|It’s always refreshing when a manufacturer or dealer recommends you spend LESS than you’d planned to. Especially when the two items you’re comparing – in this case, Shure Brothers’ V15VxMR and M97xE cartridges – bear a striking resemblance. In fact, their styli are even interchangeable. |
Don’t get your hopes up thinking the $140 M97xE is basically a $400 V15VxMR with the exception of its stylus (elliptical vs. MicroRidge). Shure claims major internal differences between the two siblings. You can indeed pop a V15 stylus on your M97 though, as Shure is quick to point out, this is tantamount to pairing a black sport jacket with a pair of black pants and calling it a suit. It ain’t.
But ask Shure Brothers (via e-mail) for advice on which cartridge to choose and, unless you tell them you have a VERY high-end system and turntable, they’ll recommend the M97xE. Not only that, but you’ll get a sensible, lucid answer from people who seem quite knowledgeable about analog – a rarity to be sure, and thrilling in an age when dealers and even manufacturers who purportedly specialize in analog can barely answer most phono-related questions.
Shure even advises owners of older V15 models to buy a new M97 instead of replacing their worn styli, even though (a) the V15 styli cost more than the M97 body and stylus together, and (b) they still stock the parts in most cases, and would probably be happy to get rid of dead stock. Refreshingly honest, don’t you think? And a big vote of confidence for a very modestly priced cartridge.
Even more refreshing is the lack of bullshit in Shure’s lineup. Unlike the Grado Prestige series with no less than SIX variations on the same basic architecture, each one offering only minor (barely noticeable, I say) improvements as you move up the line, Shure offers only three distinctly different hi-fi cartridges. Want the best? Get a V15. Need audiophile quality on a budget? Try the M97. Strapped for cash, or not that picky? Order the M93E. Simple.
Shure now packages the M97 in the same stylish metal box as the V15. Some people may think it’s overkill but to me, it’s perfect. While I applaud Rega’s minimalist box, their unpretentiousness about ‘putting all the money into the product’ is sort of pretentious in itself. For $225 (what I paid for my Elys), I expected at least some instructions other than a slip of paper that says ‘consult your dealer’ because we all know that’s often useless.
Shure, by contrast, pulls out all the stops, including clear instructions, a stylus brush, screwdriver, mounting hardware (which was merely adequate) and even –
HALLELUIAH! – a proper overhang gauge! It’s hard to believe so many manufacturers omit this simple, ten-cent piece of cardboard from the packages. I only wish Shure provided some instruction on how to use it for the uninitiated. That, and better mounting hardware, would make the M97xE a complete and perfect package.
Setting the overhang on an M97 is less fun than cleaning the gutters. With only one straight edge on the cartridge body (in front), there’s no easy way to ‘rough in’ the alignment before refining it. I actually used three different gauges, starting with the Rega single-point device to ballpark the cantilever’s alignment. I then used a two-point device with both horizontal and vertical hash marks to get the headshell and straight edge of the stylus guard approximately parallel, and finally, I used a third (with bold hash marks under the cantilever) to fine tune the cantilever’s position. Then I went back and re-checked all the parameters.
It took me about two hours. If you’re new to analog, you’ll want to block out most of your afternoon. During that time, try to resist depressants (you’ll just end up saying “that’s close enough” when it really isn’t) and stimulants (because you may end up kicking the cat or freaking out). A combination of the two, however, might ease any setup anxiety and frustration you’re likely to experience. (Mountain Dew and Everclear, anyone?)
Whatever minor frustrations I suffered are partly allayed by how easy it is to replace the stylus. No special tools are required. A gentle tug is all it takes, and provided you’ve fitted the cartridge body tightly to the headshell, it shouldn’t disturb the geometry. That means, once you get it right, you shouldn’t have to do it again until you change cartridges entirely.
Another plus: the M97’s top-notch construction. Retailing for $140 but generally sold for about $90, it’s encased in a light but extremely rigid die-cast housing that could be improved only by the addition of threaded screw holes. The cantilever appears high-end, with a thin profile that promises above-average detail retrieval and great tracking. Thoughtful touches, including positive-feeling detents for the stylus guard and a handy cueing stripe, add to the impression that I got more than I paid for. The M97 is backed by a full one-year warranty and the added assurance provided by Shure’s obviously excellent quality control.
INITIAL IMPRESSIONS & TWEAKING
While the M97 was loosening up (it was definitely “tight” out of the box), I experimented with various tracking forces before settling on 1.35g. Shure recommends 1.25g as optimum, with the maximum specified as 1.5g. (Shure recommends goosing the tracking force a half-gram when the Dynamic Stabilizer brush is in the down position; more on that later.)
True to its reputation, the Shure is a commendably athletic tracker. It aced all but the torture track on the HiFi News & Record Review test LP. Channel separation was tight – not as sharply defined as my departed Denon DL-160, but better than many others I’ve owned.
Hum was nonexistent – a pleasant surprise, since even Rega’s own Elys hummed a bit on my P2. Plus, the Shure’s rejection of electromagnetic interference was also impressive, the best I’ve ever experienced from a moving magnet cartridge. With its healthy 4.0mV output, the Shure had no trouble feeding the MM section of my NAD amp’s built-in MM/MC phono stage.
About the only complaint I could levy against the Shure during the first few hours was how intrusive record surface noise was. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment, because the M97 was pleasant-sounding from minute one. And it should be noted, on a very positive note, that the M97 dug noticeably deeper into the grooves than my previous cartridge, an Ortofon X1-MC, allowing me to play some LPs that I’d normally avoid. Still, the Ortofon (and the Denon that preceded it) both pushed surface noise deeper into the background. If that’s your priority, plan to spend more.
That said, break-in was far from the shrill experience you might expect in this price range. Again, Shure isn’t lying when they promise a fatigue-free listening experience for hours on end. While I normally find myself using LPs for background music during break-in, I actually sat down and listened to the Shure.
Shure seems to be telling the truth when they tout their cartridges’ flat frequency responses. The M97 sounds very balanced across the entire spectrum, lacking only the highest highs and lowest lows that more expensive MMs and MCs offer. Fine with me, as I’d rather they be absent than poorly represented. Don’t take that to mean the M97 can’t rock. It does, pumping out everything from bass-heavy pop music (like No Doubt’s “Rock Steady”) to guitar-heavy punk (The Get Up Kids’ “Eudora”).
Better still, the Shure passed my sibilance test with flying colors, allowing me to again enjoy Peter Gabriel’s “Us.” On the first track, “Red Rain,” I usually run for the cueing lever when I hear Peter Gabriel sing, “Red rain ISSSSSSSS coming down…” Only my Denon DL-160 seemed fully able to tame it. But the Shure, in combination with the overachieving NAD phono section, got the job done. For some people, this may not matter, but for those of us who equate sibilance with fingers on a chalkboard, it’s a significant achievement.
The Shure is also superbly dynamic, handling quick transitions with aplomb. When guitarist Michael Hedges slaps his fret board, the Shure stops on a dime. And when a well-recorded orchestra crescendos (on the Telarc LP of Carl Orff conducting “Carmina Burana,” for example, and the Classic Records 180-gram reissue of Sibelius’ Symphony No.5 with Alexander Gibson conducting the London Symphony Orchestra), the Shure plays it louder AND bigger, rather than significantly shrinking the music.
Soundstaging isn’t quite as 3-D as I’d like. Unlike the Denon DL-160, the under-$200 champ in this area, the Shure can’t quite telegraph the spaciousness of larger venues (as on the Steinberg/Boston Symphony Orchestra recording of Holst’s “The Planets” on Deutsche Grammaphon), nor the air around a solo performer alone on a big stage (Keith Jarrett’s “Sun Bear Sessions” box set). As a result, some of the electricity is missing, but that’s partially made up for by the Shure’s dynamism.
Imaging, on the other hand, is fairly solid, making it easy to follow complex musical lines and multiple instruments. The Shure does tend to push everyone to the foreground a bit, but at least it doesn’t do so selectively; all performers are bumped up a few feet from where you’d expect them to be. I got used to it.
Cymbals didn’t sound as crisp as I’d like. In fact, on “Lonesome Day,” the opening track to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” they were lightweight and a bit sizzly. That wasn’t always the case, though. Had I not come from a moving coil, I might not have noted this at all. Electronic bass was deep and well-defined, but orchestral bass could sound somewhat light and occasionally loose. Again, I don’t want to overstate the issue because I’m comparing the Shure with an MC.
But, man…that midrange! This is where the Shure really shines, and in my opinion, that’s make or break. Vocals were well presented, though a bit scratchy until the 20-hour mark during break-in. Solo piano and guitar were syrupy sweet, and might have been more so if not for the my Rega P2’s slightly brusque tendencies (compounded, possibly, by the fact that it MAY run a bit fast). I bet the Shure would melt hearts on an old Thorens TD125 with a nice low-mass SME arm, or even my good old TD115.
Harder to describe is how pleasant-sounding the Shure is. It’s surprisingly free of blatant rough edges until, like me, you go listening for them. As such, it’s capable of painting a credibly detailed musical picture without overt peaks, valleys or distracting sonic disturbances. In a word, the M97 is mature, a real grown-up that clearly illustrates the benefits of experience. Plus, it accomplishes this without being flaccid or dull-sounding (like my Rega Elys—the conspiracy theorist in me says it was engineered to downplay the P2 and P3’s built-in faults and ended up plain-sounding in the bargain).
A final note: Shure has often been criticized for stating that their cartridges are “warm” and “neutral” at the same time. I’d counter that, in this case, it’s a fair description. Neutrality, to me, describes a lack of exaggeration in any aspect of performance. With the Shure, that’s true. Similarly, I take “warmth” to mean that a cartridge is non-fatiguing, that being the case because it’s not unnecessarily harsh or shrill. Again, the Shure fits the bill. Now, if you define warmth as deliberately rolled-off highs, then you’ll surely want to get in on this semantic argument. I’ll sidestep the issue entirely by simply saying that, in my system and to my ears, the Shure M97 is accurate, easy to listen to and involving.
Shure’s Dymamic Stabilizer brush isn’t merely a dust collector, though it does a good job of it. Rather, according to the manufacturer, it’s designed to “maintain a uniform distance between the cartridge and the record under difficult playing conditions, such as those caused by warped records, or mismatched tonearm mass.”
If mismatched tonearm mass is the problem, you should probably change your arm or cartridge. But as far as warped LPs go, well, we all own a few of those. I have a recent German pressing of Van Morrison’s “Moondance” that arrived badly warped, and also a copy of Mark Knopfler’s sublime score for the movie “Local Hero,” both of which I don’t often play because of the warps. A shame, of course, so I increased tracking force by 0.5g per Shure’s recommendations, lowered the stabilizer, and let ‘er rip.
Guess what? I couldn’t discern any improvement with the brush in use. None. As in zero. Yeah, I know, it surprised me, too. But the fact is, the Shure tracked both LPs the same with the brush up or down. That’s not so much a knock against the brush as it is a validation of the Shure’s excellent tracking in concert with the Rega RB250 arm.
I wish I had a slush fund, because the real test of the brush’s effectiveness would be to take a copy of the HiFi News test record, bake it in the sun for a few hours, then try the brush up/brush down comparison again. Maybe somebody with money to burn can try it. (If your speaker cables cost more than your dog’s hip replacement surgery, then I’m talkin’ to you.)
Maybe on VERY badly warped LPs the brush is effective, but I’m not nuts enough to risk the stylus in order to find out. Probably on inferior arms it may have some beneficial damping effect. I also suppose you could decide to use it solely as a dust collector. While I didn’t notice any ill sonic effects from using the brush, I think I preferred the sound when not in use. I wouldn’t swear to it, though.
There are many choices at or near the M97’s price, none of which are quite as sweet-sounding. The Audio-Technica 440ML, widely available for $100, offers a finer stylus and slightly better tracing ability. Grado’s Black, Green and Silver, although very good, can’t equal the Shure’s trackability and in my experience, can sound a bit brittle. Ditto the Stanton and Goldring models below $100.
The Ortofon X1-MC (discounted to about $110) may equal the Shure’s neutrality, but I found it to be ultimately less satisfying. The Ortofon OM10, sale priced at $60 these days, might give the Shure a run for its money in some respects, but I didn’t have mine long enough to say for sure. Denon’s DL-110 ($140) likely shares the DL-160’s bigger-than life-presentation and incredible speed, but it can also be an acquired taste. The Benz Micro MC20E2 ($175) is a rock star, with great bass and lots of life. Finally, there’s Rega’s Elys ($225), which I found to be disappointingly flat-sounding.
The Shure M97xE may or may not be a baby V15. I’ll leave it to those who have heard both recently to answer that. Taken on its own terms, the M97 offers way above average detail retrieval, good imaging, decent soundstaging, excellent tracking and dynamics, and terrific build quality. More importantly, and harder to adequately describe, is its remarkable listenability and marked lack of harshness. I can easily imagine someone living happily with this cartridge for a decade or more, instead of ceaselessly clamoring for something better. (There’s a word for people like that: “sane.”)
I’ve stayed up late on numerous occasions with this cartridge because it ‘gets out of the way’ (as they say in the magazines) and allows the music to shine. I suspect the few affectations it exhibits are more the doing of my turntable than the cartridge itself. True, surface noise can be slightly intrusive if you’re used to moving coils or more expensive moving magnets. I also wish the Shure had slightly tighter-sounding lows on some recordings, and improved soundstaging on others. Maybe you’ll find those qualities in the V15. Then again, maybe not. One thing’s for sure: the M97xE needn’t stand in its big brother’s shadow. It’s a wonderful little cartridge that deserves an audition in nearly any sub-$1000 analog playback system.
NAD Monitor Series 3400 integrated amplifier with MM/MC phono section
NAD C521i CD player
Rega P2 turntable (with P3 glass platter)
Shure M97xE phono cartridge
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
MonsterCable Z-Series 10’ speaker cable
Audioquest Diamondback interconnect
MonsterPower HTS2500 Power Center
AudioQuest MC cartridge demagnetizer
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine
Sennheiser HD580 Precision headphones
Sony ProAudio MDR-7506 studio monitor headphones
Benz Micro MC20E2
Ortofon Super OMB10
Shure/Radio Shack V15 Type RS
Stanton 500E MkII
by Ekobesky on 08-13-04