Over the years Shelter’s moving-coil phono cartridges have consistently found favor in our pages. When I reviewed Shelter’s $850 501 Mk II in issue 147, for example, I found it delivered “treble air without brightness, transient speed without overshoot, definition without edginess, focus without sterility, and bass weight without any thick or syrupy colorations.” Similarly, Jonathan Valin gave Shelter’s thenflagship model 90X cartridge a TAS Golden Ear award, noting that it provided “superior transparency, timbral beauty, and dynamics, with the added bonuses of exceptionally deep, solid bass, and a big transparent soundstage.” Finally, Wayne Garcia reviewed the 90X in issue 160 and praised its “transient speed with rich and fully articulated timbres, which reach deep into the bass.” Together these comments paint a coherent picture of Shelter’s house sound, which could be described as the intersection between traditional audiophile virtues and an elusive quality best summarized by the German word gemütlichkeit, which means “atmosphere of comfort, peace and acceptance.”
Having earned accolades like these, you might think Shelter would take an “it-ain’t-broke-so-don’t-fix-it” stance toward its product line, but company founder Yasuo Ozawa is not one to rest on his laurels. Instead, he set out to replace the top two models in his original lineup (the well-liked 901 and 90X) with three new cartridges designed to offer “more life.” The new cartridges are called the Model 5000 ($1500), 7000 ($1995), and 9000 ($2995), and all three have generated considerable buzz among analog enthusiasts. In fact, the word on the street was that the 5000 could handily outperform the previous 901, while the 7000 was said to be competitive with (and perhaps even better than) the original 90X, which is saying a mouthful. My curiosity thus piqued, I arranged to borrow samples of the 5000 and 7000 to see how they performed.
What does Ozawa’s objective of adding “more life” really mean? I believe it means finding ways to give Shelter cartridges more detail, greater transient speed, and more explosive dynamics, without disturbing that quintessential quality of gemütlichkeit. In pursuit of these goals Ozawa has given the 5000/7000/9000 Series cartridges larger and more rigid anodized aluminum bodies, new front yoke assemblies, redesigned bobbins, and improved internal wiring. The 5000 and 7000 feature boron cantilevers fitted with identically-sized-and-shaped “nude” elliptical styli. Published specifications for the three models are similar; in fact, the only obvious differences between them are minor variations in DC resistance ratings. (Web mavens take note: Many Shelter-related sites incorrectly show the 5000 and 7000 as having identical specifications, which is not the case.) Importer Arturo Manzano of Axiss Audio confirmed that there are subtle but sonically significant differences between the motor assemblies of the 5000 and 7000. Eager to learn what the sonic impact of those differences might be, I set up the Shelters in my reference ’table and began making comparisons. Here’s what I learned.
First, the 5000 offers significant performance improvements relative to the next model down in Shelter’s product line—the award-winning $850 501 Mk II. Specifically, the 5000 surpasses its less costly little brother by delivering more detail, more sharply drawn dynamic contrasts, and a more fully fleshed out, three-dimensional soundstage. To enjoy the 5000’s superior detail, I put on “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)” from Iron and Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog [Sub-Pop], a track that offers densely layered acoustic and electric instrumentation, along with Sam Beam’s soft, breathy multi-layered vocals. What makes the track so challenging is that so many human and instrumental voices are simultaneously vying for attention within the same spectral space. You might expect this would lead to congested midrange mush, but instead the Shelter 5000 cleanly delineates the timbres of individual voices and, just as importantly, shows each one is originating from its own specific location within the soundstage. As a result the 5000 emphasizes the track’s tapestry-like complexity and richness, inviting listeners to follow individual musical threads. The only area where the 5000 left me wanting more resolution involved delicate, high-frequency textures on extremely wellrecorded discs. For example, Louis Bellson’s high percussion work on “Red Bank Blues” from Basie Jam [Pablo/Analogue Productions, 45rpm LP] sounded sweet and beautiful through the 5000, though it lacked the nth degree of treble air and resolution that might have made the cymbals sound more lifelike. While the 5000 consistently provides sweet-sounding highs with little (if any) apparent roll-off, it narrowly misses capturing fine, lowlevel textures and details the way top-tier cartridges can. Even so, other sonic strengths build a compelling case for the 5000.