Denon DL-103 Cartridge Reviewed

Denon DL-103 Cartridge Reviewed

This "benchmark" moving coil design delivers a surprising level of performance for a moderate amount of money. Since it's been in production for so long, the DL-103 is a true classic design that can function well in many tonearms

denon-dl-103-cartridge.gifWrap your mind around this one: as various hi-fi companies boast about their longevity - "We're 35!" "We're 50!" - Denon celebrated its 95th birthday last year. It was founded in 1910 by a Yank named Frederick Whitney Horn, an entrepreneur who imported machine tools, starting in 1896. He also imported early record players - I'm guessing cylinders - so that by 1907 he had set up Nippon Chikuonki Shokai (Japan Recorders Corporation), and built a special-purpose factory in 1909, along with a studio to commence his own recording activities.

Additional Resources
• Read more about analog at Audiophile Review including blog posts, reviews and opinion about vinyl.
• Explore more audiophile analog and digital source components at HomeTheaterReview.com's resource page.

In 1910, he began manufacturing recorders as Japan Recorders Corporation. This was the forerunner of Nippon Columbia, set up as an organisation for supervising the sales of the recorders. In 1912, the company merged with Japan-U.S. Recorders Manufacturing, the merger creating a firm able to supply both software and hardware, while integrating manufacturing and sales. The term "Columbia" became part of the name when the company entered into a venture with the record company Columbia, in 1927. A year later, Japan Columbia Recorders was set up, and the company was renamed "Nippon Columbia" in 1946, after WWII.

In 1947, the company assimilated Japan Denki Onkyo, or Den-On, finally Denon. The latter was a group of engineers involved with professional audio equipment, its origins dating back to Japan Electric Recorders Mfg., established in 1939. The company was developing and manufacturing turntables and cartridge tape-recorders for the NHK and other broadcast stations. The DL-103 was the object of joint R&D with NHK before Den-On merged with Nippon Columbia. It was completed during the year of the merger.

Although its most primitive roots can be found in the monaural MI type cartridge of 1941, the real antecedent arrived in 1950,with the monaural moving coil for the soon-to-arrive LP, the PUC-3, which even a half-century on looks like a contemporary cartridge. The LP attracted the attention of broadcasters, who in turn adopted the PUC-3 as a standard. By 1952, rapid advancement in LP technology increased the demand for better tracking ability, so Denon released the PUC-4L.

With the LP maturing through 1957-1960 and NHK having established an experimental FM station, the two-channel PUC-7D was developed to deal with the arrival of the stereo LP. It's primary virtues included 20Hz-20kHz response and a tracking force of only 4g. The stereo LP arrived in Japan in 1958, to immediately favourable - and fanatical - response.

As for the DL-103 proper, its birth-date is 1964, development starting wholly in co-operation with NHK's Technical Research Laboratories, its goal being faithful reproduction. The very first example exhibited the squared off body, the widely space pins and the open channels for the mounting screws that remain to this day. It was ready for regular use by 1965.

Among the NHK's chief concerns was the degree of L/R separation. The NHK felt that while 30dB was required for stereophonic broadcasting, the limitations of cutting heads and the LP itself led the NHK to more reasonable demands of the DL-103. In the frequency range of 1Hz-5kHz, separation above 20dB was deemed adequate, while above 10kHz, the goal was 15dB. The DL-103 surpassed this easily with 25dB separation.

Also specified was a conical stylus of 16.5 micron (0.65mm) diameter to cope with both mono and stereo records, attached to a light alloy two-part cantilever, the telescoped sections cancelling resonance and lowering the mechanical impedance over the entire frequency range. It's fitted to a single-point suspension system supported by a fulcrum of thin wire, so that 'the centre of vibration can be clarified over the entire reproduction frequency range.' To keep the mass low, the DL-103 employs a cross-shaped armature with a damper behind it, with the separate left and right coils wound around it, providing good dynamic balance and ensuring that the channel balance is within 1.5-2dB.

All of this is housed in a body made of unidentified plastics that's a model of user-friendliness bar the screw slots. Parallel sides, broad, flat top, a notch above the stylus to aid visibility, enhanced by a broad vertical line to aid both set-up and cueing, widely-spaced cartridge pins - the only thing missing to make life easier is colour-coding. And then as now, each one is hand-assembled and individually tested, the cartridge arriving with its own test print-out.

In 1970, the demand for DL-103s from audiophiles forced Denon's hand, so they released it for public consumption - inadvertently launching one of the most successful, admired and beloved cartridges ever made. Here we are in 2006, and this 42-year-old cartridge (or 36-year-old, if you want to start with the commercial version) has a new lease on life as the Cartridge Designate of the Funk turntable.

However much I worship the Denon DL-103, and while it MUST rate amongst the 10 best - and most important - cartridges of all-time, I will admit that it had slipped into the less-accessed recesses of my memory banks until a fresh one arrived with the review sample of the Funk turntable. I was so taken with it that I bought one, falling in love with it all over again. It was a blessed trip back to 1979 for me, when I heard my first DL-103, in an SME 3009 on a Technics SP-10.

Read much more on Page 2

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This time, I enjoyed it both pre-installed on the Funk V and straight out of the box in an SME Series V arm on the SME 10 turntable, as well as in the Trio LO-7D with its own arm. The Denon proved warm and inviting, and with that cavernously wide sound stage which reached its apotheosis with the sublime DL-103D. It was a no-brainer to optimise it with a wide range of step-ups or phono stages, especially with the Audio Research PH-5 and the AudioValve Sunilda, both of which allowed me to play around with loadings. But do start with 100 ohms and take it from there; you may with to increase the load, even up to 200 or 400. With phono stages like that, you can hear the results immediately.

Fluid damping isn't essential, and the conical stylus takes the pressure off anally-retentive alignment fetishism, but the tracking angle is critical, and it sounded best every time with the top of the cartridge body parallel to the LP. Set up properly, it will track so securely that you won't believe you're using a conical stylus. Best of all, it seems to lower the noise on worn records, while its only obvious sacrifices against fine-lines and ellipticals is the retrieval of minute detail.

Complaints? The tracking force of 2.5g never bothered me, but I still detest the open slots for the long screws - the only thing about the cartridge that can compromise its physical health beyond mishandling. I shudder to think how many DL-103 bodies were deformed by overzealous screw-tightening. That aside, this is one to add to a stable containing the Decca London (maroon or gold), the Shure V15, any Koetsu, an early Supex and precious few other cartridges so good that they fight amongst each other for your needle-time.

At under 100, and working enchantingly, no, make that almost magically in a Rega arm, it has to be - after three-and-a-half decades - the entry-level moving-coil cartridge. Considering that in real terms it costs less now than it did in 1970, you are entitled to think of it as a blessing, a mitzvah, in these days of the 99p litre of petrol. So take my advice: buy one now, before it goes the way of the Shure V15. Or, even more likely, before Denon realises what it's worth and quadruples the price.

Additional Resources
• Read more about analog at Audiophile Review including blog posts, reviews and opinion about vinyl.
• Explore more audiophile analog and digital source components at HomeTheaterReview.com's resource page.

The original DL-103's specification:
Cartridge type: Moving-coil 
Output voltage: 0.3mV (1000Hz @ 50mm/sec horizontal direction) 
Channel separation: >25dB (1kHz) 
Frequency response: 20Hz-45kHz
Impedance: 40 ohms 20% (1kHz) 
Load resistance: 100 ohms or higher
Compliance: 5é10 -6 cm/dyne (with record measurement) 
Stylus profile: Conical
Stylus radius: 16.5 micron (0.65 mils) 
Stylus pressure: 2.5g, +/-0.3g
Mass: 8.5g 

A SELECTIVE LIST OF DENON DL-103 VARIANTS
Hardcore Denon-philes will probably find this checklist incomplete, as the company had a penchant for producing limited editions for the home market. Establishing a definitive list would be as monumental a task as accounting for all of the LS3/5A variants made exclusively for the Far East. That aside, this gives you some idea of the cartridge's basic versatility.

DL-103 (1964) Broadcast-only model designed for NHK
DL-103 (1970) First consumer version
DL-103S (1974) Higher compliance?
DL-103D (1977) Elliptical stylus, frequency response to 65kHz
DL-103/TII (1978) 15th Anniversary commemorative, improved tracking DL-103U (1981) Not a cartridge but a dedicated headshell DL-103 GOLD (1982) 20th Anniversary model, gold finish DL-103m (1983) Body re-style
DL-103LC (1985) LC-OFC wiring, 75th Anniversary Commemorative
DL-103LCII (1986) LC-OFC copper
DL-103SL (1989) Change of materials and styling, limited edition DL-103GL (1990) High purity gold wire, limited production 2,000 examples
DL-103c1 (1991) LC-OFC DL-103FL (1993) Fine-line stylus
DL-103R (1994) stylus shape, compliance, tracking force, frequency response and mass as per DL-103 but change to high purity copper wire of purity 99.9999% (6N) for the coil, output voltage of 0.25mV, and impedance of 14 ohms

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