Denon DL-103 -- Was it a mistake?

I recently purchased a Denon DL-103 for my Clearaudio Emotion/Satisfy Tonearm combo. I thought it might end up sounded ok, but I'm starting to think it was not a good match. I've only put about 10 hours on it so far, so perhaps it will still smooth out a bit. But the bass seems to get muddy very easily. Can I do some things to improve the sound here?

The 103 cartridges are very problematic. Because they are cheap, many buy them and do not realize how specific the environment is that they have to work in. What phono section are you using and what is the impedance that you are loading the cartridge at? After years of experience, with many of the 103 models, I believe that the correct mass for the arm is a minimum of 14 grams with 16-20 grams being optimal. It may be necessary to add quite a bit of mass, preferably at the headshell. What is the effective mass of your arm?
I have been hearing that Denon 103s require very massive arms, have they changed the cartridge? In the 1980s when HiFi Choice was a serious magazine they conducted the most comprehensive arm and cartridge tests I am familiar with. At that time they estimated from their tests that the compliance was 13 in both lateral and vertical planes and recommended arms in the 6-16 gram range. I now see the 103s compliance listed at 5 in some sites, have they actually reduced the compliance that much? The cost in 1985 was 80 pounds in England, not far off what I paid this year for a new one. Are you using 2.5 grams tracking force? With the large footprint of the spherical stylus this tracking force will not damage the records and is quite necessary. I use that weight in my Scoutmaster arm which has about 7 grams mass and it is working quite well but took some time to break in. You can always add mass as Viridian suggests. I was a Supex dealer and used in the 1980s when I had high mass arms like the Lustre 801 and the Fidelity Research so I haven't used the Denon in a high mass arm. I would be patient until I had a hundred hours or so on it and if I was still unhappy add mass then. Turntables and arms take a while to optimize , take your time, you have a good cartridge.
The compliance tests in Hi Fi Tests magazine is probably a better indicator (13) than Denon's own specs (5), because Denon cites the compliance at a different frequency (100Hz?) than is customary (10KHz).

16-20 g effective mass isn't too hard to come by. Most arms these days have an effective mass around 14g. A Technics SL12x0 turntable with an aftermarket Sumiko headshell will get you there, as would any of the Audio Technica Technihard headshells, particularly the 13g or 15g.

For an RB300, just tape a couple of pennies to the headshell. :) Actually, it would take some sort of headshell weight in the 3-5g range. Or you could use the Zu-103 version, which is heavier than the plastic-bodied DL-103.
"What phono section are you using and what is the impedance that you are loading the cartridge at?"

I'm currently using the phono section built into my NAD C 162 preamp (eek!) but I have a Cambridge Audio 640p in shipment, which should arrive tomorrow. I know the phono section in the NAD is horrible, because it even managed to make my Clearaudio Virtuoso cart sound horrible.

"What is the effective mass of your arm?"

According to, the effective tonearm mass for the Clearaudio Satisfy arm is 9g.

"Are you using 2.5 grams tracking force?"

Yes, I am currently tracking around 2.7 to aid in the break-in process.

"I would be patient until I had a hundred hours or so on it and if I was still unhappy add mass then. Turntables and arms take a while to optimize , take your time, you have a good cartridge."

You're right. Only having 10 hours on this cart, I don't think it's fair to make a serious judgment on it yet. It's easy to jump to conclusions in this hobby. I'm very hopeful that the 640p phono pre will help the sound a good bit, as I'm sure it will. All the reviews I read on it say that it's a good phono stage. The output impedance on the Denon is 100 ohms, which matches the input impedance of the Cambridge.

"For an RB300, just tape a couple of pennies to the headshell."

I suppose I could try that with my arm, too?
Great cartridge, and not just for the money. Problematic though -- it has never sounded less than good on three of my arms -- that cheap 12" cherry wood tonearm, a JMW 10.5, and an SME IIIs (with added headshell weight) -- but one friend with a superb system couldn't make the same cart (mine) sound halfway decent. Loading appears to be critical. People recommend 100 ohms but my Aesthetix Rhea sounds WAY better at 500 ohms,

Finally, this thing really take wing when treated to a Soundsmith retip. Mine now has their Optimized Contour (OC) line contact ruby cantilever ($350) and is in a whole other league from the stock conical version. Good luck, Dave
Best results I got with a heavy Tonearm (FR, Ikeda...this direction).
Muddy bass could be a sign of excessive feedback from the speaker. You might want to move the TT around a bit to see if the bass improves. Another way to test it is to lower the cart on a record without turning the motor on, than slowly turn up the volume and see if you get any feedback.
Well, first, add mass to the arm. Second, the 640P was a bad match with the 103 in my system. The brightness at the top of the Denon's midrange not matching well with the upper midrange brightness of the 640P. But in a darker toned system, it may be heaven. You will know the answer to that one soon enough though. The 100 ohm load impedance is a little low for the 103, as well, matching the lower internal impedance of the 103R a bit better.
Well I guess I'll find out when the 640P arrives. I never heard anyone say that it was bright before, after reading several reviews. I wish I would have known that beforehand, because my system is definitely not dark. I'd say that it's fairly neutral as is. It may be possible to mod the 640P to change the loading on the MC section. I'm not afraid to use a soldering iron, I just need to know which caps/resistors to change.

I could also try moving the TT around, because it is fairly close to the speaker. I never noticed a feedback problem before, but that was with a higher output MM cart. Maybe it is more sensitive now with a low output MC.
My experience....

I currently own six DL 103 series carts ( 2 stock DL-103, 1 stock DL-103R, 1x Dl-103R SS retipped, 2x DL103 with wood body).

All I can say is that the arm needs at least 14-16 gms minimum effective mass in order to hear what the 103 series are really made of excluding the headshell weight. On the stock 103's currently installed in my system, I found the Orsonic AV101-S (16 gms) and Yamamoto (10.4 gms) to sound the best loaded at around 40 to 100 ohms in 26 dB SUT gain (1:20) with VTA a tad high (tail up a bit). As you can see, using the two headshells results in an effective mass in the range of 24-30 gms effective mass.

I tried unipivot arms in the 14 gms and less tonearm mass before and I was not pleased at the results even if I add weights on the headshell.

On the two wood body carts I have, I found that it sounds good even on the SME 3009 S2 Improved arm (9.5 Eff. Mass not including the original SME headshell which is about 6~7 gms)but really sound much better using a heavier headshell (Orsonic or Yamamoto).

So, in summary, try using an arm with a total effective mass of 23 gms. and above and I assure you from my experience, that you will hear a new sound on your DL103 compared to what you have now.
Yes, you need to get all of it broken in and settled before making any types of changes, so that you can have a baseline; you might just fall in love right off. I did not say that the Denon is bright, but that there is a brightness in the upper midrange/lower treble, which makes up for a lack of resolution in this area, this is matched by a bit of conceit in the midbass and low bass that makes the whole affair sound quite balanced, with good weight and snap. The Denon is far from being neutral, but in the right rig it will sing like few others.
Also do not forget the Denon arms! You can find these relatively inexpensive arms and if you put the 103 on got it!
Also do not forget the Denon arms! You can find these relatively inexpensive arms and if you put the 103 on got it!

I could not agree more! I have a friend who uses the Denon arm and a Thorens BTD12-S (I also have this arm)and the Dl103 sound superb!

I read many post using DL-103's with unipivot or gimbal arm at around 12 and below effective mass and claim that it sounds good. I have no problem with that but I truly believe that there's more to it. Similarly, people post that it sounds horrible and to this I would say that the Dl-103 did not have a chance to shine because of the arm being use.


What are you tracking at? Don't be afraid to dial in some tracking force.. min 2grams. The 103 NEEDS a high mass 12' arm... then it will sing. It really is a great cartridge, and seems to sound best with idler driven tables..
Well here's an update. I've put about 21-22 hours on the cart so far, and it has settled down a bit, but the sound still isn't right. I took the advice of many and put some sticky tack at the head shell to increase the tonearm mass, and of course moved the counter weight back to readjust the tracking force to 2.5. This seems to have helped the bass, but for some reason I can't get rid of this aggressive lower treble sound. It isn't fatiguing on classical, but is definitely noticeable. But on heavy rock with a lot of cymbals, it is just way too aggressive. It's a shame because I do love the midrange sound of this cart, but the intrusive treble makes it hard to enjoy it. I'm not so sure I'm going to be able to get this to work with my setup. And I'm not about to go buy a new table and/or tonearm to fit this cart. My goal was to get a good enough replacement cart to use while I send my Virtuoso in for repair. This current Denon setup has me REALLY missing the Virtuoso. This just isn't doing it for me. The overall sound seems a bit "forced" at times. This makes it sound much less musical than other carts I've heard. It seems as though there is a lots of detail, but it sacrifices musicality to get this detail. I am not a fan of that.
That's a shame; did you get the 640P yet?
Yes I did receive the 640p. I plugged it in for the first time Wednesday afternoon and it has been turned on ever since.

And it most definitely is a shame. After reading all the good things about the DL-103, I had very high hopes it would work for me. Maybe the acrylic platter is also a bad thing for this cart? I may purchase some felt today and make my own felt mat, just to see what that does.
You expressed difficulty in other threads with an inability to properly align a cartridge.

Could that be the case here as well?

That was never the conclusion. The cantilever on that cartridge was sold to me bent, which I believe was causing a lot of problems. And since I bought it used, the stylus may also be worn (I never looked at it under a microscope).

As for the Denon, the alignment is spot on. I hear no signs of mistracking whatsoever, and inner groove distortion is nonexistent. So to answer your question, no that is not the issue here. I believe this has more to do with improper cartridge/tonearm matching. Or perhaps the DL-103 is inherently a slightly bright cartridge. I have a strong distaste for even slightly bright audio components, so that may be playing a part here as well.
One thing the 103 family isn't is bright; suspend judgment until 40-50 hours or so have passed and the cart settles in - personally, I've always found anything in excess of 2.55g (or so) to be detrimental as it stomps on the cart's suspension leading to a restriction of dynamics and hardening of the sound. If you still find it bright, I suggest playing around with your MC loading.

or use step up transformer with the proper load for this gem! This is THE cartridge which was born this way!
No way a properly set up, sound DL103 is either bright unmusical. Something is amiss. Your impressions are the exact opposite of what the DL103 is known for, and what I've experienced for sure.
The specs on the Cambridge Audio Azur 640p state that the MC input is loaded at 100 ohm, 220 mF. From some of the other threads I've read, increasing the loading can actually make the cart sound brighter. Unfortunately, the 640p doesn't have a user selectable load setting. I'd have to physically take the unit apart and swap out resistors and/or caps.

I just wonder what could cause brightness. If it's a bad tonearm/cart match, then I'll never be able to fix that. From what I understand, a low compliance cart generates a lot of resonance, so perhaps the high frequency energy is just resonating all through the light arm tube of the Satisfy and becoming amplified. Or perhaps it's the all-acrylic body and acrylic platter. If it's burn in, then I can wait another 20-30 hours to find that out.

I'm also noticing that only certain albums sound bad. I believe it's the albums that are "cut hot", i.e. the ones where you can turn the volume down all the way and practically hear the song coming straight off the needle. To me this would indicate a problem with resonance. It's possible that the high frequency energy coming off the cartridge is resonating throughout the tonearm and causing treble feedback. If that is the case, I'm not sure how I could ever fix that without getting a different tonearm.

When you say the alignment is "spot on" does that mean the VTA too? If the cartridge is tipped forward even a little, it can cause it to sound bright. You may be able to "tune" the sound more to your liking by adjusting the VTA a bit up at the front of the cartridge - which usually roles off the treble. If there is no VTA adjustment on the Satisfy tonearm, then you may have to shim the cartridge.

Sounds like you already tried putting some adhesive material on the tonearm head to increase the weight and dampen it a bit. Another thing to try is placing a small dot of blutack or other removable adhesive material symmetrically on each side of the counter weight and then re-balance the arm to see if it tames some of the liveliness. You could also try putting one or more dots of adhesive in different places along the length of the tone arm to see if that helps.

Don't know if you quelled the mushy bass problem, but that may have something to do with room vibrations as previously stated. Better isolation of your TT will likely help with that.

Good luck!
Well I've given this cart 50+ hours of time to settle in, and yes, it has become less aggressive and harsh in the treble, but it still sounds too harsh to me at times. It sounds great on some albums, but is very unforgiving on others. I will have to live with it until I get the Virtuoso back, simply because I have no other choice. But I can't say that I would suggest this cart to anyone in the future unless they have a properly matched tonearm. My assessment on the sound of this cart may not be fair, simply because I'm using a low mass tonearm. I am, however, enjoying the sound of my DacMagic. On many classical recordings, it simply blows away the DL-103, hands down.
I'd check alignment more closely.

You've had problems with other cartridges in this regard.
I wouldn't recommend any cartridge to anyone unless they had a properly matched tonearm. In fact, it's borderline irresponsible to post what mounts to a negative review of a product based on improper use.
Rnm4: Apparently you missed the second half of that post which explicitly notes the fact that my assessment may not be fair due to an improperly matched tone arm. I don't really need you to reiterate that in a forceful and negative way. Thank you.

Lol you keep going back to that Virtuoso incident. That was simply due to a bent cantilever, which caused me to send it in for repair, which has ultimately put me in this situation using the DL-103 as a temporary replacement.

Either way, good suggestion; I will continue to check it periodically as I normally do (in case it somehow is jarred out of alignment when moving the tonearm). I'll also keep playing with VTA and VTF, but I already have the tail end down to tame the high frequencies. I feel this may just be a bad tonearm/cart match, or perhaps this cart just isn't my taste.
As a matter of psychology, at least some people will take away a negative impression of the DL103 from your reported dissatisfaction with it, despite the disclaimers that you didn't have it set up properly. That's why I think it's borderline irresponsible even to report on it. I's like spreading an unsupported and unflattering rumor.

That it doesn't sound good on a mismatched arm is absolutely no strike whatsoever against it; how it sounds on a mismatched arm is irrelevant to how it sounds properly set up. So why did you bother to report this, and reiterate it even after it was clear the arm was inappropriate?

I mean this in the least sarcastic way possible: are you a moderator of this forum? If not, then I really don't see where you get off trying to dictate what can and can't be posted in my thread. All of the comments made in it by others have been fairly constructive except for yours. If you have nothing better to do than spend time as a forum Nazi, then perhaps you need a second hobby. I'm not answering your question, simply because it's ridiculous. Anyone who reads this entire thread will clearly understand that my issues with the DL-103 *may* be related to an improperly matched tonearm. From my understanding (and I'd like to learn more about this, so please comment constructively if you have information), matching a tonearm properly against a cartridge's compliance helps improve bass performance. I'm curious as to how it would affect treble response. My guess is that upper frequency resonance is dampened poorly by the low mass of the tone arm itself.

I'd be curious to hear from some people who have heard a DL-103 on both a low and high mass tonearm to know what the difference in sound is like.
No I'm not. I think it's constructive to point out when someone is erroneously acting as if he or she has reasons to think there may be something amiss with a product -- especially one as widely admired as the DL103. Just what constructive point is there is stating that a cartridge badly set up doesn't please you? hey folks, I think prime porterhouse steak just as good as everyone says; I burnt one up well done, and it was dry and flavorless!
Just because something is "widely admired" doesn't mean that 100% of the people that hear it will enjoy its sound, even if it is being heard on a "properly setup" system. I don't understand why you keep ignoring the fact that I explicitly pointed out that my tonearm may not be a good match for this cartridge. In fact, that was pointed out in the original post, and was one of the main reasons I initiated this thread. The simple fact that I indicated the conditions under which this cartridge is being used gives me the right to explain how it sounds under those exact conditions. If you don't like that, then stop reading my thread.
Jwglista - Would it be possible to pick up another inexpensive cartridge on Audiogon, and sell the 103?

FWIW - I've owned the 103 and 103r in the past, and gotten good results with a Rega arm, which is also a bit light for the Denons.

I've been playing around with that idea as well, but that's a whole other thing to deal with. I actually used the DL-103 case to send the Virtuoso, so I wouldn't really be able to safely ship the DL-103 if I sold it.

What was your setup like other than the Rega when using the 103? I just tried another trick tonight: I put rubber washers in between the cart and the mounting plate, and made sure not to over-tighten the screws. This seems to have made a marginal improvement, but albums that are cut hot still sound way too harsh to listen to. Perhaps this cartridge is just way too unforgiving on poorly made albums.
Ok well I've just put an end to all of this and ordered an Ortofon 2M Red. I don't expect it to have quite the same definition as the 103, but I am fairly confident that it will sound much more musical in my setup, being that it is a much better match for my tonearm.
......and for your phono preamp. Good luck with the Red.
Probably should have ordered a Mint LP protractor after all of the money you've spent up to now.

It appears you have difficulty aligning cartridges and can't come to grips with it.
Just put a Uwe pod (Panzerholz) on my Soundsmith retipped DL-103 last night. This may be the ultimate DL-103; it certainly sounds little like the stock 103. It's on a JMW arm that's something of a "mutt" -- 10.0 base, 10.5 armtube, 12.7 pivot point assembly -- and seems to match the now-heavy cart very well.
Haha Audiofeil, you are never going to lift your grudge, are you? I *knew* you were a promoter of the MintLP. And you've been trying to hide it this whole time...

Dopogue: glad you're enjoying the DL-103. I'm sure with the retip and in a proper environment, the 103 sounds great. I'm anxiously awaiting the return of my ruby cantilever rebuild of my Virtuoso. Is the Uwe Pod just another body for the DL-103?
I'm not trying to hide my "promotion" of the Mint LP. I am a very strong advocate of the device.

I also have no financial interest in it if that's your implication.

And I have no grudge; based on your posts it appears you lack the skills and/or understanding to properly align a phono cartridge.

It's that simple.
My advice - move on - I did! My DL-103 now sits quietly in its box after hours upon hours of trying to find the magic some seem to have found with it.

I think the Ortofon Red will be a much better match to your system and is a more well-rounded cartridge than the DL-103.

Don't get me wrong - I understand the infatuation here and over at AudioAsylum with the DL-103's midrange, but I could not live with it long-term in my system (KAB mod'd table, PS Audio GCPH phonostage, PS Audio GCC-250 control amp, Usher X-718 speakers). As you put it - it never sounded "right" to me and I found its midrange colored despite others opinions to the contrary.

The 640P is a very good stage for most carts, but I've read that it's a horrible match to the DL-103, so I'm guessing this only added to your problems. It should, however, be a stellar match to the Ortofon. I've heard the 2M series of and they are very very nice indeed.

I find it interesting that alignment became such a focus of discussion on this thread - the conical stylus of the DL-103 is probably the least sensitive to alignment issues of any cartridge I've heard in my resolving system.
I'm not sure how being a promoter of the MintLP is a bad thing. Since it's sold direct by the builder, no one who recommends it receives any benefits other than knowing they've suggested a device that works, as has been documented by at least a dozen users in the past year, including some of the most highly respected analog specialists on Audiogon.

Buy one. You'll be very glad you did.

It's good to find someone who shares my same experiences with the DL-103. I tried very hard to find the magic in this cart, but either it's not there for me, or my system is just a horrible match for it like you said.

As for the discussion on alignment, I agree with you. I never had any doubts about my alignment with this cartridge. The reason Audiofeil brought it up is because I was experiencing alignment issues before with a cartridge that had a completely bent cantilever (hence sending it in for repair and needing this replacement cart). Now he seems to think I'm completely incapable of aligning a cartridge. As far as the DL-103 goes, my alignment has been great (when using the supplied Clearaudio alignment card). I hear no inner groove distortion whatsoever, which is really the only strength I noticed about the DL-103 in my system. There is no possible way that the Clearaudio alignment card is so incorrect that the alignment it provides causes the DL-103 to sound as bad as it did in my system, particularly given the fact that it does have a conical stylus.

Tvad: I hold nothing against the MintLP. That was just a joke that goes back to another thread. I'm sure it's a great product and works as advertised, albeit a bit expensive.
"I'm not trying to hide my "promotion" of the Mint LP. I am a very strong advocate of the device.

I also have no financial interest in it if that's your implication."

That was never my implication.

"And I have no grudge; based on your posts it appears you lack the skills and/or understanding to properly align a phono cartridge."

If you are as experienced as you make yourself out to be, I highly doubt you jump to such conclusions when considering analog setup. It is clear that there are several other factors here that have contributed to my problems with the DL-103: tonearm match, phono stage match, etc. So to say that "based on my posts" I lack the understanding on how to align a cartridge as if it's the sole cause of my issues here shows your own lack of understanding of how to arrive at an overall synergy in system setup. You may have more years of experience doing this, but "based on your posts" it appears you lack knowledge as well if that is your stand, or you simply failed to read all the posts in this thread.

"What was your setup like other than the Rega when using the 103?"

I'm not sure exactly what you mean... I was using a Rega P25 with the RB600 arm, and used both a Phonomena phono, and then switched to the built in phono in my Supratek Syrah preamp. Loaded at 100ohms.

All in all, it sounded quite good, with none of the harshness that you are encountering. Granted, this doesn't apply to you that much, because your table/arm/phono are completely different, not to mention, I highly doubt that all 103s are manufactured perfectly alike.

Hopefully you'll get better results with the Ortofon

Sorry for being a bit vague. I was just curious what the rest of your system was like (phono pre, etc.).

I haven't really decided if I want to sell the Denon or not, just because I'd like to install it on another TT some day to hear how it sounds in a proper setup. I'm curious as to what specifically makes the Cambridge 640p a bad match to the DL-103, since loading is usually set at 100 ohms for this cart, and that's what the 640p provides.

Good to know you are enjoying yours. I know my Paradigm speakers with the aluminum dome tweeters can be very unforgiving on bright recordings and bright sounding equipment, so that did not help the DL-103 out at all in my incorrectly-matched setup.

I too hope to get better results with the Ortofon. I will definitely report back here once I've got things settled in.
I was very specific in my previous post about the sonic qualities that make the 640P a bad match with the 103. Seems you found out exactly what I suggested to you before the 640P arrived.
Regarding loading the DL-103, my experience tells me it needs to be higher
than 100 ohms. The matching Denon SUTs load it at 470 ohms (at least my
AU-320 does). I now have an Aesthetix Rhea that permits on-the-fly loading
changes via the remote (yeah, the ultimate couch potato phonostage) and it
sounds best to me at 500 ohms. Too "scrawny" at 100 ohms, IME.
I agree... to a point... Dopogue

I tried several loadings with the DL-103 in my system - I still couldn't get it to sound "right" though, especially in the midrange. I did, however, find the best match at 500 ohms, as well.

My current Dynavector 20XL (microline edition) is so much more musical than the DL-103 was. I'd take the 10X5 or, as Jwglista did, the Ortofon 2m carts, over the DL-103 any day.

One thing that did impress the hell out of me was the Denon's ability to track inner grooves with it's conical stylus. It's the only conical I've ever heard that can do it convincingly and inner-groove-distortion is a pet-peave of mine. It tracked the inner groove almost as well as my 20XL, which is impressive.