Shelter Model 501 III MC Phono Cartridge

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Shelter has been hand making moving coil phono cartridges in Japan since 1986. It ships two series of cartridges, the ‘Ultimate Line’ and the ‘Legendary Line’. The 501 III moving coil cartridge is mid price point in the Legendary Line, at $1295. The original 501 was produced in 1990. The Mk. III under consideration has the combination of an aluminum clad boron cantilever and an elliptical diamond stylus. 

I first heard of Shelter when my Audiophilia colleague Martin Appel purchased a 9000 moving coil (top of the Legendary Line) a few years ago. He uses it on his VPI Avenger turntable. It sounds wonderful. Detailed and vibrant. 

The 501 III arrived at the office in tandem with a few other high end pieces and the superb Phasemation PP-300 moving coil cartridge, which is the same price as the Shelter. 

Good packaging and safely transported.  

Good packaging and safely transported.  

The III tracks anywhere between 1.4 and 2.0 grams (I set tracking force at 1.75 grams) and has a low output voltage of 0.5mV (driven easily by the MM/MC phono board of my Jeff Rowland Continuum S2 Integrated Amplifier). 

Initially, Shelter used Beryllium for its cartridge bodies, now aluminum (the III weighs 8.1 grams). It looks very well made. 

The 501 III on the RB2000. 

The 501 III on the RB2000. 

Setup 

After the fun and games setting up the Phasemation PP-300, the Shelter setup went smoothly and quickly. Practice makes perfect. But, oh, for threaded holes in place of nuts. 

Once the cartridge was attached to the Rega RB2000 arm, fine tuning with the Ortofon cartridge alignment protractor and DS-1 Digital Stylus Force Gauge was simple.  

Wife to the rescue. Again!  

Wife to the rescue. Again!  

Sound

Really good cartridges sound excellent out of the box and get better and better with time. The Shelter did just that, immediately showing me its essential colours—sound in VistaVision (if you’re old enough to remember that? Cinerama? No. Okay, IMAX). You get the sound picture. Big. Bold. With a little chub in the dynamic bass. 

My analog break in is Mahler’s Das Lied von de Erde, side 2 specifically. A full 37 minutes. Along with help from my timer pal, Google Mini, I played the 501 for a full day before I began serious listening. 

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The 501 tracks beautifully, riding easily over a few vinyl potholes I've acquired along the way. Noise floor is low, and as the sound of the Shelter is so ingratiating, pops and ticks seem like non issues. 

After a few hours, the chubby character of the bass disappeared, and the slimmed-down sound was more realistic. Much like the Phasemation, the bass performance of this sub 1.3K cart is well above what I have come to expect as the norm at that price. The tube rumbling in the Martinon LSC Shostakovich Symphony No. 1 opening movement was crazy on this cartridge—my Raidho XT-1s only go down to 45 Hz and it was very clear.

The general sound of the Shelter is genial, forgiving, with a lush presentation. It’ll remind you almost immediately why you got into vinyl. Feed it quality pressings of excellent recordings, and you will be engaged in superb music making reproduced faithfully. 

The lovely treble and rich mid range are in perfect balance with the bass. And low level information retrieval is also excellent. So much so, that the bass players' bows hitting ‘ghost notes’ in Franz von Suppé’s Light Cavalry (Vox—Südwestrundfunk Orchestra—reissue please of this superlative disc) were heard easily. 

I made some comparisons in the Phasemation review with cart examples from Rega and Ortofon. I prefer the Shelter to both—its geniality should not be confused with politeness. It can play macro dynamics with the best. 

Would I choose it over the Phasemation? No. I find the PP-300’s control over soundstaging and imaging to be just that little bit tighter than the 501 III. Many of you will prefer the Shelter’s luscious midrange and what may well be even deeper bass over the Phasemation’s ever so slightly ‘scrawnier’ (for want of a better word) presentation. 

Ever since I heard Rostropovich’s superb Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations on DGG with Karajan, I use the intro to gauge instrumental timbral accuracy. I first heard the recording on a VPI Aries turntable. It was amazing. Gerd Seifert’s horn solo sounded rich with overtones, a flawless right hand bell position (it really matters), and even some very rare pitch fluctuations (the sharp side of the final note). The Shelter was superb in this regard. The stylus dug deep and extracted almost a perfect rendition of the solo. Delicate flutes, incredible Berlin strings and the burnished sound of Rostropovich’s cello were also magnificent. Did I mention ‘luscious’?

Summary 

This is the second Japanese, sub $1300 moving coil cartridge I’ve reviewed this month. The Phasemation PP-300 is a natural and musical competitor to the Shelter Model 510 III, with both delivering performance well above their MSRP. 

After many recordings, I was wondering whether to ‘star’ this cartridge.  Did it meet our simple (not simplistic) criteria? After some thought, yes. For wonderful sound alone, but at $1295, yet another Japanese cartridge winner of a deal. Vinyl continues to kill it.  

Further information: Shelter

Just as I was putting this review to bed, I threw on some late night listening (Reiner/original LSC/Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste), and damnit, wouldn’t you know, the choice between the Phasemation PP-300 and this Shelter gem is now a toss up. Good luck!