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This review first appeared in the April 2008 issue of and can be read in its original German version here. It is herewith translated and presented to an English-only audience through a mutual syndication arrangement with As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end has a link below it to his e-mail should you have questions or feedback you wish to send. All images contained in this review are the property of or Zu - Ed.

Reviewer: Ralph Werner
Sources: analog - Acoustic Solid MPX, Phonotools Vivid-Two, Denon DL-103, Ortofon MC Rondo Bronce, Shelter 501 MKII [on review]; digital - audiolab 8000CD
Amplification: integrated - Lua 4040C, Magnat RV 1, Myryad MXI 2080; preamplifier - bel canto PRe 3, Funk LAP-2; power amplifier - bel canto M300s, SAC il piccolo [on review]
Loudspeaker: Volent Paragon VL-2, Zu Audio Druid mk4, Expolinear T-220 L Series 2 [on review]
Cabling: low-level - Ecosse Baton + Symphony, Funk BS-2, HMS Sestetto MK III, van den Hul Integration Hybrid, Zaolla Reinsilber NF; high-level - Ecosse SMS2.3, HMS Fortissimo, Ixos 6006 Gamma, Zu Audio Libtec
Power distribution: fis Audio Livetime
Rack: Creactiv & Taoc AS-3
Review component retail: $399 + shipping

Nekkid. That's heavy, man.
Denon's DL-103 is probably the most sold MC cartridge ever - and unabashedly a classic of hifi history. Developed in the 60s for studio and broadcast use, the device quickly invaded audiophile consciousness and nowadays is a standard sighting in analogue households. Why this unbroken popularity is obvious: the cart is robust, bloody affordable and sounds good. It's one of those products where I wonder how much more one should really want. Kinda. Compared to more modern and expensive carts, you will notice more possibilities. Regardless, the Denon gets far more right than not and has its heart in the proper place. It's too dynamic to be boring, not resolved enough to go on your nerves.

Obviously it'd be easy to accommodate this feature set but no true 'phile ever sat still. This makes the affordable and affable Denon DL-103 a perfect platform to be tweaked. Enter Zu Audio's take on that very proposition. Compared to the DL-103, Zu Audio is a rather newer outfit, nearly a pup still, and those hip to the Americans might question this particular offering. After all, the firm is primarily known for speakers (particularly my Druid) and cables - though known overstates the matter in Germany which still lacks a formal importer. Direct sales have to do for the moment.

So a phono pickup? Why not. Look closer and it's apparent that team Zu values a lot of classic 'vintage' fi, then reinterprets it with distinctive, even cosmetically cool designs with realistic pricing. Hence their own makeover of Denon's classic seemed pretty much predestined. Plus our boys are agitators against "...the popular hifi sound with source gear and speakers trying to rip your head off with high frequency distortion." Not that the words "rip your head off" really come to mind with the 103...

Modifications ...
Denon's stock 103 offers little to boil any true techno fiend's blood: a twin-element aluminum carrier supports a conical diamond tip at one end, a small cross with copper windings on the other. The coils are stabilized by a bit of wire and a damper. Forget exotic, the outer casing is plastic pure. Team Zu denudes the assembly and packs the little engine into a 60616 aircraft aluminum CNC-machined block claimed to improve sonics and three aspects in particular:

  • 1. At 5, the DL-103's compliance is low. To avoid audible consequences from suboptimal arm damping, many believe that a heavy arm is required to get the best from the Denon. The stocker weighs 8.5g (though my scale doesn't agree), the Zu 13.6g. Hey, aluminum is heavier than plastic. Those 5.1g alone might be relevant for those whose lightweight arm until now got less than satisfactory results from the DL.
  • 2/ I've always belabored the tiny counter nuts apt to twirl while mounting the Denon to a head shell. Granted, you want to avoid the macho wrench reflex but I've never found Denon's mounting scheme completely convincing. Zu's aluminum block solves that problem with properly threaded bores which receive the mounting screws with real crank which can't be bad. And because the Zu 103 is as angular as they come, dialing in true alignment is child's play.
  • 3/ The biggest deal is probably resonance control. Or as the Yanks put it, the aluminum body isn't there just for show. Most head shells and tone arms already are made of aluminum which, according to developer Sean Casey, combines perfectly with their cartridge body to undermine rear reflections back into the system. This rings plausible since vibrations always reflect at dissimilar material junctions. The same goal of linearizing the mechanical impedance of the entire arm/cart assembly also informed the choice of glues and epoxies which bond the DL-103 generator to the body - their characteristics mimic that of alu, sez Casey.

The trick was to optimize the mechanical foundation of the excellent 103 generator for broad-band resonance suppression and to improve the low-compliance nature of the pickup. Fine adjustments are easy and solid coupling to the head shell is now a given, all of which is supposed to be an injection of life for the good ol'e DL-103. Comparisons between stocker and modder took place on Phonotool's Vivid Two arm, a classic S-shaped 9-incher I fancy for its €400 value and which, importantly, works well on the stock DL-103. My resonance check after mounting showed a lateral resonance peak at 12Hz which attenuated already 2 cycles above and below. The vertical hot spot sat at 10Hz. Just as promised. Expectedly, those figures dropped with the Zu – to 10Hz and 8Hz respectively. Right on. Naturally, with the Zu the counter weight had to compensate by 5 grams to arrive at the recommended 2.5g tracking force. But it worked.

And family relations cannot be denied between these two carts, offsets belonging into the 'tonality, tonal balance' and 'dynamics' drawers. Tonally, the Denon presents the tune from the center, with weaknesses more in the extremes - be those less than fully energized hi-hats or voices that could sound more open; or the resonance of low piano keys which could exhibit more structure. It's always been the midrange that was spot on, perhaps a bit livelier than purely correct but that's been squarely the 103's charm and appeal: tonally balanced and dynamic, slightly forward yet without edges or hardness.

The Zu remains just as centered but offers distinctly more clarity above and below. Cymbals now
are events in time where rise, bloom and decay are far more transparent. Ditto for the bassment. Fast e-bass runs never caused complaints with the stocker but sustained bass notes could get cloudy and thick. The Zu replaces that with better insight and bass definition. Since the Zu expands both frequency extremes alike, the overall tonal balance remains centered as before while subjectively, fundamentals seem less voluminous - as though the formerly blocked energy was more evenly distributed now. Additionally, many instruments now take a backwards step towards the speaker line whereas the stocker played in front of it. In short, the Zu DL-103 has more bandwidth and dynamics but is less forward or pushy than the original.

Welcome advances for sure one and all but to me, not the essential sugar cube yet. That would be soundstaging, resolution/detail recovery and the way the Zu handles tone. Here the Zu transcends family relations to play not on a different planet but rather, a higher plane. The soundstage unfurls into the corners and even farther into the rear. Where before the far stage was crescent-shaped (deeper down the center, shallower toward the edges), it now filled out laterally to occasionally place sounds right behind the speakers.

Spatial improvements also relied on the Zu's significantly higher contrast ratio between instruments and voices whereby outlines detached more cleanly from the background. The mild opacity or cloudiness of the stock 103 was gone. This benefited isolated moments -- they had more dimensionality and body -- and the virtual stage at large upon which goings on were more intelligible and apparent. Last but not least: The Zu
103 resolved better, got closer to the tones, more closely followed their decays which benefited voices in particular. Oh yes, Chan Marshalls' exploits on Cat Power's The Greatest were now truly great where the stock Denon merely played nice.

This album, beginning to end, also demonstrated how the sum of betterments exceeds mere additions. Vocals become far more intimate as the Zu tracks the tiny up 'n' down modulations far more precisely. And things are freer and more open thanks to the enhanced treble reach.
Drums crack harder, brass shines with more power and demonstrates finer gradations during fades. That's how deep the room reaches? That's how far I can hear? And so on and so forth. Spinning The Greatest is quite a different take over the Zu DL-103. Easily two solid steps forward.

Zu's DL-103 is more than a fancy face lift for a popular vintage MC cart. The mod builds out a fresher sound without sacrificing the original's virtues of dynamics, flow and balance. For cool coin, Zu's pickup offers plenty of reasons to go upscale:
  • The good tonal balance expands above and below and what were indecisive notes at the edges of the spectrum with the classic 103 become decisive. Bass gains definition and insight, treble openness and clarity.
  • Dynamics are directly inherited from the Denon while the upper bass appears a bit tamer and subjectively less pushy.
  • Staging is substantially improved, layering is more intense and venue illumination into the corners is a big step forward.
  • Localization focus is higher. The Zu adds higher contrast ratio to separate sounds better against the background. This improves intelligibility of stage action.
  • Lastly, the Zu DL-103 resolves better and more musical details are the result.


  • Product: Zu / DL-103, MC pickup
  • Price: $399 + $45 shipping
  • Weight: 13.6g
  • Compliance: 5
  • Recommended tracking force: 2.5g
  • Output voltage: 0.3V
  • Impedance: 40 ohms
  • Recommended input impedance: 80-150 ohms
  • Distribution: exclusively direct
  • Other: 60-day return privilege exclusive of shipping fees.
  • Manufacturer's website
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