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June 2010
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
The Soundsmith System
Denon DL-103 and DL-103 Gold Cartridge
Plus The MCP- 2 Moving Coil Phono Preamplifier
Setting a new benchmark for value.
Review By Ron Nagle

Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Soundsmith DL-103 Cartridge  If we go back maybe six or eight years I can recall the very first time I met the President and Chief Engineer of Soundsmith, Peter Ledermann. He was the guest of honor at a meeting of the Audiophile Society held at City Island in New York. He was there to present his innovative strain gauge phono preamplifier and his strain gauge cartridge. Can you tell me, dear reader, how many businesses in this U.S. of A. import, modify, re-tip, research design and build new cartridges and amplifiers? Additionally Soundsmith not only designs and builds power amplifiers, phono amplifiers, speakers, and equipment racks they will even repair your vintage audio components. This is a company that bench trains and teaches the skills their employees will need to do this very specialized work.

To me this conceptually takes us back to the beginnings of high quality audio. In years past, a few talented hobbyists' started small cottage companies working from their homes. There was an enthusiasm generated by these people who loved music and who believed they had a better idea. Soundsmith is a different kind of company one that should be a role model. If all audio companies were founded with an understanding of true audiophile interests, we would get along very nicely without the bean counters.

The flow of time has carried me well beyond that Soundsmith Audiophile Society meeting, but I have not completely lost contact. Every now and then at audio shows I stop and chat with Peter Ledermann. The innovations he developed and applied to his Strain Gauge cartridge system makes you wonder why no one thought of these things before? If you are one of those who know why people still play vinyl recordings then go on line and take a look at this company, you will find a kindred spirit. As it happens, I can still find good vinyl recordings for about a dollar and so the time is right for an analogue upgrade.

 

A Wish Is A Dream Your Heart Makes
I would have dearly loved to get my hands on that Strain Gauge cartridge system. However, it has been written about and documented in many audio publications before now. Also, price wise, that system is way over my wallet. One of, nay the best bang for the buck moving coil cartridge is the classic Denon DL-103. Soundsmith price for the basic stock DL-103 cartridge is $229 U.S.A. bucks. This is something yours truly can afford. Not so incidentally, the Soundsmith people do carry the whole line of Denon moving coil cartridges starting with the high output DL-110 which sells for $139.

By now, nearly all of the other really pricey Sound smith stuff has been covered in the audio press. There is little left for me to write about, however I think I have a great idea. What if we compare a stock DL-103 to one of Peters all out modified DL-103 Gold cartridges? The asking price for the wholly hand modified Gold is $1500. And so some days later in a phone conversation with Peter he agrees my idea might be a good way to demonstrate his rebuilding concept. We can make the auditioning process even more comprehensive if we do the comparisons with the Soundsmith Firefly MCP-2 Moving Coil Phono cartridge amplifier. There are three dedicated phono amplifiers offered by the Soundsmith Company. The MCP-2 Firefly at $700 is the top of the line. When you consider that, the MCP-2 incorporates moving coil step up transformers the price seems more than reasonable. Furthermore, it is the only one Soundsmith sells with continuously variable resistive loading. The load settings range from 10 Ohms up to 5 kOhms and that is with 63dB of amplification, the output impedance is 600 Ohms. The MCP-2 in combination with the upgraded DL103 Gold is $2200. The MCP-2 with the stock DL103 is $930.

 

Denon Details
To me the most remarkable fact is that the Denon DL-103 has been in continuous production in Japan for the last 48 years, they must be doing something right. Before modifying any DL-103 Peter Ledermann, hand selects cartridges with the tightest tolerances. My sample Denon Gold number 4372 came with these test sheet specifications. The left channel output measured 0.40mV, and the right channel output is 0.39mV all measurements were taken at 1 kHz. The accompanying frequency response graph is remarkable showing a max deviation of + 0.5dB at 15 kHz. Peter produces many modifications of the DL-103 and the DL103R. The Silver and the Gold are the most extensive modifications. The Gold revision is his most advanced DL-103 upgrade. The stylus is replaced with a selected optimized Nude Contact Line Profile diamond mounted on a single crystal Ruby Cantilever. In addition, the suspension and damping compliance are modified. The cartridge body is replaced with a handmade wooden body with a brass top plate; the damped cartridge is now heavier at 14.4 grams. The output voltage remains unchanged at a nominal 0.3mV. As an option, you can have any DL-103 or DL-103R body replaced with the wood body. The available modifications and the extent of the rebuild options and prices are detailed on line at the Soundsmith site. Click on the Denon cartridge section.

 

Verity
If anyone were to listen to and then evaluate any cartridge, it seems to me that it should be done by comparing it (in theory) to some immutable standard. If not, I contend that personal preferences become far too much of a distraction. Consider that two people with matched cartridges could get very different results after they install and adjust them. Carrying this to the extreme, would you compare the sound of a $229 Dollar DL-103 or the DL-103 Gold to a far more expensive $8000 Koetsu Onyx Platinum cartridge? That would be invalid and arbitrary simply because you will most likely be listening to your prejudices. Even a comparison with another $1500 cartridge like the Grado Reference 1 comes down to choosing your favorite shade of gray. So what is least arbitrary? Simple if one closely matches a pair of the same cartridges (like Peter has done) then modify one of them. That is indeed a valid comparison. You could also employ one other meaningful test method. Take the two cartridges home and listen to them in the same reference system. I intend to do both of these things.

 

Setup... Or Upset
Mumbling under my breath... careful, take your time don't slip up after all you don't own these things. It has been awhile since I practiced the ancient art of analogue alignment using my Cart-align Research Mirror Protractor. The Stock Denon and the Gold cartridges were placed in two identical Grado headshells. The specific settings for tracking force and (stylus tracking angle) cantilever rake angle more commonly called Vertical Tracking Angle are slightly different for each cartridge. This is due mainly to the more critical stylus profile of the gold and the increased weight of the gold cartridge. The brass top plate adds mass to the Gold cartridge and requires a tone arm capable of counterbalancing its 14.4 grams. By comparison, the Stock DL-103 weights just 8.5 grams. Fortunately, my not typical Grado Signature tone arm has three separate counter weights in three different sizes. There is an added spring force adjustment that allows tracking force to be set within tenths of a gram.

You should understand at this juncture that two of the settings, cartridge tracking weight and VTA can best be determined by listening. This statement is true for both cartridges but especially true for the more critical nude line contact stylus of the Denon Gold. Test measurements that were supplied for the Gold and the Stock Denon were both taken at a tracking weight of 2.5 grams. However, there is a minimum and a maximum tracking weight range listed. It is 1.7 to 2.5 grams for the Gold and 2.3 up to 2.7 grams for the stock DL-103. I set both cartridges initially at 2.4 grams using my Roksan Digital Electronic Stylus Balance. Additionally turntable speed was set precisely at 33.3 rpm for each cartridge while playing a recording with a Digital Stroboscopic Laser Tachometer Model DT2234A.

Let us start ear tuning with the initial set up adjustments finalized and the top of the cartridge parallel to the record surface. The last adjustment is to lock in the (vertical) alignment of the stylus angle or VTA by adjusting the height of the arm pillar (lateral pivot). The stylus is roughly diamond shaped the pointed sides/shoulders of the stylus must be vertically aligned with the left and right surfaces of the record grooves. Using a familiar recording and then raising and lowering the lateral pivot point of the arm audibly alters the frequency balance. As you drop the arm pillar lower there is usually a decrease of treble information and more bass content. Conversely raising the arm usually has the opposite effect. Understand the range of adjustment is very small; a change in the stylus tracking angle or VTA in the record groove by a few thousands of an inch either way is audible. Ideally as you change the arm pivot height, you should try to equalize the amount of bass and treble that is present. And finally turn your attention to small details in the midrange, when you find that critical midrange setting it will open up a window on the performance.

 

Listening
First spun up on my SOTA Sapphire turntable is the stock DL-103 numbered 4379. Measured at 1 kHz, the left channel is 0.40mV right channel 0.39mV. Not only was this cartridge selected for near identical channel balance but it was closely matched to the Gold test sample. Let's start with a listen to Aja by Steely Dan [ABC Records-1006]. It is while listening to the title track, Aja that I lock in the stylus vertical tracking angle. The first few notes of this recording reminds me of the reasons why vinyl will not go away. Incidentally, I have this same album on a CD. Of course, the CD sounds just fine, that is until you find out by comparison that some elements of the recording just aren't there. Listening to the black disk there is no least significant bit dropped or sample rate cut off.

In a comparison to the CD the stock Denon cartridge opens up the whole performance space, especially the depth dimension. A little slower to key in on it but now I also can get a better sense of sound stage height. The first word that pops into my mind is AIR! So now I am within the center of a distant, darker background with small details that can be heard to start and slowly decay in a more natural way. This natural reverberation better separates everything, the size and positions of individual instruments embedded in the recording. Additionally there are subtle differences of intonation and pitch that can better define and separate vocal tracks.

My bottom line conclusion is that the DL-103 is lucid in the sense that it dramatically opens up the soundstage to reveal many small details, it this is that makes a recording come to life. Now I understand why the DL103 has endured for so many years. You might have to listen to a far more expensive cartridge to detect any relative short comings. Moreover, just as the graph predicted the overall frequency response sounds almost ruler flat.

 

The Firefly
Soundsmith Firefly MCP-2 Moving Coil Transformer PreamplifierAfter this first listen, I switched cables from my ARC SP9 MK3 preamplifier over to the Soundsmith Firefly MCP-2 Moving Coil Transformer Preamplifier. The output from that amplifier was now plugged into the SP9 line inputs. The sound of that same Aja album heard through the MCP-2 is very different. My first impression was that everything seemed brighter. My ARC SP 9 hybrid MOSFET and tube preamplifier by comparison sounds very much warmer and slower. It is important to know that only by comparison with the MCP-2 does the Phono amplifier difference becomes so very noticeable.

What you hear is the increased speed and transient response of the MCP-2. It is this which immediately grabs your attention. Very unexpected was the fact that over a span of months the sound of the moving coil amplifier improved. It is a gradual and subtle change, one that imbues the music with a greater sense of, BODY. It is a very difficult quality to describe my sense is that seems to slightly warm transients. It seems a bit more noticeable as you increase the resistive load. The MCP-2 can and does seem to extract more midrange and treble details from a vinyl recording than my ARC SP9. In combination with the DL-103, the Soundsmith Moving Coil Preamplifier does extract more instrumental pitch information from the very same performance. The other side of the coin is some of the natural body (for lack of a better phrase) and more organic warmth that is a hallmark of some close mic'ed acoustic vinyl is not as apparent with the MCP-2. Nothing is actually wrong with either phono preamplifier it all comes down to a matter of taste. What you hear from the MCP-2 is a modern high quality solid-state musical presentation. Ultimately it will come down to those audiophiles who like solid state sound versus the tube loving contingent. When I consider that the tube contingent has an even more specialized faction, the low power SET people, then I don't think this will be their cup of tea. Personally, I would like to combine the best attributes of both phono preamplifiers into one device. Finally, I had fun experimenting with the continuously variable load resistance that let me fine tune the tunes, very nice feature.

 

The Piece de Resistance
Speaking of resistance, all critical listening was done at the test cartridge load of 1 kOhms for both cartridges. This was done to standardize the testing procedure. The focus of this epic has to be the sound of the DL-103 Gold and the transformation Peter has performed. To launch this listening phase I peeled open a sealed DCC Limited Edition 180 gram version of Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark [Asylum LP1-20440]. I used the album track "Help Me" to set the VTA. I had to raise the arm pillar higher and higher almost to it's limit. At this extreme elevation the cartridge body is slightly elevated at the back where the wires are. It is at this point that the critical stylus profile finally locks into the record groove. This recording provides an excellent example of how to find the G-spot, (G stands for groove). In the background of this track, there is the prominent repetitive sound of a high hat cymbal. At exactly the optimal VTA setting the annoying tizzy splashy sound of that cymbal turns into a pleasant musical punctuation.

In direct comparisons with the stock DL-103, the Gold has far better detail retrieval in every way. Another way to say this is that it has greater power to involve you in the performance. The heart of this recording is of course the sound of Joni Mitchells voice. The Gold revision depicts Ms. Mitchell's voice so that it becomes warmer sounding and far more intimate. Now you can far better relate to her as a human presence seemingly standing in front of you just out of arms reach. (No, I will not use that worn out phrase "Palpable Presence")

 

Conclusions
I might say that the Denon Gold was better than any two thousand Dollar or three thousand dollar cartridge. But there are so many to choose from, which one would you have me compare it to? The sonic transformation of a very good low cost cartridge into one that is comparable to cartridges costing many times more is a story worth telling. The Denon gold shares some attributes of the stock DL103 but adds many layers of articulation and transparency, midrange detail and bass resolution. I can still detect an overall similarity in the sound of these two cartridge siblings. The quality of the frequency response of this pair is still just as it was, essentially flat. If you are not already into vinyl, I recommend that you start your analogue system with the stock Denon DL103 or DL103R and eventually send it to Soundsmith to be upgraded. That would be a very smart move.

The bottom line is the performance and cost of the Denon DL-103 Gold should set a new benchmark for value. This cartridge extracts so much of the music's natural body and air and I could just sit and listen and forget it was there.

As always, Semper Hi-Fi

 

Reference System Used 
SOTA Sapphire turntable with the Electronic Flywheel, 
Grado Signature tone arm
Stylast, Discwasher Zerostat Gun
Audio research SP9 MK3 Preamplifier
Sanders ESL Power Amplifier
Von Schweikert UniField 2 speakers
Aurum Cantus 2 SE speakers
Wiring: DH Labs Reference 1, AudioQuest 12TC and Esoteric Ultrapath speaker cables.
Interconnects: DH Labs Silver Revelation and Wire World Eclipse- 2
Line Conditioners: Richard Gray RGPC Sub Station, Alpha Core balanced isolation transformer, Audio Power, Enhancer 1. 
Tweaks: Michael Green Room Tunes, Argent Acoustic Lenses and homemade sound absorbent Panels.

 

  DL-103 DL-103
Gold
MCP-2
Flirefly

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
See review above and Soundsmith website.

 

Company Information
Soundsmith
8 John Walsh Boulevard
Suite 417
Peekskill, New York 10566

Voice: (914) 739-2885
Fax: (914) 739-5204
Website: www.sound-smith.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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