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Denon DL 103 Cartridge Review

Phillip Holmes straightens the records on the $229 Denon DL 103 cartridge

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Denon DL 103 cartridge

The Preliminaries

We’re all susceptible to hype and wishful thinking. Certain audio pieces start to gain a mythical reputation; the Bozak Concert Grand was the first thing that came to mind. Since the audio experience is subjective, and has very little to do with measurements, it’s hard to disprove any statements about equipment you haven’t actually heard. Perhaps the “Acme Cartridge” is the best in the world when used with the “Widget Arm” and “Spinnaker Turntable”. If you take the Acme off that arm and table, it sounds awful. Another audiophile heard the “Acme”, on a “Hoople” arm, and it was just bad. It’s easy to see how two opposing camps can form over certain products.

Perhaps you have to reproduce the same test conditions exactly. So, when you hear from multiple sources that a certain piece is truly outstanding, or that it’s as good as something that costs 10 times the price, you want to find out if it’s true, and I submit that subconsciously, you WANT it to be true – I call this the Koetsu for Stanton Syndrome – more on that later.

Cartridges and speakers are especially difficult to set up. In the case of speakers, the room is particularly problematic. With cartridges, proper setup and tonearm matching are crucial. I try to keep that in mind when approaching a much ballyhooed component. If I dislike it, am I using it properly? How are other audiophiles using it?

My first experience with the Denon DL103 cartridge family was on a DL103M. To this day, I think it’s one of the finest-tracking cartridges I’ve heard. It could play anything at a moderate tracking force, and dealt with vinyl noise and perturbations better than most other cartridges I’ve tried. The downside (and it was a huge downside) was an output of .12mv. That’s miniscule output. What that meant for me is step-up transformers. The only thing I had available at the time were Altec Lansing 4722 microphone transformers. I tried going direct into the preamp, but the tube noise was just too much. Come to think of it, with a really good pre-preamp, or a top quality modern transformer, the DL103M might be even better.

Alas, in a careless moment, I bent the cantilever. It awaits a proper rebuild job. How much of the sound of the 103M was the hyper-elliptical stylus and boron cantilever? Is there a Denon 103 sound that is evident in every version? According to reports from Japanese audiophiles, the DL103M is actually built differently (the motor) from the rest of the 103 line of cartridges.

“Combine an easy tonal balance with good tracking, and you have sound that transcends a lot of audiophile qualifications.”

After the success with the 103M, I went on to use other good cartridges, but most, not all, were missing something that the 103M did really well. That is, the 103M sounded very non-mechanical. There are some cartridges that want to remind you that they are a piece of diamond on a stick, scraping on a piece of plastic. The 103M was able to make music sound easy and natural, more like listening to good open reel tape than a record. Maybe it was the stylus profile. Or, maybe it was the suspension damping. Or, perhaps it was a fortuitous combination with the tonearm I was using. What if the transformer was imposing a warm character? The thing I remember is that the tonal balance was very laid back and not at all in your face. Combine an easy tonal balance with good tracking, and you have sound that transcends a lot of audiophile qualifications.

After the positive experience with the 103M, I decided to see if the other cartridges in the Denon range were just as good. Based on the internet buzz around the DL103, I decided I should try it out. The plain DL103 (no suffixes attached) has been in production since the ‘60s and has remained unchanged from the original specifications. The original version was fitted with an aluminum cantilever and spherical diamond. Tracking force is a somewhat heavy 2.5 grams, plus or minus .3 grams. The output is a moderately low .3mv, and it’s going to require a very quiet phono stage or a step-up transformer with a primary of 100-120 ohms. If you go out on the internet, there’s a lot of praise for this cartridge, mostly deserved. What I hope to do is offer a few words of caution and a couple ideas.

When I looked at the cartridge specs, the first thing that really got my attention was the low compliance of 5x 10-6cm/Dyne at 100Hz. According to the “Cartridge Resonance Evaluator” at “The Cartridge Database”, the tonearm effective mass would have to be rather high for ideal low bass behavior. It really needs an arm with 18 grams of effective mass or higher. Only a handful of arms have that much mass, and many of those are not very good (bad wiring, bad bearings, microphonic, etc…).

Using a Rega RB300 puts the resonance frequency dangerously close to musical notes. If you take the compliance, tonearm mass and cartridge mass, the chart claims a resonance frequency of 15Hz. If that arm is even lighter, and there are many arms lighter than a RB300, the resonance frequency is going to make some recordings very difficult to reproduce cleanly. A SME 3012 would have a resonance frequency of 12-13 Hz, which is much better. And there are others, like the big arms from Fidelity Research (and by extension, also Ikeda??), that would be ideal matches. Also, the Sony PUA7, Sansui XRQ 7, Acos GST 801, several Thorens arms and the EMT 929 look like ideal partners. Actually, you could probably dig up some pretty nasty “transcription arms” from the ‘40s-‘60s that could work with the DL103. Because of the low compliance of the cartridge, the heavy tracking force needed and the high mass of the arm, the dubious quality of some of those ancient arms can be overcome by brute force.

The next red flag was a recommended tracking force of 2.5grams +/- .3 grams. As I listened to the cartridge with a couple of different arms, I decided the specs should read “2.7-2.9 grams”. At forces of less than 2.7 grams, there was too much mistracking. This really has as much and probably more to do with the spherical diamond profile as the low compliance of the cartridge motor: The low compliance of a cartridge doesn’t necessarily mean that you need 3 grams to track. Low compliance means you need a heavy arm for the proper resonance frequencies. So, it has a primitive stylus shape in an aluminum tube in a low compliance motor. That’s not a bad thing necessarily. I’ve heard great things from aluminum cantilevers, low compliance cartridges, spherical tips and high tracking forces.

The Beginning

I already thought the DL103M I own was a well made cartridge. My hopes were high when I opened the 103. I was not disappointed. How can Denon possibly make money on this thing? Build quality is first rate, with nothing to apologize about. I’ve seen cartridges that cost 10 times the price that weren’t this well built. Denon deserves praise for subsidizing the continued production of well built phono cartridges. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe they are making a killing on a $200 cartridge; by the way, I spent less than that direct from Japan.

NOPE, there’s no way they’re making money on it. $229 is the retail price. That means Denon is selling for less to the retailer. The cost of living in Japan is high. The cost of skilled labor in Japan is high. They’re not paying some sweat shop laborer peanuts to make this thing, which is assembled by hand. This cartridge, which isn’t built cheaply, is priced cheap. Without a doubt, the DL103 is the biggest bargain in audio. I can’t think of anything that even comes close. An argument can be made for the DL103S and DL103Pro, but I think the DL103 still has to win the contest. Without the ludicrously cheap DL103, there wouldn’t be a 103S or 103pro.

Setup is easy with the 103. It’s got an easily visible cantilever, stylus tip and a square cartridge body. As far as I’m concerned, I’d like to see all cartridges come in a rectangular body. It makes roughing-in the set-up a cinch. Because the tip is round, VTA and overhang aren’t as critical as a cartridge with a line contact stylus profile. A round tip is still contacting the groove wall the same way, even if you are off by a few degrees of VTA or a MM of overhang. No matter how you turn a sphere, it’s still round. A line contact is more critical and is easy to hear when the overhang or VTA is off. I suggest that the Baerwald alignment is preferable to the Löfgren “B” because it gives better tracking of the inner grooves. What might even be better for this cartridge is the Stevenson Alignment which gives the best possible alignment for the inner grooves, the trade-off being overall higher distortion across the record. This might be an explanation for the popularity of this cartridge in the Rega tonearms which don’t have quite enough mass (12 grams).

It’s my understanding that one of two available Rega alignment protractors is based on the Stevenson alignment. Also, since a spherical tip isn’t as picky about VTA, it’s forgiving of a stock Rega’s non-adjustable VTA. By the way, I couldn’t find, or print, a Stevenson protractor. Anyone care to send me one? It would be interesting to see what this alignment arrangement would do for the sound.

In the inner grooves, a spherical tip will have more problems with “groove pinch”. This isn’t as much of a problem with mono records because they had bigger grooves and both channels have the same information. With stereo pressings, the grooves are more densely packed. Also, with stereo you have much worse groove pinch because two different treble signals will close down, or pinch, on the stylus tip, as the two grooves will be pushing up and together at the same time – a tough job for a spherical tip. With the 103, I heard the groove pinch on highly modulated stereo material, especially the inner grooves. So, when setting the overhang, try to optimize the inner grooves for the best sound.

“The very best line contact profile, in comparison to a spherical tip, reproduces the higher frequencies with MUCH LESS total harmonic distortion.”

I want to address something I’ve read about spherical tips. There are opinions out there claiming a spherical tip should be better than a line contact. Their logic is so odd, that I don’t want to risk spreading this peculiar form of audiophile wishful thinking (falls under my Koetsu-for-Stanton syndrome). Some of these same proponents claim that line contacts are a scam perpetrated by the cartridge companies to make you pay more. Sorry, but that’s not true. The very best line contact profile, in comparison to a spherical tip, reproduces the higher frequencies with MUCH LESS total harmonic distortion. Also, the line contact styli will go at least an octave higher before rolling off.

To my understanding, the Shibata tip was developed in Japan to allow the repeated and reliable reproduction of the high frequency carrier on quadraphonic records, with a minimum of wear. That led to further developments in hyper-elliptical and line contact profiles. If a spherical tip was the best shape, why do cutting engineers use a chisel shape?

Another issue I’d like to address is denuding the DL103: I don’t think it’s a great idea. I’ve used “nude” cartridges, and keeping them clean is difficult. I like the fact that the delicate motor of this cartridge is well protected from record crud. I didn’t notice any excessive amount of needle talk or cartridge body resonance, so it’s not like the plastic cartridge body of my Decca C4E that acts like a sound board. If I were modifying a 103, I’d keep the body intact. I’m sure the sound might be better without the body, but I prefer the stock arrangement. Again, I really can’t fault the construction. I think Denon decided to put a body on it because it’s the best compromise for sound, setup and longevity. I’ve seen some complaints that the cartridge body was too easy to deform, or that it was too easy to damage. I had no such problem, and I am notorious for stripping screws, breaking sockets and destroying ratchets. I guess those guys are using an impact wrench to install their cartridges.

Tonearm Consideration

As I stated earlier, you need a somewhat massive arm for optimum performance. I do have a 10” Audio Technica arm made in the ‘70s for radio stations with a mass of 20 grams. However, it’s kind of rare and atypical of what readers would have available. Also, I would’ve needed a different armboard. So, I didn’t use it. I wound up mounting it to a MMT on a SOTA Sapphire and a SME V mounted on a VPI plinth housing a Denon DP80 direct drive. I used a Denon step-up transformer set for 40 ohms. Running the cartridge into the 47k ohms was too bright for my tastes. The preamp was an Audible Illusions, and amps were heavily modified Heathkit W6M mono blocks, the transformers of which were some of the best ever. The speakers were Maggie 2.6R and Vandersteen 2Ce Signature.

The first combo was the SOTA and MMT arm. I immediately knew that the arm, which is medium mass, was too light. The bass was a bit boomy, with an unusual amount of cone pumping. The midrange was very nice, but the highs were covered, or veiled, sounding. I checked the VTF and decided to increase it from 2.5 to 2.8 grams (the top of the range). This noticeably helped the veiled sound in the treble and got rid of some mistracking that would crop up from time to time in loud passages. Still, the bass wasn’t correct. I went to my bag of tricks and pulled out a cartridge spacer made of lead. After adding the extra mass (3 or 4 grams), remounting the cartridge, adjusting the VTA and VTF, the sound really opened up and the top-to-bottom balance was much better. Tracking improved, channel separation improved and I was happier.

The strength of this cartridge is the midrange. On every vocal LP, I was able to get involved in the music. Female and male vocals were both great. If there was anything to fault about voice playback, it would be that high sopranos could occasionally develop a raspy or rough quality during loud passages. Particularly noteworthy was John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. This record is all warmth and beauty. Coltrane stays in the middle of his instrument, playing great accompaniment. His tone on this record is at its most subtle and warm, matching Hartman’s velvety voice. The piano reproduction was just as good. Elvin Jones’ drums were reproduced with plenty of snap. The cymbals occasionally had a white or washed out character, but not bad. This undoubtedly is attributable to the stylus profile.

On bass-heavy tracks, the sound was very good, though not the best I’ve heard. Perhaps because the arm wasn’t a perfect match, the low bass tailed off at 25-30Hz. It was still there, but not like my Shure M97, Lyra Argo (under review), or most of my other cartridges. The quality of the bass was fine. It’s a lack of quantity. It was plenty tight and tuneful, but just gradually fades the lower you go. If I didn’t have the other cartridges to compare, the lack of very low bass wouldn’t have been as audible (if at all). I was using stereo servo subs that go to 17 Hz with my Maggie 2.6R. Without the subs reinforcing the low bass, the Maggies would have rapidly rolled off below 40 Hz and it would have been impossible to tell the difference.

On rock and large romantic classical works, the limitations of the spherical stylus became apparent. Massed high violin passages developed the hazy character I mentioned before. The same thing goes for crash cymbals, gongs, high trumpets, and anything with lots of very loud and very high frequency information. I wouldn’t say that it was mistracking. What I would say is that the stylus profile has a difficult time differentiating the crucial overtones that help you tell the difference between individual sopranos in a choir, the different cymbals in a drum set, the difference between wire strings and gut strings, different trumpet players in Ellington’s amazing band, etc.. Overtones are crucial to picking out individual voices and telling the difference between a Stradivarius and a Guarneri. I need to point out that this limitation in the highs was much more apparent on the ribbon-equipped Maggie than the Vandersteens. If I had limited my listening to the Vandersteens, would I have noticed? I don’t know. Also, the tube amps are flat out to at least 50kHz. The system is very revealing in the highs.

Imaging was very dependant on how loud the passages were and how much high frequency information was there. The imaging outside the speakers was good, but not first rate. This could be partially due to the compliance issues. As the program information got progressively higher and louder, the stage width shrunk and the sound slightly bunched around the speakers. I’ve heard much worse, though. If I had to give up the great vocal reproduction to get better stereo width, I wouldn’t make that deal. It did a very good job of placing images between the speakers. And depth was also good. It’s a competent performer. These hi-fi spectacular sound effects aren’t its strength. Reproducing vocals and small groups are.

After going through a lot of software, I gradually decided that this would be a great choice for playing back mono records. With a typical mono pressing, you have larger grooves that are easier to track. Also, early recordings were often limited in high frequency response. That means that an early Blue Note or Prestige or FFRR (all mono records) might play to all the DL103’s strengths and none of its weaknesses. I know I went on and on in a previous article about the DL102 and what it could do. Perhaps the DL103 could be even better. It has better tracking and frequency response than the DL102. An interesting experiment would be to strap the hot pins of the DL103 to mono as opposed to using the mono switch on the preamp, which isn’t the same as strapping the coils before it gets to the preamp.

“I’ll just say that the problem of a conical stylus is almost a non-issue with most mono recordings.”

Every mono pressing I threw at it sounded good. Some sounded spectacular. I got lazy and stopped writing down what records I was listening to. I’ll just say that the problem of a conical stylus is almost a non-issue with most mono recordings. This is where I really had the most rewarding listening experience. I’m going to listen to a Helikon Mono soon and I’ll see what a mint mono pressing can sound like, at its best. The DL103 did have more intrinsic noise than the DL102 because the 103 is a 45/45 stereo cartridge. But, it still sounded very good.

The only place that the DL103 shows its limitations is in the highs, and especially in the inner grooves. The quality and craftsmanship can’t be faulted. It’s just the limitation of the stylus shape. What I’d like to try soon is putting this on a linear arm and see if that’d make a difference.

I’ll make the observations of the DL103/SME V/DP80 turntable fast. It sounded threadbare and never made music. The bass was muddy. I went to check the tonearm mass and discovered why this wasn’t a good match. The effective mass of the V is 10 grams. Though the V looks massive, it isn’t. Its arm tube is made from one piece of magnesium. This makes for a low resonance, very rigid arm. But it’s light. Perhaps I should’ve added the lead spacers; it would’ve taken two. Also, I didn’t experiment with the damping trough, which would’ve helped a little. The point is, the DL103 isn’t a perfect match with all arms. It has its strengths and it has limitations.

Koetsu for Stanton Syndrome

So, what is my “Koetsu for Stanton Syndrome”? You can’t expect perfection from a $200 cartridge. It’s wishful thinking that we’re going to find a cartridge that performs like a $7,000 cartridge for a couple hundred bucks. You should know that there are going to be limitations, and that’s okay. Putting it another way, if you had unlimited funds, would you try every affordable cartridge available, trying to find one that sounded as good as a really expensive cartridge? Probably not. You’d just write the check for the cost-no-object cartridge and start listening. I have some Stantons and they track anything I throw at them. I’m not denigrating them (hey, I own them!). I still like the 881mk2s. I’ve also heard several different Koetsus (I don’t own one). The Koetsu Jade Platinum can work magic in the midrange and do as good as most other cartridges at all the other things. It costs a lot of money. Even if I owned the Jade Platinum or any other “statement” cartridge, I wouldn’t get rid of my DL103, Stanton 881, or Shure V15 because they have their own unique magic.

So, how critical should I be of the DL103? Really, considering what it can do, how CAN I criticize it! It’s a bargain. With the right tonearm and in the right system, it can do a remarkable job. If you already have something like a Shure V15 or Sumiko Blue Point Special, and want to experiment, you’ll be happy you gave it a shot. If you have two turntables, which you should, experiment with using this as a mono cartridge by strapping the hot pins together. When presented with vocals, chamber music, classic mono records, etc.., it can sound very good indeed. As a final thought, if you take this cartridge and send it to someone like Expert Stylus for a boron cantilever and hyper elliptical tip, you will get sound that is competitive with very expensive cartridges.

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8 Responses to Denon DL 103 Cartridge Review


  1. Kent Teffeteller says:

    My own experience with the DL-103 is comparable to your own experience. I do like conical styli best for mono LP and 45 RPM discs and pre 1967 Stereo discs. I use the same type of Audio-Technica tonearm as you do, but it’s 12″ brother. Your arm is called the ATP 12-T. This cartridge is comparable to many more expensive cartridges and sold at a scandalously low price for a handmade MC. Essential to have heard one at least once in your audiophile life. Recommended by me.

    • phillip holmes says:

      Kent,
      You are correct about the proper place for conical styli. Many early recordings need the conical stylus, but most of those are mono, and I prefer the DL102. Still there are certain recordings where it sounds better (glossing over “too much detail”).

      The more advanced versions of this cartridge sound more advanced. I’d buy one with a broken tip and send it to Expert Stylus, The Sound-Smith, Andy in Bellevue WA, etc… Or, buy one, wear it out, then have it retipped. But, you are correct: scandalously low price.

      Regards,
      Phillip

  2. Terry Robinson says:

    Thanks for such a wonderful, and detailed review. This pickup does require a fairly heavy arm. One good one would be the S.M.E. M2-12R with Damper. This very expensive arm is designed for M-C pickups. I recently fitted an elderly, but good, DL-103R. It is so good that I doubt if I will ever change to another brand!

    • phillip holmes says:

      Terry,

      That “R” variant is one of many upgrades. I have the type “M” which is just about as far as you can get from the original version (super skinny cantilever, radical stylus, medium compliance). The higher mass arms push the resonance frequency below the vinyl noise range. In a lighter arm, the cartridge does sound “dirty” due to the resonance frequency coinciding with grunge. It also likes to mistrack in a medium mass arm.

      Thanks,
      Phillip

  3. Posh Hippie says:

    I run these with a modified Technics SL-1200 (upgraded wiring, silicone fluid damper, heavy weights on headshell and counterweight). To get proper impedance match and low low noise I use K and K transformers and a Jolida JD9 phono pre,

    The “R” version has more realism for still under $400. They can be retipped with line contact and boron contilever. What on earth comes close? (Scratches head…:). Beats me. Best deal out there probably. And pretty darn high up the food chain period.

  4. Michael King says:

    My turntable is a Rega P5 with the RB700 tonearm and a Groovetracer Reference subplatter. Preamp is a Linn Majik Kontrol set for moving coil. I recently installed a DL-103R as a replacement for a Rega Exact moving magnet. The Rega is a fine cartridge but I prefer the Denon at about half the Rega’s price and could not be happier. More detail, deeper and more defined bass, neutral voicing just on the warm side, great PRAT and sure tracking with a suppression of surface noise. I’m not a tweaker so I didn’t change the stock counterweight or install a shim. If you are a Rega owner, I recommend this cartridge without hesitation and don’t worry about all the cautions you can read on the internet.

  5. Andrew Ballew says:

    I know its an old post, but I believe your compliance resonance calculations are inaccurate. They would be, if compliance was stated at 10hz, but the spec you used is stated at 100 hz. Most Japanese carts use the 100 hz spec rather than 10. Therefore, to use the calculation, you need to double the compliance, then you will get a figure close to what it is at 10 hz. So, instead of 5, to be accurate with this cart, you need to plug in a 10.

    Resonance point is then 11.4 hz.

    The Denon DL-103r works perfectly fine with a rega arm.

  6. larry wilson says:

    The Denon DL-103 was made for older tonearms with lossy bearings and a removable headshell, which offers the opportunity for the arm to absorb vibrations from the Denon’s stiff suspension. More recent arms with precision bearings and solid arms won’t perform as well.

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