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Denon DL102 Cartridge Review

One cartridge for all LPs, Part 1:

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September 2007: updated with industry comment from Stan Ricker of Stan Ricker Mastering

Denon DL102 cartridge

Is it possible for one cartridge to do the job of playing all your records? Can one cartridge play back original mono pressings (usually with plenty of wear and tear) and modern audiophile reissues with equal fidelity?

Well, first, you should ask yourself: am I an audiophile or am I a record collector? Speaking for myself, I’d say I’m both. What I mean is, a record collector will have some pretty gnarly stuff in their collection, and most audiophiles don’t, because there are records so rare, that a poor copy is the only pressing you’ll ever find.

I’m a big fan of bebop and hard bop. The early 10” LP jazz is very pricey and hard to find, and if a mint copy does exist, and it goes on eBay, it may bring $600-1K. I don’t have that kind of money. What about records that have good music but just don’t sound good (and they haven’t been reissued to your satisfaction)? What about a record that sounds “boring”? If you answer, “I’m an audiophile”, you’re probably not going to tolerate less than perfect pressings, worn vinyl, bad mastering, etc… If you take all the great sounding records ever pressed, the sum is a mere drop in the music ocean.

Also, an audiophile will probably take a reviewer’s recommendation on a mega-buck cartridge and buy it without reviewing it in their system. All I can say is that it’s your loss. All cartridges sound different. How do you know if you have the best cartridge for your system, records and listening preferences?

Those many complex questions, and the requirements of record collecting, led me to amass an array of weird, unusual and special cartridges. I don’t have as many cartridges as some collectors, especially some very well-informed Asian listeners with deep pockets. Some of these cartridges sound great with most records, some are primarily intended for playing mono records. Some even sound horrible. I have strain gauges, the Weathers FM mono system, moving coil, moving magnet, moving iron, induced magnet, electret condenser, variable reluctance and there are yet others I haven’t heard. They all play records and they all sound dramatically different. For instance, I’d heard things about Decca’s: they were “the fastest” and “most detailed” and a “royal pain in the ass” and “made me contemplate suicide”. After a while, I decided I had to find out what all the fuss was about with these Decca cartridges.

I like a challenge. I really like it when someone says “it’ll never work” or “yeah, I tried that and I couldn’t make it work”. That’s like throwing the gauntlet down and challenging me to make it work. It’s the opportunity to prove somebody wrong. Don’t ask me why that is. It’s probably some childish adolescent trait I haven’t been able to shake. At this point I should mention I’m a cheapskate by necessity. I’m on a tight budget, and most audiophiles are. Even if I did have a monstrous entertainment budget, it’d go to buy first-pressing Blue Note, Prestige, Savoy, et.al…. So when I saw a Decca C4E, needing a new stylus, on eBay, I knew it was my chance. It needed a new tip, tie back (and probably a total rebuild), but it was only $50.

I’d read about Expert Stylus Company in England, that rebuilt cartridges, and for rates that I consider very competitive. So, this is a review of the service from Expert Stylus Company and the Decca C4E cartridge; there’s no way to separate the two. With any repair service, you’ll never be able to make any blanket statements about the work, other than, “it was broke, and now it works.” But there’s more to it than that when it comes to very fine machines, like musical instruments, cameras, watches and above all, cartridges. Yeah, it might work, but does it work well?

But before I get to the particulars about the C4E, I’d like to talk about a 40-year-old product that’s still in production in Japan, it could be just the thing you need to play back those old mono records (you know, the ones with the scratches and needle wear). I’m talking about the Denon DL102, the cousin of the DL103. I’ve had a relatively long relationship with the DL102.

The DL102 was designed with the idea of playing both mono and stereo records, but outputting a true mono signal. That may sound odd, but most old mono cartridges from the 1950s and prior had very little vertical compliance, as the vertical compliance was in the tonearm bearings, not the cartridge suspension. Remember those warnings on stereo LPs to avoid mono cartridges? If you played a stereo record with a mono cartridge, the cartridge would actually damage the disc. The DL102 and other, “modern” mono cartridges, like the Ortofon SPU Mono, have vertical and lateral compliance. That’s why the SPU Mono is called that way, because “SPU” meant Stereo Pick Up, and they called the SPU Mono an SPU because it had both vertical and lateral compliance, unlike their older versions that were lateral compliant only.

Okay, enough banter. A true mono cartridge’s pole pieces would form a 90º from the record (parallel with the surface of the record), with the moving coil between the pole pieces. In contrast, the pole pieces of most stereo cartridges are at 45º angles from the surface of the record. This standard, when it was developed, was called the 45/45 stereo system. It was invented/patented by Bell Labs and built by Westrex (Western Electric). It’s a very ingenious system and works remarkably well. The stereo cartridge is equally sensitive to signals that are vertical and lateral. That’s not the case with a true mono cartridge.

In a true mono cartridge, there’s no coil or poll piece present to pick up the vertical motion of the stylus. The net result of having a true mono cartridge is that any signal, as it deviates from purely lateral, will have a gradually diminishing output. Theoretically, any signal generated in the vertical plane, at 0º and 180º, shouldn’t be reproduced at all (there should be a null). That’s not the case, since things aren’t perfect in the real world. But, if you measure the response of a lateral signal and vertical signal from a mono test record, the vertical signal should be 25-30 dB lower in strength than the lateral signal.

That’s why I bought the 102, and it’s produced miraculous results with some of my oldest mono records. You see, any signal picked up that’s not lateral (side to side), while playing a mono record, is 100% distortion. Any cartridge that’s stereo in construction but wired for mono, is going to manifest more of this noise.

There are also differences between the various true mono cartridges. The Helikon Mono still has two coils and four output pins, versus the one coil and two output pins of the DL102. Still, the pole pieces are at 90º on both cartridges, generating a null at 0 and 180º. I need to note that some cartridges (the Helikon) don’t have pole pieces, they only have magnets, but that’s not important for our discussion. I don’t want to generate hate mail from Lyra when I’d love to listen to one.

I purchased my DL102 at Audiocubes about 18 months ago:

http://www.audiocubes.com/category/Home,+Portable+Audio_Cartridges/product/Denon_DL-102_Moving_Coil_Cartridge.html

Their service is first-rate and the prices are VERY good. Their English was flawless, something I was initially worried about. Buy with confidence and don’t sweat the Japanese-English translation issues. The Denon is also available from Eifl, another online Japanese retailer with a solid reputation. It was five weeks from the time I ordered the cartridge to the time it was delivered; but I was told in advance that the cartridge had to be built by Denon, so the delay was not a surprise. I find it amazing (and encouraging) that a company as big as Denon still supports a niche like mono cartridges. They even make a version of the DL102 with a 3mil tip for playing back 78s.

According to Mr. Sakuma, of Direct Heating fame, the 102 was used by NKH A-M radio stations to play back their stereo records; and according to another source, it was developed for the broadcast industry. They needed good quality mono sound, so they used a mono cartridge. Since Mr. Sakuma lives in Japan, I’ll assume he knows what he’s talking about. Please take a look at Mr. Sakuma’s Direct Heating philosophy. He uses a DL-102 and plays back his records in mono. He’s looking for musicality rather than accuracy. In his words: “I need non-analytical tone in reproduced sound. I aspire to Rembrandt’s interplay of light and shadow, to evoke memories both happy and sad.”

http://www10.big.or.jp/~dh/index.html#koko1

There are striking attributes to the cartridge when you take it out of the box. First, it’s absolutely massive, weighing more than any other cartridge I’ve used. The only cartridges I’ve seen that are heavier are a few ceramic types I’ve only held but not used. You’ll also notice that the Denon has two connecting pins, instead of the four you’re accustomed to. The body style and construction remind me of cartridges made in the ‘50s, like the variable reluctance GE models and early moving coils. The top of the body is plastic, and doesn’t exactly look like a high-end product. Just don’t expect this thing to be anything like a Helikon Mono, because it’s not.

When I first set up the Denon, I’ll admit to being very disappointed in the sound. It was bright, hard, thin and non-musical. Actually, it sounded like a bad CD played back with a bad CD player, but with even less bass. Not one to give up easily after dropping $175 big ones, I thought I’d give it some time to break in. I should point out that the instructions with most cartridges are pretty useless, they seem to use the same instruction sheet for every cartridge—47k loading, 1.5-2 grams, blah, blah… Yet, the instructions from Denon are rather odd. There’s nothing on setting the cartridge up. No pictures. No marketing hyperbole. Just a 3” by 4” piece of paper, the “Pickup Cartridge Inspection Card”, with the serial number, tracking force, load, stylus tip, output level and frequency response chart. They recommend 1KΩ loading, 3 grams tracking weight (no plus or minus is indicated), a .7 mil tip, 50Hz-10KHz and an output level of 48dB. I don’t understand the meaning of 48dB. How does that relate to mV? At the Cartridge Database, they specify the tracking as 3gm, +/- 1gm, 3mV output, 240 ohms output impedance, cartridge weight of 13 grams, .7 mil spherical tip, with unknown compliance. At this point, I’ll admit that I didn’t pay attention to these instructions, and had the thing running into a 47Kohm load, with 2.2 grams of tracking force, in an arm that was a bad match (not enough mass)—a MMT arm from the early ‘90s. Unfortunately, no compliance being specified, you have to deduce that the cartridge is low compliance from the way it behaves.

I should point out that the frequency response is +/- 2dB, and some companies would’ve tacked on a couple octaves and specified +/- 3dB. In use, once I had the thing set up correctly, it didn’t sound dull or lacking in bass. It does roll the bass off due to the low compliance (you’ll need a heavy arm to get good bass from a low compliance cartridge). The high frequency roll off is partially due to the high output of the cartridge.

A high-output, moving coil requires many windings on the coil to increase the output, in turn this creates several side effects. First, the extra mass pushes the resonance frequency of the cartridge further down into the audible range (a very low output MC will have a resonance frequency well above 20kHz). Second, the extra mass makes it more difficult to track high frequencies. With the DL102, for instance, you are also given a spherical (round) tip that will not track the highest frequencies, in addition to it having much more inner groove distortion compared to an elliptical tip. And don’t forget that the cantilever is aluminum, not high-performance boron or gemstone.

I got much better sound by loading it at 1k, putting the cartridge in a new Stanton DJ headshell that has a four-gram extra screw-on weight, and setting the tracking at 2.7 grams. I also added a tonearm accessory that mounts on the arm tube and adds 3 grams of lateral mass to the arm. With this setup, I had the counter weight nearly to the end of its travel. Now it had a much smoother response, and certain issues with high-frequency mistracking went away. I played many mono LPs and 45s and let the cartridge break in.

I’m somewhat dubious of cartridge break-in. As small as the wires and suspension components are, how can they change that much? However, it did become warmer and better balanced after 25 hours of listening. This probably took 6 months, since I didn’t use it as my primary cartridge.

The sound of the cartridge imposes itself on anything you listen to. It has a slightly forward upper midrange and a bass that’s a tad bit woolen. On loud brass, like my Basie, Ellington, and Kenton records, the trumpets and first trombones have a wee bit too much bite. It’s not bad though, and can add some excitement. I’d imagine that I could load the cartridge down even more to get a little smoother treble, but that’d make the bass response flabby. Since I used this cartridge with a medium-mass arm with more mass tacked on, I might suppose that an even heavier arm would provide smoother bass response. In the coming months, I plan to try the Denon DL102 with a 10” Audio Technica AT1501. It’s a massive arm and probably served as the home to many DL102 in Japanese radio stations.

So far, I’m making the Denon sound like a bad product, but it’s not. What it really excels at is playing back records that can’t be played by a normal cartridge.

I have some 10” jazz records with multiple scratches and scuffs, not to mention pressing bubbles, and off-centered to boot. With any other cartridge prior to the DL102, they would literally throw the cartridge out of the groove; when the cartridge wasn’t being tossed to and fro, the sound was ghastly. The transformation with the DL102, when compared to the other cartridges, was near miraculous. No, it didn’t make all the noise disappear, but it did make some of the noise disappear and some of the worst scratches sound more like a “thunk” than a gunshot going off. There was only one record, so bad that it’d be graded Poor- if I were selling it, that it had problems tracking. I raised the tracking force to 3.4 and it still had the occasional skip. Remember, this cartridge is trying to ignore most of those scratches because they would appear to be more vertical than lateral to it.

The Denon’s another strength is in vocal playbacks. It had a natural vocal sound, with warm (a little fuzzy) bass, and treble with some bite. Perhaps this cartridge was designed for AM radio use. On 45rpm singles, it brought back fond memories of my childhood when AM radio wasn’t the home for sports talk and radicals. AM, once upon a time, was a good sounding format. Sure, it had frequency limitations, but when a good engineer set everything just right, it could have warmth and golden tones.

99% of you folks haven’t heard a good AM radio playing back a good AM signal. The tonal balance of the DL102 reminded me of a top-of-the-line tube console radio from the ‘50s. Today’s AM radio sections have high frequency roll-off built into the circuit—to cut annoying “birdies”, etc… The roll-off introduces phase problems that cause listener’s fatigue. The only modern radio I have that approaches the sound of those golden oldies is my Tivoli. With the Tivoli, there can be more high-frequency noise on difficult-to-tune signals, but the sound quality is way better than anything else I have built into a receiver or car radio. Its AM sound is much like its FM sound. If you like EH Scott radios, you might like this cartridge.

Something else that the Denon does well is percussion. On my copy of Church Windows by Respighi, on Mercury Living Presence MG 50046 (mono only), the tam-tam strike (yes, that infamous tam-tam) literally exploded out of the speakers. It was something more like an eruption. It was fast and devastating. Apparently, Mercury had complaints with this record—people couldn’t track it with their home stereo. Not surprising. I’ve never heard anything louder from a record.

I should point out that mono cutting setups could cut at much higher levels than a 45/45 stereo setup. To compare, with a different moving coil and a moving magnet, the sound was bright and ugly and the tam-tam sounded distorted; it’s possible that those other cartridges were overloading the input to the preamp. On record after record with the Denon, the trap set or percussion section had lots of articulation and slam. Perhaps this was because the cartridge wasn’t responding to surface irregularities and was concentrating instead on the music. I’m not sure, but the percussion was great.

So, is this cartridge for you? If you don’t have old records, then no. But wait, there’s more. After I had this cartridge for a while, a funny thing happened. I was too lazy to swap playback setups and just decided to listen to a few of my garage-sale stereo records with the DL102. These weren’t audiophile pressings in any sense: The vinyl was thin and the surfaces weren’t very quiet; the mastering was mediocre, with bright upper treble, not enough bass and virtually no deep bass. But with the DL102, the record sounded marvelous. One that really comes to mind is CCR’s Greatest Hits. This sucker has too many songs to have good sound. However, since the bass and vocals are mono, when you play it back with a mono cartridge, all of a sudden the record sounds warm and punchy. Because the bass and vocals are mono, they play back louder than the guitars and drums, which are usually in one channel or the other, and have a strong vertical signal. Now I knew why the guys at NHK radio liked this cartridge. It’s a “hit maker”. It makes pop records really groove. I tried to do the same thing with the stereo/mono switch and a stereo cartridge, but it just doesn’t sound the same.

So, again, is this cartridge for you? Well, since it’s a pittance, compared to most decent cartridges, what do you have to lose? The worst that could happen is that you really don’t have records that need it. On the other hand, you could find yourself seeking out old jazz, pop and classical titles that you formerly would have avoided. You might even build a mono system. You could pick up a second hand direct drive, like a nice Japanese QLL from the late ‘70s, with a stock arm (don’t forget to add plenty of mass), a mono tube integrated amp (Eico comes to mind) and some old classic speaker (JBL, Klipsch, Altec Lansing, et.al….).

I give this cartridge high marks and recommend it without reservations to collectors. Even if you have a Helikon Mono (one of these days I’m going to try one), I doubt you’d want to set it to 3.5 grams and play back something used for frisbee.

Industry comment from Stan Ricker of Stan Ricker Mastering:

One thing many folks overlook about stereo carts vs. the early true mono’s is that the stereo-cantilevers hang out at about 45-degree angle, and when there’s even the slightest warp (there’s always those), the cantilever works itself up and down as the arm wiggles up and down, imparting a fore-and-aft motion of the stylus-tip, which then “FMs” the audio being played; like really slo-mo “jitter” on a CD player….

This really messes up the mono signal; it’s crystal-clear when playing back a 1kHz test tone from any record (mono or stereo) with a stereo cart. The mono-switch gets rid of the vertical audio, making the ‘FM-ing” effect even more obvious.

Also, most mono records were cut with 0-degrees of stylus/modulation deviation from perpendicular, and the early mono carts were the same way: i know that my Weathers and Pickering certainly were, and it looks like the Denon 102 is that way, too.

I really liked the detail and “popular science” tone of your review; it sure as hell wasn’t stuffy — for me, made great informative reading!

Keep it up, buddy!
Stan

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7 Responses to Denon DL102 Cartridge Review


  1. Walter Reis says:

    Dear Sir, good afternoon.

    Congratulations! Your review on Denon DL102 is fantastic!

    I am new to turntables, but I have just purchased a Rek O Kut Rondine with an original arm, equipped with a Pickering 301 Cartridge without needle! Please, help me with some questions: Do you think that the RoK S-160 arm is a good match with the DL102?

    I have also a Pickering model 190 arm, also big mass, I am thinking of putting a Denon DL 103 on it. Have you any experience on that too?

    Many thanks.

    Walter

  2. Phillip Holmes says:

    Walter,

    Both arms should work fine, though I’m not sure whether the mass of the DL102 is compatible with the counterweight of either arm (it probably is). The knock against those old arms is that their bearings are questionable with high compliance cartridges, like the Shure V15. The DL102 is just the kind of cartridge that woks for those arms. Low compliance and high tracking force. I have a Gray Research 12″ viscous damped unipivot I need to set up with the DL102. It should sound great.

    Regards,
    Phillip Holmes

  3. Great article! I have some original mono blue notes. Will the 102 work on my AR/XB table?

    Thanks

    • phillip holmes says:

      If I remember correctly, the XA tonearm is high mass, so it should work fine. You will need to jumper the cartridge clips carefully. It is very easy to break off the cartridge clip wire from the AR XA headshell. Proceed with caution.

  4. Richard Stoneroad says:

    Loved your review of this cartridge! I bought a very rough, but complete Rek-O-Kut N-33H from ebay as a “hi-fi” turntable to mate with a restored Heathkit AA-151. (I’m in the process of constructing a swingin’ hipster man cave for my son, and he NEEDS a hi-fi!!!) During its restoration, I ran across the DL-102, which seemed a perfect fit (both electronically AND aesthetically) for the Rek-O-Kut’s S220 tonearm. Plus, as you pointed out in your review, it also has the bonus of being able to play both mono AND stereo records well. And, while it wasn’t cheap, it was worth every penny! My son and I like “easy listening” music from the late 50’s and early 60’s, like Vic Damone, Mel Torme, etc etc… and this cartridge, on the Rek-O-Kut turntable with S220 tonearm is sheer heaven! Again, as you said, like an HH Scott on AM! Ha ha, I guess we’re both old, huh? You can tell Walter that this is the perfect cartridge for his ROK machine! I have a photo of mine, if you are interested, just email me. -Stoney

  5. The DL-102 is ideal on the Audio-Technica arm you propose. It matches very well with the Audio-Technica ATP 16-T I use mine with. And a major broadcast favorite in the USA, often paired with the Technics SP 10 Mk II, SP-25, and SP-25 (I use the latter with my ATP 16-T in a custom plinth). Enjoy and have fun. It’s a superb cartridge for mono and early Stereo LP duty.

    • Kent,

      The DL102, for me, is more usable than the DL103. I can get better performance than the 103 out of similarly priced cartridges, and better performance from cheaper ones. The DL102 though is a real gem. It makes certain records sound very real, in a historical way. They have the proper tonal balance, rhythm and detail. The 102 brings out contextual sounds from old mono records that are completely lost with stereo cartridges. With the 102, the more massive the arm, the better. Not only is the ATP a heavy (enough) arm, it has good bearings. It’s easy to recommend.

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