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Review: Shelter 501-II moving coil phonograph cartridge

Date: 2/5/2003/updated 12/2005
Author: user510
Model: 501-II
Category: Phono Cartridge, MC
Suggested Retail Price: $800 at time of review....$850 in 2005
Description: Moving Coil Phonograph Cartridge
Manufacturer URL: none
Manufacturer: Shelter Inc., Yasuo Ozawa sole proprietor
Made in Japan
Distribution: Eifl (export) (Japan), Axiss USA (import) In the US, Shelter carts are distributed through Axiss to the dealer network.

photo of this Shelter 501 type II in the Express Machining RB250 tonearm.

Warranty:

one year warranty

Specification:

output voltage: 0.4mV, stylus: elliptical, tracking force: 1.4g to 1.8g, DCR: 12 ohm, step up trans: within 10 ohms, head amp: within 100 ohm, frequency response: 20hz to 20khz +- 2db, Cantilever: "Cantilever is not covered by 1 year warranty. Please do not break it." Adjustment: "SHELTER recommends to change stylus pressure within recommended tracking force (1.4g to 1.8g) in summer and winter. in summer: .1g to .2g less, in winter .1g to .2g more"

Mounting and Aligning:

Mounting is a nut and bolt arrangement. Overhang and Zenith alignments were set with the 2 pt. protractor supplied with the HFNRR test record. VTF was set with a Shure SFG-2 scale at 1.7g. Alignment was verified with the HFNRR test record. 

The cartridge is mounted to an Express Machining /Rega RB250 tonearm with full structural and wiring mods. Note-worthy is the Shelter's performance in the anti-skate portion of the HFNRR Test Record. It passed track 6 (300 hz at +12db) and track 7 (300hz +14db) , and then buzzed lightly on track 8 (+16db) then loudly on track 9 (+18db). VTA was set over the course of several days using the adjustable VTA feature of the Express Machining tonearm. 

The user manual fails to mention any compliance figure of the cantilever and it's suspension, but the HFNRR test record measurment indicated the arm/cart resonance to happen at 11 hz. in the lateral, indicating an ok match-up between the modified Rega arm and the Shelters' rather short cantilever.

Mounted in this arm, the Shelter does indeed appear to be a low compliance cartridge.  As the stylus is gently cued onto the vinyl, there is very little evidence of suspension travel in either vertical or lateral planes as the cantilever absorbs the full effective mass of the arm.   It really is kind of awkward finding the lead-in groove, the way it abruptly snaps in, sometimes making a pop/snap through the speakers. The solid boron cantilever is a short, stiff little bugger and, no doubt, this particular design trait plays largely into the sound this cartridge produces.  

Associated equipment:

Turntable: Teres model 135 with Expressimo RB250 tonearm.
Turntable: Teres model 145 (lead shot platter upgrade year 2004)
Tonearm: Graham 2.2 acquired October 2005
Phono cable: Silver Incognito
Turntable Mounting: Welded tubular steel wall rack,
Turntable Mounting: Short stout table on the floor weighed down with a heavy granite plate.
Shelf: Neuance Beta Shelf
Phono stage: Wright WPP100C with 1:10 (Souter) step up to meet loading and gain needs (100 ohms, .4mv) of the Shelter
Integrated Amplifier: Classe' CAP 151 (150 watts rms per ch.)
Speakers: NHT 2.9
Interconnects: silver IC from phono stage to Integrated amp.
Speaker Cables: Monster 2R-CL 12/2
Length of evaluation: 4-1/2 years.

Impressions:

The Shelter 501-type 2 sports an anodized black-colored machined-aluminum body. It's shape is boxy and rectangular with sharp right-angled corners,  reminiscent of Koetsu. There are two open slots for tonearm mounting in the top plate and two machined recesses to clear bolts in the body sides which must be used to secure this cartridge. There is a gold colored center-line on the front panel indicating stylus location to assist cueing. The Shelter name resides on one side of the body and the text reads "Model 501 Japan" on the opposite side, also in gold color. The bottom is completely open. The generator is covered in a white gauze. The stylus is elliptical and nude mounted to an aluminum-clad solid Boron cantilever which looks to be rather short in length. Viewed from the side in profile, the cantilever appears to make a rather steep angle down to the record surface. This cartridge has an understated and classy appearance.

Right out of the box the Shelter sounded drop-dead gorgeous on my system. Even though there is mention of a break in period, I never experienced significant change in the tone of this cartridge due to any loosening up of it's internals.

Most apparent is the liquidity, sweet melody and an alive sense of presence in the midrange. There is no coloration. The music is presented natural and alive.  Vocals have richness and texture suggesting intimate proximity to the singer. In jazz recordings, the acoustic bass is revealed to be the vibrating, resonating wood box that it is. You get the edge of loose vibrating strings, the faster solid body of the note, the sound of the resonating wood box and a trail-off as the note dies slowly. Trumpets and sax's take on the individual character of the player. It's easy to differentiate between Coltrane or Mobley. Coltrane's tenor sax has a somewhat dissonant tone leaving a slight aftertaste in memory. Mobley's tenor is much sweeter and more typical of the instrument. The Shelter makes it easy and obvious to distinguish between the two players, allowing this listener to get closer and experience these two great masters. Percussion has speed of attack and crispness. The sharpness of hard stick against wood block cracks into the atmosphere. Cymbals ring out prominently, shimmering, resonating and hanging in air.

Piano music. There have been moments when a full sized Grand Piano apparently crowded itself into my listening room. Usually this happens when I'm not listening intently, catching me off-guard. For me, this could be the Shelter's most striking attribute. It does acoustic piano surprisingly real.  Just as good as it does the human voice.

In the Alan Parson's Lp "Pyramid" , the track "Pyramania", the Shelter renders a 'gong crash' exploding, popping upward out from the left speaker then arcing down toward the floor at center stage, then dying a slow decay. The 30 hz. organ note covering the floor of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (RCA LM-2609) as performed by The Chicago Symphony, Fritz Reiner conducting, is delivered softly, but it is present and apparent. I imagine a subwoofer might help to add some force to such low frequency notes, yet the Shelter does offer extension down into the lower frequencies all the time producing details of timber and texture, and the air around it. Bass is tight and accurately described with enough weight to satisfy most audiophiles.

Highs are served up in natural detail. There appears to be no roll off that I can hear as the higher frequencies are explored.  Flutes, piccolo's violins playing in their upper registers appear vibrant and with purity of tone. There isn't any apparent coloration that I can detect or perceive. The highs go strong all the way up with no harshness or unnatural edge.

 

There has been some miss-tracking. The "problem Lp" is Paul Simon, "Still Crazy After All These Years". Song: "50 ways to lose your lover". The problem area is in the vocal refrain with the words: "You don't need to discuss much..." When he sings "...discuss much..." there is a buzzy break-up to Simons' voice, a kind of light buzz that matches the pitch frequency of those notes and intrudes upon the vocal at that highest dynamic peak.

I had noticed this for some time when playing the record with the Shelter. I had always just chalked it up to groove wear and continued to search for a cleaner copy of the record. The problem with that thought is that this record is a NM/NM item. When I finally did find another one, just as clean, there was the same miss-tracking effect. At a later time I mounted a newly acquired Denon DL-103R cartridge to the arm and played the same track. --It played clean! -- Problem identified, the Shelter was miss-tracking those particular grooves.

The tonearm at this time was an Express Machining RB250. Later I got the Graham 2.2 and went through the same motions on "50 ways...". Same effect. Even in the Graham, the Shelter miss-tracked "50 ways to leave your lover". But not so with the DL-103R. When, still later, I acquired the MC Jubilee, one of the first records played was this one. No miss-tracking with the Jubilee, either.

Thoughts running through my head about the Shelter included the possibility of a grunged-up or, maybe, 'gasp', a worn stylus. I use a stiff Discwasher stylus brush -dry- between each play. That keeps the nude mounted diamond elliptical stylus mainly clear of "cling-ons". However at one time I dismounted the cartridge then used my 30x pocket microscope to examine the cartridge.  I carefully brushed it till the diamond appeared clean and transparent through the scope. Then I remounted the cartridge. That did improve overall sonic performance on all records, but unfortunately it still miss-tracked "50 ways..".

Three years usage should put it at roughly 1/2 of its life-span, I figure. It still played all the other records cleanly like it had when it was newer. So my conclusion is that the Shelter will miss-track over difficult grooves. That's just part of the party. You take the truly magical aspects of the Shelter along with its warty problems. 

One attribute that many listeners look for in a phono cartridge is the ability to display massed instruments, in dense passages, coherently while allowing the individual instrument within the mix to be perceived by the listener.  It is here, I think, where most high end audio systems display an inherent weakness.  Recordings of large orchestral works tend to sound like scaled down versions of themselves, and are not mistaken for the live event. In this test, the Shelter has not set itself apart from the crowd.  Of course the associated gear plays just as much a role in this performance as does the review item and this trait significantly changed when I added the Graham 2.2 tonearm to the system this year in October (10/2005).  While dense passages were still, well....dense, there was indeed greater definition within the passage without losing any sense of coherence.  The Graham was a significant upgrade and served to augment all of the Shelter's positive attributes while reducing its shortcomings.  An excellent match-up, the Graham and the Shelter, I think.

u510_11_26_05_8a.jpg (62970 bytes) Photos of the Shelter 501 - II mounted in the Graham 2.2 tonearm.

In this system, with classical music, I find the Shelter at its best while rendering chamber music such as Vivaldi's 4-Seasons, or Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, or Beethoven piano sonatas.  Chamber music is quite effective.  Piano concertos come across convincingly as the Shelter renders piano realistically.   Harpsichord music can come alive, depending on the recording.

 

Summary:

Strengths: Extended natural highs. Liquid, natural, melodic and a magically-alive midrange.  Tight, detailed, articulate lower frequencies.
Weakness: With some "problem records" it may show a tendency to miss-track high amplitude record grooves.
Best musical category: Small combo jazz, chamber music, piano sonatas, harpsichord, folk music, acoustic blues and vocals.
What about Rock..?: It rocks good..!  It also displays, without mercy, just how well or poorly your classical rock group was recorded.  In general, this cartridge renders rock and roll to my satisfaction.  The Stones on London/Decca are rendered with beautiful detail and clarity, because they were recorded well.  The Beatles, particularly during their more complex period, but even the early material is spectacularly reproduced.  Hendrix.....?  Good but there was some intentional distortion in his recordings and this also is reproduced with clarity.  Same with Led Zeppelin, but on the whole Led Zep's transitional passages are produced with very dynamic impact and to great satisfaction.  'Into sixties psychedelic...?  Try Donovan's "Sunshine Superman".  The Shelter reproduces Donovan's music just fine, thank you.  Folk Rock..?  Simon and Garfunkel...again, the Shelter is very good with vocals.

 

End of Review

notes:

  1. Forum at Audio Asylum: Gordon Rankin answered a thread requesting the compliance for Shelter cartridges.  This information was taken there.  http://www.audioasylum.com/audio/vinyl/bbs.html