Put on material full of fine dynamic shadings and bruteforce contrasts, such as the opening “Naissance de Kijé” movement from Prokofieff ’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite [Abbado/ Chicago, Deutsche Grammophon], and the 5000 will wow you with its dynamic prowess. The movement opens with a soft, just barely audible woodwind theme, expands as higher wind instruments and snare drums enter, and then—in less than a minute—moves forward to a crescendo marked by humungous bass drum thwacks. If you are accustomed to listening through digital players, hearing this passage through the Shelter 5000 will prove a real eye-opener, because the contrast between the quiet opening passage and the massive drum beats that follow is gloriously shocking—enough to make even the most passive listeners sit bolt upright in their seats. Better still, the Shelter 5000 not only dramatizes large-scale dynamic transitions (almost as if signals were somehow routed through a dynamic-range expander), but it also catches all the subtle shadings in between. Part of the 5000’s performance hinges on its potent bass, which, while not “state-of-the-art” in the strictest sense, is far better weighted and defined than that of any number of premiumpriced moving coils I’ve heard.
The only areas where the 5000’s dynamic capabilities show noticeable weaknesses involve extremely heavily modulated upper midrange/treble and low bass passages. A good example would be the intense sibilant sounds heard on Christine Collister’s rendition of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” from Love... [Rega]—a track that leaves the 5000 sounding ever-soslightly ragged or overtaxed at times. In truth, the 5000 handles overwrought passages better than many cartridges at its price, but some higher-priced numbers—including Shelter’s own model 7000—handle them with even greater smoothness and grace. To summarize, Shelter’s 5000 is a pleasingly musical performer that offers a significant step up from the firm’s already very good 501 Mk II. The only catch is that the 5000 offers so many toptier attributes that it may inspire you to climb even further up the performance ladder, which is where the model 7000 comes in. At first blush the 5000 and 7000 seem structurally and sonically similar, but the longer I listened the more subtle (and not so subtle) differences began to accrue, all of them arguing in the 7000’s favor. First, I heard worthwhile increases in resolution and transient speed, especially at both frequency extremes. Second, I observed increased midrange openness, which made for more focused and three-dimensional soundstaging. And finally, I noted that the 7000 produced deeper and better-defined bass, especially on heavily modulated low-frequency passages.
The 7000’s improved resolution and openness became obvious when I sampled the Von Karajan/Berlin performance of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste [Deutsche Grammophon]—a record that is a bellwether disc of sorts. Through many cartridges this record sounds shrill and hardedged, but through really good cartridges it sounds rich, vibrant, and lavishly complex (in much the same way that great wines meld multiple flavors that take a while to sort out). The 7000 proved to be a real spellbinder on the Bartók piece, pulling tons of detail from the individual instruments—especially the luminous voice of the celeste, yet without veering into cold, analytical, electron-scanning-microscope sterility. While I would never call the 7000 a “lush-sounding” cartridge, it almost always manages to convey the natural warmth inherent in most instruments (this in contrast to cartridges that can suck the life out of instruments with icy, blueprint-like precision). And thanks to heightened midrange openness, the 7000 also does a great job of placing instruments precisely within a believable 3-D space, again improving realism. The only tradeoff is that the 7000 makes upper midrange/treble flaws in recordings more apparent than the model 5000 does. But that’s a small price to pay for all the extra information that the 7000 retrieves.
In bass performance, the 7000 does everything the 5000 can do and more. To appreciate what this means, listen to the title track from Sara K’s Water Falls [Stockfisch], which features some prodigiously modulated low-frequency accent notes that can shatter the composure of most cartridges. Those bass passages push the model 5000 right up to (and perhaps beyond) its tracking limits, whereas the 7000 handles the same wildly undulating grooves with almost frightening power and muscular grace (just take care not to bottom out your woofers).
Is the 7000 worth $495 more than the 5000? If your system offers sufficient resolution to reveal the 7000’s benefits, it most certainly is. What is more, you could build a strong case that the 7000 is even more detailed and revealing than the original 90X was, though it sells for much less. While the 90X might still enjoy a small edge in overall smoothness and panache, the Shelter 7000 delivers a heaping helping of sonic sophistication for the money. It beautifully fulfills Ozawa’s vision for a cartridge that remains grounded in musical gemütlichkeit, yet offers a more lively and lifelike sound.