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Slumming With a Denon DL 103R

Galibier Design - Denon DL 103R and Jelco
click to enlarge

After setting up an Ikeda arm and cartridge last week (link to that post is here), I took to rearranging my stable of cartridges which are mounted to removable, Jelco headshells.  One of them is a Denon DL 103R.

It occurred to me that it’s been years since I’ve run that cartridge, and more importantly, that it never had the benefit of my current tool set – including the Feickert software and a USB microscope.   What would a setup with modern tools yield?

Confirmation Bias

We all run the risk of falling into perceptual traps, and confirmation bias is certainly one of them.

A corollary of this is that we tend to treat equipment based on its price point.  The exercise of returning to this cartridge after years of it having gathered dust served to drive this point home.  The takeaway (big surprise, eh?) is that all cartridges deserve to be treated with the attention you’d pay to a Lyra Etna (for example).

You wouldn’t neglect the wheel alignment on a budget car, would you?

The Exercise

So, we followed our standard methodology, while applying our current tool set.  The good news with removable headshells like those on the Ikeda and Jelco is that they have adjustable azimuth.  The bad news is that it’s very coarse so your adjustments are hit or miss.  There’s no easy way of establishing precise, repeatable azimuth settings.

The Trap

Galibier Design - Feickert Azimuth Screen Capture
click to enlarge

I write about “false nulls” in the setup reports I provide my customers.  If you’d like a copy of a recent report (there are lots of good tips in the “general principles” section), subscribe to our mailing list (click this link), and then contact us to receive a copy in your inbox.

With a hit or miss approach to azimuth (listening by ear), you run the risk of hitting one of these false nulls – a sweet spot within an out of range area.  The key benefit of the Feickert software is that it positions you very closely to your final setting (depending on the precision of your tonearm adjustment design), so the sweet spot you find (by critical listening) will be the true sweet spot and not a false null.

The Challenge

The challenge with these headshells is establishing a means of rotating the headshell in repeatable increments.  The Feickert software requires that you take multiple readings across a range of headhell rotations in fixed (degree) increments.

The Workaround

Galibier Design - Azimuth Chart
click to enlarge

Using a precision bubble level on the headshell provides a semblance of repeatability.  You’ll note that in the attached graph, the sweet spot is with the headshell rotated slightly counterclockwise when viewed from the front (approximately .8 degrees from horizontal).

Those of you with keen eyes and experience with the Feickert software may notice that the plus and minus directions are reversed in the chart.  This is intentional.  I view clockwise movement as movement in a positive direction, so I recorded the numbers in “reverse” to achieve this.

Of course, headshells like the Jelco and Ikeda don’t approach the precision of the azimuth adjustment on the Kuzma 4Point series or the Tri-Planar (for example), but using the bubble level allows you (in conjunction with establishing a good starting point with the Feckert software) to approximate this setting after running through the range of readings.

Notice that I said “approximate”.  The combination of the bubble level and the collet arrangement is so finicky, that you’re unlikely to dial it in perfectly without the benefit of a system like that found in the Kuzma or the Tri-Planar.

Stay tuned, however … we’re working on a measuring tool to facilitate working at a much higher precision level with these “coarse adjusting” architectures.

Conclusion

Reflecting on my past experiences of this cartridge, I always considered it to be well-balanced from top to bottom, but perhaps a bit noisy in the groove while lacking in upper octave detail, when compared with sophisticated stylus profiles like those found on Lyras and Van den Huls.  While this groove noise is still apparent, it’s much reduced, having benefited from modern setup tools.

This exercise reinforced my confidence in the setup hierarchy once espoused by a certain Scottish turntable manufacturer (whose name shall remain unspoken) – that the turntable should be optimized first, followed by the tonearm, and lastly, the cartridge.

While I’ve always held the DL103 and 103R cartridges in high regard (especially as a bang for the buck cartridge), my respect for them has moved up a couple of notches.