DENON DL103 ZU 1 $499

ZU 2  $599

by MusikMike Peshkin

DENON DL103R STANDARD

$599

by James L. Darby

 

To avoid confusion, the first thing you need to know about the cartridges reviewed here is that all three are modifications of the made-in-Japan Denon Moving Coil cartridge. The first two, reviewed by MusikMike, are based on the Denon DL103. The third, reviewed by James Darby, is based on the Denon DL 103"R". The "R" is Denon's updated version of the DL-103, the main difference being, according to Denon, is that it employs 6N copper coils wound with precision to the cantilever shaft.

 

Zu has modified all three of them to wit: nuded, with machined body, dual compound epoxy potted motor assembly and body, increased weight and machined directly into body EIA standard two hole mounting. Zu sells four versions of each cartridge, each with different specs and grades. Sound confusing?To understand why and how this comes about, we need to let you in on a cartridge industry...

The dirty little secret in the phono cartridge industry is this: because the components and electrical signals are so tiny, it is impossible to manufacture each cartridge uniformly. Therefore, tolerances and thus performance can vary significantly in the same cartridge model.The same is true in other industries such as computer chips. Some manufacturers ignore this and send all variations to the market under the same model and name and at the same price. Others, such as we saw with Peter Lederman at Soundsmith in our review of his "THE VOICE", take the best measured performance (in his case cartridges he hand makes himself) and uses those in their top models and markets the ones with slightly lower specs at a lower price with a different model name.

Part of what Zu (in Ogden, Utah) does it take the basic Denon 103, measure them (which takes time and money), categorize them and then modify them to tighter tolerances while making other performance enhancing modifications and marketing them honestly as four different models at four different prices.

Sean Casey, one of two head Zu keepers, explains it this way:

Tolerance (with US prices noted, international prices are roughly 30% higher)


"Zu measures the impedance of the left and right channels at two critical points; pre-remanufacture, and post production. These measures are compared to the output and bandwidth of each channel. We do not average the measures for our tolerance figure, which would yield the best looking measures. But rather, we set the tolerance based on the lowest measured parameter. Example, a cartridge that measured 1% channel tolerance on impedance and 3% channel tolerance on output voltage would not net a 2% graded tolerance by us but rather a 3%, and the unit would be marked for internal R&D use and not sold into the market.

Denon's stock tolerance between channels on the Zu-DL-103 is right about 3.5%. The bulk of the pickups are between 2% and 1% channel tolerance. We are using all worse than 2% pickups for R&D and are not made into Zu pickups. All Zu / DL-103 measure 2% or better on channel tolerance.

Early in our production, when we were buying stock from distributors we were yielding only a few high grade units. Now that Denon is making the motors specifically for us we are finding that the initial tolerance has improved significantly. Denon has in the past cherry picked and marketed the best measuring DL-103's in Japan.

(Of note, while Denon has reportedly discontinued the DL-103R for export, we had them build a special run of the "R" version for us and are also offering it as the Zu / DL-103R.

 

Zu's grading and notation of its cartridges:


Zu / DL-103 (2.0%) $399, basic grade to qualify for market. Pickups measuring 2.0% to 1.1% (again, lowest measure channel tolerance). These are not given a grade mark and internally referred to as standards.

Zu / DL103 Grade 1 (1.0%) $499, pickups measuring 1.0% to 0.6%.
Zu / DL-103 Grade 2 (0.5%) $599, pickups measuring 0.5% to 0.2%.
Zu / DL-103 Grade 2 PRIME (0.1%) $699, pickups with essentially perfect measures between coil impedance and output.

Grade and percentage are noted on every pickup, as you (reviewers) might have noticed. So you know we were not playing games with the review process, the Grade 2 unit we sent represented a true 0.5% tolerance unit as noted on the box, and not a 0.2% nearly perfect Grade 2.

Model differences


Pickups are initially graded when we get them in from Denon, but all units are run at the same time. It's only in the final tests and measure stage that grades are determined. All Zu / DL-103 pickups are made with the same care and precision. The only difference between grades are the left / right impedance and output tolerances.

All testing and measuring detail is true for both models (103 & 103R) of the pickup, and all are graded the same STANDARD | GRADE 1 | GRADE 2 | GRADE 2 PRIME. The only exception is the the standard DL-103R has a tolerance window extending down to 4% for standard. It seems the R version has a bit more variance and it's not feasible to limit the Zu remanufactured units to 2.0% like we do on the regular Zu / DL103.

It was the best of times, it was the wurst of times. Well, we did have some bratwurst, but it was during the preparations for my annual Audio Asylum Ribfest when I listened to this cartridge. You didn’t want the line to be, “It was the ribs of times…” did you?

 

For my part of this three cartridge review, this is the tale of two cartridges, one for those who wish to save a few pennies and those who want it all, at least in this price range. There was very little difference between these cartridges, at least with the music I chose and my ears plus all of the ancillary equipment. In fact, the Zu2 sounded a bit better to me than the Zu1, but I mark that up to a bit better alignment perhaps (who knows? It may have been my attitude…good moods equal good sound?).

The only definite difference was in the width of the soundstage. The Zu1, again with my equipment doesn’t throw a hugely wide stage, nor a particularly deep one. I heard more than “just a bit” of three dimensional information, thankfully, as cardboard cut-outs are an abomination…there’s NOTHING abominable about the Zu cartridge. The Zu1? A bit deeper and wider than the Zu2.

While the Zu was a good match for the vintage Kenwood table with its Pioneer PA1000 arm, the cartridge, resembling me in a number of ways, is a heavyweight…but it IS a heavyweight champ. It is NOT a good choice for a JMW10. It was so heavy I couldn’t get the azimuth set properly, the arm wanted to tilt hard to port and I had to swing the azimuth ring far, far, far over to get it to sit up straight like a good pet.

Continuing the travelogue, I listened to a lot of records (as I always do) when first trying to get a handle on the sound of these cartridges, and of course, to break them in. I’ll write about the ways and means of how I conducted this test; I promise not to put you to sleep.

I had a dream one night. I’m in vinyl heaven. Records everywhere I look. Music the likes of which would put a smile on the dourest of humans envelops me. The sound of voices, the shimmer of cymbals, the bombast of hard struck drums, every parameter of music making and listening is…well, heavenly.

Each of the different recordings are presented in such a truthful manner because each of the producers, sitting beside me one by one, has assured me he has designed the entire listening room and experience only to please me. I sit upon the most comfortable of couches, sometimes with a good Port at my side, another with, simply, an ice cold ginger ale to quench my thirst. Heaven.

Hey! This is my house! Cool! Now I can listen to music and just let the good times roll. And roll they do. Record after record after record; diverse music, wildly different from each other. I have a problem stopping. My son needs to go to work in the morning and Jethro Tull is playing; should I be nice and allow my son to get some sleep or be a poor host and send Ian and his mates home?

What to do, what to do? A music lover’s dilemma, multiplied by two. Two, why two? Therein lies the dilemma, two similar cartridges, two very, very different turntables. I’ve been playing with a Kenwood KD500 fitted with a Pioneer PA1000 arm. It has a headshell, God bless it; the VPI with it’s JMW arm does not.

So, to make things really hard, I put one cartridge on the Kenwood and the other on the VPI. A quick wire change and I have two very different sounding music makers; and music makers they are! The Kenwood has what the people at Zu designate as number 2, the VPI has the number one. I was totally confused until I got the low down, nitty gritty info from the people at Zu, because, as you know someone told me it’s all happening at the Zu; "I'm so happy to get the Zu 103 to you. Standard tolerance from Denon is 2% on between channels. We have been hanging on to the carts that measure better than or equal to 0.5% (output and impedance between L & R, neither measure exceeding 0.5%.). We have a secret menu item of the lower impedance 103r available as well".

Now you know as much as I do…well that’s why you’re reading this, you don’t know as much as I do. Trust me, you’ll want to. Playing through my Anthem, the sound of both cartridges was pleasing, but both Zu cartridges were MUCH more pleasing than expected. I didn’t think that a cartridge costing what these babies do could hand me the detail I enjoy with the various cartridges that have been on either table.

The Audio Note IQ2 and the Kenwood/Pioneer is a match made in heaven, as is the Dynavector 20XL on the VPI-HW19 Mk. IV/JMW arm. I thought I could be happy…well happiness is an illusive thing at best. Fighting with setting up a cartridge with a diamond (stylus) as small as the WIN Frankencartridge (basically an SMC10) was a nightmare. The sound was phenomenal, except that I always felt it could be better…ALWAYS; I couldn’t get one parameter set without messing something else up…frustrating as hell. Not so with the Zu/Denon 103. A breeze of a set-up. The number two’s cantilever was perfectly square with the head shell, the number one was off by about the thickness of a baby’s hair. The average Joe wouldn’t have bothered, but I align the stylus and the cantilever, not just the stylus. Using the marvelous new alignment gauge from Ken Willis, getting that cantilever dead-on straight to the mid-line of the gauge is quite easy.

A quick description of the gauge is probably necessary here. The choices Ken made to create this gauge make things far easier than any gauge I’ve ever used. First, he gives you two choices, both imprinted upon the gauge. Baerwald and Loefgren parameters can be chosen (both geometry whizzes who long ago set what and where a stylus should rest at any point of the LP). Those settings, calculated with the effective length of your tonearm are printed onto the gauge. The color he has chosen is a cream white rather than a milk white (REALLY white) making it easier on the eyes when focusing closely. The grids are finer lines than most protractors, allowing someone who’s a pain in the butt like me to get his face close and make the settings align perfectly with those lines on the grid; the stylus resting in the center of the alignment circle, which has a cross-hair target, not just simply inside it; the shank of the cantilever aligned with the center line of the gauge.

I have to point out to those of you who are new to Vinylography that placing a stylus somewhere within that circle is very much like placing a person somewhere within a football stadium. This is not much of an exaggeration, folks. Keeping in mind that the stylus is riding something that makes turns and takes dips constantly while playing, you’re NEVER going to achieve perfection. It is perfect at those points where you set the cartridge with the marks on the protractor and nowhere else. BUT, perfection at those points makes for better tracking of those grooves everywhere else on the record.

So, back to our cartridges. They were quite easy to get dead-on. Compared to the WIN? Nah, let’s not talk about that mean beast for awhile. I played a lot of LPs with both tables, then switched the cartridges so the 1 was on the Pioneer and the 2 was mounted on the JMW. With both arms the tracking ability is awesome. I first played an LP on the JMW arm with the 1 attached. I had the volume set so high while the Mobile Fidelity UHQR Alan Parson’s “I Robot” that I was frightened for the health of my speakers and my listening partner’s and my ears…but it felt good! At no time did I hear the slightest mistracking or any anomalies whatsoever. To tell you the truth, I was shocked, especially when I remembered I’d wanted to set the weight at the manufacturer’s suggested VTF of 2.50 grams and I had set it up quickly, leaving it at 2.35 (“That’s close enough until I get it completely aligned then I’ll check it and everything else again.”). Remember, tiny things are actually huge things! Actually, that IS within manufacturer’s tolerances.

Another thing I got to play with is a friend’s Cinemag step-up transformer (SUT). Since the Denon is a moving coil, the cartridge has to see the correct impedance for it to behave its very best. While my Anthem’s 47k is standard, the setting that was really wonderful was at 37.5 with the SUT. More low-level detail can be heard with that setting. Believe me, the cartridge is no slouch with 47k, when loaded properly it just jumps up and barks like a champ who just won top dog at Westminster.

I played every record used with both arm/table combos. I don’t recommend that you do this unless you are really into comparisons. It was a bit difficult; a bit more boring as I like to listen to a huge number and a huge variety of music and I wasn’t about to listen to 20 or 30 LPs all the way through both sides on both tables. Sorry ‘bout that.

But, as I said, I did listen to quite a few LPs from Tull’s Living in the Past to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, two records I’d been listening to often. Changing from one table to the other was more fun than a barrel full of puppy dogs because I could listen to a record, make a wire change and listen to it on the other table in less than a couple minutes. That allowed me to listen to a huge number and variety of LPs.

Early music with flute and harp was well presented. Warm, smooth, no harshness in the highs and capturing the plucked harp strings thus adding to that sense of reality. The harp is a bit far back in the mix, but that’s the recording, not the Zu cartridges.

Tom Burke The Tailor’s Choice (Green Linne records SIF1045) is a bit odd but an accordion and harp can reveal some inadequacies in every part of one’s system. I wasn’t bothered by anything. Maire Ni Chathasaigh’s harp revealed the Zu could deliver beautifully extended highs, no overt brightness; only the airiness of the instrument. I could hear her fingers as they stroked rather than plucked the strings. Even the tin whistle, a harsh sounding instrument if there ever was one when poorly reproduced in a recording, had that same airy extension. This is a record I’d listened to with the Win cartridge, so I knew what to expect and was not disappointed, a bit less extension into those stratospheric notes, but comparing apples to oranges is never a fair test.

The Fort of Kineora has all three instruments, harp, accordion, and fiddle perfectly separated, depth and weight…the feel of the instruments as you would feel them had you been present at the recording venue. The Zu’s aren’t soundstage champs, so the reality that comes with perceiving the walls of the room the recording was made in is just not there, but darn it, everything else is! Burke makes that toy sound like a “real instrument” and that reality is captured by the Zu. You can’t ask for more than that.

The Dynavector 20XL throws an immense soundstage, listening to my original Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra RCA, the orchestra is spread completely across the room (with theDyna P-75 I had in house for awhile, those walls disappear, especially with the Win cartridge). The ZU’s presentation was barely outside of the speakers when on the JMW arm, wider and more believable on the Pioneer.

I can’t recall ever hearing Maddy Prior singing a capella on side one of the original Steeley Span’s All Around my Hat so clearly. If this cartridge has a strong point surpassing the higher priced spreads, it is producing female voices. Maddy’s sweet/harsh and expressive voice made me fall in love with her voice all over again.

On Usher’s Well the group’s voices are separate and distinct; so much so that I stopped taking notes and listened, mesmerized. I thought they may have stepped in for a cup o’ ale. Again, singing a capella, the group’s voices on All Around My Hat were distinctly separate, the hall’s reverberation. At the very end of the song Peter Green’s (I think it is he) voice hang slightly longer than the rest. Musical nuances such as this make the Zu worthy of ownership. No soundstage width? Pish-posh! This is tonal accuracy, the strings, their voices. I’ll take correct tone over wide soundstage any day of the week. Bachelor’s Hall…you’re IN Bachelor’s Hall! You’re there sitting with a pipe clenched betwixt your teeth and your favorite hunting dog at your feet. Drums are a bit loose, the attack just a bit slow, but I’m nit-picking once again.

Violins had weight, a credibility delivered rarely by any cartridge. With both the Steeleye Span LP and a beautifully recorded Bluegrass LP, High Strung Loose Noose records ASM-489, the bite and thereness was thrilling. Guitar, fiddle and Mandolin plus some very grassy vocals make this a record worth searching for in the bins.

It’s hard to please me with string sound. Virtually every piece of equipment I’ve ever bought was purchased because of what I heard when I played acoustic string music. Using these cartridges would make choosing a new set of speakers (for instance) a breeze for me and anyone who loves a correct string sound.

I stated that setting the cartridge up isn’t difficult, but the azimuth must be correct. VTA…eh! But have that cartridge leaning a bit one way or the other and the sound is harsh, this is not a harsh sounding cartridge.

I was in the very back of my listening room putting some LPs back onto the shelf while listening to an Arkiv Vivaldi LP Lute Concertos and Trios and felt the sound pressure as a lute was played, shall we say…vigorously? Felt the pressure of a lute? Bah! Humbug! But it was there!

Like Minds from Pure Audiophile PA-003 is a great record with a fabulous sound. This is not audiophile sound; hyped up detail removing the fun of the music. This is just a really good sounding LP with great music. Not the most approachable music the Jazz world’s ever known, per se, but good enough that even a Jazz neophyte would enjoy it.

Two of my very favorite musicians, Chick Corea and Gary Burton make me smile through 4 sides of music. Add Pat Metheney, Roy Haynes and Dave Holland on bass makes this an LP worth owning for audio reasons and musical reason. Holland’s bass sounds big, beautiful, round and warm on this LP. Burton’s highest notes shimmer and are never truncated or seemingly limited in any way with the Zu; vibraphone can sound pretty ugly when mistreated by any part of a sound system.

You can hear Metheney’s fingers giving his guitar’s strings a workout on Country Roads, swinging softly through the piece. Again, the Zu showing off its best stuff with strings of any kind.

Male voices done well, sounds done well! One record I put on from time to time to see whether the sound is real enough to get my dog’s attention is Little Feat’s Down on the Farm. If there is no reaction to the beginning of the LP, then something is wrong with reproduction. That frog will get a dog barking at thin air, confused as to what, where, and how that thing got into the house.

Can’t Buy a Thrill had better get me singing the songs for days after I listen to it or again, something’s wrong with the playback. Believe me, I’ve been singing every song from that album whenever my mind isn’t occupied with other thoughts.

Do not think about the Zu if you have an arm like the JMW. It’s not bad, but there are many better choices. The Zu, on an arm like the Pioneer PA1000 sings! I doubt there are many choices in this price range that could surpass what I heard; Every bit as nice of a match as the Audio Note IQ2 with a bit more detail. Moving coil, anyone? Get yourself a Zu.

 

PART II

DENON DL103R STANDARD

$599

by James L. Darby

I had to laugh a little when I read MusikMike's review. He was under the impression that the Zu 1was the better and more expensive cartridge than the Zu 2. The fact that he preferred the Zu 2 just goes to show how outstanding his audio discernment is and how honest he is in his reporting. Way to go, Mikey!

In the interest of time, we decided that Mike would review the the two cartridges based on the DL 103 and I would work with the one based on the DL 103R. As it turns out, since the cartridge I was sent (an early production model of the Standard or lowest priced model in the "R" line) is the same price as the ZU 2 he reviewed, it might have been better to have him do all three to determine which of the two same priced units was better.But then that would have taken another two months or some, most likely. It takes a lot of time to break in a new cartridge.

As we mentioned before, the main difference in the "R" is that it uses better copper coils than the DL 103 without the "R".

My reference analog front end consists of the TW Acustic Raven One with a Graham Phantom arm and Soundsmith's "THE VOICE" cartridge. I also have a Dynavector DV-XX2MKII MC cart for comparisons. The phonostage is the new whestTWO recently reviewed."THE VOICE" is a very unique cartridge using moving iron rather than moving coils or magnets. It also tracks at a mere 1 gram. Both the Soundsmith and Dynavector are much more expensive cartridges, retailing for around $2,000. I did not expect the Zu to be the equal of either and you shouldn't either. But the reason we spend the money on reference grade gear is to have - wait for it - a reference by which to evaluate other components. A benchmark. A line in the sand. So, when a $600 cartridge is compared to another at $2,000, it is something the reviewer and the review reader have to keep in mind.

The Denon comes with a printed factory spec sheet, but this one had some factory numbers crossed out with new specs hand written in to correspond to the modifications Zu made. The impedance went up from 14 to 18 Ohms and the LOAD impedance went down from 100 to 80. Left channel output was 17.9 mv while the left was 18.

Sean told me that the output impedance of the cart directly effects the electrodynamic behavior of the motor, very much like a loudspeaker. Electromotive forces developing within the coils are different between the 103 and 103R--the direct result of one motor being wound with smaller and less conductive wire, the 103; and the R with a much greater conductance wire. Also effecting the electrodynamic behavior of the motors are the loads they will see, the phono stage / stepup transformer. Additionally, the relationship between pickup motor and load (phono stage) also determines power transfer, bandwidth... tone, dynamics, texture, stereophonics....

So while the 103 and 103R are exactly the same pickups, except for the winding wire used for the coils, the electrodynamic influence of the coils yield two unique products that do not sound the same.

Mounting the ZU DL 103, especially with the guide tool that Graham provides, was easy and very accurate. Care had to be taken with the rather heavy (13.6 grams) Zu because the stylus is nude and there was no guard for it in the box. And yes, mounting someone else's $700 cartridge does make me rather nervous. I actually force myself to wait until a time when I am not pressed for time or unduly tired. Now you know why cartridge reviews take a little longer - those moments are hard to come by.

The Zu looks and feels like you have a solid chunk of aluminum in your headshell.It looks very much like it sounds - big and solid. It took a couple of days to dial in the best tracking force and VTA. I started out with the recommended 2.5 grams as the LCD on my digital scale indicated, but ended up closer to 2.4. I traded a little deep bass for soundstage, midrange detail and airier top end. Once VTA was set, I found I only had the urge to change it when a 200 gram LP was on the platter, which tells me the Zu has a pretty broad sweet spot for VTA and is not terribly fussy. For me, that is a very good quality.

The Zu/Denon DL 103R Standard (let's call it the R for readability) does several things very well. It tracks like a tank, especially on records with a warp or two. The "Voice", because of it's very light 1 gram tracking force, will lose contact with surface under severe conditions. While the Soundsmith and Dyna carts are significantly quieter, the R is no slouch and kept surface noise, pops and clicks from being over emphasized. Cheaper cartridges often sound a bit detached from the music, failing to bring all of the elements together in a cohesive whole that sounds like a musical performance rather than just playing back a musical performance. Does that make sense? Call it "musicality". Either it happens or it doesn't. With the R, it happens. It is always musical and not analytical or mechanical. The difference in the other two reference carts is they do it in more of an effortless manner. If you are a sports fan, you know what this means. Some athletes get the job done but look like it takes every bit of athleticism they can muster. Others get the job done and make it look easy, natural, graceful, smooth and effortless.

Mike did a great job of capturing the sound of the Denon and I would disagree with only one word he used; smooth. I would not call the R smooth. There is a definite edge to male and female vocals, more prominent for the girls. The vocals are not quite as round and less 3-D. Piano attack exhibits the same quality and brings out a coloration in the upper midrange. At times this can be flattering, other times not so much. There is also a bit of grain present that is not present in The Voice. The Voice is also much quicker than either the Dyna or the R - a quality that the Raven One exudes. While the R never sounds particularly slow when listening over extended periods, when changing to either of the other references the sense of greater speed is apparent. Imagine driving a Mustang GT for a week. It feels fast. But then you get in a Ferrari and everything feels faster, more elegant and upscale with more control.

A lot of people call the R a "giant killer" with qualities that are the equal of $2,000 carts. Well, the Mustang is a good car and goes very fast the money. But it does not "kill" a Ferrari, BMW M3 or even a Corvette. However, like I said at the beginning, when a $600 cartridge is compared to another at $2,000, it is something the reviewer and the review reader have to keep in mind.


Mike and I agree that the Denon cartridges modified by Zu are very good cartridges with many outstanding qualities for products well under $1,000. In the category that may be most important, all three never failed to present an engaging, coherent musical performance. Mike pointed out that arm matching is very important and that all arms will not work equally well. That is the case with most cartridges, but the Zu's weight and 2.5 gram tracking force make it a little more challenging. Fortunately, Sean Casey is extremely knowledgeable about arm matching and our experiences with Sean over time lead us to believe he is very honest and trustworthy. He is also happy to talk to you if you give him a call. We strongly recommend that you do so if you are in the market for a moving coil cartridge.

While it may be that these cartridges compete with some others at much higher prices making them "giant killers", the giants we compared them too were not killed or seriously wounded. But then, we think our reference carts are giants among giants, so that in no way disparages the qualities of the three Zu's. The bottom line is that Zu takes a very good, overachieving cartridge and makes them better. And, since Denon has rather wide tolerances, Zu insures that get what you pay for and probably a good deal more.

 

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