Sumiko's Songbird is a New, Moderately Priced High Output Moving Coil Cartridge

Any resemblance between Sumiko’s $899 “Songbird” high output moving coil cartridge and the rest of the Reference line’s “bird” cartridges—the $1249 Blackbird (available in both low and high output versions) and the new $1899 “open architecture” flagship Starling is strictly intentional. Sumiko has been in the cartridge business for decades and these are all made in the same reliably high-quality factory that I visited a few years ago.

One of these two new cartridges is priced below and the other above the long-established Blackbirds, so clearly the goal in this time of increasing interest in analog was to fill in the line with an entry level $899 high output MC and a “luxury” model priced close to $2000. The two more costly Reference series cartridges, the Pearwood Celebration II ($2799) and Palo Santos Presentation ($4499) both “sport wood” and are more traditional looking designs, the former fully enclosed and the later open on bottom.

While there are obvious differences among the three “bird” named cartridges, they are more similar than they are different in terms of the basic motor construction, though these also resemble the top of the Oyster line Blue Point Special EVO III ($549). The biggest differences are in cantilever material, stylus profiles and of course coil turns, which affects output and internal impedance. Another significant difference is that the new “Songbird” and “Starling” feature hefty CNC machined aluminum top plates to which the motors are attached. Both the material mass and the method of motor attachment will seriously affect sound. The in between Blackbird’s mounting plate is noticeably thinner, though the total weight is similar to the more costly Starling (an interesting name! Though “star” has a positive connotation, Starlings are considered unwanted pest-birds. Perhaps someone at Sumiko thought “pest” was fine if the cartridge was seen as a nuisance to more costly moving coils from other companies!).

Sitting at the bottom of the Reference line, the $899 high output “Songbird” represents a serious value proposition for those interested in trying a moving coil cartridge without having to invest in either a new phono preamp or a step-up device. The circa $900 high output MC price-point is crowded with contenders, which no doubt helped push Sumiko to enter the field. The Songbird features a coated aluminum pipe cantilever to which is attached a 0.3 x 0.7 micron Elliptical stylus. The coils are wound of an unspecified purity copper wire, and not surprisingly the 135 ohm internal impedance suggests many turns of wire required to produce a medium/high output of 2.5mVs.

Spec’d frequency response is 12Hz-40kHz (which is beyond the response of any CD). Channel separation is spec’d at 30dB@1kHz, while between channel balance is 0.5dB@1kHz. Compliance is spec’d at a moderately low 12x10-6cm/dyn@100Hz. Load impedance is the standard MM 47kHz, while recommended load capacitance is 100pF-200pF (when calculating this in your setup be sure to include cable capacitance!). Recommended tracking force range is 1.8g-2.2g with 2.0 grams recommended.

Set Up

I set up the Songbird on the Rega P8 and of course it was easy since you can’t adjust VTA/SRA or azimuth. Nonetheless I checked out SRA, crosstalk and channel balance and found that SRA was 93 degrees, crosstalk was in excess of 25dB (measured using digital oscilloscope, which can underestimate actual separation) and channel balance was within 1dB, which is all very good!

As sweet and pleasing as was the $299 Sumiko MM Moonstone cartridge, swapping it out for the Songbird produced blasts of detail resolution, transient precision, dynamic slam and spatial delineation that modestly priced MMs can’t deliver, though if you just want sweet and pleasing musical escape you might find your happiness right there in an Oyster.

However, if you want greater intensity of sound, to be pushed back in your seat a bit and see further into the sonic picture, the Songbird will deliver that without adding the edginess or peakiness MC detractors say they produce, though some of the budget MCs can lean in that direction. Credit the Songbird’s generously voiced midrange for that. In fact, the older Blue Points from Sumiko could be kind of brittle but even those have been smoothed out and made more sonically pleasing while delivering fast, precise transients, good detail resolution and punchy bass performance.

Conclusion

I’ll skip the usual long series of recorded references to albums you don’t know and concentrate on one: the Blue Note Tone Poet reissue of Chick Corea’s “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” (Solid State SS18039/B0029363-01) featuring featuring Miroslav Vitous on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, engineered by Don Hahn at Phil Ramone’s A&R Studios in 1968. I don’t mean to pick on the Moonstone, which produced enjoyable results with this record, but the Songbird made Roy Haynes’s stick work and tom slams sounded “live” in the room, in ways the Moonstone did not. The Songbird gripped Vitous’s bass lines producing ripples of excitement with each pluck, whereas the Moonstone produced more of a pleasant, warm sensation.

If you want to try a high output moving coil cartridge that’s well-built, reasonably priced does everything well, and resolves sufficient detail to make you sit up and take notice without making you feel as if you’re dissecting instead of listening to music, Sumiko’s new Songbird is a well-voiced, high performance choice I don’t think you’ll regret making. And it even comes with a “full body armor” stylus protector in case you have cats and/or a cleaning person with “busy “ hands

COMMENTS
Ortofan's picture

... spend $900 for a cartridge that only has an elliptical stylus when, for half the price, the Ortofon MC 3 Turbo has a fine-line stylus?
Other high-output MC cartridges, still priced below $900, include the Dynavector 10X5 Mk2 and the Hana SH - both with a Shibata stylus - and the $895 Goldring Eroica H with a Gyger II stylus.

Wymax's picture

Because sound is more than just specs?

Toptip's picture

Is it an accident that because it is more convenient to make MCs low output — whereas nearly all MMs and MIs are high output* — that they sound good / better, in general? Meaning, is it their low inductance and not their MC motor system that brings that clarity? No high output MC that I have tried, including Sumikos, quite had the same clarity of upper midrange like their low output counterparts.

(*) The only low low output / low impedance MM I know is the Stanton Epoch II LZ9S, almost impossible to find

Snorker's picture

You mention the Epoch, but the Stanton 98xLZS and its sibling Pickering XLZ-7500 were also low impedance/output moving magnet designs that featured user replaceable Stereohedron styli. They also tracked better than any cartridge as far as I can tell, and at only 1 gram. Why someone can't study those designs and put something like that back into production is beyond me. My Stanton 980LZS might be my favorite cartridge. It's too bad the styli are no longer available.

PAR's picture

...at that price instead of a fine line or Shibata profile?

Michael explains why in the review : "I set up the Songbird on the Rega P8 and of course it was easy since you can’t adjust VTA/SRA or azimuth"

With a Shibata etc. you certainly need to be able to adjust at least VTA/SRA and it's a bonus if azimuth adjustment is also available.

Wymax's picture

... the choice of an elliptical stylus is very deliberate. I just bought a second-hand Pearwood Celebration II, and while I did notice that it specifies an elliptical stylus, I didn't care because I had read reviews pointing this out, while still getting a favourable rap.

The manual for Pearwood, go to page 6: https://www.sumikoaudio.net/ContentsFiles/ref_celebration.pdf

So, Sumiko thinks that most users are best served with a more forgiving stylus. And that includes me. Although I use the SMARTractor, I use it to make it as easy for myself, trying not to go too much overboard.

And the Pearwood sounds wonderful, elliptical or not. Better than my, although lower priced, Denon 103 based cartridge with, among other things, boron cantilever and VdH stylus.

Ortofan's picture

... the elliptical stylus they use will lend a "sweetness to the sound" "where the inherent character is always musical".
As per Shure, an elliptical stylus will exhibit significantly higher levels of second harmonic distortion than more advanced stylus shapes.
So, is any perceived sweetness and musicality of a cartridge with an elliptical stylus nothing more that an extra helping of what JA1 calls "second harmonic sauce"?

Wymax's picture

Manufacturers description always tends to be more or less colorful :-) And every manufacturer has his/her own choice of construction, their truth to achieve good sound.

Perhaps the sauce suits me well, I use valves in all electronic stages as well. And music played by the Pearwood suits me fine, that is more important to me than possible manufacturer hyperbole.

Tom L's picture

...as soon as I develop the ability to tell an elliptical stylus from an equivalent Shibata just by listening. By then I should also be able to move small objects with my mind, and I will be well on my way to establishing world peace.

Glotz's picture

will be up to the task of telling the two stylus' apart.

One would most certainly hear it on MF's turntable, for example.

As stated above, adjustable VTA becomes a huge factor in extreme-profile cartridges operation. I found a middle ground like the Soundsmith's Carmen to fit well.

KingKenny's picture

Regarding the previous comments I'm not sure that any Shibata is better than any Elliptical. What I do know is that it would be good in these sorts of reviews to have a comparison with similarly priced items. I run a Hana SH (which I am very happy with - I don't have any itchy upgradeitis going on) but I would certainly be curious at the views of Mr Kremer (whose opinions I respect) on the comparison - these sort of things get 'filed away' so that come the next replacement one has some orientation. A stand alone review like this doesn't really 'place' this cart anywhere in particular in the firmament of choices.

mstcraig's picture

Kremer?

Ortofan's picture

As in the violinist, maybe?

DrJB's picture

I'm thinking that cart manufacturers are perceiving a sweet spot in the $1000 range, and we--the consumers--are the beneficiaries. Low output MC, high output MC, low and high MI; all kinds of MM's; various cantilevers from boron to aluminum; elliptical, fine line, Shibata, plus many other shapes; bodies made from ebony, mahogany, aluminum, plastic, etc.; and the shapes these little wonders go from Roy Rogers to Buck Rogers. Even on my fairly modest budget, I have real choices. I wish it were as simple as, "Which one has the best spec'd features?" Instead, it's becoming complicated. But I have a sense that most of them are very good, and some just belie their price with pure musicality even if they lack the ability to mine low level quarkic and leptonic details that are hidden in our Truman Era PVC discs.

Case in point: My low output Grado Statement Master 2. I've never enjoyed listening to music more that I am with that gem, but, I'm wondering whether something like a Songbird (preferably low output) would be a nice diversion.

Oh, and I'm not interested in mining heretofore unheard micro details hidden in my crappy Jethro Tull albums that I bought when I was in Jr. High. Got the hi res blu rays for that. Plus, I think that the RIAA process pretty much dictates--oh shoot, I'm on a soapbox now. Sorry.
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OK, If you skipped all of my ranting and want the crux here it is:
•$1000 = good price point for a cartridge for those of us who love to listen to vinyl but lack Oprah money.
•There are lots of choices in dozens of different configurations.
•Sumiko Songbird is one of them.
•It's gonna have to be really good to beat my beloved Grado Statement Master 2.
•I'll probably never know.

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