Help me understand tonearm/cartridge compatibility, please!

Hi everyone,

Once again I'm seeking to educate myself on turntable set-up issues with the help your vast experience.  I only recently came to understand the importance of cartridge loading, and I think I have a decent handle on that.  However, I have been having issues with some new cartridges that I've tried, and my guess is that it is due to cartridge compliance, something I don't have a full grasp of yet.  The following results have held with two different phono stages:

I have a Marantz TT-15s1.  It comes with a tonearm designed by Clearaudio for Marantz and a Clearaudio Virtuoso cartridge.  After I broke the stylus no on the cart I decided to explore some other carts.  I have gotten a wide variety of results, and I am guessing that compliance is the issue.  The Clearaudio cart that comes with the table has a compliance of 15.  

1.  Denon DL 103r (compliance 5)- very thin sound, almost like someone turned down the bass and turned up the treble on a tone control.   

2.  Denon DL 110 (compliance 8)- excellent sound at very moderate volumes - deep sound stage, clear vocals, quick transients.  However, raising the volume to even average levels results in significant high frequency distortion, enough to make things unlistenable. 

3.  Grado Reference Sonata 1 (compliance 20) - this seems to work fine, without distortion.  Frankly, I like the sound of the DL 110 better, but the distortion has let me to stick with the Grado.

So, I am assuming that the compliance of the two Denons is too low for my tonearm and that I should stick to a cart closer to 15+?  

Any thoughts would be appreciated.  Thanks, and happy holidays!
Oh, and the rest of my system is as follows:

Naim 5i-2 integrated amp
Harbeth C7es3 speakers
Phono amps: Vincent PHO 8 and Heed Quasar

I'm not familiar with your turntable, but from the Marantz website it appears that it offers line-out only. If that's correct, then it isn't designed to be used with an external phono stage.

I don't see any specs for your pickup arm. Without knowing its mass, there's no way to calculate a proper range of phono cartridge compliance. Perhaps your dealer can help with that.

Phono cartridge compliance should be specified at a specific frequency. Without that detail, the compliance number itself isn't useful.
Denon DL 103r is a MC cart, the sound you are describing sounds like an improper loading issue.

But cleeds is correct, it's not possible to calculate compliance w/o knowing the tonearm mass. Can you find specs on your TT with tonearm since they were sold together?

Have you tried adjusting the VTA?

You can check on compliance using the calculator on the Audio Engine website. You will need some information on your arm and cartridge, and that may also be available on their website.

Also as mentioned by cleeds, if you have a phono preamp built in you may be overloading the phono stage.


This looks like a regular turntable to me, and line out is designed to plug into a phono stage?  If this is incorrect, please enlighten us.

I think there are a couple of things going on here. Compliance might be a factor, but judging from your results I think break in might be the main issue. There's a mechanical aspect and you have to get it going so to speak. Break in can take many tedious hours although you get rewarded as the cart settles in and you can hear how it changes. You might have to change settings as it matures, especially arm height (VTA/SRA).

I don't know the effective mass of your arm, is it carbon fiber?  Assuming it's a decent match with the Virtuoso I would guess at least on the low side of med mass.  The 103(r) likes heavier arms, but the compliance is confusing.  Many Japanese manufacturers rate compliance at 100Hz.  The standard for calculation purposes is 10Hz. So you wind up with apples and oranges.

Your Virtuoso has a 10Hz cu (compliance) of 15, but it's 100Hz cu is 6.5. The 103 is 5 at 100Hz and about 12 at 10Hz.  I forget exactly what the 110 cu is, but I think it comes out to around 16cu at 10Hz.  That's the most surprising result.  It could be due to insufficient break in and I hate to say it, but some people load it down somewhat. This is changing phono input resistance to a lower value, in this case between 1K and 20Kohms, or whatever sounds best.

If you go to the Vinyl Engine database you'll find compliance arm mass calculators. There are instructions and all cu figures must be at 10Hz. BTW, you can replace and upgrade the stylus on your Virtuoso. Go to LpGear and look at their house brand stylus. Get the AT95 upgrade model of your choosing (VL or SA recommended), trim the plastic to match your Clearaudio and pop it in.


No phono stage built in to the Naim, nor is there a phono amp built in to the Marantz.  I have looked everywhere for specs on the tonearm that comes with the Marantz, to no avail.  One review called it a Clearaudio Satisfy Tonearm, but that tonearm costs more than the entire Marantz package (table, arm, and $800 cart), so I don't think that's accurate.  

I believe I had the loading right for the Denon 103R, but maybe not...

Hi Scott,

Would I be correct in assuming that you have been running the DL-110, which is rated at 1.6 mv output under the standard test conditions, into the MM input of the Heed, and that you’ve set the Vincent to MM mode when using it with the DL-110? If not, the added gain resulting from using the phono stages in LOMC mode with the DL-110 could very conceivably account for the distortion you’ve described. Especially given the high sensitivity (= a low sensitivity number, 150 mv in this case) of your Naim integrated amp.

Best regards,
-- Al

Thanks for all your suggestions.  In response to the questions and comments..

1.  Yes, I was using the MM input for both the Heed and the Vincent with the DL-110.  Through the same configurations the Grado with an output of 5.0 mV (vs. 1.6mv for the DL-110) does not distort.   

2.  It's not a case of break-in for the cartridges because the problem is significant distortion.  I should have mentioned that the DL-103 also distorts at higher volumes, but it sounds terrible at every level.    

3.  I have done some tweaking with the arm height, but I'm fairly new to turntable set up.  I have a GeoDisc and a digital stylus force gauge, so I know I'm fairly accurate on those parameters.

Right now I have the Sonata on the 'table which sounds pretty good, but I really preferred the sound of the DL-110, so I'd like to figure out how to make that one work.  

Thanks, Scott

Just an idea. Eliminate the speakers, try the headphones and see if the distortion is still there.
In a totally different situation, the other day I was listening to a badly scratched record. In one spot, when the volume was moderate, the stylus went through without skipping, but when I increased the volume it skipped.
But the compliance of your cartridge is low, the arm probably just can't take it when it gets tougher.
You need to get a test record that has a arm and cartridge resonance frequency band. I use the Shure TTR115 ERA IV.
This can be had on Ebay for less than 20 bucks. It is the most valuable tool you can get for testing arm and cartridge compatibility.
If you have a mismatch with the arm and cartridge you will have a problem till the cows come home!
Scott, well, this is indeed puzzling.  Given your last post, it seems clear that the possibility that some part of the electronic signal path is being overloaded when the Denon cartridges are used can be ruled out.  And given the good info Fleib has provided about compliance, my suspicion is that arm/cartridge compatibility is not the issue, or at least the major issue.  But in response to your initial request for info on that subject, you'll probably find this writeup to be helpful.

I'll second the suggestion of trying headphones, if that is practical, especially if you are certain that the distortion that occurs at higher volume levels with the Denons vanishes at low volume levels.  Obviously the only way the cartridge's performance could be volume-sensitive (for a given passage of a given recording) is if acoustic feedback from the speakers is occurring to a significant degree.  You might also visually check to see if the woofers are visibly "pumping" when that distortion occurs.

What could account for the thin sound and lack of bass with the DL-103r is a phase reversal in one channel.  In other words if the white and blue cartridge connections are interchanged, OR if red and green are interchanged.  Or if a corresponding miswire exists internally within the cartridge.  A phase reversal in one channel would also result in imaging that is vague, diffuse, and hard to localize.

Also, what tracking forces are you using for each of the cartridges?

Finally, although chances are it is unrelated to the problems, how have you set anti-skating?  When the cartridge is viewed from the front, while the stylus is in the groove of a rotating record, is the cantilever pointed essentially straight ahead (assuming it points straight ahead when the stylus is lifted off of the record), or is it deflecting perceptibly to the left or the right?

Just some thoughts.  Good luck.

-- Al
Update:  I was able to get the DL-110 working through the MM output of the Vincent without distortion, and it sounds quite good.  It doesn't work as well through the Heed MM input - the high output seems to overload the Naim and the low output really dulls the dynamics.  

I still can't get the DL-103Rto sound decent.  Very sibilant, thin, shrill, distorted.  Tried different VTA and tracking forces - sounded different but still bad.  I wonder if there isn't something defective in the cart - maybe a slightly damaged stylus or cantilever?  In any event, I don't think I'll waste any more time on fiddling with the DL-103R since I have the 110 working well.  

I appreciate all your suggestions, and I'll keep you posted.  

Thanks, Scott