POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 47
as reviewed by Roger S. Gordon
At the last few audio shows that I have attended I noticed an increasing number of the rooms were using a Miyajima Shilabe phono cartridge. This fact, plus the excellent sound that I heard in those rooms, piqued my curiosity. After returning home from Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2009 I started to do a little research on the Shilabe. The Miyajima website (http://www.miyajima-lab.com/e-stereo.html) has a ten minute Power Point presentation showing the engineering concept behind their cartridge design. The information was interesting, but not being an engineer I could not evaluate the claims made. I then visited various audio chat rooms. There were some favorable comments, but there was no overwhelming consensus that the Shilabe was the next super cartridge. Still, there were enough favorable comments that I decided to take the plunge and buy a Shilabe. In North America the Shilabe can be purchased mail order for US $2800. While US $2800 is a lot of money, compared to the US $5000 to US $9000 prices charged for other top of the line cartridges, the Shilabe did not seem that expensive.
I ordered the cartridge from the North American distributor and the cartridge arrived in a few days. I immediately mounted the Shilabe on my Schroeder Reference arm which was installed on my Nakamichi TX-1000 direct drive turntable. Right out of the box the cartridge sounded really, really good with remarkable bass and excellent dynamics. Since most phono cartridges need 40-100 hours of break-in time I started pulling out my favorite albums and just enjoyed the music while the cartridge broke-in. As it turns out, the Shilabe needs very little break-in. The most change occurred in the first ten hours and that was just a slight softening of initial transients.
Once the cartridge had fifty hours on it, it was time for fine tuning. At Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2009 I had noticed that Frank Schroeder was demoing one of the Artemis SA-1 turntables with his Reference arm and a Shilabe cartridge. During my conversation with Frank I had asked about setting up the Shilabe on a Reference arm. Frank commented that he preferred listening using a VTF (Vertical Tracking Force) of 3.2gr. Miyajima recommends a VTF range of 2.5 to 3.2 grams. Frank also said that he preferred using an 18gr armwand rather than a lighter arm like my 12gr armwand. If you do the math, a 12gr arm has sufficient mass to place the tonearm resonance frequency into the recommended range. However, selecting a tonearm weight based on the tonearm resonance frequency may not result in the best sound. I listened to the Shilabe mounted on my 12gr Reference arm with and without a 4.5gr headshell weight. I also listened to the Shilabe mounted on my 12gr VPI 12.5 tonearm with and without the 4.5gr headshell weight. On both tonearms I thought the addition of the 4.5gr headshell weight improved the solidity and punch of the deep bass and also gave a slight boost to macro dynamics. Thus, I used the 4.5gr headshell weight for all further listening to the Shilabe.
With the armwand weight decided it was time to move on to cartridge loading. Miyajima recommends loading the Shilabe at around 250 ohms. I tried loadings of 150, 174, 200, 221 and 243 ohms with the Shilabe mounted on both the Schroeder Reference and also on my VPI 12.5 arm. I preferred 221 ohms in both cases. Since loading is somewhat system and personal preference dependent, if you buy a Shilabe you should do your own testing (and yes, the changes in sound between the above loadings is clearly audible).
With the fine tuning done, it was time to move on to the listening comparisons. I wanted to compare the Shilabe to both my ZYX UNIverse-s (silver wire)  and my recently updated Van den Hul Colibri Mk.2 XPW . For cartridge comparisons I use my VPI 12.5 arm which is mounted on my Garrard 401 turntable. I use the VPI 12.5 arm since I have two 12.5 armwands and swapping the armwands is amazingly quick and simple. In addition, the VPI 12.5 has a VTA tower that has a very easy to use dial so that moving back and forth between two different VTA setting is fast and accurate. I proceeded to mount the Shilabe on one armwand and the ZYX UNIverse on the other. Azimuth was set for each armwand using a test record and a multimeter. Output levels were matched using a test record (pink noise) and a sound pressure level meter. My Herron VTSP-3 preamp has a digital volume read out so that adjusting volume levels between the two cartridges was fast and accurate. Thus, swapping cartridges was a simple matter of changing armwands, resetting VTA, resetting volume, and changing the loading resistors. Once I got good at the procedure the swap took about 90 seconds. After I finished comparing the Shilabe and UNIverse I removed the UNIverse and mounted the Colibri in its place. VTA was determined. Azimuth was set and sound level matching with the Shilabe was performed.
The LPs used for the listening comparisons were:
DGC 24727 - Nirvana, Unplugged in New York, track one, side one
Warner Bros 25491-1 Trio with Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, track one, side one
Island 12 WIP 6598 - The Secret Policeman's Ball (1979), Pete Townshend on acoustic guitar singing Pinball Wizard and Drowned
Columbia OC40158 - Judas Priest, Turbo Lover, track one, side one
Classic Records 45rpm reissue of Louis Armstrong doing St. James Infirmary from Audio Fidelity "Satchmo Plays King Oliver"
Decca SXL 2246 (Speakers Corner 45rpm reissue) - Mendelssohn, Fingal's Cave, Peter Maag, London Symphony Orchestra
For each of the LPs I would listen to the track, or portion thereof, swap armwands and then listen again. Initially I was listening to get a general overall impression of the differences between the cartridges. Once I had a general impression of the differences I would start listening for one of the following attributes, switching back and forth until I had determined the difference for that attribute or had determined that the difference was too small to note.
Bass - Was the bass extended (how low does it seem to go)? Were the drum whacks solid? Was there any trace of boominess, smear, or overlap?
Vocal - did the voices sound natural, like real human voices? Were there artificial artifacts?
Macro Dynamics - Did the sound start and stop on a dime. Were initial transients sharp like the leading edge of a square wave or more rounded like a sine wave? Did loud transients make you jump in your seat like live music does?
Micro Dynamics - Were the subtle, small volume changes within the music that makes live music so alive discernible?
Resolution - Resolution equals detail. Note, however, that the ability to reveal details is many times independent of the ability to reveal micro dynamics. Some cartridges can reveal every single detail that is on the recording, but cannot reproduce the subtle volume changes within the music. These cartridges sound spectacular and make wonderful analytical tools. However, they have no life in them and the music sounds dead.
Pace, Rhythm, and Timing (PraT) - does the music have drive? Do you bang your head in time with the music? Do you get excited listening to the music the same as you do at a live performance?
Imaging - Are the instruments/vocalists suspended in space and clearly delineated? Are the images two dimensional or three dimensional?
Sound Stage - Is the sound stage wide, deep, and tall. Are the boundaries of the sound stage clearly delineated or are they indistinct? Is the sound stage heard appropriate for the venue or is the size being exaggerated?
After spending a day doing the A-B-A-B-A-B-A... comparisons between the UNIverse and the Shilabe I came to the following conclusions:
The UNIverse is brighter and cooler sounding in comparison to the Shilabe which has a darker and warmer sound.
The resolution of the UNIverse clearly reveals more details than the Shilabe, though the difference is not a large one.
For macro dynamics the Shilabe is the clear winner. With the Shilabe cymbal crashes, bass drum whacks, and the initial blast of triple fortes was much more startling, causing me to jump in my seat. This did not happen as much with the UNIverse.
Micro dynamics were also better with the Shilabe. There were more of the subtle changes of live music with the Shilabe. This was most apparent on vocals. On the Nirvana track, Kurt Cobain's voice does a lot of small changes in tone, texture, and volume as he sings. These changes were much more noticeable with the Shilabe and as a consequence his voice sounded more natural. The same can be said, though to a lesser extent, for the vocals on Trio.
The Shilabe's bass is the best that I can remember hearing from any cartridge. Some cartridges can go low, but they do it very politely. The Shilabe goes low and takes no prisoners. The bass is solid and tuneful - no one note bass, no trace of boominess. The Shilabe is the first cartridge that caused me to ask "is it possible to have too much bass?" The answer, of course, is NO.
In PraT the Shilabe also betters the UNIverse. The Shilabe has a driving energy that keeps your attention on the music. If after listening for the 27th time to the Turbo Lover track I still bang my head and pump my fist in the air the Shilabe has to be doing something right.
In imaging I would give the UNIverse the nod, but the difference is slight.
In soundstaging the Shilabe gives the impression of a larger sound stage. However, a good part of that may be due to the Shilabe's excellent bass. That excellent bass allows more of the hall sound (which are low frequencies) to come through which can give the impression of a bigger hall.
After comparing the Shilabe and UNIverse for an entire day I shut down the system and went to hear the San Diego Symphony perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. About five minutes into the first movement a question popped into my head—a question that only an audiophile would ask; "Does the orchestra sound more like the UNIverse or more like the Shilabe. After a few seconds, the answer was clear—the orchestra sounded more like the Shilabe. With a sell-out crowd the sound in Copley Symphony Hall was very well damped. Thus, the sound was darker and warmer than what I have heard when the symphony practices in an empty Symphony Hall. But whether the hall is full or empty of people, the sound of the orchestra was closer to the sound of the Shilabe than to the UNIverse. This surprised me as I have always considered the UNIverse to be pretty close to neutral in its sound. I wonder though, if I listened to a piano trio performing in a bright sounding, small (100 person occupancy) room if I would change my opinion and think that the UNIverse was closer to the live sound.
The following day I started my comparisons between the Shilabe and the Colibri. The results were:
The Shilabe sounds darker and warmer than the Colibri. However, in comparison to the orchestra of the previous night, the Shilabe's sound is closer to the live music.
In resolution, the Colibri is the best of the three cartridges. A friend once ask me what the difference was between a good MC cartridge like an Audio Technica OC9 MkII (US $340) and an expensive MC cartridge. I told him the difference was in imaging and resolution. In resolution the Shilabe is better than the OC9 MkII (I own three of them), but falls short of the high resolution levels of both the UNIverse and Colibri.
In the areas of bass the Shilabe is the clear winner with a solidity and impact that is a joy to hear.
In macro dynamics the Shilabe has more startle factor than the Colibri.
In micro dynamics the Shilabe is still the leader but not by that much.
In vocals the Shilabe is slightly better. The better resolution of the Colibri allows more of the fine changes in tone and texture to come through. But the micro dynamics of the Shilabe makes the voices sound more natural/realistic.
In imaging the Shilabe can not match the Colibri's trademark pinpoint, three dimensional imaging. With the Shilabe, whether listening to Nirvana or Louis Armstrong, you hear three dimensional instruments in a three dimensional space. With the Colibri you are on the holodeck of the Starship Enterprise (NCC 1701-A).
In soundstaging the Colibri is slightly better than the Shilabe. On both the Mendelssohn and the Pete Townshend, the Colibri's soundstage is the same size as the Shilabe's, but with the Colibri the boundaries of the soundstage are better defined. With the Shilabe the boundaries are a bit indistinct, a bit fuzzy.
The Shilabe is an impressive cartridge. Its strengths are its bass and its ability to handle both macro and micro dynamics. Vocals sound very natural with the Shilabe. Playing rock with the Shilabe is a treat—my Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Rammstein, AC/DC, and Metallica vinyl never sounded this good. The Shilabe's weaknesses are that its resolution, imaging, and soundstaging, while very good, are not the best in the world. If you are a music lover or a devotee of Hard Rock the Shilabe's strengths will give you much musical enjoyment and you will probably never notice or care about its weaknesses. On the other hand, if you are an audiophile first and a music lover second you should audition the Shilabe before you buy as there are other cartridges that may better suit your needs (of course, most of those cartridges will cost you a lot more). At a price of US $2800 I think the Shilabe gives extremely good value for the money. Highly recommended. Roger Gordon
 The UNIverse was discontinued by the manufacturer, ZYX, in early 2009. Unsold inventory may still be available. The cartridge was originally sold mail order for approximately $5000.
 The Mk.2 upgrade to the Colibri is a noticeable improvement over the original version with the biggest improvement being in the bass. The original version of the Colibri was noted as being a bit polite in the bass. This is no longer the case. When I checked a few months ago the Colibri Mk.2 was available mail order from Europe for 2300-2400 Euros depending on wire and body material.