Miyajima Shilabe phono cartridge Art Dudley October 2010

Art Dudley wrote about the Miyajima Shilabe in October 2010 (Vol.33 No.10):

It's like this at the beginning of every movement: You shift to a different technology, but then the penny drops. Your old mono cartridge can't play your new stereo LPs. Your old tube amp can't drive your new acoustic-suspension loudspeakers. Your old $10,000 FM tuner can't honor your new XM subscription. Eventually, your old high-compliance cartridge can't play your newly reissued mono LPs.

Now you've made the switch to a vintage idler-wheel turntable and a proper 12" tonearm, and you wonder: What the hell can I use for a phono cartridge, other than a small handful of Ortofons and EMTs?

Good question. Answers include the trusty Denon DL-103 ($229), along with Zu Audio's version of same, the Zu DL-103 ($439). The Miyabi 47 ($4400) remains a fine all-arounder, as do various vintage models by Supex and Fidelity Research.

But that was all we had until 2005 or so, when word trickled out about a new brand called Miyajima. Or Edison. Or Otono. Nobody knew for sure.

The name turned out to be Miyajima, after its inventor. And the US distributor turned out to be Robin Wyatt, a man with notoriously good taste in playback gear. A little over a year ago Wyatt loaned me a sample of the Miyajima Premium Mono cartridge ($980), and I wrote about it in my "Listening" column in August 2009. I liked it a lot. Michael Fremer borrowed a sample of the Miyajima Shilabe stereo cartridge ($2800) and wrote about it in his "Analog Corner" column in September 2009. I daresay Mikey liked it a lot, and suggested the Shilabe be ranked Class A in our "Recommended Components" list, as I did for the Premium Mono.

Mikey was right: I've now spent a few weeks with a borrowed Miyajima Shilabe, and I can recommend it, heartily and confidently, to any music lover who wants to hear from his stereo records the sort of body and presence that I and a few other mono nuts have been nattering on about, and yet who isn't willing to give up anything in the way of spatial competence, timbral neutrality, or groove noiselessness.

Noriyuki Miyajima's calling card is his cross-ring motor, which differs from other designs in four significant ways. First, the fulcrum of the cantilever's movement is at the precise center of the coil former. Thus, every deflection of the cantilever creates a precise and instantaneous signal induction. (In almost every other moving-coil motor design, the fulcrum is fore or aft of the coils, a mechanical compromise that results in an electrical nonlinearity.) Second, the left- and right-channel coils are wound in a pattern of overlapping ellipses not unlike the crossing rings in a gyroscope (which is why, I guess, it's called a cross-ring motor). Third, the former on which those coils are wound is nonmetallic. Fourth, the coil former is snugged into place from behind, with a sort of pointed axle, rather than being pulled into place from behind with a taut—and notoriously resonant—bit of steel wire.

Examining my sample of the Miyajima Shilabe, it also seemed to me that the motor's rubber suspension damper is stiffer than most such things; it's also sufficiently large that one end of it abuts the whole of the front of the coil former. That may help explain the Shilabe's decidedly low compliance and consequently high recommended downforce: 10cu (10 cm/dyne) and 3gm, respectively. Other pertinent specs include the Shilabe's 16 ohm impedance and 0.23mV output, the former being higher than I would have expected, given the latter.

No matter: Noriyuki Miyajima recommends using this low-output cartridge with a step-up transformer, as opposed to an active gain stage; I heartily agree, and happily obliged. Although there are no specific tonearm recommendations on the otherwise thorough if fancifully translated Miyajima website, it seemed reasonable for me to use the Shilabe in my high-mass, transcription-length EMT 997 tonearm. That was, after all, the whole idea.

Speaking of which, I have pretty good news. Using the cartridge/arm resonance tests included on Hi-Fi News & Record Review's Test Record (LP, HFN 001), I observed a 15Hz resonance in the lateral plane and a very well-damped 16Hz resonance in the vertical plane with the Miyajima Shilabe mounted in a light, wooden Yamamoto HS-1A headshell. Both of those resonance figures are on the high side of acceptable, indicating that the match between the Miyajima cartridge and the EMT tonearm is okay.

The listening was even better than the measuring: The Miyajima Shilabe was consistently present, colorful, and downright chunky—that last adjective, I see, being the one that appears most frequently in my listening notes on the subject. All in all, my Shilabe experience was, by far, the closest I've heard a "normal" phono cartridge come to sounding like an Ortofon SPU or an EMT OFD. Again excepting the audio world's very few remaining pickup heads (footnote 1) it was also the closest I've heard a stereo cartridge come to delivering the meat, the force, the sheer solidity of mono.

Mikey noted that the Shilabe's macrodynamics were exceeded by those of other cartridges. So it was in my system, where the Ortofon SPU 90th Anniversary pickup head ($1899) squeezed a few more drops of drama from orchestral records than did the Miyajima. That SPU and the A-style Shindo SPU (a reworked new-old stock Ortofon) also sounded flat-out scarier when reproducing the orchestral drums on some of my best-recorded favorites, although the Miyajima wasn't at all far behind. (If the Miyajima were a 20-minute ride in an uninspected Lada with a blind pillhead at the wheel, the SPU would be the same experience in a Piper Cub.)

Obviously, I remain fond of those pickup heads of old, the mass and compliance of which were designed for high-mass pickup arms; I prefer that approach, and the musical performance I reap from it. But the Miyajima Shilabe represents an easier approach to those same sorts of musical and sonic strengths.

If you've assembled a playback system around one or more vintage components, hoping for at least some of those same qualities that I enjoy, the vast majority of modern phono cartridges will sound fraudulent. You'll get the same old zizzy, airy, silvery sound you had before: monochromatic outlines with nothing colored in. You'll have wasted your money and some of your time on Earth, just to find yourself going back to high-end hell through a different door—one with an antique knob.

In the context of my system and my tastes, the Miyajima Shilabe is the next best thing to a dedicated pickup head, and is miles above anything else I've heard. It's that simple.—Art Dudley

Footnote 1: We use the term "pickup head" for the Ortofon and EMT units to indicate that the cartridge is integrated with the headshell.—Ed.
Miyajima Laboratory
US distributor: Robyatt Audio