Denon DL-103 "one of the...."

Is the Denon DL-103 one of the greatest cartridges of all time?

Sonic achievement?
Conical Stylus?

This thought was brought on by Lebron James claiming he would be on the Mount Rushmore of NBA players. So my friend and I discussed what that criteria would be. So, I applied this thought to cartridges.

I do not have an extensive experience with many cartridge varieties, but thought about what attributes make a cartridge an all time great. Out of all that I have had the 103 just seems to hit most of the marks.
No its not! It is however a good cartridge for the $$. It also is high compliance (25x10)and requires a heavy tonearm to operate correctly. If you dont mate it with the correct arm you will be very disappointed.Look at another cartridge like a Ortofon DL110,or a 2M red,or 2M blue. This DL-103 was widely used on radio station turntables.And the round shaped diamond is not ideal, go with an elliptical or line contact.My choice for greatest of all time would have to be the Dynavector 10x5, best cart under $500....period!
One of mine, FWIW.
I agree with Mapman. Excellent cartridge.
Listening to mine now. Fabulous! No desire to change.
Redefines Classic and remains one of the best deals in audio.
Pair the DL 103R with a Jelco SA - 9" or 12" arm - a match sure to satisfy. For the $ asked, its a winner.

Good Listening

I'd take a Denon DL-103 over Dynavector 10X5 any day. In fact, I did. And are you sure that a high compliance cartridge requires a heavy tonearm? And that the DL-110 is an Ortofon product?
Excellent cartridge. A standard 103 displaced my Benz L2. I have since moved on to a Soundsmith full monty modified 103 which is probably the last cartridge I will need.

The DL-103, price vs. performance it can't be beat. I liked it so much I upgraded to the DL-103r.
It's actually a low (and some consider QUITE low) compliance cartridge. 5x10-6cm/dyne (100Hz)

However it can be used successfully in a medium to heavier arm. Just not for the very light arms suitable for a Shure, for ex.

Very good cartridge, depending on what you want in a cartridge. Does some things well, other things not. Has been simply modified, as at Soundsmith, into a great cartridge.
Of course it is .
A Zu Denon 103R with ESCCO sapphire cantilever and Paratrace stylus makes for one hell of a good cartridge. It's a push between it, and a Soundsmith-retipped Dynavector XX2MKII.

I think much more would have to be spendt in order to better either one.

I'm pretty sure anyone with a budget (or not) and a MC phono stage should either try it or have at least one variant --- 103r, d, pro, alum body, wood, Zu, vanden hul retip, soundsmith tip, etc...---- for their reference or for a back up.

Who else gets on the list? Idk but in my opinion, there are a few must try's at or about $500 before shelling out $3-5k (which I plan to do one day! Yeah, I'm sick too).
My bad DL-110 is a I for one don't like carts that require 2.5 grams of force.And all these modified or R versions of the DL-103 is NOT what the post is about. Bottom line is it uses a horrible shaped diamond (round)and it is only a good cartridge for the $$ not the be all end all. And due to its compliance it dosen't like lightweight or even medium weight arms,that's for sure.I tried this DL-103 on my Rega P3 with the RB301 arm and it was aweful!! Horrible resonances!I also have tried the DL-110 and a Nagaoka MP200 and the DL-103 was the worst by far. On the other hand I put a Dynavector 10x5 on the same table and its a match made in heaven.Soooo that's why there is so many carts and arms and tables so we can hunt around and find the most favorable match or as close to it as we know how. This is my take on the DL-103 basic,yours my differ.
It is, but, but, but..........

It is not a cartridge for all seasons, which the cheap price would imply, so it is often used in less than optimized setups.

It needs a very high effective mass arm, and of course a high tracking force. It won't wow you if you prefer detail to tone, and it seems to have an affinity for records that came out in the year of its birth, or before. But that said, it makes the list for all of the reasons that you have listed.
Not only better than 10x5 but also DV20. I was using the DV20 with a P75 phono pre and started messing around with the DL103. Once nuded, it killed the DV20. Since upgraded to an EMT cartridge but the DL103 does some things just as well. I plan to get a second turntable and I'll be putting the 103 on it.
Hi Islandmandan

I have the same esc'd 103r. Mine aalso has an ebony wood body.

Sounds excellent and certainly above its pay grade. Listening to it now:-)
Flat, bland, lifeless, muddy, very overrated, you get what you pay for. Avoid.
I agree with MattMiller and Vridian, along with having the same positive attachment to this cartridge as everyone else. Matt isn't wrong with how the compliance and stylus can be a drag, but in regards of what Vridian posted, when following the carts requirements it simply is outstanding. Rega is not for 103 or 110 without mods. It's tonality is second to none. When i put it on an ESL-2000 (mass of 27 grams) and got the VTA locked it slayed everything I tried before. The 103, 103-LCii, and 103R all have the same house sound. The 103's conical stylus is a masterwork. I get plenty of detail from this "lowly conical stylus" it has led me to believe that not all conical styli are the same, or the motor and the stylus need to be matched.

I had the 110 and if I listened to exclusively electronic music that would be my cart of choice (although it's good at everything else). The transients are so fast on the cart and the highs are very extended, yet the mid-range is a little thin compared to a 103.

This discussion would never come up if it wasn't for the fact that it has been in production for 50 years and the 103r can be had for less than $300. This makes it an all time great period (.)

I'd like to do what others have done and get it retipped and nuded to be put in an ebony body for my next step. I like the house sound so much that I would rather refine it than change. Does the retip lower the compliance so it won't be usable with a heavy arm any more?
I don't know where all the "experts" get all their information. The Denon is ok but nothing more...the conical stylus is quick to deteriorate. Worth the money, but to talk of the Denon and the Ortofon Blue in the same breath is evidence of the lack of knowledge.
Eno, no. Retip (at least from soundsmith) does not lower compliance... How ever, ss will rebuild the 103s suspension for lower compliance if one is willing to pay for that. It may however lower the VTF due to the change in diamond shape. But if you like the 103 you'll love it w a new body or tip.

I have been trying to find a cart at or about the $1k mark that delivers a significant up grade - not just a little more of this or that - if anyone has a recommendation - do tell! But for now I will most likely wait until I can afford a cart around $3 k.... But the more I learn, the more I'm sure price is NOT assurance of improvement
No one claimed to be an "expert" just fans. I'm simply impressed by this "old style" cart and how long its lasted and still purchased by many still. I took my "gear chip" off my shoulder along time ago, because I don't have the money to be considered an "expert". Never mentioned Ortofon Blue and won't write that it isn't as good because I have never heard it. I'm just happy that the 103 is still around.
Um, it's not research, dude. It's listening.
@mattmiller Where did you come up with a compliance of 25x10-6? The published spec is 5x10-6 at 100Hz, which I believe equates to around 10x10-6 at 10Hz. If you look around, you'll see some folks did some math and tests, and found it to be around 7-8, actually.

Further, if the compliance was indeed 25, mating the DL-103 to a high-mass tonearm is the last thing you'd want to do.
Conical styli?!?

Those of us old enough to have read Stereophile when J Gordon Holt was still editor may remember he preferred conicals to ellipticals when both were offered on the same cartridge body. His reference cartridge was a conical Shure and that was based from comparisons against master 15 ips tapes he made.

Now I'm not saying everyone should love conicals simply because Gordon preferred them, but that does suggest some bit of credibility I think.
With respect to the conical stylus, I think the Denon conical is very, very good. I've used 103R's for the past 6-7 years now, both stock and modified and prefer the 103R to some cartridges costing quite a bit more that have more exotic stylus profiles, even though there are compromises/tradeoffs with the conical.

Both my 103R's (one potted in an aluminum body and one in an ebony body) have line contact styli now though (the aluminum has the Soundsmith $250 retip and the ebony has the SS OCL top of the line $350 retip which is a pretty extreme line contact) and having used the same cartridge(s) with both the stock conical and good line contact styli I could never go back to using the concial.

The line contact is simply much better, retrieving a pile of information that the conical either misses or just glosses over in the midband and also being much more refined in the high frequencies.

The downside with the line contact styli is they (particularly the SS OCL) require very careful setup in terms of alignment, azimuth, VTA/SRA and VTF. The window for really great performance is much tighter on setup than it is with the conical which is much more forgiving.

I also think we're pretty lucky today to have really precise setup tools like the Mint LP protractor or the Feickert, items which were probably not readily available to Holt in the days he was experimenting and which are pretty much imperative to get the most out of the extreme stylus profiles.

Sorry if this is off topic, but the thread did seem to be moving to discuss this. I think the 103/103R are great value stock, but I also think they can be modified to be much better and even better value considering the outlay to mod.
First a .7 mil conical stylus has a larger contact patch with the groove than the standard .3 X .7 mil elliptical stylus. Second, Denon cartridges have some of the best polish of any styli available, just look at them under a microscope. All of this is indicative of a long service life. The high tracking force will certainly mitigate against this somewhat.
The 103 is a good bang for the buck, but there are better carts for less than $400.

I thought an indicator of higher compliance was a lower tracking force? So if the retip lowers the tracking force doesn't that raise the compliance? Not being well versed I think I am missing something obvious or key to the conversion.

Any light shed on the subject would be appreciated.
Yes, higher compliance is associated with lower tracking force and high compliance carts are usually mated with low mass arms. If you use a high cu cart on a high mass arm the resultant low resonance frequency may or may not have warp tracking implications, but SQ is often compromised with slow or sluggish response. On the other hand, use a low cu cart (103) on an arm too light for the cart, and resultant resonance is too high in frequency and can have severe intermodulation in the audio band.

Converting 100Hz cu to 10Hz, isn't straightforward. There is no single multiplier that works in all cases. It also doesn't seem to work at the extremes. A 100Hz cu of 6.5 = 15cu @ 10Hz, while 10 cu @ 100 = 18 cu @ 10. A cart with 100Hz cu of 16 is a little more compliant than another of 10cu. Clearly the multiplier diminishes with higher cu, except the 103 seems lower than the scale indicates. On another forum a physicist said that 100Hz cu isn't true compliance, but rather a measure of tracking ability at 100Hz.

Sometimes terms are generalized and it's not clear exactly what your "retip" entails. If a cantilever was grafted onto an existing one, then the cart probably retains the original compliance, as in a tip only replacement. A more sophisticated tip profile might result in a lower VTF. Some carts can have cu manipulated by the retipper and you should consult with him about possibilities or the results of your retip.

The elliptical tip has the smallest contact area, a tiny oval. The .2 x .7 elliptical is the smallest, unless there's one with a smaller minor radius (.2). That minor radius describes the width of the contact area and that's why its sound is more detailed. The most common elliptical is .3 x .7. Extended contact tips extend contact vertically and that's why they can have a very small minor radius for detail, and contact part of the groove that hasn't been tracked by one with a shorter contact area. It's also the reason set-up is so fussy. Since a conical doesn't have a distinguishing profile, it's more forgiving.
Thanks flieb. Much better than what I was gonna say! My simpler response is that because a finer stylus fits deeper in the groove it may (or may not - depending on cantilever length/cart/and other variables) require less tracking force to track properly. - correct me if I'm wrong, but I also think the ruby cantilever may be heaver than the stock 103 aluminum cantilever which may also be a factor in VTF.
How does the Denon stack up to vintage Shures?
Sorry about this late reply, I lost track of this thread.
If you're talking about the weight of a Soundsmith ruby vs stock aluminum, I don't think it would be much heavier, if it is at all. Those SS cantilevers are single crystal and extremely thin. You'd have to ask Peter, but I'd guess they might be lighter.

It's the rigidity of the cantilever and the diamond profile that transforms the cart. The tip will afford the detail that a conical misses, but it's the movements of the cantilever that excite the generator. The flexibility of aluminum gives a more relaxed "musical" presentation. There is greater movement higher up the cantilever when bouncing off a groove wall. The ruby is more exact. You'll get better harmonic detail, layering, etc. but you'll give up some of that relaxed, midrange centric appeal. If you want more detail, especially high frequency without the analytical aspect, you might want to try a different tip on the original cantilever.

Hello again!

Forgot to thank you for the link to Holmes' article...? Think I skimmed through it a little while back but without paying the closest attention to some of his remarks. And after all, he did state his opinion that the DL-103 is the best buy in audio ever. Opinions are always fine, but there was this questionable accusation leveled at anyone who might have reason to believe in the possible superiority of spherical styli, which is what our DL-103s mostly have, and as it turns out, for specific and well-founded reasons. I will return to the subject shortly.

I can see that I'm among peers who share some of my views on the absurdity of the "high end" market/press/consumer habits/beliefs etc. But enough of that for now, as far as I'm concerned...


I have to apologise for having refered to, much too simplistically, an article about cutting, cartridges and styli from a magazine that hardly any of you have read. I had to pull it out of my files for a quick reread just now, and, also personally having met the author, Reto Luigi Andreoli in Zürich nine years ago while visiting with Christian Rintelen, I continue to be both impressed, inspired and amused by this man's writings. Reto went to Australia to stay with the Garrotts and learn about cartridge making at their factory a good many years ago.

The particular article I have made reference to was printed in Hi-Fi Scene #17 (November 1998)
"The Final Luigi - Back with a Vengeance" (..."Expect no Mercy") grin The whole magazine was based in Zürich and carried articles written in German. German phono-tech-terminology is not very easy to translate smoothly into English, and in addition there are drawings and figures very useful to understanding the technological reasoning. Being a technologically minded "propellerhead" audio nerd myself, I think this would be of interest to some. Perhaps it should have been posted in the cartridges section, but this is just an evening's humble efforts. I will now try to summarize some interesting points...

Different cutter heads with different cutter stylus modulation geometry and with differently shaped/cut cutter styli have always existed, and these all more or less differ from the geometry of playback cartridges' cantilever suspensions and styli. The shape of the cutter stylus gives rise to the modulated grooves having varying wall angles and width, causing the well known "pinch distortion", where the playback stylus is forced up/down due to aforementioned amplitude/frequency-dependent variations in groove width and wall angles.

Curvature overload, which happens if the playback stylus radius is too great as compared to the groove curvature, was studied by the large record companies (like EMI, Nippon Columbia, RCA, Decca)
back when spherical styli were universally used. Special analog compensation circuitry was applied in the recording process to minimize such distortion on playback, ie. many records were produced which would have the lowest distortion in this regard when played back using spherical styli. Some of these processes were known under trade marks such as "Royal Sound", "Dynagroove" etc., but mostly no mention was made of these compensation techniques on album covers.
Modern "flatter" styli playing these records would conversely result in increased distortion, "undoing" the purpose of the tracing simulation/compensation.

When the reproducer stylus follows the groove and has a different shape than the cutter head stylus it makes contact with the two respective groove walls at points which are slightly ahead or behind the points on the groove walls cut by the cutter stylus at a given instant. This gives rise to a form of phase error which is absent in mono recordings (where both groove walls contain complementary signals).

Next, Luigi's headline "Der grosse Denkfehler" (The big Error in Thinking) which is where we get to the main point. To quote:

"That the stereo groove undoubtedly could be traced with less distortion with a narrower stylus than with a spherical stylus is true. But only if the suspension of the cantilever is the same as that of the cutter stylus. And this is never the case!
And here begins the tragedy of the industry, which has been grinding away on the spherical stylus since the first stereo records came about, hoping to improve the reproduction. The actual problem, namely the geometrical design of the cantilever suspension, was wholly ignored - except by Decca, EMI Varilux, Neumann and Ikeda. That this thoughtlessness, or the ignorance of the complexity of the matter has led to design errors, even has increased playback error, is a fact."...

Going into this more closely, it is seen that with a conventional cantilever suspension (we all know how it works), the stylus, on simultaneously moving vertically and horizontally, defines a domed surface (section of a sphere), which mostly defeats the purpose of flatter stylus cuts - which would be fine if they traced the groove as it was cut by the cutterhead stylus. In this situation, a spherical stylus has the same (shape) contact surface with the groove walls independently of the angle of the cantilever (given by groove modulation) vs. the groove, whereas a flatter cut stylus does not behave "as assumed" - at larger vertical deflection angles, for instance" the contact "line" (more or less) is not a vertical line perpendicular to the record surface, but is at an angle and so may fail to correctly trace very small modulations which would still be reproduced by a spherical cut stylus, and additionally could cause groove damage for the same reason.
Further problems/details are discussed, including resonances and intermodulation distortion resulting from this geometrical inconsistency.

Next, the consequences of VTA and (radial) arm adjustments are discussed. Obviously, following the previous reasoning, a spherically cut stylus appears having a constant width as it appears in the groove irrespective of tracking angle, no difference from that observed in the zero points (in the case of a radial arm). Now if a narrow/line cut stylus is substituted, the stylus is relatively narrower at all points on the record than it is at the two zero points, because only here it is tangential to the groove.
"We now observe the path of the stylus which it traverses, seen from the front. The spherical stylus moves from the outside inwards in a plane. With ANY other stylus cut it moves up and down, with the highest points at the two zero points, and the lowest conversely corresponding to the greatest angle errors...It now follows that, except with cartridges having spherical styli, it is completely impossible to adjust the VTA correctly, even if the record is completely warp-free!!! Perplexed?"

I personally think that, especially when the matter is treated with all the thoroughness it deserves (and more than my summary can convey), it may be logically deduced, on the basis of geometrical conditions existing in the real world of record engraving and playback, that the departure from spherical styli introduced more problems than it solved, and that neither lower distortion nor better HF response could be expected. I don't carry the kind of phono-technological baggage that RLA does, but I do follow his impeccable reasoning.

Towards the end of the article, the development of the DL-103 by Takeo Shiga is summarized, and it was based on a fascinating discovery by Shiga which was published in Journal of the Acoustical Society of Japan, january 1962. I had long forgotten about this most important point, and I don't know where the JASJ article might be available in English, but will attempt a translation of Luigi's brief description of Shiga's discovery:

"Shiga had established, that by a given design (ie. precisely defined moving mass of the generator system and a spherical stylus in conjunction with the elasticity of vinyl at room temperature) the playback distortion could be compensated for by the plastic deformation of the vinyl and the temporary change of the groove geometry"

Some clever trickery there, it appears, specifically requiring a spherical stylus among other things. Some guy named John Walton, a cartridge development engineer at Decca picked up Shigas study in 1966 and confirmed:

"...So it turned out, that equipping even the best cartridges with elliptical styli effected no reduction in distortion whatsoever, rather, an increase..." Walton had studied much the same problems as Shiga and arrived at precisely the same conclusions independently of Shiga, whose Japanese research paper remained unknown in the West between 1962 and until 1966 when it was first presented in English.

Make of all this what you will, folks - but this article is what turned me on to the DL-103 in the first place, and if anything, there is no "odd logic" to be found anywhere in it. It is a 16 page largely very technical article, humorously but knowledgeably written by a guy who builds cartridges and most everything else audio as well, and in fact - in my experience, Reto is one of the most knowledgeable audio people I have ever met, right up there with uh...Hiraga - only not as humble and polite, and vastly more opinionated...
This post and my previous one are by a gentleman known as Thomas, AKA analogfuture. I use a 103r with my Thorens 126 MKIII, 103 with my Technics SL-1210 MKII, and an Allnic AUT 2000 Step Up Transformer. Price/performance ratio is unparalleled.

Hi again,

In articles found and read just days ago, I have learned that:

a) Contrary to my previously held erroneous notion, the DL-103R has the same 16.5 micron spherical stylus as the DL-103 (and 13 out of 15 listed original DL-103 versions from Denon. Only the DL-103D and DL-103M had elliptical styli)

b) The reviewer in "HiFi&Musik" (Sweden) thinks the DL-103R is hardly worth the added cost compared to the DL-103. (makes one wonder, how many people actually make provisions for differing generator impedance (cable capaciatance, load impedance??) when comparing the two?)

c) Mr. Koizumi (of Onken fame) says he would rather buy twenty DL-103s, pick a favorite and throw away the rest, than to buy "some expensive super cartridge that happens to be this week's favorite". laugh

This fellow Philip Holmes clearly does not believe in any sort of advantage to be had with spherical styli, and rather tries to argue that groove pinch effects are more of a problem with sphericals. And about proponents of spherical styli...."Their logic is so odd, that I don’t want to risk spreading this peculiar form of audiophile wishful thinking..." I have seen no odd logic, just no-nonsense techno-logics, so to speak... Well, we don't exactly have to have an argument either way. If the issue is harmonic distortion, someone ought to just measure it and settle the matter once and for all. Most of us will hear distortion if we have reason to believe it's there, just like so many hear (speaking of wishful thinking) the superiority of this or that ultra-expensive cable after having read the hype and ecstatic reviews, and more importantly, perhaps, after having paid a big sum of money for that fancy cable (never ever used, or deemed necessary or worthwhile in a recording studio ever, of course...)

Aaah, it all just reminds me why I stopped reading the "audiophile" magazines years ago - too much of the expensive toys for guys with too much money to spend, an industry and its consumers walking in circles year after year...same s**t new wrapping over and over... Why it's so much more fun to play with hotrodded Lencos, DIY arms and "peacemakers" like the DL-103. I like to believe in "classic" designs and concepts which prove their worth over time and don't disappear in favor of the "new and improved" months later.

In any case, it is easy to believe in the sound you hear and I myself have yet to break in my new 103... Talk about listening rooms, heh...I've spent hours and hours the past couple of days rearranging my room which, admittedly houses "the lab" with its countless unfinished projects at various levels of completion, parts, tools, books, musical instruments and other playthings and which is extremely far from being "feng shui" or even very ideal acoustically I'm afraid. But still, my system sounds great in there - to my ears... I may be an audio technology nerd and a music lover, but "audiophile"? Think not...