REVIEW: Soundsmith Denon DL103

The decision to purchase this cartridge took a considerable time to evaluate...
- exactly how much better was it over the stock DL103?
- although more revealing, it would probably reveal more issues with some of my older pressings?
- what about setup? - is it as easy as a spherical stylus?

Well - it is SO MUCH better than the stock DL103 - no comparison! But it still retained the very nice balanced performance the stock DL103 has always delivered - it just had more of everything!

More revealing in so many ways - the worst of which effects albums that are not in premium condition - now I know which albums are in serious need of replacing.

Setup has taken on a whole new level of precision. The more precision you apply in cartridge setup - the more magnificent this cartridge sounds.

The hi-end details are superbly clean and crisp, with a smoothness that has me believing it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.

Low-end control is tight, with textures I had never heard before.

Mids are full bodied, warm and extremely textured.

Imaging is considerably deeper than the stock DL 103 and the venue acoustics had me believing I was in the performance.

Orchestral pieces convey an enhanced spacial awareness in depth and width across the entire orchestra - just as in a live performance

Now, I didn't have Soundsmith mod an existing cartridge, but I would assume the improvements the Ruby cantilever makes would apply to them also.

Not really anything new here - most other reviews report similar findings - but my comments apply to the venerable Denon DL 103!

I have an Audiomods Arm which uses a Rega Arm Tube, so I did need to augment the effective mass with a brass head-shell spacer/weight - but what an improvement!

I think Soundsmith's advantage lies in their Ruby Cantilever, which conveys extremely fine details in a very controlled manner.

If you are undecided about a Soundsmith mod - come on in - the details are incredible.

One of the best value upgrades I can think of

Good on ya, Willie! Soundsmith has a well-deserved reputation for re-building and improving existing designs. It sounds like you made a wise investment which is allowing you to have a new appreciation for your existing albums...
RL - a new appreciation you say? - You got that right :-)

My vinyl has never sounded this good and I'm buying more new vinyl as a result.

What differences have you noticed between this Denon and cartrdiges that you have knowledge of in the same price range.
Stringreen - my knowledge of cartridges is very limited.

I really didn't "get into" vinyl until a couple of years ago when I rebuilt and upgraded my turn table. At that point I opted for a Denon because of it's stellar reviews and very attractive pricing.

The Denon is very good but not without it's warts - as mentioned it needs an arm with higher effective mass than most.

To accommodate that aspect I applied my own tweak to both the stock and the Soundsmith mod'd cartridge, in that I epoxy the cartridge to a brass mounting plate - a leaf out of the Zu version of the DL103

Now, not really a fair comparison, but a friend has a Van den Hul Colibri mounted on an Audiomods Series Five arm - the next model up from my own. Considering the difference in price - $600 vs $6000 - I would have to say the Soundsmith is turning in an incredibly respectable performance by comparison.

With the Zu version, you don't get the Ruby cantilever, which is Soundsmith's advantage.

The Soundsmith DL103 displays incredible control, without loosing any of the attributes the stock Denon is reknown for.

My only suggestion would be to look at cartridges that have the ruby cantilever - it will give you an indication what company it is in keeping with.

Sorry I couldn't be of more assistance, but I'm still learning myself

Thanks Ph - took me a while, but since "dipping my toe" I find "the water is incredibly fine"

A nice investment that has definitely paid off :-)
Btw ~ soundsmith has at least 5 or 6 103 versions. Which is yours? Line contact, wood body, ?

I have a wood body with ruby line contact it was on par with vanden hul MC 10. I have another being modded by Thomas schick with a boron cantilever and mirco line stylus. Will post a review in the spring.
Ph - I opted for the standard plastic body with the Ruby OC/CL stylus. Just testing the waters at present.

I applied my own brass baseplate which allows for firmer mounting without stressing the body.

I figure that was enough for starters - perhaps I'll upgrade in a year or two :-)

Is the boron cantilever that much better than the Ruby?
Does Thomas have a faster turnaround time than Soundsmith?

I'll definitely keep an eye out for your review

I have the same cartridge with the addition of the compliance upgrade. I concur with your assessment.

Williwonka, Boron is not nessesarily better. Schick also does a saphire cantilever ~ saphire is the same material as ruby. corundum. Ruby just has a bit more trace iron and magnesium that gives it the pinkish color ~

I opted for boron because it's bit more robust (the ruby/saphire is very delicate and will snap before it bends) and the fine line because it's less of a battle to set up properly.

My ss retiped 103 is ruby w/ line contact not the OLC. I never felt the need more grove detail.

I seek an emotional sound rather than extreme detail ~ I also love to find and play old records that some would not think of puting on their tt.

And, yes. Turn around time is two~three weeks rather than 3~4 months.
PH - thanks for that detail - maybe I'll opt for Boron when I get my old DL-103 reworked down the line. It will be interesting to hear the difference

I too was concerned about playing old records, but fortunately most of mine in relatively good shape and I haven't noticed anything really bad so far

All this info is great to tuck away for future reference

Many Thanks to everyone :-)
Willie, Just peeped your system. Nice! Your tt and arm can do a bangin job! I suggest : a potted midas or ebony body and/or the Mapleshade tonearm resonance kit.
Ph - thanks for the info - I'll tuck that away for future consideration for sure.

I did consider the SS wood body, but decided to minimize the expense as much as possible.

Many Thanks
Ph - I checked out the Mapleshade and have the following question...

Doesn't that alter the effective mass of the arm, which in turn can negatively impact the performance of the cartridge?

Right now my cartridge is very well matched to the tone arm from an effective mass perspective - I.e. as specified by Jeff at Audio mods.

A friend just had a problem with too much headshell mass - once he removed the brass shim that was added to increase the effective mass - the cartridge performed much better

Be gentle with me - I'm still new to high-end phono and all it's nuances :-)

Many Thanks
Actually your brass plate also adds some mass and that may be enough ~ but yes, I have heard that ~ Pierre at Mapleshade has a way different audio philosophy than most. And it may or may not work for you. ~ I have almost always found significant improvements with the products I have used.
One thing I now know, this cartridge really deserves a precision alignment that is provided by quality protractors such as the Mint Best Tractor.

These are made specifically for your turntable's arm and provides the ability to precisely set the optimum overhang and align your cartridge.

Fortunately for me, a friend that has one has the very same arm, so he popped over and aligned my cartridge.

Turns out, the alignment I had performed using printable protractors, although sounding very good was off by 1mm on the overhang and not quite correctly angled at the null points.

The improvements, although subtle, included...
- improved clarity.
- crisper dynamics.
- more precise placement within the image.
- finer detailing.
- smoother upper frequency performance.

So, if you have, or plan on getting the Soundsmith treatment on your cartridge - take a look at precision protractors - they do make a difference.

Happy Listening :-)
I haven't used a fancy protractor but this printable one from vaccum state produced the best sound for me so far:

using the recommended points from their alignment guide~
Ph - the main thing about the Mint is it's "extreme precision".

But it all depends on what profile the stylus is - the OC/CL seems to benefit greatly by using the mint. From what I understand other profiles are not quite as demanding.

One thing about the Mint - you require a magnification loupe to see when the stylus is positioned on the amazingly thin line. Eyeballing it will not suffice

If I hadn't experienced it myself I might not believe such improvements were possible - but they are.

The Soundsmith Denon 103 OC/CL turns in an excellent performance when aligned with a printable protractor.

But align it with the Mint Best Protractor and the result is simply stunning.