In hi-fi, there have been few longer lasting things than the Shure V15. From 1964 to 2005 it was the American company’s flagship pickup cartridge, and went through no less than eight different incarnations. It built up a tremendously loyal fanbase; for some folk it was the only way to listen to LP records. The V15 had a distinctive sound, one that could only have been a Shure – for all its faults it was unerringly fun to listen to. Its propulsive, bold, dynamic sound makes it just as enjoyable now, and as the design matured its failings were largely ironed out yet its charm remained.
The first V15 hit the shops in 1964. The ‘V15 Stereo Dynetic High Fidelity Phonograph Cartridge’ used a symmetrical bi-radial elliptical stylus measuring 0.0002×0.0009in, with a 15 degree vertical tracking angle. Shure claimed that it was ‘subjected to exacting quality control and inspection measures unique in the industry.’ It certainly gave extra prestige to an already highly successful manufacturer of microphones and more affordable pickups, and lasted for two years until the V15 Type II arrived in 1966. This was said to be the first ‘computer-designed superior tracking cartridge’; with it Shure introduced the notion of ‘trackability’, a term for ‘the ability to maintain contact between stylus and record groove at minimum tracking force throughout audio spectrum.’ It also introduced the flip-action, built-in stylus guard. Then the V15 Type II Improved arrived in 1970, with an upgraded stylus, giving a flatter frequency response.
The V15 Type III reached the market in 1973 and by now was really beginning to garner critical acclaim. It happened to coincide with the move to high compliance cartridges, which the Type III epitomised. It had a new laminated pole piece, and what Shure described as a ‘uniformly flat, unaccented, uncoloured frequency response’; there was also a twenty five percent reduction in effective stylus mass. The high watermark of high compliance, high traceability cartridges was sure the V15 Type IV, from 1978 to 1982. Its hyperelliptical nude stylus tip had an optimised tip-groove contact area, and added a viscous-damped Dynamic Stabilizer to damp the cantilever over record warps, and electrostatically neutralise record surface noise. This was controversial, and Shure itself admitted ‘the brush’, as many called it, was best set back into its rest position where it was effectively disabled, for the best sound.
By the early eighties though, the idea of an expensive, high compliance moving magnet was beginning to fall from favour, as the rise of low compliance moving coils from the likes of Supex, Audio Technica and Linn progressed. Still the V15 soldiered on with the Type V from 1982 to 1983, which used an ultra-thin-wall beryllium (Microwall/Be) stylus shank, and a MASAR-polished tip to reduce friction. It was packaged with Duo-Point Alignment gauge to minimise lateral tracking angle error. This was progressively refined with two further versions, the 1983 Type V-MR which added a Micro-Ridge stylus tip for better trackability, and then the V15 Type VxMR which sold from 1996 to 2005, where the pole piece position changed.
Each incarnation of the V15 saw different pole pieces being used, and the stylus housing changed too. This means that the stylii are not interchangeable between generations. However, within generations, different styli can be used; for example a series VxMR stylus (1996) can fit the original 1982 version. Indeed, many of the later incarnations of the V15 revolve around stylus profile changes; the Micro-Ridge (MR) diamond arrived on V15 Type V, and this was a big advance, so much so that Shure went back and offered this Micro-Ridge diamond on replacement styli for V15 Type III and Type IV too. Again, long term quantities were estimated and produced. Circumstantially, the tooling for the V15 Type V allowed for additional production of Type III replacement styli. In 2005, Shure ceased production of all replacement styli for the V15, but since then Ed Saunders has been remanufacturing them, at very reasonable prices.
Despite the ascent of moving coil cartridges, the final 1996 Shure V15VxMR won many plaudits, and found itself being the reference cartridge for Sony Music’s archival operations. Selling for £400 in the UK, its 6.6gm body boasts a die-cast aluminium mounting block, Shure’s Dynamic Stabilizer damper, an ultra low mass Beryllium tubed cantilever and Micro-Ridge (hence MR) stylus claimed to track best at 1gm. At 15.87mm high, it’s a fairly standard size and not too tricky to mount – even if the unconventionally shaped stylus assembly gives precious few reference points for alignment. The beautiful claret red velvet box was packed with accessories, including alignment protractor, turntable wedges, screwdriver, stylus cleaning brush, user and installation guides, mounting hardware and an excellent stylus guard which makes for angst-free installation.
The first time I heard this, I was enraptured. It is tonally far smoother and warmer than I’d expected from Shures of yore yet still managed to be ultra fast and incisive – this is the interesting point, because almost all cartridges are either warm or fast, but rarely both. Midband is detailed and open, with unusually strong depth perspective and image articulation, treble is bold and brassy but not harsh. Bass proved fluid and fulsome. It’s the rhythmic zip that really surprises; it makes many moving coils sound positively pedestrian. Attack transients are dizzyingly fast, and it invests a great sense of urgency into whatever it plays, rather like a Naim NAP250 power amplifier. It’s one of the most characterful cartridges around. It’s not perfect though; it lacks the ’hear through’ clarity of good mid-price moving coils.
Trackability was always a big thing with the V15; successive generations were always said to be the most tenacious groove-riders on sale at the time. Another big issue was tracking force; mid seventies V15s were routinely used at 0.75g. The xMR works best at just over 1g, which is still amazingly low by the standards of many moving coils. The Dynamic Stabiliser attempts to maintain a uniform distance between the cartridge and the record under difficult playing conditions, but should only be used on warped records. When not required, it can be locked up into its detent position. At 3.0mV output it is not one of the loudest moving magnets around, but of course doesn’t require an additional MC step-up amplifier or transformer, which is a huge benefit in sonic, cost and practical terms. All Shure cartridges are very sensitive to capacitive loading; 47k ohms in parallel with 250pf is recommended for the V15V.
To this day, the V15 has a loyal following, although in absolute terms it is a long way from state-of-the-art. A new £900 Lyra Delos moving coil for example, will give vastly superior detail, timbral accuracy and finesse, and sound almost as fun. But that’s missing the point; the V15 is a loud-and-proud moving magnet, happiest in lowish mass tonearms, at low tracking weights, and content to serve up a wonderfully warm, punchy and musical sound regardless of whether it’s the last word in accuracy or not. Cartridges are highly personal things, and I can see why so many still love the Shure V15.