Very good, actually great, for the money, and on the right tonearm.
TLDR: The Denon DL-103 MC cartridge is, in my opinion, probably the best cartridge available for higher mass arms at the ridiculously low $400 asking price. That being said, it isn’t well-suited to many turntables and tonearms, nor is it anywhere near as good as the very best carts available when we remove the price restriction. It’s important to understand this bigger picture or the results could be less than you hoped for.
The Denon DL-103 was designed to work properly on longer, heavier arms, bolted to a nice heavy headshell. That’s because the 103 is an old-school low-output, low-compliance design with a conical stylus. The DL-103 needs a little more mass for the suspension to work properly.
Understanding cartridge physics is vital to understanding how cartridges interact with headshells and tonearms. Cartridge-tonearm compatibility comes down to simple math and becomes intuitive with experience and a good technical understanding of the mechanics/physics involved.
Make sure whoever supplies and fits your cartridge can explain this and verify compatibility with your equipment. Walk away from anyone who tries to tell you that “this isn’t important” or that “the DL-103 will work on any arm” or is “the best cartridge available”. Comments like these merely serve to highlight the need for better advice and FAQs like this one.
The DL-103 is a beautifully made and presented low-output moving coil cartridge. The 103’s status is legendary and she sounds great – on the right rig. It’s a classic-sounding cartridge because it was designed long ago. Tonearm design philosophies have changed since it was designed though. We’ve had eras of super low-mass arms, to which a DL-103 should never be fitted. We are now in a medium-mass tonearm era. The DL-103 can be used with many medium-mass arms, as long as that all-important physics is kept in mind, and headshell and counterweight mass are adjusted accordingly.
OK, so we’ve established that the DL-103 is designed to work with certain tonearms and therefore turntables. On the right arm and turntable then, how good is the DL-103? It’s good, very good for the money. Whilst there are significant improvements available with better designs, the Denon DL-103 sounds balanced, clean and powerful, with no obvious issues anywhere. The DL-103 offers higher resolution than similarly priced MM carts when partnered with a suitable high-gain phono pre-amp (critically important). Overall, the DL-103 is better than similarly priced MM carts, as long as the aforementioned conditions are met.
Looking at the bigger picture, I think everyone loves the idea that a $400 cartridge with an aluminium cantilever and conical diamond might be as good as cartridges costing thousands, but of course, this is just whimsy. If the DL-103 was as good as my Ortofon MC-A90, MC Jubilee, Supex SDX-1100D, or even my Fidelity Research MC-202 or FR-1 Mk3 for example, I’d sell them and only use Denon DL-103s!
Good as the DL-103 is for the money, once you’ve heard a better cart properly set up on a deck that can support it, there’s no going back. Broaden your vinyl horizons if you love vinyl but haven’t heard a killer high-end cart. The DL-103 will never be the most resolving, airy or articulate cartridge, but it will of course smack around Ortofon 2M Reds, Audio Technica VM95Es, etc.
Remember, stores only want to sell these things. They don’t care about how well it is going to work in your set-up. For many, once the sale is complete and if it plays a record, that’s it! And, for many, even if the set-up is sub-optimal, the result might still be better than the crappy cartridge most step up from when spending $400 on a cartridge.
Has the retailer explained that the DL-103 is a very low output moving coil cartridge and that means it will need a high gain phono preamp and/or a step-up transformer? Have they mentioned how much more a good high-gain phono pre or transformer costs or how critically important they are in extracting the most from a good MC cart..?
This is why context, common sense and knowledge are so important, and why I am always talking about knowledge being the most important upgrade one can make. Better knowledge and understanding lead to better choices, better matches and better results.
There are some specced-up versions of the DL-103 available, like the DL-103R for example. The DL-103R is certainly a better-sounding option for most people, though having heard most of the variants available, I think the best bang-per-buck version is the Denon factory original.
Other manufacturers dress up DL-103s in fancy aluminium or wooden bodies and charge hundreds more for them. Does that sound like great value to you? You can take a basic cartridge and wrap it in a fancy metal box, and it’s still a basic cartridge in a fancy metal box, so be mindful of this.
The Bottom Line
So, can you do better than a DL-103? Of course. A good $1500 cart like an Ortofon Quintet Black S crushes it and even at $699, Audio Technica’s AT-OC9XEN is better in most setups. A better question would be: Can you do better than a DL-103 for $400, on the right tonearm? Probably not, and not unless you pick up a really good second-hand cart. Nothing else will touch a DL-103 for the money, in the right setup. Just don’t expect great results on an SME 3009 or Technics SL-1200, the DL-103 is a bad choice on those and many other arms.
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