Denon DL-103 Cartridge Reviewed

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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.

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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.

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