Unless you had a chance to hear it, nothing prepares you for what doubling the cost but paying a still reasonable $439 gets you. The Zu-modified DL-103 has initially very little in common with the stock version and had I heard it blind, I would never have identified it as a DL-103. After a while, you will recognize the great tonal richness of the stock cart but what will be initially striking is the increased resolution, the almost absolute lack of distortion which results in deep wide staging and tremendous microdynamics. Leading edges are sharper but not aggressively so. The treble gains in resolution, extension and gets cleared from any compression you hear in the original. Keep the fun and tonal richness, push up accuracy, resolution and stereophonic effects orders of magnitude higher and you have an idea of what an extra $200 buys you. If you want to isolate some remaining weaknesses in the Zu-DL103, the bass definition remains somewhat looser than and not as deep as the pricier cartridges here and a hint of upper midrange glare remains. But you really have to be used to hearing it in the original to even notice it.

Like many others who modify DL103s, Zu strip out the cheap plastic body and replace it with a beautiful black anodized military-grade aluminium body and stabilize the assembly with a secret sauce. Their deep knowledge of materials and their mechanical characteristics really show. It is hard to imagine when listening to a stock DL103 that so much potential is being masked by the physical flimsiness of the original. Zu also go a step further and measure every modified cartridge individually. Depending on how tight the loosest measurement is, the cartridge will be labeled standard (within 2.5%) or grade 1, 2 and 2-Prime (within 1.0%, 0.5% and 0.1% respectively). 2-prime cartridges are very rare and therefore cost significantly more. The review sample was a standard and as the Zu team state on their website, it is already "pretty darn fine". Higher grades will yield better stereophonic image in systems that can deliver it but the other aspects of the performance will remain unchanged. If you get the impression that I am in complete awe of the transformation conjured up by Zu, you would be correct. For my biases and how I enjoy the music, I gladly give up the last bit of bass resolution and tunefulness to take advantage of the glorious midrange and imaging. Throw in great dynamics and resolution to wrap it up. It would be excellent at $1'000. At less than half, it is hard to think of any better option out there.

Moving up the price ladder, we find the Dynavector 20x2L for $950. This is one of the two cartridges that only spent a day in my system. It may have been handicapped by lack of extended set-up time. In fairness though, I owned it for over three years. What I heard this time sounded very familiar, leading me to believe that I was close to optimal performance. Remember what I wrote above about the stock DL103? "The less than ruler-flat response curve, great macrodynamics, loose bottom end and amazing tonal colors make it a perfect pickup for modern rock and simple fun listening, not as much for accurate classical music reproduction." Take that statement, flip it on its head and you have the 20x2L. It is very neutral, balanced and refined. It does nothing wrong. It will give you a very accurate reproduction of acoustic instruments but won't get you to jump on your feet and jam it out. It is somewhat reserved, polite and well-mannered but no party animal.

When moving from the Zu-DL103 to the 20x2L, things settle down. Tonal colors tone down. They are accurate but you will never burst out saying "hear this oboe, it feels right here". That's not what the 20x2L does. If you listen more with your head and less with your heart (a very legitimate approach by the way), this cartridge will deliver an introvert well wrapped-up presentation. Of all the cartridges in this review, it is the one that never showed any hint of stress with Ella's voice, at any listening level. Opera lovers especially of older recordings will find a fairly forgiving partner in the 20x2L but this time around, like it did years ago, the 20x2L in the end left me wanting for more engagement, more passion, more heat even if that meant that some recordings wouldn't sound that good. When I first reviewed it in 2011, in a different system, I was seduced by its ability to provide so much more insight into the music than a stock DL103 even if it was at the expense of expressivity. In the context of a more mature and revealing system now, the 20x2L did not manage to draw me in like a few of the other options under review.

At $999, the Ortofon Quintet Black was a complete unknown to me. It found its way here thanks to Genesis' Gary Koh who insisted that it was the hidden gem of sub $1'000 phono cartridges which I ought to seriously consider for my upcoming series of phono preamp reviews. Over the years I have learnt to pay attention to what Gary says. He knows great sound and good value. Knowing just how demanding he is, any piece of equipment that he advertises as a hidden gem should move right to the front of anybody's priorities for a listen.

Although the cartridge sent for review was a stock Quintet Black, Mr. Koh took the time to remove the plastic body and ship it nude. Just like with the DL103, the cheap and light plastic body of the stock cartridge is cause for resonance that blurs a lot of the potential. Removing the outer shell allows the full potential of the cartridge to be heard but the operation is not the easiest to complete and requires very steady hands. Here is what Mr. Koh had to say about the whole operation: "It's pretty easy to remove the body on the Quintet. The problem is that if you are not careful, you'll snap the cantilever right off. Not for the faint of heart."