Every once in a while, a customer will come in and start talking about refreshing an older turntable, how to improve a turntable, or even buying a new one and having the ability to upgrade its sound. 9 times out of 10, I’ll always start the conversation with cartridges, and lots of times I get a puzzled look like a growth of some sort suddenly popped up on my chin. Well, that’s ok, because outside of the “audio nerd” world, most folks really don’t understand what a cartridge is, or its criticality to good vinyl playback. Yes, you need good speed stability, quiet operation, isolation from both internal and room borne resonances, and a rigid arm to make a good table, but the cartridge is the life-blood of spinning vinyl and is where the rubber meets the road (or the diamond meets the vinyl, if you will) in playing the black discs. The cartridge is where the stylus (some may say “needle”, which harkens back to the days of 78’s and Victrola’s, where shellac 78’s were actually played with a steel needle…) connects to an “engine” or “motor” that creates the electrical signals that the rest of your system can utilize. That little box that the stylus and its cantilever attach to? That’s the cartridge. Without it, there is no vinyl playback and there is no music!
Without getting too far down the technical rabbit hole, it is first important to understand there are different types of cartridges. The three major types are Moving Magnet (MM), Moving Iron (MI), and Moving Coil (MC). There are some other exotic types out there like “Strain Gauge”, laser pickups and optical pickups, but they are very rare and not used extensively, so we won’t sweat those. With MM, MI and MC cartridges the thing to understand about their operation is that they operate just like they sound; something “moves”, and the part that does that is either a magnet, a piece of iron or a tiny coil. OK so far? When these tiny, almost microscopic pieces move due to the vibrations they receive from the stylus at the end of the cantilever tracing the groove of an LP, and in concert with other parts in the cartridge, they essentially excite a magnetic field which results in an electrical signal. Voila!, a signal that can be used to create sound via the rest of your system. Yes, there’s a lot of other things in the chain, but that’s the basics of how a cartridge works and gets sound out of the record groove.
Moving Coil designs are usually favored in high end audio circles for their frequency extension, airy and organic sound, and big, realistic sound staging. However, they have some drawbacks. One is their cost. High end MC cartridges tend to be very expensive (some go into the 5 figure range) because their structure and the nature of how the coils are made requires careful hand assembly. They are like audio jewelry, precision built by hand. Also, they usually have extremely low output voltage. Moving Magnet cartridges can possess from 3 to 5 milli-Volts (mV) in output, while Moving Coils are usually orders of magnitude less at 0.1 to 0.5 mV in output. There are some MC cartridges with higher outputs, but the best MC cartridges are generally lower output variety. Consequently, since phono preamps usually require an input voltage more in line with the higher MM type output, most MC cartridges require a step up amplifier or transformer to increase their voltage output to a level that a standard phono preamp can use. MC cartridges can also be a little fussy to set up and get locked in for best sound.
Now, to get to the object of this review, the DENON DL103R Moving Coil Cartridge. I will state right at the outset that if you want to move up in the ranks of high quality LP playback, and experience what vinyl can really sound like, the 103R is one of the best cartridges in the world for that purpose. Not only is it a great step up for vinyl lovers, long time, well-heeled audiophiles love it as well. Simply put, this is a a cartridge that can run with the big boys and even best some of them for a fraction of the price!
The invention of the moving coil cartridge design for home audio goes back to three different companies that lay claim to it; Ortofon, Grado, and ELAC. It depends on what country you’re in and how nit picky you want to be with who did what when and when patents were filed to decide who your “first” is. Suffice it to say, that DENON was not the inventor of the technology, but they figured out a way to create a masterpiece of audio design, and make it one of the most successful audio products of all time. The original DL103 was designed in 1962 – yup, it’s 57 years old! – in what was a collaboration between the Denki-Onkyo (Den-On) division of Nippon Columbia and the Japanese radio and television broadcast corporation, NHK. Production has been uninterrupted since then. The 103 was originally designed as a broadcast quality cartridge, so it needed broad and smooth frequency response coupled to rugged dependability. The DL103 was designed with a relatively stiff suspension and low compliance to withstand the technique of “back-tracking” to align record start times with other programming in the broadcast world. Considering it was originally intended as a professional product, it even came with a trace of each cartridges individual frequency response, and that practice continues to this day.
At the same time, it was the dawn of stereo and it did not take long for HiFi enthusiast of the day to discover the DL103 and its outstanding sonic signature, integrating it into their home systems. The base DL103 is still in production to this very day, and in the years since its introduction, it has had many derivations. There’s DL103 S,D,LC,Gold,M,SL, etc. and of course, the DL103R. The DL103 and all of its progeny are also one of the most highly used cartridges for modifications from many different companies and is a favorite of DIY tweakers, taking the outer body off of the cartridge and replacing it with wood or metal materials (don’t try this at home folks, unless you have the savvy and know how to do it… and even then, you’ll destroy a cartridge or two along the way; just ask me!). The “guts” of the DL103 cartridges are that good that they warrant being turned into “super cartridges”.
I personally own a half dozen low output MC cartridges including both a DL103R and a DL103D (the “D” is considered by many 103 aficionados to be one of the best of the series, but they’re hard to find in good shape on the used market) and I use the DL103R on an almost daily basis. The reason is simple, it’s an absolutely, astoundingly, and consistently great sounding cartridge! The DL103R, introduced in 1994, is an upgraded version of the current base DL103, and features 6N (99.9999%) purity copper in the coils, a slightly lower internal impedance (14ohms vs 40ohms), and slightly lower output (.25mV vs .3mV). I’ve had a DL103 or two along the way in my audiophile life and have always enjoyed them, but the 103R represents another level of performance. It’s tracking and transient performance are excellent. Instruments jump from my system with speed and purpose and contain no “fuzzy” edges. Listening to some of Mark Knopfler’s work with Dire Straits on “Love Over Gold” or “On Every Street” you get to experience his extreme talent with the guitar as it should be heard. Every pluck and stroke and power cord are spot on without some of the grunge and cloudiness inherent with less than stellar designs. Norah Jones voice from her “Come Away With Me” LP is lush, and gorgeous, and dripping with sex-appeal and smokiness. Low frequency fundamentals are handled without issue lending to the power of big music like a full on Mahler 8th or a live “Rush In Rio”. Highs are crystalline and never harsh or strident. Listening to the dark cymbal types that studio legend Steve Gadd uses on the new Steve Gadd Band release or on his work with Steely Dan, the cymbal tone comes through without sounding fake or harsh but sweet with overtones that are airy and sweet. The 103R also gives you a tremendous sense of space and size of the recording venue and paints a big beautiful canvas of sound before you. Oh, and it’s one heckuva good tracker to boot!
Is the DL103R perfect? Well, no. For some listeners and in some some systems, it may lean ever so slightly to a darker, richer tonality, giving the impression that it rolls off the highs slightly. This is not really apparent in my listening, just more of a matter of how the cartridge is voiced with a bit of bump in the upper bass and lower midrange. It also is probably not the last word in razor sharp imaging, being ever so slightly hemmed in on the sides. But those are just minor nits. The reality is, in the rarified world of high end Moving Coil cartridges that reach into hefty 5 figure prices, the DL103R represents what could possibly be one of the best values in all of audio at only $449! It is one of the only products that you’ll hear me use the term “giant slayer” with – because it is one – and to get this level of performance you generally are going to have to spend at least 2 to 3 times the amount of dough to even begin to come close. Think about this for a minute; at the shop, we use a DL103R as a reference on our big SOTA Nova Mk V, and I’ve considered the DL103R a near reference class product for years in my own systems, I own them, and I’m picky!
Now, there are a couple of things you have to take into consideration with a low output Moving Coil like the DL103R. First, you need a step up device like a dedicated MC head amp or a step up transformer, or you need a phono section that has low output MC capabilities with enough gain to handle the 103R’s low output voltage. Next, a medium to high mass tonearm is important as something light and/or flimsy will not do. As with any cartridge, good setup is a must. Some in the audio world and out in the blogosphere state that the Denon DL103 is a “fussy” cartridge., but after more than 40 years of playing with audio and turntables and lord knows how many DL103’s, I find this to be patently untrue. In the world of high end cartridges, I’ve found that DL103’s of almost every variety are incredibly “UN-fussy” to set up and to own. The cartridge has a spherical tipped diamond, which makes set up a little easier than cartridges with more exotic hyper-eliptical, Shibata, or line-contact types. I guess that goes to show that an old fashioned spherical diamond can still sound great when the rest of the cartridge is designed this well. The body of the DL103 is a little on the shallow side, so I usually include a shim when mounting them to make setting VTA/rake angle a little easier. Otherwise get it squared up at the proper overhang, track it at 2-2.5 grams, go a little light on the anti-skate at around 1-1.5, and you should be good to go. At the price, and considering how easy it is to live with, I know of no other cartridge that gives so much performance. If you’re looking to move up in the ranks of LP playback and are willing to take the extra minor details needed into account, I would heartily recommend the Denon DL103R as your next cartridge. Party on vinyl lovers!