Words and photos by Rafe Arnott
Vintage Shure moving-magnet cartridges offer considerable presence, texture and dynamic heft, playback traits the most cerebral vinyl collectors acknowledge as prerequisites for emotional connectivity. The several models I am familiar with are neither clinical, nor overly romantic. All consistently offer an open presentation to the upper registers, a visceral, transparent portrayal of the midrange and a laudable preference for deep, controlled bass. Hardly astonishing traits taken singularly, but taken together they would often be equated with cartridges costing upwards of $500, not less than $100.
Offering a clear, oversized window onto recordings with excellent channel separation, a practically flat frequency response from 20Hz~20kHz and timbral and tonal shading rivalling some more esoteric designs, older Shure cartridges are classic examples of less being more. No fancy alloys, rare stone or exotic wood bodies here, just replaceable stylus assemblies, and unfussy plastic and metal housings. These were designs based on decades of moving-magnet cartridge research and development started in the ’40s, and include numerous engineering concepts patented by Shure which were adopted industry-wide.
Photo above: Shure M44-5 cartridge with N44-7 stylus assembly and Sorane headshell.
At the height of the vinyl era, Shure was producing more than 25,000 cartridges per day from its facilities in Phoenix, Arizona. As demand declined in the early ’80s with the advent of the compact disc, the company moved its U.S.-based production to Agua Prieta, Mexico in 1983, and stopped manufacturing phono cartridges altogether in the summer of 2018. It cited quality-control issues and cost overruns as the prime motivation for dropping its cartridge line. “The ability to maintain our exacting standards in the Phonograph Cartridge product category has been challenged, resulting in cost and delivery impacts that are inconsistent with the Shure brand promise. We believe that the proud legacy of Shure Phono is best served by exiting the category rather than continuing production under increasingly challenging circumstances.”
As with all products discontinued, stock was bought-up rapidly and prices on the resale market went up. M44-7 cartridges, a DJ/turntablist standard bearer for the company, went from approximately $115 USD to more than $400 USD within months (some current listings put three-packs of original Shure N44-7 replacement styli at $1,000 USD). But, older, vintage Shure models seemed to level off around the $150 USD mark on eBay, Worthpoint, Reverb, etc. The exception seeming to be the V15 model variants which can fetch upwards of $800 for new old stock or low-hour examples. Many used Shure cartridges need stylus assemblies, but NOS styli, or aftermarket ones can still be procured online through companies like Jico or Pfanstiehl for anywhere from $25 USD to $75 USD.
The Shure phono cartridges under discussion today focus on what I’ve been able to acquire over the last several months and can be (basically) separated into broadcast/DJ or high-fidelity/home categories. The broadcast cartridges were engineered originally for jukebox use and developed over time into bulletproof broadcast/DJ workhorses (M44-7, M44G, M44-5, M35X, etc.) they feature higher output (6.2mV~9.5mV) aluminum cantilevers, and conical polished diamond styli. The hi-fi versions (M97, M91, M75, V15, etc.) feature lower output (3.5mV~5.7mV), elliptical, hyper-elliptical, Biradial and micro-ridge stylus profiles and exotic beryllium cantilevers on some later versions of the V15.
As someone who started out in hi-fi with a Technics 1200 MKII turntable fitted with a Shure M44-7, I became nostalgic about hearing this combination again after receiving a Technics SL-1210GR for review earlier this year. Local online resellers were checked and an early ‘80s Shure M44G was procured first. Mounting for Technics 1200 tonearms is a very simple process thanks to the small, plastic jig Technics provides with their turntables, so I was up and running minutes after receiving the first cartridge in the post. As soon as the four-decade old conical stylus hit the groove on Roxy Music’s Avalon, it was like being transported through time. The big, concert-like sound of the band I remembered as a kid was back.
Photo below: The review system was comprised of a Technics 1210GR, Audio Note UK M3 Phono preamplifier, Conqueror Silver 300B power amplifier, AN-E/SPe HE loudspeakers and Audio Note UK cabling throughout.
Guitar, bass, synth, percussion and vocals all have grunt and the sense of physical mass behind them."
Jumping from a $3k EMT moving-coil cartridge/step-up transformer combination to a $100 moving-magnet cart brought about less refinement, less transparency, less ultimate resolution… let’s be honest, less of many traits found in high-priced options. But, what the Shure lacked in comparison to that EMT combo, it made up for with straight-ahead speed, in-the-room vitality, colour and slam. I am not suggesting that 40-year-old Shure cartridges, in the context of a five-figure sound system, better modern, higher-priced alternatives, or that I have a stated preference for MM carts over MC carts for every listening session. What I am saying is that for $100 you can experiment with vintage cartridges and decide whether they are enjoyable for you. If not, sell them for what you paid and try something else. But, you might decide as I did, that vintage cartridges speak to you in a unique musical language of their own... and they make listening fun.
Sourcing the M44G and listening to it again prompted a fresh assessment of this discontinued brand and its budget offerings from the previous five decades. If a $100 vintage cartridge could make listening to music enjoyable, then two or three others would surely bring something further to the party. Six months later and I have access to six vintage Shure cartridges. None of them cost more than $100, and all bring a different flavour of sonic presentation. While there is what one could describe as a “house sound” to the models currently in rotation, the way each reveals musical epiphanies/complexities differs based on the design of the motor assemblies, specific cartridge output, stylus profiles, cantilever and housing materials/construction. As I previously alluded to, pairing inexpensive vintage cartridges with hand built Japanese turntables and bespoke UK valve amps, preamplifiers and loudspeakers may strike some as unintuitive, but be assured, no improvements or satisfactions in this hobby are ever gained without experimentation. Listening to what others have to say only gets you so far. Use your own ears, tastes and imagination to formulate your own opinions. In the end, a high-fidelity system is for your personal enjoyment, and only a means to an ends: listening to music.
Photos above: The Shure M97xe.
Note: All cartridges used in this article were fitted with their original Shure styli except for the M44-5, which had an indeterminate aftermarket M44-7 stylus attached when I received it.
Like all the Shure cartridges in this article the M97xe is a moving magnet design. It features a frequency range of 20Hz~22kHz, weighs 6.6g, is fitted with a high-compliance, low-mass, heat-treated aluminum alloy/tubular shank, and has a bonded, polished diamond elliptical stylus with 4mV output. Recommended loading is 47kΩ/250pf, with a suggested tracking force of 0.75g~1.5g (without the damping brush engaged, ~1.75g with the brush engaged, which is how I listened). This cartridge, like the other M97 in this write-up, is considered a hi-fi or audiophile cartridge, as opposed to a broadcast or DJ one. Presentation is smooth, a shade to the warm side of neutral and linear: no boosted upper-mids or crushing bass. This cart keeps it real. Regardless of how difficult, or dense the musical passage, the M97xe never lost its composure or its grip on the myriad musical lines within a track. Tracking on all types of vinyl was without issue, and it handled sibilance very well. The sound stage tended to be less wide-open in all axis than some of the other Shure models (M44G, M44-7, M44-5 in particular), but unless you were performing back-to-back comparisons, it isn’t particular noticeable. In day-to-day listening over long periods of time it proved to be completely non-fatiguing, thanks in part to a bit of velvet on the upper registers. Treble clarity could be considered slightly attenuated, but not at the expense of appreciative resolution, and was open with an excellent sense of scale and space around vocals, woodwinds, high hat and cymbal shimmer/decay. Midrange reproduction was tight and tuneful with punch and excellent speed/attack on leading edges of notes/transients. Guitar, bass, synth, percussion and vocals all have grunt and the sense of physical mass behind them. The bottom end was agile, textured and while not as deep and huge at times as the broadcast models, the M97xe’s bass ably acquitted itself even with electronic, rap or hip hop music.
Photo above: The Shure M91ED with Shure Hi-Track elliptical stylus assembly.
The M91ED has a frequency range of 20Hz~20kHz, weighs in at 5.5g, is fitted with a medium-compliance, low-mass, heat-treated aluminum alloy/tubular shank (albeit noticeably thinner in diameter than either the M44 series or M97 series), with a bonded, polished diamond Biradial (elliptical) stylus and 5mV output. The recommended loading is 47kΩ/400pf, with a suggested tracking force of 0.75g~1.5g, which I maxed out at 1.5g. This cartridge combines the best qualities of the M97xe and the M44 models; articulate, smooth, clear and open, with enjoyable treble/midrange/bass response. It’s fast, and extracts more than adequate information from the groove. Where the M97xe could be viewed as somewhat laid back due to its smoothness, and the M44 models as body rocking, the M91ED is exciting without the fatigue. Sound stage is closer in scale/size to the M44 variants, treble is balanced and not tipped-up. Mids have muscularity, texture, impact and emotional presence. The bottom end is more forward than the M97xe, but not as prominent or bullish as its M44 cousins. It is of consequence to bass driver movement even at lower volume levels, and is a substantial-sounding cartridge regardless of preferred genre. Whether it’s classical, punk, blues, jazz, IDM, acoustic or rock, it cuts through any preconceived notions of a budget cart with an easy versatility which made switching things up a real joy, not an exercise in listening. The M91ED puts one in the enviable position of flipping through LPs to play next. It is fun and unpretentious.
Photos above: The Shure M97 with N97EJ Biradial profile stylus assembly.
The standard M97 (with N97EJ stylus assembly) features a frequency range of 20Hz~20kHz, weighs 6.4g, is fitted with a high-compliance, low-mass, heat-treated aluminum alloy/telescoped shank (lower effective mass, increased stiffness over tubular shank) and a bonded, polished diamond Biradial (elliptical) stylus with 4mV output. The recommended loading is 47kΩ/300pf, with a suggested tracking force of 1.5g~3g (without the damping brush engaged, 2g~3.5g with the brush engaged). My cartridge did not come with a brush, and I ran it at 2g. Like the M97xe, the M97EJ is considered an audiophile cartridge, albeit with different specifications. These variances in frequency response, chassis construction/material, shank (telescoped vs. tubular) and tracking force proffered many similar traits including tonal and timbral presentation albeit with supporting percussion, horns, woodwinds and keyboard/piano tipped less forward in the midrange than the M97xe. Sound stage was not appreciably different, with a large, centred stereo image of approximately the same width/height/depth and a neutral/slightly warm colour balance to the sound signature. Both the M97EJ and the M97ex are very quiet in the groove, with their stylus profiles making surface noise practically nonexistent and offering a deep black background for the transcription information to leap from, free from artefacts. These profiles track exceptionally well, and like the M97xe, it offers both a detailed, textured reproduction to the likes of drum skins, trumpet embouchure change-ups, or bass Arco/pizzicato, coupled with an unruffled smoothness in playback of genres from folk to IDM. Inner groove distortion is of particular note in how the cart minimized it. The M97EJ is engineered with a generous sense of space around notes in the upper registers and a solidity of weight/mass to lower-mids and bass which always felt adequate, not superfluous in its presentation. The stiffer shank seemed to contribute to a sense of greater extension/smoothness in the highest treble energy region.
Photo above; The Shure M44G.
The M44G has a frequency range of 20Hz~19kHz, weighs 6.7g, is fitted with a high-compliance, low-mass, S-shaped, heat-treated aluminum alloy/tubular shank, and comes with a bonded, polished diamond spherical stylus with 6.2mV output. The recommended loading is 47kΩ/450pf, with a suggested tracking force of 0.75g~1.5g. I used 1.5g of force with the M44G. This is the first of the broadcast/DJ cartridge designs in this article, and it’s important to note the difference in the presentation from these models (targeted as they were at a professional segment of the market relative to the consumer ones). The higher output alone adds a dimension of power/projection and scale to the sonic signature the M97/M91 simply cannot match, and it is not merely an equation of added loudness. The sound stage enlarges noticeably, there is an increase in texture on leading edges of notes from stringed instruments, woodwinds and percussion along with a pronounced emphasis of what I would call ‘living presence’ to vocals. For example, Frank Sinatra on No One Cares (Mobile Fidelity, Limited Edition No. 000195/MFSL 1-408) comes across as deeper, more chest-projected and resolved in a way that highlights his smoky phrasing and improvisations. Midrange and bass are possessed of more weight, with an in-the-room gravitas the M97/M91 falls short of achieving. There is an incise, biting conviction to the presentation through the M44G that offers a more appreciable grip on the flesh-and-blood aspect of playback. It is more coloured, more brash and dynamic on all genres than its audiophile-leaning brethren. Bass is plentiful, fast and bereft of flabbiness. The M44G is less smooth in its playback than the previous cartridges mentioned, but that lack of smoothness translates to an excitement, a more tangible suspension of disbelief in the listening. Yes, timbral and tonal shading is less generous in its gradations, but again, this lack of finesse in comparison does nothing to diminish its compelling sense of presence. The spherical stylus profile is not as quiet in, and pulls less detail/resolution from the groove than its Biradial and elliptical counterparts. It doesn’t do as good a job of minimizing sibilance either, but these were (in my estimation), mostly negligible when compared to what else was on offer, and sins of omission rather than truly lacking.
Photo above: A mid-'60s Shure M44-5 adds a further dimension to playback thanks to a Sorane headshell. Right: The Audio Note M3 Phono preamplifier used for this article.
The M44-5 lists its frequency range as 20Hz~20kHz, weighs 7g, is fitted with a high-compliance, low-mass, S-shaped, heat-treated aluminum alloy/tubular shank, and a bonded, polished diamond spherical stylus with 7mV output. The recommended loading is 47kΩ/480pf, with a suggested tracking force of 0.75g~1.5g. I ran the M44-5 at 2.85g (see below). The M44-5 I have is the oldest Shure example in this write up, having originated from a turntable bought new in the mid ‘60s. It came fitted with an aftermarket N44-7 stylus (rated for 1.5g~3g, output of 9.5mV). Unlike the other Shure cartridges fitted with Technics headshells, the M44-5 was fitted with a 17g Sorane aluminum model. Moving from the M44G to the M44-5 brought forth more air around high hat splashes, and finer texture to drum skins/brushes on Muddy Waters, Folk Singer (Analogue Productions, 2x45rpm, APB 1483-45). Guitar picking and strumming projected further into the room, double bass string and fret work became lensed with more resolve and the entire window onto the session offered a clearer, more direct line-of-sight into the emotional tenor of the recording. How much of this is attributable to the Sorane headshell remains to be seen, but based on personal experience, the fact the M44-5 and M44G have more in common than not, it would seem reasonable to attribute some of these playback traits to the higher-quality headshell. Like the M44G, the M44-5 imbues music with a slightly burnished aspect. The spherical stylus and wide-diameter stylus shank (1.6mil wall/34.5 mil diameter – courtesy the fitted N44-7 stylus), were specifically engineered for skip resistance, and while I don’t own many warped LPs and I clean all my albums before putting them into rotation, the M44 series proved to be excellent trackers on those few records I’ve kept despite nasty nicks and warps. Formidable rhythmic drive, notable response on transients and leading edges of notes, and prodigious bass output, the more than five-decade old M44-5 offered an honest, nuanced and punchy portrayal of recordings.
The Shure M44-7 states its frequency range as 20Hz~17kHz, weighs 6.7g, is fitted with a high-compliance, S-shaped, heat-treated aluminum alloy/tubular shank, and a bonded, polished diamond spherical stylus with 9.5mV output. The recommended loading is 47kΩ/450pf, with a suggested tracking force of 1.5g~3g. I employed 2.85g of downward force (and no, this doesn’t cause excessive groove wear with a conical/spherical stylus, stop fretting over what you read in online forums). This cart shares many of the sonic traits of the M44-5 and M44G, and is, for all intents and purposes, an M44G with a different stylus assembly (N44G vs. N44-7, both with 0.7 mil diamond conical tip, 6.2mV output vs. 9.5mV output). As previously mentioned, the heavy-duty tubular stylus shank on these carts is intended for holding up to the rigours of broadcast use (M44G) and turntablist scratching/cuing and mixing (M44-7). The higher output and tracking weight of the M44-7 is also intended to help it hold the groove while the LP surface is constantly manhandled. Remember, the M44-7 started life engineered for jukebox use; thousands of hours of constant play and mechanical coupling with 45s of indeterminate surface wear/warps in automated music-making machines that endured months or even years between servicing. The M44-7, like the M44G and M44-5 is not the last word in hyper-realistic detail retrieval, timbral finesse, nor does it produce spectral decay to cymbal shimmer, and control of sibilance is very recording-dependent. Its conical stylus hinders these traits (there is a replacement Shure elliptical stylus for the M44G – the N44E – which I’d be very interested to hear). But, what the M44-7 does excel at is excitement and attitude because its comportment is adolescent. It sounds big, ridiculously so at times. It sounds bouncy, has a raucous midrange with gobs of between-the-speakers presence and emotional texture. Its top end is a bit soft, but forgivable, and its bottom-end frequencies percolate up from between the lowest octaves with stygian weight and impressive speed.
The effectiveness of modern marketing hype needs no further validation of its prowess than the fact that most audiophiles – without a breath of hesitation – will tell you that a moving-coil cartridge is superior to a moving-magnet cartridge. They’re not wrong. That said, having spent so much time with these six vintage moving-magnet cartridges I can write assuredly that while moving-coil cartridges, in my opinion, still retain the last word in resolution, air, speed, tactility and emotional heft, there’s something to be appreciated in a 40-year-old moving-magnet cartridge and stylus. If more audiophiles could set aside a search for perfection and instead embrace the pursuit of enjoying music, then I think many would find solace in the aural pleasures $100 can buy.