Can vinyl records meet or beat the sound quality of digital sources? It’s a fair question and certainly one open to debate, but many enthusiasts are convinced that LPs, at their best, convey the overall texture and “feel” of live music even more effectively than digital media can. What’s the best way to get started in analog audio—and preferably without suffering acute sticker shock?
That’s a good question, and one TAS has addressed through its ongoing reviews of today’s best affordable turntables. However, to complement those reviews we offer a survey of three very promising, yet very sensibly priced phono cartridges: the Shure M97xE, Grado Prestige Gold, and Sumiko Blue Point No. 2. Read on to see if one of these beauties might be your perfect entry ticket to the magical world of analog sound.
Shure has been making moving-magnet phono cartridges for forever, it seems, so that the M97xE benefits both from the firm’s decades of manufacturing know-how, plus design DNA drawn from Shure’s famous V15 Type III cartridge. We think the M97xE incorporates three elements of Shure’s traditional “house sound” that will serve first-time buyers well.
First, the M97xE exhibits admirably neutral tonal balance over most of the audio spectrum, and its few shortcomings—touches of apparent roll-off at both frequency extremes—are sins of omission. Second, the Shure is an unflappable tracker, meaning you can play recordings of challenging, intricately orchestrated material without fear that the cartridge’s sound will suddenly fall apart. Third, the M97xE sounds unfailingly smooth, which can be an enormous benefit for those whose collections include less-than- perfect recordings of otherwise great music.
I put on one such great-but-imperfect recording, the Roches’ eponymous debut album [Columbia], and found that the M97xE handled the soaring but sometimes overly closely mic’d voices of the Roche sisters with good-natured grace. Even on the “Hammond Song,” where the sisters’ glorious but potentially hot-sounding vocal harmonies can cause problems, the Shure kept its composure, ensuring a pleasurable listening experience.
The Shure’s overall sound is warm, inviting and, to a point, forgiving. Relative to typical entry-level and mid-priced CD players, listeners might find the Shure sounds richer and more three-dimensional, though perhaps not quite as clean or well-defined. Good though it is, the M97xE does not provide the finer levels of detail, resolution, and textural finesse that represent the line of demarcation between good phono cartridges and great ones. To get a bigger taste of those qualities, you’ll need to spend a bit more.
Shure’s M97xE makes a fine starter cartridge because it introduces listeners to many of the blessings of vinyl playback, while minimizing potential downside problems such as mistracking, edginess, and tonal imbalances.