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Miyajima Labs Shilabe Cartridge Review

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Miyajima Shilabe CartridgeHere comes another one
Here it comes again
Here comes another one
When will it ever end?

I know whatever it is
I’ve not seen one before
But here comes another one
And here comes a bunch of ’em
Here comes another one
Thank God I’m not having lunch with them

– from Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album: “Here Comes Another One”

After reviewing and living with some very extreme cartridges, the Soundsmith Sussurro and the Haniwa HCTR-01 being extremes of the extreme, I won’t rehash why they are extreme, I was looking forward to something a little more ordinary from my next cartridge review. After reading some high opinions on the Miyajima Labs Shilabe, I emailed importer Robin Wyatt to see if he was interested in another review. After six months or so we hooked up on the review and I set upon my work. But before I talk about the merits of the Shilabe, I must ramble on and on and………..

Let me just say that I harbor a suspicion that the Japanese keep their very best products in Japan. Some Japan-only products include two fantastic-looking studio turntables, one from Sony and the other from Denon. There are many other turntables that hardly saw the light of day in the West. I suppose it’s much harder to smuggle a Denon DP100 or Sony PS-X9 by Japanese customs than it is a Koetsu. “Mr. Holmes please, what is under your shirt? Are you having a square baby?”

For a number of years, I have made it a habit to browse Yahoo Auctions Japan, Hi-Fi Do, etc.., looking for the odd and unseen. Along the way, I saw stacks of rare American and British gear, mingled with the best that Japan has to offer, and it became my audio pornography. You just don’t see JBL Paragons being driven by Marantz 9s every day. You’ll never see a complete Western Electric system in America because most of it is in Japan, and some in Hong Kong. Not only do the Japanese keep their best, they buy our obsolete tube “junk”. Here’s a sobering thought: if it weren’t for Japanese collectors, who knows how much more audio equipment would be rusting in landfills? Would audiophiles know what a 300B is? Would we still be chained to variations on a 6550 theme or Krell?

Back to Yahoo Auctions Japan: At some point I saw the Otono-Edison cartridges, including a 78 rpm (SP) mono cartridge, mono and stereo cartridges, some with wooden bodies, some with metal, and all seemed very affordable, and cheap even—the entry level models are very affordable. While I’d love to say I bought one four or five years ago, the truth is less brave: instead of consummating the relationship, it remained mere Audio Pornography. But, another secret is out and the line is available in North America.

You Can’t Judge this Book by its Cover!

The Shilabe looks quaint though not as pedestrian as the 47 labs Miyabi, which looks like a budget MM: it is the antithesis of jewelry-like Clearaudios, garish ZYXs and quasi-industrial Lyras. It looks positively harmless, which makes this a wolf in sheep’s clothing. At the urging of Robin, I spent time watching the informative video describing why the Shilabe is different from the competition. Of all the cartridges I’ve used, this one may be the most original outside of the Weathers FM, Stax and various strain gauges. It’s the guts of the Shilabe-what you can’t see-that sets it apart from the crowd.

If you don’t know how a MC cartridge works, and don’t care to know, just take my word that this cartridge is a departure from the norm. If you do know how a MC works, then the differences boil down to a completely different suspension, one lacking the usual tensioning wire. Also, the coils are wrapped around the core differently. For those of you who can decipher bad Japanese-English translations, the Miyajima Labs website covers the unique features. On the other hand, an easier-to-understand video uses animations to explain the design. Regardless, visit the site if you want to know why this cartridge is different by design: http://www.miyajima-lab.com/e-stereo.html.

The specs are a throwback to SPU and DL103 cartridges. The compliance is low (-ish), and tracking is specified at 2.5-3.2 grams. I still find it hard to overcome the high-compliance brainwashing from Shure. Won’t this cartridge cut holes into my records? Won’t ribbons of vinyl fly through the air? How could a cartridge that tracks at 3 grams be anything other than an anachronism? Well, I’ll tell you what I told myself: don’t worry about it, because the truth is in the sound.

Oil and Water

Let me help you avoid the disaster I experienced: if you have a low mass arm, the Shilabe might not work very well or at all. Not wanting to assume anything because to assume makes an ass out of u and me, I tried the Shilabe with a couple low mass arms, namely an SME and Audio Technica. The results weren’t horrible, but I can say the low bass was very polite, the upper bass was muddy and the highs were a little edgy. It was not a surprise; I wanted to validate my intuition. Running the Shilabe on a low-mass arm is like putting racing slicks on a tractor, or truck tires on a Ferrari. It might work, but a tractor won’t win Le Mans and your Ferrari will get stuck in a rut.

What was a mind-altering experience was the dramatic change in sound when I set up the Shilabe on the $1,300 Rek-O-Kut Rondine 3. The Rondine package comes with a medium-high mass 10 ½” tonearm, one intended to work with the kind of low compliance cartridges you might use for 78 rpm restoration. If I didn’t have the Rondine’s heavy arm, there is a greater than zero chance that I would have sent the cartridge back to Robin without finishing the review. As an aside, all cartridges have a compliance sweet spot where they track best and the bass is neither weak nor flabby. Tracking force and VTA can’t overcome a bad arm/cartridge combination.

The cartridge was simple to set up, one of the easier units in a long while. The rather massive looking aluminum cantilever is easy to see, even with aging eyes. Once VTA and overhang were reasonably close, and tracking force was set at 3 grams, I jumped into listening. I later found that the higher end of the recommended tracking force is where the cartridge comes alive. Below 2.7 grams and things lose focus, quickly losing control with some difficult records.

I Must Be On The Front Row!

To get to the point of the review, the Shilabe does something better than any other cartridge I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a lot of ‘em: PRESENCE! It has a presence-immediacy-instant character that is similar to a Lowther or Feastrex driven by SEDHTs. It seems to pull you closer in to the music, but there aren’t any of the frequency response penalties of full-range drivers.

It was hard for me to discover why it seemed so present-sounding, but some of it was a total lack of overhang and overshoot. The suspension in the Shilabe is as close to that of an F1 car as I have heard. There is zero slop or ambiguity. In contrast, my Shures sounded like they were stuck in mud. It doesn’t seem faster than the Haniwa cartridge which is at the opposite end of the tracking spectrum, but it did sound more fleshed-out and vibrant. Comparing the two cartridges would lead to a lot of head-scratching. In the end, the Haniwa sounded slightly polite next to the Shilabe. The Shilabe can simply be described as bold.

Even though the tracking force is rather high, and the compliance is rather low, I didn’t hear mistracking on loud passages. There was no compression or fuzz when the music got complex. Perhaps the suspension is firm, yet also light and responsive, kind of like a Lotus. Its trackability sounded similar to the Sussurro and Lyras, and not quite as nimble as a V15 or a Haniwa/AirTight/MySonic.

While the cartridge has presence and boldness, it is very organic. The sound was never “Hi-Fi”, like a Shure V15 or the ZYX line, which can make stereo spectaculars supernaturally spectacular! It might be as natural as the Sussurro, though the Sussurro is more forgiving and a tad bit romantic. The Shilabe never sounded like a cartridge tracking near 3 grams; never sounded stressed or perturbed.

Imaging, the audiophile dead horse, the aspect of recorded-sound least analogous to the live-music-experience, is very good, though not spectacular. It’s similar to the imaging you would expect from a classic moving coil like the DL103—sufficient for the stereo experience and kind of like the horsepower in a Rolls Royce-entirely sufficient. It’s possible that on a more refined or more expensive high mass tonearm, like the aluminum SME 312, Dynavector, Shindo, Ortofon or the monstrous 16” Ikeda, that the imaging might improve dramatically. I’ve found that compliance mismatches affect imaging as much as frequency response.

Something obvious separating the Shilabe from the Haniwa-AirTight and Mysonic is the level of distortion. When you switch cartridges you could hear that the Shilabe’s presence included a little more distortion than the low-distortion champs. I can’t say for sure that it was IMD or tracking distortion, or whatever. However, the Shilabe’s distortion was on par with a Koetsu, and an order of magnitude better than a DL103, which sounds very dirty to me. My system is analytical at times, depending on the setup and what is being reviewed: it’s something that really stands out to me. In other systems, the phono stage will cover up the cartridge’s distortion with its own excess distortion. Pretty much everything that uses a 12ax7 or 6sl7 has gobs of THD.

The rhythmic prowess of the Shilabe was on par with my strain-gauge experience. It’s a real toe-tapper. The stop-start of sound is very fast. Again, it’s like switching to SEDHT driving full-range speakers, though without the distortion and frequency response issues. The sound is just there: immediate and present! Actually, the sound is similar to a strain-gauge, which is cleaner and more direct than 99% of cartridge and phono stage combos because the strain-gauge does not use the RIAA de-emphasis. A real killer (in a good way) front-end would run this cartridge into a LCR stage, like the $5K Allnic. I haven’t heard the DIY HiFi Supply LCR, but it’s pricing is aggressive and might make a fantastic “budget” front-end. For example, DIY Hi-Fi Supply’s “The Vinyl Song” LCR kit retails at $1,349, including the necessary step-up transformers. Add the $2,800 Shilabe, and the system still comes in slightly less expensive than a Koetsu Coralstone and Ypsilon VPS-100 combination, which is a really special combo BTW.

How Can There Be So Many Reference Cartridges?

If I had the correct arm, I would be just as happy with the Shilabe as with my Haniwa. The two cartridges, even on optimized arms, are quite different, with different strengths and different weaknesses. It’s impossible to get a perfect cartridge on a perfect arm on a perfect turntable driving a perfect phono stage, so it’s always going to be a matter of taste. Don’t dismiss my “it’s a reference quality cartridge” as hyperbole. There is a wide array of cartridges out there, like the Haniwa/AirTight/MySonic, Koetsu Platinum, Sussurro and Peter’s strain-gauge too, that do such a magnificent job of reproducing records that the personality they do have is subjugated to the music. Even though you can hear the characteristic sound of the Shilabe, you will be hearing much more music than the Shilabe’s personality. I can’t say that about a lot of cartridges: many overlay too much of their own personality with the result that everything sounds similar.

I like this cartridge enough to say it’s worth way more than the $2,800 being asked. The strengths of the Shilabe are so strong that it can stand toe-to-toe or nose-to-nose with much more expensive products. The other cartridges have their strengths too, but there is a big market for the sound of the Shilabe if you like directly-heated-triodes and horns, for example, or if you like the front row at the symphony. I will, at some point, be finished with my Thorens rebuild (how can a project take three years?), and will have the flexibility to use the Shilabe on a regular basis. I have a 10.5” A-T arm from the ‘70s that should be an excellent match. At that time, I’ll make one mine, while keeping my other reference cartridge on its appropriate tonearm.

Now here’s the funny thing: as much as I like the Shilabe, and as much as Robin likes it, his favorite cartridge is Miyajima’s top-of-the-line mono. He said it was something like “best cartridge in the world”. Hmm… I can’t argue with something I haven’t heard. You can look forward to a review of that one then. Besides, a well equipped record collector should have a mono and a stereo cartridge, ready to roll, when the need arises. So anyway, the Shilabe is fantastic and a must-audition if it’s in your price range, or even it you have twice as much earmarked for a cartridge. Just give it a listen and decide if it’s the right one for you. It’s not unlike picking a wife or husband. There needs to be a cartridgematch.com.

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