Hana ML Phono Cartridge Review
Jay Garrett strikes analogue gold with this sub-$2,000 moving coil phono cartridge…
ML Low-Output Moving Coil Cartridge
AUD $1,895 RRP
Hana is a specialist Japanese cartridge manufacturer that's really been making waves of late. Its stock-in-trade is high-performance moving coils that don't break the bank – at least until its Umami Red was announced, anyhow! Hana – which in Japanese supposedly means 'brilliant and gorgeous' – is owned by Excel Sound, a company that has been dishing out OEM cartridges for around fifty years under the watchful eye of Masao Okada-san.
The low output Hana ML you see here costs $1,895 in Australia and looks a classy affair. It sports a black Delrin body with a brass base that I'm told provides constrained layer damping, and also much of the cartridge's 9.5g weight. Inside, high purity copper wire and cryogenically treated metal parts are used, says Hana. At the business end, there's a nude Microline stylus tip (hence the ML suffix - Microline Low-output) mated to an aluminium cantilever and alnico magnet.
Microline profiled styli are a closer match to the cutting head of a vinyl mastering lathe than standard elliptical tips, making for superior detail retrieval. The trade-off is that they're fussier to align than elliptical or spherical styli, but I found the Hana ML mounted up just fine. Recommended tracking force is 2g, and the company quotes a channel separation figure of 30dB/1kHz, along with a 12Hz to 45kHz frequency response. Impedance is stated as 8Ω/1kHz, and it puts out a quoted 0.4mV, which is average for a modern low output moving coil. Compliance is listed as 10x 10-6 cm/dyne.
Correctly set up in my VPI Prime's tonearm, it was soon apparent that this is a full-bodied sounding cartridge with a solid bottom end. Compared to the Sumiko Songbird LO, for example, it sounded more sturdy but with a pleasingly light and airy top. These talented extremes bookend what I can only describe as a natural midband which lets the music flow forth.
One of this cartridge's most prominent facets is refinement, especially with voices. That extra poise makes for an enjoyable sense of space, especially when listening to the likes of Tori Amos. Cornflake Girl sounded more tangible than expected; I could practically picture her mouthing the words. There was a pleasing warmth here too, most apparent on lower-ranged vocals such as those of David Gedge on The Wedding Present's My Favourite Dress. It's not so much a rounding of edges but a welcome friendliness, as the Hana ML's silky handling of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On showed.
This album's lavish orchestration also brought to light the cartridge's articulate upper midband, thanks to the smattering of strings, horns and even flute on tracks such as Right On. A further treat on this album are the basslines of Bob Babbitt and the allegedly tipsy but always excellent James Jamerson. Again, the Hana ML delivered a full and rich performance – picking its way through the latter musician's influential fingerstyle while placing congas and other assorted percussion precisely in the well-sorted mix.
The Hana's fine separation on even the most cluttered tracks was also noteworthy. Whether I was listening to the groove-laden post-punk of Songs Of The Free by Gang of Four or the toe-tapping hybrid of Ian Dury and the Blockheads' New Boots and Panties, the ML never reduced the soundscape to an incoherent mush. Instead, I was rewarded with incredible instrumental insight as well as an impressive soundstage. Dynamics are skilfully tracked too; it clearly highlighted the difference between the snap of a rimshot and a fully-struck snare. Indeed this pick-up's ability to go incredibly loud when required, then to fall spookily silent in the quiet bits, added life to my record collection.
As the twenty-first century vinyl revival continues apace, there's an increasing number of affordable, well-honed low output moving coils around these days – and among these, the Hana ML is a shining star. It's so good that were it to come in an exotic box, it could be offered for at least twice its price and would be graciously received. Indeed, most buyers would still be delighted with it. An excellent product at the price then, hear this if you possibly can.