Ebony Denon DL 103. 50 years too late?

OK, so this review is about 50 years too late. Just because the party is almost over doesn't mean it is too late to show up. Better late than never when it come to something good. 

Anyway, I picked up a new DL 103 and let it sit in the box until I got around to buying a slide in ebony body for it. I have no idea how this cartridge sounds sans the woodie, but I've read great things about replacing the plastic body with a woodie, or even an aluminum body. Heck, some reviews say the aluminum is even better, but I went with the ebony. 

After watching the you tube video on how to perform the surgical procedures I bought an exacto knife and within 10 minutes I had my modded cartridge. It certainly looked good but how would it sound is the question that needed to be answered. So, immediately I went on my way to my modded out Thorens TD 150, took my Soundsmith Ruby cantilevered Benz Glider off and replaced it with the ebony DL 103.

In short, I was immediately impressed. This cartridge is plan darn fun in all the best ways. It has punch, midrange presence, sweet and organic treble and just plain plays music. Comparing it to my Benz Micro M.9 it lacks the extension in both direction, as well as the resolution. However, what this inexpensive cartridge does to the enjoyment factor is really surprising. It just touches the soul in a way that is hard to explain and might be all the cartridge one needs if musical satisfaction is the ultimate goal. 

Really, this is one freaking great deal. for $200, if you are a smart shopper. You get some really good sound that reproduces what is in the groove in a way that really expensive cartridges do. Again, it falls short in extension and resolution, which can be easily heard when you A/B it with a much more expensive cartridge, but what it does within its own context is remarkable in its own right.

Bottom line, if you have a phono amp that can handle low out put moving cartridges you owe it to your self to try one of these and make it a part of your cartridge stable. It will easy become a cartridge you will turn to when you want to just enjoy tunes. Heck, it might even become your primary cartridge. 

Don't let another 50 years go by before you try it out and don't let the low price fool you. This cartridge could sell for much higher and still be a great value. For now it is my favorite Denon. 

I'm going to play it until I wear out the diamond, which should be around 300 hours, which is normal for it profile. After which, it will get sent off to the Soundsmith for some magic. I've heard great things about the ruby upgrade and if it is true, I might be thinning out my stable.
Why are you only expecting 300 hours of stylus life?  My 103R had nearly 1000 when I replaced it with another 103R.

Spherical profiles generally wear put quicker. 300 to 500 hours seems reasonable. I will go on the low side to expedite the upgrade.

Fortunately my experience is the 103R stylus lasts considerably longer than 300 hours.  As I said I had nearly 1000 hours when I replaced mine.  I say "fortunately" because the 103R took a full 100 hours to reach its fully broken in performance.  If it only lasted another 200 hours that would be pretty depressing.
You're review tempts me to replace the body of my 1966 103.  (yes, been retipped a few times).  The ancient Denon is organic.  Everyone should have one of these as well as a Nagaoka MP11 MM cart.  Another inexpensive something about it that you can't stop listening too quality.  My 103, MP11 and London Decca are three I will always hang on too.  But then there is the Dynavector, Audio Technica, Pickering, Sonus, Benz, Shure, Ortofon..... So many... So little time! 

The Denon 103 Conical stylus is another reason this thing sings.  I think sometimes we dig too deep into the grooves and the music just doesn't seem to flow as easy.  Using the Denon has caused me to find Conical replacment styi for some of my other cartridges.  Very pleasing results.


+1 for the Soundsmith retip

I started with a standard Denon DL103 and was hooked

I then purchased a DL103 directly from Soundsmith, already mod’d with the contact line stylus + ruby cantilever and have never looked back.

I found setting it up with a Mint Best Tractor provided the best performance from this cartridge.

Once it was setup correctly the imaging was spot on and the details arte superb.

For me, it is one of the best values out there.

The main advantage with the conical stylus, alignment is far less critical and you can use one of the free protractors out there for great results.

Whichever you choose the tunes will sound great with a Soundsmith 103.

As for the head shell mod - I took an alternative DIY approach with my original conical 103 - I epoxied it to a brass mounting plate. The mounting screws attach to the plate and not the plastic body of the cartridge. The effect was much like applying a new head shell - either wood or aluminum. Improved details and clarity, better bass control and extension, improved image, faster dynamics and smoother highs.

Some of the improvements were due to the increased mass of the cartridge, making it a better match to the arm, but I believe much of it was due to the improved head shell rigidity which reduced head shell vibrations.

Best $12.50 I’ve ever spent on my system :-)

I since applied the same tweak to the Soundsmith version and the results were even better.

At $229 starting price the 103 very good value and they sound great on the right arm.

But with all the mod’s available out there, it’s a bit like a Rega Turntable - they’re pretty darn good out of the box, but you can tweak it to amazing levels of performance.

Details of both my 1981 tricked out Rega Planar 2 TT and the DL103 mounting plate mod can be seen here...

Happy listening
Conical styli, such as the basic 103?

Anyone who has been in this hobby more than 15 years should be familiar with J Gordon Holt.  He originated Stereophile magazine and near the end of his life wrote a bit for TAS.  Gordon was highly respected for his knowledge and habit of writing exactly what he thought.  One advantage he had was making many live recordings, then utilizing those tapes (RtR) to evaluate components.

The point is that for many years his reference cartridge was a Shure V-15 with CONICAL stylus!  This was while most hobbyists may not have even been aware that Shure offered anything other than elliptical styli.

So if someone with great ears and lots of live music experience found that a conical stylus best replicated the sonics of first generation tape recordings, should we be quick to discredit or replace them?

Pryso, I couldn't agree more.  Most of my favorite cartridges have been conical starting with Grado FTR (in 1969) and continuing with Decca 4RC, Decca Mk5, Shure V15-IIIG, V15-IVG and Denon 103R.  I have certainly had other types as well and ellipticals or similar stylus shapes can track more cleanly than conicals, but there is something very natural about the treble with a conical stylus.

If you read my post above,
you know I agree. Conical is a more natural fit to the groove and certainly sounds the smoothest to my ears. 

I wasn't aware you could get a conical for the Shure. I have a 1978 model, and now I'm going to see about finding a conical stylus for it. Thanks for mentioning that. 

It's interesting this topic should come up just as I'm about to send my Denon 103 over for a rebuild by Frank Schroeder through the French outfit Cala Mighty Sound. Planning on spending more than others here as I'm getting the coils reformed along with a Malachite body but, I'm now looking forward to getting it back based on what has been related here in this thread.
Ehtoo, let us know how it improved.

There's another guy in Italy that rewinds the coils, etc...

From what I have read the improvements are significant and it can hardly be called a 103 at that point

Question,  wouldn't it be cheaper to buy another brand?

Raymonda, To some degree, it could be said that you've discovered that an Ebony-bodied Denon DL103 is superior to a Benz Glider, even one with a ruby cantilever.  To me, this is not surprising.  I owned two consecutive iterations of the Glider before I found out that there were a whole slew of cartridges I liked better, both MM/MI and LOMC types. But no matter how you got there, I am glad you are happy.

Also, the good news is I gotta agree with Salectric, you have every right to expect more than 300 hours out of your Denon, unless you just cannot wait any longer than that to get that ruby cantilever transplantation.
I would not say the 103 is better than the glider but, rather, it has its  own charm, which I outline above

Well, I've made a few more mods to the cartridge. The ebony body has been sanded, filed down and a 3mm carbon fiber spacer added between the head shell and the cartridge body. This seems to have brought it up to the next level. The high end and midrange seem to have opened up a bit more.

Until this mod I actually took the cartridge out of the system and replaced it with my SoundSmith Gilder, which slightly beat out the Denon on a head to head listening session. Now, I'm not so sure. This is sounding might fine. I'll compare it over the next few days. For now it is impressive and sounding darn good.