Shelter Model 9000 Cartridge

hfnoutstandingWith its aluminium-plated boron cantilever and precision elliptical diamond stylus, this hand-built Japanese moving-coil cartridge is a rare yet special thing to behold

All things considered, 1986 was an unlikely time to launch a high-end phono cartridge brand, and all the more so considering it happened in Japan. When I moved to Tokyo four years after Yasuo Ozawa started Shelter, what the Japanese call 'Analog Disc' was almost as dead as the proverbial Monty Python parrot. True, you could slum it around the seedier sides of downtown Shimokitazawa and Asagaya and find an isolated second-hand record shop, but the only news in town was the shiny new Compact Disc.

This dazzling digital music carrier brought about the glory days of Shibuya's Tower Records selling vast quantities of US import CDs in its 'longboxes' – remember them? – and Virgin opening its first Megastore in the Shinjuku district, one of Tokyo's most desirable locations. There were virtually no turntables on sale anywhere, aside from a few cheap legacy decks and a handful of ageing Denon and Audio-Technica phono cartridges in public view. Vinyl's race was run, or so it seemed...

A Light In The Dark
Shelter made it through those dark days, and by the mid-'90s things seemed to be on the up. There was talk in the Japanese audiophile community that jazz just didn't 'cut it' via the CD format. Tokyo was always an unlikely Mecca for post-bop and/or modern jazz, and Japanese audiophiles consumed vast quantities of classic Blue Note and Impulse recordings. Both companies began reissuing their classic '50s and '60s albums on vinyl, and fans simply couldn't get enough.

Then Japanese EMI released remastered Beatles LPs, and even the Led Zeppelin catalogue came back out on vinyl – practically a decade before it reappeared in the USA and UK. In those pre-eBay times, well-heeled Japanese collectors were travelling to the UK to snaffle up dusty Garrard 301s and 401s like there was no tomorrow, plus classic SME 3009 tonearms to partner them. There was a sense that something was in the air, and this gave Ozawa san's young company the chance to grow. It sowed the seeds, so to speak, of Shelter's £2950 'Legendary Line' 9000 moving-coil cartridge that you see here.

Incidentally, the company took the name 'Shelter' because Yasuo Ozawa wanted his designs to offer a place of respite from the technological pace of the wider world; a sort of 'hi-fi sanctuary'. Although it's a bit of an odd appellation – Japanese companies trying to brand themselves in English often don't get it quite right – I rather like the sentiment. Back in the day, Japan's vinyl aficionados must have felt themselves to be an endangered species, and shelter was surely what they craved.


Although some western enthusiasts still think of Japanese hi-fi in terms of huge corporate multinationals like Sony, Panasonic (Technics) and Yamaha, Japan, like the UK, is also home to a number of small 'artisan' companies. However, the Japanese hi-fi market is still somewhat larger than that in the UK, and so there is correspondingly more room for very niche companies doing far-from-mainstream things – plus adventurous audiophiles willing to spend their money.

A Living Art
Shelter products are handmade in a workshop and then inspected by the boss himself to ensure quality and consistency. The country is well suited to this type of production – indeed it echoes Japan's earlier tradition of jewellry and watchmaking. There is also a powerful cultural aesthetic that celebrates perfection via minimalism and miniaturisation – exemplified by the 'living art' and craft of Bonsai.

The 9000 is said to be quite deliberately a largely conventional design, albeit with carefully selected parts. Doing it this way, Ozawa says, makes for a very long life with reliable performance over time. It uses an 11g aluminium alloy body with what Shelter calls a 'simple and legitimate' motor structure, and an aluminium-clad boron cantilever. At the end of this is a 0.3x0.7mm elliptical diamond stylus tip.

Claimed output is very healthy at 0.65mV, with a coil impedance quoted at 10ohm. The company recommends a tracking force of 1.4 to 2.0g and I found it held its own at 1.8g – no record I own apparently able to fluster it! Also, the obligingly rectangular shape and excellent metal stylus guard ensures it's surprisingly easy to install and align for azimuth and VTA. The quality of finish is superb and the cartridge is supplied in no-nonsense packaging with a basic set of mounting hardware.

sqnote Magical Moments
I have heard some great high-end moving-coils in my time over the years – and this is one of them. It's a top-tier design capable of eliciting magic from the record groove. Rather than merely transcribing what is committed to the vinyl, it manages to turn every piece of music you play into a virtuoso performance. The Model 9000 has you transfixed, lost inside the music and never wanting to leave – it is that convincing, that compelling.

Shelter Inc.
Ibaraki, Japan
Supplied by: Padood Ltd, Cambridge, UK
01223 653199