Review: Denon DL 103R Cartridge

Category: Analog

The primary purpose of this review is to show the differences between the standard DL103 and the DL103R. Many people have heard of this series of cartridge, but have not experienced them, or know what the difference between models may be.

I have spent the last 6 months using a standard Denon DL103 cartridge. I have just recently purchased and installed a Denon DL103R model.

The DL103R is a low-output moving coil type cartridge. It has .27mv output and an internal impedance of 14 ohms. The weight is 8.5 grams. It tracks at 2.4 - 2.8 grams. It has a spherical stylus with a surface hardness orientation toward the contact surfaces. The cantilever is double walled aluminum. The coils are wound of 99.9999%(6N) oxygen free copper. Compliance is 5 cu.

The differences between the 103 and 103R, are the OFC copper windings, and a lighter coil structure. The output is slightly lower than the regular 103. The internal impedance of the 103R is lower than the regular 103(40 ohms). All the other specifications are the same.

The sound of the regular DL103 is outstanding, and a super bargain at it's price point. Many have heard of it referred to as a super-cart, or giant-killer. And it is. It has the wonderful characteristic of allowing the music to come across as a composition, and not as a group of dis-jointed parts. This is not as common as we would like in cartridges today. Many carts will give great separation of instruments and holographic imaging, and detail, but they never seem to merge as a musical whole. The Denon carts excell in this area of making the parts merge into a full musical presentation, and still retains the detail and delineation of the instruments and voices. This is one of the major reasons why the DL103 is such a desireable cartridge.

The DL103R retains this family characteristic and makes quantum leaps in improvement for a modest cost increase. The six-nines copper windings with a lighter coil weight really let the high end show more detail, air, and finesse. Bells, cymbals, and harmonic overtones are much better, with crystal-like clarity. Sibilance is non existant. Microdynamics are awesome. When Rickie Lee Jones does her little comments and whispers between lines on "Woody and Dutch" on the Pirates album, these normally obscured, or hard to hear, lines are superbly clear. The differences in vocal inflection and emotion are conveyed with all of the artist's intentions. But the piano will totally knock you over. I play piano, and am very sensitive to the full, wide palette of sound and harmonics that piano gives. The ability of this cart to portray lifelike piano sound is astounding. The weight and authority of the bass notes, the delicate nuances of the high notes, and the power of two-hand chord playing, including the famous "Steinway Crash" sound in the midrange, is beautifully done. It is no slacker in the bass department either. Drums, bass, and large stringed and horn instruments are tonally accurate, and their high frequency components such as drum skin attack, and string pluck, are perfectly blended with the bass sounds, so the realism of the instrument is kept intact. Attacks and decays are terrific with the DL103R. The lighter coils really show their stuff in minute detail and airy decays. Midrange is very Koetsu-like in its magic. Realism is stunning. Overall, top-to-bottom, this cartridge performs like you would expect from a $1k - $2k cart. And that is not an exaggeration. It is that good.The tracking is outstanding, and much better than the standard 103. High frequency dynamics that would cause the 103 to mistrack, are easily handled by the DL103R. Clicks and pops are less distracting, and there is a lower noise floor.

For the down-sides, there is a hint of edge on some vocals, especially ones that are already edgy voices. It is not the last word in "smoothness" but it is certainly not bad here. It could be a little better though. There is a very slight hint of some upper midrange coloration, like the standard 103 has, but much less. The lighter coils create a slight rise in amplitude over 15kHz, that the standard DL103 does not have. I did not find this to be problematic, although those with a "hot" tweeter may not like this. The low compliance of this cartridge is not compatible with all tonearms. It likes a heavier arm, and really does perform better with gimbal arms. Heavier unipivots, or ones with damping and stabilizing may work, though.

I put the DL103R through the paces on my Teres 245 with most of my favorite "test" records. It never failed to put a smile on my face, as it bettered the standard DL103 in all respects on every record I played. Fleetwood Mac "Landslide" has Stevie Nicks right there in the living room. All the Rickie Lee Jones material is so much more "alive" than before. And the percussive small scale nature of the Rickie Lee Jones stuff shows off the speed and detail very well. Her hard to understand lyrics are much easier to understand and the timbre of the voice is very very natural, and emotion is well conveyed. Soundstage is wide and deep. Imaging is excellent. Top-to-bottom frequency balance is very good. On Manhattan Transfer's "Vocalese", the 4-part harmonies take on a perfect balance of separateness and blend. The large scale big-band accompaniment is dynamic, powerful, and doesn't fall apart. On Walter Egan's "Not Shy" album, the "boogie" aspect is spot-on. This cart can rock, and can get you up out of your chair, dancing around the room. The jazz sax on John Klemmer's Direct Disk album is so perfect, that it is absolutely live sounding.

After experimenting with loading, I found the 40 ohm loading on the Cotter to be most satisfactory. It gave the most air and detail, without sacrificing low frequency accuracy.

VTA was already set for my other DL103 cart, and I needed to make no adjustments there. It likes a very slight positive VTA angle.

To sum up, this cart is a total killer value. It make me wonder why more people don't go for this cart. It would definitely make some very expensive cartridge owners very uncomfortable, because it would be so close to the best, at such a ridiculously low price. It is clearly in the league of a Koetsu Black, and even very close to a Shelter 501. In my opinion, it is better than virtually all of the more well known sub-$2k offerings from Benz, Clearaudio, VDH, Grado, Dynavector, etc. I think it is overlooked because it is not readily available in the US, and is only $300. Alot of folks think if it is not expensive, it can't be that good. That is not correct, it is that good. This is a do-it-all cartridge that perform way,way beyond its price. It is not perfect, but nothing is, and you could by 10 of these for the price of one of the cartridges it can compete with. You can do better, primarily in the "smoothness" area, but you will pay plenty to do it. And you need to have an arm that is compatible.

In my estimation, this cartridge is the best value for dollar in all of audio today. The closest competitor for value is the Shelter 501 at $800, which itself is a superb value at it's price point. But being familiar with both, I am re-thinking the need to move up to a Shelter, or anything else, because this DL103R is extremely musical and provides all the top audiophile attributes at a very affordable price. And if you snag the stylus and break it, you're not out three thousand bucks.

If you haven't tried a DL103, try one for $200. If you can squeeze out a few more bucks, the DL103R is definitely worth the extra money. And please, for God's sake, if you are thinking of getting a new cartridge under $1k, then you have to at least try this out. If, for some reason you didn't like it, there are alot of people who would be waiting to snap it up. When I got my new DL103R, I put my standard used DL103 on the A'gon classifieds, and sold it in 10 minutes - no joke. This cart is worth a try for anyone, not just entry-level, as the price would seem to indicate.

Associated gear
Teres 245 TT
Origin Live Silver Tonearm
Mitch Cotter Mk II step-up transformer
MFA Magus tube preamp
David Berning MicroZOTL tube amp
Bybee Ultra-Quantum Speaker Filters
Lowther EX3 Voight Pipes(modified)
DIY Interconnects
DIY Speaker Cables
DIY Room Lenses

Similar products
Denon DL103
Many other MC carts
Twl: I am a dunce in the compliance, etc. area. Have an older Gyrodek with a Sumiko Premier FT3 arm and am currently using an Ortofon MC 20 Super. Would the Denon mate well with the FT3?
Hdm, I couldn't find the effective mass spec for the FT3 tonearm, so I can't say for certain. My guess is, that if it is one of the older curved arms, it will be okay. I am not sure if the bearings will be up to the DL103, but if you feel no play, you should be all right. The very low compliance is one of the caveats of this cartridge. It is great, but the arms that handle it are not too plentiful. I have devised a tonearm mod for the Rega arms, which make them a better match for this cartridge, and makes the sound tremendously better with any cartridge. This mod is currently under Beta Testing and will be available soon.
Twl: Thanks for the info. The FT3 is a straight arm with a fixed headshell, a step up (significantly I think) from the MMT at the time. Has a removeable weight at the end of the arm to be used with heavier cartridges (which I'm currently using with MC 20) and allows for use either damped or undamped (I am running it damped). I'll post on the vinyl asylum at Audioasylum to see if anyone knows the effective mass. It is definitely not a heavy arm in the vein of the Ekos/Ittok or SME IV or V though.
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Twl: Posted at Audioasylum and already received a response back, although without the actual effective mass. I am probably borderline. You and others might be interested in this website:

Very nice review on the Denon 103R. I have a sense you know your stuff. Given that, what's your opinion on the Dynavector 17D2? Also, any more thoughts on the Shelter 501? And the Shelter 901? If you're familiar with these, please feel free to compare the differences in sound qualities and the relative magnitude of the differences vs. the 103R since you set such a good baseline there.
Any chance these other cartridges might be worth the extra $ over the 103R (I know that depends on budget, etc., but you did a great job of reviewing the 103R... so thanks in advance for any more info.)

Best regards, Yada
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Okay, all 3 in order. Yada, the 17d2 is a very good cart, and I do like the Dynavector sound. However, I am very partial to the low compliance cartridges. The Shelter 501 is a step up from the 103R, and is a very lush romantic sounding cartridge that performs way beyond it's price range, just as the 103R does. The 901 is even beyond the 501, but has a more analytical quality, and less lush. They are both awesome cartridges.

Viridian, I have to confess that I don't know if the Shelter company has any ties to the old Supex company. I have never heard that they were the old Supex cartridges re-named. I have listened to many of the old Supex carts, back in the day, and don't really notice alot of similarity to them. I do know that the older Linn cartridge line was made to Linn specs by Supex. If the Shelter stuff is made by the old Supex guys, there is nothing wrong with that. Supex made some very good ones, and the old man at Koetsu started out with Supex, so that is some good credentials. Do you know anything about the Shelter being modern Supex's?

Drubin, I got mine on the Audiogon classified, from Martin. I believe the ad is still on the classified. It is now $230 because of a Denon price increase. Still a great buy.
Thank you for honestly describing theeffective mass requirement and the midrange anomaly (unkind people say honk) that may disqualify this otherwise excellent cartridge series for the rest of us. When these cartridges were first introduced there was the Supex, the Fidelity Research, the Koetsu Black and Rosewood, and the Denon. I was in the FR camp - couldn't afford the Rosewood! I gave up the bass impact of the Denon (didn't need it in my system then) for the more natural midrange of the FR. Then and today we also had Ortofons, but that's another story.
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All I can say is many thanks to Twl for the initial review of the Denon 103R phono cartridge. His review and analysis is dead on. I now have broken in the Denon 103R,took about 25 hours to do. At first the Denon did little to impress,but I have been down this road before and knew that some break in time was needed,before any real evaluation could be done.
This is without question one high end true bargains. Nothing at it's price range can touch it.And damn little can touch it up to the $800.00 plus level. Years ago I had a Denon 103D and was very fond of it. However the 103R will totally make 103D users want the 103R.
During the last week or so after the cartridge has broken,have listen to Rock, Jazz, Classical, Vocals, and you name it. Tried very hard to find fault with it. There is just no fault present. The 103R delivers the music with an impact,depth and clarity that is truly amazing. The soundstage is the widest I have heard in a very long time.A view of the specs,would indicate a just good MC cartridge.Well let me tell you the specs for the 103R are highly under rated. The separation of 25dB is a joke,much closer to 30dB or better. For some reason Denon has under spec.,this cartridge.
Orginally bought this cartridge to use on my Oracle Alexandria. However it is to heavy for the Sumiko Arm on the Oracle. So was installed on the Denon DP 61F. Installing this cartridge on a Denon table is as goof proof as it comes. Did not have to bother with VTA as it was right on.Overhang was right on. While the 61F is not the last word in turntables, this combination workd very well indeed and I am most happy with the results.
At the present price the Denon DL 103R is an outright gift.So if you are in the market for a new MC you owe it to yourself to try the 103R.
My many thanks to TWL for his review,for it was that review that prompted me to buy the 103R.
For those of you that have phone sections with loadable capacitance settings, I have found that 200pf seems to work the best. Your system may vary,but try the 200pf setting as a reference. Also in my system the 100 ohm load seems to work the best. This is one fabulous cartridge.

Yes and no. The 103R is a good cartridge but it good only in context of its $175. The 103R have large number of sonic and “political” imperfections that make this cartridge not serious. The positive things that those imperfections most of the time masked out by the variety of the incapacities of the playback systems. Yes, in context of the average American audiophileic installations this is a wonderful cartridge. However, it is wonderful only become the demands are insultingly low, the masking capacity unfortunate very high and the correct evaluation methods are not here. (Although I do like what you have written). In other words the 103R dose as much as it cost. No more no less.

Romy the Cat
Verybigamp (aka Romy): I don't have a Denon cartridge and have never owned or listened to one. However, I am persuaded to give it a try based on the above detailed reviews.

Perhaps you are right that the Denon has imperfections, but you don't state what they are! If you would write a rebuttal that is as objective and as detailed as the positive ones, then I might take your comments more seriously.

I would like to consder using the DL-103R. Not sure my table is up to the task. I have a Denon DP-30L in excellent working condition. Can this turntable handle the Dl-103 or 103R. I would be using it with a Mitsubishi DA-P20 pre-amp, some diy-gainclones (love em) and Kef-104ab speakers.

Thanks for the review.

For that table and associated components I would recommend the Denon DL 160. Should do quite nicely. There is a review in Audiogon on the cartridge. Hard pressed to do better.
Denon also has the newer DL-301II which has higher compliance 13u, lower weight 6gr, tracks at 1.4g +/- 0.2gr and is available from for $200 plus shipping. I have not had a chance to compare it against the DL-103 as yet.
Hey guys,
love reading this thread so far - but I'm having trouble keeping up... could a kind soul please explain compliance to me? Also, I'm at a bit of a loss to guage overhang on my table (p3). Any Help?
Billyb1, please check the following web for cartridge setting.
I recently got the 103R from Audiocube and it beated my Shure V15 Type V. It tracked the Shure Tracking LP test for V15 Type II and III perfectly. By the way, does any one knows what was the lowest frequency on the last drum track on side 2 of the Shure Tracking LP? The 103R output leads are not clear, what are El and Er? I assumed they are the ground leads for left and right. The 103R has more body, darker background and depth than Shure type V. The 103R matched better with my Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 than QuickSilver phono with Dynavector step-up transformer.
anybody know about the DL103S? (elliptical tipped)
What can be done if the cantilever is bent?
DL103S is one of the other higher cost Denon models.

If the cantilever is bent, the cartridge is toast.
I can't speak for the DL103R part of the review (yet), but you hit the nail on the head with your review of the Denon DL103, in every particular, as far as I'm concerned. I'll have to try the "R" version some day, but I'm enjoying the togetherness, tonal honesty and rhythmic adpetness of the 103 so much I can't bring myself to touch my system!

I bought some lead weights, now where's that damned Blu-tak?! I'll have to buy another packet AGAIN, where do they all go? Be reporting on your tweak very soon (but God does that cartridge make music).
I recently bought a DL-103 and am running it in a Mayware Formula V arm on a Walker CJ61 turntable. Comments? Sounds great, seems very happy in the Mayware. Curiously, it seems happier with the Mayware cursor weight in its normal position (arm effective mass about 8g) than with the weight moved right up to the headshell (arm effective mass about 11g.) Also it sounds better with securing bolts just nipped up nicely (as recommended by both Denon and Mayware), rather than tightened to the limit. (My theory is that energy should be dissipated like a transmission line away from the cartridge rather than reflected to and fro.)
However two aspects of the DL-103 are worth knowing and may explain complaints from some people about harshness. Running it though a 1:10 step up transformer, I found it benefited from keeping the leads from the transformer to the amplifier as short as possible (to keep down capacitance. I also found that when run into 47k ohms (i.e. 470 ohms on the cartridge side of the transformer), the sound was a bit sharp and brash. Reducing the amplifier input impedance to 10 kohm (1.e. 100 ohms at the cartridge side) made it beautifully smooth but just a little rolled off at the top. To my ears, 15k at the amplifier input (i.e. 150 ohms at the cartridge side) is just nice ... very nice.
Twl, I noticed your use of an outboard step up (Cotter mk2) listed as listed in your associated equipment list. As this is no longer available, is there another step up currently being sold that really make the DL 103r really stand up and sing with all its heart.
Would you comment on the settings used and or recommended for use with the DL 103r cartridge when used with step ups such as input or output loading or the stock values of the Cotter mk2 transformer? Maybe also others might be using to great success? After reading Jeff Day's review experience (6moons) on the Auditorium 23 unit (rumored to be made with Lebong transformers) I am wondering what more is available in the DL 103r and what many are "leaving on the table undiscovered"

Thanks in advance! Enjoy your music
Hi Jon,

Definitely not made by Lebong, made by Auditorium 23 and amazing.

By any chance have you looked inside the A23 and if you could which manufactures transformers model #'s are used?
I would love to DYI a set as I already have a killer cast metal case from an Ortofon T-2000 transformer that weighs 8 pounds! Thanks in advance! Jon
Hi Jon,

I think you'll have to purchase a A23, they're not off the shelf- they're custom manufactured to A23's design.

Twl, thank you for the excellent review! I want to emphasize the need to use a high quality phono preamp with the Denon DL-103. It makes or breaks the magic this cartridge has to offer. I can't emphasize this enough. I've had a DL-103 in my system for more than a year now, but it wasn't until I paired it with a Musical Surroundings Phonomena that the magic happened. I had been using a Musical Fidelity X-LPS and never knew that a better phono preamp could make such a dramatic difference. See my comments here:
Will the DL103R track/sound good w/my Denon DP-62L using the straight tonearm?

Thanks Scott
Can anyone comment about this comment made on another forum about the 103R:

103r....if that it is a spherical version, it will wear records faster than any elliptical or fine line made. the 103d, as I recall was the very good stereo model 25 years ago.

and this one: 103R is a conical stylus (16.5 micron round pin), so not that detail in digging into the groove and wears record faster due to surface contact + tracking force value.
Thanks for the review I have just order a DL103R and it was only cost $200 new from I'm really looking for to hear it on my very modified Thorens TD150 with a AudioQuest PT-7 arm, I now use a Denon DL160 HOMC I do like the Denon Moving Coils.
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Great review TWL,

I purchased a Denon DL103R with a Uwe wood body some time ago after hearing what a great value it is. I also purchased a Bob's devices step-up which is supposed to be a good match for the DL103R according to it's maker. I had originally intended to use it with my McIntosh C28 pre-amp and Bogen MO100 monoblocks, however I sort of went off on a tangent and purchased a Scott299c integrated. Right now I am listening to my JVC QL-Y66F. A fully automatic direct drive with a dynamically dampened and stabilized tonearm, an Ortofon 2M Black cartridge, run through the Scott 299C to my Klipsch Cornwalls. It sounds great but I'm not quite "there" yet. I was told by Craig at NOS valves to not even try using a step-up transformer with the Scott 299C as I would probably encounter hum issues, but after reading your review I'm very tempted to give it a go anyways. What do you think?


Bill S.
i just bought the 103R and i am using it with the auditorium 23 step up. amp is an integrated Luxman 590 AII, using a sota star vacuum table with a rega 250 arm and FJ OM speakers. i really like the sound overall (even out of the box). Pretty amazing for a cartridge at this price.
Just a reminder, that, as a user of the 103R and current owner of the 103PRO, it's important that this cartridge is given a good 50 HOURS to run in. I have used it with no success at all in a REGA RB 900, but to superb effect in an ACOS LUSTRE 801, and and ADC LMF 2 ( !)
Just picked up a new Denon DL-S1 at a well-discounted price not much greater than the 103R. The DL-S1 is Denon's top model, with low output similar to the 103R, but a higher 40ohm impedance and a medium-compliance suspension. The DL-S1 should make for an interesting comparison to some of the excellent NOS MM/MI cartridges that I've lately enjoyed courtesy of Raul's long thread.
The 103R Cartridges have always been a winner. This cartridge continues be be the lowest cost serious player available. I say this with the confidence of having worn out several. As for value, nothing comes close for the investment, you would have to spend 2 1/2 to 3Xs the money to equal the audio return.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I give the venerable 103R a 12.
Yes... I like the cartridge. Someone PLEASE let me know of a better offering for the dollar (or what's left of it).
I haven't tried a 103R yet but have been using a 103 for the last 2 years. I had mine mounted on a highly modified Technics SL-1210 going to an Allnic AT-3000 step-up and into a restored Harman Kardon Citation 1 tube preamp feeding a pair of JM labs Focal Diva Utopia be speakers. The sound is "Magical".
The cantilever on my 103 just broke and I am considering sending it off to SoundSmith for a level II rebuild. I am considering the purchase of a 103R in the interim and looking forward to comparing the stock 103R to the 103 rebuild from SoundSmith.
Anyone try the 103 or 103R on a VPI JMW uni-pivot arm? If yes, please report your reactions regarding compatibility and sonics. Thanks
This cartridge is amazing for the money. It sounds great on my Scout. Sounds great with the JMW 9 arm, believe it or not. I found 2 things that are critical. First, mounting it properly is key. Nut under cartridge, screw end on top. Also, loading this cart is very important. I have mine at about 80 ohm through my Xono. Very impressive, so much so that I do not think that one could ask for much more. IMHO, you have to spend about at least 5 times more to get better performance. It tracks wonderfully on this JMW 9 arm, don't be scared away from it regarding its high mass compliance spec. The Scout and Denon is a great combination. Big stage and not overly detailed in a good way, but trust me, detailed enough and you will be able to enjoy your whole record collection. This "is" the best value in Analog that I have ever heard, period. If you have a Scout, a decent phonopre, needs at least 100 ohm loading and get this cartridge, you will be happy long time. Setup is KEY.
I will be mating this to the Denon DP-45f. I will be using it to record with PureVinyl and use the software for RIAA Curve. The TC Electronic Impact Twin should be able to handle the output from the low MC. I have been told by Channel D that they are using the TC to record with several MC cartridges.

I was wondering, is there a MM Cartridge that compares closely with this 103R? Just in case, I don't like the result I get from going MM.

Your experienced and learned thoughts would be greatly appreciated.
Great review.
I am on verge of buying either the DL-103 or the DL-103R. Definitely leaning to the 103R now. I have entry level set up: RP1 TT, Cambridge 640P phono stage, Cambridge 640A integrated and Paradigm Studio 20 v. 3. Would I gain much buying the 103R? any input greatly appreciated!!
Great review! I was going to buy the DL-103, but leaning to 103R now. I have entry level set up: Rega RP1 TT, Cambridge 640P phono stage, Cambridge 640A integrated and Paradigm Studio 20 v. 3 speakers. Wondering if the my rig would benefit from 103R as opposed to 103. any input appreciated!!
That is a good review.

I can vouch for the value and quality of sound the 103R can deliver. Its a no brainer at its price point assuming the right phono gear to match, ie phono pre-amp capable of enough gain for the very low output of the 103R and use with at least a moderate mass tonearm.

Its a winner in my rig which uses Audiocompaniet step up device into ARC sp16 pre-amp phono input. Table and tonearm is Linn Axis with basic tonearm. Leaves little if anything to want.

I use DNM Reson ICs which tend help deliver the DEnons strengths as mentioned quite well, but these are unshielded and external noise can be an issue.

I use Mu metal shielding around step up transformer to address.

Other shielded phono ICs are beter suited out of the can for use with low level output carts like the 103R.