Hi Dan, I may just be able to help. For the last few years I've been running the basic Zu modded Denon 103 (not R version). Excellent dynamics, and esp. tonality. So good it surpassed my prev. SOTA Transfiguation Orpheus (all this, at 25% of the price!).
On the Lenco Heaven forum boards I became aware of the Expert Stylus and Cartridge Company (ESCCo) just outside London, England. For the princely sum of £250 (c$400+) they take the Zu 103, replace the stylus with a Paratrace profile diamond, and the existing cantilever with a slightly longer White Sapphire variation. It's possible just to go for the stylus at lower cost, but I went for both.
Despite some warnings, reasonably, that the nature of the Zu 103 would be lost, my experience is that this actually isn't true. All the dynamics and tonality are retained, but a new sweetness is introduced that in my system at least nicely offsets a slight tendency to stridency in the higher frequencies that would quite often intrude on some recordings. A slight caveat is that there is a slight drop off in urgency, but this has been mainly remedied by retaining the original VTF of 2.5g despite ESCCo advising dropping it to 2.0g.
In my opinion, this is all win-win. An already brilliant cart punching well above it's weight has been elevated to the ranks of truly great. Sweetness, tonality and detail all in spades, superb propulsive bass, airy top end, superlative tracking and rejection of surface noise. What more could you want?
This is now the keeper for me (was considering looking at Lyra Atlas/Soundsmith Straingauge, but no more). Email Expert Stylus and Cartridge Company and get a quote (lead time is 3-4 months so make sure you have a spare cart to use). You won't be dissapointed.
Forgot to mention email:
As far as I'm aware they don't have a website. Don't worry about that, they're one of these companies that have been dealing with stylii related issues since the Golden Age of audio in the 50s and 60s, and are actively involved in lots of engineering pursuits (like SME). What their main man doesn't know about stylii/carts isn't worth knowing, and their cost effective service really puts to shame all the times I'd send my prev. Transfiguration carts back to Japan for retipping and be seriously overcharged.
Remember to factor in the cost of shipping both ways/customs charges, since they're based in England.
Thanks much for your answer to my question, it's really appreciated. My Zu Denon is a 103R (within 2% channel matching), is never out of rotation for very long.
My Dyna XX2MKII is getting very long in the tooth, after about seven years of steady use, it's getting ready for a re-tip. Sounds like ESCO might be the right choice to send that to for work.
The Zu 103R is already an outstanding cartridge, and to be able to take it to another level entirely for $400 is an opportunity not to be missed.
Thanks again for the help, best regards,
Dan, the only thing I would say is that there are those who feel it's not the way to go. I'm not too sure if they've heard the end result. It is surely true that changing the stylus profile and cantilever in effect changes the cart, but I found that in effect the heart of the Zu 103 has been retained but with an extra level of refinement. In fact the one area that I considered lacking (high end stridency) has been totally addressed and replaced by an excellent sweetness.
My system is pretty neutral (direct rim drive tt/linear tracking arm/full range driver xoverless spkrs) and the new balance of sound from the cart provides an excellent synergy. However if your system is really lush, soft and warm sounding this sweetness MAY be too much. Personally I can't imagine any system not benefitting but YMMV.
I have a denon 103r with ebony wood body with the ESC'd Paratrace stylus and sapphire cantilever.
While it raises the performance considerably, it does not compare to my dynavector xv-1s or my Lyra ATLAS, so do not expect miracles as they do not exist.
Hi Downunder, I bow to your views since you can hear the ESCCo Zu 103 alongside more expensive MCs in the same system. For me, I was able to compare it against the Transfiguration Orpheus in my system and felt there was no contest. The Orpheus was maybe a little ahead on neutrality, detail retrieval and soundstaging, but the ESCCo routinely beat it on tonality, dynamics, PRaT and all round involvement.
I've only heard the Titan/Atlas/Goldfinger in other systems so maybe shouldn't comment, but really feel at the very least the ESCCo Zu isn't embarrassed in such company.
The other consideration is that maybe the Al bodied Zu 103 has different characteristics than the wooden bodied Uwe Zu.
Just a little update. The basic Zu 103 in my opinion is a bit of a giant killer, with tone and dynamics right up there with the best MCs, just lacking in a little detail retrieval and soundstaging.
The ESCCo mods have taken all what's best, tamed the stridency apparent in the top end with a fair number of discs, and replaced it with a lush sweetness that really complements the unbeatable tonality already present. However the first few days' listening revealed a little undue softness or lack of urgency in the sound.
Now, a few days burning in has resulted in an elimination of this softness and I'm getting a much needed dose of incision.
So I'm now getting a cart with real involvment, tone, excellent but not spotlit detail retrieval, and a perfect balance of sharpness and warmth.
In direct comparison with my 4x pricier previous fave, the Transfiguration Orpheus, there's just no contest - in no area now does the ESCCo Zu 103 fall behind. In fact it trumps it pretty comprehensively.
Hi Spirit. Great to hear you enjoying the cart.
A friend of mine also had a Transfiguration Orpheus. He has a Monaco table with Triplaner.
He bought a Clearaudio Maestro which is around 1k - he too has similar thoughts on the superiority of the Maestro over the Orpheus. He sold his Orpheus.
I am not sure if this says something about the overachieving cheaper cartridges, or the Orpheus being a underachiever. Probably a bit of both.
I am going to have to put the esc'd 103r onto one of my tables again.
Downunder, I really admired the Orpheus in it's day, but was fully aware of it's overly neutral nature. Personally I always preferred the Lyra Parnassus, loving it's liquid tonality and lithe bass, but couldn't get on with the Lyra Skala or Helikon which I both felt were a little too ascerbic esp. at the top end.
When I heard the Zu 103 three years ago, I really felt I was getting a lot of what made the Parnassus special, in a really user friendly package (dead easy to set up, sounds great out of the box). And the move to ESCCo modding has really smoothed out any rough edges the stock Zu 103 demonstrated in the treble.
Now I'm getting a sound that leaves me wanting for nothing else.
Yesterday, I sent my Zu 103R (lvl 2) to Soundsmith for their top cantilever and diamond. I am thinking that this is the equivalent of the ESCCo mods discussed here. This cart had been out of service for about a year because of a sweater-sleeve circumcision of the original cantilever. Now I can't wait to get it back to hear the results.
I'm very curious about Soundsmith vs. Expert for the mod. I'm heard a lot about Expert from Lencoheaven, but mostly from European users. So is it any better than Soundsmith? IMO Soundsmith does great work. Could Expert be any better?
ESCCo are in the UK, Soundsmith the USA. This consideration as much as anything will swing most people's choice.
Where ESCCo may score over Soundsmith is the fact they provide diamond tips from scratch ie a more bespoke service, whereas Soundsmith provide from stock.
My ESCCo Zu 103 is still playing the role of giant killer, blowing my Orpheus out of the water.
BUT, I am a BIG fan of Peter Lederman at Soundsmith, and am actively considering his Straingauge to go up against the Zu 103. We shall see (hear).
Suspect it's all in the same ball park. Soundsmith and ESCCo both have long and distinguished histories. They both have great feedback. I get the impression the actual diamond tips are more bespoke with ESCCo, but beyond this I can't help.
All I can say is, that for the price, the end result is fantastic, and the quality of work/customer service exemplary. Let's hear from some happy Soundsmith retipped customers.
Can't wait to compare to the Straingauge.
This hobby is bad for OCD! Small adjustments to VTF/VTA/azimuth are all making differences to the sound. Luckily it's all positive with VTF esp. making real improvements. Still finding closer to 2.5 makes more sense than the ESCCo advised 2.0.
Will be auditioning the Straingauge, but this cart is so persuasive that the demo will really have to blow me away or present such a persuasively different perspective on the music to sway me.
I've used modified Denon 103R's for the better part of 5-6 years now, the most recent versions being one in an ebony body that has been retipped (and potted, as Zu does with theirs) by Soundsmith with their $250 retip (ruby cantilever and line contact stylus) and currently a 103R in an aluminum body, also potted and retipped by Soundsmith with their midline $250 retip.
While I found the stock conical on the 103R to sound best right around 2.6 grams VTF, I can dial back the retipped versions I have to around 2.450 to 2.475 (yes, it will be that sensitive to VTF when it fully breaks in and you get into those zones). Going below that in terms of VTF the cartridge becomes very "airy" and detailed but loses the drive, slam and top to bottom coherency that the 103 series is really famous for and excels at with an improved body. Lower VTF may give you more "audiophile" qualities but will sound less like real music IMO. If I had to track mine below 2.45 I would probably look for another cartridge. Based on my experience, you are on the right track between 2.45 and 2.5 for VTF.
I would expect the paratrace to be very similar to Soundsmith's $350 retip. That would mean that it should be a detail champ but will also be extremely fussy on setup as you are finding out. But get it locked in and you will be rewarded.
FWIW, even Soundsmith's $250 line contact retip is a ton more sensitive to proper setup (alignment, azimuth, VTF/SRA) than the stock conical stylus on the 103 series.
Hdm, really finding the ESCCo modded Zu 103 is giving me a great sound. As per your advice I'll try and dial VTF in a bit further. It DEFINITELY excels at 2.5 v 2.0. I know quite a few advise c.2.25. More endless OCD. Thank Heavens the end result is really proving worth it in my system.
My area of investigation is whether it's possible to have the tonality and dynamics of a cart like this with the transparency and detail retrieval of more forensic carts like my previous fave, the Transfiguration Orpheus. Fascinatingly, at the moment, barring detail retrieval, the Orpheus can't hold a candle to the ESCCo Zu 103.
The only cart I like more than the Zu 103 is the much missed Lyra Parnassus, this seemed to have the best balamce of all. Investigating the Soundsmith Straingauge to see if it can replicate these traits.
Spirit: Until you have about 25-30 hours on the new stylus I wouldn't get too hung up about really dialling things in as there is IMO a definite break in period.
I have no experience with the stock 103; all of mine is with the 103R which by most accounts is a slightly more detailed cartridge. I agree with your comments on balance. I'd never describe myself as a real detail freak and I've heard some very pricey high end cartridges that do detail exceptionally well but just sound less like real music to me. When you consider that you can do an aluminum bodied, potted and retipped 103R for around $650-$700, it is IMO a serious bargain; I have no desire to buy other cartridges.
I think you can run a retipped Denon at the lower VTF without gross mistracking, unlike the stock conical, but it has never sounded right to me, especially once you get into the 2.2-2.3 range it just becomes grossly Hi-Fi-ish for me in my setup and loses most of what makes the cartridge so appealing.
You might also experiment with your anti-skate settings. I find that the line contact stylus requires less in the way of anti-skate. Tracking at around 2.45 to 2.47, I have antiskate set to 1 on my dial.
Hdm, you're absolutely right. I'm approaching the 35 hour point, and changes to settings are settling nicely. Gone from VTF 2.0 (too floaty) to 2.5 (too leaden) to 2.25 (too right). OCD is being rewarded!
Glad you're having fun. I should mention that I am in what is a cooler climate (Southwestern Ontario, Canada); it's about -15 Celsius outside here right now and I have the furnace set around 20 C inside.
I can lower VTF a bit in the warmer, more humid weather, maybe into the 2.425 range. But at this time of year I have to be above the 2.45 mark but definitely below 2.5.
Doesn't matter what time of year or temperature though: anything that starts with 2.3 (or lower) regardless of how high in that range it is just doesn't cut it here but everyone's setup is a bit different.
Gosh, the ESCCo Zu 103 is changing character, literally every time I listen to it, and all GOOD! I'm settling on 2.45 VTF. What's fascinating is that what to all intents and purposes would never be described as a 'neutral' cartidge, is proving to be BOTH more even handed AND exciting than ostensibly more neutral carts like the Transfiguration Orpheus.
With the exception of a smidgeon less detail retrieval and soundstaging than the Orpheus (even this a close call), the ESCCo Zu 103 walks all over the 4x pricier and more celebrated Orpheus in tonality, dynamics, PRaT, and sheer involvement/excitement.
Each day I'm literally getting a degree more sophistication, transparency and neutrality, with all the 'color' that the stock Zu 103 is capable of.
My only comparison soon will be with the Soundsmith Straingauge, and this will have to be such a persuasive performer to tempt me away from what I believe to be a cart that is letting me 'have it all'.
Just an update, it without doubt knocks my previous reference Transfiguration Orpheus out of the park! No mean feat. And is a distinct step up from the stock Zu 103. It's sound literally improved daily until the 75 hr mark, now it's a marvel of consistency.
I'm getting as much detail retrieval as any top flight MC I've had in my system (Orpheus, Temper, Lyra Parnassus) with a tonality and involvement not experienced before.
I've recently heard the Lyra Titan and Ortofon A90, albeit in systems other than mine, and I'm amazed to say I would not swap (and I do have the funds for such an upgrade). I feel that the ESCCo Zu 103 is on a par with these carts wrt detail retrieval, soundstaging and tracking, but streets ahead in the areas of dynamics, PRaT and the key areas of tonal density and shading, and sheer involvement.
I'm quite gobsmacked, and am now going to use the funds I was aiming at a new cart to investigate a final phono stage upgrade.