My analog life can be divided into three acts. Scene 1, Act I, circa 1976, began at Christmas when I received a Juliette all-in-one audio system, with a record changer on top and an 8-track player built into the front panel. The Juliette became landfill a few years later, but I still have my first record—Lighthouse’s 20 Great Hits on K-tel.
Act II started around 1979, when I used the proceeds from my first job (dishwasher at a high-end steak house) to purchase a Technics system consisting of a receiver (I forget the model) and an SLB-202 turntable. Poking out of the front of the tonearm was an Ortofon Concorde cartridge, which—at the time—looked very science fiction to me. While I was by that time a true, budding audiophile, there was no internet, and I didn’t have cash to spare on magazines for crying out loud. I cared greatly about sound quality, but I had no way of knowing how to improve it. I was wandering in the wilderness. My turntable sat atop one of my speakers . . .
I kept that Technics turntable right through to the 1990s, but around 1989, it grew a doily on top when I became enamored with the Compact Disc. I kept my records, though, more out of inertia, I recall, than any sort of prescience. Around 1991, I met Phil, an audiophile who was passionate about tube audio and analog, and who—like me—smoked a lot of pot. We sat and listened, at his house and mine, for hours without talking, and I began to hear the allure of LPs and understand what I’d been missing.
With Phil’s help, I moved on to Act III. I purchased my first real, high-end turntable in 1992, a Rega Planar 3, which was fitted with a Sumiko Blue Point cartridge. And at this point, the story comes full circle. The plot begins anew, so to speak, for it’s essentially 30 years from the real start of my full-fledged love for LPs, and here I sit listening to a cartridge from that same manufacturer.
Same as it ever was
Back in 2018, I reviewed Sumiko’s Starling on SoundStage! Ultra, one of two then-new cartridges from the company’s Reference line. Four years ago, the Starling and its little brother, the Songbird, were big deals, for this venerable company rarely changes its product line.
The Starling charmed me, as I recall. Lithe and quick, entirely friendly, with just the right amount of juice dribbling down its chin that it settled into my system with far better synergy than its somewhat approachable (current) $1899 price tag (all prices in USD) would suggest.
It’s been 30 years since I owned that Rega and Blue Point combo, and 2022 also heralds Sumiko’s 40th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Sumiko has released the Reference Celebration 40, which falls right around the top of their extensive lineup of cartridges.
As a replacement for the Pearwood Celebration II, the Celebration 40 opens up the underside of the cartridge, which now appears more like a Starling with an open-bottomed wood body. In place of the Celebration II’s Jewel P9 elliptical stylus, the Celebration 40 gets the same Microridge stylus used in the top-of-the-line $4499 Palo Santos Presentation. Internally, the 40’s coils are wound with higher purity copper, resulting in lower impedance and lighter weight. Even though it’s significantly improved, Sumiko has kept the price of the Celebration 40 at $2799, the same price as the Celebration II that it replaces. And when your Celebration 40 wears out, Sumiko will give you 30% of the price you originally paid toward the purchase of a new Sumiko cartridge of greater or equal value.
The Celebration 40’s cantilever is made from long-grain boron. Instead of a butyl rubber suspension, Sumiko chose to employ a synthetic rubber, which they claim aids in consistency and longevity. Output is specified as a plump 0.5mV, which should work well with just about any good-quality phono preamplifier. The Celebration 40 weighs 7 grams, which is quite light but within easy tolerance of my VPI JMW 10 arm’s counterweight. Sumiko recommends 1.9–2.2gm tracking force, and I found 2gm to be just right.
There’s a real visual charm to the Celebration 40’s well-crafted wood body. In lieu of the pearwood used in the Celebration II, the 40’s body is made in California from plumwood that is, apparently, taken from a blossoming tree. This all sounds rather barbaric, but here’s hoping the trees didn’t suffer too much. The bodies, once finished, are shipped to Japan for assembly.
On their website, Sumiko has this to say of the Celebration 40: “the prevailing characteristics are rich, smooth and warm, lacking analytical tendencies that can become grating on the ear.” The owner’s manual contains much information about the construction of the cartridge, along with a ton of setup and tuning details. There was nothing specific in the installation instructions that I didn’t already know, but having it all in one place, laid out in logical order with clear, easy-to-understand descriptions of each step and why it’s important was a useful refresher.
Inside the nifty little wooden box—it feels like cedar or some other species of soft, aromatic wood—the Celebration 40 is screwed down to a thin plastic insert, below which are the screws and the appropriate hex key to go with them. My review sample had been around the block, I suspect, but I wasn’t especially keen to see how easily the cartridge might get knocked around inside the box, given that there’s no stylus guard. In summary, for a cartridge of this price, I’d like to see the presentation improved a touch, especially considering the heroic manner in which the DS Audio DS 003 optical cartridge, which retails for $2500, is packaged—see my upcoming “For the Record” column on sister-site SoundStage! Ultra to get a preview of this nifty piece of equipment.
That said, you generally only unbox a product once, so the value of the packaging isn’t significant after the initial decantation. I can see how it’s reasonable to view attractive, elaborate packaging as an additional cost that some might prefer to see baked into the actual product. From that viewpoint, the Celebration 40’s ascetic box and liner could well be considered a predictor that it offers good value for the money.
The Celebration 40 was reasonably easy to set up, although, unlike the Starling, it didn’t come with a stylus guard. With this in mind, I made sure I hadn’t drunk too much coffee, that the wife and I weren’t in a fight, and that I was calm and centered. Did I mention yet that there’s no stylus guard?
The Celebration 40 mounted up easily. The cartridge body is threaded, as God intended, and the pins are slightly tapered, so there shouldn’t be much difficulty getting a variety of clips to fit. The flat, long body provides excellent sight lines for alignment, both in terms of accessibility of the stylus and as an aid for VTA adjustment. Further, the front of the cartridge body is beveled, which greatly aids visibility for azimuth adjustments.
I had the good fortune of receiving the Saturn 401 phono preamplifier at around the same time as the Celebration 40 landed in my system. With the Saturn, I loaded the Sumiko down to 100 ohms, and its comfy 0.5mV output—essentially the same as the other cartridges in residence—settled in just fine with the Saturn set to 67dB of gain.
I wept as I boxed up the Saturn and hooked up my own Aqvox Phono 2 CI phono preamplifier. I didn’t have to suffer for long, though, as the Aqvox settled back into my system with the familiarity of a comfortable pair of underwear. The Aqvox’s balanced current input makes impedance settings irrelevant. Gain is set using convenient pots right up front, so I just dialed them in to get my preamp’s volume control up near the middle for aggressive volumes.
Sounds like I like
A good place to start: I find that I can never go wrong with a Duke Ellington LP, so onto the platter went Piano in the Foreground (Columbia/Classic Records CS8829)—and what an auspicious beginning this turned out to be. This is calm, peaceful music imbued with latent, deep-rooted power. And it’s well recorded to boot. Via the Celebration, I got a ton of fundamental through Ellington’s strong left hand and below that, from Aaron Bell’s bass, which—I’d like to add—is very closely miked and sounds a mile high.
So my first impression of the Celebration 40 was a wonderful sense of power and grace. All good so far. A complete second go-round of this album left me with an even deeper appreciation for the way the Sumiko cartridge portrays space and rhythm. A big part of this is how very quiet the Celebration 40 is in the groove. It’s noticeably quieter than the Soundsmith/Shelter 901, and while the EAT Jo N°8 also works wonders with surface noise, the Sumiko beat it by a hair.
After a few weeks of listening, I returned to PitF for another listen. This album sounds like it’s tailor-made for the Celebration 40. The overriding environment of this wonderful record is sparse and calm, but there are flurries of complication. Not bebop, paid-by-the-note busyness—it’s more like each musician is grinding his way inward, toward a center of restrained introspection. For instance, there’s the atypical “Summertime,” a track in which it sort of sounds like the musicians are utterly unaware of each other’s presence, and everyone is just noodling away without paying any mind to what the others are doing. The Celebration 40’s space magic helped bring together these disparate elements, coalescing the musical intent without confusing or muddling the message. Clean and open, spacious and endearing were my thoughts here.
Yes, this was an auspicious beginning that pointed to a sophisticated cartridge with an excellent portrayal of space.
On my visit this lunch hour to Pop Music, my local LP-only retailer, I picked up a reissue of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Warner Records 093624954163). I’d forgotten just how good this album is. I’m much less angry now than at 28, the age I was when this album came out, and over the years, I’ve drifted away from this sort of music. But my stars! What a barnburner! And this reissue sounds just fabulous. I don’t have an original pressing available to compare, but I don’t ever recall the album sounding this good.
Could this have something to do with the Sumiko? Well, sure it could. It’s gotta be hard work untangling music this dense. Until I slammed BSSM on to the VPI, I wasn’t sure that the Celebration 40 would have what it took to really rock out. Maybe it seemed just a bit too polite, a bit too smooth and warm?
Good lord, no. With the system cranked up to neighbor-alienating levels, I had it all, I tell you. Flea’s deep, grinding bass on “The Righteous and the Wicked” generated a deeper, richer low end and overall foundation than I’ve experienced in recent memory. Huge guitar with a crunch attack. Snappy drums. A tightly focused head emitting vocals smack dab in the center. Most importantly, each of these elements were rendered with discrete, laser-beam precision. “Smooth and warm?” Well, yeah, I can see where they could get that idea, and I’ll come back to this concept, but cranking out the Chili Peppers, I got every last bit of grit and snap from this recording.
That separation of instruments? Oh yes. That came through along with a huge soundstage and a crackling halo that highlighted each component. I hate to go on about BSSM as, on the face of it, you wouldn’t think this appropriate fare to expand upon in detail while I’m trying to relay the subtleties of an audiophile-grade component. It’s certainly not sniffy, Grey Poupon music, but it’s produced by Rick Rubin, and man, is it well recorded.
Part way through my second listen to this album, I did a double take. I thought I’d left the system playing upstairs, as right through “Mellowship Slinky in B Major,” I heard a faint, plonking piano that didn’t seem like it was coming from the speakers. A quick check showed nothing else was playing, and a closer listen revealed that yes, there was some kind of thin-sounding piano deep in the back left corner of the soundstage. What was surprising about this incongruous instrument was how disassociated it was from the rest of the instruments—the Celebration 40 extracted this faint detail and kept it utterly separate from the flailing madness that was going on around it.
So there’s no question that the Celebration 40 pulls out heaps of detail. But it’s brave, and perhaps foolhardy, of Sumiko to describe the Celebration 40 as “rich, smooth and warm.” I certainly enjoy sound of that nature, and I’m happy to read between the lines. After all, more often than not, audiophiles are seduced by the call of detail! and resolution! That’s audiophile code for bright, sharp, and cold. But we’re sometimes our own worst enemies, we audiophiles, and we’ll sit there and suffer through a bright, grating component and convince ourselves that what we’re hearing is just fantastic. If I were writing copy for Sumiko, I don’t think I’d have used their description, even though, after listening to the Celebration 40, I can sort of see where they’re coming from.
There’s definitely a feeling of ease that comes out of this cartridge. The very top end is for sure silky and listenable, but that’s not the whole story. I recently spent some time comparing two versions of Ghost In The Machine, one of my two favorite Police albums. The first is a Sterling pressing (A&M SP-3730) and the other a recent half-speed master (A&M ARHSLP005). The newer record is the better sounding of the two, but the older Sterling pressing isn’t chopped liver. That said, if I’d had the chance to compare them prior to shelling out the $35 CAD for the latter, I don’t think I’d have made this purchase. Still, it’s got an obi strip and everything, so it’s kinda cool.
Listening to Stewart Copeland’s snappy hi-hat work on “One World,” I was struck by how incredibly good he was as a drummer. Compared to my reference Roksan Shiraz and the rebuilt Soundsmith/Shelter 901, the Sumiko put just a tiny bit less emphasis on the leading impact of the hi-hat and ride cymbals, subtly highlighting the gloss and the burnish of the overtones. Copeland’s drums are mixed in a really weird way on this track. The drums themselves are quite forward in the mix, but the cymbals are recessed in the soundstage. So it’s a bit tricky to concentrate on the actual stick work itself, and the Celebration 40 did focus more on the overall roundness and harmonics of the brass, as opposed to the leading edge.
Please understand that I really had to listen for this difference, and I’m not really certain that it’s of that much import. If Sumiko hadn’t thrown down the gauntlet and declared the Celebration 40 to be “rich and warm,” I probably wouldn’t have felt the need to dig down to this quantum level of dissection and would likely have just stated that this cartridge has a smooth, clean, detailed top end with no trace of grit or edge.
But I will go on—it’s what I do. The Celebration 40 throws out razor-sharp images that aren’t defined by any specific frequency band. What I mean here is that some components favor a particular part of the frequency spectrum—highlighting the top of the treble, thereby giving cymbals and sibilants the best image presentation, or focusing on midrange depth, thus rendering female vocals especially well.
It’s much more even-handed than that, is the Celebration 40. I’ve raved in the past about the recent reissues of Rush’s early catalog on SoundStage! Ultra, and while all of these recordings are great, A Farewell To Kings (Anthem B0022376-01) is a standout, long-time top pick of mine. I can listen to side one on repeat—both the title track and “Xanadu” are magnificent symphonic masterpieces. If you like Rush, that is.
And I do like Rush. There’s a lot going on in “Xanadu,” with top-to-bottom action readily available for my entertainment. Through the entire track, I could easily pick out whatever instrument took my fancy, from Geddy Lee’s snappy treble-forward bass and his lithe runs, through Alex Lifeson’s wall-of-sound guitar, and right on to Neil Peart’s human-octopus impossibility. It’s really the overall balance of the Celebration 40 that makes it stand out. At one point in “Xanadu,” just after one of the first breaks, Geddy is ripping out a repeating rhythmic run—doing that lead-and-rhythm bass thing—and the notes blend into themselves a little, as if he’s just on the verge of not being able to play any faster. The Celebration 40 dug down, with outstanding bass clarity and depth, and I was totally able to follow Geddy’s intent and almost see how he rolls on and off adjoining notes in an effort to speed things up.
Make an honest man of me
I’ve had two cartridges that float around the $2k price point cycle through my system of late—the $2395 EAT Jo N°8 being the one I’ve had the most experience with. The other is the Shelter 901 that was just rebuilt by Soundsmith, which is kinda-sorta around the $2700 mark, although you can’t really just go out and buy one of those. The Celebration 40 is more similar to the Shelter than it is the EAT. In fact, the Shelter and the Sumiko are more alike than they are different—although the Celebration 40 is notably more coherent down in the basement.
The EAT is a more romantic-sounding cartridge. The Jo N°8 is a bit riper on the bottom, and the Celebration 40 pulled out more of the feeling of Geddy’s fingers rubbing on the strings. Down low, the Celebration goes plenty deep, but it’s the definition in the bass that makes this cartridge stand out.
Fish or cut bait?
A phono cartridge expresses more personality, more variation in sound, than any component other than speakers, which is why mounting up and listening to a new arrival is always an experience that’s gravid with excitement. But I’m privileged. Manufacturers send me cartridges that I use and listen to, and then send back after the review is complete.
I suspect life does not work that way for a retail consumer. Most retailers would likely balk at sending out a cartridge to a prospective purchaser, for these machines are like delicate little quails’ eggs, and the chances of getting a saleable product back after it’s been mounted and played is an utter crapshoot. And it’s a bit of a gamble, buying a cartridge sound unheard. Will the flavor, the sound, match your expectations, your system, your tastes?
I do know this: it would greatly surprise me if anyone who heard the Sumiko Celebration 40 in their system found themselves disappointed in how it sounded. It’s an extremely likable transducer, one that’s even-handed from top to bottom, with a cracking low end that’s extremely well defined, and it has an amazing portrayal of space.
Is the Sumiko Reference Celebration 40 a bargain at its price? I’m not sure I’d make such a pronouncement, given that there’s a bunch of other great choices also in this price range. But I will definitely say that this cartridge is worth every penny they’re charging. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Celebration 40 and can wholeheartedly recommend it.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog sources: VPI Prime Signature turntable; EAT Jo No8, Shelter 901 (Soundsmith retip), Roksan Shiraz cartridges.
- Digital source: Logitech Squeezebox Touch.
- Phono preamplifiers: Aqvox Phono 2 CI, iFi iPhono 3 Black Label, Hegel V10, Saturn 401.
- Preamplifier: Sonic Frontiers SFL-2.
- Power amplifier: Bryston 4B3.
- Integrated amplifiers: Hegel H120, Eico HF-81.
- Speakers: Focus Audio FP60 BE, Estelon YB, Aurelia Cerica XL.
- Speaker cables: Audience Au24 SX, Nordost Tyr 2.
- Interconnects: Audience Au24 SX, Furutech Ag-16, Nordost Tyr 2.
- Power cords: Audience FrontRow, Nordost Vishnu.
- Power conditioner: Quantum QBase QB8 Mk.II.
- Accessories: Little Fwend tonearm lift, VPI Cyclone record-cleaning machine, Furutech destat III.
Sumiko Reference Celebration 40 Moving-Coil Phono Cartridge
Warranty: One year, parts and labor.
11763 95th Ave N
Maple Grove MN 55369
Phone: (510) 843-4500