Upside Down

September 11, 2012
6 mins read

THERE ARE FOUR schools of thought when it comes to the distribution of fiscal resources in hi-fi systems:

1. The primacy of the source – here theories along the lines of “garbage in equals garbage out” and “you can’t hear what isn’t there to be heard” force the bulk of money to be spent all the way up front. Whether the source is analogue or digital, adherents to this approach insist on dragging every imaginable iota of information from the CD, vinyl, tuner or digital file vowing that the amplification and speakers are always limited by what they’re being fed.

2. I pity the fool who don’t listen to the speakers – this lot postulates that no matter how much money is spent upstream, the real music is coming from the speakers, so they spend up large here for best results. It’s no secret that I’m firmly entrenched in this school – give me $10K for a system and at least half will go to the speakers. After all, these days it’s hard to buy a bad CD player, good DACs are ubiquitous and contemporary turntables sound amazing for not much loot. Modern amps are mostly superb but the speaker game is where there’s still as much art as science. Get the speaker right and everything else just works.

3. Balance grasshopper, balance – here we have the moderates. They’ll carefully allocate their funds on source, amp and speakers (as well as the cables and racks), making sure that everything functions in perfect harmony with everything else. It’s hard to argue with this logic, unless you’re someone who just likes arguing (who me?).

4. Chaos – here we find the fringe dwellers, the agitators and the wild men who just want to watch the world burn. They’ll run a mildly modified T amp into $10,000 speakers, they’ll spend 70% of their budget on cables or power conditioners or they’ll dedicate years to the creation of a monster valve amp that generates thousands of volts internally for a mere 2 watts of unmatched single ended power and then spend the next decade trying to solve the speaker matching issues. Fortunately, students of this school can often be spotted by their frenzied demeanor, thousand yard stares, brown cardigans and pudding bowl haircuts (I’m kidding, we love you crazy guys but please don’t bring your amp to my place).

Why then the lengthy recap of the four audiophile schools? As covered in this blog entry, I recently encountered a stunning system where the allocation of dollars falls somewhere between the four schools. All the gear is high-end to say the least, although at US$42,500 per meter, the interconnect budget blows the rest of the system out of the water – these ultra-rare cables cost more than all the other gear by some margin.

I can get my head around all of that because it all sounds quite wonderful. I can appreciate (perhaps even truly groove on) the cables but that beautiful analogue front end has been doing my head in. Why, you may ask? Well, the deck is a stunner – it’s a mint Garrard 401, which is housed in a massive slate plinth with a tonearm to die for and a top of the range LFD phono stage hanging on the end. Nothing wrong with that then, but the cartridge makes not a whit of sense in this context.

Ye olde venerable Denon DL-103

The old Denon DL-103 moving coil cartridge has been around for so long that it’s almost an institution (some would say that it should have been institutionalised many years ago).

The 103 was first created in the early ’60s in conjunction with Japan Broadcasting Corporation for use as a studio cartridge but it’s garnered a dedicated following among home users and audiophiles all over the world in its almost five decades of life. Could it be the top selling moving coil cartridge of all time? Probably. Nothing else has been out there for anywhere near as long, and it’s certainly managed to pass the test of time with value orientated vinyl addicts. In fact, it’s seen as something of a giant-killer, putting other more expensive cartridges to shame in its ability to do a great many things very, very well considering the price.

Its reputation among hi-fi reviewers on the other hand is mixed, with some deriding it as an antique has-been, perhaps even a never-was. Others rate it highly, especially in the enhanced 103R guise or as one of the many modified variants, some of which bear more than a passing resemblance to Grandad’s axe – with almost every part being replaced in search of better sound until almost nothing is left of the orginal. Much of this variance in attitude comes from the way these cartridges are set up – in the right environment, they shine but on the end of the wrong arm, they’re definitely disadvantaged.

The 103 at the end of the 12-inch Artemis Labs Schröder TA-1L ebony tonearm in this system is as stock as the day it left the Denon factory, and with an asking price of under $500, it seems well out of place in a system of this magnitude. It’s been set up very well indeed, which allows it to perform at its best.

I’ve heard a number of different stereo systems at Jason Parmenter’s place, and they’ve all been a pleasure to listen to. So it should come as no surprise that he hasn’t lumbered this killer analogue front end with a clanger of a cartridge (he could of course put just about any high-end cartridge he likes on there) – the 103-based deck sounds superb, even in direct comparison to over thirty thousand dollars of world class EMMLabs SACD player.

In fact, given a choice between the EMMLabs player and the Garrard deck as is, I’d take the turntable. Not because it sounds better than the digital source (it certainly doesn’t sound any worse, just different), nor because it’s a Garrard 401, but rather because this is as charismatic a turntable set- up as I’ve ever seen. It also makes the music flow in a remarkably non-hi-fi manner – the old listening to music, not sound cliché makes perfect sense here. I wouldn’t feel sonically shortchanged over the EMMLabs for a second, even with that 103 doing its thing instead of the expected Koetsu.

Spinning a brand new 180-gram copy of Mobile Fidelity’s reissue of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan (fresh out of the sleeve) was a revelation – the dynamics of the system were totally unaffected by the choice of cartridge, the imaging was still quite wonderful, the noise floor seemed as low, if not lower than that of the vastly capable SACD player, while hiss, pops and other vinyl artifacts were notably absent, to the extent that you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re hearing a warm digital source.

Sure, a noise-free performance is to be expected to a degree on pristine vinyl but the other records we played on the day, some of which were quite dusty, showed that the 103’s reputation for suppressing pops and crackles is richly deserved.

No one would expect the humble 103 to drag detail from the grooves like a megabuck modern MC cartridge, or to have effortless treble purity and extension, but listening to the performance on offer here makes me wonder how much more do we really need to enjoy music?

How much more would I be willing to spend? Would I complain if I were forced to have the 103 and only the 103 on this deck? (The answers are “very little” and “hell no”).

Isn’t the ability to make the playback of recorded music so much fun worth more than ticking all the audiophile boxes? Of course it is – the entirety of the performance has to be more important than the individual sonic components, which is where the 103’s giant killer status comes in. I’m not for a second stating that this combination is the be all and end all of vinyl playback. That would just be silly. Any number of more expensive cartridges will beat it in one, most or all areas, but the balanced nature of the presentation and its lack of glaring weak spots along with the killer bang for bucks really do explain why this old thing is still being sold. This sterling showing also goes a long way to clarify why the 103 and 103R are such popular platforms for modification.

Serious amps for a sub $500 cartridge

Some may say that a $10 second-hand DJ cartridge would still sound good on this type of deck (and system). I reckon they’d be bonkers. If anything will expose the weaknesses of a cartridge, this system will. The fact that we were basically spellbound by the Dylan album tells you all you need to know about the DL-103’s inherent ability. It also tells you that sometimes, upside down makes a hell of a lot of sense. I’ll be heading back to Muriwai Beach soon to hear Jason’s Tannoy Canterbury SE speakers – I hope that slab-sided old 103 is still in place…


  1. Hi Ash
    Thank you for the very positive feedback on my Garrard 401 & OMA slate plinth matched with the Artemis Labs Schröder TA-1L ebony tonearm and Denon 103 cartridge.

    This is a wonderful combination & musical synergy of selected components that works very well together.
    I will add the AirTight PC-3 cartridge down the track as a comparison but for now I am very happy relaxing with the music playing through the trusty Denon 103.

    Ash I look forward to catching up with you again soon.
    Cheers Jason.

  2. Cool write up Ash. I used to be a believer in spending the lions share on the front end. Now I tend to lean toward a well thought out front end that will leave decent money left over for amps and speakers. As you’ve witnessed, a quality yet humble cartridge can sound pretty darn good if things downstream let it present it’s wares unhindered.

  3. I am a firm believer in synergy. This is different to balance and as Jason has demonstrated its not about cost, its about how things sound when put together.

  4. Speakers to fit the room, then amp to drive the speakers, then sources. I am with Jason on the Preamp though, it is the heart of any good system. You can do nasty damage to a signal in the preamp, or nurture it!

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