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Phono cartridge | MC


Manufacturer: SHELTER INC.
Price (in Poland): 16 900 PLN

6-28-6 Togashira, Toride-city
Ibaraki 302-0034, JAPAN


Provided for test by: NAUTILUS Dystrybucja


Text: WOJCIECH PACUŁA / Translation: Marek Dyba
Images: Shelter | Wojciech Pacuła

No 205

June 1, 2021

The founder and designer of the Shelter company is YASUO OZAWA-san. The history of this brand is related to the MC cartridges, that it started its activity with. Its first product was the 701E model, presented in January 1986. We are testing its current top model - HARMONY.

F WE LOOK AT THE SO-CALLED "TIMELINE" of the products of the Japanese company SHELTER, we could notice a certain regularity: cartridges once introduced into its range remain in it for a long time. For example, the first ever model in its history, the 701E , was introduced in January 1986 and for over eight years the company sold only this one product. Then offered the 701ES version, with a higher output voltage, and then the 701EM model with a pure beryllium body that was produced until 1996.

The 501 cartridge has been sold for an even longer time - its original version was presented in 1990, and the Type III version, with a higher output voltage, is still sold today. And finally, there is the 901 Type III, we tested in May 2019, whose original version was launched in 1998, i.e. back then it already had been 21 years on the market (HIGH FIDELITY № 181 | May 2019, more HERE | PL). It seems that the belonging to the "Ultimate Line" series, the most expensive HARMONY cartridge will most likely stay with us for many, many years.


BELONGING TO THE ULTIMATE LINE, THE HARMONY is a Moving Coil (MC) cartridge. Its output voltage is quite high - namely 0.5 mV - and it features a moderate internal impedance of 15 Ω. This means that it should be loaded with an impedance of 150 Ω or more. The range of recommended VTF seems quite interesting as it ranges from 1.4 to 2.2 g. Usually it is in the range of 0.4 g, with the preferred value in the middle. For the purpose of this test I set VTF of 2 g. The stylus is a line-contact type measuring 0.04 x 0.007 mm.

| Line Contact

⸜ Various styluses; source:

The Line Contact type, for which the term 'extended line contact' is also often used, is a special type in which the ratio of one side of the stylus to the other is extremely large, thanks to which the needle has a larger contact surface with the grooves in the vertical plane than spherical and elliptical ones. They are also (usually) narrower - looking at their front - than classic needles, so they reach a bit deeper down the groove, and thus better reproduce high frequencies. They also offer lower distortion, better tracking, and they wear out more slowly.

They were originally developed for quadraphonic records (CD-4), because they had to read a much wider frequency band - the rear channels were encoded outside the audible band (up to 45kHz). This type of stylus is used in both MM and MC pickups, and is most often found in Audio-Technica designs, and which are custom made for them by FG or Namiki, specialists in this field.

⸜ Highly visible stylus cut in the tested Shelter Harmony cartridge

The 'line contact' type also includes Shibata, but also other ones - on this basis other companies have developed their own types of ultra-precise styluses:

Shibata (JVC, made by: Namiki Jewel) | Pramanik (Bang and Olufsen) | Quadrahedron (Pickering and Stanton) | Sterehedron (Pickering and Stanton an improved Quadrahedron version) | Van den Hul (Van den Hul) | Hyperbolic (Shure) | Hyperelliptical (Shure) | Special Elliptical (Denon) | Parabolic (Elite Electronic Industries – EEI) | Paroc (Weinz) | Fritz Gyger (Fritz Gyger) | Microridge – (manufacturer: Namiki Jewel) | Microline – (Audio Technica) | SAS – (Jico –Super Analogue Stylus is a variation of the Microridge).

⸜ More:
1.; dostęp: 23.04.2021.
2. All you need to know about cartridges: Stylus types; PDF file, accessed: 23.04.2021.

ALREADY A FIRST LOOK AT THE HARMONY SUFFICE to conclude that we are dealing with a much more sophisticated product, different than the other cartridges from this manufacturer. The main difference is in how the body is made. The Shelter’s flagship model uses a carbon fiber reinforced composite (so-called "dry layup") with a polymer cover (CFRP = Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer) for the main body. According to the press release, the CFRP provides “excellent acoustic characteristics and fits perfectly with the newly designed motor assembly”. And next:

This combination is capable of delivering a great musical reproduction even on records with less than optimal recordings. The benefit is that the resonant frequency of CFRP is outside of any audible frequency. In addition, it provides a high degree of internal damping along with superb isolation characteristics that protects the body from extraneous vibration and noise. Each of these design features ensure that the Harmony produces no coloration, and is whisper quiet and is extraordinarily sensitive to even the most demanding and subtle musical passages.; accessed: 23.04.2021

As Mr. Osawa-san, the founder of the company and its chief designer says, when he looks at the early Moving Coil designs, he notices a certain regularity - needles in these cartridges wear out quite quickly and also offered the worst balanced sound. Moreover, few of the solution used back then have survived to this day. This is what compelled him to start looking at the materials they were made with, and then experimenting with his own designs.

The body of the tested pickup is made of a material with a layered structure. It was created by compressing CFRP with a weight of 60 tons, while the conventional process for such cases uses only 24 tons. The benefit of such a process is that the resonant frequency of CFRP is well above the audible frequencies. In addition, this type of material provides a high degree of internal damping and excellent insulation, which protects the body against external vibrations.

The motor assembly is a completely new design developed by Shelter. It uses a hard aluminum cantilever and OFC wiring.. As Mr. Osawa says, hard aluminum allowed him to get powerful and fast bass. The cantilever length is slightly shorter than normal to increase the strength to output voltage ratio. Common aluminum cantilevers tend to sag slightly more.

The version we received for the test was made especially for us by Mr. Osawa-san and is part of our reference system; The mono cartridge 901 III MONO, also prepared with "High Fidelity" in mind, is also waiting for a test.


⸜ HOW WE LISTENED The SHELTER HARMONY cartridge was tested with two turntables: with the Polish MUARAH AUDIO MT-1 EVO, which was featured on the April’s cover of our magazine, and also with the Slovenian PEAR AUDIO BLUE KID THOMAS. I assessed it using three different phono preamplifiers: PRO-JECT PHONO BOX RS 2 (PL), ANCIENT AUDIO SILVER PHONO (test coming in July) and RCM AUDIO SENSOR PRELUDE IC.

The signal from the turntable to the phono preamplifier, and later to the Ayon Audio Spheris III line preamplifier, was sent via unbalanced interconnects (RCA).

The tested cartridge was compared to two other, also Japanese, designs: HANA UMAMI RED and MIYAJIMA LABORATORY DESTINY. I loaded it with 200 Ω (RCM Audio) and about 100 Ω (Pro-Ject and Ancient Audio). The Shelter comes in a nice box and - more importantly - with plastic, not metal, screws and nuts - and these were the ones I used during the test, not the metal ones.

Records used for the test | a selection

The Famous Sound Of Three Blind Mice Vol. 1, Three Blind Mice/Impex Records ‎IMP6027, 2 x 180 g LP (2018)
⸜ GARY PEACOCK, Guamba, ECM Records (ECM 1352), Test Press LP (1987)
⸜ JOHN COLTRANE, Giant Steps, Atlantic/Rhino R1 512581, „Atlantic 45 RPM Master Series | No. 2335/2500”, 2 x 180 g, 45 rpm (1960/2008)
⸜ SADE, Stronger than pride, Epic | Sony Music/Audio Fidelity AFZLP 159, „Numbered Edition | № 0033”, 180 g LP (1988/2014)
⸜ THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO, The Spiritual, Freedom/ORG Music RGM-2121, „Record Store Day 2019”, Limited Edition, 180 g RED WAX LP (1972/2019)
⸜ THE MODERN JAZZ QUARTET, Fontessa, Atlantic AS 128 019, LP (1956/1969)
⸜ SANTANA, Santana, Columbia/CBS 40-63815, LP (1969)


IT WOULD BE DIFFICULT FOR ME TO INDICATE ANY AREA where the Shelter HARMONY cartridge did not behave like a pure high-end product. I will say more - I have not found such an area.

On the one hand, it should be so, at least in the so-called social expectation, because it is, after all, a very expensive "gadget". On the other hand, if you know the realities of the audio world including its peak achievements, it will not escape your attention that the tested cartridge is relatively inexpensive compared to other top competitors. And yet it can be placed next to the most sophisticated and expensive constructions of this type in the world and you will not be disappointed.

Harmony plays in an incredibly nice way, and at the same time extremely honest one. Its "beauty" lies in the absolute lack of sharpness and in the honey-smooth presentation. Its honesty, in turn, kind of complements what we are talking about - it is an extremely resolving cartridge, and thus showing recordings as they are. For example, during the 129th meeting of the Krakow Sonic Society, one of the important elements of the sound of the original, American edition of SANTANA's debut (1969), ending the first piece on the A side, the guitars are slightly distorted (more HERE). In turn, on the first British edition you can’t hear it anymore.

The comparison of different releases was prepared using the Harmony cartridge and this feature of the recordings was perfectly audible. Anyway, the re-edition of the album I listened to immediately after, released by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab sounded even warmer and even more "sweet". Each of the releases had a perfectly clear tonal balance, dynamics, and most of all, all three of us, who listened to them, had a similar opinion on the idea for each of these versions, introduced by the mastering engineer and the one cutting acetate.

For comparison, the Miyajima Labs cartridges, although also a bit warm, also sweet, sound in a different way. They have a heavier lower midrange and they enlarge the foreground a bit. It is a beautiful presentation - a presentation one can fall in love with (just like I did), but it is a bit "made", a bit "improved". It is a wonderful approach and it adapts brilliantly to many albums, thanks to the outstanding resolution of these cartridges, but it is still - a "gimmick".

Shelter Harmony plays in a way similar to the top Miyajima Laboratory cartridge in the sense that it also tries to "embrace" everything together, that it focuses more on what the sounds have in common than what separates them. It is not as accurate and as precise as top Ortofon cartridges, for example Anna, or as faithful to the letter of the recording as Lyra cartridges. And that's because it has its own, really own idea of how the album should sound like.

This can be heard perfectly with the The Spiritual by THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO, in the analog remaster prepared for Record Store Day 2019. This is an incredibly natural recording, we really feel like being in a small room where the musicians play. Shelter showed it accurately, precisely, outstandingly showing the holography of the recording. But it did it in a friendly manner, with a slightly sweetened attack. Not as strongly sweetened as with "warm" cartridges, but stronger than in those where precision is even better.

On this album you could hear something that happened again on the excellent Impex compilation with recordings from the Three Blind Mice label, entitled The Famous Sound Of Three Blind Mice Vol. 1, and on the re-issue of the JOHN COLTRANE’S Giant Steps "Atlantic 45 RPM Master Series", and on SADE’s Stronger than pride, in the Audio Fidelity re-edition - with the Harmony there was a fantastic depth of the sound. I have already mentioned the depth of the stage, it is outstanding, but the depth we are talking about now is probably even more important.

It's about something that makes the recording vivid, makes it sound "lively" with intense inner life and also natural. The tested cartridge does not enlarge the phantom images, it is very neutral in this respect. But also the richness of sounds that we get with it makes us build this size in our head causes us to hear them this way. If something on the stage is positioned further away, it is slightly smaller, if closer, then larger.

But even if the sound was recorded with a close microphone and then boosted at the mastering stage, let it be a stringed double bass from Blow Up by ISAO SUZUKI TRIO from the aforementioned Impex Record’s release, or GARY PEACOCK's double bass from a digitally recorded, on a Mitsubishi X-800 tape recorder, Guamba album, the Shelter did not magnify it too much, and showed it just as an approximation, as saturation.

And at the same time it is a cartridge that shows the band’s extremes remarkably well. One might expect that if you say something about "warm" sound, about some "rounding" in the text, many will hear „emphasized midrange”. This is where the Harmony cartridge is completely different from other high-end cartridges - it has everything we've talked about, and it does not emphasize midrange, it’s range is well extended on both ends.

The bass attack is a bit smoothed out, but that doesn't mean it is slowed down. HANA UMAMI RED, compared to Shelter, sounded more rounded and delicate. Harmony sounded explosive, fast and strong, which was especially audible with the Santana album, on which percussion instruments play such an important role. And yet it would be difficult for me to describe it as clear, or particularly "open" sounding in the sense that it is not overly analytical.

The bass attack is a bit smoothed out, but that doesn't mean it is slowed down. Both of the aforementioned albums feature double bass players as leaders, which decides their specific sound and Harmony showed it very well. The bass was colorful, dense and saturated, but also was also selective, which is a very important distinguishing feature of this sound. Similarly, the treble - clear, pure, and yet in some way attentive and not delivering an excess of information. There is as much information as needed for the presentation to be dense in meaning, yet not exaggerated.

And there is one more thing that you should like - the Japanese cartridge is able to slightly “hide” the travel noise and cracks & pops. Some time ago I bought the album Fontessa by THE MODERN JAZZ QUARTET (1956) at one of the stands in Plac Nowy in Kazimierz, Krakow. I am talking about the stereo edition of this title, and more precisely its re-issue from 1969, the German pressing. However, I could not resist buying it, because the album was in perfect condition and the price was more than decent.

And it just so happened that I haven't had time to clean it so far - and it looks as if it hadn't been removed from the foil since it was first bought. Which means there was a lot of dust on it. I placed it on the platter and dusted it with a thick, soft brush bought at Sephora, and lowered the stylus onto the so pre-prepared surface. The darkness of this "puff" at the beginning and the density of the very soft noise were exceptional. It was obvious that the record had to be cleaned, but I didn't have to do it right away, because I enjoyed listening to both sides without hearing pops & cracks.


The Shelter Harmony cartridge is one of the most well-balanced, and thus the most versatile designs I know. More expensive cartridges are a bit more resolving and differentiate the band extremes even better, but the differences are not big. The tested model sounds in a very balanced, relaxed way, without ceasing to be a musical "instrument", that is, without ceasing to excite listeners with emotions.

Harmony delivers a top quality performance in every respect. It is a cartridge that also sounds very nice. It is resolving and precise, but not overly so. It has excellent bass and a great, beautiful treble, but most of all it plays everything together, without pointing to individual components. It is a bit warm, but just a bit, no more, because it is a really open and balanced presentation. It also plays less well-kept albums in an enjoyable way.

Most importantly, it costs half as much as the reference cartridges, I mean mainly the Miyajima Labs Destiny. And this makes it an extremely interesting proposition for those who want to have it all, but do not want to spend all of their the money on it. A great design that stays in HIGH FIDELITY’s system as a point of reference.

Technical specifications (according to the manufacturer)

Type: Moving Coil
Output voltage: 0.5 mV
Stylus: 0.04 x 0.007 mm, line-contact
Internal impedance: 15 Ω
Weight: 8.5 g
VTF: 1.4 – 2.2 g


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