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REVIEW: Denon 103D Phono Cartridge

107.167.108.172

Posted on March 7, 2017 at 12:28:58
Ross
Audiophile

Posts: 1293
Joined: January 24, 2000
Model: 103D
Category: Phono Cartridge
Suggested Retail Price: $499
Description: Limited Edition high compliance, extended bandwidth
Manufacturer URL: Denon

Review by ross on March 07, 2017 at 12:28:59
IP Address: 107.167.108.172
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for the 103D


Denon DL103D

A few years ago, I picked up a broken 103D for a very good price. My long term plan was to have it rebuilt. I finally took the plunge last fall, and sent it off to Soundsmith for a Ruby Level II rebuild. This means a ruby cantilever and a nude profile stylus. Many have raved about this combination, and looking at the price list seemed to indicate this choice to be at about the point of diminishing returns. The cartridge was returned to me about 6 weeks ago, and after making a few changes in my setup, I was ready to install the cartridge.

I read the archives here and on other sites (perish the thought). Consensus opinion is the 103 series and SS rebuilds specifically are very sensitive to setup. Thankfully the square sides make azimuth easy to set, but a very small stylus point makes exact overhang difficult to set. Start to finish time was about 40 minutes to remove my old cartridge, adjust the tone arm wire clips for a tight fit, install then align the cartridge. Once accomplished, I set VTF and AS for 1.5g and began to listen.

Wow this is a dynamic cartridge, but gain was initially much less than my previous cartridge (AT33 ML/OCC) and I had some hum to address.

Soundstage width, depth and height are better than previous. I can hear the relative height of a soloist in relation to a microphone. Listening to Miles Davis at the Blackhawk is a great example. Picture the classic Miles performance pose: Shoulders hunched over, head and trumpet facing down, with the microphone fixed above the bell of the trumpet- that is what I heard. His trumpet was located in space noticeably below where Hank Mobley's saxophone appeared to be during his solo. I have never heard this affect in so pronounced a fashion before.

Earlier I alluded to gain. I am now using a Cinemag 3440 SUT, set for 1:20 (103d output about .3 mv), into a ARC SP10. The preamp has a high and low gain switch for accommodating MM and MC cartridges. Since I use an SUT, I have the ARC set for low gain, which is the standard setting for MM cartridges. However it also has on the fly switching of impedance..47k-10k-100-30-10 ohms. I have settled at 47k after initial experimentation, and consultation with the experts at AA. Gain is high, and I have the volume set at about 9:00 for acceptable level.

Extended listing revealed slightly exaggerated treble. I looked at VTA and noticed that the cartridge was sitting tail up. I lowered the arm to level the cartridge body, and I regained some bass while the treble smoothed out. That said, I think this cartridge will benefit from tweaking of alignment. Azimuth is correct and the stylus plays without rt/lft deflection.

Soundstage width and depth are very good. I hear sounds outside of the boundaries of my speakers. I hear image depth, layering and air.

Treble response is extended, but does not exaggerate record imperfections. Surface noise seems to be separate from the music. I suspect the SS Line Contact profile is playing areas of the groove relatively undamaged from years of use (abuse). In fact I have noticed an overall decrease in LP background noise since installing this cartridge.

Would I do this again ? Yes. My overall cost is much less than the quality of reproduction I now enjoy. The combination of a high quality cartridge and new cantilever/ stylus has provided me with a meaningful system improvement.

Recommended.


Product Weakness: very sensitive to alignment
Product Strengths: Resolution reduction surface and background noise extended frequency response


Associated Equipment for this Review:

Amplifier: Triode TRV P845
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): ARC SP10
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Linn LP12 / Ittok LVII / Cinemag 3440
Speakers: Triangle Titus 202
Cables/Interconnects: Mix
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Jazz
Time Period/Length of Audition: Few weeks
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner
Your System (if other than home audition): See profile for additional information


 

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Curious, posted on March 7, 2017 at 15:19:25
E-Stat
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why buy a SUT when the preamp was designed to handle low level MC cartridges with its 72 db of gain?

I ran a 103 back in the late 70s. Much better exists today.

 

RE: Curious, posted on March 7, 2017 at 16:40:11
Todd Krieger
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I can't speak for others, but I've had fewer noise issues with step-up transformers..... The biggest issue I've had with high-gain active MC stages is getting startled by them picking up "two-way radio" communications. (This didn't happen often, but when it did happen, it's sudden and *loud*. Like "clip the amplifier" loud.) And sometimes radio stations faintly audible in the background noise.

I've also had several experiences with MC cartridges "dropping a channel" using active MC stages, but never had such an experience using step-up transformers.
   

 

You must be problem prone!, posted on March 7, 2017 at 17:01:45
E-Stat
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The biggest issue I've had with high-gain active MC stages is getting startled by them picking up "two-way radio" communications.

If I ever experienced that (which I haven't) I would agree.

I've also had several experiences with MC cartridges "dropping a channel" using active MC stages

Once again, you seem to experience more unusual difficulties than most.

I guess the fundamental question is: why buy (and invest in the added expense of a) a preamp designed for high gain if you're not going to use it?

My SP20 is a two stage preamp which offers plenty of gain for my mid output MC cartridge. I find that to be the most elegant solution without any of the weirdness you voice nor the added expense and cabling.

 

Todd hears things most of us can't ;-), posted on March 7, 2017 at 19:01:38
AbeCollins
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Digital noise, RF, radio stations, signals from space, ultrasonic echos from flying bats. You name it, Todd can hear it. ;-)

But about SUTs, I actually like the way they sound. To me they seem a little more 'alive' and 'dynamic'. With some phono preamps that handle MC directly, I've actually had better results with the SUT while leaving the phono in MM mode.

This was definitely the case with my EAR 834P. It has it's own internal SUT but it sounds horrible compared to even a modest entry level CineMag SUT. I ran my EAR 834P in MM mode with a Bob's Devices CineMag SUT with much improved sonics.

I had a similar experience with the Musical Surroundings Nova Phonomena battery powered phono. It wasn't that great in MC mode but in MM mode with the SUT it was much better.

One of my favorite tube phono preamps was the Rogue Ares and guess what? It happens to use internal CineMag SUTs when switched to MC mode.

That's not to say all phono preamps benefit from SUTs but some that can't seem to do MC quite right do a lot better in MM mode with an outboard SUT.

My two SUTs. I actually sold the higher-end "Blue" as the entry unit was more than adequate for my needs.


The SUT on the Musical Surroundings Phono which IMHO has a sub-par MC stage. Running it in MM mode with the SUT was a big improvement.


Ditto my EAR 834P which had a horrible set of internal SUTs. The outboard CineMags solved the problem.




 

RE: Todd hears things most of us can't ;-), posted on March 7, 2017 at 19:56:07
raya
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Posts: 362
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I'm not a cable nut but do believe that a good quality cable can preserve the signal. That being said, the cable you are using can only do damage and it the worst sounding cable one could use. You really should try a better cable.

The dl 103 is the best value in cartridges today and the mods you had done put it in the league of much more expensive cartridges. If you decide you don't want it contact me.

 

RE: Todd hears things most of us can't ;-), posted on March 8, 2017 at 02:53:02
PAR
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I don't think that Todd is hearing things hidden from the rest of us as I too have suffered from radio pickup via an active high gain phono stage.

It was via the phono stage buit into my ATC SCA2 preamp which was handling the output from a Lyra Clavis DC. During the summer months as soon as it got to sundown I would hear an Italian radio station. The solution was to add a small amount of capacitance to the cartridge loading. Being an MC this didn't affect the FR at all but provided a cure to the breakthrough.

I also now have a preference for SUTs and these days use an EAR preamp with inbuilt phonostage ( 868PL) where MC gain is via SUTs ( not the same ones as in the 834 but the 88P). Even though the preamp's MM stage provides sufficient gain to use my Lyra Skala or modified Denon 103R without the additional SUTs I nevertheless much prefer to engage them. There Just seems to be a bit of magic with an MC/SUT combination.

I note your use of a Bob's Devices SUT with your EAR which is something I would like to try. However the only way I can do that from the UK is to buy one and self import it. Maybe if I find some spare cash and sufficient curiosity. However these days vinyl is taking a bit of a back seat to streaming Qobuz. No doubt the shine will wear off of that eventually.

 

RE: Todd hears things most of us can't ;-), posted on March 8, 2017 at 05:55:43
E-Stat
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Digital noise, RF, radio stations, signals from space, ultrasonic echos from flying bats. You name it, Todd can hear it. ;-)

Does seem that way! I take a break listening when the ISS passes overhead. :)

Indeed the EAR is a simple three tube MM preamp with an added SUT stage for MC duty. The SP10, by contrast employs a single eight tube stage for all the gain. Adding a SUT doesn't bypass anything.

The current REF Phono 2 takes a similar approach using four 6H30 tubes and JFETs (similar approach to my SP20 but with more tubes). I prefer using a single stage optimized for higher gain.

 

RE: Todd hears things most of us don't want to listen for., posted on March 8, 2017 at 06:57:41
kitch29
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There's not a lot measurements can tell us about what we hear but one certainty is that RF noise below the threshold of hearing for most of us is still noise. There's a lot of noise out there, just ask the guys and gals with the radio telescopes.

8X tube noise in a Phono gain stage?

Your MC amplified passively by a high quality SUT, then a Gas Tube regulated power supply and two stage, passive RIAA circuit, as god and RCA intended, is the way.


 

Sure, posted on March 8, 2017 at 07:24:13
E-Stat
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There's not a lot measurements can tell us about what we hear but one certainty is that RF noise below the threshold of hearing for most of us is still noise.

The Cable Simpletons still believe that LCR metrics fully evaluate all performance parameters. Except of course for audible effects caused by untrapped RFI/EMI!

I do take power and signal isolation pretty seriously. As Abe opined, however, one individual in particular takes this concern quite a bit further than others. :)

 

RE: Todd hears things most of us can't ;-), posted on March 8, 2017 at 08:29:46
AbeCollins
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If you're talking about the cheapie cables in my last photo, I would agree. Those are coming off the back of my stock SL-1200mkII TT. My other TT is a highly modified SL-1200mII from KAB with quality RCA phono jacks, fluid damper, tonearm rewire, and a few other tricks. You'll see better cables with that TT in the other pics.

But none of this changes the fact that the EAR 834P suffers from a pair of junk internal SUTs that are crammed into it's tight chassis. I know of others who run this phono in the way that I do using it in MM mode with an external SUT. The improvement is huge, not in a tiny audiophool nitpicky way but very obviously noticeable.

This is not the case with all phono preamps that I have owned but the external SUT helps a LOT with some that can't seem to do MC right.


 

RE: Todd hears things most of us can't ;-), posted on March 8, 2017 at 08:41:21
AbeCollins
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" I don't think that Todd is hearing things hidden from the rest of us as I too have suffered from radio pickup via an active high gain phono stage."

You were hearing the effects of demodulated RF, not the RF itself. Todd hears RF ;-) Sorry Todd, for picking on you today.

I too have experienced radio station interference in one of my systems where we used to live. The solution was to NOT use my expensive Kimber KCAG interconnects with braided silver VariStrand conductors. A set of shielded interconnects solved the problem 100%.



 

maybe not the best set up procedure, posted on March 8, 2017 at 10:41:18
M3 lover
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Ross, you state "very sensitive to setup. Thankfully the square sides make azimuth easy to set".

I hope you realize that relying on the cartridge body is not a reliable means to set azimuth. From what I've read very few cartridges have precisely aligned cantilevers and styli so one can't assume they are true to their cartridge body. You really need to work with the stylus/cantilever to set up overhang and offset and find a measurement device for azimuth. The Fozgometer worked well for me and many other vinyl fans. An even more precise means could be an oscilloscope, but not many of us have access to one.

All that aside, glad you are enjoying your SS 103. I may have mine done too.

"The piano ain't got no wrong notes." Thelonious Monk

 

RE: maybe not the best set up procedure, posted on March 8, 2017 at 11:28:02
AbeCollins
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I own a Fozgometer that I haven't used in years as I've been focused mostly on my computer based music setup.

What is the Oscilloscope method for adjusting azimuth? I recall seeing something about this in the past but if you have a couple web links I'd really appreciate it.

 

Sorry Abe,, posted on March 9, 2017 at 10:20:17
M3 lover
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I don't have any specific references. I simply recall descriptions of using a dual trace scope with an appropriate test record (just like the Fozgometer) and adjusting the azimuth until the channel traces match.

Maybe someone knowing more about this can clarify?

"The piano ain't got no wrong notes." Thelonious Monk

 

Cantilever is, posted on March 9, 2017 at 17:12:19
Ross
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Perfectly strait and centered coming out of the body.

I viewed the cantilever from directly in front and it was completely in line with the grid lines of my protractor. In my case using the strait edges of the body was an effective shortcut.

I will still make sure alignment is correct however.

 

Because, posted on March 9, 2017 at 17:14:17
Ross
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I have found that a SUT + internal phono stage sounds better than just the phono stage alone.

 

I confess that, posted on March 9, 2017 at 17:26:09
E-Stat
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I'm not intimately aware of that venerable thirty five year old design. I recall reading the tribulations that inmate Bambi went through to get optimum performance from his SP10.

It seemed to be very picky about tube choice in the phono section. I ended up using Amperex 7308s in my SP9 MKIII as well.

 

I acquired mine, posted on March 9, 2017 at 20:12:48
Ross
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a few months ago, complete with a set of new EH 6922 tubes. I have a large supply of Amperex 6DJ8 and Siemens 7DJ8 and assorted 7308 tubes. Same tubes are used in the AI Modulus preamps (I have a M3A), another design that is sensitive to tube choices.

Once I get a handle on the sound of the SP10, I will start tube rolling.

 

RE: Todd hears things most of us can't ;-), posted on March 10, 2017 at 02:33:29
Todd Krieger
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"Sorry Todd, for picking on you today."

No need to apologize.... I'm maybe the most difficult person here to offend.... [-;
   

 

Two possible issues, hope you are good, posted on March 10, 2017 at 11:29:15
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First, is the cantilever centered and true to the body? Apparently you verified that.

Second, is the stylus perfectly aligned on the cantilever? That can be difficult to verify by eye. From what I've read, even some expensive cartridges come with mis-alignment. However I suspect Soundsmith is careful about this.

Anyway, I ignore the cartridge body when I do an alignment.

"The piano ain't got no wrong notes." Thelonious Monk

 

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