Upgrade Denon 103 R to Shelter 501 II?


I own a Denon DL 103R on a Spacedeck with Space-arm. I have read much conflicting data on this cartridge. My question to those who have tried this cartridge and also either a Sumiko Blackbird and Shelter 501 II, is: Will either of these be a significant upgrade? (System: EE Mini-max phono-preamp, Jadis DA 88 Signature int amp, Merlin TSM-Mx speakers)
springbok10
no significant sonic inprovement with either.
I "downgraded" from a Shelter 901 (and a Benz L2, and an Ortofon SPU GTE and SPU GM Classic) to a Denon 103R. I couldn't be happier, and have ordered a few extra 103Rs in case Denon ever stops making them.

Patrick
Yes, I went from the Denon to the Shelter, and was very happy with the upgrade. More airy and delicate. Then I upgraded to a Urushi, and wow! But in the range you're discussing, I was very happy to move up to the Shelter. At the time I was using a Linn LP12.
The 501 is no upgrade. There are a handful of cartridges at that price that offer much more. Ditto the 901. Actually, IMO, the entire Shelter line is overpriced considering the available alternatives from Sumiko, Zyx, and Dynavector.
Wow - makes me wonder if something was wrong with my Denon! I was never that impressed with the 103r I had in my rig, despite all the high recommendations.
Wow - makes me wonder if something was wrong with my Denon!
If the Denon is really that good, why do't they raise the price to an appropriate level? Do ya think that Denon has no one with ears that can hear its superior quality, or marketers to sell it? I'm skeptical. Yeah there are giant killers out there. Maybe the 103 is one. But giant killers have limits. This one seems limitless according to all the hype. I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it. I was going to, but it has been oversold to the point where I'm now too skeptical.
What about the Sumiko Blackbird? Or what else in the $800 (retail) price range?
Springbok 10, I have a Nottingham Spacedeck with the Shelter 501 and use the Eastern Electric phono stage and it is a wonderfull combination. I have heard great things about the Denon but not at the 800-1200 level. I did listen to the Sumiko Blackbird and it didn't seem as rich to me, a little thin compared to the Shelter, but I did like it better than my Dynavector and would have been very happy with it until I heard the Shelter. That was with a Rhea phono stage and two identical VPI scouts through the same system. I think that the Shelter/EE is a wonderfull combo. Also, I would highly recommend Vintage tube service for NOS tubes for the EE, boy was that a treat.
Peter wrote:

"Wow - makes me wonder if something was wrong with my Denon!"

I doubt it, but was the low-compliance Denon well-matched with your Nottingham arm? I have no idea - I'm not familiar with the specs on your arm. In addition, what phonostage are you using? The Denons benefit from the best.

Artemus wrote:

"If the Denon is really that good, why do't they raise the price to an appropriate level? Do ya think that Denon has no one with ears that can hear its superior quality, or marketers to sell it? I'm skeptical. Yeah there are giant killers out there. Maybe the 103 is one. But giant killers have limits. This one seems limitless according to all the hype. I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it. I was going to, but it has been oversold to the point where I'm now too skeptical."

You're talking about a cartridge introduced over 40 years ago - and I don't think it was particularly cheap when it came out. The R&D has been amortized to the point where it's nonexistent. Furthermore, unlike almost all other MCs, Denons are made by machine - they have been making them long enough, and in such quantities (hundreds sold last year, I gather from a dealer here in NYC who does not, btw, carry them), that they have developed tooling and reliability that no other current MC-maker has. Almost all competing MCs are made by hand.

Take the number of years they've been making them, the fact that they can make them by machine rather than by hand, and finally that Denon is a big corporation that makes its margin elsewhere in mass-market DVD players and the like, and this adds up to a low price. Beware hype at all costs, I agree, but trying out a Denon is hardly a huge financial risk. And your resale value will be pretty close to what you paid if you live in the US. Count your blessings.

The only problem with the low price is that people constantly underestimate the value of the partnering equipment. The Denon wants a high-mass, heavy-duty arm with high-quality bearings to drive its stiff, short cantilever and comparatively high weight. Such tonearms do not come cheap - you're talking Ikeda, Ortofon, FR, old-style SME (with steel knife-edge bearings) etc. And it's a pretty LOMC - i.e. your phonostage and/or step-ups have to be pretty low-noise and high quality. Just because the cart is $250 (for the 103R) doesn't mean you can afford to spend less on arm/table or phonostage in this instance.
I went from a Denon 103R to a Denon 103D and then a Benz Micro L2 and finally a Shelter 501 II. I sold them all and went back to the 103D. The Shelter really reminded me of the Denon. I wouldn't say its a great difference let alone improvement over the Denon.

I have to add this though... I've recently retired the Denon (I'll never sell it) and have started buying old Audio Technica MM carts from the late 70's and early 80's and I'm very much enjoying the sound of these cartridges as well. In fact, I'd stack my AT155LC from 1981 against the Shelter 501 MkII any day. (And the AT was $80.)

My TT is a VPI HW-19 MK III and my Tonearm is a RB300 with new cardas wire and a drop counterweight. My phono pre is the Acoustech PH-1.
I think that Patricka hit it on the head. The Denon D 103 versions etc have been around forever and are thus cheap by comparison but the equipment to use it correctly is not. The Denon DL103 needs a quality heavy arm with good bearings. I don't know that unipivot designs will cut it... What does the manufacturer recommend for that deck/arm? They should have listened to many combos and have some thoughts.
I've used a 103R since April and couldn't be more pleased. Reports on the quality of this cartridge are all over the place, although most of what your hear about the 103 and 103R is positive. Mixed reviews seem to abound, however, with the Rega arms with some users having good luck and others none at all. From all the reading I've done, it seems to me that the 250 is a poor match with the 103 and 103R while many users may be happy (or unhappy as it may be) with the 300.

For what it's worth, I use my 103R with a Premiere FT3, a fairly low budget medium mass arm. The FT3 does have damping capability though, and that damping capability makes a substantial difference in the performance of the Denon. A poster at the Vinyl Asylum recently pointed out to me that in reading that he had done it recommended that the Denon's be used in either a high mass arm or a medium mass arm with damping capability. So for those out there with medium mass plus damping, the Denons could be your ticket. I've also found that about 4.5 to 5 grams of blue tak on top of my headshell made a subtle but definitely audible improvement with the 103R. My FT3 is on an older Michell Gyrodec and I'm using a decidedly low budget phono stage (about $200 retail), but the 103R easily and grossly surpasses the Ortofon MC 20 Super I replaced, which was a) a much more expensive cartridge and b) supposedly a much better match in terms of compliance with my tonearm.

So experimentation may be in order for you. At $250 the 103R is a pretty cheap experiment that, as one poster above pointed out, you can probably recover most of your money on if it doesn't work out. And if it does work out, you will probably be very happy. When I bought my table used many years ago, it came with a Koetsu Black which I used for a number of years. I can buy 6 or 7 103R's for one Koetsu Black and, although my system may not have been as good (and it's still pretty middle of the road or even low budget compared to most Audiogoners) in those days, I can tell you that is what I intend to do. I feel absolutely no need to buy anything other than a 103R. In my modest system, it does a lot of things right.
Thank you all for your help. I will try the Denon for a while - if unhappy, I will get the Shelter 501. I am told that this is Analog's cartridge of choice when they show the Spacedeck.
Patrick wrote
The only problem with the low price is that people constantly underestimate the value of the partnering equipment. The Denon wants a high-mass, heavy-duty arm with high-quality bearings to drive its stiff, short cantilever and comparatively high weight. Such tonearms do not come cheap - you're talking Ikeda, Ortofon, FR, old-style SME (with steel knife-edge bearings) etc

Considering that this cartridge was initially made for the broascast industry, You have given a very good explanation of its characteristics. That industry mostly used high mass 12" arms. This also explains why it is used more successfully by vintage equipment users as well, since vintage generally used higher mass arms than todays newer arms, which are usually low or medium mass. Yes, one can spend a lot of money to buy a 12" arm, but there are a lot of good arms which will not get optimum performance from the 103 due to incompatibility. In short, the cartride was engineered for 40 yr old table/arm combo, but is generall not a good match for newer lighter arms.
hi all
have owned a d103r fr many years
nowadays it just sits up upon my wardrobe as it has for the last 5 years
great cartridge in its day
but sadly
no jan allaerts
older audiophiles otoh love them
the midrange performance is very good
top and bottem end performace on the otherhand are questionable
you do actually get what you pay for
to an extent

the shelter is better in the frequency extremes but does not have the midrange majic of the denon
younger audiophiles wouldn't think twice and most would buy the shelter
horses for courses i guess
let your own ears decide
best regards
uktel
Let's put things into perspective here. The cheapest Allaerts is about 8 times as much money as the 103R. I would hope it would be better. Maybe it is 8X better, but forgive me if I'm skeptical.

As to proper cartridge/arm matching, it goes without saying that any buyer of the Denon should be looking at that. Hell, I bought a Pioneer PL-12D at a garage sale for my son recently for $5 and ended up spending a bit more money on an AT cartridge than I wanted to and waiting about 3-4 weeks for it to come in because the Ortofon and a couple of other cartridges that the dealer wanted to sell me was not going to match up well with the arm on the $5 Pioneer!!! All I had to do was read the Pioneer manual on vinylengine to figure about half of it out.

As to the compliance numbers on the Denon and its supposed need for a very high mass arm, this has been discussed ad nauseum at the Vinyl Asylum where many people have measured and or listened to the Denon in medium to medium high mass arms and had very good results. While any cartridge is going to benefit from better ancilliaries, there are many users of the Denon with what are supposed to be less than perfect matchups who have reported great results, including bettering cartridges which are much more expensive.

Are the Denons perfect? I don't think anyone is saying that. But to dismiss them as being archaic or poor value is pretty ridiculous.
The Denon 103R is a killer cart at a killer price. The poor man's Koetsu. While it may not have the frequency extension of some of the newer carts, what it gets right - the midrange and the PRaT, many carts just don't cut it.

As for matching tonearms, my Schroeder model 2 with the brass mounting plate(+6g) works like a charm. Another modern arm which works well is the Scheu 12" Classic which doesn't cost an arm and a leg, so go figure.
I'd like to open up the discussion a bit to include other things. I just picked up a used 103R from another 'gon member, and am waiting for the rest of my Scillia / Merrill upgrade bits to bring my AR ES-1 to a higher level (yeah, I'm one of those guys). I picked the 103R because I have a high mass arm and because it is a match for this configuration, and is well regarded for its price. At a good price used it's almost a shoo-in.

In looking at the 103R frequency sweep I see that it has a broad shelf starting in the upper midrange through the treble. Less than 1dB, but as I understand it something that broad can be "heard" even if it is at 1dB or less. At 20KHz it is still within 1dB, so at least on the sweep it is not lacking in frequency extension but the profile may help explain its reputation as not being extended. I'm a believer in system and component matching, so I guess I'm wondering if the arm and table are a good basic match for the cart why wouldn't I be equally concerned about the tonearm cable? I think using a cable that supports the speed, openness, and extension that would complement the 103R would be the ticket. I'm looking for a cable that would fit that bill. For example, I've heard the Signal Cable Silver Resolution as an IC and found it to have many of the qualities that might make it a good complement for a 103R.

I guess my bottom line is that if careful matching is done to something like a 103R it may still be a viable solution for, maybe, high end analog (relative to its price).
Hi Springbok,

Patrick and Audifeil speak the truth, but this may still not be "your" truth.

Affix a nickel to the headshell of your Nottingham tonearm to increase the effective mass of your arm by about 5.5 grams.

Use Blu-tack, modeling clay, or two sided tape to stick the nickel to the headshell.

A 103R loves arms with 15 to 18 gram effective mass.

Reset the tracking force to between 2.5 and 2.6 grams and tell us what you hear with your 103R.

Note - if you are measuring tracking force with a Shure stylus gauge, you will be tracking low by .2 to .3 grams. Set to 2.7 to 2.8 if you're using a Shure.

Cheers,
Thom @ Galibier
I have set the tracking force to 2.3 with just the cartridge andit sounds pretty darn good! I will try the nickel trick and let you know.
What were you tracking at before? I'd suggest tracking in the higher end of the range-at least 2.5 grams.

In my opinion (at least in my set-up) the cartridge sounds much better tracking at the higher end of the range. I track mine at 2.7 grams. The lower mass arm (if that's what you have) combined with the lower tracking force may be seriously limiting what you're getting out of the cartridge.
2.7. I'm not sure if it's better at low or high end. Just got the TT Saturday.
Absolutely! 2.5 to 2.6 grams, and remember to take the optimistic numbers that a Shure tracking force gauge gives you into account.

I mention this latter point only because so many folks rely on the Shure coupled with the fact that you haven't mentioned how you measure your tracking force.

Cheers,
Thom @ Galibier
Assuming you just got then Denon Saturday as well, I would a) definitely track it at the higher end of the VTF range at least until it is broken in and probably after as well and b) not make any judgements about its sound quality until you have at least 12-15 hours (or the equivalent of about 40 LP sides) on it.

While the Denon sounds pretty decent out of the box, it is a little aggressive, a little "steely" as some others have described it. At around 12-15 hours, though, it should dramatically improve and really come into its own. You'll notice that it will really smooth out in that time period. Some will say that it requires around 50 hours to fully break in and that may well be true, but in my experience, there is a real transformation at the 12-15 hour mark that makes any improvements in the 15-50 hour mark sound pretty subtle. At 12-15 hours, it's as if, all of a sudden the "light comes on".

And, as mentioned above, if your arm is a bit lightweight (as in the 9-12 range), increasing the mass by 5 grams or so is definitely going to help as well.

But if the Denon is new, you are in for a surprise shortly if you keep playing records on it.
Tom - Are you aware of other inexpensive tracking force scales that are more accurate?

thanks
Tom, I am tracking it at 2.68 now - does sound better. I cannot weight the shell as I would need a longer brass counter-weight.

The tracking force guage I use is superb - the Digital Chinese direct order one - works like a charm - no hassle either.
Springbok10,

Sounds like the scale from ANS. That's a very good investment.

Don't worry in the least about VTA with the 103r. With that conical stylus you can be off by a mile and it won't sound any different. Just set it level and focus on VTF and azimuth.

The best arm I have heard so far with this cartridge was a Basis Vector, but I believe Thom uses it on a Triplanar. Didn't like being mounted on a Graham 2.2 at all. I'd try it on mine but the 103r I have developed a sporadic pop, like a discharge, in the left channel so I don't risk using it anymore.
I moved directly from a 103R to a Dynavector XX-1 - the 103 is that good that one needs to scale up at 3x1 in price.

Although the DL-103R is very good for the money. It is nowhere close to the 501mk2. The Denon is more foreward, the Shelter is more refined and layed back. Yes I owned both. If you are only into rock music you mite like the Denon best....