Analog Corner #115

Shelter 90X
Gimme Shelter—the Shelter MC phono cartridges

This was supposed to be my report on analog gear at Home Entertainment 2004 West. The San Francisco show was canceled because of a hotel-workers’ lockout, but my column wasn’t! Fortunately, I’d gotten an early start on what was to be next month’s column because I wanted to actually get ahead on the audio-reviewing assembly line. No such luck.

First, some old business: I’d promised to audition the T+A G-10 turntable with its built-in phono preamp bypassed, to get a better handle on the G-10’s performance. But when I removed its bottom plate, I found it difficult to remove the phono plugs that had been inserted into the base of the SME tonearm. After much careful but forceful tugging and no luck, but more flexing of the SME’s base than I was comfortable with, I decided it was best not to proceed.

My choice of phono cables would had to have been routed through the bottom plate’s cutouts so that I could gain access to the phono preamp’s gain and loading DIP switches, and because there’s not much clearance, I’d have had to raise the ’table so the cables would clear. While this is all doable, I don’t recommend it. Perhaps at some future date I can get a sample without the built-in phono preamp and give another listen.

Removing the bottom plate did allow me (and you) to examine the motor supply, the internal construction, and the phono preamp. In the photo, note the individually tweaked motor supply and heavy metal damping bar. As you can also see, while the phono preamp is tucked out of sight, it’s no afterthought but a serious piece of gear with a generous power supply.

T+A turntable, bottom plate removed
Shelter cartridges

Shelter moving-coil cartridges, imported by Axiss Distribution, have gotten a lot of good press of late. No doubt one reason is the distributor’s retail prices. While I’m not privy to the actual import costs or to what dealers pay, Shelter’s 501 Mk.II appears to be, for all intents and purposes, a Crown Jewel SE, which I once owned. I reviewed the original Crown Jewel Reference in the April 1997 Stereophile, and later owned a Crown Jewel SE. The only significant physical difference I could come up with (assuming the specs I was given are correct) is that the CJ used a samarium-cobalt magnet, while the 501 Mk.II’s is neodymium. The Crown Jewel SE cost $2650; the Shelter 501 Mk.II costs $850.

I don’t know what kind of deal Sounds of Silence, which imported the Crown Jewel, had with Shelter, but it might seem that, given the huge price difference in eight years, someone in the loop was making a lot of money. On the other hand, as is usually the case with hand-built, hand-tweaked, limited-edition products such as phono cartridges, there can be a wide range in specs and performance from sample to sample; perhaps the best-spec’d, lowest-tolerance samples became Crown Jewels, the rest Shelters. Custom badging also costs extra. Or perhaps an importer willing to take on a four-tier cartridge line gets a significant price break over one interested in only a single model. Another issue is volume—back in 1997, analog had not yet recovered to the degree it has today. Smaller volume may have translated to higher unit cost.

I’m not here to defend or attack anyone, merely to point out that, in the wacky world of high-end audio, things aren’t always as they appear—though it appears obvious that now, in 2005 the Shelter line is available in the US at extremely attractive prices, starting with the 301 at $550.

Shelter cartridges are built by an Ozawa-san, a former employee of Fidelity Research, which built legendary cartridges and tonearms in the 1970s—too rich for my hippie blood back then, but I sure lusted. Like car models within a line, in which the basic design remains constant while engines, transmissions, suspension tunings, tires, and interior and external trim packages change, all four Shelter cartridges share an anodized aluminum body with varying finishes, a neodymium magnet, a claimed frequency response of 20Hz–20kHz, ±2dB, greater than 25dB separation at 1kHz, and an aluminum pipe cantilever. Whether any or all of the Shelters have a beryllium bar inside the cantilever, as the Crown Jewel did, I was unable to ascertain.

Channel balance at 1kHz, not specified for the 301, is said to be within 1dB for the 501 Mk.II and 0.8dB for the 901 and 90X. This is merely adequate; many other competitively priced brands claim 0.5dB. Compliance is a low to medium 9cu (μm/mN) across the line, with the exception of the 301, which is not spec’d.

All four cartridges worked well in the Graham 2.2 or Immedia RPM-2 tonearms, both of which are of medium mass, with the resonant frequency in the desired 8–12Hz range. With the exception of the 301, which uses a 0.65mil conical stylus, the Shelters are fitted with a 0.3 by 0.7 nude diamond stylus, which has a moderate, “install friendly” elliptical profile. The output increases in increments of 0.1mV as you move up the Shelter line, beginning with the 301’s 0.3mV, and, as you might expect, the increased number of coil turns that produce the higher output voltage increases both DC resistance and overall cartridge weight. The 301 and 501 Mk.II weigh 8.1gm each, the 901 weighs 9.1gm, and the 90X weighs 9.7gm. Shelter recommends loading all of its cartridges with 47k ohms.

Aside from the high build quality, attractive prices, and, of course, the well-balanced sonic performances, what makes this line particularly attractive is the ease of setup. The square body, its clearance of the record surface, and the mild stylus ellipse make alignment in all parameters particularly easy. Add low/medium compliance, nonfussy loading, and noncritical vertical tracking angle (again because of the stylus shape), which was best with the cartridge body slightly less than parallel to the record surface, and you have a line of cartridges that has become extremely popular for all the right reasons.

As I listened my way up the line, I found that the most expensive model, the 90X ($2700), and the least expensive, the 301 ($550), shared a basic “house sound” that was among the most tonally neutral and well-balanced of any cartridge brand I’ve listened to, competing on an equal playing field with Immutable’s Temper line. However, beyond what was shared, there were significant performance differences among the various models, the most expensive being clearly the best—especially in terms of resolution.

Shelter 301:

At $550, the 301 is the least expensive Shelter, but probably the poorest value. Not that it sounded objectionable or had any serious flaws—in fact, its overall sonic balance was exemplary. The problem was that it combined relatively low output with an old-fashioned conical stylus. A low-output budget cartridge is kind of like a low-efficiency, difficult-to-drive budget loudspeaker: What’s the point of a bargain-priced speaker that requires an expensive, high-current amplifier to drive it properly? In the case of the 301, its 0.3mV output means you’ll need a relatively high-gain/low-noise phono preamp to get the most out of it. Assuming you do, you then have a cartridge that’s an inherently poor tracer. Not a poor tracker, mind you—the 301 tracked normal program material quite well. But what a round stylus cannot do is reach the sharply engraved groove edges created by the chisel-shaped cutting stylus. It literally rolls right over them.

Round styli also produce a critical time-domain distortion. Imagine a hill (groove modulation) with a round stylus riding up, over, and down. Consider the profile view and think of the stylus at its widest point near the top of the hill and then as it reaches the same point on the other side. Now imagine the same scenario but with a narrow-profile, aka line-contact, stylus. It will traverse the very same hill in a significantly shorter period of time and do a much more accurate job of tracing the hill’s shape. While the difference may not sound large, it certainly is large in the microworld in which such microactivity takes place. For those of us old enough to remember the first time we heard a cartridge that had an elliptical stylus (for me, a Shure V-15 Type II), the improvements in detail, resolution, focus, and especially transient response, were revelations. Given that elliptical styli are now commonplace, for most listeners, hearing a conical stylus will now be a revelation—in the opposite direction.

The 301 sounded tonally pleasing, harmonically on the warm side, and reasonably dynamic, but somewhat slow, soft, and round—kind of like a last-generation LCD TV, for you videophiles. It was audio comfort food—lacking in speed, detail, and sonic zest. Sibilants were relatively muted, cymbals didn’t crash and sizzle, and the overall picture lacked vibrancy and excitement.

I’m exaggerating the condition to highlight the overall picture. The 301 was forgiving of noise, scratches, and other audible blemishes, and its sound was definitely preferable to similarly priced cartridges that overreach to produce the details and add etch, edge, and hardness.

While most LP fanatics will want a faster and more spacious, airy, and detailed mix, the 301 is a worthy product for casual LP listeners still interested in getting the full measure of instrumental harmonics, but not interested in extracting all of the information available from the grooves of an LP.

Shelter 501 Mk.II:

Shelter 501 Mk. II

Not surprisingly, Axiss’s Art Manzano tells me that the 501 Mk.II (the Crown Jewel SE equivalent) is his best-selling Shelter cartridge. At $850, it hits the line’s sweet spot: it ups the output to 0.4mV, adds the 0.3 by 0.7 nude elliptical diamond stylus, and has all of the attributes that made a very similar cartridge seem reasonably priced at $2650 seven years ago.

What I wrote in my original Crown Jewel review remains true today:

“The Crown Jewel is a beautifully built, convenient-to-set-up, low-output moving-coil cartridge that delivers a level of performance commensurate with its high price. While its tonal balance leans slightly toward the warm, liquid, lush side of the spectrum, the Jewel offers a reasonably neutral overall frequency balance, combined with smooth high-frequency extension on top and solid, authoritative bass response on the bottom. Add a total absence of grain and glare and a very convincing portrayal of natural transients, plus an easy-to-look-at sonic picture free of artificial ‘edge,’ and you have an extremely attractive combination of refined attributes aimed at the sophisticated listener. Given the right associated equipment and a taste for well-recorded acoustic music, the Crown Jewel could be your ticket to long-term analog satisfaction.”

The Crown Jewel SE was somewhat more open and “fast” on top while retaining all of the original’s attractive attributes. That, for $850, is the sound of the Shelter 501 Mk.II. The only other cartridges I’ve heard at around this price (that I can remember well enough) that can approach this level of performance are the Ortofon Kontrapunkt B ($950, reviewed by Sam Tellig in August 2002) and the Sumiko Blackbird ($750). I recommend the Shelter 501 Mk.II without hesitation. I recommended it at $2650 in a different analog environment; at $850, how could it be otherwise?

Shelter 901:

At $1500, almost twice the price of the 501 Mk.II, the Shelter 901 is not twice as good. That will hardly surprise—the law of diminishing returns is strictly interpreted by the court of high-end audio, especially when it comes to cartridges. The 901 increases output to 0.5mV, lowers the channel-balance tolerance to 0.8dB, and weighs 1gm more than the 501 Mk.II.

With the 901 you gain increments in high-frequency extension, transient snap, transparency, macrodynamics, bass control, and image focus, and you lose one big thing: the 501 Mk.II’s upper-midrange magic. Whether or not that tradeoff is worthwhile is entirely system dependent. The tradeoff was more than worthwhile in my system, which of late has included some expensive, high-resolution speakers and the Manley Steelhead phono preamp. Even $1500 is still more than $1000 below what the Crown Jewel Reference cost back in 1997. If your system can deliver it, the 901’s increases in transparency, focus, overall dynamics, and soundstage width and depth will become easily apparent in a direct A/B comparison. (In my comparisons, I swapped the cartridges between the Immedia and Graham tonearms to remove the arms as variables.)

Still, depending on your system and sonic and musical tastes, the 501 Mk.II might be the better choice. Two truly outstanding cartridges: one below $2000, one below $1000. Analog in 2004 is a sweet place to play!

Shelter 90X:

At the top of the Shelter food chain, the 90X ($2700) doesn’t look all that different from the 501 Mk.II or the 901, and aside from another mV of output (up to 0.6mV) and an additional 0.6gm of mass, it doesn’t seem to be different. It uses the same stylus and, apparently, the same cantilever assembly. Its channel balance and channel separation (>25dB) are also the same as the 901’s.

Yet the 90X sounded quite different from the 901, especially in the midrange and upper midrange, where—right!—the 501 Mk.II’s magic was back, accompanied by all of the 901’s attributes. The 90X had the 901’s extension but the 501 Mk.II’s refinement and grace. In direct comparisons, the 90X delivered cymbals and sibilants with great transient speed, detail, and clarity, but greater refinement and believability. The 90X is a luxurious-sounding cartridge that didn’t quite sparkle as the 901 did, but it was more convincing of reality.

Wrapping It All Up:

Although I used dozens of different LPs, familiar and unfamiliar, in these comparisons, I found Classic Records’ outstanding three-LP issue of Neil Young’s Greendale particularly useful. It’s a superbly recorded, very revealing, all-analog production that sounds very natural and features one of the finest drum recordings in all of rock, as well as equally effective acoustic and electric guitars. It’s big on room sound, small on electronic processing.

All of the Shelter cartridges share a common heritage, and all of them had an admirably neutral, artifact-free sound and an overall liquidity that set them apart from other brands. The Koetsus are lusher; the Lyras are more detailed, revealing, and tightly sprung; the Benz-Micros I’ve heard are warmer; the Immutable Transfigurations are somewhat more self-effacing but equally and admirably neutral; and the Clearaudios, like the van den Huls (whose new American distributor is Klaus Bunge), come in many sonic flavors and are not shy about their personalities.

The Shelter 301’s sins are of omission, which makes it a good choice for casual, less demanding analog listeners, but there are many other more exciting, more revealing choices for around $550. I’d opt for the less expensive Blue Point Special Evo III—greater musical excitement and, with its high output, easier to use. I’d also go for the Ortofon Kontrapunkt A—slightly more expensive, but, as I remember, a far better all-around performer.

Move up a notch to the Shelter 501 Mk.II and you have a cartridge with an addictive midrange and overall satiny finishes, sonic and physical. The Crown Jewel Reference was great at $2650; now, despite plenty of strong competition, the very similar 501 Mk.II is hard to beat at $850. No wonder it’s the best-seller of the bunch.

The Shelter 901 ($1500) loses some of the 501 Mk.II’s midband magic but adds transparency, image focus, soundstage size, and extension at the extremes. It’s a more holographic-sounding cartridge that would probably be particularly effective in a warm, tubey-sounding system.

The 90X is the most expensive and the best of the lot, combining the 501 Mk.II’s midband magic with the 901’s transparency, dynamics, and frequency extension. Its overall sonic refinement puts it in some very pricey company, but at $2700 it’s hardly expensive, given its sound and overall build quality. The 0.6mV output is a bonus, making the need for a step-up transformer an option with many low-noise/high-output phono preamps. While it lacks the technological sophistication of the Lyra or Transfiguration cartridges, the 90X maximizes the performance from more traditional motor and body designs; in the end, that’s what counts.

You’ll pay more if you want greater separation, electrical linearity, faster response times, and small improvements in a host of other parameters both measurable and audible, especially low-level resolution of inner detail. But in the end, when you listen to the 90X, you’ll have to ask yourself if it’s worth the considerably greater expenditure needed to get those things when you can get so much music for less.

Next time: Shun Mook, Locus Designs, and Hagerman record weights, phono cables from Audience and AudioQuest, and a $3000 set from MIT.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Converge, You Fail Me, Deathwish/Epitaph 150gm red vinyl LP
2) The Weavers, On Tour, Cisco 180gm LP
3) Various Artist, Is it Rolling Bob? A Reggae Tribute to Bob Dylan, Ras 180gm LPs (2)
4) Willie Nelson, It Always Will Be, Lost Highway 180gm LPs (2)
5) Elvis Costello & the Imposters, The Delivery Man, Lost Highway 180gm LPs (2)
6) The Kinks, Muswell Hillbillies, Konk multichannel SACD
7) Sigur Ros, Von, Smekkleysa Records CD
8) John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band, Mobile Fidelity 180gm LP
9) Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition, Fritz Reiner & Chicago Symphony, BMG Classics SACD
10) Elton John, Elton John, UMG multichannel SACD