Gramophone Dreams #24: Hana & Musical Surroundings

The days were long, the strawberries ripe, but it wasn't quite summer. It was, however, a perfect night for Otis Redding and Carla Thomas singing the Lowell Fulson–Jimmy McCracklin classic "Tramp," on a 7" 45rpm single (Stax 45-216).

Otis: What you call me?

Carla: Tramp! You don't wear continental clothes, or Stetson hats.

The full-on Memphis soul coming out of Legacy Audio's Studio HD minimonitors (see review elsewhere in this issue) made me think, Dang, Ernie! This is what this blue-label Stax disc is supposed to sound like! It had a genuine old-school solidity and a rhythmic vividness that made everyone in the room smile and bob their heads.

Booker T. Jones and Isaac Hayes were on keyboards. Thomas's and Redding's voices sounded exactly as I'd hoped they'd sound: like the King and Queen of Memphis Soul. As they had in '67, through my car radio. As they had in '77, on the jukebox at Mickey's Bar (footnote 1).

Typically, 45rpm singles of the 1960s were mastered differently from the album versions of the same songs. Until about 1970, most 7" big-hole 45s were in mono. Usually, their upper bass and midrange were juiced up to punch through the dashboards of car radios or rise above the drunken din surrounding roadhouse jukeboxes. Seven-inch 45s make my favorite old songs sound as I remember them sounding. They remind me of my faded-blue '49 Plymouth, drinking Gluek Stite beer, smoking Wicker Park Tea, and fast dancing with my girlfriend. That's why I collect them.

Hana SL Mono
It's also why I asked my turntable-setter-upper friend, Michael Trei, to align Excel Sound Corporation's Hana SL Mono moving-coil cartridge (footnote 2) to play 7" 45s—exclusively!

Mike had created a unique Löfgren-A cartridge-alignment protractor using a phono-alignment template generator that he found on the website of audio hobbyist Conrad Hoffman. The template Mike created was optimized for playing 7" 45s with the least possible tracing distortion.

1018gram.template.jpg

To begin, we used my sturdy, over-achieving Pioneer PLX-1000 direct-drive turntable ($699), which I reviewed in my March 2015 column and which I still find to be mechanically and musically superior to my vintage Technics SL-1200Mk.II. Because the PLX-1000's playback of records possesses the qualities of strong momentum, dense images, and quiet backgrounds, I prefer it to most audiophile decks costing less than $2000.

Mike Trei and I and our mutual friend Sphere stayed up late playing single after single, switching from the Hana SL Mono ($750) to my wired-for-mono Shure SC35C ($75) to a Denon DL-102 Mono (discontinued). I was curious to hear how effectively the Hana's nude Shibata stylus would play the little seven-inchers compared to these reliably musical-sounding budget cartridges with spherical-tipped styli. I also wondered if the spherical styli would play these 1960s records more authentically—more as I remembered them.

Or would the Hana SL dig up so much new information that I would listen in awe at previously unheard aural pleasures long buried in these ancient 45rpm grooves?

The answer came quickly, and it wasn't even close: The Hoffman-Trei–aligned Hana SL Mono excavated a lot more information, and did so very quietly. Records such as Desmond Dekker & the Aces' "Israelites" (Ember 55129) or Little Eva's "The Locomotion" (Dimension 1000) made me feel I'd been granted some sort of honored privilege—an unprecedented ability to hear everything that had never before been exposed by my spherical-tipped cartridges. Single after single, the Hana SL Mono made sound that was decidedly present, punchy, finely detailed, and liquid.

I asked Garth Leerer, president of Musical Surroundings, Hana's US importer, if the SL Mono was a true mono cartridge—that is, if it had no vertical compliance and/or generated no signal from its vertical excursions. "The armature on the SL (stereo) is shaped like an X," he said. "The SL Mono has it rotated 45° to read only the lateral groove modulation. Hana uses the dual coil to provide multiple ways to interconnect to optimize performance with different systems, as well as dynamically balance the coil/cartridge suspension."

1018gram.mono.jpg

Both the Hana SL Mono and the SL (stereo) reviewed below weigh 5gm and generate 0.5mV from a 30-ohm internal impedance at 1kHz. Both cartridges have alnico magnets, aluminum cantilevers, and nude Shibata styli. Their compliance is 10x10–6cm/dyne. Hana recommends a vertical tracking force (VTF) of 2.0gm and a loading of >$00 ohms. (I loaded both cartridges between 200 and 400 ohms.)

After two hours of listening with the new-from-the-box Hana SL Mono, we switched to my trusty Shure SC35C moving-magnet, which I'd converted to mono by wrapping a thin bare wire around its red and white (L+ and R+) pins, and another around its green and blue (L– and R–) pins, to produce a dual-mono output signal (footnote 3).

On Booker T. & the MG's unbelievably cool "Time Is Tight" (7" 45rpm, Stax STA-0028), the spherical-tipped Shure SC35C delivered its trademark punch and drive and good jukebox feel, but compared to the Hana SL Mono it sounded flat, hard, and annoyingly hissy. With the Hana, Booker T.'s organ sounded dark and slithering.

With the shiny chrome Denon DL-102 Mono, "Time Is Tight" sounded smooth and coherent, but also distant or detached. Drum tone and the MG's' cool attitude were both happening, but the DL-102 couldn't muster much detail, or excavate all the reverberant tones and rolling grooves this recording is famous for.

Next, I put the black-bodied Hana SL Mono on the black AMG Giro G9 turntable ($10,000) and played all the above-mentioned records again . . . and again. Whereupon it came to my mind how money can, when wisely spent, buy some really enjoyable things. Three words accurately describe the sound character of the Hana SL Mono: power, detail, elegance.

A Mono aside
At the start of our listening sessions, Mike Trei and I planned two experiments.

The first was to determine if his software-calculated 7" record alignment made 45s sound better than the Stevenson alignment I normally use on the Pioneer. I thought it made everything we played sound more solid and focused than the Stevenson. But when I reset the Hana SL Mono and rewired Shure SC35C to the Stevenson alignment, I heard no change.

Our second experiment was to explore the differences in sound, if any, between styrene and vinyl 7" 45s. In the 1950s and '60s, to cut costs, American record companies pressed some pop singles on styrene instead vinyl. Collectors of 7" discs consider styrene to be deleterious to both sound and durability.

Like LPs, vinyl 45s are hot pressed, their edges then trimmed. Styrene records, on the other, are injection molded. The difference between vinyl and styrene is easy to spot: a vinyl disc is thinner, with a sharper, squeezed-looking rim; it's more flexible, and the label is flush with the playing surface. A styrene disc is thicker, with a squared edge and a label obviously glued on. Styrene feels dry and brittle; if I tap a styrene single with a fingernail, it resonates at a higher pitch than a vinyl single. But in playing a stack of mixed 45s, none of us could hear a generalized difference.



Footnote 1: Mickey's Bar, at the corner of Greenwich and Warren, was my favorite Manhattan hangout. There, blue-collar workers shot eight-ball with artists and career criminals. After Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi bought it, and made it and its fantastic jukebox into their own private club, it was renamed the Holland Tunnel Blues Bar.

Footnote 2: Hana, Excel Sound Corporation, 3-7-37, Shin-yoshida-Higashi, Kohoku-ku, Yokohama, Kanagawa 223-0058, Japan. Tel: (81) 45-543-5100. Web: www.youtek.jp/hana.html. US distributor: Musical Surroundings, 5662 Shattuck Avenue, Oakland, CA 94609. Tel: (510) 547-5006. Fax: (510) 547-5009. Web: www.musicalsurroundings.com

Footnote 3: The Hana SL Mono, the Denon DL-102, and the Herb-mono-mod-Shure cartridges all output a mono signal while retaining their cantilevers' ability to deflect vertically, thus allowing the user to play stereo records—in mono—without damage to grooves or stylus.

COMMENTS
Ortofan's picture

... evaluation samples of their 2M Mono and 2M Mono SE cartridges.
The standard Mono has a spherical stylus, while the Mono SE has a Shibata stylus.
https://www.ortofon.com/ortofon-2m-mono-p-602-n-1579
https://www.ortofon.com/2m-mono-se-p-597-n-1579

oldtech's picture

Nice, but I'd be wary of playing my styrene 45s with anything but a spherical stylus.

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