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Playing LPs with a 44-year-old needle

Denon USA begins importing classic DL-103 phono cartridge again.
The Denon DL-103 isn't flashy looking, but there's a reason this classic phono cartridge has been around since 1962.
The Denon DL-103 isn't flashy looking, but there's a reason this classic phono cartridge has been around since 1962.Denon U.S.A.

Aside from some friends of mine, there aren’t many items that have survived intact from the early 1960s. Especially when it comes to anything mechanical or electronic.

Yes, you’ll find the odd automobile, typewriter or radio that has been lovingly cared for and restored. For the most part, however, “high-tech” items designed while John F. Kennedy was president have long been retired from active duty.

That’s why the Denon DL-103 is so amazing. This phono cartridge/needle is made to play vinyl records. It has been in production since its introduction in 1962. And the good news is you can once again buy one in the United States.

Japan's Denon has been making the DL-103, without interruption, for the past 44 years. That has to be a record. I can’t think of many other items of any kind (especially in the electronic/hi-fi marketplace) that are still around, unchanged, nearly half a century later.

The DL-103 is a low-output (0.3mV) moving coil cartridge. That means it needs some sort of step-up device to boost its output. That output then needs to be plugged into a phono preamp, like the terrific Bellari VP129, before it can be used by your amplifier/receiver. 

Denon’s classic phono cartridge is not flashy looking. It’s a downright plain-looking black plastic slab with a little round diamond stylus at the tip. The cartridge weighs 8.5 grams (about average) and is made to track at 2.3-2.7 grams.

There are two reasons the cartridge has survived — the sound and the price. As for the sound quality, it’s terrific. Even though, over its four decade lifespan, Denon has tried different ways to upgrade the tiny, little components inside, it’s the original version which is still being made because it’s still in great demand.  

Because of high manufacturing standards and its neutral reproduction of music, from the deepest bass notes to the highest cymbals and high frequency sounds, the DL-103 has been and continues to be a de facto standard in the broadcast industry.

Odds are you’ve listened to LPs played on a 103 when played by your local radio station.  And before you argue that everything now is broadcast from tape and CDs, many songs that have never been re-released on CD are still broadcast from vinyl on turntables using a Denon 103.

The other big selling feature is its price. Denon’s classic phono cartridge carries a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $229. When you calculate how prices have changed over the years, this device probably costs less in modern-day dollars than it did in 1962 currency.

And if you compare it to modern-day phono cartridges the 103 is a huge bargain. There aren’t many cartridges available today that sell for less. There are plenty which sell for more. Some a whole lot more.

You’re on your own when it comes to choosing a moving coil step-up device. Denon makes two transformers: an inexpensive one (about $100) and a very expensive one (about $600) but neither is available in the U.S. Hopefully, they’ll change their corporate mind and bring them into the country.

One company, Jensen, manufacturer of some of the best moving-coil step-up transformers, is rumored to be working on a no-holds-barred device. I’ve been promised one to audition if and when they come to market. I’ll let you know if it’s a symbiotic match.

Congratulations to Denon for bringing the DL-103 back into the United States. It is, and has been, one of the best sounding phono cartridges of all time. Highly recommended.