Review: Denon DL 103R Cartridge

Category: Analog

I recently acquired the Denon DL 103R cartridge from a shop on Ebay to replace the Sumiko Blue Point cartridge that I have used for most of the last 10 years or so.

The DL103R was the lst part of a larger scale system upgrade including new interconnects and the addition of a used DBX 3BX range expander that I use to enhance the dynamics primarily of analog sources on my system (Carver tuner and a Linn Axis turntable with Linn Basik tonearm).

I use DNM reson interconnects to connect the DBX unit to the signal processing jacks on a Carver c-9 pre-amplifier. The c-9 is connected via the tube-emulation outputs to a Carver mt4.0t power amp using Harmonic Technology Truthlink interconnects.

Dynaudio Countour 1.3 MkII monitors are used as the main speakers on the system. The solid state outputs from the c-9 connect to an old but classic NAD receiver power amp section which can be used to drive a combination of 2 other speaker pairs connected throughout the house via in-wall wiring. The other speakers are a pair of Ohm Walsh 2s and a custom-modified pair of Ohm Ls. This allows me to audition music on three separate pairs or speakers in three separate rooms from my main system as desired.

For this review, I can compare the sound of the DL 103R to the Sumiko Blue point cartridge using the primary Carver mt4.0t power amp and Dynaudio Contours with the DBX unit bypassed. All listening was done with the Carver c-9 sonic holography circuit engaged. The Sumiko Blue Point and Denon DL 103r are both critically acclaimed moving coil cartridges available for less $300 that are generally compared to much more expensive cartridges.

The Denon is a low output cartridge which requires more gain correspondingly in the phono pre-amp section than the Sumiko. The low compliance (stiffer stylus) Denon DL 103R also is said to work better in higher mass tonearms. The Linn Basik seems to fit this requirement well.

Both cartridges seem to have a similar tonal balance, with good clarity and crisp highs compared to most any moving magnet cartridge I've tried. If your pre-amp can accomodate a moving coil cartridge, I think either cartridge is a better choice. However, this is where the similarities end between the Sumiko Blue Point and the Denon DL 103R. I've heard the Blue Point described as somewhat "analytical" sounding, which I would say is an accurate description. The presenation overall was not as smooth and absorbing as the Denon.

On the other hand, I believe the DL103R lived up to the highest praise I've seen accorded it. My vinyl records never sounded better. The sound stage, bass, dynamics, detail and the entire presentation overall was extrodinary. I found myself drawn into the music like never before. This was some of the best sonic rendering I've ever heard...period. Enough said.

If you are in the market for a good phono cartridge and your system can accomodate the DL 103R, get one now while still available. It is an exceptional device. I've heard rumors it has been discontinued but still appears to be available via audio cubes web site + some ebay-based providers.

Associated gear
Linn Axis Turntable
Carver C-9 pre-amp
Carver mt4.0t power amp
DNM Reson and Harmonic Technology Truthlink interconnects
Dynaudio Contour 1.3 Mk II speakers

Similar products
Sumiko Blue Point Phono Cartridge
One correction to my review: the pre-amp is a Carver C-6, not Carver c-9 as indicated.

Also, the Linn site has a .pdf document on how to replace cartridges. Towards the back is a free and printable template + instructions that can be used to properly align a cartridge on any turntable, I would say. Proper alignment avoids sibilence and other sonic distortions and is key to obtaining best results with any phone cartridge. It is hard to align a cartridge properly without some kind of device like this as a guide.
Does your Axis have the Akito or Basik arm, and are you using any method to increase arm mass to match the compliance of the cartridge?
It is a Basik Plus tonearm that came with the Axis. Nothing was done to increase arm mass. I don't know the actual mass of the Basik Plus or how it's mass compares to other tone arms. It appears to be fairly rigid and massive compared to some tone arms I've seen. Can someone provide a mass rating for the Basik Plus compared to other arms? I would be interested to know.

Nevertheless, the Basik Plus and DL104R combo sound exceptional together to my ears. Maybe a more massive tonearm (model #?) would sound even better?

Also, while back in this thread, I thought I'd add the detail that cables used to connect the Dynaudios to the Carver mt4.0t are 12' of Audioquest CV-6. Replacing the older Monster CX2 speaker cables with these was another recent tweak to my system prior to the Denon 103R that I was very pleased with. I believe the interconnects and speaker cables I use now help the DL 103r to shine as well.

One other note on the DL103R: the connector pins on the cartridge were significantly smaller in diameter than any other cartridge I've ever used. I had to crimp the connectors on the Linn Basik tonearm somewhat in order to prevent them from sliding off. I've never seen this with any other cartridge on either the Linn or other turntables I've used over the years. It appears to be a quirk with the DL 103R that I was not expecting. Given the sonic results, however, I am by far still a very happy camper.
Effective mass of the Basik arm, and others can be found here
The chart doesn't say the mass of a Basik Plus exactly ( I may be missing something in identifying my tonearm model exactly), but it does list a Basik LVX at 12.5 grams mass and also lists a Basic LVX+ with no mass specification, so my tonearm appears to match the 12.5 gram mass tonearm best.

Is 12.5 grams considered high mass?

Does anyone know of a way to effectively increase the mass of a Linn Basik tonearm without causing any harm? I would do some experimenting if a recommended tweak were harmless to the table + arm and could be removed easily if needed.
12.5 grams would still be medium mass. On a side note: The compliance of the Denon is higher than usually quoted - running the Denon in a light JMW9 (7.7g) gave a measured resonance of around 11Hz and the Denon sounded better on the JMW9 than on heavier Rega arms, at least IMO (possibly the unipivot arm, or maybe I am getting tired of the Rega midbass).

Overall, I would say the compliance and resonance is not the main issue with the Denon although heavier arms do seem to result in a better sound. Good bearings are essential.

By the way: Nice review - I absolute love the Denon 103 line. Be careful though, after running a Denon DL103 for 10+ years it is difficult to switch to any other cart. An recommendations for upgrades for the DL103 hooked fanatic?
I have a 103R, and I set it up on a Linn Basik arm last night. I found that I have very little room to align the cartridge, since the cart is so big that the back inside corner hits the connector pins on the arm. I aligned the cart using a Stupid Protractor from Vinyl Engine, and I got it pretty close, but the cart still hangs off the end of the head shell a little. It's sounding pretty good, but I wish I had more room to tweak the angle. Any suggestions?

The fit to the headshell was tight on mine as well.

When I aligned the cartridge using the Linn provided template, the properly aligned cartridge did overhang the front by a millimeter or two. This appeared to be the correct alignment,and I do not notice any sonic deficiencies, so I'm not sure that overhang alone is necessarily a problem.
Correction: the pre-amp is a Carver c-6, not c-9.
Anybody have any suggestions on how to easily and reversibly increase tonearm mass as an experiment with the Linn for the Denon?

I've considered experimenting with wrapping a lead solder strand or strands around the tonearm.
Anybody have any suggestions on how to easily and reversibly increase tonearm mass as an experiment with the Linn for the Denon?

Music Direct sells a tonearm wrap, which would obviously add mass, but I don't know how much.
Increase mass by adding blue tak or mortite to the headshell.