Probably best to start the review with where the signal goes from the cart. It was installed on a magnesium armed SME309, fitted to a Gyro SE feeding an EAR 834P Signature Phonostage. This in turn fed my Lumley ST40 Reference power amp, a 40 w/ch push-pull design using Tung-Sol 803s and Brimar valves in the phase inversion and gain stages and Harma STR 6L6’s in the output stage. The amp was driving my Horning Agathon Ultimates positioned near to the corners of my 20ft by 15ft listening room.
Unpackaging the Shelter, I was struck by just how weighty and solid it felt (it tips the scales at 11g) and the counterweight on the SME had to go half-way back to get it tracking at 1.6g. Its a bit fiddly to fit, but non magnetic fixing bolts are provided, along with a stylus brush and instructions.
I started with Shure’s Obstacle Course MK2 test LP. My DV20 tracked 4 of the 5 levels in each test plus all five of the drum test pretty well, with the only noticeable breakup being on the violin section, where the DV20 only managed 3 of the 5 levels before the sound got a bit edgy. The LP states that top flight cartridges should track level 3 or higher and anything making a clean job of the first 3 levels is rated as a good tracker.
The Shelter tracked all 5 levels of all tracks flawlessly…not a single grumble, no edginess and zero break-up, just a clean sweep. I reckon there’s no need to fiddle with the alignment any more that being the case.
Next up was Led Zep 2 LP (Atlantic SD 8236). I recall from playing this on the Michell Gyro/309/DV20xl that it was a fairly quietly recorded piece, needing a notch more on volume than most other recordings. There was surface noise evident using both the 309/DV20xl and the 3009/Sonus Blue Gold (mounted on my Garrard 401) and with both those carts, an overall dark balance with some roll off evident at higher frequencies and quite a muddy bass. The first thing that struck me when the needle of the shelter touched the vinyl was an absence of any sound…I had to check to see that the volume was turned up and the preamp switched on! Nothing but emptiness until the first track queued.
My preconceptions of this album, one of my all time favourites with more than a little tribute to Howling Wolf, particularly side 2, was a good selection of tracks spoiled only by a slightly muddled bass and rolled off top end. The Shelter had me almost jumping out of the seat so loud did the bass come in, and so ultra-taught with it. No muddy fruitiness, just tight deep and LOUD bass. The highs were marvellously extended and I had to scratch my head…was this really the same album? It had sparkle that I’d not heard before.
I listened on to the famous drum solo which goes on for quite some minutes and was captivated by how accurately the drum kit appeared to be located. You could almost pick out every drum and follow the drummer as the piece played on, with some remarkable life-like timbre to the bass drum which continued to decay after the pedal struck, just as you’d expect from a real life audition. That is something which lesser cartridges often struggle to replicate properly and demonstrated to me that the information was definitely there on the recording it was just I’d never had a cartridge dig so deep and display such flawless signal delivery before.
Next up was Boito’s Mefistofele (Decca Digital D270D3 – K270K32…Pavarotti, Caballe, Freni and Ghiarov with the National Philharmonic Orchestra). This particular recording, digital and all, is reputedly the best (and rarest) recording of this fabulous operatic masterpiece. It is (within my collection) the ultimate test of hi-fi weaknesses. Following an instrumental introduction which sets the melody and scene of what’s to come, it builds with a crescendo of Seraphim and Cherubim in ranked masses which truly tests the best of needles and tonearms. Tremendous energy is put into the arm with this piece and whilst my DV20 coped well, the choral passages, rising into crescendo always degenerated into somewhat of a muddle. I wasn’t expecting much better with the Shelter as I’ve never come across any vinyl system (or a well enough recorded CD on a decent CDP) that could accurately delineate massed choral works and do them the justice that they deserve.
Again, and very happily, I was proved wrong…this Shelter was growing on me by the second; it was dawning on me just what a very special cartridge this is. The same inky blackness, to coin a tired but well meaning phrase, opened proceedings and it was here I picked up on some rustling of paper within the orchestra! That level of detail was absolutely remarkable (and never before heard) and is a tribute to just how low the noise floor is with this cart. The choral works built up slowly and quite unexpectedly I could pick out front to back the massed ranks, in the most 3-d soundstage with distinctness to massed voices allowing one to “look” left to right and back to front against the Seraphim and Cherubim as their volume picked up. No muddling here, just plain remarkable dynamics, imaging and detail. The dynamics are worth making special note of. The sweep from gentle low notes to the immediate thunderous crash of crescendos was remarkable and demonstrated not just how well mastered that this particular recording is, but also what a fabulous dynamic range the 5000 has. It gives for a truly massive soundstage with real tonal accuracy too to the instruments. I found myself picking out previously unheard distinct plucking of the Cello with the notes lingering quietly and dying back almost in a space of their own allowing their positioning relative to the chorus to be positioned.
Voices are very pleasing with again, a trueness to the timbre which is rare, helped by that marvellous dynamic response which breathes real life into the recordings.
The Shelter 5000 makes even the venerable Dynavector DV20xl sound like a bag of soggy potatoes, a little rounded and mushy in comparison without either the dynamic response or frequency response of the Shelter. Don’t get me wrong, the DV20 is not a bad cartridge, in fact its probably the best sub-£500 MC on the market. Its just that the Shelter is in another league completely and head and shoulders better than the 17D3 too.
Unlike it’s 501 sibling, you could not call it’s musical performance lush. Neither is it analytical in the same way that some Lyra’s can be. Instead it is more like the 901 but with enhanced and tauter bass and it shares the 901’s wonderfully extended treble. The 901 is regarded as one of the very best MC cartridges ever made, irrespective of price and if this 5000 is anything to go by, I’d say it will develop a cult following of its own. It has the ability to match a tonal, dynamic and frequency range exactness without sacrificing any of the musicality that the older 501 was renowned for.
In summary, the things that make this cartridge very special indeed are its notably low noise floor, incredible dynamics and bass response and extended but smooth treble which combine to give probably the most lifelike musical rendition in my listening room no-matter what is spun up. The sense of being there, the sense of scale and imaging are all exemplary and matched by nothing else I’ve heard to date (the 501 coming close but no cigar) and the lightning fast transient response without hint of distortion shows just how well engineered the generator and damping are in this cart. I don’t often lavish such praise on any piece of HiFi gear nor have I ever come across a single component that has made such a difference to a system, but in this case I’d happily recommend the Shelter 5000 as one of the truly landmark cartridges at or anywhere near its price, and I’ve listened to quite a few. I’d be interested to see how it compares with the Zyx Airy but thats for another day…
Tracking Force Range: 1.4 to 2.0 g (1.85ish recommended) Cantilever: Boron
Stylus Type: Elliptical Nude Diamond .3 x .7mil
Channel Balance within 1dB at 1kHz
DC Resistance: 14 Ohms
Recommended Load Impedance:
With step-up transformer: 20 to 40 Ohms
With head amplifier: 100 normally, up to 500 ohms according to taste