Shure M97xE

Type: Moving Magnet (MM)
Stylus: Bonded Elliptical
Compliance: High
Price: Budget

Background

The Shure M97xE is one of those cartridges that attracts mixed views from audiophiles. Some people love it while others are less impressed, even finding it dull. Soon after re-entering the world of vinyl, I decided to buy this cartridge for myself for Christmas in order to investigate it personally. I have used it on a variety of turntables and for this review it was mounted on a Yamaha YP-511. It seems that some of the controversy surrounding this cartridge may be down to its electrical loading, so capacitive load will be an element of this review.

Equipment

Turntable: Yamaha YP-511 with Technics-clone headshell
Phono Pre-amp: Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL (with 100pF capacitance)
Amplifier: Yamaha A-S501
Speakers: Q Acoustics 3050

Sound Quality

The Shure M97xE has a bonded elliptical stylus with a fine profile. The stylus is high-compliance, making it suitable for light tonearms, but the cartridge is equipped with a built-in damping brush that can be optionally deployed, allowing use on heavier tonearms.

Treble: The treble is slightly soft and not too forward, but has a fair degree of clarity and affords the sound a sense of space. At higher load capacitances, the treble retreats a little and may even be considered suppressed (see Capacitive Load).

Midrange: The mid-band is fairly open with reasonable texture, allowing midrange instruments and vocals their own space. Sometimes a hardness can be detected in the upper midrange, but this is not a major issue. Sibilance on vocals is handled relatively well but not outstandingly.

Bass: The bass output is healthy and gives the sound a solid feel. There is texture to the bass although it can sometimes seem a touch soft. Bass delivery is also relatively tight and punchy, but agility is not amongst the best when deep bass is involved.

While this cartridge does not exactly excel in any of the frequency bands, its overall sound is greater than the sum of its parts, actually offering a good deal of charm. The net sound balance is on the warm side of neutral, but the sound is open with reasonable clarity. Dynamics are fair. Indeed, this is not the most exciting of cartridges but it is nevertheless capable of delivering an attractive, satisfying sound.

With the damping brush deployed (on a medium-mass arm), definition is a little better, probably throughout the frequency range. However, the brush is quite frankly a nuisance when cueing (see later).    

At higher load capacitances (see Capacitive Load), the treble is a little more restrained – here, the sound is warmer and less open but there is still a lot of charm on offer. Some listeners may even prefer the sound with this loading, while others may complain that it is too soft or dull.

This cartridge may not be to everyone’s tastes but will please many with its easy listening character.

Tracking

This cartridge has a tracking force range of 0.75-1.5g, but it is necessary to add 0.5g when the damping brush is deployed (becoming 1.25-2.0g). I use the recommended setting of 1.25g without damping brush and 1.75g with damping brush. I believe tracking to be a little better with the damping brush down, with slightly improved definition. The handling of sibilance is not outstanding but acceptable for a bonded elliptical stylus.

With the damping brush deployed, cueing can be tricky. The brush obscures the stylus but there is a white mark on the brush to indicate the stylus position. The brush hits the surface of the record first and then a skill must be developed to lower the stylus onto the record without sliding across the lead-in grooves.    

Compliance

The stylus compliance is quoted as 25cu in the cartridge specifications, which together with the light tracking force suggests high-compliance. This would make the cartridge suitable for low-mass arms. However, the damping brush allows use of the cartridge on heavier arms, possibly well into medium-mass.

Capacitive Load

The recommended capacitive load for this cartridge is 250pF, which requires a phono-stage of relatively low capacitance. I set my phono pre-amp capacitance to 100pF for this review, probably yielding a total capacitive load (including cable capacitance) of around 250-300pF, so in the ballpark of the recommended value. Here, the sound is relatively open. However, the cartridge is probably often used with higher-capacitance phono-stages (200pF and above), possibly taking the capacitive load way beyond the recommended value. Here, the sound is a touch warmer and less open, and I suspect that this may be responsible for some reports of the cartridge having a dull sound.

Note that the above assumes a phono-cable capacitance in the range 150-200pF, but for a specific turntable it may be lower or higher.

Comparison

The M97xE has the Shure house sound of warmth with a slightly soft treble, a type of sound inherited from some of their vintage cartridges, such as the M75 and M91 series. However, if used at the recommended capacitive load, the M97xE sounds more open than the average Shure cartridge.

The cartridge was recently discontinued, although new examples can still be found (see Availability). It was a sub-£100 budget cartridge and a direct competitor on price was the Ortofon 2M Red, but these two cartridges are ‘like chalk and cheese’. The 2M Red is a much more dynamic, detailed and vibrant cartridge, but lacks the easy-going charm of the M97xE.

For medium-mass arms, the much cheaper Audio Technica AT95E was often considered alongside the M97xE – the AT95E has its own charm, but lacks the big, solid sound of the Shure. The more recent AT-VM95E (replacement for the AT95E) perhaps provides a more viable alternative to the M97xE, offering a touch of warmth with a fairly easy treble. Models from further up the AT-VM95 range may also be worth considering.

For lighter arms, the Grado Prestige range of cartridges may provide worthy alternatives to the M97xE, as they are well-known for a warm, easy listening sound.

Availability

Shure recently discontinued all cartridge and stylus production, so the M97xE and its stylus are no longer available new. Of course, new examples can still be found but sellers usually charge a premium for them – sometimes more than double or triple the original price of this sub-£100 cartridge. Even used examples can fetch prices at least equal to the original price. But is it worth paying this kind of money for one? Well, this cartridge doesn’t offer a level of sound quality that corresponds to these sorts of prices, but it does have a character that may be worth paying for, at least in some people’s eyes (or ears).

The future availability of original Shure styli may be an issue. However, there are high-quality aftermarket styli available for this cartridge. It is thought by some that the original Shure stylus actually holds back the cartridge and many people use the Jico SAS stylus instead – this is a very costly stylus but it reportedly elevates this budget cartridge to a whole new level (something I am unable to verify myself). But there are more economical alternatives, a popular choice being the LP Gear VividLine stylus.

Conclusion

The M97xE is a typical Shure cartridge in having a warm balance with a punchy bass and slightly soft highs. While not a spectacular performer in terms of dynamics, it offers a lot of charm with an easy listening character. It sounds more open at low capacitive load, as recommended by Shure, and the built-in damping brush brings slightly better definition, at least on medium-mass arms. It will appeal to those who prefer a lush, relatively composed presentation of their music. Personally, I find it an attractive cartridge but, as usual, its suitability is really down to the host system and individual taste.