Denon 103 Slip Over Aluminum Body: Does it Improve Sonics?

Denon's 103 cartridge originally introduced in the 1960s for radio station vinyl playback is still in production and now has achieved near-mythical status. A few third party body upgrades are available, most of which require the motor to be removed from the less than rigid original. However, this one costing $85 with the not particularly clever name Aluminum Body Cap is one you can easily add yourself to your existing 103. But does it produce an audible improvement?

The manufacturer sent over a stock standard Denon 103 and one of his "Aluminum Body Caps", which is shown placed over the cartridge in the photo at the top of this story. Below is what the "standard" 103 looks like:

The methodology used here is as follows: I mounted the DL103 on the Rega Planar 8 and using an under review Pro-Ject Phono Box DS2 USB ($599) I recorded an excerpt from Yarlung Records' sonically stunning Yuko Mabuchi Trio (YAR 88157-161V) a two volume 45rpm live to analog tape recording, produced using an AKG C24 stereo tube microphone. Ms. Mabuchi is an extremely talented and fun to listen to young pianist backed by Del Atkins on bass and Bobby Breton on drums.The tune of course is Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas".

The Phono Box includes an A/D converter, which I set at CD resolution for the purposes of this test, though it can digitize at 192/24 and even DSD (full review coming shortly). After recording the excerpt I removed the cartridge from the RB880 arm, slipped the aluminum body over the cartridge, reinstalled and again recorded the excerpt, of course adjusting the VTF to account for the added weight. While the instructions tell you to adjust VTA by 1.3mm, to account for the slight added height, the 103's spherical stylus means that VTA is 100% irrelevant.

Then just so you can hear how great this recording can sound, I digitized again (at CD resolution to keep it fair) this time using an Ortofon A95 on the SAT CF1-09, mounted on the Continuum Caliburn. The phono preamp was the CH Precision P1/X1, the A-D converter a Lynx Hilo.

The two Denon files are identified as "File 1" and "File 2". The big rig's is identified. In a real blind test the third option would be that the two Denon files might be the same file twice. I didn't do that here. You can listen to both Denon files and decide if one sounds better than the other. Please write your comment under the story.

My conclusion is that $85 produced a significant sonic improvement. However, I think the cult over this cartridge is ridiculous. BUT DON'T LET ME STOP YOU FROM BEING IN THE CULT OR JOINING THE CULT!

File "1"

File "2"

"Big Rig"

COMMENTS
dr vinyl's picture

file one cover two regular Denon

Ortofan's picture

... about $400 to spend on a low output MC cartridge?
A Denon DL-103 with the add-on body cap, or an Ortofon Quintet Red, or an Audio-Technica AT-F7 or a Denon DL-301II?

avanti1960's picture

neither. but a decent MM cartridge at this price point- e.g. Nagaoka, etc. and it will sound much better than any of the above LOMCs.

Ortofan's picture

... still harbor the suspicion that they're missing out on something by not having an MC cartridge.
They should read this article:
http://www.regonaudio.com/Stanton881AudioTechnicaATML70.html

Based upon the results of the following comparison, an Ortofon or Audio-Techinca MM cartridge might be a better choice than a Nagaoka:
https://www.analogplanet.com/content/nine-cartridges-compared-reviewed-a...

volvic's picture

and I can say this because this is what I've done for all three of my turntables. I would go on usaudiomart or canuckaudiomart or any other classified hifi site and try and find the Shure V15 MKV cartridge, preferably one without the stylus or a damaged stylus, so you pay less. Then you go to the Jico SAS site and order a Vn5Mr replacement stylus, that is as good a stylus you will find anywhere and have a cartridge that is ultra quiet,tracks like no other and sounds unlike anything for under $400.

Ortofan's picture

... the JICO replacement stylus will track as well as the original since the JICO does not have a microwall-beryllium cantilever?

volvic's picture

Yes and it sounds better than the Shure stylus ever did.

yeti's picture

I Should have listened to file 3 first, with file one I was wondering what was inherent to the recording and what was the cartridge until I just started enjoying the music about half way through. File 2 sounded less compromised so guess that one is with the cover.
I think I’d take a Decca over these if I want a spherical stylus, though so far I’ve only experience of one wired for mono, the extra cost is offset by the simpler phonostage requirement. Curiously I found some effect from varying the VTA on my Aro and preferred slightly lower at the pivot end.

AnalogJ's picture

About this cartridge, Harry Weisfeld once told me that it'sa extremely tonearm dependent. On certain tonearms, it sings. On others, it's meh.

mraudioguru's picture

..versions of this cart for over 40 years. Still have and use a ZU Audio/Denon DL103, a Paradox Pulse 103R and (2) DL-103D's.

While I'm not in the "cult" status, (says my other voice in my head), I really do like this cartridge.

I saw this body cap mod awhile ago and thought about trying it. I guess I will now.

Toptip's picture

1. Why is the Denon 103 such a cult, when the 103R with its elliptical stylus has been available and sounds infinitely better?

2. Not to inflame any sensibilities but since I can hear all the surface noise and other vinyl ills, especially with the Ortofon, why listen to this when Yarlung sells such a superb reel tape, https://www.yarlungrecords.com/product/yuko-mabuchi-trio-tape/ ?

M-Sevs's picture

Both the 103 and 103R are spherical. The 103D and 103S are elliptical.

Toptip's picture

I have the 103D. Had one as a college student, have another one now. Never heard of the 103S.

I remember switching from my then ADC XLM III (I think) and the difference in clarity was so night-and-day, I have never gone back to a moving iron / magnet.

SeagoatLeo's picture

Because it is $400. Enough said.

SeagoatLeo's picture

Most Vinyl pressings are $20 to $50, many available on ebay.

Toptip's picture

Unfortunately.

tparker14's picture

Because the Denon 103 is fairly inexpensive, there are lots of people new to it who think they can partner it with cheap or low-quality auxiliaries and get world-beating results. It still needs a tonearm with appropriate mass and a good step-up or high-gain phono stage to perform at its best (In other words, kind of like any other cartridge). As for adjusting VTA, not everyone retains a conical stylus, so that's an appropriate suggestion from this manufacturer. Mount the cartridge on a tonearm that is medium-to-high-mass, and it'll work well. The modding mania for the 103 often involves putting the generator in a higher-mass body, with a close friction fit, adjustable screws, or potting it with epoxy, all to reduce resonance and add effective mass. Some people leave the conical stylus on, some elect to have it retipped with a more advanced stylus cut. It's a fun cartridge, and its simplicity lends it to modification. I've been using either a 103 or 103R for years, and love them both.

tparker14's picture

Another comment relative to this: I've used a heavyweight aluminum body with a Denon 103 on a Rega tonearm, and it worked pretty well, because the effective mass was bumped up. The standard plastic-bodied cartridge on the Rega tonearm isn't really an optimal way to hear the Denon, IMO.

rl1856's picture

I use a 103D rebuilt by SoundSmith including a Ruby level cantilever and stylus. Sounds better than my AT33ML-OCC.

I look forward to a review of the Project DS2-USB phono stage. I use a PS Audio NuWave Phono in my computer audio system to effect digital conversion of vinyl.

Stonehead's picture

It seems to me better sound of the two files is File1. Better percussion and sound of the recording space. I wonder if the DL 103 would work with 9 inch VPI JMW arm and Iphono 2. I’m currently using Ortofon 2m Black and would like to try my first moving coil and the Denon has been on my radar.

Ortofan's picture

... a spherical stylus after the 2M Black.
For a first MC I'd consider the Ortofon Cadenza Red, the Dynavector DV-20X2L or, maybe, a Hana ML.

Stonehead's picture

It seems to me better sound of the two files is File1. Better percussion and sound of the recording space. I wonder if the DL 103 would work with 9 inch VPI JMW arm and Iphono 2. I’m currently using Ortofon 2m Black and would like to try my first moving coil and the Denon has been on my radar.

Jim Tavegia's picture

To my 72 year old ears I could live with either 1 or 2, but I felt 2 was a warmer presentation. I cannot say which one is more right at this stage of my life. Nice to track for the test, by the way.

Slammintone's picture

File 2 between 1&2. The big rig was a much larger step up in SQ to me however. Bass violin had a tactile quality the Denons couldn’t match but, I did like the Denon presentation overall.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes's picture

This was a fun little experiment. Of the two Denon files, I greatly preferred the second to the first. File 1 felt somewhat fat and flabby on the bass, which seemed to dominate the sound. The very air seemed thick and dense. It wasn't as oppressive as the low-end Grado cartridges, but it was somewhat notable.

File 2 was a notable improvement. The bass was tighter and more restrained and I got to hear more of the percussion and rhythm in the music. There was a better sense of air and space around the music, especially the piano.

Big Rig was the best of the three, and although this was never in doubt, it's fun to hear a comparison against a high-end stereo setup. I loved the delicate air around the piano and the supremely balanced bass and midrange. Drums snapped and the music swayed. The air felt clean and clear, none of that "smokey jazz club" feel that you get from the Denon. I don't think I'll be saving my pennies to get one of these supremely expensive Ortofon cartridges, but it's great to hear one in action and see how it compares to the budget line.

As for the Denon 103 "cult," it has many varieties and there are many mods that can be made to improve the sound. Under the right conditions, it sounds terrific, but you have to be a fan of the Denon signature sound, as well as appreciate a strong low-end in your music.

remy albet's picture

Thank you Michael, very nice job.
For the files 1, 2 and Gig Rig, my ears and my sensitivity are those of Daniel Thomas: number 1 Big Rig, number 2 File 2, number 3 File 1. This triple listening makes me think that the sensitivity of an interpretation, its nuances, its musicality are at first in the high half of the sound spectrum.

Oldsport's picture

A couple of days ago, I saw an old Black-and-white movie called "Double Wedding." William Powell was trying to coach an unemotional man in how to get the girl with a kiss. After seeing the man's tepid approach, Powell berated him, saying "you call that a kiss! It ain't got no YOMPH!" Well, these files differ in their yomph. File 1 has File 2 beat in the yomph department; it's way more emotionally involving and interesting, and vibrant. Hopefully, File 1 is with the cover. I even have trouble believing that File 1 and 2 are recorded at the same level.
Now, File 3 has got both other Files beat in cleanliness. It's so much purer and more composed; it's Fred Astaire in tails, almost floating over a polished art deco floor. But does File 3 have more yomph than even File 1? Not so sure...maybe not. Certainly File 3 doesn't bring "Thwopth" (my new word, to go with yomph, for the unwanted things the Denon 103 adds to the signal). Files 1 and 2 have some of that. Spherical diamond?
Can we keep File 3's cleanliness and yet add more yomph? I can't presume that MF would feel that is a necessary experiment at all. But, if I had access to Michael's toy room, I don't think I could resist wiring in the Ypsilon phono stage and one of their step-up transformers, and gingerly experimenting with adding a bit of resistance to the step-up's primary side. I mean, seriously, who doesn't want yomph with no thwopth?

dcbingaman's picture

The Denon needs at least 20g of tonearm mass to sound right. Any lower tonearm mass and you lose bass. Same deal with fixed gimbal bearings vs. unipivot. Low compliance cartridges do not work well in unipivots because the cartridge rocks the arm back in forth in azimuth, cancelling the bass response. The cover increases tonearm mass - hence provides a better match to the cantilever compliance.

gorkuz's picture

Mikey,

While I agree with you about the cultism and have never been a gigantic fan (while not a detractor, either), I have to respectfully disagree...strongly...with not adjusting the VTA for this (and even more so for other styli profiles). While I have been long aware of the myth that conical styli are "completely" insensitive to VTA, this is actually untrue, they are just much less sensitive. Having motorized remote-controlled VTA on-the-fly adjustment here, it is easy for me to do this so I get a LOT of experience with VTA setting results because I do this so much more often than most. Like for every record, given this takes seconds if I've already played it and notated the setting. Less time than it takes to remove the dust (and I have a handy foot-switched vac setup that does it in 3-4 seconds without one of those lines of dust left over, too). Or a minute if I have to find the correct setting for a new record, to from .5 to 3 thousandths depending on the cartridge - sensitivity varies (with other than conical profiles - the correct setting is much less precise as can be expected with conicals). So I speak from this experience.

Insensitive, but NOT completely as a few experiences have showed and 1.3mm is about 50 thousandths (.050). That is close to the VTA difference (other factors being equal) between the thickness of one of those horrendous RCA "Dynaflex" floppies (yeah, I have much nastier names for those abortions) and a 200 gram disc! And that's a *LOT* in VTA terms, more than enough to require the need to adjust VTA for a properly dependable result, even with a conical profile.

The good news is that if you found this "sabot" cartridge cover to be an improvement without doing this, then with a little more due diligence it should do even better and your result is still valid. If this manufacturer, who clearly must be familiar with the conical nature of most of the models, recommends this adjustment...then this should be a pretty good clue! Sorry, but "them's the facts", and I'm sticking to them.

Michael Fremer's picture
Since the stylus is round, changing VTA doesn't change anything related to VTA/SRA. It cannot. So I don't doubt you're hearing something different but it can't be caused by a VTA/SRA change because the stylus is round! Nothing really changes by raising or lowering the arm...
Johnnyjajohnny's picture

When files like these are normalized they should be normalized to the RMS values, not the peak values.
The two Denon files match for both peak value and RMS, so there's no problem there, but the Continuum file has an RMS value that is 1.16 dB higher than the two others - louder sounds "better".
That said, I did level match the Continuum to the others, and I did hear an audible difference, since the two cartridges don't have the same frequency response: The Denon has a most flat, slightly downward sloping curve, whereas the Ortofon is mostly flat with a spike in the upper treble.

Ortofan's picture

... a "spike" in the upper treble?

Where do you see anything even remotely resembling a "spike"?
https://www.ortofon.com/media/148061/ortofon_mc_a95_hifi_world_sept_2015...

Johnnyjajohnny's picture

I'm not saying it's an enormous spike, but the graph you provided, which was also the one I had seen, clearly shows that while "spike" might not be the most accurate word, then there's at least an upward bump in the upper treble. Almost all cartrdiges have this. Since the Denon has an overall more downward sloping response, the Ortofon will sound more lively, which it also did to my ears.

Michael Fremer's picture
FR explains all? It doesn't!
Johnnyjajohnny's picture

No, frequency response doesn't explain all of it - price does as well, because the Ortofon is more expensive, so you like that one more.

Johnnyjajohnny's picture

Seriously though, I did also sense more surface noise/hiss on the Denon, even when I matched the frequency response of the two carts using the CurveEQ plugin, so the Ortofon is a better tracker.

creativepart's picture

Loved the music on this test - so I listened to the whole album on Qobuz. Great. So then I bought both LPs (there's a Part 1 and Part 2) on Acoustic Sounds and even got a 10% discount to boot. THANKS.

I do have a Denon 103D - the good one - and may go this route too. I just wish the cover provided tapped screw holes to do away with the Denon's finicky mounting process.

PoshHippie's picture

it takes to make the Donon sound better on many medium mass arms.
The "shell" adds weight.
You could do it a lot cheaper with weights and heavier headshell.
Get the arm above 22 grams mass and it sounds great.
The second cut is the DL103 with more mass added (by the "cover").
It adds space around the instruments and increases the solidity of everything too.
Yeah.
More weight DOES that.

gorkuz's picture

"Fact
Submitted by Michael Fremer on Wed, 2019-04-24 12:04
Since the stylus is round, changing VTA doesn't change anything related to VTA/SRA. It cannot. So I don't doubt you're hearing something different but it can't be caused by a VTA/SRA change because the stylus is round! Nothing really changes by raising or lowering the arm..."

Sorry, Mikey, but I have to disagree with you, in at least a technical, geometric, sense, small point or not. When the angle of the conical stylus changes, the ride height of the stylus in the groove will change as well. Think about it - tip the stylus off of vertical in either direction in the shoulders of the groove (at which point it rides at the lowest point, or simply change the angle, and the stylus will now be riding on a slightly wider (or simply different) cross-section of its cone. Whether this is significant sonically is arguable but we do know that how deep in the groove it rides at least changes the sound some between cartridges, don't we?

Since the subject title was "Fact", well, then, that fact in a technical sense, at the hair splitting least, was wrong. As to sonically speaking, it is indeed a small point *but* yes, as you averred, the difference *has* been heard, and not only by me - there was an audience at the audiophile meeting where I first experienced this and, as can be expected, out of a medium sized group (about 20+ that time) at least 5 or so of the sharper ears also heard the difference clearly as the VTA was adjusted at my suggestion and agreed when we hit the right point. Some of the rest of the group said "yes, better" as a result but may have just been agreeable or simply couldn't determine precisely in what way, just more pleasant to hear. Yes, the VTA was rather far off and the optimal point was a largish span compared to other profiles so precision was/is not required. I do agree that it's not terribly critical compared to other profiles, but disagree that it makes no difference at all.

Audiophilia is very much a matter of fine points, and so long as that's true, then I have to disagree. Yes, I've heard the difference...and was not alone in this. And, geometrically speaking, *this* is the real fact.

paradoxent's picture

The paradoxpulse Guard body cures what all others do not.
Check out a positive-feedback recent review.
The Denon 103 and 103R have more potential then most have ever listened to.
https://positive-feedback.com/reviews/hardware-reviews/paradox-pulse-gua...

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