What is the difference between an ordinary hamburger and a great hamburger? The meat? The bun? The seasonings? Maybe it’s the cook. It is all of these and more. I say that because if you give the same ingredients to several cooks, each hamburger will taste differently from the others. This has little to do with the Shelter cartridge under review, because for one thing, friends, it ain’t hamburger!
But it did get me thinking about components. Remember the foolish old notion that all amplifiers sound the same? Having heard some very fine phono cartridges lately, I had the thought that in a given performance class, the sonic ingredients are the same. Their “cooks” make them sound differently from each other. As a group, the quality of each parameter we audiophiles love to describe in detail is very similar, but the mix of sonic characteristics is different for each cartridge. This one has stronger bass, that one is more dynamic, a third model has more extended high frequencies…it’s all relative. The quality of each parameter is equivalent, but the quantity is different.
Besides my own experiences, I have heard from many others that most of the issues of assembling a great stereo system are about balance, nuance, and finesse. It’s easy to get decent sound. To hell with that: we want great sound! We want a quality of sound that will transport us to a mental state that is outside of our working day lives. That will let us close our eyes and for the duration of the music, time stops. This is our Mission, and it is achievable.
The search for a great phono cartridge is not as simple as choosing, for example, a speaker cable. Swap cables between your amp and speakers a few times and choose the best sounding one. Job done. With a phono cartridge, the additional variables of the turntable, tonearm, phono cable, phono preamplifier, and cartridge load impedance, in addition to VTA, VTF, noise, hum, gain, and a few others – including you and your system – makes choosing “the best” cartridge a challenging task. Due to the number of variables in this equation, I warn you now that this review might not help you very much.
Given that disclaimer, which you should apply to any review, I am certain that the Shelter 90x is the best sounding cartridge ever to grace my audio system. It is the best cartridge precisely because it doesn’t do anything in particular particularly well. It doesn’t highlight dynamics, as one often hears with a Clearaudio Insider. It isn’t notably detailed, which the Dynavector XV-1s can offer. It doesn’t showcase the enveloping warmth that is generously provided by the Koetsu Urushi.
So why is the 90x the best? The answer lies in balance. The Shelter does everything at a performance level that welcomes it to join the top echelon of today’s best cartridges. What sets it apart from others is its balance of excellent bass, a warm but detailed midrange, clear and extended high frequencies, and excellent dynamics. This balance is achieved in a manner that none of these important areas of performance takes precedence over any of the others. Balance. The Shelter does not provide this or that “type” of sound. Do you want a forward sound to liven things up? Look elsewhere. How about something to smooth out an aggressive speaker or a bright room? Again, probably not the Shelter.
The 90x lists for $2700 and is available from Jay Kaufman at Audio Revelation, who kindly helped to arrange for the audition. I tried the 90x with the following phono preamplifiers: Cary PH-302, Sonic Frontiers Phono 1SE, Aesthetix Rhea, BAT VK-P5 and P20, and Conrad Johnson Premier 15 Series 2. In each case, the individual character of the phono stage was easily discerned and the Shelter allowed each one to perform at its best. It was actually easier to understand the sonic traits of these phono stages than it was to pin down what the Shelter was bringing to the party. The rest of the front end was a Kuzma Stabi Reference table, Graham 2.2 arm, with Graham IC-70 and other tonearm wires. How will the 90x perform in your rig? Please see the disclaimer above and refill your glass.
This is a review of the Shelter 90x, and it’s time to talk about how it sounds. The simple answer, and almost the complete answer, is this: the 90x sounds as good as the rest of your system sounds. It is hard to imagine a system in which the 90x would be the weak link. I suggest that if, after properly installing the 90x, you find the sound is not to your liking, then it is time to upgrade another component because there are problems elsewhere in your system or room.
The 90x has the very neutral overall tonal balance of the Shelter 501. It relates to the great bass and excellent treble extension of the 901. The 90x leaves these two siblings behind in several important areas. The midrange does not sound at all disconnected from the lower midrange and treble as it can with the 901. (Please see the 901 review elsewhere in these pages.) This is quite an important upgrade from the 901, and if all the 90x did was this, it would be worth the asking price. But there’s more.
The treble is noticeably more refined than the 901, allowing harmonic trails to last longer and fade farther into silence. It is almost spooky at times just how much detail the 90x can present. It does this without any highlighting of specific frequencies, however, which is often just a trick of other components that pretend at “transparency”. There is none of the dryness or slight lack of harmonic development that can be observed with the Dynavector XV-1s (its only real fault), instead drawing one into the performance like a good Koetsu. However, the performance at both frequency extremes far outperforms even the Rosewood Signature Platinum.
The level of bass definition, if not absolute power and depth, is improved over the already stellar performance of the 901. Again, another step up. But the biggest improvement over the 901 is not just the complete integration of the midrange into the rest of the audio spectrum – the major weakness of the 901, in my opinion – but the significantly higher level of quality in this important part of the frequency range. We often associate improved detail with an increase in information in the lower treble, but the 90x brings this detail to the midrange. Voices appear more fully formed and resonant than heard with the other fine cartridges mentioned here, but not as a result of a prominence or emphasis anywhere. The 90x simply provides more information. This is especially apparent when the music becomes complex and the Shelter just cruises along, unraveling the music and keeping all the bits and pieces separate and distinct. This is a requirement to the feeling that good sound can change our perception of the passage of time. This feeling occurs when we are completely involved and engrossed in an activity and forget about our environment. With the 90x, this is S.O.P. (standard operating procedure).
In all, the lowest bass to the highest treble is completely integrated into a sonic wholeness or completeness at an exemplary level of quality. The soundstage also is presented exactly as recorded. There is not quite the razor-sharp precision of the Insider, but there is no work involved to “see” fully formed musicians and singers across a realistically wide and very deep stage. Both lateral definition and depth are very satisfyingly precise. In fact, the 90x is the first cartridge to place and maintain one musician outside to the right of the right speaker during one cut.
The 90x is very neutral across the board. It is more immediate and “cooler” (if you want to classify according to a warm-to-cool range) than the Koetsu RSP due to a more linear and energetic upper midrange-to-upper treble range. The 90x is warmer than the Dynavector XV-1s or Insider as a result of being harmonically richer. The 90x has the snap and excellent dynamic abilities of the XV-1s and is very close to the Insider. The Insider’s strong point is its huge dynamic agility, which is simply hard to compete with. However, the 90x is a very competent performer without the sometimes off-putting frosty edges of these other brands.
The rumor mill is suggesting the 901 and the 90x are one and the same cartridge. NOT! The 90x is heavier, taller, and has a black wrap over the coils instead of the 901’s white wrap. The stylus guards are the same and interchangeable, though. Oh yes. One other minor difference: they sound different. The 90x is a significantly better cartridge, and an important upgrade to the 901. End of story.
The break-in period was amazingly short. It sounded good right out of the box, and after about 15 hours of use the 90x was about 95% ready to fully enjoy. The other 5% came slowly over the next 60-70 hours. With over 100 hours now, the sound seems to have stabilized, but you never know. If there are any further changes as the clock approaches 200 hours, I’ll let you know. Loading? 100-150 ohms. (To get within that range with the Premier 15, just turn on loading switches 2, 3, and 4.) Correct VTA is with the arm just one hair’s width down in the rear, and a good starting VTF is 1.8 grams. While we are talking housekeeping, the 90x, in common with the other Shelter cartridges, gives the impression of being a sturdy device with robust construction. I was always nervous about breaking the Insider, not solely because of the cost to have it fixed. But the 90x just gives the user the feeling that it is almost indestructible. I did not test this.
Taken either as a view into its entire performance or picking apart the sound into bass-mid-treble-soundstage-dynamics, I found the 90x exceptionally neutral, very revealing of the source, and entirely entertaining. Mission accomplished. Please order me one “to go”.
Overall Rating: 9 LPs