Review: Denon DL-160 Cartridge


Category: Analog

Reading back issues of old hi-fi magazines, I noticed something. Two things, actually. One, cartridges were (rightfully) reviewed as components in separate multi-page reviews—unlike today, where cartridges are reviewed three, four or five at a time in giant “round-ups” in which each is given just a few cursory paragraphs. Two, back then it seemed that every manufacturer had its own house sound, and each new advance changed the character of that sound. An LP could sound profoundly different when played backing using two different cartridges, even if they were from the same manufacturer.

It would seem that those two discoveries are interrelated. Recently, in reading today’s few remaining hi-fi journals and speaking with audiophiles at record shows and in hi-fi stores, I’ve reached the conclusion that most people seem to feel that cartridges are sounding more and more alike. Sure, there are still differences, but nothing like the profound dissimilarities that I’m way too young to remember back in the 1960s and early 70s.

People must simply be listening to less vinyl. (Duh.) Or dirty vinyl. (Ick!) Because to me, there are still very noticeable differences in cartridges. And while I’ve managed to go through just three CD players in the past four years, I’ve had maybe 15 cartridges of all types. Where I’ve stuck with basically the same preamp-amp for nearly three years, I’ve auditioned moving coils and moving magnets and moving irons from Benz Micro, Denon, Dynavector, Grado, Audio-Technica, Goldring and quite a few others.

This, by the way, has been an expensive game of trial-and-error. I don’t expect any sympathy here. But these days, trying out new cartridges isn’t a matter of simply borrowing a few from your friendly dealer. Those days are long gone (though not entirely; see below). Finding the perfect cartridge—the one you want to grow old with—means buying, trying and then selling for as much as you can if you’re not satisfied. In today’s market, a near-mint Benz MC20E2 that sells for $175 new netted me just $70 on Audiogon a few weeks after my purchase. That’s just one stomach-curdling example.

So it is with great pleasure and a fair amount of relief that I can say I’m finally semi-satisfied. My favorite cartridge—the one I’m sticking with for now, the one I’m going to buy a back-up of—is actually the first cartridge I heard a few years back when auditioning my first new turntable since my paper-route days. (I’m 27.) That cartridge is…(drumroll, please)…Denon’s bargain-priced DL-160.

I’m sure a number of you are thinking I’m crazy. I get that all the time. Wherever I go, people are either unaware that Denon still makes cartridges, or skeptical, or just plain hateful of these little moving coil wonders. And yet, Denon’s cartridges seem to have a tremendous following among a certain set of people. In Europe and Asia, for example, the flagship DL-S1 is highly prized, as is the classic DL-103. On ebay, it seems like there’s always a DL-110 or DL-160 for sale. And Denon—a giant company with plenty of bean counters—is still making them, which says to me there must be some margin in it.

Why does the Denon line have such a polarizing effect on those who have experienced it? I think it has to do with the very strong character of these cartridges. Though my experience is limited to the DL-160 and it’s little brother, the DL-110, I have to say that these are the most individualistic cartridges I’ve ever tried, and probably among the most unique-sounding out there today at any price. Whether you’ll like that sound depends on your priorities.

What’s it like going from a moving magnet cartridge like a Rega, Goldring, Grado or Audio-Technica? Well, I’ll give you the perfect demonstration to try at home. Go to your tuner and dial up your favorite FM station. Don’t turn up the volume just yet. Instead, set your tuner to the “mono” position. Now listen. Okay, go back and switch from “mono” to “stereo.” Now listen again. That’s what it’s like.

Is it that other similarly-priced cartridges aren’t as airy and spacious as the DL-160? Partly, yes. Is it that the Denon is maybe just a bit artificially open? To my ears, the answer is a big yes. The aural sensation of listening to certain recordings on the Denon is like hitting the “simulated surround” button on a TV set. But once you get used to the ridiculously wide and deep soundstage, you’ll be spoiled (or ruined, depending on your way of thinking).

Part of the reason why I can’t fault the Denon for its tendency to produce a very big sound is that it is also stunningly detailed for the price. At just $180, I defy anyone to find a cartridge that digs deeper into the grooves and extracts more glorious nuance. A lot of the credit must go to the Denon’s unusually fine stylus. It stands alone in its price range, and under a microscope it is absolutely mind-boggling to look at when you consider what else is out there at this price point.

Another reason why the Denon is such a bargain: re-tipping is available! For around $120 or so, you can ship yours off to Needle Doctor (or presumably, your dealer if your dealer knows what re-tipping is) and you’ll have a new cartridge again for the price of a much lesser unit.

I first discovered the Denon while shopping for a new turntable while living on the southern New Jersey shore. Believe it or not, there is a fairly lively hi-fi scene going on down there despite its proximity to Philadelphia and its sprawling suburbs. A few years ago, after purchasing my Rotel gear, I looked at the top of my hi-fi rack and noticed an empty space where an analog rig would normally reside. I tried sticking a plant up there, but it just didn’t look right. It also seemed silly to go out and re-purchase a lifetime’s worth of LPs on CD. So, I picked up a beautiful Denon DP-47F table for what I was sure would be occasional listening only.

The DP-47F, being direct drive and fully automatic, was well built and reliable-looking. Since it would surely be my last turntable, I figured it would be best to keep it simple. I bought a Grado Green and off I went. But after a few months, I was buying new 180gram reissues and I knew there had to be a better cartridge out there. Luckily, the same dealer who let me listen to the Denon for hours on end while CD players were flying out the door, also allowed me to borrow (you heard right: borrow) a DL-160 cartridge. It was love at first listen. So much more detail, so much more music, and so much less noise. The direct drive Denon, together with the high-output Grado, was doing its best to make sure I heard every last speck of dust in the groove. Pops and ticks thundered through my speakers with the Green, but not with the DL-160.

Flash forward to today. Fifteen or so cartridges and four turntables later, I’ve just re-installed the Denon on my Rega P2/RB250 and I’m a very happy camper. Okay, maybe I’m not a very objective camper, but I do have a case to make for the Denon and it starts with a close look at the cartridge itself.

The DL-160 arrives in a very nice presentation case that includes a so-so stylus magnifier, plenty of mounting hardware, and a balancing plate. The blue-marble plastic body disappears when mounted on a black tonearm, yet it still has a substantial presence. It’s big and square. It’s tall, too, which means Rega owners will want to pick up some spacers for precise VTA adjustment. But those square sides make aligning the body in the headshell a snap.

The Denon’s tapered aluminum cantilever might actually be considered sexy. Granted, that’s stretching it a bit, but have a look for yourself. And while you’re at it, notice the attached flip-up stylus guard. While I’m certain many audiophiles will make a case against having a stylus guard on there, it’s useful for two reasons. First, the Denon is a very light cartridge and a little extra weight is nice for certain tonearms. (The metal balancing plate will help, too.) Second, that tiny little stylus is delicate. If you live alone and want the guard off, by all means go ahead. But do you have a cleaning lady who likes to dust your turntable no matter how many times you beg her not to? Or do you have a wife or girlfriend who hasn’t quite figured out why there’s a cueing lever on the end of your tonearm when it’s so much easier to just drop the needle down? Or do you occasionally have too much wine with dinner and decide to play records when you really should be playing CDs? At times like those, the stylus guard is much appreciated and any sonic disadvantages it introduces become secondary concerns.

The Denon is a high-output moving coil design, so anyone with a moving magnet phono card can use it with ease. I’ve experimented with various settings, and found that I like it best when the phono stage in my preamp is set the MC position. (I’ve also tried it with a loaner Acurus phono stage and my own Rotel phono equalizer, but found that the MC card in my Rotel preamp is good enough for me, though I think I sacrifice a minute amount of detail by going this route.)

The Denon’s one drawback is its absurd instruction manual. It mentions aligning the cartridge using the gold vertical line on the front of the DL-160, making sure that it is parallel to the center of the headshell and with its own reflection (!?) in the vinyl record it is playing. Huh? Read it yourself and you’ll see. The instructions also suggest using the supplied overhang gauge, which I suppose might be useful to Denon table owners but no one else. While I’m usually a proponent of more detailed instructions, in this case Denon should’ve simply referred the purchaser to the dealer or turntable manual for mounting guidelines.

Once mounted, the Denon has about a 20-hour break-in period. It’s far from painful. Rather than being harsh, the Denon exhibits the same characteristics it normally has, just exaggerated. It quickly settles down.

My favorite recording to play using the Denon is Classic Records’ reissue of “Harry Belafonte Sings the Blues” (LSP-1972). Belafonte is in fine form and powerful voice on this fine record. The Denon puts his unmistakable voice dead center in the middle of a big room, with each instrument clearly defined but clearly behind Belafonte.

Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” (MFSL-017) is also a treat. Every last sound effect is right there, and the layering is preposterously perfect. Everything is in its right place, and no one instrument ever overpowers another or melts into a cacophony. It’s like listening through headphones, except rather than having two blobs of sound there is a wide and continuous soundstage.

But a MoFi or Classic 180gram will sound good even when played with a mediocre cartridge. So I shuffled through my racks to find some records I rarely played because they simply didn’t sound good. One was an Angel/Meloydia recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique performed by the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gennady Rozhdestrensky (40054). For years, I’d been coming back to the Classic Records reissue of Munch’s mid-1950s performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and, more recently, the Paavo Jarvi recording on Telarc CD. The reason was simple: while the Rozhdestrensky performance was interesting, the Meloydia simply sounded flat. With the Denon, however, it opened up a little and became enjoyable. I heard new things, and that’s always a thrill.

I had a similar problem with the Original Jazz Classics reissue of Wes Montgomery’s “Full House,” a live recording taped in a small Berkley, CA venue called Tsubo. Though quite detailed, on this record the audience seems at time to occupy the same plane as the performers. The result is a rather one-dimensional image. Thankfully, the Denon made the space come alive, and for once, I was able to feel some of the excitement of what it must’ve been like to be crammed into a small house with the great Montgomery.

I recently picked up a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s newest triumph, “The Rising” (C2 86600). Until now, I hadn’t heard it on anything but a Rega Elys, and though the performance and songwriting were obviously impeccable, it never moved me. As the music swelled, instruments wilted and collapsed into murky heaps. But when I dropped the needle of the Denon onto the same records, I was moved. I wish everyone could hear “The Rising” like this; it’s a very important record.

From old favorites like Peter Gabriel’s “So” (GHS 24088) to new audiophile classics like Lori Lieberman’s “A Thousand Dreams” (Pope Music; no catalog number) the Denon paints an enthralling musical picture that envelops the listener in crisp waves of music that lap gently along the shore during quiet passages, and crash thunderously against the breakers when things get lively.

Is the Denon a bigger-than-life performer? You bet. Is that bad? It depends. I’m of the opinion that whatever moves you is what you should be listening to, both in program material and equipment. The Denon moves me. Every note is clear as Evian ice crystals, each voice present and towering, and every pluck of the guitar string or nudge of piano wire so effortlessly crystalline that the hairs stand up on the back of my neck again and again.

The Denon wants to go-go-go, much like a Ferrari in city gridlock. It chafes at the bit like a thoroughbred, and when unleashed on the music, it runs full speed ahead and only stops when it unlocks ever last bit of hidden detail from even the most haphazardly-recorded LP. The nimble stylus tracks tough-to-navigate grooves like an F355 Spyder hugs curves. (It also digs deep into damaged grooves to reveal previously untouched areas where music is still retrievable. Try it for yourself on a record you thought was unplayable, then burn it quickly to CD.)

In the end, the Denon is the most dynamic, clear, detailed and involving cartridge I’ve ever owned. Its athletic tracking ability, combined with a cavernous soundstage and chillingly realistic nuance, makes it a winner in my book.

Of course, the same qualities that make me embrace it will be exactly what many people will despise about it. That’s perfectly understandable. I’ll be the first to admit that the Denon sacrifices absolute musical truth in favor of one bravo performance after another. However, in the case of some lifeless recordings, this is not a bad thing unless you like self-torture. A little white musical lie is sometimes just what the doctor ordered.

Which brings me back to where I started: discussing the differences between cartridges. My feeling is that we should be thankful there are cartridges still out there with such strong character. Music is a very personal thing, and analog even more so. Why torture yourself trying to acquire a taste for absolute musical accuracy when it’s so much more fun to pursue the sound you like?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve liked other cartridges, too. The Audio-Technica 440ML is the greatest $99 cartridge in analog today, with a natural sound, sophisticated dual-moving magnet design and a competition-crushing MicroLine stylus. The Benz Micro MC20E2 is another bargain at $175, with effortless musicality but without the Denon’s fine stylus. And the Grado Green, at just $60, has probably opened more minds to quality analog than any other cartridge. But of all the cartridges I’ve tried, the Denon is the one that packs the most musical punch for the buck.

I’m already bracing myself for the follow-up posts on this one. But like I said, this is MY favorite cartridge—I’m not saying it should be yours. But if you’re a speed-and-detail freak like me who likes your music clear as frosty mountain air and utterly grain-free, then you’re not going to get any closer to your ideal cartridge than this for $180.

Associated gear
Rega P2 turntable
Denon DL-160 moving coil cartridge
Rotel RC-980 preamplifier with MM/MC phono stage
Rotel RA-970 amplifier
Rotel RQ-970BX phono stage
Sony SCD-CE775 SACD player
Phillips AM/FM tuner
Realistic laserdisc player
RCA DVD player
Apex Digital 27” TV
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
Paradigm speaker stands
AudioQuest CV-6 biwire speaker cables
Various Audioquest/VampireWire/Kimber/Monster interconnects
Monster Power HTS 2500 Power Center
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine/Disc Doctor record brushes
StudioTech HF series racks
Audioquest MC cartridge demagnetizer

Similar products
Benz Micro MC20e2, Dynavector 10x4, Audio-Technica 440ML, Denon DL-110
ekobesky
I have a DL-160 and just bought a used MF X-LPSv.3 phono preamp. I am trying to determine if this combo works better using the MM or MC side of the preamp. On the MM side the gain seems low and the sound muted. On the MC side I think the sound opens up better, but the gain with some Lps is pretty high.

Any thoughts? Please post here or email me directly at blmcycle@aol.com

Thanks,

Bruce
I just threw my DL-160 on my Rega P5 after I got tired of the Grado Platinum's hum problem. The 160 does not have nearly the same dynamics or bass as the Platinum, but it has great detail and a wonderful soundstage. I am very happy with the 160.........for now at least.
09-13-09: Jbergan
I just threw my DL-160 on my Rega P5 after I got tired of the Grado Platinum's hum problem. The 160 does not have nearly the same dynamics or bass as the Platinum, but it has great detail and a wonderful soundstage. I am very happy with the 160.........for now at least.

Provided your phono stage is up to the job, or you don't mind using an appropriate step-up transformer, the perfect compromise between the Grado Platinum and Denon DL-160 might be the DL-103 or DL-103R. They both have the same 'Denon sound' that you enjoy, including exceptional detail and soundstaging, together with much a much more dramatic presentation and excellent dynamics.
Very nice review. I just picked up a used P3 (RB300 arm) and I'm strongly considering the DL160 as my first cartridge. I'm also looking at a Rega Elys2 (2nd hand, apparently unopened) for about the same price and having a tough time deciding. The DL-160 sounds very tempting...
I installed the the DL-160 mounted in a Sumiko headshell on my Technics 1200MK2. It replaced a Audio Technica I've been using for years. The improvement is phenomenal. Very detailed spacious sound. Very tight bass. I've read that there is a 20 hour or so break in period however the sound after several LP's is very satisfying. First thing I played was the MSFL Genesis, A Trick Of The Tail. WOW! I'm going through an Adcom 565 pre-amp and I've noticed that I have to increase the volume control about double (compared to the AT cartridge) to achieve the same DB level. I still have plenty of volume control available so it's not really an issue. I'm loving this cartridge!