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The second obvious choice for DL103 upgraders would be one of the many modified DL103s starting with the highly regarded but not often available Zu. Their modification primarily addresses vibration control. The flimsy construction of the original certainly makes for a large improvement of Zu's far beefier metal casing whilst retaining all the outgoing character. Treble and bass make a significant jump up in quality as does depth of stage. Even the upper midrange seems to lose some of the edge and hardness that ca be heard at times. Unfortunately the Zu-modified cartridge did not take to my Ortofon arm and head shell too well. I struggled to get proper alignment on my table and never managed to extract the performance heard elsewhere from this cartridge to remind me just how specific the association of arm and cartridge can be. I was truly hoping the Zu was going to be it but no matter the time spent on my setup, I never completely eradicated the end-of-groove distortion I was getting. There’s nothing wrong with the cartridge itself but its geometry did not suit my setup (and the stock Denon DL103 is borderline in that respect as well by requiring very fine adjustments to sound just right).

Moving on I listened to and quickly discarded the highly praised $1.095 Shelter 501 II. Its tonal qualities are indeed superb but I can't see anybody currently enjoying the DL103 who’d find the dynamic capabilities of the Shelter—or lack thereof—very satisfying. Only in that regard did the Shelter sound very much like my Grado Sonata - flatlined.

Same story with similar punishment came by way of Ortofon’s $1.540 Cadenza Blue. For me it proved too warm, soft and gentle. I could have lived with the Cadenza Black but at $2.380 it was way out of my league. Also for that kind of money I’d prefer one of the better Dynavectors. I could not test either Ortofon at home so results may have been different but I doubted the Blue would suddenly transform into an expressivity champ.

Both the $1.000 Benz Glider SL and $1.500 Wood SL performed very well just on the warm side of neutral and with perhaps a little less treble energy than I was looking for. Even so, if these were any indication of what the top-line LP-S sounds like I can easily understand why our own Steve Marsh fell for it. Both cartridges were excellent trackers and very detailed, with just the touch of warmth that makes those old Deutsche Grammophon records listenable. Had not the Dynavector offered even more dynamics than the Glider and done so for less money (albeit with a hint less resolution) I would have picked the Benz and been very happy.

Which leaves us with the Dynavector 20X-2, surprisingly one of the cheapest cartridges I auditioned over the past six months yet the one I selected in the end. Be aware that the 20X-2 exists in high (2.8mV) and low (0.3mV) output versions. The low output is the one I acquired and favored for its reportedly lower noise (I did not compared the two so this is only word of mouth). Although the Denon DL103 and Dynavector 20X-2 are both reported to output 0.3mV the Denon sounded consistently louder. For the 20X-2 I would recommend a phono preamplifier with a minimal 60dB of gain to not run out of steam. 

The internal impedance of the 20X-2 L is a lowish 5Ω and Dynavector recommends loading it at 30Ω. None of my phono preamplifiers provide for this exactly but on the Esoteric E03 the 50Ω setting worked beautifully while 10Ω was clearly too low. This load mismatch resulting in bloated bass as the main symptom. The high version is designed for MM phono stages and has an internal impedance of 150Ω to be more compatible with the typical 47.000Ω loading of most MM phono preamplifiers.