What cartridges under $800 outperform DL-103R?

I have a brass plate on my nude DL-103 and I'm ready for a change. I'm looking for more air and ambiance, but don't want to sacrifice extension on either end.

I'm debating whether to try Uwe's Panzerholz body on a 103R, or try something altogether different like a Dynavector 20XH, Sumiko Blackbird, Lyra Dorian, Zyx R50 Bloom. I had a Benz Glider L2 (0.4 mV) for a while, but didn't find it any better than the 103R. My tonearm is Micro Seiki MA-707.

Any insights or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Read this thread from yesterday :

Thought I've never used a 103R, I've been very happy since I bought an Audio-Technica AT33PTG for my ET2 tonearm on my VPI HW19 Mk4. Though not imported to the USA, it can be found through channels on the Internet for less than $400.
Great thread! I'm interested in reading the responses. I personally have a stock 103-R, and am wondering the same thing as you.

In the upper end of your price range, you may also want to consider the Sound Smith Adia and the Sound Smith Nude 103R w/ Ruby Cantilever and OCL stylus. I have these 2 other options on my "watch list". I sent Peter Lendermann (Sound Smith) and e-mail asking him to comment on his 2 offerings - here's his response (posted without his permission, but I can't imagine he'd mind):

The Nude 103R/Ruby/OCL is a very good MC cart; according to many who have purchased them, it outperforms MC’s costing far more. I use the same stylus configuration as the Aida, so that is an easy comparison with other types of styli. The OCL requires precise Azimuth alignment, as well as all the other alignments.

The Aida comes in several flavors, so there is some flexibility here; high and medium compliance for varied arm masses, and either the standard 400pf or special 100PF loading, as requested. It is designed to work with MM preamps, and if the gain can be set to 40-44, that is best, as it will then better “Match” the levels of your other sources (CD, Tuner, etc…) but will work fine with the standard 36dB gain found with most MM preamp designs.

In the effort to compare the designs, you will be best served by my pointing out the technical differences. The Aida has far lower EFFECTIVE moving mass; that means that the stylus/cantilever has an easier time controlling, and not being controlled, by the generating element. This affects details and distortion; it affords the cartridge what is often referred to as “speed” or transient capability. It also allows lower VTF; 1 gram for the high compliance, 1.4 for the medium, which has an effect on record/stylus wear. Since the Aida is a step down from the Voice, the big brother, it still maintains many of its characteristics. Reviews and comments indicate that it compares very well with carts costing much more. We are now listed in Stereophile’s A rating for the SMMC1/Aida, as well as dollar value. They put us in with carts costing $2400 - $6500.

There are those who love the sound of MC carts, even though some may not be very accurate. I have no problem with that; there are details in some records that you don’t want to hear, and a slower cart will not reproduce them as well. My personal preference however, has always been to hear everything that is there in the vinyl, great, good or mediocre.

Peter is a good guy, and I appreciated his response.
Denon 304.
Second the recommendation for the Audio Technica AT33PTG. I've been able to listen to both this cart and the 103 in the same TT (Scheu Premier MkII/Scheu Cantus) and the 33PTG got my vote easily.
I own both a stock Denon 103R and a Zyx Bloom (.48). They're both pretty good and I'm not sure I could call either one better overall. The 103R has great extension at both extremes, but the highs are a little more etched and the bass just slightly fat. The mids are fabulous and the detail is more than adequate throughout the range. The conical stylus makes it very easy to set up, since it's not real sensitive to misalignment, but also makes it noisier in the groove.

The Zyx is more refined and tighter within its range and has better detail than the 103R, but doesn't have that real magic in the mids. It needs far more careful alignment, but is WAY quieter in the groove once it's dialed in. When I bought it, I didn't have as much phono gain as I have now, so I got the higher output version. The .24 version might be a little different - I'm sure Mehran could describe both for you.

That brings up the final point. While the Denon has 40-50 years of Denon research and refinement behind it, the Zyxs have Mehran, at least here in the US. He's a pleasure to work with, and a true gentleman.

I fear your experience with the cartridges you're considering may be the same as with the Benz you tried - while they may all be different from the 103R, they may not be noticeably "better".

I own a 103R. I also recently sold my ZYX Airy 3. While the Airy 3 was better, especially tonally, I don't think it was as much as you'd expect given the price difference. My opinion is the 103R is a great cartridge that belies it's price, as opposed to the reverse. I owned a Shelter 501MkII that I liked as much or better than the 103R. I also just bought a Shelter 901 for $600 with the top shelf Soundsmith modifications (3 levels available on their website for your 103R or buy one already moidifed- That should tell you what Peter Lendermann thinks of them) but I've not had a chance to mount it yet.
Most are unfamiliar with the Denon DL-S1 for about a $1000 probably available for $800. I have to say honestly I have not done a direct comparison and only have a menoty of the 103R. My sense is the top Denon does most everything better and opinions available rate it a true value in high end cartridges. I'm not sure what best is since all have plus's and minus's. In my really high end system I have settled on the DL-S1 as a real world cartridge that does as well as anything else I have heard even remotely close in price. Zu does Denon mods and I have called and pleaded with the designer to work his magic on the DL-S1. He says he has thought of it and wants to try. If he does, I'll probably buy one on the strength of the two.

Feel free to ask me any questions, I'll try to answer honestly.

Thanks for your notes on the Denon DL-S1. I've often wondered if that cart would be a more refined 103 or 103r, but as you said, it's rarely reviewed, even on the blogs (occasionally someone will seek an opinion on VA, but only the crickets respond).

I personally own a (couple) of 103rs, a 103, a 103r w/VdH ruby cantilevered re-tip, and just yesterday received a Zu 103r (factory-direct half price-300.00, barely more than a stock 103r). Have yet to mount the Zu so can't comment, but the VdH has taken some getting-used-to: much more detail, but a bit strident, and seems to lack some of the warmth of the stock 103 variants. However, it may still be breaking in, and I am enjoying it more than I did initially.

I'm curious if the S1 would fit in a 'Uwe' wooden body, or if Uwe would make one to fit. It might be tough to do mods on a 1k cart, but the results could be amazing.

Again, thanks for the post. The S1 may be in my future.
I hope it works out for you. Was listening last night after writing my response and again realized how wonderful it all sounded. Comes a point where I enjoy just listening and telling myself it is good enough for right now, kind of the zen approach.
I have compared the DL-S1 to the 103r zyx airy 3 and shelter 501mkII side by side. Probably comes down to personal preference (and budget)as always. Here's what I heard. The DL-S1 was more refined with better resolution tighter base than the 103R. The Shelter was more "musical" than them both giving up a slight amount of resolution and soundstage precision. The Airy 3 was tonally better and matched the DL-S1 in every other way except a slight degree of soundstage width. Of them all the Shelter 501MKII was my favorite. It goes for about $500 used. A used DL-S1 sold for $600 a few weeks ago. The Airy 3 go for $1600 used. I'm now trying a Shelter 901 with Soundsmith upgrades (similar to ZU). My initial reaction is it's better than everything else I've tried but I'm having arm compatibility issues that may not be solvable. S

If $100 difference is a lot to you the 103R will be your best value. The Shelter 501 MKII or DL-S1 will both impress at only $200-$300 more used. After that the improvements will be slight for a lot more $.
Thanks to everyone who replied on- and off-line. I appreciate the comments and suggestions.

I just purchased a Soundsmith retipped 103R potted in an ebony body. The retip is ruby cantilever with a nude contact line diamond. It probably won't be the end of my cartridge search, but the price was right and I feel like I should check it out. I've been interested in an ebony body for quite a while. The SS retip is gravy on top.

The Shelter 501 sounds appealing. Someone offered to loan me their 901. I should take them up so I can do a direct comparison with the 103R-SS.

What is the opinion on buying used cartridges? One never knows what you're getting when you buy used. You never really know how the previous owner cared for the cartridge or whether they mounted it correctly, or how many hours are on it. You have to trust the seller to disclose this info honestly. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.
To better a 103R in that price range, I'd be curious regarding the enhancements Soundsmith or others provide for the 103R itself.
12-19-08: Johnbrown

Thanks for your notes on the Denon DL-S1. I've often wondered if that cart would be a more refined 103 or 103r, but as you said, it's rarely reviewed, even on the blogs (occasionally someone will seek an opinion on VA, but only the crickets respond).
I seem to remember a post here from Ed Kobesky, reviewer for Positive Feedback online, that was very positive for the Denon DL-S1. You might want to see if you can find anything from him, or just PM him from Audiogon.

Thanks for the comparo. Much appreciated.

Have you received you Soundsmith retipped 103R potted in an ebony body? I want to hear about it.

Personally, I'm hesitant to purchase a used cartridge. I think it's the riskiest of all used audio hardware purchases (cables probably being the least risky). I'm just too risk adverse when it comes to carts.
Also, has anyone used an Audio-Technica AT33EV / AT33PTG on a mediaum mass tonearm like an Origin Live Silver? On paper, it does not seem like a good match (with those AT carts having a compliance of 40 x 10-6cm/dyne, and the OL Silver having an effective mass of 14 grams).
my AT 33ptg works fine with my medium mass rega rb 600
"T carts having a compliance of 40 x 10-6cm/dyne

Actually, they are 10 x 10^-6 cm/dyne dynamic compliance at 100 hz, higher for 10 Hz. 40 is unheard from MC cartridge.
You are right, they do have a dynamic compliance of 10 x 10-6cm/dyne (100Hz)...that makes a *bit* of a difference. Thanks!!!
01-04-09: Nrenter
Have you received you Soundsmith retipped 103R potted in an ebony body? I want to hear about it.
I have the cartridge and mounted it, but haven't had any time to listen to it due to the holidays. I promise to report back when I have something to say.
Nagaoka MP 50 MM cartridge is <500$ a giant killer cartridge. I can compare it to my Allaerts Finish and MC1 MK2 MC carts.

I'm anxiously awaiting your assessment as well.

I'm having trouble with one of my amps, so a report is going to take longer than I hoped.
FWIW, I recieved my ss retipped ( ruby line contact) nuded dl103 r, and dl 103 from peter a couple of months ago..... The 103 was mounted and ' run in' and guess what? It ain't coming off, I don't even want to know what the retipped 103r sounds like. I have found in this hobby that I will reach a nirvana of sorts, and then try to tweak or improve upon it, ultimately losing the synergy I had chanced upon in the first place. I have found my nirvana and I'm leaving it alone. One thing to be aware of is that the line contact stylus is an altogether different animal... And is very critical in demanding proper adjustments ( you've been warned) barring that, at the cost of the service I think it's a no brainer. If you enjoy the sound of the 103r, you will simply be taking it to another level as opposed to futzing with cartridges with entirely different sonic signatures. I hope I am making sense!
The. Ss retip allowed me to finally just stop, relax, and get lost in the music.
I love it!

Can you describe how the redone 103 is better than the original.

Can I assume the stylus was worn when you had it retipped? Could that account for some of the difference with teh new one or is the new one just clearly better than the old in good working order?
the stock 103 had low hours on it when I sent it for the retip. I had read about the service, and became obsessed with it. The improvements in clarity, detail, and texture are abundant. The bass is no longer 'plummy' but is tight, clean, and solid. The increase in detail really opens up recordings, and allows me to ' see into them' but only if I want to scrutinize... That quality that the stock cartridge had of non fatiguing ( sic) musicality that allowed me to relax, stop 'listening' and just enjoy the music is still there. The detail I am experiencing is not etched in any way, nor is the cart 'hot'. The leading edge transients are sharper, on some recordings a snare drum will pressurize the room and I can feel it in my chest, just like I can in my jamspace. There is a tangible increase in dynamic impact. If I had to compare the sound to something , I would say the ss dl 103 is like a nuded 103r with meat on it's bones, yet somehow quicker..... Okay I know I'm not making sense now. I can only say it is better in every way but still retains the magic that made me appreciate the stock carts in the first place.
of course, I no longer have stock versions to a/b but the improvements are of such a magnitude that it is, even to my wife, apparent that the cartridge is now in a completely different class.

Wow. Thanks for your detailed account. I do not find it hard to believe that such a good sounding device out of the can can be made to sound even better for reasonable cost!

There may be a Soundsmith cartridge somewhere in my future when my current 103R starts to get rough around the edge.
You could also look for some great used MC's here at the 'gon. I've seen a few Dynavector's around recently, as well as others.


Cartridges are one thing that I hesitate to buy used because the wear and tear is inherent and it is hard to determine remaining life. Tubes and tube devices are another item I feel this way about. Buying used doesn't phase me with most other items where the wear and tear is more obvious.
please advise,
I have a good 103 with a broken tip ,what would be the best mod for it?what would you do?

also i have a 103r with the auditorium 23 step up and it sounds good but maybe a little hot and then heard someplace that the "auditorium 23" step up is really for the 103 could that be?

I think you should probably contact SOundsmith or other shop that services the 103s and go over it with them.
Acee, yes I encountered the same problem with my 103r (cinemag sut) but I found that if I changed the settings on the cinemag to 'high' it really fleshed things out.
Mapman, regarding your 103r, please remember my 'review' is for the 103.... I haven't even listened to the 103r yet! I am so Happy with the ss 103, I may just keep the 103r for backup, or sell it on.
btw, I am going to experiment with one of uwe's wood bodies on the 103 next, as it is a mod that can easily be reversed.