Shure Me97HE phono cartridge

shure me97heFor nearly 10 years the Grado Prestige Gold (with an 8MZ stylus installed by mistake at Grado Labs) served well in both the Thorens decks I had owned; for a while I did think of getting a higher specs cartridge. I would have stayed with the MM technology, I didn’t want to deal with low outputs and stylus retipping instead of replacing. I was considering the likes of the Goldring G1042 or the Ortofon 2M Blue. But I stumbled across a piece of history: the Shure V15, in its III LM version, the ones mounted on Dual turntables. I had read a great deal about the V15, a project from the 60s that went out of production in the early 2000s. There are a lot of replacement styli for the V15 III, from the cheap EVGs to the top Jico/SAS from Japan. I read a good review about the Ed Saunders replacements and I bought one – it was defective. So I lost interest and resold the cart…

Sometime during 2017, someone told me they found an old turntable and that it was going to be trashed. They asked me if I wanted to have a look at it before they threw it away, just in case. Well, I don’t even remember the brand of the cheap deck. It was not working, I could not do anything about it. I trashed it myself, but I kept the cartridge. The brand name demanded it to be saved: Shure.

shure me97he topThe model was clearly written on the cartridge side: Me97HE “Encore”. It was not easy to find information about it on the internet, so after a while I convinced myself it was not really worth keeping. I decided to try and sell it. Any reasonable price would have been good, since I got it for free. So I started asking for 40-50 euros. Someone asked me if I was sure it was still working but I had no stylus to try it (nor money to spend even on cheap ones at the time). I checked with a tester and the connections seemed to read all fine. But the potential buyer – luckily – disappeared. I later saw similar carts at much higher asking prices, around 80 euros, so I raised mine. Luckily – again – no one stepped forward.

I had been very clumsy with my cartridges later, two Grado bodies and Gold1 / 8MZ styli – I managed to damage both. I had no working cartridges for my Thorens TD-160. So I started researching again about the mysterious Shure.

The venerable M97 cartridge from Shure’s Era IV is highly regarded by the fans of the brand. It replaced the earlier M95 model and was a small step below the legendary V15 IV of its era. The Encore series were 80s reissues (during Era V) of the best models of the Era IV. As they were made in Mexico, some regarded them as cheaply made, or at least of variable quality due to supposedly random QC at Shure Mexico. In fact, they were excellent cartridges, electrically identical to their predecessors but with lighter and cheaper plastic bodies.
They also kept the Side Guard Stylus Protection System, that protected the cantilever by limiting its movements and therefore the possible damage, as well as the famous stabilizer brush that provided both to improve the reading on deformed discs and to discharge the static electricity from the record. The presence of the stabilizer also brought the tonearm-cartridge resonance frequency into the optimal range.

The M97HE Era IV was second only to the V-15 Era IV because of the latter’s refined Microwall beryllium cantilever. The V-15 Era V then introduced a diamond with an even more evolved cut, called Micro Ridge (MR). But after 2006, Shure had to stop producing the V-15 because of the exasperating complication of manufacturing beryllium cantilevers, an element toxic to humans, in safe conditions. The M97HE thus became the top of the range. In the V era, reviews began to complain about the excessive coldness of Shure cartridges and Shure replaced their laminated pole pieces with cheaper solid poles; this added a high frequency roll-off to the latest models with an “x” suffix (V15 VMxR, M97xE), claiming that they would sound warmer. Not the M97HE Era IV, which like the V-15 Era IV remained flat. And that’s probably why I liked the sound of the Me97 so much as soon as I attached this cartridge to my TD-160 without much compliment…

Eventually, Shure quitted the phono cartridge business altogether and prices of carts and styli were floating. I’ve found some Me97HE ads at over 100 euros! I started finding good opinions about the Me97, too, which reportedly sounded much like the contemporary V15! If the insides of the cart were actually the same as in the original M97, and performances close to V15 IV and V15 V, I really needed a stylus for a try!

Nagaoka n95ed stylusThe HE suffix stands for the hyper-elliptical shape of the nude diamond tip. The Japanese Jico are well known for their SAS excellent aftermarket styli for Shure cartridges, but they are expensive. Ed Saunders was also known for its high-value Shure replacements, but his out of the business now. Then I came across an ad about a used Nagaoka N97ED replacement stylus. It was an elliptical, not a hyperelliptical stone cut. But it was just 28 euros. I just couldn’t spend much for a cartridge I didn’t really know if it really was in working order. However, the Nagaoka stylus had both the cantilever side protection and the stabilizer brush (it seems to provide all the functions, while the Jico ones only stabilize). So I went for it and …wow!

As soon as I heard the first sound from a single channel (one of the headshell leads was not correctly connected) I was taken by surprise. After I connected the lead well, I was amazed. The deep, full and down to the earth sound that came out of a 28 euro stylus on a cart I had for free was simply astonishing. Actually today these Nagaoka stylus are rare to find and someone dares to sell them for almost 100e! Maybe after reading these pages? Or maybe neither I nor the careless seller I bought it from realized its value. Now I wonder: what if I had a real HE stylus for that?

Shure-Me97HE-600x800I stumbled upon a quote from a famous sound engineer who mastered many audiophile LPs, stating he was unable to tell the difference from the master tapes and the disc-laquers he made from them when played with a Shure V15 IV on a simple Technics SL-1200! This was Shure of the good old times. A flat response was appreciated.

This unassuming little plastic Shure cart from a cheap and small turntable is making me question my own love affair with Grado cartridges. I will need to know what this can do with a proper top quality hyperelliptic tip. In fact, I later discovered that the electrical measurements of the Me97 are fully compatible with those of the M97x, not the M97 Era IV. So I’d be in possession of the cartridge from which the Shure has derived its latest, the on with the high frequency roll-off. In addition, I am using it with a stylus that is not perfectly compatible – the M97 series had the stylus with a plastic band on top with the Shure writing on it, tilted so that it fits perfectly with the body of the M97 Era IV. The body of the Me97 is different and the clamp would prevent the stylus from fully fitting into the cartridge body. In fact the original Me97 stylus is not equipped with it. It doesn’t seem to me that the stylus doesn’t fit completely but I read that it is less than 1 mm, I don’t know what it could sonically involve. The fact is that I’m using it with a stylus that wasn’t built for it, neither for its shape, nor for performance, and I already like it…

For a while I doubted it would have been worth spending money on a brand that doesn’t exist anymore. However, Shure had never supported old cartridges, and they wouldn’t have supported the old Me97 too, even if they were still in the business. If I think back to the flattering review Geoff Husband did on TNT-Audio about the Shure V15 VxMR (one with treble roll-off, by the way), which made me go after the above mentioned V15 III, I am really glad I have found this cart for free. Geoff enthusiastically stated that if you have a system capable of reproducing the real lower end, the V15 would have achieved slamming bass. Well, the Me97 is supposed to be very similar, and I do have transmission line loudspeakers