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
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