Review: Denon 103 Cartridge

Category: Analog

AK Audio $800
Denon 103 Queen Ebony wood body $250($130+ $100+shipping)
Denon 103 Tiger wood body soundsmith retip $600 total.
• 103 from comet supply - $130
• Wood body from goldenage audio austrailia - $130
• Soundsmith mid level retip - $250
• Soundsmith potting - $75
AT33 ptgII ($600 from japan)
Benz-Micro Glider M $300-$400 used

I’ve been listening to the Denon 103 in an ebony wood body for the past year. I am listing my impressions for those who are experimenting with different carts in this class. And also for those who have heard one or more of these and have found significant improvement with one of the $2000 cartridges. Please share your comparisons.

First the differences between the benz glider and the 103wood. I will start with these because they are both well known and well reviewed. One can get an overall picture of their sound signatures just but spending a few minutes looking for AG treads/reviews, professional reviews, and general internet searches.

How do they (benz/103w) sound in my humble system? The benz bested the 103wood by a small margin that could possibly be considered a large margin by some with more sensitive ears and/or more sensitive equipment. It had a fuller or richer sound and possessed superior tracking ability. A scratched record (Sade’s latest “soldier of love” !!! so sad!) that the 103 could not get passed was unnoticeable with the Glider. I even forgot the record had a scratch when the Benz was set up on the old fashion SME 3009. The 103 however, was certainly not out classed. The Denon and the Benz seemed to have the same warmness of character. With the Denon being a bit more light on the top end…spaciousness maybe…while benz was a bit forward and robust in comparison. The denon tends to a warm wide open soundstage. The Benz in comparison is more focused and definitive with far less distortion…and equally warm. They both find the soul in the music and beg to be played. Ill say more about soul later.

AK Audio is lush and perhaps….the word that comes to mined is thick. Like one of those full bodied red wines from Chile. Super warm it is! With lots of bass…heavy bass. Not so clean as the Benz or the Denon but not bloated and distorted either. Maybe, …ummm…like if the sound of this cart were a photo or painting, the colors would be exaggerated. This cart is striking to listen to… somewhat intoxicating at first. But the exaggerated “colors” cause it to be…well…not as compelling as the benz or denon after hours of listening.

It does not seem to be as accurate to the music as the benz or the denon but it produces the feeling…yes the feeling of the captured mood of the music more than presenting it neutrally. Its different, unique, and great for reggae, rock, and low level listening… due to the loudness effect. You know that loudness button on the vintage integrated amps and receivers of the 70’s and 80’s…that’s what this cart sounds like. Someone pushed the loudness button. The AK Audio is a sound somewhere between my first MC cart, the goldring eroica and the 103. The eroica compared to the stock denon was way more dynamic and more detailed with a more forward presentation…almost like good quality digital but better. I was attracted to both carts but decided on the warmer more spacious sound of the denon.

I just now switched back to the denon 103 wood. There is something compelling about this cart. Comparatively (to the AK Audio), it is wide open, airy, and free. More music and less audio…know what I mean? It’s a simple, cheap cartridge that just wants to play music…at least that’s the feeling I get when I switch back to it. No, its not a 103R but my phonostage will not support .25mv at 58db of gain and I am not a practicing audiophile if I am at all so I gotta stay with what I got (for now). The thing that bugs me about this cartridge is the distortion on complex passages and or higher volume settings! If you have one, even in a wood body, play a record and turn your volume all the way down… you can still hear the music from 8ft away vibrating only from the stylus! I am sure this is the source of so many seeking the improvement of various bodies and tweaking with soundsmith cantilevers. The AK, Benz, and AT33ptg must be listened to very close to hear vibrations directly from the stylus. Of all the cartridges, it is the noisiest in the grove…but it plays music man! But then…every thing is tizzy on the top end! Perhaps this is cured by the Soundsmith retip…I don’t know, haven’t herd it yet. I just herd of it. It was sent about six weeks ago. Got another six weeks to wait. In the mean time, the AT33ptgII!

The ptg is soooo refined. Compared to all the others (keep in mind I have not listened to the ss retiped 103 yet), distortion is almost non-existent. It has a similar overall sound to the 103wood (Also keep in mind my comparatively modest system). It is present; …yes voices are right there in the studio. It is hard for me to say exactly which is better or worse. Ummm……the ptg is better! They both (103wood and ptg) seem to make the music and get out of the way…just open, airy, and solid. The ptg has WAY less distortion. It is almost like the 103wood but less the tizzy highs and splashing bass. It has a similar refinement to the Benz with same spacious soundstage as the 103wood. Yeah baby…love this cart! The ptg is the finest cartridge I have had in my system….by a small margin. That’s it.

But there is still something of ease that the 103wood does…and it makes me want to play it again. It is detailed but warm as well…pleasant listening from morning till night on Saturday! Yes it seems a conundrum…detailed, warm, open deep soundstage, pleasant listening and at the same time a ridiculous amount of audible distortion! The ptg has a more extended high end and a cleaner presentation of instruments. You can definitely hear more information, I think due to the lack of distortion and a blacker background. But I would not be to much disappointed if the 103wood was as good as I could get…its goooood. But if I had to choose, well…like I said, the ptg is like the denon without the side effects.

A denon 103 with a wood body will run you about $275. And it lacks only the finest parts that seem to make the others much more refined…but it makes up for much of that somehow. Maybe it’s the design, maybe the stars were in alignment or it was just a freak of nature. I got mine (x2) for $130 at comet supply. Had to wait 10 months for the second one because of the disaster in Japan 2 years ago production was down. I suppose the 103R may be better, especially with mods. But for the price, the difference in sound is negligible when compared to all the carts ive heard up to $1000 + or – $200. Can’t say beyond that cause I haven’t heard beyond that.

Somehow switching back to the 103wood - less detail (not much!), splashyness on complex or loud passages, …but somehow it makes music soooo real. Soul, ummm hummm, the sound that you can’t really quantify. Technically far from the best but the 103wood finds the soul of the music…it makes me feel more than the others. But it also makes me want to fix it. That’s all. I don’t really have a way to describe this technically. Perhaps an analogy? Nah. Just got the email from soundsmith. I should have my retip-tigerwood 103 by Monday or Tuesday. Maybe that’s the fix…I’m hoping for.

Ok im back after initial listing to the soundsmith retiped, wood denon 103.

Ok…it’s good, really good. Just hooked up the 103wood/ss. More delicate with instruments, cleaner voices, more precise images…less tizzyness or what some may call sibilance (not to mention a lot more sensitive to setup). It has a deeper soundstage with much tighter bass…yes the bass is rather controlled and still authoritative without the domination that some more dynamic carts (eroica/AK audio)have. Yeah baby! It’s goooood! I am not sure my initial assessment about hearing the cart with the volume down is accurate. I can still hear that it is louder than the others…but it is much less than it used to be…I am going to regard this quality as negligible….

So its been a week now and change my mined again. Volume turned down, can’t here a thing. maybe it also needed some breakin time.

Switching back to the 103 ebony with the stock stylus was not in the least disappointing. There was less pinpoint imaging…instruments and voices became more fuzzy but still it delivers the emotion in the music. Maybe even more emotion than the ss retip. Not sure which I like better right now so back to adjusting the cart in the groove.

Spent 25 minutes just now making sure the vtf, vta, overhang, antiskate, etc…are just right. Big difference! Perhaps when the ss is dialed in just right – ummm, yeah man that’s it.

Also, keep in mind this is a heavy cart – you will need sufficient counterweight as well as antiskate (I need to increase the bias weight – use the sme3012 or an aftermarket).

Some have reported that the change in cantilever material from aluminum to ruby changes the overall sound signature for the worse. I find almost the opposite. I find that the overall sound signature is not improved but that the distortion is removed and the magic of this cart is all the more dramatic. I set it up in 12-15min and played records then checked again and made adjustments. But right out the box without proper set-up, it proved to be a most desirable listening experience.

Conclusion? I would love to compare the 103ss to the new benz wood-S or a Shelter 501/901 (anyone interested in swapping for a few weeks?). But oh well, I’m out of money and it will be years before I look at my front end again. So, as far as carts are concerned, I’m good… I will keep the 103 wood/ss.

Associated gear
Click to view my Virtual System
Just wrote a comparison of the 103Ebony to the Vanden Hul MC-10 Special :