Type: Moving Magnet (MM)
Stylus: Bonded Elliptical
Price: Budget (vintage)
In looking for a genuine Shure stylus for an M91ED cartridge, I came across a NOS Me91E cartridge on eBay and secured it for a good price. This cartridge was from Shure’s ‘encore’ range from the late 1980s, in which popular cartridges from the 1970s were brought back to the market. The Me91E was a reincarnation of the M91E, although the body of this new edition was actually based on that of the M91ED rather than the original M91E. My example of this cartridge came with a genuine Shure N91E stylus, which is a bonded fine elliptical. The cartridge arrived in its original sealed packaging, so I was the first to open it in nearly 30 years. I deployed the cartridge on my Technics SL1200 Mk5 turntable, the combination on which this review is based.
Turntable: Technics SL1200 Mk5 with Technics-clone headshell
Phono Pre-amp: Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL (with 200pF capacitance)
Amplifier: Yamaha A-S501
Speakers: Q Acoustics 3050
I would expect a relatively inexpensive cartridge with a bonded elliptical stylus to sound like a budget cartridge, but this is not the case for the Me91E.
Treble: In line with the Shure tradition, the high frequencies are slightly soft with a delicate feel. Although relative to the other bands the treble is fairly restrained, it does not sound overly subdued or rolled-off, and is easy on the ear.
Midrange: The mid-band has a solid, open quality with excellent clarity. It works wonderfully with vocals, portraying remarkable texture and presence for a cartridge of this class. Excessively sibilant vocals will trip it up, but otherwise vocals are clear and natural.
Bass: The bass takes a forward stance in the overall balance and has a nice quality. It is firm and punchy, and goes down deep. It is also fast and tight, somehow managing to be nimble while weighty. Low-frequency texture comes through well on good-quality recordings, but can be obscured by sheer enthusiasm on bass-oriented recordings.
The Me91E offers quite a special sound in being easy on the ear but, at the same time, exciting. It has a warm overall balance but manages to sound open and dynamic. The deep, weighty bass and clear midrange together give the sound a very solid feel, and they integrate well with the soft, gentle treble on most material – the treble only gives cause for concern on material that demands a precise and crisp top-end. The agility of this cartridge in terms of tightness and speed is also quite remarkable, especially considering its bass weight. This is a highly versatile and entertaining cartridge that is a delight to the ear. For a budget-to-mid priced cartridge with a bonded elliptical stylus, it punches far above its weight and, in my opinion, compares well to more expensive models with nude diamond styli. It is certainly one to look out for as a NOS or little-used example.
The tracking force range for this cartridge is a light 0.75-1.5g and I use it at 1.25g. It seems a very accomplished tracker on most material, with only highly sibilant passages causing a problem. In fact, the tracking is quite remarkable for a bonded elliptical stylus but is perhaps helped by its fine profile.
According to the FAQs on the Shure website, the static compliance of the N91E stylus is 25cu, which seems a modest figure for static compliance, as its low tracking force would suggest high compliance. In any case, it is always assumed to suit low-mass arms. I use this cartridge in a Technics-clone headshell on a Technics SL1200, yielding an effective arm-mass of around 15g. This is in the medium-mass region, but the cartridge performs wonderfully. So, in addition to low-mass arms, I consider the Me91E / M91E also to be suitable for medium-mass arms.
Shure’s recommended capacitive load for the M91E and M91ED was in the range 400-500pF (there is no published range for the Me91E but as a later reproduction, we can assume it to be the same). I use a capacitance setting of 200pF on my phono pre-amp with this cartridge, giving a total (including 125pF cable capacitance) of ~325pF. Here, the sound is nicely open. It is rather strange that the sound of this cartridge at this capacitance setting is more open than the M75ED Type 2, which has the same internal electrical characteristics (see Comparison).
Note that the above assumes a phono-cable capacitance of 125pF for the Technics SL1200 Mk5. This value may be higher (likely) or lower for other turntables. Typically, a value in the range 150-200pF is assumed.
The Me91E does not have the original “Snap-In, Easy-Mount” body of the M91E but a body of the same form as the M91ED. However, the two bodies seemingly differ only in shape, having the same internal electrical properties. It is also interesting to note that the M91 and M75 cartridges have exactly the same electrical properties – for example, the M91ED and M75ED Type 2 are taken to be fundamentally the same cartridge with slight cosmetic variations (note that an N75 stylus can be used on an M91ED cartridge but an N91 stylus cannot be used on an M75ED cartridge). On acquiring the Me91E, I was surprised that it sounds so much better than my M75ED, despite not having the nude diamond stylus of the latter. The Me91E sounds more open and dynamic than the M75ED – in fact, it is closer to the M95ED. This I cannot explain. My feeling is that the magic of this cartridge is in its stylus. A notable aspect of the N91E stylus is that it has a fine profile for a bonded elliptical, and my example also has quite a fine cantilever – I always consider a fine cantilever to be a visual sign of treble delicacy and good tracking.
In the landscape of modern cartridges, I would turn to Ortofon for the open, fast, dynamic sound that the Me91E delivers, although Ortofons are usually brighter and crisper. Notably, I would recommend the OM20 for low-mass and medium-mass tonearms. Like the Me91E, this cartridge has a touch of warmth. In the warm camp, the Grado Prestige cartridges are worth considering for lowish-mass arms.
For high-mass and medium-mass arms, the Audio Technica AT-VM95 cartridges may offer valid alternatives. I have experience of the relatively basic AT-VM95E, which combines warmth with good dynamics, but is not quite as accomplished as the Me91E – perhaps a model from higher up the AT-VM95 range would provide a more realistic alternative.
So, how do we go about recreating this cartridge today? Both the original M91E and reincarnated Me91E seem hard to come by. However, the M91E has the same metal, clip-mount body as Shure’s M93E and M75-6S, and the latter is very easy to procure on eBay. An N91 stylus will fit this simple body – in fact, a wide range of Shure styli will fit it, even an N95 stylus. However, to obtain a cartridge body in the form of the Me91E as depicted in this review, you should look for an M91ED or M91GD cartridge. These cartridges are not hard to find but are more common in the US than in the UK (back in the day, the M75 cartridges were more prominent than the M91 cartridges in the UK). However, beware of the special M91 cartridges made for Dual turntables, as they cannot be readily fitted to tonearms with a traditional half-inch mount headshell (with two mounting screws).
With the cartridge body secured, we need the all-important stylus. A NOS Shure N91E stylus is unlikely to surface, so an aftermarket stylus is probably the only option. In fact, an aftermarket N91E or N91ED stylus will suffice – while the N91ED stylus was originally a nude elliptical, nearly all aftermarket styli are bonded (like the N91E). The aftermarket replacements for these styli are, however, not as fine (in the elliptical sense) as the originals. Initially, before I bought the Me91E, I purchased an EVG-branded N91E (quite possibly made by Jico) for my M91ED body – this stylus gives a fair approximation to the sound of the genuine N91E but just doesn’t have its finesse and general quality. My advice is to be sure to purchase an N91E(D) stylus from a reputable aftermarket brand, such as Jico, Thakker Japan or Tonar. In fact, to get close to the sound of the original N91E stylus, I suspect that an aftermarket N91 stylus with a more exotic profile, such as hyper-elliptical, may be required (but this is speculation on my part).
The Shure Me91E was quite a find for a NOS budget cartridge, delivering a sound way beyond my expectations. It successfully combines a warm, easy-listening sound with great dynamics and excitement – it has a sound that can be quite delicious to the ears. One assumes that the original M91E had the same characteristics and this is a cartridge worth investigating for those looking for a versatile performer in terms musical genres for a turntable with a low-mass or medium-mass arm. The Shure Me91E is certainly a cartridge that fits with my tastes and it is one of my most loved cartridges.