A moving-coil battlefront. Dynavector Karat 17DX vs. Hana ML.

Dynavector Karat DX17 vs Hana ML.

 

Oh my Lord, two little black boxes with little Hi-Fi gems within. I was at Hi-Fi Corner and these two tantalizing mites were sitting on the table before me. I recognized the boxes as containing similarly priced moving-coil cartridges, both I think it's fair to say, belonging on the first couple of rungs of the “high-end” ladder. I knew the two models as I had been contemplating buying another cartridge myself and had researched a few possibilities. I couldn't in all honesty justify this other than just fancying having another cartridge to hand, and in any event, can one ever have too many of them? Anyway, it's cheaper than collecting cars! Struan, MD of Hi-Fi Corner, saw my eyes drawn to the boxes and suggested I take them home and compare the two, maybe anticipating a sale. How could I say no?

The two moving-coil cartridges for this comparison review are the Dynavector Karat 17 DX Diamond and the Hana ML. The Dynavector is the more expensive of the two, but there isn't a huge difference in the price. Both should be considered if you're in the market for a £1K cartridge.

Back home, the Dynavector Karat 17DX and Hana ML were mounted on a Fidelity Research FR66 arm with, thankfully, a detachable head-shell. The phono stage I used was the ASR Basis Exclusive which is blessed with comprehensive cartridge loading options and has a huge battery power supply to isolate away any mains nasties. I also had to hand a Kondo Sfz transformer with a 30 ohm loading option suitable for the Dynavector. Regrettably there wasn't a correct loading option for the Hana ML.

Both cartridges were easy to set up. It was such a relief that, especially as the little mites didn't belong to me, the DX and Hana came with a removable stylus guard which made the mounting process a bit more relaxed than otherwise it might have been. Both cartridges have threaded screw fixings allowing for easy installation compared to the nut and bolt approach that was universal. Both Dynavector and Hana recommend a minimum load impedance of 100 ohms if using an active phono stage, so I used this setting for the review.

The Dynavector Karat series was first introduced over 13 years ago, and following further development, has today evolved as the Karat 17DX Diamond. This series of cartridges have from the outset been highly praised and respected within the audio industry, so the 17DX is an obvious contender for a comparison review in the £1K price bracket. The 17DX has some unusual design features – ones perhaps you would associate paying a very high price for. The body for instance, is machined from solid brass, the coils have Samarium cobalt magnets and the diamond cantilever is a mere 1.7 mm long with a Micro Ridge stylus. The advantage of such a short cantilever, as claimed by Dynavector, is to allow for fast and agile movement of said cantilever, especially at high frequencies. This allows for an impressive transient response.

I have a confession to make from the get-go. Dynavector Karat cartridges have a special threaded mount in my heart. Some years ago, I had been lent a Karat D2 by a friend and I was so impressed by what I heard, my interest in vinyl was wildly re-awakened after years of being a CD convert. How would the 2018 17 DX version fare?

Dynavector Karat 17DX

This particular cartridge had been on demo at Hi-Fi Corner and had sufficient “run-in” time of between 25-50 hours. From the “needle” touch-down, the sound quality was everything you would expect from a cartridge with an enviable pedigree and significant amounts of R&D over the years. Tracking ability at 1.9g was well up to par – as good as I've had from any other cartridge I've used. What particularly struck me was the speed and transient response and the unconditionally stable image it proffered. It's a very “fast” sounding cartridge, a real “don't mess with me” quality. Nevertheless, that lovely “raspy” character of strings was ever present, even when massed and going at full pelt. Bass was punchy and fast (presumably stemming from the short, virtually non-existent cantilever). Depth was good too, but perhaps not quite to the level of cartridges costing many times more. But how can one possibly complain when there was so much else to like?

It's clear that with the many years of experience Dynavector have had producing coveted cartridges, this expertise is paying off with the Karat 17DX. One is benefiting here from high-end performance at a less than high-end price.

Now, the Hana range of cartridges are relative newcomers to the UK market. Introduced here as recently as 2015, they nonetheless have a considerable pedigree from the parent company Excelsound Corp. who are based in Tokyo. This Corporation have been in the business for over 50 years, producing cartridge components and apparently entire units for other manufacturers. They specialise in high-output moving-coil designs. I wasn't at all surprised to learn about this history. Initial listening revealed that the ML was no “force-grown” overnight wallflower but something which had been nurtured to perfection.

There are eight cartridges in the Hana line-up, all moving-coil designs. At the lower price-end are the EH and EL models respectively offering a high-output and a low-output option. These have a synthetic elliptical stylus. Next come the SH and SL which use a nude, natural diamond Shibata shaped stylus, again the “H” signifying high-output and the “L” low-output. There is also a mono version, the SM in this series. The “M” series is the top of the line (almost) with the MH and the ML, the latter being the one I had in this comparison. These have a nude micro-line natural diamond stylus. At the very top is the Hana Umammi Red which is the company's late latest and highest performing unit which would be interesting to hear one day, Struan....

The ML appears conventional enough, but there are hidden details that set this cartridge apart from the field. The body of the cartridge is actually Delrin, a very high tensile plastic with the rigidity of metal, helping to keep those unwanted resonances at bay. Parts of the cartridge have been Cryogenic treated which is a cold annealing process carried out at near absolute zero temperature, said to result in more musicality. This process is often used in cable manufacture and even valve treatment. High purity copper has been used for the coil windings and there is a gold-plated copper resonance plate integral within the cartridge body, again claimed to further reduce unwanted vibrations. This really is the kind of attention to detail that one would expect from the highest point of phono cartridge manufacture.

The Hana ML Struan gave me was a brand new specimen, so required some “run-in” time. Initially, I was a little surprised as to how similar sounding the two cartridges were, but as the Hana settled in, the differences became more marked. The Hana ML is an undoubtedly very smooth operator without a hint of hardness in the HF. Furthermore, the sound-stage is deep and wide with instruments well separated and distinct. LF was firm and full with good body. I was also hearing a good deal of detail from complex mixes. Surface noise wasn't unduly exaggerated and tracking remained impeccable throughout, even with heavy end-of-side modulation.

You'll gather from the above that I liked the Hana ML cartridge very much. My only criticism is that perhaps it lacked the super sparkle HF of the Dynavector DX, but the plus side was the total lack of hardness. It's also extraordinary value at just under £1K, and merits being part of a very good system indeed.Both Hana and Dynavector have clearly taken painstaking lengths to provide anti-resonance measures, and the two cartridges have stylus profiles not a million miles away from each other. The 17 DX has a much shorter diamond cantilever than the Hana's aluminium one, and I think this must contribute to the very fast, incisive quality of the 17DX.

It's not easy to choose which is the better cartridge overall, and a good deal will depend on your system and of course personal preference. If the system is already trending towards the warm side, the 17DX will undoubtedly liven things up. On a “neutral” sounding system I would personally opt for the Hana ML – this being a great surprise to myself bearing my affection for the Karat series. I am used to some lovely cartridges at home, including a couple of Sugano era Koetsu ones, and quite simply the Hana ML is closest to those.

What more is there to be said other than make a visit to Hi-Fi Corner where both the Dynavector DX and Hana ML can be demonstrated....when I am forced to return them to the shop :-((. Other highly regarded moving-coils similarly priced to consider are the Ortofon are the Cadenza Red and the slightly more expensive Cadenza Blue.

Happy listening. George.