Shure V15 Phono Cartridge Reviewed

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Because the moving-coil cartridge is so firmly entrenched the technology of choice for high-end LP playback, it's easy to forget that moving magnets ruled stereo's first quarter century. Yes, there have been moving-coil and moving-flux and moving-iron and 'variluctance' and electret and Lord knows how many other cartridge types over the years, but moving magnets dominated for very good reasons. (No, I can't for the life of me figure out why it's not hyphenated and the other types are.)

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For one thing, mm cartridges typically had much higher output than most of the others, making them easier to accommodate as far as phono stage gain was required, endowing them with lower noise, greater headroom and other qualities. For another ,they always seems to beat m-cs when it came to tracking. And the tracking king, the Lance Armstrong of cartridge, was, is and probably always will be the Shure V15.

At any given time in that cartridge's life, there were three inescapable realities. The first is that no cartridge could dislodge it from the trackability throne - not ADCs, not AKGs, not Grados. The second was, to the best of my knowledge, that no cartridge could match the V15s for lowest tracking force. These two truths led to the third.

Because Shure placed tracking force and groove-tracing skills above everything else, actual sound quality seemed to get lost in the shuffle. As a result, after a couple of decades of absolute supremacy, the Shures were slaughtered like orcs before Aragorn when moving-coils arrived. Subjectivity rightly displaced measurements - surely listening is more important than measuring? - and Shure was left behind as far as the high-end was concerned. So Inescapable Reality No 3 is this: for over 25 years, Shures have not been shown the respect they deserved.

Competition and Comparison
Compare the Shure V15 against similar products by reading our reviews for the Koetsu Urushi Black Catridge and the Denon DL-103 Catridge.  You can also find more information by visiting our Shure brand page.

Let's not mince words, though, to be too nice to Shure: it was shown time and again that sub-1g tracking forces were not only unnecessary, there were even camps that suggested a sub 1.5g or so force was bad for your records. Whatever the truth, audio is just like everything else: it's not necessarily what you do, it's what you're seen to be doing. And Shure was vehemently moving magnet in a decidedly moving-coil world.

At least it was for audiophiles. The rest of the world merrily bought all the moving magnets the companies could make, and Shure was the unassailable champ. DJs in particular loved their robustness, while hobbyists enjoyed user-replaceable styli that allowed a number of operational choices for any given model, including mono and 78rpm. The V15, for 40 years, was the flagship.

Shure, best known to non-audiophiles for their microphones, began supplying replacement crystal pickups to various manufacturers in 1933. By the early 1950s, the company offered a full line-up of single-sided and flip-over ceramic and crystal pickups. The seminal years, though, were 1957-8, when Shure virtually created the blueprint for serious LP playback: in 1957, the M1 Studio Dynetic Cartridge introduced the 'dynetic' principle of a moving magnet within stationary coil, a diamond stylus tip of 0.0007in and 1g tracking force. The following year, the M3D appeared, the first-ever stereo moving magnet cartridge, with an impressive 20dB separation at 20kHz.

By the early 1960s, Shures were among the most popular cartridges in the world. And they weren't cheap: in 1962, an M3D sold for �18 plus purchase tax - the same price as an Ortofon SPU moving-coil cartridge...or an SME 3009 tonearm.

Then, in 1964, Shure upped the ante. The V15 Stereo Dynetic High Fidelity Phonograph Cartridge was launched, boasting a 'symmetrical bi-radial elliptical stylus' measuring 0.0002x0.0009in, with a 15 degree vertical tracking angle. It was 'subjected to exacting quality control and inspection measures unique in the industry.' To say it was a hit would be understatement. It became an 'aspirational' product, the dream of every music lover who bought into the low tracking force/high tracking ability argument. And there were plenty of us.

Shure never stopped developing the cartridge, its evolution being:

1966 V15 Type II: first analog-computer-designed superior tracking cartridge, the model that introduced 'Trackability', Shure's term for 'the ability to maintain contact between stylus and record groove at minimum tracking force throughout audio spectrum.' It also introduced the flip-action, built-in stylus guard

1970 V15 Type II Improved: upgraded stylus; flatter frequency response

1973 V15 Type III: new laminated pole piece; 'uniformly flat, unaccented, uncoloured frequency response'; 25% reduction of effective stylus mass

1978 V15 Type IV: hyperelliptical nude stylus tip resulting in optimised tip-groove contact area; 'viscous-damped Dynamic Stabilizer overcomes record warp and electrostatically neutralises record surface'

1982 V15 Type V: ultra-thin-wall beryllium (Microwall/Be) stylus shank; MASAR-polished tip to reduce friction; packaged with Duo-Point Alignment gauge to minimise lateral tracking angle error

1983 V15 Type V-MR: 'Micro-Ridge stylus tip emulates shape of cutting stylus for unsurpassed trackability, particularly in high frequency range'

1997 V15VxMR: pole piece position changed; 'warmer and more musical than ever'

That latter remark - 'warmer and more musical than ever' - showed that, at last, Shure was talking the audiophile talk. And it was rewarded, deservedly, with rave reviews by every major magazine on the planet.

You simply couldn't fault the Shure V15VxMR cartridge for cramming in high-tech details. Its 'Microwall/Be' cantilever was made of beryllium, and the 'stiffness-to-mass ratio of the V15's tubular 18mil diameter cantilever, with wall thickness of only 0.0005 of an inch, is 6.25 times that of the 10mil diameter solid-beryllium cantilevers available from other manufacturers.' Shure created a proprietary process to form beryllium into a hollow tube in order to achieve 'the incomparably low stylus mass of the V15VxMR.' At the business end was a complex profile Micro-Ridge tip, Shure stating that 'the mass of the V15 stylus is less than 20% of a traditional bi-radial tip mounted on a tubular aluminium cantilever.'

One of the V15's more controversial features was the viscous damped Dynamic Stabilizer, a 'damper/destaticizer' introduced in 1978 with the V15 Type IV. Fitted to the flip-down stylus guard, it placed a tiny carbon fibre brush on the disc. In addition to cleaning the record during play and discharging static, its purpose was to maintain 'a uniform distance between the cartridge and the record under difficult playing conditions, such as those caused by warped records, or mismatched tonearm mass.'

Its creation was described by Shure with this honest admission: 'The origins of the stabilizer go back to the era of the Garrard L100 turntable. The V15 Type III was to have been the highest compliance stylus structure that could practically be built. But to our great dismay, this combination could barely manage any but the flattest of discs. In all other cases, the arm/cartridge would leap from the record surface and bound across the bands.'

'To tame residual undesirable energy, the stabilizer is placed at the most effective tonearm position, on the pickup itself. The resulting performance is superior for any arm mass range. The effect of the damping is quite pronounced with tonearms of any effective mass value, but most striking if the stylus compliance and arm mass result in a resonance frequency in the optimum 8-10Hz range. This structure is the least sensitive to outside stimulation, and is also well damped.'

In practice, there were two primary results. The first was that cartridge could track like a V15 with damper down, and that included playing warped records. But the second, inevitably, was that certain audiophiles argued that the brush was 'playing the record' and was therefore audible. No problem: 'When such stabilization is not required, the stabilizer brush can be locked up into its detent position, which, under ideal playing conditions, can provide even better sound quality.' See? Shure willing to address audiophile concerns.

And boy, does the V15VxMR sound wonderful. It's clean and open and utterly devoid of the kind of nasties you associate with groove noise or mistracking. It's punchy, with a balance that favours the bottom end, but it can handle delicate material with a skill that will charm the pants off those who love massed strings and solo piano. Most ear-opening are the transients, which I've heard bettered by a working Decca.

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