Sumiko, a well-established importer and distributor of excellent audio gear, recently added to its Oyster line three new moving-magnet phono cartridges: the Oyster Rainier ($149 USD), the Oyster Olympia ($199), and the subject of this review, the Oyster Moonstone ($299). These models continue Sumiko’s tradition of value-priced cartridges, two of which have become standards: the Oyster Pearl moving-magnet and the Blue Point moving-coil, a cult favorite.
If you’ve read my review of Sumiko’s Oyster Rainier, published here in July 2018, you know that the only differences among the three new Oysters are in their cantilevers and styli. The Oyster Moonstone’s cantilever is aluminum, and affixed to its nether end is an elliptical (0.3 x 0.7µm) stylus. Sumiko claims a better frequency response and more punch than is attainable with the Oyster Rainier. You can tell them apart by their cantilever assemblies: burgundy for the Moonstone, white for the Rainier, deep green for the Olympia. If you start with the cheapest, the Rainier, you can upgrade to an Olympia or Moonstone with a simple swap of stylus. Very neat.
Each cartridge comes in a classy cedar box with a cardboard sleeve on which are printed its model name and specifications. The Oyster Moonstone is fairly nondescript in appearance, but one feature demands mention. When you install the cartridge in a tonearm, there’s no fumbling as you try to thread tiny nuts onto tiny screws: the Moonstone’s mounting nuts are embedded in the cartridge body itself. This greatly eases installation, which doesn’t require that you have very small hands. Sumiko even includes an Allen wrench and a stylus brush.
The Oyster Moonstone’s frequency response is specified as 12Hz-33kHz, with 30dB channel separation at 1kHz -- both superior to the Rainier’s and Olympia’s specs. The Moonstone’s output is a specified 3mV at 1kHz, which is rather at the low end for a MM cartridge, and its channel balance is 0.5dB at 1kHz, a better-than-usual figure. As with the other Oysters, the Moonstone’s optimal vertical tracking force (VTF) is 2.0gm, the midpoint of the recommended range of 1.8-2.2gm. The cartridge weighs 6.5gm, which will be easily compatible with most tonearms.
The Oyster Moonstone carries a one-year limited, nontransferable warranty on parts and labor. If there’s a problem, you pay shipping to Sumiko in Berkeley, California; they’ll cover the return shipping. But proof of purchase is required -- save your receipt.
For this review, I used my trusty Pioneer PL-516 belt-drive turntable from the late 1970s. Installation was simple, thanks to the Sumiko’s built-in mounting nuts. Once I’d adjusted the overhang of the Pioneer’s headshell, balanced the tonearm, and set the VTF and antiskating to their recommended values, I was ready to break in the Oyster Moonstone’s cantilever with a few hours of playing records without listening, using rock, classical, and jazz LPs.
Use and listening
I often start with Paul Simon, because I know he’s very particular about audio quality. His albums often have exceptional sound, and Still Crazy After All These Years (LP, Columbia PC 33540) is no exception. “My Little Town,” a one-off reunion with Art Garfunkel, is quite dense and intense from the start. I like a strong, meaty, punchy bass line with no slop, and that’s what the Moonstone delivered in bunches. As counterpoint to this, the acoustic guitar had a fine, almost delicate sound. The snare drums had plenty of snap, another desirable characteristic, and the piano made its presence known -- it was solidly reproduced. I found it interesting that the voices -- which, through many cartridges, sound as if the two singers are on top of each other -- had just a wee bit of separation with the Moonstone. One of the showpieces of this cut is at the end, when the trumpets enter en masse. In my experience, they often blend together and sound as one, but through the Moonstone I detected three separate horns -- that kind of detail is rare, and much to my liking. Their entrance was crisp, staccato, and spot on. Overall, there seemed to be a bit more upper-midrange snap, giving perhaps a slight bump to tenor voices, which made the sound quite lively. This was a pleasure through my system, but in some it might be a bit too much.
Speaking of Arthur Garfunkel, one of my all-time favorite performances of his is “Finally Found a Reason,” from his Fate for Breakfast (LP, Columbia JC 35780). His ethereal voice is complemented by rather ethereal accompaniment: acoustic guitar, a Rhodes electric piano, minimal bass and drums, and backing singers that sound like a mix of sopranos and tenors. Garfunkel’s voice is dead center, surrounded by the backing voices, and the guitar extends through both channels -- lower strings on the left, higher on the right. Through most of the song, a simple, soft bass thump keeps time. I listened to this cut again and again with the Moonstone, hearing details I don’t remember ever hearing before. The whole experience was a wonder.
As I mentioned in my review of the Oyster Rainier, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” from Billy Joel’s second album, Piano Man (LP, Columbia PC 32544), reminds me a lot of something that might have been written by Aaron Copland for his own Billy the Kid, a ballet. This is another intense recording that was served well by the Oyster Moonstone. Joel at times pounds his piano, though always with deft precision, yet he can also pull back to play delicate phrases -- and it all came through perfectly. Michael Omartian’s powerful string arrangements were also reproduced incredibly well. And, as I mentioned previously, the drummer on this is a maniac -- I checked to see if it was Mick Fleetwood, as manic a drummer as I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t. Nevertheless, I was astounded at how dramatically this cut was reproduced. The Moonstone was no wallflower. Something that came through all the cuts was how expansive the soundstages were -- quite possibly the best I’ve ever experienced.
After three male singers, I thought I should bring in some women and pulled out an oldie from 1987: Mad Romance, the eponymous album of a two-man, two-woman jazz vocal group from the DC area, backed by piano, bass, and drums (LP, Zanzibar ZBR-101). It was closely miked -- the sound is very intimate. Mad Romance’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You” uses a fairly typical bossa nova rhythm with a lot of vocal ornamentation and scatting. The Moonstone did an exemplary job of blending the four voices when called for, but also gave each its place during solo passages. As with the other cuts I listened to, the soundfield was spectacular, with very precise positioning of voices and instruments from left to right and front to back. It sounded very much as if the four singers were right in my room. Another aspect of the Moonstone, something it had in common with the Rainier, was its ability to minimize clicks, scratches, and surface noise, especially the last. Excellent reproduction.
“You’re No Good,” from Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel (LP, Capitol ST-11358), has always been a test for me of how well a turntable-cartridge combination reproduces her voice, the insistent backing instruments, and, in particular, the close, with its sustained violin note. Through a fabulous system, that last part raises hairs on the back of my neck. I can’t say that the Moonstone achieved that incredible level of excitement, but it came closer than any other cartridge I’ve heard in the last six or eight years. Going on to other cuts convinced me that Heart Like a Wheel was well recorded but not spectacularly so. I heard a hollowness around Ronstadt’s voice that I hadn’t before. Could be a weakness in the cartridge, but I don’t think so, given its reproduction of other reference LPs.
Something a bit more intense is “I’d Love to Change the World,” from Ten Years After’s A Space in Time (LP, Columbia KC 30801). Again, the soundfield was just incredible. The acoustic guitars at the beginning spread across the soundfield; the drums were well back but in the middle; Alvin Lee’s voice was dead center, out front, his high electric-guitar riffs above him and shifting back and forth just a little. I’d never noticed those shifts before, and I’ve been listening to this album since 1973. Once his electric riffs pick up intensity, the song just takes off -- it put on a spectacular show through the Moonstone. I was deeply impressed.
Into each life a little rain must fall. I pulled out “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” from Rick Derringer’s All American Boy (LP, Blue Sky KC 32481). (A little-known fact is that Derringer, born Rick Zehrlinger, has been a one-hit wonder three times: first with “Hang On Sloopy,” when he fronted the McCoys; then with the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein,” in which he played the scorching guitar lead; and finally with this cut.) I was disappointed. The instruments sounded fine, with great detail, excellent positioning on the soundfield, and lots of oomph to the rhythm. But Derringer’s lead vocal sounded a bit tinny and hollow, and his and his backing singers’ voices were all recessed and rather overrun by the guitar line. I don’t recall having heard this with any other cartridge I’ve tried with the Pioneer turntable.
The title track of Steve Winwood’s Roll With It (LP, Virgin 7 90946-1) showed off the incredible depth of the Moonstone’s reproduction of an expansive soundstage. The synth brass are well back from Winwood’s voice and the other instruments. The drums and bass are down low and right up front, with Winwood’s voice just behind and above them, and then the organ behind him. As with the Derringer cut, Winwood’s reedy voice was particularly reedy here, though not as odd sounding as Derringer’s.
A friend loaned me his copy of Hugo Winterhalter Goes . . . Continental, from 1962 (LP, RCA Victor Living Stereo LSP-2482). I played it for one reason: the piccolo in “The Continental.” With every other cartridge my friend and I have heard play this cut, the piccolo is shrill and distorted, as if badly overdriven when the album was mastered. But despite the problem it had with reedy male voices, the Moonstone revealed none of that in its playback of “The Continental.” The piccolo came through loud but relatively clean. I’m not enough of an engineer to explain why, but suffice it to say that I was completely impressed by the Moonstone’s reproduction of this recording.
To find out how well the Oyster Moonstone could track difficult passages, I called on an LP that for nearly 40 years has bedeviled phono cartridges of every description: Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, with real cannon (LP, Telarc DG-10041). The Moonstone did almost as fine a job as my longtime tracking champion, Shure’s V15 Type V-MR. The Sumiko was momentarily unsettled by the initial cannon blast, but tracked all the rest with no problem.
I first compared the Sumiko Oyster Moonstone with the Grado Labs Gold (ca. $200) that is the steady tenant of my Pioneer ’table. The Gold is well regarded, and I’ve enjoyed it for several years now. I listened again to Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” as the Moonstone had provided a different experience with that cut than I’d had before. With the Grado Gold, as soon as Derringer starts singing, I noticed a somewhat fuller, more forward sound than with the Moonstone. The soundstage was still quite wide, but not nearly as deep. Derringer’s voice was more forward and somewhat less tinny, but then again, he’s no Frank Sinatra.
I also compared the Moonstone with its less expensive Oyster sibling, the Rainier ($149), and for this I used Art Garfunkel’s recording of “Finally Found a Reason.” The primary difference between these two bivalves was detail: The Rainier produced a relatively detailed sound with good bottom-octave heft, but the Moonstone delivered more of everything. As fine as the Rainier is, the Moonstone provided even finer overall sound. No wonder it costs twice as much.
Sumiko’s Oyster Moonstone was not absolutely perfect -- it had that odd reproduction of reedy, high-pitched male voices that I experienced with Derringer and Winwood. But on the whole, in my decades of listening to LPs, I can’t think of another cartridge I’ve heard whose overall sound quality has seemed so inherently “right.” And none I’ve heard whose breadth and depth of soundstage was so excellent and revealed so much detail -- and I have two of the best moving-magnet/-iron cartridges out there: respectively, the Shure V15 Type V-MR and the Grado Labs Gold. With the Moonstone, when bass slam was called for, it came. When a sweet midrange was demanded, it was there in spades. When crisp, sparkling highs were the need, the Moonstone fulfilled it.
For me, the Oyster Moonstone is the perfect cartridge for transferring LPs to digital media. It added nothing to the sound, and subtracted virtually nothing; it tracked well, bringing forth everything my records have to offer. When I reviewed the Sumiko Oyster Rainier, I said that if I were in the market for a new cartridge, I’d consider it long and hard. Listening to the Sumiko Oyster Moonstone has put me in that market, but now I’m afraid that the Moonstone and only the Moonstone can fulfill my desire. I think it’s the best overall cartridge I’ve ever heard. If your budget can’t stretch to $299, check out the Rainier for half that. But if you can afford $299 and you want the ultimate in detail, smooth response, and great tracking from a MM cartridge, audition the Sumiko Oyster Moonstone. It’s fabulous.
. . . Thom Moon
- Turntables -- Dual CS 5000, Pioneer PL-516
- Phono cartridges -- Shure V15 Type V-MR, Grado Labs Gold
- Preamplifier -- Linn Majik 1P
- Power amplifier -- NAD C 275BEE
- Speakers -- Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer
- Analog interconnects -- Straight Wire Chorus
- Speaker cables -- Acoustic Research 14-gauge
Sumiko Oyster Moonstone Moving-Magnet Phono Cartridge
Price: $299 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Phone: (510) 843-4500