stock denon 103 vs. zu for my vintage rig

I'm just getting into vinyl and pondering how far to take my cartridge choice.

I've got a Pioneer SA-9800 integrated (top of the line, circa 1979) running through a pair of Magnepan IIC's (1986, I think). The sound from this set-up, at least through my Kyocera cd player, is sublime, but they vinyl coming through my Pioneer PL-50, leaves much to be desired.

This lovely table has what looks to be a vintage Pickering V15 with a newer replacement D625 stylus.

The resolution is poor to fuzzy. It could be my newbie attempt at cartridge set-up, but I do believe as well that my system would be best served by a cartridge upgrade.

Seeing as my amp is equipped with an MC phono stage, I was thinking about the classic Denon 103.

My tonearm is the original Pioneer, which I understand is on the heavyish side, so the low-compliance Denon should be a good fit.

The question is whether or not to spend the extra scratch on a Zu-modified version.

The $499 zu's are all sold out, leaving only the pricier, lower-tolerance variants. With that in mind Audio Feil's discounted Prime cartridge at $699 seems the best choice of the available zu options.

So the question is, is it worth it for me to spend about 3 times the price for the zu vs. the standard 103?

From reading around, it seems there is a definite upgrade, but a few have complained that some of the 103 "magic" has gone by the wayside.

Or is my gear not up to the challenge of delivering the best the Zu can offer?
I would first play with the stock 103 and if you like it and after you upgrade your turntable, then you can go for any of the variants of the 103!
I hate to state the obvious but did you ask Bill, he probably is a good source of info on those carts and how they will integrate with your set-up.
Agree w/ Prcinka - the 103 is a super cart in its own right and, in its stock form, is a good match with the rest of your gear.

A new 103 can be had well <$200 all day long on eBay from reputable sellers.

Good luck!
Get a 103 and upgrade it with a Uwe wood body! This combo sounds great to me and at about $300 it possibly rivals the Zu, which is really just an aluminum body updgrade.. but who knows.. anyone ever do a direct comparison?
The DL-103 is a very, very good cartridge. The DL-103R is a great catrridge, IMHO. I have heard the Zu version, and I would say that you should probably plan to upgrade your deck and arm if you want to notice any significant upgrade from the Zu.

If it were me and I wanted a bit more performance from the 103, I would consider a wood body modification from Uwe or one of the other sources. Again, my guess is that you will receive more benefit from the upgrade with a deck/arm combo capable of resolving a bit more detail than your PL-50; which is a good TT but not the final word on detail.
I do not believe that both cartridges will sound optimal on any given arm. The stock 103 needs a minimum of 15 grams of effective mass in the arm which makes it compatible with high mass arms, though some would demur and report excellent sound in Grace 707, Rega, SME, etc. The added weight of the Zu makes it a better match with medium mass arms, such as the Rega, that it was designed on, the JMW-9, etc.
Dear Narkleptic: My God!!!, the SA-9800.

This was my first " high-end " audio device that unfortunately I sold it and everytime that I saw it with my friend/buyer i almost cry, believe me. I love your Pioneer SA-9800, congratulations!!!!!

First : " 103 "magic" has gone "..., IMHO and through my experiences there is no magic but a plain stock cartridge: no more.

You own the right phonolinepreamp for MM cartridges ( you can choose 100K on impedance that almost no one of today top top phono stages have not!!!!!., incredible. ) in first place and second MC ones.

Please, if you can, take a little of your time reading here about:

There are " humble " MM cartridges ( very low prices for it. ) that even and surpass MC cartridges in the 3K-10K price range with the right set-up. No the " venerable " 103 has almost nothing to offer against a good MM.

Your Pickering is not a good sample of the MM quality performance, well at least not that model because if you find a Pickering XSV-4000 or 5000 you will be on " heaven ".

Regards and enjoy the music,
thanks for the responses. I did talk to Bill, and he was very helpful, but I also wanted to tap into the collective knowledge base of A'gon.

I think that, given my turntable and budget, I'll either stick with the stock 103, or investigate some of the options Raul suggested.

(and yeah--the 9800 is awesome. now I'm on a quest to find some wood cases for it and my matching tx-9800)
Dear Narkleptic: In those time my Sa-9800 was accopany by the PL-630 TT with an Audio Technica AT-20SS MM cartridge and the HPM-900 speakers, all by Pioneer. Good stuff.

Regards and enjoy the music,
Narkleptic-I-and many, many others-believe the DL-103 has plenty of 'magic'. I'd start with the base model, look at some mods, such as here, and when it's time have it retipped for a really nice cart. For the price, I've heard nothing better.

Raul's opinions are as good as anyone's, but he's definitely in the minority with his aversion to DL-103s and it's variants. Try the archives at VA for lots of info.
Dear Johnbrown: I don't have an aversion on the 103 that was my first MC cartridge and that I own along other 103 variants.

I agree with you that my opinion is an additional one, no doubt about.

+++++ " For the price, I've heard nothing better. " +++++

IMHO because maybe you never have the opportunity to do it but I an tell you for sure that a MM can convince you if you have the right set-up on it.

The subject is not who wins: you or me, NO the subject is according with the Narkleptic system whch could be a better alternative and for you can help in the best way you have to know his Pioneer SA-9800 that I owned and that I know exactly how to take out its best and certainly is not through MC.

Regards and ejoy the music,
The Denon 103's longevity is testimony to its' value and QPR despite the "opinions" of some posters.

It is clearly superior to many MM available today despite what you might read here.


Dealer disclaimer: I sell both MM and MC cartridges.
If the PL-50 is the one I am thinking of from 1980 or so (rosewood veneer -
looks like a mini Exclusive P3), and the arm is not damaged, I would not think
the issue is with your table by itself, but suggest it is with cart (which is in my
opinion one of the few carts I would call 'brutish' - the VTF can easily be set
without a scale). I remember the integrated (there was a 9900 as well), but do
not remember whether it had the ability to take MC carts. Thought not.

The DL-103 and 103R are 8.5g, which assuming a 10g headshell is right in
the sweetspot of what the arm can handle (arm good for 14g-24g including
headshell); I think the DL103R is a great cart for the money if you are buying
a new cart (or can find it used), and I have heard of enough people who have
had success either nuded or repotted in a different shell that it might be
worth a try. It is, unfortunately, deserving of a decent head-amp (or SUT) and
I do not know how the Pioneer deals with those - and of course that would be
extra money. Some of the MM carts mentioned in that thread Raul mentioned
are really quite good. I have been reasonably impressed by a Technics
205CMk3 and a Garrott P77 (and a NOS Technics 100CMk2 I bought a while
ago has beaten them both). It has to be noted though that at that price
range, all carts have a 'flavor', including the Denon 103.

You can also try the arm both with and without damping oil to see how it
works. The other thing I have noticed with the PL-50 (I have a PL-50L) is that
it is significantly improved by using a lightweight isolation platform.

Non-Dealer Disclaimer: I have too many tables and carts and some of them I
will be trying to sell off in the not too distant future (probably including the
PL-50L, and possibly some of the carts mentioned).
As it happens, the PL-50 designation was re-used by Pioneer. The one I have is the "first" model, from the early '70s. It features a lovely and massive wood plinth, belt drive, and S-tonearm.

It looks very similar to the PL-41, except for its semi-automatic operation. From what I understand, this is a solid unit, which, properly set-up, can sound quite good, though it's by no means a true audiophile table.

Thank you all for the detailed responses! This has been a most helpful discussion.
Narkleptic, thanks for letting me know. I didn't know of that PL-50 model. I am
familiar with the PL-41.
I have a stock DL103 on my Thorens TD160. I am using it with a Denon AU300LC step up transformer and I'm very very happy with it. I use a Pro-ject Tube Box II phono stage on MM setting, along with the Denon transformer. When I take the Denon transformer out of the chain and switch the Pro-ject to MC setting, it is still good but not quite the same. I love the full, up-front sound of the DL103. I would try it before spending more.
Viridian, just wanted to clarify and confirm what you said because this is newer for me. The lighter stock 103 is better for heavier arms and the heavier Zu is better for medium mass arms, is that correct?
Mikey, that is precisely correct.