speakers. That was an extremely enjoyable system, and I was hoping to keep it intact for another month. My plan was simply to morph into my long-postponed opus on tube rolling using the Zen Triode as well as Ampsandsound's Bigger Ben headphone and loudspeaker amp. Both are single-ended triode, no-feedback designs and therefore perfectly suited for tube-swapping comparisons.

Then, on December 17, at 6:37am, I was on the bed meditating, in the lotus position, when it hit me: I can't do tube rolling yet. I must first cover Hana's new flagship moving coil cartridge, the Umami Red (footnote 1), while it is still new news.

Ten minutes later, I realized that the fairest plan would be to review the fancy Hana, which is distributed in the US by Musical Surroundings, with that company's own Nova III solid state phono stage. The Nova III is not quite new news, but readers should know about it.

Then, in full, "first things first" mode, I also realized that before I do the tube-rolling experiments I must first review the Justin Weber–designed Bigger Ben amplifier. That way, I can use it as a reference, and readers will know what I'm talking about.

After having a coffee, I put my headband magnifier on and installed the Urushi-lacquered Hana Umami Red on Thomas Schick's 10.5" tonearm, which was attached to the two-motor Dr. Feickert Analogue Blackbird turntable. To get a quick feel for the Umami's character, I connected the 'table to my longest-term reference phono stage, the $3000 Parasound Halo JC 3+.

Hana Umami Red: the Fifth Flavor
I first heard the word umami years ago while buying ingredients for miso soup. The woman at Sunrise Japanese market (on Broome Street in New York City) said that in addition to miso paste, I needed Hondashi. I flinched when she told me it was bonito extract and MSG, but she insisted I use it, saying it was "the fifth flavor": not sweet, sour, salty, or bitter, but something else.

She was right about its importance. Hondashi added a hearty complexity to this simple umami broth's flavor. Remembering that made me curious why Hana chose that name for its all-out, $3950 phono cartridge.


I asked Garth Leerer at Musical Surroundings, Hana's US distributor, who named the cartridge.

"We were all brainstorming, and we wanted a name instead of just a model such as ML," he said. "Then, as I walked into my neighborhood Japanese store, which is called Umami Mart, I realized that Umami is the perfect name, as it means both a new, intense flavor and a synergy of parts creating a greater whole.

"I pitched my idea to Okada-san of Excel and Hiroshi-san of Hana-Youtek. After some initial concern that 'Umami' might be associated with the name of a Japanese burger joint (Umami Burger), they agreed to move forward with the name," Leerer told me.

For more than four decades, I've been telling anyone who'd listen, "Everything sounds like what it is made of," and "Audio design is more like cooking than engineering." Some people laugh.

Obviously, power supply design, circuit design, and the choice of active devices and their associated operating parameters are key aspects of the electrical recipe that establishes the core sound of all audio amplification. Less understood and only marginally quantified are the physical/material aspects of choosing the best parts with which to execute a design.

To understand why "everything sounds like what it is made of," it is useful to imagine audio signals as pulsing electromagnetic waves that impact every part of each audio component like a drumstick tapping a porcelain teacup, brass bell, or foam pillow. When the signal waves "hit" the transformers, resistors, capacitors, and the box they are in, everything shakes, spawning disharmonious tones that merge, at some low magnitude, with the passing audio signal (footnote 2).

The most obvious example of what I am describing is the record player. Turntables, tonearms, and cartridges are nothing if not rattling contraptions where delicate signal waves merge, willy-nilly, with rogue mechanical and electromagnetic waves. Change the platter or tonearm materials, or the cartridge cantilever material, and the sound changes with it.

A moving coil phono cartridge has only about a dozen parts, but the density, resonant nature, and functioning of each part has a relatively strong and usually predictable effect on the sound character of the finished product. That is why designing a moving coil cartridge might be considered a master chef's occupation.

I am certain the Hana-Excel people understand this much better than I do.

Hana and Excel: Since its founding by Masao Okada in 1970, Tokyo-based Excel Sound Corporation has specialized in making moving magnet and moving coil cartridges for numerous brands. Then one day about 5 years ago, Hiroshi Ishihara, currently of Hana-Youtek Ltd. of Japan, commissioned a new line of moderately priced moving coil cartridges called Hana by Excel. I reported on Hana's first creation, the $475 EL, because I liked the homespun organic flavor of its elliptical stylus, aluminum cantilever, and alnico magnets. I applauded Hana's $750 SL Mono and Stereo cartridges for using the Shibata-stylus ingredient to thicken the SL's presentation with dense detail. But...


Until now, the Hana recipe that appealed to me most was for the $1200 ML. The ML retained the EL's and SL's aluminum-pipe cantilever but installed a Microline stylus—hence the ML moniker—and exchanged the EL's/SL's plastic body for an injection-molded Delrin body topped with a brass cap fitted with threaded brass inserts for mounting without nuts. Just as the venerable Denon DL-103 moving coil benefits from exchanging its slack, "meh"-sounding plastic body for the denser, more focused sound of an aluminum body (as in Zu Audio's DL-103), so did Hana's ML benefit from a change in body material.

The recipe for Hana's new all-out Umami Red consists of a nude Microline diamond mounted on a boron cantilever with its high-purity copper coils wrapped on a square permalloy armature centered in the flux-field of an iron pole piece and a samarium cobalt magnet. This magnetic circuit is attached to the "ear-shaped" section of the gloss-red Urushi-lacquered Duralumin A7075 alloy body that features an ebony wood inlay. The cartridge weighs 10.5gm, and its coil impedance is 6 ohms/1kHz with an output of 0.4mV. Recommended load impedance is >60 ohms, and suggested VTF is 2gm. Dynamic compliance is specified as 10 × 10-6cm/dyne at 100Hz.

Listening: The first thing I noticed with the Hana Umami Red feeding the Parasound Halo JC 3+ (at 80 ohms loading, Garth Leerer's recommendation) was the intensity with which it brought Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) to life in his humanity-flexing June 1949 performance at the University of Texas, Austin (1973 LP, Playboy Records PB 119). I can only describe this intensity as a wide-angle, nonrefractive clarity that made me constantly aware of the auditorium space, the feel of the audience, and, most of all, Huddie performing with his whole heart and full battery of talents just six months before his death.

The Umami revealed Lead Belly, with microphones on his voice and guitar, facing the audience with a crisp, almost-really-there presence. The sound was so vivid, I imagined I saw musicologist-recordist Alan Lomax standing See below the stage with his Ampex. Vocal intelligibility was markedly better than with the Zu Denon DL-103 Mk.2, the Ortofon 2M Black, or the $1200 Hana ML. Through the Parasound JC 3+, the Umami MC generated a clean window with a deep, quiet view into the recording, which, amazingly, sounded like analog tape.

It is important that you fully understand the meaning of my last sentence. When a phonographic cartridge makes a pure-analog LP sound "like analog tape," it must be recovering enough low-level information to trigger that recognition in the listener. There is no higher compliment than to say a phono cartridge makes an LP sound like what its master source is made from.

I would compare the most typical differences between the sound of one audio component and another to sharpness and contrast in photography. On this Lead Belly record, the Umami Red displayed sharper, more precisely focused images than the much less expensive Hana ML. More surprisingly, the Umami's natural-feeling contrast levels, grain-free clarity, and lifelike solidity reminded me a lot of what I experience with My Sonic Lab's Ultra Eminent Ex ($6995), which also uses a lacquered Duralumin A7075 alloy body, a line-contact stylus, and a boron cantilever. Both cartridges have a similar weight, output, and compliance. And both make pure analog LPs sound like master tapes.

Musical Surroundings Nova III
I reviewed Hana's $750 SL cartridge in Gramophone Dreams #24 using Musical Surroundings' overachieving $750 Phonomena II+ phono stage (footnote 3). It seems only fair to audition this new, higher-achieving Hana with MS's higher-priced ($1500) Michael Yee–designed Nova III phono stage.


In that GD24 story, I mentioned my low regard for wall warts and how I believe switching power supplies yield no sonic benefits. Therefore, I reviewed the Phonomena II+ with MS's (optional) $650 Linear Charging Power Supply (LCPS). The MS Nova III also came with a wall wart, so once again I used the LCPS for my auditions.

But before sampling the Umami, to get a feel for the Nova III's ultimate potential, I began my auditions with my BFF reference cartridge: the $8995 Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum moving coil, loaded at 100 ohms.

I needed a recording that would show enough rear-stage detail, piano note reverb tails, and voluminous hall sounds to let me gauge the Nova III's impact on my beloved Koetsu. I used nothing less than the finest pure analog (all vacuum tube) recording in my collection: Saudades (LP, Water Lily Acoustics WLA-CS-16), produced by Richard Vandersteen (of Vandersteen Audio) and recorded at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara, California. Kavichandran Alexander captured the performance with microphones, mike preamps, tape heads, studio monitors, and cutting-head amplifiers designed by the late Tim de Paravicini (of EAR Yoshino), who also provided final mastering.

Listening for how lifelike Dom Um Romão's berimbau, Chico Freeman's saxophone, and Izio Gross's piano can sound is always my best test for cartridge and phono stage verity.

Footnote 1: Hana/Excel Sound Corporation, 3-7-37, Shin-Yoshida-Higashi, Kohoku-ku Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan 2 23-0058. Web:

Footnote 2: My scientific side balks at this: Electric fields and currents interact with matter in very particular ways—they don't bump into (eg) capacitors as if they were teacups—and the characteristic sounds of materials are determined by resonant frequencies that are quite easy to measure if they're present. Yet, I believe that on a subjective level, Herb's insight is valid and—well—insightful.—Editor

Footnote 3: Musical Surroundings, Inc., 5662 Shattuck Ave., Oakland, CA 94609. Tel: (510) 547-5006. Web:


Jack L's picture

Hi Herb.

When both KT88 & 6L6 are operated in the same wired triode mode, both are therefore operate as a triode: typically max 5% 2nd harmonic distortion, with 3rd & higher order harmonics much lower without global negative feedback.
This is how all published data of the tubes based on.

So how come yr above statement re different harmonic distortion of the triode-wired KT88 & 6L6 ?

Of course they sound different from each other due to their different technical data, e.g. plate resistance, negative bias voltage, heater current etc etc, but NOT because of their 2nd & 3rd harmonic distortion level while both working as a trioide.

Technically, the ratio RL/rp (loudspeaker impedence/tube internal (plate) resistance) dictates the output power & the 2nd harmonic distortion levels of a single-ended class A1 power triode.

For example, a triode plate restance rp is 1,610 ohms (6L6=1,700 ohms) & the louspeaker load impedance is ideally 2x1,61KR=3.22KR. The output power would be 2.1watts & it's dominant 2nd harmonic distortion will be 10% without global negative feedback. Third & higher harmonic distortions can be neglected.

This is the musical charm of a power triode operating single-ended class A mode - making our ears feel so good !!

Listening is believing

Jack L

Ortofan's picture

... operating a triode-connected 6L6 to achieve an output power of 2.1W?

Jack L's picture


Please read again my post above re triode-strapped 6L6.

I never mentioned the example of operation was 6L6. In fact it was 45, a direct-heated filament power triode tube, similar to 2A3 but is of course, much cheaper to buy. A cheapskate version of 2A3.

Google 6L6 specs sheet: go for triode connection.

Jack L

Ortofan's picture

... "For example, a triode plate restance rp is 1,610 ohms (6L6=1,700 ohms) & the louspeaker load impedance is ideally 2x1,61KR=3.22KR. The output power would be 2.1watts & it's dominant 2nd harmonic distortion will be 10% without global negative feedback. Third & higher harmonic distortions can be neglected."

The only reference is to a 6L6 tube.

Jack L's picture


I think you need a coffee to wake youself up 100%.

Rp of a 45 is 1,610R, & 6L6 (when triodes strapped) is 1,700R.
So I was not talking about 6L6, right ? I put 6L6 there because we were on the harmoninc distortion of 6L6 (2nd harmonc) vs KT88 (3rd hsarmonic) per Herb's review above.

I did not particularly mention it was a 45 tube there in the application example in my above post as 45 triode was not in our discussion at all.

Hopefully I have clarified yr misunderstanding.

Jack L

AaronGarrett's picture

As always next-level writing and description of the refined details of the experience of listening to recorded music. Herb is truly a phenomenologist of recorded music. I wish more writers put this kind of effort into careful description as opposed to lazily relied on cliches, but I think Herb may have a special gift.

I have to say though my main take-away from the article is I wish I could afford a copy of Saudades!

Jack L's picture


"Next level" UP:-

Best "all vaccuum tube" LP should use the best pressing vinyl material to get best sonic result.

I don't know if the 'Sauddades' was pressed with premium vinyl: KC600. FYI,I got 2 classcial music LPs digitally mastered 1983 & pressed with KC600 premium vinyl. Superb sound in super 'dark' background.

So you said you can't afford a copy of Herb's 'Saudades'. How about a CD of "All vacuum tube recording" !!

Were I nut to say so? No, in fact I got one CD (made in Germany 1999) using vaccuum-tube only custom-built equipment (from Neumann M49 tube microphones, mixing console, old Telefunken M5 master tape recorder, to custom-modified A/D converter (elimating all 'unnecessary' solidstate electronics, e.g. emphasis/de-enphasis coding, overload protection etc etc).

IMO, PURE tube & passive equipment for most direct analogue signal processing!

Guess the title of this 100% tube processed CD: "The TUBE".
No kidding - "The Tube" - German label: TACET. 1999 made in Germany.

It is tube recording of works by Handel, Vivaldi, Biber,
Corelli etc, performed by Stuttgarter Kammerorchester (Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra.). 64.51 minutes of music.

How it sound ???!! WOW, you got to listen to it as no words could tell how live, AIRLY, & engaging the music sounds. Must be the most musical ever any digital music I've ever listened vs vinyl.

Whoever interested can try to order, hopefully still available.
TACET 74 LC-07033.

Jack L

shawnwes's picture

Herb, what I like the most about your writing is your ability to take the simple experience of listening to music and relay to your audience how deeply it affects you and what you're hearing using your poet's licence. Well done as always.

AaronGarrett's picture

Thanks for the tip. I'll look for it, sounds wonderful.

Jack L's picture


Never too late for good music !


s10sondek's picture

As usual Herb does a great job describing the sounds made by the cartridge under test, in this case the Hana Umami Red. Way to go, Herb!

With that out of the way, I would like to make a request for Stereophile to begin taking measurements of phono cartridges. The arguments are straightforward: 1) As a transducer (similar to speakers), they are highly likely to impose gross frequency response colorations that strain the credulity of a system's moniker of "high fidelity," 2) They can inject enormous amounts of distortion into the signal stream, oftentimes in excess of 5-10% at frequency extremes, which again can highly color the sound, and 3) They are pretty much the ONLY HiFi purchase in this day and age that can not be returned (without penalty) if the buyer is dissatisfied. Add to all of the foregoing that cartridges are a pain to set up and align, and you have a big "switching cost" to the user that should make any listener extremely wary of buying a new cartridge based on a review.

So let's get Stereophile to do for cartridges what they've done for Loudspeakers: put together a rigorous test regimen that will check for major flaws and serve as an adjunct to the subjective reviewer's prose. Build a scientific edifice of understanding as the test reports and literature amass over time. And most importantly, help its readers determine whether the glowing reviews are because of the 8% THD at 6khZ or in spite of it.

Given that Miller Test Labs has partnered with HiFi News in the past to perform these types of evaluations of Phono Cartridges, would it be reasonable to think that the Miller test suite could be used as a starting point for Stereophile's reviews? Just a thought.

Please, please consider making cartridge measurements a cornerstone of the Stereophile Test Program. It would help us LP fans upgrade with confidence, and embark on an intelligent and guided path to pursuing ever-better sound within what is admittedly a highly constrained medium (the vinyl record). Given the limitations of the LP disc, we honestly need all the help we can get, and then some.

jimtavegia's picture

Test it all, Phono stages as well. Let us see the harmonic content of a phono stage with multiple test tones. We worry about what DACs and Amps due with 19 & 20 khz tones. Do the same think with lower frequencies.

I would love to see the same thing with mic preamps so we know where the sound coloring is coming from. At least we can see the freq. response of microphones as most manufacturers publish those. This is not the purview of Stereophile, but it would still be good to know.

Jack L's picture


That's the real world, my friend.

Phono cartridges are sold-but-no-return items just like ladies underwears, right? Too bad!

So supposing as you suggested, Stereophile one day in the near future, test measured a XX MC cartridge showing 8% THD 6KHz@6KHz, would you decide not to buy it ?

Likewise, Stereoophile has measured loudspeakers 3D 'waterfall' frequency response graphs since day one, what do those graphics tell you with reference to the typically hugh 20% or more THD of any loudspeakers?

Audition is the only way to tell us whether we like or dislike the sound of any audio stuff, given excellent measurement data come with them, ideally.

Like I get both MM & MC cartrieges. Yet I seldom play my MC cartridge (+factory matching headamp), made in Japan, mounted on SME black tonearm. Yet I play my MM cartridge (made in Japan again) most most of my vinyl time on another TT with factory tonearm !

Why? I am personally not that fond of the characteristic tonal 'colouration' of a MC cartridge, way way too sorta musically 'articulated'. Just like compression driver horns, their tonal colouration backs me off off !

Honestly, have I ever lost sleep on bench measurement data? Never !
'Cause, IMO, my critical ears do a better job.

Listening is believing

Jack L

JHL's picture

Kindly allow me to paraphrase: Supposing as you suggested, Stereophile one day in the near future test measured a XX MC cartridge showing 4% THD @6KHz, would you decide to buy it?

Here in the free version, smart record-playing shoppers expect all sorts of responsive services from the editors. However, in the light of the complex transducer at the other end of the chain doing far worse to the audio waveform, this presents only one such conundrum, doesn't it?

By my exacting analysis, 93% of objectivist projection begins with a premise into which is backed an ordained outcome. Phono is ipso facto wrong and therefore phono cartridges are even wrongerer. We'd know because a worst-case test produced a number.

Tubes are likewise unsavory, tube amps being automatic distortion generators. Of course this QED finding flies in the face of good audio tubes possessing the lowest unaided distortion among devices, along with the widest bandwidth. These days they also stand an increasingly good chance of being deployed in wise circuitry that drops that distortion to nil. No feedback required.

Of course, hearing the thing is the cure. As if on cue, the best way to never hear the awful distortion of a phono transducer pushed to the limit of its excursions in its most unfortuitousness frequency cluster is never to hear it at all. Proof!

Jack L's picture

......responsive services from the editors" quoted JHL.

WOW! That is a huge demand from the Stereophile editors !! My friend.

We should all understand Stereophile or whatever else audio magazines out there, act only as a bridge between the readers & audios vendors/manufacturers. Any product information or technical details, unfortunately not included in whatever "all sorts of responsive services" as expected by "smart record-playing shoppers" should be obtained directly from the vendors/manufacturers involved. Right ???

Fair is fair. Assuming Stereophile could provide "ALL sorts of responsive service" as expected by those "smart record-playing shoppers, what would those shoppers offer back to the publisher for the service they got ??

Come on! Please talk with reason !

Jack L

PS: please use simple English so every readers out there, including yours truly can understand. I don't want to check up the meaning of some
odd English wording AGAIN like what I did when I first read David Brown's best selling thriller novel: "The Da Vinci Code". Thanks.

JHL's picture

...would be correct if you detected sarcasm. Some readers think themselves audio police and the veterans at S'Phile the miscreants who, in half a century, still have not learned to behave by their modern rules.

Jack L's picture


Sorry! My comprehension of SIMPLE English is not good enough to read your "sarcasm".

Again, fair is fair. I would refrain from using irony to mock or convey contempt for the excellent job done by an established reputable magazine like Stereophile.

So who should learn to "behave" properly here ?

Jack L

s10sondek's picture

I only once purchased a phono pickup based on a review that was lacking measurements. It was a mistake - a waste of time and money, as the pickup had glaring flaws that simple measurements would have almost surely revealed. Going forward, I have to see good measurements of a cartridge to pique my interest. The same is true of loudspeakers. I can pretty much tell from a measurement set whether I will hate a speaker, even though I may not know that I will love it. Same with cartridges. Good measurements are not a sufficient condition, but they are necessary. A simple way to weed out the junk.

Put another way: why wouldn't you measure? Do we just not know how to do it? Don't want to? Don't care? Too hard? Too expensive?

Thankfully, there are a few other publications that do perform basic measurements of phono cartridges (and even some that analyze resonances of tonearms!) and I lean on their results to guide my replacement and upgrade strategy in the LP domain. "If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it," said Lord Kelvin, and I mostly agree.

Given that the editor of Stereophile has proffered that he eschews LP playback of orchestral music because of the unsatisfactory reproduction of massed strings, I imagine that 8% THD and/or IM distortion at 6kHz would not be unusual in a phono pickup. And no, I would NOT buy it even if such measurements were accompanied by a rave review. The range between 2k-10k is where most of the violin's overtones are located, and it doesn't take much to convert the spectrum of a fine example of the Cremonese school to a $200 Amazon student special. My Fi? No, thank you.

I suspect that there are many other readers who hold off on buying phono cartridges (or won't even take the plunge into vinyl as a format) because doing so based on reviews lacking measurements is just too much risk. The lack of basic frequency response, distortion, channel separation, and tracking competence metrics are holding the industry back and likely reducing sales -- not enabling a golden dark age of vinyl romance and candle-lit resurgence. Let's turn on the lights, see the flaws, and get to work fixing them.

Jack L's picture

.....that was lacking measurements." quoted $10sondek.


Bench measurement data can NEVER tell you how any audio sounds, my friend. 'Cause they measured the wrong thing.

As I posted back above to you, any loudspeakers generated huge total harmonic distortion, typically over 20% ! So ?'

Only your ears can tell, hopefully.

Listening is believing

Jack L

JHL's picture

That is true. We live in a time of sighted bias, where what a thing is thought to do from interpreted simple data metrics overrules what it actually does at the ear.

Jack L's picture


What "bias"?

Music is a leisure hobby which is personal & therefore subjective. I would not use "bias" to qualify it like those so called

More on this for ever on-going argumentative confrontation later.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture

........actually does at the ear." quoted JHL


I do as well wish such 'simple' data metrics did exit. But there is none yet as of today as standard bench measurement data are still something alien or irrelevant to what our ear/brain perceive.

Too bad !

Jack L