S H E L T E R - HARMONY MC

HI-FI  +

 

 

For starters, the Harmony MC is one of very few cartridges to use a body built of solid carbon fiber (not just a carbon-fiber wrap applied to some other base material). From the outset, this construction feature means that the Harmony MC’s body is light, strong, and incredibly rigid, and possesses terrific internal damping—qualities that make it an ideal mounting platform for the cartridge’s motor mechanism.

Designer Yazuo Ozawa has made two other key changes in the Harmony MC vis-à-vis his earlier designs. First, in what may seem a counterintuitive choice, Ozawa has given the Harmony an aluminum rather than a boron cantilever (the other top-end Shelters use boron cantilevers). According to Arturo Manzano at Axiss Audio, the aluminum cantilever was chosen because it transfers energy from the stylus to the coil bobbin even more efficiently than a boron cantilever does. Second, Ozawa has fitted the Harmony MC with a thin, blade-like, line-contact stylus rather than an elliptically shaped stylus (most other Shelters use elliptical styli). The line-contact stylus was chosen in the interest of improving the cartridge’s groove-tracing capabilities, albeit at the expense of a making the Harmony MC somewhat more finicky with respect to vertical tracking angle adjustments.

Together, these changes make for a cartridge that has a very low internal noise floor, whose stylus can and does follow groove undulations faithfully, and whose motor assembly more accurately translates stylus movements into output signals. As a result, the Harmony MC not only surpasses the strengths of the other Shelters by noticeable degrees, but also opens the door to a fundamentally different and better kind of performance. I say this because the Harmony MC is an extraordinarily quiet cartridge (in the sense that it appears to dramatically reduce the internal resonances and vibrations that to some degree afflict most other phono cartridges), and as a consequence lets you hear way down deep into the interior details of the music. Thus, low-level musical information that, I suspect, typically gets masked or obscured by noise in other cartridges suddenly becomes available to you with the flagship Shelter in play. Even so, the Harmony MC never overwhelms you with detail and never sounds sterile or antiseptic in its presentation; instead, it keeps its eye on the prize, always maintaining Shelter’s consistent, signature thread of innate, organic musicality.

The only catch is that the Harmony MC is arguably more particular about the quality of the recordings it is fed than other Shelter cartridges typically have been. This doesn’t mean the Harmony MC will punish you if you choose to play mediocre-sounding records, but neither will it treat second-rate material as gracefully as, say, the 901 MkII might do. Also, be mindful that for best results you’ll want to experiment to find the just-right VTA settings for the Harmony MC, since as a general rule line-contact styli don’t take kindly to be tracked at the wrong angles (just take your time during initial setup and know that your patience will be richly rewarded).

To hear concrete examples of the Harmony MC’s rich yet naturally sounding detail, try putting a classic live jazz recording such as the Bill Evans Trio’s Waltz for Debby [Riverside]. Then, listen very carefully both to the sounds of the instruments and also to ambience cues from within the interior of the club (in this case, the Village Vanguard). From the outset, the Harmony makes Evan’s piano sound exceptionally realistic and believable, partly because it effortlessly allows you to hear—to borrow Jonathan Valin’s term—the “action” of the instrument at work. In turn, the sound of Paul Motian’s brushes on his cymbals and snare drum head becomes astonishingly alive-sounding and complete. You can easily make out the wiry sound of the brushes sweeping over the textured surface of the snare drum head, or gently activating the cymbals so that their dynamic envelopes expand into a golden shimmer and then gradually taper back towards silence. All too often, phono cartridges mange to make cymbals sound like bursts of white noise, but not the Harmony MC; it gives you the real thing—the plainly metallic sound of hammered bronze-alloy discs being stroked by brushes and then allowed to resonate sweetly as their notes hover gently on the air. Finally, the supreme Shelter flat out nails sound of LaFaro’s fleet-fingered bass solos in a highly compelling way—partly because the string and body sounds of the large, wood-bodied instrument seem so right, but also because the sounds of LaFaro’s hands and fingers on the fingerboard are so wonderfully consistent with the way a real acoustic bass sounds in the hands of a master. What the Harmony MC does better than most if not all other top-tier cartridges I’ve heard is both to retrieve exceptional amounts of low-level detail, and then integrate those details within the context of the larger musical whole.