Sumiko Songbird Low Output Moving Coil Cartridge Review
An affordable audiophile MC cartridge that's a cinch to set up? Jay Garrett takes it for a spin…
Songbird Low Output MC Cartridge
Seasoned vinylistas will likely know Sumiko from its classic Blue Point Special cartridge, which was hugely successful in the nineteen nineties. Yet the US-based brand has done more than just this – it's been manufacturing and importing phono cartridges for almost forty years now, and has several models to choose from. To this line-up, we can add the new £900 Songbird, which follows the design of its reference 'bird' range that includes the Blackbird and flagship Starling; these cost roughly two and three times as much respectively.
The Songbird goes naked in a similar vein as its upper-tier open-architecture siblings. This makes sense on sonic grounds because cartridge bodies are effectively resonance traps – although it has its drawbacks too. First, it leaves the 'motor' exposed to dust, and second, a naked cartridge is even more vulnerable to accidental damage, especially while you're fitting and/or aligning it. This cartridge is effectively a thick, beautifully CNC-machined top plate with the motor and cantilever/stylus assembly attached. This largely explains why the Songbird weighs just 8.5g.
There's a choice of two models – low and high output, with this being the former. That means it's a conventional moving coil with (by low output MC standards) a healthy quoted 0.5mV output – so it should drive most moving coil phono inputs easily. The high output model doesn't require the use of an extra MC stage or step-up transformer; this is done by having extra windings attached to the cantilever. The plus side of that is that it doesn't require an additional and potentially sound-degrading moving coil stage to work, but the downside is that more wire is more mass and therefore greater inertia for the cantilever. Subjectively this manifests itself, the theory goes, with a less finessed treble and slower transients – so it's classic swings and roundabouts!
The Songbird comes supplied with a 0.3x0.7 micron elliptical stylus at the end of its coated aluminium pipe cantilever. On the face of it, this is relatively basic as some might expect a fancier stylus profile at this price – but as ever it's not what you do, but the way that you do it. An elliptical stylus is easy to get working well in terms of alignment, for example. Sumiko claims that “unlike some designs, even if it is not adjusted within a gnat's whisker of perfection, your cartridge will still deliver an intensely musical experience.”
Sometimes the technical differences between low and high output versions of the same cartridge can be overstated. Sumiko's published stats for both versions are pretty much identical, with a claimed frequency response of 12Hz-40kHz, and a separation figure of 30dB, with <0.5dB@1kHz of channel balance. During the test period, I tracked the cartridge at its recommended 2g downforce, where it appeared perfectly happy.
Swapping out my Cartridge Man Music Maker III (£775) moving iron cartridge for the Sumiko Songbird on my VPI Prime's 10-inch arm took hardly any time at all, with only minor adjustments being required. Initially, the tonearm cable was plugged into the YBA Passion Phono Stage, and IA350 integrated. However, it was also played through an Anthem STR integrated thanks to it sporting both MC and MM stages. The Songbird also went for a spin at the end of Integrity Hi-Fi's Tru-Glider independent 12-inch tonearm.
Although the Music Maker has a wider claimed frequency range, the Songbird's midband comes through with more detail and more space around instruments and shines a spotlight on vocals. Who Will You Run To from Heart's Bad Animals long-player has typically glossy nineteen eighties production values and yet the Songbird was able to pick through the saturated midrange and present Anne Wilson's remarkable voice ahead of the layered backing vocals. The snare had an enjoyable snap without the brittleness often attributed to moving coil cartridges, and everything about the playback had an enjoyable incisiveness.
That air around the vocals worked exquisitely well with more atmospheric and ambient tracks. The already dreamy New Gods by Grimes opened up even wider than I was used to, with Claire Boucher's heavily echoed voice hanging in the air only supported by a sparse backing of a synthesised piano, which is later joined by more synth pads. A drum track appeared for a short while and pointed to a lighter touch in the lower frequencies than The Cartridge Man pickup.
Dropping the elliptical stylus on to Leftfield's Leftism and Original once again played to the Songbird's strengths, with the female vocals and tight rhythmical arrangement. However, there was a slight lack of bass weight compared to my reference cartridge. This was evident with both the Marten Duke 2 and Node Hylixa speakers I had to hand. Bass still had presence and authority via the Songbird and did deal with rock really well. However, well-mixed electronica and acoustic orchestral pieces such as Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 in E minor, really saw the Songbird pick out the dynamics in a piece of music. It might not have had the subterranean reach of some cartridges, but what it lacked there it more than made up for in speed and agility, as proven in the second movement, Allegro. Any thoughts about the Sumiko lacking excitement was soon dashed away as it faultlessly tracked the impact of the London Symphony Orchestra at full tilt!
It's not all bombast with the Songbird though, as its deft touch is more than able to pick out gentler moments. Moreover, these occasions get the tangible benefit of those little nuances being lifted from the vinyl and apparently fed directly to the listener's ears. Only You from Portishead's Roseland NYC Live has every breath of Beth Gibbons' plaintive voice coming through thick with emotion with the string backing supporting the atmosphere created by her smoky style. However, it was actually the Rhodes piano that gave me some 'it's in the room' moments.
Similarly, the piano intro and chimes at the start of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights shimmered through my room with startling realism. Again, all the high-range arrangements were presented clearly with enough body and presence not to worry about frayed edges. When the bass slides in there is a wonderfully woody tonality to the instrument that balances the whole scene before the drums come in. This is a track that could sound thin and wispy if not treated right. No such happenings with the Songbird, as Kate's distinctive vocals – although high – were given depth and life, as well as the centre stage.
The upright bass of Englishman in New York by Sting has a thick, natural warmth to it. This cartridge was able to pick out the little fills and licks as the great man managed to keep – what is essentially a three-chord trick – interesting. Additionally, the soprano sax had a lively tone without becoming shrill and annoying. However, it's the vocals that once again stole the limelight. Sting's raspy stylings are full of character, and the Songbird had no issues in picking out the smallest inflexions. As the track's middle eight went full jazz, it gave me confidence that fans of the style should be well catered for by this charismatic sounding cartridge.
The low output version of Sumiko's Songbird is an intriguing offering, in so much as it's a reference moving coil cartridge that's uncomplicated to set up and is instantly gratifying to set ears upon. It might lack a little low-end heft – one thing that's offered by some price rivals – but never shows any sign of brittleness up top, either. This is a trade-off that will please many, as any lack of sophistication in the upper midband and treble is a major turn off in a serious phono cartridge.
What this version of the Songbird does give you is the refinement that one expects from a four-figure moving coil cartridge, along with a knack for digging out those elusive micro details. It's also really good at tracking complex dynamics in a piece of music, showing poise and effortlessness – more hallmarks of a serious high-end pickup – all for less than a grand. There's also the consolation that it won't take endless hours of tweaking to be rewarded with all of its moving coil goodness – unlike some fussier and fiddlier designs. Overall then, it's cracking value at the price and should be on your 'must-hear' list of affordable moving coils.
For more information, please visit Sumiko.
StereoNET UK’s Editor and Bass playing gadget junkie. He’s captained the good ship GadgetyNews for over a decade, making low jargon high tech a very handy thing. His passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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