Back in 2018, Sumiko expanded its well-known Oyster line of moving-magnet/fixed-coil phono cartridges with four new entrants. Three of these are the Rainier ($149, all prices in USD), the Olympia ($199), and the Moonstone ($299). The only difference between these models is the stylus, which is upgradeable. For example, you can upgrade a Rainier to a Moonstone just by substituting the stylus. The lineup also includes the related but only partially interchangeable Amethyst cartridge ($599). Very recently the company filled a gap in this lineup with the new Sumiko Oyster Wellfleet cartridge, which lists for $449. The extra $150 you’ll pay over the price of the Moonstone gets you an elliptical 0.3 mil × 0.7 mil stylus, nude-mounted on a 0.5mm aluminum pipe.
“So what’s the deal with a nude-mounted stylus?” I hear you ask. Well, I’m glad you did. Virtually all entry-level fixed-coil cartridges have a diamond chip that’s bonded to a metal shank attached to the cantilever. As Sumiko explains: “Wellfleet utilizes a highly polished nude elliptical stylus, eliminating the bonding between the stylus tip and shank. With the new assembly, excessive mass in the shank is cut away to further reduce tip mass, resulting in a faster, more direct, and more accurate response of the stylus’ movement by the cantilever and magnet. Sonically, this increases the process speed and focuses central images, pulling them toward the listener with a heightened sense for detail.”
However, it’s trickier to mount that tiny diamond chip directly onto the cantilever than it is to put it in a shank, so nude mounting is featured on only the more expensive cartridges.
Description and specifications
The Wellfleet greatly resembles the Rainier, Olympia, and Moonstone; the styli for all four are, in fact, interchangeable. One great feature of the Wellfleet that’s carried over from the other models in the line is that the threads for the mounting screws are built into the cartridge body, making the Oysters much easier to mount in a headshell than cartridges that require separate nuts.
The Wellfleet’s specifications are pretty impressive. Sumiko’s claimed frequency response (although they don’t give ± deviations) is 12Hz to 33kHz. If you have a dog, be advised! The cartridge’s 3.0mV output (no conditions quoted) is lowish; many fixed-coil cartridges have outputs of 4.5 to 6.0mV. However, channel separation at 1kHz is an excellent 30dB, and channel balance is within 0.5dB at 1kHz as well. Sumiko gives a vertical tracking force range of 1.8 to 2.2 grams (18–22mN), with a recommended force of 2.0 grams/20mN. The cartridge itself weighs 6.5 grams—slightly on the heavy side, but it should match well with most turntable tonearms.
Also in the box are the two mounting bolts and a small Allen wrench with which to install them. A very good owner’s manual is available from the Sumiko Phono Cartridges website or by scanning the QR code on the bottom of the Wellfleet box. The cartridge has a one-year warranty that covers parts and labor, but only if you buy from an authorized Sumiko dealer.
Recently I picked up some new-to-me LPs, including Jaded Virgin from Marshall Chapman (Epic JC 35341), an album the old Stereo Review magazine proclaimed as Record of the Year in 1978. I turned to Chapman’s version of Johnny Cash’s classic “I Walk the Line.” It starts with a military-style drum riff, and then the bass enters strongly. There’s lots of echo on her voice and most of the backing instruments, and the effects often float around the very good soundstage. Her version is rather slow and measured. Over the Wellfleet, the electronic piano/synthesizer was placed right behind the drums, which were located right behind the bass. Despite the slow tempo, the bass line, such as it is (it’s mostly one note), was insistent, and if I played it loud enough, it could make my chest vibrate. Chapman was also in the middle, between the drums and piano. Trumpets, guitar, alto sax, and other instruments moved around the stage seemingly at will—consistent with what’s on the recording. This is another album where I imagine the guy who mixed it had way too much fun. Great cut and great reproduction by the Wellfleet.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, trumpeter Bill Chase played with the crème de la crème of the big bands of the era: Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton. In the early 1970s, he formed his own group, Chase, along the same lines as Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. There were nine guys: four on trumpet, one on keyboards, one on guitar, one on bass, one percussionist, and a lead singer. Their one modest hit that peaked at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 was “Get It On,” from their self-titled Chase LP (Epic E 30472). Over the Sumiko, the cut had a driving pace led by the four trumpets, which were often playing at the top of their register. The keyboard was on the right, along with the drums, while the bass and guitar were a bit to the left. These guys were playing hot and the song was so insistent, it made me want to move. The Wellfleet conveyed that energy beautifully. In addition, my copy of the album wasn’t treated too gently by its initial owner, but with a good cleaning, the Wellfleet seemed to ignore most of the surface noise. This was the best I’ve ever heard the song sound on my system.
At the peak of her popularity, Linda Ronstadt recorded a version of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Hurt So Bad” and included it on her Mad Love album (Asylum 5E-510). I’ve heard this song dozens of times on the radio, but it wasn’t until now that I heard what sounded like real pain in her voice. In some places, Ronstadt sounds as if she’s about to cry. An exceptional moment occurred when she loudly cried out the chorus, and the lead fuzz guitar over the Wellfleet matched her note, then took it upwards on the scale, emphasizing the emotional pain of the singer. It was not hard to empathize. The drum set is one of those wider-than-reality takes with the snare, kick drum, and cymbal position to the right of Ms. Ronstadt and the hi-hat and tom-tom to the left. The two guitars are on either side of her while the bass is down front. All of this was imaged properly by the Sumiko. Again, I was impressed by the relative silence of the grooves when played by the Wellfleet. Something about its design makes it nearly immune to surface noise.
In my opinion, the best measure of a cartridge/turntable’s performance is how well it handles classical music, as orchestras cover frequencies that range from nearly as low as the human ear can hear to far higher than we can hear when harmonics are considered, and the sound levels can vary from incredibly soft one moment to full bore the next. One of my favorite recordings for this is the Atlanta Symphony performing three works by Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring, and Rodeo (Telarc DG-10078). This time I listened carefully to Rodeo. This is an early digital recording and one of the very best of its era. Over the Wellfleet, the orchestra completely filled the soundstage—and with substantial depth. I could precisely determine where the individual instruments were, but I was also able to let the entire glorious performance wash over me, enjoying the totality of the sound. One of the most noticeable aspects was the infamous Telarc drum, a bass drum that’s struck with great force to create a very loud “Boom!” It was all there over the Wellfleet, and it sounded fabulous.
Returning readers will know that I often use the Manhattan Transfer in my reviews for two reasons: I like their sound and I like their sheer musicality. One of their best albums is Vocalese (Atlantic 81266-1), a recording where they sing words written by the great jazz lyricist Jon Hendricks for famous jazz compositions. Each member of ManTran takes on the part of a single solo instrument—vibes, trumpet, piano, or whatever. The group is backed by a big band of its own and the whole conglomeration definitely swings. The track I sampled was “Airegin,” a song dedicated to Nigeria (“Airegin” backwards) by famous tenor sax man Sonny Rollins. There’s a lot of extremely fast voice work on this one; it’s a wonder they don’t trip over the words, they go by so quickly. The four singers were spread out over the entire width of the soundstage. When they performed solos, however, they were placed dead center with the band behind them. One particular thing I noticed was that the Wellfleet provided ample bass slam—there was no slop in the bass line. Again, I noted how quiet the background was with this cartridge; it’s possibly the quietest reproduction I’ve ever experienced this side of a very good digital source.
I’m fortunate to have one of Mobile Fidelity’s 180-gram, 45-rpm pressings of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms album (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 2-441), and my favorite cut for these reviews is “Money for Nothing.” With the Wellfleet, I was hoping to see if any detail that had previously escaped my notice would show up, and it delivered! Most curiously, it was something that sounds like a cowbell that’s been stuffed with a rag being struck by a mallet, so that it makes a staccato sound that dies almost instantly. I may have heard it before, but I certainly didn’t remember it. On the Wellfleet, it came through very distinctly. The bass drum beats again showed the cartridge’s deft handling of strong bass notes. Sting’s “I want my MTV” wail was more out in the open air than I’ve noted before. All in all, the Wellfleet handled the song extremely well.
For the next cut, I wanted something R&B-ish, so I pulled out the soundtrack from The Blues Brothers (Atlantic SD16017). The guys in the band backing Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were all skilled players: lead guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Willie Hall all were members of the Stax Records house band. Murphy Dunne was a Chicago pianist; sax players Tom Malone and Lou Marini and trumpeter Alan Rubin were all from the Saturday Night Live band of the era; and guitarist Matt Murphy played with blues artists Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim, and James Cotton. I chose “Shake Your Tailfeather,” a track where the band backs Ray Charles. This is a tightly staged tune with a rather narrow soundstage. Over the Sumiko, the soundstage was arrayed in the same way it was in the movie, with Charles out front and the band positioned behind him. The song abounds with staccato notes, and the Wellfleet handled them all with aplomb—very tight with no slop. With the Wellfleet, “Shake Your Tailfeather” never sounded more precise, and it had tremendous rhythmic slam.
I compared the Wellfleet to my usual cartridge of choice, its stablemate, the Sumiko Oyster Moonstone. I’ve always admired the Moonstone’s smooth, effortless sound; it goes so well with the jazz and classical music I listen to most regularly.
The tune this time was “Last Train Home” from the Pat Metheny Group’s album Still Life (Talking) (Geffen GHS 24145). On this cut, Metheny plays a guitar synthesizer that sounds much like a sitar. Metheny is located right up front and center, with the bass below, the piano just to the right, and the drums behind him. Later in the song, three male voices come in behind the drums, voicing wordless notes.
I started with the Moonstone and again marveled at the rich sound it produced. This piece is a very tight recording—there’s not much breadth to the soundstage but a decent amount of depth. And at the very end, I could hear the whistle of a steam locomotive move slowly from right to left before it faded out. Once again, the Moonstone fulfilled my expectations of what a good phono cartridge can achieve.
But after adjusting arm balance, stylus, and anti-skate force, I tried the song with the Wellfleet, and my eyes were opened wide. Its overall sound was that of the Moonstone—plus some. All the good points of the Moonstone were there—its smooth reproduction, rich sound, and excellent tracking—but all were improved on the Wellfleet. And there was more definition and improved imaging. At the very end, as Metheny’s synthesizer was fading out, on the Wellfleet, it made a slow move to the left channel, something I hadn’t noticed as clearly on the Moonstone, even with a second playing of my cartridge.
Over the many years of my audio journey, I’ve used at least 12 different cartridges on my turntables: four Shures, two Stantons, two Grados, one Empire, one ADC, one Ortofon, and the Sumiko Moonstone. All except the Ortofon were at or near the top of their respective manufacturers’ lines. In my reviews for SoundStage! Access, I’ve been exposed to several others from Audio-Technica, Grado, Nagaoka, and Ortofon. The Wellfleet tops them all. It is by all measures, the best-sounding cartridge I’ve ever had in my system. As I said, the Wellfleet has all the great qualities of the Sumiko Oyster Moonstone, honed to even finer precision. It’s certainly expensive as fixed-coil cartridges go; the cost for the cartridge alone is what many entry-level turntables (the usual focus of these reviews) tend to go for. But this is a cartridge to which you may aspire. It certainly fills that position with me.
. . . Thom Moon
- Turntable: Dual CS 5000.
- Cartridge: Sumiko Oyster Moonstone.
- Preamplifier: APT Holman.
- Power amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
- Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 powered subwoofer.
- Phono cables: Dual.
- Interconnects: Wireworld Cable Luna 8.
- Speaker cables: Acoustic Research (14-gauge), terminated with Dayton Audio banana plugs.
Sumiko Oyster Wellfleet Phono Cartridge
Warranty: One-year limited warranty on parts and labor.
11763 95th Ave N
Maple Grove MN 55369
Phone: (510) 843-4500