The Hana SL MC ($750) Versus The Ortofon Quintet Black S MC ($999)

(The accidental channel reversal on one file has been fixed). Here are two great, "reasonably" priced, superbly built cartridges that I've chosen to review together while giving you the opportunity to "hear" both!

Let's start with the less expensive ($750) Hana SL manufactured by Excel Sound Corporation. The video I shot there is still running on our "player" at the top right but even when it's been replaced, you can still watch it on the analogPlanet.com YouTube channel.

The Hana SL is a low output (.5mV/1kHz) moving coil cartridge—the most expensive of 4 in the Hana line. Yes you pay more and get less output! That is the way of the audiophile world, though it's also true of food: you pay more for salt and sugar free. So they take stuff out and you pay more. But I digress.

The Hana features a nude Shibata stylus fitted to an aluminum cantilever. Output balance is spec'd at < 1.5dB/1kHz, recommended VTF (vertical tracking force) is 2 grams, trackability is 70µm/2gr, channel separation is rated at 28dB/1kHz while frequency response is rated at 15Hz-32kHz. The internal impedance is rated at 30ohms/1kHz with suggested loading impedance of >400 ohms. The cartridge is on the light side at 5 grams.

Setting up the Hana SL was relatively easy, though because the body isn't tapped, nuts are required to secure it to the head shell. This is made somewhat easier than usual using the stylus guard as a "platform" for the nuts. I found close to accurate both the separation and channel balance specs (measured 25dB separation, with 1.5dB balance), with the azimuth angle just slightly askew from cantilever perpendicularity. 92 degree SRA, which is critical for the shibata stylus profile was achieved with the arm very close to parallel to the record surface. In other words, the build quality of this relatively inexpensive cartridge was as close to ideal as is humanly possible. The cartridge sailed through the Ortofon test record's trackability bands.

The Hana SL was installed on the Graham Phantom III—a $7000 tone arm mounted on the $29,500 Air Force III turntable connected to the CH Precision P1 phono preamplifier augmented with the outboard X1 power supply, the combination of which costs more than $45,000. In other words the budget cartridge got to ride in the First Class section.

Two of the P1's 3 inputs are current amplification based and so don't require any loading. However, as I reported in the phono stage "shoot out", I did run the Hana into the P1's voltage gain MC stage to find the ideal load for use with the more traditional phono preamps used there. That was accomplished using the P1's test record and "set up wizard" that produces a series of frequency response curves that you can switch among to find the flattest response—in other words the load that best tamps down the typical MC high frequency response peak.

The measured response differences between 100 ohms and 400 ohms was not significant but what was consistent throughout was a slight recess in frequency response in the upper midrange over a wide expanse of frequencies. And that is clearly audible. It’s what gives the SL such a pleasingly relaxed yet detailed sonic signature.

While the Japanese character silk screened on the front of the body means “brilliant and gorgeous” I’d say the Hana’s sonic personality is more “gorgeous” than it is “brilliant”—and I think that’s what most buyers like about it, especially if they are using it in a system featuring less costly electronics that might impart their own “brilliance”.

Moving coil cartridges have a reputation for somewhat bright and even aggressive but that’s hardly the Hana SL’s personality. Instead it’s smooth, somewhat laid back and sweet, yet very well detailed thanks in part to the shibata stylus profile, which when viewed from the side (with a very powerful microscope!) presents a tall, very narrow ridge that can reach into the most severely and tightly cut horizontal groove modulations while tracing with equal accuracy the vertically inscribed modulations.

Imagine a round stylus traveling up a vertical groove modulation (think of a hill). It rides up on one side of the round stylus, and at the top of the “hill” it transfers the contact to the other side of the round stylus, with a relatively lengthy “handoff” time. The severely narrow Shibata stylus profile means that the “handoff” is almost instantaneous, which results in far greater detail retrieval and a sense of “speed”—for good reason.

The relatively high internal impedance for a .5mV output cartridge is usually the result of many turns of wire on the cross-shaped armature, which may be required because of the use of less than the most powerful magnets, probably to keep the cost down so such a high performance cartridge can be sold for such a reasonable price.

The good channel separation and channel balance, not surprisingly, produces a generously wide soundstage, with excellent image solidity, stability and three-dimensionality. The added coil mass counters somewhat the shibata’s detail retrieval by slowing down the system, so that while the Hana SL’s retrieval of detail is good, when you spend more to get more powerful magnets and fewer wire turns (and lower mass), there’s more detail to be had.

However given the Hana SL’s price and its outstanding build quality, the cartridge sets a very high performance bar! The Hana SL is sufficiently fast and precise to produce very fine transient performance without “etch” or “grain”, on cymbals for instance, yet its generally warm and slightly mellow personality make it great for female vocals and massed strings.

Bass performance was good, particularly in terms of extension, though transients were somewhat slow, producing a more mellow and somewhat soft but still very pleasing sound rather than the full bore bass transient ferocity a Jaco Pastorious fan might be craving. Dynamic performance was very good, especially for the money but not the last word in terms of “slam”, which shouldn’t be surprising given the plastic body and the cost.

In other words, the Hana SL is a “cartridge for all seasons” that combines good retrieval of detail with a pleasing overall warmth that works well with all musical genres. No wonder it’s become such a popular “crowd pleaser” over the past few years.

An additional $250 gets you the Ortofon Quintet MC Black “S”. The “S” refers to its sapphire cantilever, which is fitted with a nude shibata stylus. Sapphire cantilevers became popular during the “great boron cantilever shortage” of a few years ago. Like boron, sapphire is both ultra-stiff and relatively light. Lower mass produces faster response times.

The Quintet Black “S” is the top of Ortofon’s lower cost Quintet moving coil line. The specs include an output of 0.3mV, < 1.0dB channel balance and > 23dB separation. Frequency response is rated at 20-20kHz ±1.5dB with 80µm “trackability” at the recommended 2.3 gram VTF. The internal impedance is spec’d at 5 ohms, while recommended loading is > 20 ohms. The Quintet Black “S” weighs 9 grams. Compliance is typically low (for a MC cartridge) at 15µm/mN.

Set up was made somewhat easier than the Hana’s thanks to tapped and threaded mounting holes. Otherwise set up went equally smoothly with 92 degree SRA achieved with the body tipped slightly down from parallel to the record surface. With the cantilever perpendicular to the record surface separation measured 25dB with balance within an excellent 1dB. This indicates excellent build quality, which for Ortofon is not surprising.

Ortofon warns against using solvent-based stylus cleaners that can dissolve the cement used to attach styli to cantilevers throughout much if not all of the company’s cartridge lines.

The low internal impedance usually means fewer coil turns, which also means “faster” and more responsive performance at the cost of lower output, in this case, .3mV versus the Hana’s more generous .5mV. This is a big output difference meaning for best low noise, wide dynamic performance the Ortofon should be used only with a high gain (circa 60-65dB) low noise phono preamp.

The sound produced by the Ortofon Quintet Black “S” was definitely faster, leaner and more detailed than that of the Hana SL. Transients were sharper, particularly on bottom and top end extension was noticeably airier and somewhat brighter—perhaps too much so for some listeners’ sensibilities though it’s all dependent upon the rest of the system.

The Black’s frequency response was observationally flatter particularly in the mids and upper mids where the Hana was somewhat recessed. This produced a more “in your face” kind of sound that many crave though many do not!

Again the imaging and soundstaging were very good as the measurements would lead you to expect, though arguably the Hana’s had somewhat more body at the expense of image precision and “edge definition”. Bass was faster and “tighter”, perhaps even a bit leaner but definitely more precisely drawn: more “pluck” and “bite” and a little less of the harmonic structure that the Hana so generously provides, though to some degree that’s probably a slight but pleasing coloration.

So yes, your $250 additional dollars (which is a great deal of money for many) does get you a tauter, somewhat higher performance sonic “ride” that’s faster with more precisely drawn transients at both frequency extremes, greater dynamic “slam” and a somewhat more linear overall balance that’s more “sports car” to the Hana’s “family sedan”. Depending upon “road conditions” you might prefer the “family sedan” ride to the “sports car”!

. A few Ortofon enthusiasts claim that running the cartridge “nude” by removing the body improves further the cartridges “speed” and bass performance, but my policy is to review as supplied and not as modified.

Conclusion

Spending a few weeks listening (on and off) to both of these moderately priced cartridges (“moderate” in terms of what the top of the market looks like price-wise) proves a few things: first of all, that it’s possible to provide high build quality at reasonable prices (I’ve gotten some poorly built very expensive cartridges over the years), secondly that without breaking the bank or dissolving a marriage you can get sonic performance that handily beats CD in all respects other than measured dynamic range. I’d rather listen long term to either of these cartridges than any digital system. You may draw other conclusions.

For long term listenability with the widest varieties of music and especially with recordings that vary from truly shitty and bright to the best in your collection, the Hana SL would be a great choice. It also may be the one to get if your system is sounding a bit edgy, bright and harsh with your current cartridge and you want to mellow it out a bit without losing detail resolution (in fact depending upon what you’re now using the shibata stylus might give you more resolution and a somewhat mellower sound.

If you want to max out the sound of the best recordings in your collection while paying a bit of a price when playing the worst, and if you can justify spending another $250, consider the Ortofon Quintet Black “S”.

In either case though, the shibata stylus demands precise set-up in every parameter so proceed with caution if your arm doesn’t allow you to adjust VTA/SRA! That said, if you own a Rega arm, you can increase SRA using spacers (Acoustic Signature makes really convenient ones for Rega 3 point mount arms that don’t require you to remove the arm from the plinth) and you can lower SRA by adding a thicker mat.

Which Do You Prefer?

Please stream these two 96/24 files of the same recording: the fabulous Cecíle McLorin Salvant singing with her trio “Never Will I Marry” from the “must have” 3 LP set Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue MAC 1120LP) mostly recorded live at The Village Vanguard. Not saying which cartridge is which here. If I’ve done my job (and you’ve done yours) you will know!

File "1"

File "2"

COMMENTS
dasacco's picture

I liked file 2 better, the vocals seemed a little more natural to me.

BTW, the files at first sounded radically different, but then I realized the channels are swapped.

Thanks!

Michael Fremer's picture
Yes, between two setups I installed a new DAC and some cables came loose. Those to the A/D converter inadvertently got swapped. Will fix ASAP
Michael Fremer's picture
sorry about that!
Steve Edwards's picture

was my preference. While File 1 sounded smooth, warm and rich on her vocals, I thought File 2 provided better detail & separation, particularly in the rhythm section.
Play on

theboogeydown's picture

"It also may be the one to get if your system is sounding a bit edgy, bright and harsh with your current cartridge and you want to mellow it out a bit without losing detail resolution (in fact depending upon what you’re now using the shibata stylus might give you more resolution and a somewhat mellower sound."

theboogeydown's picture

But I'm not going to listen to digital files downloaded via wifi for comparison. Though I do appreciate the exercise, with love.

Michael Fremer's picture
You should listen!
theboogeydown's picture

I thought File 1 was much fuller, better piano reproduction, more intimate, warmer vocals. Any other directives you have for me today short of raking your leaves? (not that i'm above that sort of thing for the right, say, power cables?)

Ortofan's picture

... sail through the Ortofon test record's trackability bands?
Did you check its frequency response with different values of load resistance?

You mention "sonic performance that handily beats CD in all respects other than measured dynamic range." Does LP have lower measured distortion than CD?

Do you have any test records with square wave signals? If so, can you display the waveforms output by both cartridges for comparison?

Michael Fremer's picture
I used a current amplification based phono preamp so there is no loading necessary or possible. I wrote "sonic" not measured performance....yes I have a square wave record and oscilloscope but not going to set up both cartridges again....
Ortofan's picture

... you "did run the Hana into the P1's voltage gain MC stage to find the ideal load for use with the more traditional phono preamps."

So, did you also attempt to find the ideal load for the Ortofon Quintet Black S when used with a traditional phono preamp?
If so, what was the result? If not, why not?

Also, since you wrote "measured dynamic range" one might easily conclude that you were also referring to other measured parameters, such as distortion.

Michael Fremer's picture
Because the point was simply to provide an ideal and identical playback situation for both cartridges. Now, had I recorded both cartridges using the voltage gain input your comment would make more sense....
Ortofan's picture

... "simply to provide an ideal and identical playback situation for both cartridges" and you were going to use both cartridges with a current input type amplifier, why did you bother to determine the optimum load into a voltage input type amplifier for either cartridge?

This also begs the question as to why you used a current input type amplifier at all, since it's quite likely that the vast majority of your readers are using some sort of voltage input type device?

nagysaudio's picture

File 1 kicks file 2 right in its head!

Daniel Emerson's picture

Which one's the correct way round?

FrankZ's picture

If I had to live with one of the two, i’d vote for file 2.

abelb1's picture

File 1 seemed to have slightly fuller bass and seemed a bit smoother in the top end. Both sounded good. Look forward to hearing which was which.

Jim Tavegia's picture

You don't need an expensive usb dac to discern these differences as with either of my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or my Steinberg UR22 that can do up to 24192 files for $150, for either one you can easily hear the differences. 2496 sounds superb and 24192 is better, but it is marginal, but still audible. No excuse not to test your hearing and discernment.

thorenssme's picture

I run the Quintet bronze on my gyro/sme combo, and it performs much closer to how the Hana is described than the Quintet black. But it is a nude fine line/alum cantilever I think.

Jim's picture

File #2 was easier on the ears. For me, cartridge demo'd in File #1 would be prone to listener fatigue.

Scott R's picture

I have a Hana SL so I'm curious as to the final reveal!

avanti1960's picture

to have different "flavors" of cartridges. my "warmer fuller" cartridge sounds awesome on lots of records but unacceptably dull and veiled on the darker ones. my "neutral" cart sounds awesome on lots of records but unacceptably forward on brighter sounding ones. not sure what to do or just live with the best compromise. two arms or tables is too extreme a cure for low grade audiophile nervosa.

Howard's picture

A somewhat generic question, Michael. How is a cantilever made from sapphire (or diamond like the Transfiguration Proteus Diamond)? Are they cut off a larger piece...lasercut perhaps? A delicate operation.

PAR's picture

I think that your question presupposes a natural or gemstone sapphire. However the cantilevers are made from synthetic sapphire which can be produced in all kinds of shapes and sizes including small rods for use as a phono cartridge cantilever.

mraudioguru's picture

...for me. File 1 sounded smoother, more open and more organic. Richer, fuller and more musical.

avanti1960's picture

has noticeable surface noise, a little thicker around the middle but very extended, dynamic and live sounding, also a touch off center to the left. overall extremely nice. file 2 sounds smooth and more open around the vocals but less extended, less dynamic and slightly gray and hard sounding. if this is the quintet i am ordering the hana ASAP

myheroiscoltrane's picture

... what these two sound like in comparison to the Audio Technica ART-9, which is in a similar ballpark, price wise.

Ortofan's picture

... AT33Sa, which also has a Shibata type stylus like the other cartridges in this comparison.

RCZero's picture

.... this would help me tremendously, plus the AT33Sa like in another reply.

RCZero's picture

... please

Smokeyjoec's picture

My ears are not the same since I developed hyperacus but to me file 1 sounds more natural, and musical but has much more surface noise. File 2 is more audiophile like and much more quite in terms of surface noise. Michael, moving forward you should use this same track and record all the cartridges you review and save on your site. , that would be quite helpful! Keep up the good work!

gMRfk6LMHn's picture

Definitely noticed surface noise on File 1.

My preference would be File 2, it seemed more relaxed and voice was fuller not as pinched as file 1, how am I doing so far, ha!

James, Dublin, Ireland

avanti1960's picture

the digital files sound pretty effin spectacular coming from Mikey's rig....

chindian63's picture

Prefer File 1 as find it more open, dynamic. File 2 is smoother and relaxed.

jmset315's picture

#1 is more dynamic, energetic and transparent compared with #2 which is warmer and having 'slightly veiled' sound - I choose #1: the drum is more natural and realistic to my taste

AnalogJ's picture

Both have flaws, to my ears. The 1st file renders a top edge to her voice which is annoying and not natural. I would have told the sound engineer that her voice sounds too hot on top. There is also a bit of hashiness to the treble, heard in the crash cymbal. There is also a bit of thinness to the tonality, a bit of a lack of body. All these are criticisms I have, in general, with the sound of a Shibata stylus.

On the other hand, there is an immediacy to the transients which makes the percussion solo more engaging.

File 2's vocals sound more relaxed and natural, akin to how I would hear it live. It makes her sound more human in a way. On the other hand, there's just a little bit of a milquetoast to the inner detail of her voice. A Grado or Koetsu midrange would have your heart melting with a you-are-there sound.

The percussion is more relaxed, but lacks a bit of tautness to the transients that keeps me a bit less than engaged with the rhythmic aspects to the drum solo. Marrying both worlds of these two cartridges is a trick that you have to spend far more on to get. So at this price range (and I have a lot of experience listening to cartridges at this price point), you have to generally decide which way to go. Hearing this, I'd probably opt for the Hana, as the sort of sound the Ortofon Black provides (many I know prefer the Bronze, by the way, which, having a less extreme stylus, sounds a bit more relaxed) could sound fatiguing in the long run.

I'd opt for File 2 (which I believe is the Hana).

Packgrog's picture

Agreed on all points. Ironically, the sort of softness in file 2 reminds me of what I heard from someone else's setup when they used the Quintet Black S, but is contrary to Fremer's description of it above.

But yeah, the low frequency clarity of File 1 is preferable to the relative murk of File 2, but the high frequencies of File 1 are startlingly unpleasant compared to the smooth and natural feel of File 2.

I wonder how much amp pairing is an influence here... Could different pairings tighten up File 2 or tame the sharpness of File 1?

AnalogJ's picture

A nice tubey amplification setup such as an Acoustic Research preamp amp would bring some richness and soften the top end. Not sure to what degree.

Chris F's picture

1 is much better technically (speed etc..) and has the more "neutral" frequency response. 2 starts rolling off very early. Sounds nice but for this recording the Ortofon is much better IMO.

I've noticed that since it seems to be impossible to make a completely flat MC cartridge (due to the rising response) the best ones seem to generally fall into one of the above two camps frequency response wise. Either they go for neutral bass/mids with varying levels of tipped up top (Ortofon Black, Lyra etc..) or they roll off earlier (Zyx, Hana SL etc..) having a top that is closer to neutral at the "expense" of a warmer sound.

Really makes you want to have three arms so you can have an exemplary example from both camps plus a mono cart.....

padreken's picture

I'm also guessing that it's the Hana. I heard it in the Dr. Vinyl room at RMAF on a Pear Audio turntable (I think it was the Kid Howard) with Larsen speakers and I liked the sound so much I went back several times.

Lincoln Matt's picture

Would have been nice to see the same price range Dynavector 20X2L included here. While other Stereophile writers have discussed it, you have never written a review Michael. Yes it is in the Gruvies, but without your detailed opinions. It is a key cart from one of the classic manufacturers. In fact, I can't remember any Dynavector carts reviews from you, at least recently.

Michael Fremer's picture
It's simple: the importer won't send any for review. He's upset with me or something....I think at one point I'd give a positive review to the big Boulder 2008 phono preamp and he told me if I liked that I wasn't into music. And that was that. I don't get press releases from him or anything.
RCZero's picture

I was considering the dynavector vs the art-9 vs Hana vs quintet black.

This compare helped me rule out Hana in favor of quintet black. I’d love to hear more comparisons of carts in this price range, and, maybe even $600 higher (might be worth saving longer to get).

theboogeydown's picture

I'm getting a few different answers when calling around about the compliance of the Hana SL. Do you come up with 10? What measurements should I be using please? thx

Michael Fremer's picture
I have no way of measuring compliance...
Packgrog's picture
gMRfk6LMHn's picture

Every cartridge I have ever owned gave the compliance in the specification sheet. Looking the Hana and Ortofon online, it says...

Hana - 10cu
Ortofin 15cu

Google is your friend - well, most of the time, when it is not spying on you, ha!

gMRfk6LMHn's picture

Every cartridge I have ever owned gave the compliance in the specification sheet. Looking at the Hana and Ortofon specs online, it says...

Hana - 10cu
Ortofon - 15cu

Google is your friend - well, most of the time, when it is not spying on you, ha!

theboogeydown's picture

Well, normally I would agree with you re: google but I have been attempting to peel this onion for quite some time now and finally got as close to a definitive answer as I think there is from U.S. Hana Distributor Garth Leerer who says that the compliance for the SL is 12. Prior to that I had called nearly every major U.S. vendor and gotten a few 20's and a couple of 10's. Oh, and are dear leader MF was unsure as well so I'm not certain (because I don't know better, and not that your definitively wrong) that XXcu is the measurement that defines compliance in this case. I'm eager to learn more though.

grigorianvlad's picture

I am glad I found this article. I needed to choose between a Hana SL cartridge and a Sumiko Blackbird, not the Ortofon. But still, this article was a great help in understanding all the nuances.
My guess is that File #1 is Ortofon and File #2 is the Hana SL. Judging by what Michael posted, of course. I have never heard either of them. It would be great if we knew which is which .

MrGneiss's picture

#2 for me!!

Corsair's picture

File one sounds open and more natural to me, especially with vocals and percussion. I feel more relaxed listening to it. Two seemed more condensed; I felt tense and tight, the way I do just before I feel a headache coming on. That's exaggerating of course, but that's what I was reminded of. I'm guessing file one was the ortofon but I've never heard a quintet nor a hana before now. Some of these preferences could be caused in part or whole to the kinds of carts we've been listening to for years and have grown accustomed to. I've owed only two: an ortofon stylus 30 and a dl-103.

grigorianvlad's picture

Corsair, you know too much about high end audio for a pirate!

Mile High Music's picture

Great timing! I am currently considering both cartridges as a needed replacement/upgrade to my much loved but well worn Ortofon 2M Black (MM, shibata). Given what I hear here it seems my replacement will be #2...the Hana I assume...and I look forward to the results! Thank you for all you knowledgeably impart Mikey!

SondreKarlsen's picture

Hi Michael

Very interesting when you do these comparison reviews. This is exactly what everyone does when they make their purchasing decisions, so guidance from someone who has the time and opportunity to compare similar products is very welcome.

I hope you get the opportunity to review one of the great Audio-Technica cartridges around or below £1000.
The AT33Sa is a very close competitor to the Quintet Black S, costing £949 and sporting a Shibata stylus on a boron cantilever.
It is a better cartidge than the old Quintet Black was, but I have not heard the new S version.

The cheaper AT33PTG/II (a true best buy) and the slightly more expensive At-ART9 are also great buys, that should be more widely known.
I suspect the marketing depat at Audio-Technica could do a better job of sending their product out for review.

audiom3's picture

Finally had a chance to listen to these. The cart in File 1 is much better and I assume that's the Orto. One need just listen to the bass guitar and drums to hear a clear difference. 2 is muddy which reminds me of when SRA is too low. 1 sounds like it should once it's dialed in. Bass isn't boomy and notes are more clearly defined. No question, 1 is superior.

Perpetum's picture

I see a bit higher cartridge resonance, using spectrum analyser, in the file 1 (which I prefer more, sonically).

Assuming that Hana has lower compliance, this is it. :-)

X