How good is the Denon DL-103 MC cartridge?

Better than you may have heard but not as good as you may think!

For those looking for the TLDR: The Denon DL-103 MC cartridge is probably the best cartridge available for higher mass arms at the low $400 asking price. It’s very good – great in fact – for the money, on the right tonearm. That 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 have factual information on anything like this of course or the results could be less than you hoped for. If there’s one thing we’re known for here @ Liquid Audio, it’s factual information about classic hi-fi, so let’s go.

Denon DL-103
The venerable Denon DL-103 moving coil cartridge. She’s a beaut, on the right deck.

Physics

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 cartridge with a conical stylus. The DL-103 needs a little more mass for the suspension to work properly. Don’t know what this means? You need to because it’s very important.

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.

Whatever else you do, make sure whoever supplies and fits your cartridge can explain this and verify compatibility with your equipment. Walk away from anyone telling 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 highlight the need for better advice and FAQs like this one.

Reality

The DL-103 is a beautifully made and presented low-output moving coil cartridge that sounds great in the right rig. It’s a classic-sounding cartridge because it was designed in a classic time, long ago. Tonearm design philosophies have changed since then though.

We’ve had the era of super low-mass arms, to which a DL-103 should never be fitted. We are now in a medium-mass tonearm era and the DL-103 isn’t well-suited to many of these either. The DL-103 can be used with medium-mass arms as long as the resonant frequency is known and the necessary mass adjustments are made.

How good is the DL-103 in the right set-up? It’s a very good cartridge, especially for the low asking price. 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, but perspective is important. People have told me they’ve never heard better than the DL-103 but that’s only because they literally haven’t heard better, they’ve only heard two or three carts in their lifetime! I’ve fitted dozens of 103s over the years and hundreds of cartridges. The DL-103 is a solid performer but there are significantly better-performing cartridges available for not a lot more.

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 in reality, 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, I’d only use Denon DL-103s, because I’m only interested in the truth and what’s best based on actual experience.

The DL-103 will never be the most resolving, airy or articulate cartridge, but it is honest and beautifully made, and it will smack around Ortofon 2M Reds, Audio Technica VM95Es, etc all day long, and deliver a better balanced and resolved result than many sub-$1000 carts. As good as the DL-103 is for the money, it’s a stepping stone for anyone seriously invested in vinyl playback. Once you’ve heard a better cart properly set up on a deck that can support it, you’ll get it.

img 4624
It looks like a DL-103, but this ain’t no DL-103, it’s my Supex SDX-1100D, better in every way than the Denon DL-103. It’s better than most other cartridges period, one of the best of all time. It cost as much as a car in the early ’80s. “No way Mike, a car..?” Yep, a medium-sized car.

Knowledge

Remember, salespeople NEED to sell these things. For many, once the sale is complete, that’s it. For many owners, even if the set-up is sub-optimal, the result will often be better than the crappy sub-$100 cartridge most are stepping up from, even if it’s still way out.

Has the retailer explained that the DL-103 is a very low-output moving coil cartridge? Have they explained that it needs 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..? Have they explained that the 103 is completely wrong for an SL-1200? Good retailers will have staff on hand who can explain all of these things.

This is the value of knowledge over opinion. It’s my science training at work, but knowledge is everything and better knowledge leads to better choices and better results.

Variants

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 cartridge 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?

The answer is probably not unless you pick up a really good second-hand cart, because nothing else will touch a DL-103 for the money new, in the right setup. Just know that the right setup isn’t an SME 3009 or Technics SL-1200!

PS

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