Review By Rick Jensen
The Sumiko Celebration phono cartridge, deservedly praised in many quarters, sneaks up on even the careful listener by virtue its insistent refusal to draw attention to itself. Certainly the public at large would qualify as insane or inane calling a $1500 cartridge "modest". But in the thin atmosphere of the High-End, the Celebration is a deep shot of oxygen, a quiet 'overachiever', and a dark-horse pretender to the court of the analog god worshipped by a few audiophiles.
I am emphasizing the reaction of reviewers (myself included) and audiophiles up front because it has to do with audiophile expectations and because it kind of summarizes the real achievement of this cartridge. How could a cartridge costing only $1,500 be so good? One has to be on one's guard lest wiser heads insist that the unit costing ten times as much (does one exist yet?) is so clearly better than this. To jump ahead to the conclusion, the Celebration really is that good. Is it the best cartridge, if such a thing exists? Maybe, maybe not. But it really sounds very very good, and it does so without rare wire imported from Mars and without a stylus shaped by ninth-generation nanobots. That said, the Celebration is not a wallflower of a design, either, and the cartridge represents a near all-out effort that just happens to be more practical than most of the competition.
The Celebration was conceived as a "statement" cartridge, per Jim Alexander of Sumiko. In principle, there were no assumptions to be made about the how, but only about the results. The need to keep moving mass as low as possible to achieve delicacy and dynamics pointed toward the moving coil design. Within the range of moving coils, though, Sumiko opted to shoot for a slightly higher output than the very low (e.g. 0.25mv) output characteristic of many leading cartridges. Why? Some very legitimate real-world considerations: "by using a higher than usual output (0.5mv) in the Celebration, the phono section is not tasked with accessing the nether regions of the unit's gain limits." The results are better dynamics, lower noise, and firmer bass. Many phono stages can work with the Celebration without straining too hard and without excessive noise.
Parts were chosen for their ability to deliver real and replicable results, regardless of cost. Sumiko chose an "expensive" Alnico magnet for the linearity of its magnetic field. Essentially, it means that the entire coil is subject to the same magnetic density, allowing for greater linearity in response. Boron was chosen for the cantilever for its stiffness, but the relatively mundane boron required some very elaborate synthetic for the suspension, not only for greater liveliness but also for responsiveness (i.e. not going dead or soft) over time.
The one interesting (and somewhat controversial) choice was that of the stylus, which is an elliptical design. Jim Alexander points out that more "aggressive" line-contact styli, capable of superb tracking, most often must be adjusted within extremely tight tolerances. And with the high-energy temperature transfer (in excess of 350o), they can torture records and deliver poor sound instead of great music. Moreover, he adds, "only a very few tonearms can handle a true line contact" and "a millionth of an inch is hard to grind to". Whatever the fraction of an inch required, Sumiko wanted to make sure that the Celebration could work with the vast majority of fine tonearms. Not that that made the stylus cheaper - the PH stylus from Ogura is "roughly five times more expensive than the next most expensive grade" and requires quite a bit of skilled labor for its particular elliptical grind.
With all this, at the end of the day, the Celebration's costs still didn't add up to a 'statement' price, at least in today's market.
One of the byproducts of the design choices made by the Sumiko team is that the cartridge is relatively quite easy to set up for excellent performance. Not that I usually find cartridges terribly attractive (or unattractive) but the Celebration is solid and well-made, with a pearwood body that is easy to handle and doesn't strike fear in one's heart when it comes time to do the mounting work. In my case, the mounting instructions were clear, detailed, and very straightforward. I used a Cart-Align, a 20-year-old alignment tool that many audiophiles may not have heard of, as well as the MFSL Geo-Disc, and then tweaked a little by ear. The stylus design is a little more 'forgiving' than most and yields near-optimal performance without the need for precision tools and the patience of Job. While my Ittok arm is not the easiest with which to adjust VTA, the Celebration quite fortunately seemed to work optimally as advertised, with the body nigh on horizontal. The entire exercise probably took me two hours, half of which was the adjustments by ear, and I never had to touch it again.
I should say a word or two about the owner's manual for the Celebration. In addition to providing clear instructions as noted above, it serves as a short course in how cartridges make music and why it is important to get all the various parameters right. The accompanying illustrations are large and clear as well. I could hardly cite a more salient contrast to most other manuals for cartridges, which are usually done in six-point type or the like. Given the advancing age of many audiophiles (and vinylphiles, in particular), the manual for the Celebration may be among the only ones actually to be read. Indeed, it is all so well done that it would be no surprise that many audiophiles, even the fussiest, might come closer to getting the best out of the Celebration than they could with most other cartridges.
I had recently substituted Svetlana 6550's for the RAM EL-34's in my Music Reference RM-9 II and had been enjoying an increase in transparency in the system (although the bass was a little less full). With the Celebration installed, though, the increase seemed more like a leap. With the conrad-johnson Premier 15 phono stage, more of the music came through, startling me on a number of occasions with details I had not heard before on familiar cuts.
As a few guitar notes had caused me to jump from my seat, among the first records I listened to after breaking in the Celebration was the Michael Newman classical guitar album for Sheffield (Lab 10). The immediate impression of the Bach "Chaconne" was a lighter and slightly less rounded tone to the guitar, but with greater detail. Finger noises on the strings were much more audible, and while I don't seek out records to hear fingers sliding across strings, it definitely served as evidence of the essential clarity and accuracy of the Celebration from the get-go. Indeed, one might have concluded that the Celebration had an analytical character, so much did the detail impress, except that the top end was both extended and very slightly rounded. Overall, the sound on the Newman disc was more concert hall than hi-fi. I could imagine Newman in a smallish room, playing about 15 feet away. Image size seemed just right (the guitar is about guitar-sized, surprise!) and image stability was extraordinary - I assumed that Newman was seated and didn't get up and wander about.
The Local Hero soundtrack (French Vertigo 811038), a favorite of mine, served to demonstrate the spatial characteristics of the Celebration. On the "Whistle Theme", the whistle is mid-high in the center, and the sax is lower left. The instruments pretty much stay there, both horizontally and vertically. In my experience, stability in the former (left-right) is not so unusual, but the image height really surprised me. At the same time, the soundtrack has a prominent midrange mix, and one could hear again the almost analytical detail of the Celebration, a little forward and maybe still a little cool (this was still early in my audition of the Celebration).
Below The Radar
"Georgia on My Mind", from Jacintha's Here's to Ben (Groove Note GRV 1001-1), sounded a little less weighty than I had remembered - not necessarily a bad thing, as her voice sounded smaller and more human-sized. I thought I heard a 'honky' quality to the louder voice passages that I had not noticed earlier; since that same quality was not apparent on other instruments or on other recordings, it may be particular to this one. The piano in the background, by contrast, was easy and natural, almost laid-back, like in a club. Sax was very mellow and less clipped than the voice; drums had authority and fullness. It quickly became clear that the Celebration was providing more information about and nuances of the music than that to which I was accustomed.
In general, there was little to remark about the Celebration's delivery of bass. Unlike many digital recordings, it had a rich and varied tonal palette. Unlike all of my older cartridges, there was no mid-bass boom (or 'bloom', if you're an optimist). If anything, I heard more deep bass via the Celebration than ever before - besides the Jacintha recording, there was considerable deep bass to be heard on "Ancient Heart" by Tanita Tikaram, with some great synth work by Rod Argent. And there was nothing overly cool or analytical in Tikaram's icy hot husky voice, either - clear and clean articulation, authority and great delicacy. Again, each new recording told me that the Celebration couldn't be pinned down and pigeonholed as this or that. If on one record it was lush, on the next it could be smooth and silky or cool and precise. Had to be the records, said I.
Once you realize that you are hearing some higher truth, the listening gets to be really fun. More great bass could be heard on the Pièces d'Orgue of Couperin (Astrée AS 35), where the lower registers were reproduced with almost incredible richness. This was not just floor-shaking organ (although my far-from-inert floor did shake) but real notes, each clearly distinguished from its neighbors. The higher bass and mid-bass notes were so different from CD, sweet and supple without any 'mushiness' or syrupy quality.
At 50,000 Feet
The early impression of a gentle rounding of the highs proved to be just that - an impression. Rather, the absence of a tizzy or aggressive upper midrange/treble was what I heard. The incredible detail that I hear often from great (and expensive) moving coils was put into perspective by two evenings at the concert hall during the time the Celebration was under review.
With the Celebration on my mind each time, I paid particular attention to the intersection of inner detail and smoothness- how much is enough? At the first, a symphonic concert at Carnegie Hall (pretty close up, row F), strings showed a resiny attack without the least bit of stridency. Trumpets blared louder than I might have imagined from a listening chair at home, but again, without being aggressive or overly etched. The second, a ballet at Lincoln Center, where we were seated farther back, presented a more analytical and cool sound without being at all sterile. While the memory can trick us all, the Celebration provided the same essential experience. On the Chesky pressing of the Reiner/CSO Scheherezade (Chesky RC-4), the strings had great power without being too lush. While there is no way in my small listening room that one could be fooled into thinking one is in a concert hall, the Celebration got close to the right balance with the strings. And the horns possessed almost the speed and attack of the trumpets at Carnegie; they had little of the flattened dynamic that normally comes across on disc.
As a sidelight, the Classic version of the same piece was not unexpectedly brighter and more precise, particularly in the string tone (maybe too much for my taste). The horns and drums had more weight than in the Chesky version or in the concert hall, but the additional weight was welcome. A close-up soundstage was less convincing as well. The Celebration clearly separates these two LP's. It gives you the impression that you are hearing what is on the record and not that you are hearing a cartridge. Not having had the privilege of hearing a master of the recording, I cannot say which is more faithful, but the Chesky sounded more like my trips to the concert hall. In any case, the Celebration's treble is not rolled off or rounded, nor is it etched or analytical - it's just about right.
Bombs, Missiles, And Peace On Earth
Separating the voices and instruments of any recording seemed a particular strength of the Celebration. As rock recordings are often more dynamically limited and congested than unamplified jazz or classical, they can point to the limits of the home hi-fi. An example: "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)", from David Bowie's "Let's Dance" (EMI SD 17083), is a densely mixed, big rock song, with a crowded production. Bowie's voice is (purposely, it seem, to add to the otherworldliness of the song's subject) way back in the mix and is very low, but manages to present itself with articulation and clarity via the Celebration. Moreover, every last note from Steve Ray Vaughan's guitar, which can disappear in a lesser system, comes through the organ and voices: lots of power and no glare at all.
The Celebration resolved the congested passages all through Richard Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal 1303) without even breathing hard. And all this with a harmonic rightness and richness (cf. "opening chords of "Don't Renege on our Love") that made me think that Thompson just tuned his guitar a little bit better than everyone else. Finally, the bright and forward piano in Steve Forbert's "Romeo's Tune" from Jackrabbit Slim (Nemperor 36191) always makes me want to back up a few feet. In retrospect, it may have been overloading the cartridges before the Celebration came along. This time, the piano sounded halfway in between our old Yamaha and our Boston grand - lots of articulation, but way more moderate in presentation. It was far more enjoyable as well.
Wild Blue Yonder
I found it difficult to review the Sumiko Celebration in one principal sense: it sounds like many different things at different times, and doesn't seem to reveal any consistent 'personality'. Each time one listens, it is tempting to say "aha! - that's it, that is the essential character of this baby". And each time one discovers that it's not that easy. One may argue about the stylus shape, and one can certainly complain about the price. It's just too low-priced to be a reference-quality cartridge. The Celebration delineates differences in recordings with ease, and it does so without giving up what is really musical, romantic, strident, or just plain pleasant. To repeat the question I posed at the beginning: is it the best cartridge, if such a thing exists? I can think of one or two that I have liked as much, and yes, they cost a lot more. It is possible, as Jim Alexander of Sumiko says, that a given cartridge, perfectly aligned, might be able to extract something more from the groove, but the Celebration will track superbly and honor the music in a wide range of high-end setups. I found nothing to fault in this great cartridge, and a great deal to celebrate.
Loading: tube - 47K ohms; solid state-1000 ohms
Separation: >30dB at 1kHz
Compliance: 12 x 10-6 cm/dyne
Optimal Tracking Force: 2.0 grams
Voice: (510) 843-4500