Product: Shun Mook M.C. Ref Cartridge
Manufacturer: Shun Mook - USA
Cost, approx: lots... (YMMV)
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: November 2011
A few months ago I was given some equipment from the Shun Mook stable to have a look at and review. These were some of the company's Mpingo discs, their record clamp and lastly (and the one that interested me most) the M.C. Ref cartridge.
All of these are made of exotic wood and carry their own philosophy course as with any of the more left-of-center hi-fi products, but to be fair Shun Mook are producing products that physically do things rather than bits of shiny foil and the like.
As I told the importer I'm not really the person to review the discs as even if I DID hear a significant difference I wouldn't believe it, because my brain would never accept that putting a hockey-puck sized bit of wood on top of a 70 kg speaker is going to make any difference that I could hear. Yup I'm a rabid skeptic who wouldn't believe in phantoms even if one was dragging me down into the pit whilst singing the theme from Ghostbusters... Sorry.
The clamp on the other hand I could make comments on (see article) simply because it quite evidently had a considerable and plainly physical effect on the music.
But cartridges are another kettle-of-fish. What their body is made of and its form will obviously have an effect in many ways to the sound quality and there is a long tradition especially from Japan of using exotic hardwoods to get the very best from them.
Which neatly brings us to the M.C. Ref cartridge.
Shun Mook are not cartridge manufacturers, rather for the M.C. Ref, Shun Mook build the cartridge body and then it is sent to ZYX in Japan to have the internals of their R1000 fitted the 'engine' as Shun Mook put it. On it's return the cartridge in individually 'tuned' for 20 hours at Shun Mook. What this tuning involves I don't know, but in effect what we have is a tweaked, rebodied ZYX cartridge. I'll point out at this point that this pattern of cartridge manufacture is common at the high-end EMT cartridges have formed the basis of several cartridges such as the Einstein and Roksan Shiraz for example.
Using the R1000 as a basis seems to be a wise choice. I've never heard one but it has a fine reputation. It's a perspex bodied low-output moving coil with boron cantilever, silver coils and a microridge stylus. It also boasts cyrogenic treatment i.e. the 'engine' is treated at close to absolute zero. This has become something of a fashionable treatment for all sorts of cables, valves and even CDs not having done back-to-back tests I'm not in a position to comment.
What all this means is that the M.C. Ref starts with a big headstart, it's not a rebodied Denon DL110 sold for 10 times the price (as some have been), but a rebody of what most people would consider a high-end cartridge.
Which of course takes us to the cartridge body, which is (along with the tuning) is what you are paying well over the ZYX R1000 price for.
Many years ago I can remember drooling over the simply gorgeous Goldbug Ms Briar cartridge a sexy and highly polished wood-bodied cartridge from the 80's. Well the M.C. Ref isn't a work of art in this vein. In fact truth-be-told it's a bit pug-ugly IMHO with a wooden crossbar across the front making it look strangely like a bulldog carrying a bone:-) And that crosspiece is obviously an integral part of the body and I wonder is some of the magic tuning is linked to it's position as on the test cartridge this bar was a degree or so off horizontal quite evident in the pictures.
The other, I suspect accidental, attribute of this crossbar is that it offers great protection for the stylus. My turntables are mounted quite high up, almost at eye-level and though this makes cuing records easy, it also brings dangling sleeves close to exposed cantilevers and none are as exposed as that on my Dynavector DRT-1t a cartridge which also uses a small amount of wood in it's construction...
Odd appearance not withstanding the cartridge is pretty 'square' in build which makes it extremely easy to align, and even though the stylus is well protected I also found it easy to guess where to cue it. Minor points, but having used cartridges that are difficult to cue, not an attribute to be underestimated.
Here an important point... The Shun Mook clamp is large, covering most of a record label. The M.C. Reference is also large. On some records, there is simply too little clearance between the cartridge and clamp when in the run-out groove. Hearing 'grind-bump! grind-bump! grind-bump!' at the end of some of my collection is neither high-end or healthy for the cartridge.
Don't taste with your eyes is something my mother used to tell me when she was trying to get me to eat something wobbly and disgusting like tripe. Eyes closed I learned that there were some very delicious things out there that would never have passed my lips without a blindfold.
The same applies to Audio. Would I find the ZYX 'plasticky', the Mook 'wooden', a shiny chrome cartridge body 'shiny'? Don't underestimate this effect. My wife has two clarinettes. One beautiful wooden Selmer (possibly Mpingo!) and one of those strange metal clarinettes that nearly made it in the beginning of the last century. One sounds bright and bell-like, the other warm and rounded and organic. Yup, you've guessed it it's the brass and chrome clarinette that sounds 'like' wood. No-one was more surprised than me when I heard the difference and it was a salutary lesson.
So you'll be happy to know that I don't assume anything from what a cartridge body is made of, thus free of prejudice I bolted the Mook onto my SME V12 initial alignment and balance being simplice.
I was warned that the Mook would take 50 hours to run in, in fact I'd go further than that and say that it continue to improve for 100 hours, but from the second the stylus hit the first piece of vinyl there was one outstanding characteristic that leapt out at me. Never has a cartridge crushed surface noise like this... This might seem a very prosaic attribute when reviewing a high end-cartridge and I can see audiophiles rolling their eyes, but the single biggest reason the wholly inferior medium of CD trampled over vinyl in the marketplace was the lack of snap-crackle-and-pop! Here was a cartridge that made my worse offenders listenable no - better than that, it made surface noise insignificant.
So before I go onto the sound quality of the M.C. Ref I want to go into this attribute a little more. The reasons for good ability coping with surface noise are varied. A good stylus profile will sit deep in the groove away from surface damage, a fine dynamic performance will push the 'music' forward so that surface noise becomes more 'background', the cartridge body may act as a buffer of some sort, the interface of cartridge body to headshell may have some effect and so on. But there is no simple answer.
I tried the Mook cartridge on the Audiomods arm which along with the SME is pretty good with surface noise, and again the result was lower surface noise than anything else. I even tried the Opera T1288 arm which has proved so microphonic I've put off reviewing it, and even here surface noise and the boink! boink! effect of the arm singing along was reduced.
High-end cartridges need to do something special if they are to justify their elevated price tags. For me in this one attribute the Shun Mook made a strong case for itself. 99% of the vinyl we listen too is sub-optimal, and all has some surface noise. As time passes that surface noise will become increasingly intrusive to the point where the music is compromised. That the Shun Mook makes such marginal vinyl entirely listenable, and that such vinyl may make up many thousands of Euros worth of music in your collection is as important a selling point as if it managed to pull that little bit more 'air', or 'soundstage' or the extra voice from a multitracked vocal.
As I mentioned above the M.C. Ref took a long time to come fully on song, sounding at first a little shut-in and constrained, typical behavior for a high quality cartridge.
Once run-in things opened up considerably, and I could optimize the cartridge. It proved as unfussy over VTA as any other cartridge, and as in most cases here, I settled on it being very slightly tail down. VTF started around 2.00 gms and worked up, I eventually settled on 2.5 grms but of course YMMV depending on temperature (my room is colder than most) and so on. I didn't play with loading as my Nibiru phono stage is current amplifying and doesn't need, or offer such refinement.
As with most good MC cartridges the Shun Mook produced a wide and deep soundtage and good retrieval of detail that is a baseline below which a cartridge of this price would fail. But beyond this the Shun Mook showed a particular character, or perhaps more accurately a lack of character. I say perhaps because one thing that struck me was that whereas some cartridges show up big differences between arms, the Shun Mook always sounded like a Shun Mook. Sure the big SME sounded big and powerful and clean compared to the more lightweight and 'flimsy' reproduction from the Opera, but the difference was considerably less when when I swapped the Dynavector 17D3 Karat or Music Maker between the arms. Swapping the Shun Mook between the Audiomods and SME showed very little difference.
Again I wonder as to what is going on here? Often a component will dominate anything used with it because its own character is so strong. A Linn LP12 turntable sounds like an LP12 no matter what arm you put onto it a Decca cartridge likewise. In this case the character of the Shun Mook is very even handed, it is not a characterful device, and so why does its sound dominate the signature of the arm it's used with? All I can surmise is that the cartridge deals with much of the 'character' (read colourations?) of the signal within the cartridge body itself? Who knows?
But inevitably we have to look beyond this and to put the Shun Mook through its paces I played it repeatedly back-to-back with the Dynavector DRT-1t, a cartridges of huge ability and which costs near twice what the Shun Mook does.
As I've said before, the question of surface noise was a clear win for the Shun Mook the big Dynavector was by no means bad, quite the opposite, but where on a poor record the DRT would give a hail of fine clicks! - the Shun Mook rounded them into fine thuds. Of course the easy explanation would be that Shun Mook had simply rounded off the upper frequencies, but in fact it showed fine high-frequency extension. It lacked a little of the sparkle that the DRT enjoys but neither cartridges had that slightly glassy sheen that some MC's show with tip resonance or treble lift. In comparison with the cheaper 17D3 the Shun Mook had both more sparkle and more air around recordings, though it must be said that that refugee from the '70's always manages to get almost as much energy out of the record as a Decca (but without lunching your vinyl:-).
I have two favourite records for what I would call 'atmosphere' and they are Stevie Wonder's 'In the City' and Madonna's 'I Love New York'*. The latter is obviously a homage (or perhaps reposte?) to the former and both feature street scenes complete with police sirens and voices shouting. In a darkened room and after a glass of wine you can lean back and be 'in' those street scenes and in both cases the Shun Mook spread those cities in front of you in a way few can. The DRT 1t on the other hand puts the street around you it's not a subtle difference but one that changes they way you listen to things. Likewise fine orchestral recordings (for example my old 'Living Stereo' Chicago Symphony Orchestra's version of Brahms No.2 Concerto) places you mid-audience rather than front row or even in the pit..
Detail, is as you'd expect, first class and again the overriding impression is of even handedness, everything laid out in front of you with no instrument pushed out at you to the detriment of another. This is especially gratifying when listening to medium sized (as apposed to big-band) jazz. I've recently been given a beautiful copy of 'A Kind of Blue' the Sony reissue where the tape is run at the correct speed and here the Shun Mook helps hold the whole thing together it's all too easy for one instrument to dominate parts where there should be a coherent whole (the 17D3 tends to overproject the horns for example). Interestingly it also avoids the 'ping-pong' stereo that sometimes intrudes on this record; everything being laid out in reasonable facsimile of the live event in the past I've even played this in mono in order to keep this from intruding.
Bass performance was fine rather than outstanding. You don't find yourself following basslines, rather listening to music with the bass underpinning everything which I guess is how it should be. At times I missed the growl of some Motown bassmeister, but on the other hand I never found a booming bassline intruding onto my listening. Again this has been a problem with the Opera arm with every other cartridge I've used the Shun Mook seemed to just help the arm out in this bravo!
In the end the Shun Mook became hard to fault it doesn't have quite the power and glory of the big Dynavector, and if pushed I'd say it also lacked the ultimate shading of female vocal and the like, nor does it show the manic energy of the Roksan Shiraz but here were talking degrees of excellence rather than faults. If you have a system lacking in dynamics or overly bright this isn't going to be the answer it isn't one of those cartridges you can use to tune faults or character in other parts of the system. Ideally it needs to be partnered with a system as even as it is, so that it can work it's particular magic. I'll add that the big dynamics and wide range of my own horn/sub system worked really well ;-)
How much of this fine performance is due to the work of Shun Mook and how much to ZYX is impossible for me to say without hearing them back-to-back, the cynic would say that it's a ZYX in a frock, but I would be very surprised if such a different body design didn't produce major differences in presentation.
(*) Just for a laugh buy the vinyl and CD versions of this. The vinyl is so hilariously superior it makes the CD sound like AM radio...
© Copyright 2011 Geoff Husband - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com