Hana Umami Blue MC Cartridge Review
Chris Frankland gets into the groove with this seductive-sounding, premium-priced moving coil cartridge…
Umami Blue Moving Coil
It's surprising to think that production of Hana cartridges only began in 2016 because the company behind them was actually founded back in 1970. From 1975 onwards, Excel Sound has manufactured OEM cartridges for several Japanese audio manufacturers, including Pioneer, Sansui, Trio and Sanyo, as well as various overseas audio brands. And to this day, it still makes pick-ups for a number of “well-respected high-end MC cartridge brands”.
Hana now has a wide range of moving coil cartridges of high and low output. They start with the E series, then move up to the S series and M series. The Umami Blue low-output moving coil is reviewed here, with the Umami series debuting three years ago with the flagship Umami Red, which StereoNET has already featured. The Blue is said to feature several elements trickled down from that model.
Hana says that its designer, Maseo Okada, has been researching phono cartridges since the early nineteen sixties. The company manufactures all the major parts in-house, using materials such as aluminium for the cantilever, Alnico for the electro-motive power magnet, pure iron for the magnetic circuit and 4N copper for the wiring. It uses its own specialised tooling to manufacture parts consistently, and the cartridges themselves are hand-assembled by skilled craftsmen.
The Umami Blue certainly looks the part in its resplendent livery. In fact, Hana uses a special melamine thermosetting process to give it that glossy blue finish. The resin is bonded to the aluminium body by vapour deposition and baked at 120°C for thirty minutes. This process is also said to have benefits in terms of the sound quality of the cartridge, resulting – says the company – in increased clarity, better imaging and better bass definition.
The body design itself, which Hana calls Auricle, was first developed for the top-of-the-range Umami Red and is said to mimic the shape of the human outer ear. It is machined from A7075 aluminium, which it claims is one of the strongest and lightest alloys, often used in the aerospace industry. A white POM (polyoxymethylene) inlay on its front panel is used to provide damping.
The cantilever on the Blue is made from boron, chosen because it has a hardness comparable to diamond, allied to relative lightness. This is said to have been a critical ingredient in the Red to capture the smallest details. It sports a nude natural Microline stylus, which Hana tells us offers the most precise fit in the groove.
The moving coil generator uses an Alnico magnet, which Hana has found to provide greater linearity with reduced saturation. The permalloy cross armature houses a coil wound from 4N (four nines, i.e. 99.99%) pure copper. This is the same as used in the Red.
The pole piece, front and rear yokes and terminal pins are treated using a cryogenic, cold annealing process that alters the molecular structure of the material. Hana rather cryptically, if charmingly, says that the process produces a transformation similar to “molecular gastronomy”. I believe I am right in saying that the process is meant to improve the electrical and magnetic properties of the material.
While other Hana cartridge ranges offer high-output variants, the Umami series features only low-output models. The Umami Blue is not overly heavy at 10g, and its output is not unduly low at 0.4mV. It is recommended to track at 2g. The cartridge itself is supplied in a neat wooden box, which is a nice touch that signals that you have bought a quality product.
Mounting the cartridge is quite straightforward, as it has threaded holes in its top plate. This means that you don't have to faff around with nuts and bolts, which I frequently drop and then spend half an hour cursing as I search for them! It does mean that you have to choose the right length of bolt, but Hana thoughtfully provides you with four sizes – 4mm, 5mm, 6mm and 8mm – which should work with most thicknesses of tonearm headshell.
For my listening tests, I mounted the Umami Blue in my Audio Note TT3/PSU3 turntable fitted with Audio Note's own Arm Two/II. The 6mm bolts were perfect for its headshell. Hana warns users to avoid over-tightening the bolts as this could cause damage to the body. Common sense is all you really need. It took no time to set the alignment of the cartridge and get it balanced and ready to set the tracking force. I initially set it to what Hana recommends, which is 2g. Leaping ahead, I did find that I got the best sound with it set to 2.2g in a system comprising the Synthesis A50 Taurus integrated amp, Puresound P10 phono stage, Music Audio First Reference SUTP transformer and Audio Note AN-J LX Hemp speakers.
I first connected the Umami Blue to the input on the MAF transformer intended for cartridges rated with an output of 0.5mV, but found in the end that it sounded slightly better through the input rated for 0.25mV. The loading switch on the front panel was set to 40k, as this sounded best to my ears, with the cartridge sounding too bright if that value was lowered too far.
This cartridge immediately impresses with its sense of pace, dynamics, movement and openness, as well as naturalness and emotion. Indeed, No One Emotion from George Benson's 20/20 album conveyed Benson's vocals brilliantly. The track's tempo is full-on, and the Umami Blue captured this speed well. It also reproduced the biting edge and staccato rhythms of Michael Sembello's guitar deftly and rendered the driving synth bass line with appropriate urgency.
Its skill with vocals, allied with a smooth tonality and dynamic alacrity, makes it great fun to listen to. This made Dark Night of the Soul from Van Morrison's excellent Three Chords and the Truth album a treat for my ears. The Umami conveyed his vocal style and power effectively, without the harshness that is heard with less good pick-ups. Drums and cymbals had great delicacy, while backing vocals were nicely separated. It was on this song, among others, that I confirmed my preference for tracking the cartridge at 2.2g and using the 40k loading setting on the MAF transformer. This combination resulted in the best balance by far, and as I decreased the loading value on the MAF, the sound got brighter.
The Umami Blue's midband is very special indeed – it digs deep yet never sounds forced, making A Place for Skipper from guitarist Larry Carlton's Discovery album a joy. Carlton's guitar came over very accurately, which let me hear the nuances and twists and turns of his play. The growl and walk of the bass line was handled adeptly, and the track moved well, while the drum and bass lines had impressive slam just as they should.
You wouldn't call the Umami Blue's low-frequency performance overblown, but it's certainly robust. There is an authentic presence to the lower registers of guitars, for example. With The Secret of Climbing by Canadian guitarist-singer-songwriter Stephen Fearing, the Hana brought a grin to my face with its excellent portrayal of the Manzer Cowpoke guitar. In this excellent Rega recording, it came over with a lot more body than you often hear. Having heard the great man play live in a small venue, I can say that this cartridge's sound was nearer to that of real life than many I have come across. The weight of this guitar was very satisfying, as was Fearing's voice and vocal style.
That said, the Umami Blue is no headbanger – quite the reverse, in fact. Build Me Up From Bones by Sarah Jarosz has glorious interplay between plucked and pizzicato violins, viola, cello and, of course, Jarosz's mandolin. The Hana moving coil let me follow what she was playing on this exotic stringed instrument whilst carrying her vocal line with arresting delicacy. All the while, the gorgeous backing strings sounded lovely behind, and the music ebbed and flowed in a very natural and engaging way. It became perfectly clear to me just how capable this cartridge is.
Sometimes the importance of a pick-up cartridge in a vinyl system can be easily overlooked. Yet if it doesn't excavate the music from the record groove in the first place, it can never be got back later – it is lost forever. The cartridge may be the smallest component in your system, but still plays a major role. Of course, a stable platform is essential for the cartridge to give its best, and so for this cartridge, you're talking something of the calibre of a high-end Rega or a middle-ranking Linn or Michell at the minimum. I found that properly set up in a decent turntable, Hana's Unami Blue has great ability. Hear one for yourself if you possibly can.
One of StereoNET’s most experienced reviewers, Chris has written for a multitude of hi-fi magazines, from Hi-Fi Answers and Hi-Fi Sound, to The Flat Response and Hi-Fi Review. A regular concert-goer, his quest continues to find hi-fi that gets as close as possible to conveying the raw emotion of live music.
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