It started last summer. I had the good fortune to spend some time with the Manley Labs Stingray iTube integrated amplifier. It sounded completely different from my more expensive reference setup- and I enjoyed every moment that I listened to it. There really is something special about the Stingray, with its Russian EL84M tubes, proprietary transformers and capacitors. The Stingray is a wonderful thing. When the Stingray was returned, I lost some of the magic. Then a few months later, a pair of small boxes showed up from Chino, California. EveAnna Manley had sent a pair of Mahi amplifiers for me to try in my system along with my Juicy Music Peach preamplifier. The long and short of the Mahis -- I have had some pretty heavy-duty expenses lately, but if I can figure out a way for them to stay without resorting to "Mastering the Possibilities" they are staying. One night I decided to listen to some vinyl. It didn't sound right. I checked all of the possible arm adjustments. Everything checked out fine. I pondered the situation for a while and came to a conclusion: my musical priorities are changing.
Another thing that crossed my mind is that while many audiophiles are riding the "more detail" train, they are losing sight of the music. Don't get me wrong- I want to hear everything I can in a recording, but not at the expense of the music itself. I tried changing the driver tube in my Bella Extreme phono stage, from a new production Mullard 12AX7 to a NOS pre war Yugoslavian Ei that I had lying around. It was an improvement, but still not to my liking.
Then I thought about my cartridge. I have used a Dynavector cartridge of some sort for the last ten years or so- the latest being a DV-20XL with a ruby cantilever and line contact stylus rebuilt by Soundsmith. I could not see any other reason for my dissatisfaction. I thought of all the usual suspects for a replacement but the model that came to mind above all others was the Denon DL-103. The Denon has been in continuous production since 1962. My reasoning was that with such a long production run there has to be something there. The fact the DL-110 is my budget high output MC of choice helped sway me towards the DL-103. The price of the DL-103 made for a low financial risk as well. That's when Scott Faller reminded me of the Zu version of the DL-103, and cautioned that the DL-103 (in general regardless of whether it was the stock or one of Zu's supercharged models) probably would not float my boat.
I checked out the Zu Audio web site. Yes, this is the same Utah based Zu Audio that manufactures some highly regarded speakers and cables. I then called Sean Casey at Zu Audio. Our conversation was quite brief, but I was instantly comfortable with the first question he asked me: "Are you a tone guy?" Why yes. Yes I am. Sean basically told me (my words, not his) that if I wanted the detail goblins chasing me around the room with a hatchet, this wasn't the cartridge for me but that if it was tone I craved, it may serve me well. Then he asked about my arm, and was pleased to hear it was Rega based (I hesitate to call the Audiomods RB-250 a Rega, as the differences between the Audiomods and a stock RB-250 are that great.) He did caution that a Zu DL-103 with its 14.5 gram weight cannot be balanced in a stock RB-250 or 300. Some type of aftermarket counterweight of at least 140 grams must be used with the Zu DL-103. I had that covered. When he told me that he offers customers a 60 day money back guarantee (as long as the cantilever is not damaged) I coughed up the cash. The cartridge arrived by week's end.
Once testing is complete, the cartridges are sorted by channel separation. Four graduations are available- 2% ($399) 1% ($499) 0.5% ($599) and 0.1% – which must be a rare bird indeed ($699). Then the remanufacturing begins. First thing to go is Denon's plastic body, which is replaced by a chunky body made of thick aluminum alloy, which is left open at the bottom. The guts of the cartridge, along with the inside of the new cartridge body are treated with a dual compound epoxy. The idea here is to isolate the cartridge motor from any type of sympathetic vibration between the cartridge motor and the case and isolating the cartridge motor from any type of unwanted external vibration.
For those who already own a DL-103, Zu will perform the modification for $200.
My favorite thing about setting up the Zu DL-103 is that the mounting holes in the Zu's alloy are threaded- no fiddly nuts are used to mount the cartridge. Yippee!!! Not only does this make mounting the cartridge a snap, it also makes it far easier to tightly mount the cartridge to the arm. Why don't all cartridge manufacturers do this?
Using the Hi-Fi News and Record Review Test LP [HFN 001], both horizontal and vertical compliance came in at the low side of the acceptable range. I ran the tracking tests, and honestly did not expect much- after all everyone "knows" that conical styli are the bottom feeders of the analog food chain, and that elliptical and line contact styli track far better. Imagine my shock and dismay as the Zu DL-103 sailed through all of the tracks, showing only the very slightest bit of distress on the +18 dB track. This cartridge tracks far better than the Dynavector, which has the more advanced stylus cut. I can hear it now- "Dude, you are tracking at 2 ½ grams! Good God man, anything should be able to track at that weight! Think of what you are doing to your LPs!" I can see the argument, and I will answer back with something to ponder: which does more damage: tracking at a higher tracking force without mistracking, or at lower tracking force with some mistracking? I'll have my music served up without a side order of mistracking any day.
Because the Denon DL-103 is a low output (.3mV) unit, some type of MC step up arrangement must be used, whether it be the MC inputs on an active phono stage or step up transformers connected to a MM phono stage. I have come to value step up transformers for their quietness, and that is how the Zu DL103 was auditioned for the vast majority of the review. While my opinion of the Zu did not change with an active MC step up, I felt that maximum performance was achieved with the step up transformers.
So what's it sound like? The original DL-103 is a classic, easy to set up and it really soaks the music from that stereo groove. It's easy on the ears, has "super cart" status in the meat of the music range, with real stereophonic magicness. While the original has life, compared to modern pickups it ain't all that resolving in the bass; lacks detail as a whole, and is loosy-goosy particularly in shimmer and treble tone, has this hazy-lazy pot-puffin' thing going on (which isn't necessarily a bad thing for the popular hi-fi sound with source gear and speakers trying to rip your head off with high frequency distortion).
The Zu DL-103 cleans it all up, expanding all the good traits, adds incisiveness and full bandwidth dynamic slam and delicacy – all without making it sound like a soulless modern cartridge.
Did they succeed? Yes. While expecting a rather "vintage" sound considering the origin of the Zu DL-103, there is nothing "vintage" sounding about this cartridge. On the other hand, it sounds completely different from the Dynavector, as well as all of the other cartridges I can recall. It is big and bold and yet laid back and mellow all at the same time- it really is recording dependent. While it is different, in this case different is good.
I work in a very high stress industry, and combine that with a long commute, and at times I come home in a bad mood. If I have had an especially bad day I may come home and have a Rum and Coke while I relax. The Zu DL-103 does the same thing-without the Rum and Coke -- it dials up the musical enjoyment, way up – and dials down the hi-fi artifacts. To put it another way- have you ever heard music in your car, or maybe at a friend's house and really gotten off on it? You didn't care about how the music was reproduced, because it was the music that moved you, not the system. The Zu does that. It gets out of the way of the music. Isn't that the whole point of why we enjoy this hobby?
Let's start out with an album that is easily found and has great musical variety: Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. [Epic PE34116] From the opening note on Side 1, you know this is well recorded, and when the organ blasts come in, one realizes this cartridge is dynamic, and that it handles the underlying musical theme while giving equal attention to the overriding instruments as they are introduced. This album shows that the Zu DL-103 can easily cope with complex musical passages. By the time the power chords come in you realize that the Zu DL-10 is the musical "jack of all trades"- and master of all. It handles delicate musical passages with care, but can also rock out when called to do so.
The Zu should be at or near the top of any classical music lover's short list. One of my favorite classical albums in my collection is a two disc set of Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performing Vivaldi's Four Seasons, J.S. Bach's Concerto for 2 Violins in D Minor, and Mozart's Symphony for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra in E Flat Major. [Deutsche Grammophon LP 2741 026] Recorded digitally in 1982 at the Huberman Festival, the Zu sounds amazing, smooth and open. The violins in particular sound like they do live, and the Zu gives an excellent sense of space. Close your eyes, and you are nearly at the venue.
The Zu DL-103 is detailed without being analytical- a tough tightrope to walk. Listenig to "Mamunia" the opening track on side 2 of Paul McCartney and Wings' Band on the Run [EMI LP 7243 4 99176 1 3] the Dynavector tended to accent McCartney's electric bass, while the Zu shifts the focus to the acoustic guitar and glorious harmonies. The Zu seems to be gender neutral: both male and female vocals are reproduced extremely well. McCartney's bass is still prominent- do not read this that the Zu is bass shy, because it is not. Liken it to going to the Optometrist, when the doctor rotates the different bits of glass in front of your eyes and says " Which one is better- this one... or this one?" The differences are more pronounced between the cartridges that the prescriptions, which in my experience has always been minor. I any event, no one knows what is "correct." I wasn't present when the album was recorded or mixed, and even if I were, everything would change when I played the recording on a different system later anyway. At the end of the day, I have to ask myself if a component sounds musical, and if I enjoyed it. In regards to the Zu, the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. Will it trip your trigger? I don't know, but Zu's 60 day money back guarantee removes the risk to find out.
While the Zu DL-103 slightly accents the midrange (and a damn glorious midrange it is) I feel it is the lack of the "detail goblins" that make the Zu forgiving in nature. The highs are present and accounted for-they are just not piercing. From the midrange up, the Zu DL-103 is as smooth as softened butter, easy to listen to for long periods of time without fatigue. In short, it is just a whole lot of fun.
One more thing I need to mention, the Zu DL-103 is by far the absolute best cartridge that I have used as far as rejecting surface noise. Even LPs that sounded worn with other cartridges sounded nearly new with the Zu. My guess is that the conical stylus is not running at the bottom of the groove where all of the other cartridges (and their exotic styli profiles) were, instead riding the sides of the groove walls above the record wear.
Both Bad And Good