Miyajima Shilabe phono cartridge

The unusual Miyajima Shilabe moving-coil cartridge ($2800) came to my attention through a friend, and I obtained one from the importer, Robin Wyatt of Robyatt Audio, a music lover and dedicated audiophile who imports gear as a sideline, and who lives nearby in New Jersey.

The Shilabe's documentation is unintentionally humorous, but were I buying a cartridge at this price point, I wouldn't be amused. The cartridge pins aren't marked, but the one-sheet enclosed in the package identifies which is which, advising, "Please be connected to a color." I concur! "This Mature is devised to be able to play a sound of LP record faithfully," the instructions inform, along with "Please talk without adding a hand when a trouble happened."

What the instructions don't inform you of is the Shilabe's low output of 0.23mV. I had to ask, though I later found it on the company's website. The internal impedance is listed as about 16 ohms. The loading instructions include: "A transformer and the amplifier for MC please use the thingthat [sic] it is possible for reproduction of the broadband if possible to make use of a good point of 'Mature' enough. Use is possible with low or high both with a commercial transformer. When there is a changeover switch, please choose him towards preference." Got that?

The instructions might not be ready for prime time but this cartridge surely is, with a few caveats. It weighs 10.4gm. It's a low-compliance design designed to track at 2.5–3.2gm, which is unusually heavy for a modern cartridge—but so does the superb-sounding Clearaudio Goldfinger ($10,000). My experience has been that tracking too lightly causes more damage to LPs than does tracking more heavily, when it's called for. Still, if you're uncomfortable with heavier tracking forces, the Shilabe isn't for you. If you buy one, you'll be doing more damage to your records by tracking it too lightly. I didn't worry about it with either the Goldfinger or the Shilabe, and neither caused any groove wear that I could detect.

The Shilabe needs to be mounted with the supplied long screws, which must go from the bottom up through the sculpted wooden body and into the headshell. The nuts won't fit beneath the body. The cartridge has an unusually large-diameter, old-fashioned-looking cantilever of an unspecified material, to which is attached a Shibata stylus with a long-groove contact area. The designer claims that thinner, lower-mass cantilevers bend during playback. I find it difficult to believe that a boron or ruby cantilever does much bending, but whatever.

The design uses a patented "cross-ring" construction that centers the generator's fulcrum (pivot point) within the coil. Rather than waste space here explaining the supposed benefits of this design, go to the Miyajima website and read all about it. You can also watch an excellent Flash animation that shows in great detail the Shilabe's unusual construction. Unfortunately, the translation is essentially incomprehensible.

Everything in my experience, listening and otherwise, tells me that, all things being equal, the higher the cantilever mass, the slower its response time, and therefore the lower the resolution. Yet the Shilabe, loaded at 200 ohms, proved to be an ultra-high-resolution design, up there with far more expensive high-performance cartridges. I suspect its low output means that the designer shaved off mass at the coil end to compensate for the mass of the cantilever.

But aside from its high resolution, the Shilabe had among the fastest, cleanest transient response of any cartridge I've heard at any price. Metal sounds like metal, yet there was nothing intrinsically bright about the Shilabe's sound, which was full-bodied, deep, extremely well defined, and as fast on bottom as on top. The midrange was full but not excessively so, resulting in superbly coherent transient and harmonic performance from top to bottom. The Shilabe had the slam and fullness preferred by moving-magnet devotees, but with the resolution and speed of a good moving-coil.

Compared with the Shelter 7000 and Shun Mook Signature cartridges I review this month, the Shilabe easily sounded the most natural and convincing on Coltrane's Ballads, reproducing without brightness the greatest amount of metallic shimmer and detail from Elvin Jones's brushes; the cleanest, most honest-sounding, and best-focused reproduction of McCoy Tyner's piano; and, especially, the most reedy and realistic facsimile of Coltrane's tenor sax.

Soundstaging was somewhat narrower and flatter than those of my reference cartridge, the far more expensive Lyra Titan i ($5200), as well as of the Shun Mook Signature. Macrodynamics weren't quite as explosive, nor was the Shilabe's resolution of microdynamics quite as good. However, if you're more concerned about harmonic structure, you could make a case for the Shilabe's overall superiority. It certainly sounded richer without sacrificing speed and transparency, and I'm not sure I've heard more natural metallic ring to cymbals, or cleaner high-frequency transients overall, from any cartridge at any price. Given the Shilabe's price of $2800, that's saying something.

Summing Up
The Miyajima Shilabe is an unusually designed and unusually fine-sounding cartridge, but its 0.23mV output means that it must be paired with a quiet, high-quality phono preamplifier. If you have one, and you're more interested in correct harmonic structure and tonal color than in imaging and soundstaging, the Shilabe is well worth considering.—Michael Fremer

Miyajima Laboratory
US distributor: Robyatt Audio