Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CXX: Ode to an Old Cartridge--the Denon DL-103
(April 2018)

I try not to make specific recommendations concerning audio equipment anymore--as I've mentioned before, it's a conflict of interest with my existing role in importing and distributing eight brands of high-end audio. But every once in a while I'm floored by a great product, especially when it offers incredible performance for a reasonable price. For instance, I'm mightily impressed with the Heed Elixir integrated amplifier, which includes an excellent high-quality phono preamp and headphone amplifier in a very small chassis--all for just $1200. I'm very spoiled by super-expensive gear at this point in my life, but I could build a system around this modest little amp and be happy for the rest of my life.

I feel the same about the latest version of the Rega P2 turntable, which is as good as the more costly P3s from previous generations, or the diminutive Quad S2 loudspeakers and their superb sense of balance, or at least a dozen other products that will give you a big walloping tablespoon of the finest sound available. But over the last year, I've been quietly using a product that has slowly gained my love, respect and admiration. It's so inexpensive that when it's worn out, you can probably just toss it and buy another one. Its performance is so high, I use it with that super-expensive gear and almost never pay attention to its limitations. Even more surprising, this is a product that's been around for as long as I have, and yet it still holds its own against the latest new technology.

It's the Denon DL-103 phono cartridge.

I started using the 103 as a backup cartridge to my exquisite Transfiguration Axia cartridge, which cost about ten times as much. The Axia is a phenomenal cartridge, so I'm not about to tell you that the 103 gives it a run for the money. It doesn't. The Axia digs deep into the grooves and pulls out overwhelming amounts of musical information, details that the 103 only hints at. So why would I use the 103 while the Axia sits in its box, making rude harrumphing noises? Because, as I said, the Denon is a back-up. It's the Nick Foles of cartridges. You stick it in the system because you need to, and then you leave it in because it's doing a great job.

I remember my old audio mentor and dealer, Gene Rubin, explaining why he didn't really feature expensive cartridges. He always mounted $400 Audi-Technica OC-9 low-output moving coil cartridges on even expensive turntables because he felt that there was a certain amount of stress involved with using four and five-figure phono cartridges. What if you bent the cantilever by accident when you cued up? What if it needed re-tipping after just 1000 hours? He felt that stress took away from relaxing and enjoying the music (since those days Gene has taken on lofty, expensive cartridges from Koetsu, Dynavector and Clearaudio--because those cartridges, like my Transfiguration, do amazing things to your soul).

Gene's point stuck with me over the years, especially when I owned a couple of Koetsus and now the Axia. I started thinking--what if I bought something cheap but good so that I could extend the stylus life of the Axia? (I know, I'm probably one of those pretentious analog guys who "need" a turntable with two tonearms). Considering that I've destroyed the cantilever and stylus assemblies on both of my Koetsus, maybe I need something more affordable so when I do flub up I can merely say, "Oh well, time to get another" instead of having nightmares about destroyed cantilevers every night for the next decade.

So I grabbed a 103 when I realized that I was going to have to re-tip the Axia sooner than expected. This superb low-output MC retailed for just $229 when I installed it last year. The price now seems to be $299. Even so, I keep thinking that Denon, one of those huge Japanese electronic giants, simply forgot that they're still making the original 103, the same one that debuted in 1962. I imagine the 103 Department at the Denon factory is filled with old employees that time forgot. They keep hammering out these cartridges on a daily basis because no one told them to stop. Perhaps there's no computers in the 103 Department and all the accounting is still done the old-fashioned way, on paper, and someone forgot to transfer all the handwritten scribbling into Denon's accounting software. The 103's keep getting made, and through some miracle they are still distributed and used throughout the world.

I recently talked to a Denon rep in the US about the 103, and he replied that it's a very strange product indeed. "They could charge a lot more for it and get it, but they don't," he said. "I think they just have a lot of pride in it, even after all these years." It's so different from the bulk of Denon products in 2018--home theater systems, A/V receivers, Blu-ray players, cheap but decent automatic turntables that retail for a few hundred bucks at most (and don't include a Denon cartridge, strangely enough). Denon does have a full line of cartridges that include the more expensive DL-110, DL-301 mk. II and even the DL-103R, a more modern update of the 103 with a different stylus profile, better copper coils and increased output. I've compared the 103 to the now-$450 103R, and while I felt that the R was more accurate and had a lot more detail, the 103 just has that old-fashioned magic that transports me to another time. The modest little 103 just hangs in there, doing the special little things that it does like open a window to the original performance.

I haven't even mentioned all of the modifications that other manufacturers have performed on both the 103 and 103R to turn them into something even more special, which is a surprise because this is not the first 103 I've owned. For many years, I ran my lime green Rega P3-24 turntable with a Zu Audio DL-103. Zu Audio replaced the black body of the 103 with a heavier one made from a small milled block of aluminum, and they tweaked the innards a bit. The result was a $399 cartridge that Art Dudley of Stereophile once called the best phono cartridge for under $1000. I agree with him--during my time with the Zu 103, I never once clamored for a better cartridge. It always sounded so right. The Zu was meaty, powerful and direct.

Peter Ledermann of Soundsmith cartridges has also modded 103s and 103Rs for many years, installing ruby cantilevers, better styli and even wooden bodies to this classic design. Michael Trei, a fellow audio scribe and one of the top turntable set-up experts in the world, once told me that you've have to spend a lot of money before you could better one of Peter's modded 103s, which is one of the reasons why I came back to the 103 when I needed that no-fuss back-up cartridge.

So for the first time in my life, I have a stock 103 in my system. I thought it might be a step down from the Zu Audio 103 I enjoyed a decade ago, and to tell you the truth, I no longer have the ability to compare them side by side, so I won't go there. Besides, I used them in different systems with different turntables. All I know is this--for $229 or $299 or whatever price you pay for one, an important point since I've seen them discounted here and there, I can't imagine another phono cartridge that comes close to the 103. This probably has something to do with the 103 being a moving-coil cartridge, and the majority of low-output MCs these days cost $500 or more (much more, usually), At this price point, you're dealing mostly with high-output moving-magnet cartridges. Some of those MMs are really, really good, but I've always found low-output cartridges to have a much lower noise floor, which means one thing--you're hearing more music.

That brings up the point of whether or not the 103 is right for you. As a low-output moving-coil cartridge, the Denon DL-103 needs a phono preamp that can handle the output. If you don't have a phono preamp that handles the 0.3mV output of the 103, then I suggest you buy the high-output moving-magnet Ortofon 2M Blue which costs about $239, the same as the 103 cost a year ago. The 2M Blue is another one of those audio products that offer incredible performance at a reasonable price. If you don't own a phono preamp or have one built into your receiver, amp or preamp, then it's time to get with the program. I'm still constantly approached by people who want a turntable but have no idea what an "amp" is. Or speakers.

The Denon DL-103 is right for you if you have an older turntable with a heavy stock tonearm such as a Garrard or a Thorens. The 103 loves heavy tonearms. It's also a decent match with Rega arms, even though it's not everyone's first choice. I distribute The Wand from New Zealand, a tonearm company which has a full line of arms that range from $1300 to $2950. I asked Simon Brown, the owner/designer of The Wand, which cartridges are the most popular with his products and he immediately mentioned the 103.

As I've mentioned, I try to refrain from recommending specific products to vinyl lovers. It just opens up a can of worms for me. But since I don't currently represent a line of cartridges, and I have no affiliation with Kabushiki Kaisha Denon of Japan, I can't really piss anyone off by pointing out that the 103 is such a unique thing in high-end audio--affordable, ancient and excellent. It's like finding out that a '58 Chevy Impala is still a better all-around vehicle than a brand new Camry. It's all about how it makes you feel when you listen to it, and how you feel when you look at your bank statement.

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