Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Visit with the Denon DL-103R phono cartridge

With the success of my Audio Sector Phono Stage, I decided it was time to pair it up with a low output moving coil cartridge. Low output MCs can be expensive beasts, ranging from the low hundreds up to the price of a brand new car. The Denon DL-103 is known to be a giant slayer and has a number of users clamoring that it is one of the best sub-$1k carts around. However, looking at the specifications, the low output impedance made it's brother the DL-103R the better candidate. Why is that? The Audio Sector Phono Stage has a zero impedance, so gain is determine by voltage and output impedance. The DL-103R also features better coils and a little more compliance than it's less expensive sibling.

The arrival of the Denon DL-103R revealed a well packaged cartridge with a handwritten test note, a manual and a little cleaning brush. Installation on the Rega RB300 arm was a snap with a my protractor and digital stylus gauge. After everything was lined up, I dialed in the pressure at 2.5G and started spinning some records.

Right out of the box, the 103R is a nice sounding cartridge. Compared to the high output Dynavector 10X5, the sound is a little more laid back. Bass is also a touch reduced but perhaps this is just more control over the lower octaves. The midrange was amazingly clean, quick and utterly involving. The treble is a touch brash, but this could be the effect of a cartridge that needs some break-in or the revealing forward sound of my phono stage. Record noise is also a little more evident.

On Frank Sinatra's "Sinatra At The Sands", the left/right split of the instruments are laid out nicely with ol' Blue Eyes vocals taking center stage. Detail with the Denon was very good with nice hall reverberation and the picking out of individual instruments. When the band got going, the sound never got congested or uncontrolled.

Steely Dan - "Aja" is a complicated album with several time changes and tight drumming. Again the Denon kept everything in control, putting each instrument in the space given by the producer. Stunning, to say the least.

Dire Straits - "Love Over Gold" again showed a cartridge that could handle large dynamic swings and complicated instrument interactions. This was especially evident in the song 'Telegraph Road' where the volume levels crests and recedes with Mark Knopfler's guitar sweeping guitar keeping the musical thread sewn together.

In conclusion, the Denon 103-R is a choice budget low output moving coil cartridge. Any problems are sins of omission as my only complaints so far is the slightly etchy treble and perhaps the last bit of 'inner' detail is missing. But it still is an enjoyable cartridge that punches way above its price. As much as I would like to buy an expensive Dynavector or Shelter cartridge, I would prefer to spend my money on other pursuits - like buying more records!

preamp: Threshold FET-10/HL

phono preamp: Audio Sector Phono Stage
amplifier: Threshold S/500
analog: VPI HW19 MkIII - Rega RB300 with Incognito wiring - Dynavector 10x5
speakers: Magnepan 1.6/QR
speaker cable: Kimber 4PR/8PR Bi-wire with banana jacks
Interconnects: Cardas Cross and Cardas Quadlink 5C