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August / September 2009
Superior Audio Equipment Review

North American Premiere
Shelter Harmony MC Cartridge And 411 Type 2 Step-Up
It is indeed all about balance.
Review By Dick Olsher

Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Shelter Harmony MC Cartridge  For an entire two months during 2009 I undertook an analog vow, totally avoiding digital sources. Now, that’s not exactly a fair characterization. Consider the Jesuit vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. These have got to be enormously difficult to maintain, whereas feasting on analog, spinning nothing but vinyl for two months, was a distinct pleasure. It was the Shelter Harmony MC that kept me company for most of that time. Shelter was founded by Mr. Ozawa in 1986 after he departed Fidelity Research, a major analog player during the 1970s. While I seriously doubt that the company name he chose represents an allusion to the Rolling Stones’ song "Gimme Shelter", it may well fit a possible world view, of metaphorically affording musical shelter in a world run amuck with digital sound.

Shelter has established quite a reputation with its affordable 501 Mk2, a cartridge known for its warm overall tonal balance and smooth high-frequency extension. This appears to fit neatly with Mr. Ozawa’s belief that a phono cartridge is more than an electromechanical transducer and should be afforded the status of a musical instrument. And that’s the sort of family sound I expected with the Harmony, but to my surprise I discovered a far more neutral balance. It seems that the Harmony is intended as a reference product offering much less in the way of sonic editorializing. And one major reason for that is the significant engineering effort to minimize vibrational energy and dampen it at the source.

 

Technical Details
Think of the cartridge as a seismic detector. It is sensitive not only to energy generated by groove modulations, but also to resonances in the cartridge body, head shell, arm, turntable, and environmental energy such as footfalls. Shelter has previously used aluminum for its cartridge body shells. For the Harmony, CFRP (carbon-fiber reinforced plastic) was chosen, a material being used in the aerospace industry and high-performance racing, for its superlative strength-to-weight ratio. For example, Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner relies heavily on such materials. It is also sufficiently stiff to push resonances outside of the audible range. Here the body shell is built up in layers giving it a distinctive look. Carbon-fiber cartridge screws are included as is a small CFRP damping disc which is to be placed over the record label. In combination, this is said to create a CFRP vibration-damping system.

An aluminum cantilever is used that is slightly shorter than the norm for increased strength and faster signal propagation. In the early days of stereo a spherical tip of 0.7 mil radius was quite common. A spherical tip’s main virtue (other than cost of manufacture) is low record wear even at high tracking forces. The next development, and quite popular even today, was the elliptical or biradial stylus featuring a diamond tip 0.4x0.7 mil bonded to a metal shank. However, the most precise scanning of the groove walls is possible with a nude diamond. The stylus shank and tip make up a single diamond piece properly oriented along its crystallographic axes to allow lapping a fine tip. The need for negotiating ultrasonic modulations presented by quadraphonic discs brought about the Shibata nude diamond with tip dimensions of 0.2x0.7 mil. The Shibata was already near line-contact in its scanning profile and foreshadowed the most extreme profile possible – a true line contact. The Harmony’s stylus is in fact a line contact nude diamond with tip dimensions of 1.6 X 0.3 mil. As a practical matter, such a stylus really needs to be carefully aligned for optimum performance. Use of a precise cartridge alignment gauge is mandatory as is an arm that allows for fine VTA adjustment.

Shelter 411 Type 2 Step-UpThe front end consisted of the Kuzma Stabi Reference turntable outfitted with either the Kuzma 313 VTA or the Graham Engineering 2.5 arm. Both Shelter’s own 411 Type 2 and Sound Tradition Live! MC-10 transformer step-ups were used during the review process. The 411’s gain is about 32 dB and should be adequate for any MC cartridge known to me. Used with Air Tight’s ATE-2 phono preamp and sensitive power amps and speakers, there was at least 10 dB excess gain. I experimented with vertical tracking forces of 1.65 and 2.0 gram and eventually settled on a VTF of 2.0 gram.

 

Sonic Impressions
Mr. Ozawa says that as he looks back at early MC cartridge designs, models with the shortest life span turned out to be ones that were not well balanced. And that historical lesson presumably has made balance a vital priority during the development of the Harmony. That became evident rather quickly after it displaced a Dynavector XV-1s MC from my system. Although the Dynavector was in the house on a short-term loan basis, I was already quite impressed with its speed, immediacy, tremendous dynamic range, and tight almost pitch-perfect bass lines. But I was left with the residual impression that the Dynavector was not the smoothest MC money can buy, that it traded textural suaveness for immediacy, which became crystal clear with the Harmony in the system. The Harmony did everything well. OK, it did not quite equal the speed and explosive dynamics of the Dynavector, but it vanquished the Dynavector when it came to midrange refinement and integrity of harmonic colors.

First impression was of an organic, cohesive soundstage painted with a fine brush and vivid colors. The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a plush rose in full bloom. There was nothing hard or edgy about the presentation. Image outlines were fleshed out in lovely three-dimensional palpability. Outlines remained stable and firmly rooted within the soundstage as the music swelled from soft to loud. Lush orchestration was given full scope to breath and bloom with remarkable control over transient attack and decay. A low noise floor paved the way for hall decay to shine through clearly.

The best performance at the frequency extremes was to be had with the Shelter 411 step-up in the system. Always squeaky clean and a champ at low-level resolution, the 411 nonetheless recessed the midrange a bit. Vocals sounded slightly pushed back in the mix, something I did not find appealing. Since the Harmony was judged to be intrinsically quite neutral in its tonal balance, the nudge by the 411 toward tonal politeness was even more noticeable. It was in this context that the Live! MC-10 step-up gave the Harmony the sort of romantic tilt I was looking for. The MC-10 (low impedance input) gave up a bit of resolution and bandwidth but imbued the midrange with a touch more warmth and increased color saturation. And as a bonus it opened up the upper midrange, a range critical for soprano voice, permitting it to sing out sweetly and with remarkable purity. It’s fair to say that with the MC-10 in the chain, the Harmony almost sounded like a good single-ended triode amplifier: lively mids, excellent rhythmic drive, and a torrent of microdynamics.

 

Conclusion
Shelter Harmony MC CartridgeIn the crowded arena of MC phono cartridges, the Harmony’s unique gift is its ability to be one with the music. I’m pleased to state that, in a nutshell, the Harmony is indeed all about balance. It does not emphasize any one particular aspect of reproduced music, instead giving preference to a natural, cohesive, and balanced presentation. It is literally in harmony with the music. If your main goal is to impress your friends and neighbors, there are cartridges out there that would do a better job. But if your primary goal is to enjoy the music, then the Harmony MC is definitely for you. Highly recommended.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Moving Coil phono cartridge and step-up unit
Shelter Phono Cartridge
Output Voltage: 0.5 mV at 1Khz 5 cm/sec.
Weight: 8.5 grams
Channel Balance: within 0.8 dB at 1Khz
Tracking Force: 1.4 to 2.2 grams
Stylus Tip: 1.6 X 0.3 mil Line Contact Nude Diamond
DC Resistance: 15 Ohm
Recommended Load Impedance:
Step Up Transformer - 10 to 30 Ohms
Head Amplifier - within 100 Ohms
High Gain EQ-amp - within 47K Ohms
Price: $5300

Shelter 411 type II Step-up Transformer
Input Impedance: >15 Ohm 
Output Impedance: 47 to 50 kOhm
Frequency Bandwidth: 20 Hz to 50 kHz (-3dB with 3 ohm load) 
Step-up Ratio: 32dB (about x40)
Dimensions: 5 9/16" x 4 11/16" x 2 5/8"
Weight: 2.2 lbs 
Price: $1850

 

Company Information
Shelter Inc.
United States Distributor: Axiss Audio
17800 South Main Street
Suite 109
Gardena, CA 90248

Voice: (310) 329-0187
Fax: (310) 329-0189
Website: www.axissaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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