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Shure V 15 VxMR

The return of a legend

[Italian version]

Product: Shure V15VxMR, MM phono cartridge
Manufacturer: Shure Inc. - USA
Approx. price: 295 US $

A Little History...

Shure are probably the most well known of all the cartridge makers. They earned this by patenting the moving magnet cartridge, being the first to make a stereophonic cartridge in 1958 and that their cheaper models dominated the market for the next 30 years. I'm sure I'm not alone in having a cheapo Shure cartridge way back in the 70's on my first record player. At the time I was unaware that sitting at the top of their range was a cartridge that claimed to take on all comers - the V15.

The V15 began life in 1964 and through the following four decades went through various changes to become the V15VxMR in 1997. During all that time it has remained a high output moving magnet (MM). In the 60's and 70's it rode on the crest of the 'high compliance cartridge/low effective arm mass' wave, but in later years the high ground was taken by low output moving coils (MC) which with their low compliance required higher mass and ultra rigid arms. The MM remained popular at the budget end of the market, but with fewer and fewer low mass arms around, and the strong preference for MC's by reviewers, Shure stopped production. Then in 1997 Shure "responded to the market" by reviving the V15.

So what has changed to make the reintroduction of the V15 an attractive proposition for Shure? One factor is that most valve phono stages need a step-up transformer to run MC's. As these amps have had a resurgence, so the demand for a quality high output cartridge has risen. Getting rid of all those turns of wire, or a high gain stage, gives the V15 a head start. Secondly, being high compliance and tracking at 1 grm (more on this later) the cartridge will wear irreplaceable records more slowly - though mistracking damage is the main cause of record wear. I suspect there is also a bit of the 'retro chic' about it too. Valve amps, old SME 3009's, Garrard 301's and horns just cry out for a 60's cartridge even if it has been updated seven times! One other thing is that the cartridge had 'Mexico' written on the back and so I suspect the cost of manufacture may have fallen?


Much of this is available on Shure's very informative website so rather than repeat all that I'll be brief... On the technical front the V15 is a beautifully put together MM. A very small line contact diamond sits at the end of a tubular beryllium cantilever - claimed to have the highest stiffness/weight ratio in the business. The output is about half some MM's at 3.0 mV RMS, but this was plenty into my Audion valve pre.
The only really unusual thing about the cartridge is the Dynamic Stabiliser. This is a natty stylus guard that has a built in carbon fibre brush which follows the surface of the record, cleaning up any fluff before it reaches the stylus and helping remove static. If you use it you need to add 0.5 gr. to the tracking weight.
However it's main function is to damp the <20Hz resonance if you use a highish mass arm. On my own SME IV the combined resonance was at 8 Hz, at the very bottom of the acceptable range, making cueing and warps tricky. Dropping the stabiliser didn't move this resonance, but greatly reduced it so that it simply wasn't a problem. Normally such a combination is sensitive to footfalls and other 'knocks' but with the stabiliser the combination was very shock resistant. Add to this the way the stylus retracts if it has a sideways swipe and you have the perfect cartridge for those parties when you really ought to have started playing CD's after the second bottle of wine :-)

In Use?

If you, need 'beta-blockers' before tackling cartridge swapping, especially at this sort of price, the V15 is a dream. First gently pull off the stylus/stabiliser assembly - it slides off very smoothly. After that it's simple to bolt up the cartridge body and connect the pins without any mishaps along the way.
One small gripe - Shure use an alloy mounting plate, why the hell they don't thread it to make fitting easier I don't know. Personally any cartridge costing £50 or more that needs me to faff about with nuts and bolts automatically gets a black mark in my book, though in the Shure's case the removable stylus alleviates the problem. Once properly aligned you can pop the stylus back in with it's guard down to do all the other adjustments - very civilized. My SME IV helps a lot here, and the silver finish of the cartridge perfectly matched it and the Gyrodec - very satisfying...

So what does it sound like? Well first it needs a long time, at least 24 hours, before giving it's best. Two points here - firstly Shure make great play of the fact that Sony Records use the V15 as THE reference cartridge for archiving due to it's uncoloured sound and flat frequency response. Secondly Shure also make a big play of how the latest version has been engineered to give a warm fatigue free sound. You see the problem? Either it's neutral, or it's warm, Shure can't have it both ways...

In fact it's warm :-) . Not the warm woolly sound of an old valve radio, but a slight emphasis of the lower mid/upper bass. But this isn't the characteristic that hits you first. This is a cartridge with real slam in the bass. If you have speakers with output down to 20Hz this cartridge will make them shake the room. Nirvana's 'Breed' (see 'Killer' records) builds to a massive wall of pulsing sound, the kick drum hitting you in the chest. The slow deep bass of 'Polly' vibrates your diaphragm, but not with a deep hum, you hear that bottom string vibrate. This combination of huge depth in the bass and control with it is not usually the characteristic of MM's, but the V15 couldn't get enough of it. It got me dragging out disk after disc of bass workouts just to see what they sounded like. The intro to Dire Straights 'Money for Nothing' builds to a huge slamming drum solo followed by shrieking keyboards.
Never have those drum beats had so much weight, or perhaps more importantly, speed. The drums hung in space between the speakers like mid-air explosions. I ended up playing this louder and louder 'til the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, not something you normally associate with Dire Straights. The only cartridge I've had in my system that approached this was a Goldring Excel VX costing nearly twice as much. The Ortofon MC 20 Supreme just sounded flat and polite, not even close. My beloved AT 33e matched the V15 for speed and soundstage but lacked the weight.

Bob Marley again let the V15 show the MC's how to produce the deepest bass, but with enough speed to show how well 'Uprising' was produced. At the top end the V15 showed excellent treble detail and Cobain's sibilants on 'Something in the Way' had enough edge but the needle hung on it there. Here I was approaching the limits of the V15's tracking ability and it needed 1.2grms to clear the track. The increase in tracking force brought no major reduction in 'air' and 'clarity' so I tended to use this as the downforce for the rest of the test. To test the tracking further I used the 'Hi-Fi News' test record. The result being that the V15 tracked well up to 300Hz at +15 dB at the centre of the record, very few records will tax the tracking ability more than this. However the +18 dB track just spat the stylus clean out of the groove... The V15 also threw up solid and three-dimensional images, well up with the MC's. Using the Dynamic Stabiliser reduced the bass heft a little, and just slightly reduced the clarity, but I used it quite happily most of the time.

Nothing is perfect, so where does the V15 slip up in my system? Until now I've not really mentioned the cost of this cartridge, but at £295 and with a replacable stylus at little more than half that, I was comparing the V15 with much more expensive MC's. If the V15 floored them in bass performance and matched them in treble detail, it did seem to have a slightly recessed midband. A good MC like the AT33e has a fluidity and detail that the V15 struggles to match. Some vocals and rhythm guitars were pushed a little back in the mix, sometimes lost altogether. On Madonna's "Till Death Do Us Part" the spoken word was a little indistinct. On Brubecks 'Blue Rondo al la Turk" the strike of stick on Joe Morello's cymbal was lightening fast and clear but the 'ring' of the body was reduced.
There was the impression that the V15 scavanged out leading edges only to loose the body and decay of a note, on some complex mixes this could be heard as the tinkle of a guitar string being plucked without the note that went with it. This gave a slight feeling of 'hardness' to the sound though it was certainly clean rather than grainy. As for compatability, if your system tends towards the warm and woolly the V15 could push it too far. Likewise small ported boxes pretending to produce decent bass by having a hump around 100Hz may sound overblown, but given a system capable of coping properly with the bass output the V15 really shines through.

Let's get the criticism in perspective though. By any standard the V15 is very good, and at it's best it can match and beat MC's twice its price. I found that during the test period I played more and more music, and made fewer and fewer notes as I was drawn in to each piece. This makes it a bargain on it's own, but when you think that it is an ideal partner for a second hand low mass arm like an SME 3009, which can be picked up for 50 pounds, it starts to look like staggering value. In the end I bought the V15 from Shure as I knew I would miss its sheer power and fun - somehow it manages to get to the heart of the music and that, after all, is the whole point.

Manufacturer's comment

This is both an accurate and well thought out review. Though I could quibble some on several minor criticisms, I don't think this would be productive for any of us. We think he gave one of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable reviews to date on the V15VxMR.
Jim Lawson, Manager, Market Development, Shure Incorporated

© Copyright 1999 Geoff Husband - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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