View Full Version : Denon DL103c vs. EMT XSD15

03-04-2009, 18:42
Comparison of the Denon DL103C with EMT XSD 15

This posting was prompted by a question from Marco, who asked how the EMT differs sonically from the Denon. Whilst much of my system has remained unchanged for around 30 years, I do like to experiment with cartridges and frequently change them. I have recently been listening to an elderly Ortofon SL15E, and have not listened to either of the above-mentioned cartridges for some time. I have a poor memory for subtle acoustic detail. I tend only to remember the obvious aspects: such as, for example, the unmatched attack and presence of Decca cartridges.

In order to give as best an assessment as I can, I decided to listen to each cartridge in turn mounted using the same arm, listening to a variety of records chosen to cover a wide a range of music.

An SME 3012 arm was used fitted to a Thorens 124/II turntable. The Denon was mounted in an SME S2 headshell, whereas the EMT with its own integrated headshell plugged directly into the arm. The Denon was set up with a tracking force of 2.5g with 2.0g of bias. The EMT was used with 3.0g tracking force and 2.5g of bias. The arm was set up as per the usual procedure of counterbalancing in both planes before applying the tracking force.

I usually set up SME arms in a ‘minimum inertia configuration’, whereby the tracking force rider weight is positioned on the weigh rod in line with the pivot and, using a playing weight gauge, the main counterweight is moved so as to provide counterbalance along with the required tracking weight. This is an iterative process, relatively easy to do on the improved versions of the Series II SME arms, but a tiresome and frustrating procedure on earlier versions (and on the later R versions). Correct vertical tracking angle was achieved by ensuring the arm was parallel to the record surface and therefore horizontal, rather than by making minute adjustments to the height of the arm pillar whilst auditioning. This was done for the sake of expediency; such adjustments, whilst technically the correct thing to do, are tiresome to apply on SME arms (apart from the new M series). Tracing error was minimised using an alignment protractor. Whether this is done according to the theory of Baerwald and Lofgren or to that of Stevenson I don’t know and I’m not going to worry too much about it, as it is all a bit of a compromise when using pivoted pickup arms. Finally the stylus tilt or zenith was zeroed using a mirror rather than an oscilloscope, again for expediency - life is too short.

As set up, the Denon / SME 3012 arm arrangement has an LF resonance around 15Hz. The EMT / 3012 has an LF resonance at around 8.5Hz. Since these are a little outside the ‘comfort’ zone, and as I don’t know what their respective ‘Q’ values at resonance are, I applied a small amount of pivot damping using the SME FD200 dashpot.

The signal from both cartridges was fed into a Quad 44 preamplifier fitted with the MC 4A board, loading the cartridges with 100 Ohms and offering a sensitivity of 200uV. In view of the relatively high output of the EMT, I would have preferred to use the MC 4C board with 400uV sensitivity. The value of the impedance loading was as recommended by Quad, but I’m not sure if it is optimum. This is an area within some experimentation and adjustment can be carried out by ear; an aspect I’ll return too later.

The first cartridge auditioned was the Denon. I played a variety of records (listed at the end) and made notes. The procedure was then repeated with the EMT. The EMT has twice the output voltage than that of the Denon. Fortunately the Quad 44 uses a stepped attenuator, with precise level increments, for the volume control. By making a note of the volume setting used for each record whilst listening to the Denon, I was able to increase the attenuation by 6dB in each case when using the EMT, so that the listening level was the same for both cartridges. My speakers are Quad ESL (57) powered by a modified Quad 405 amplifier.

After the above preamble you might be disappointed to learn that there was not a vast difference in sound. There were differences but they were subtle, not easy to describe, and obviously subjective.

My impressions are as follows. The Denon 103 offers a lively clear sound, essentially neutral with a wide and, where the recording allows, deep sound stage. Again where the recording allowed, the spatial presentation was good, with the placement of individual players easily imagined within the sound stage. I thought the important mid range both clear and detailed; voices sounded natural. Deep bass was taut, but not lean: the sound of both plucked and bowed double bass was good and well controlled, likewise bass kick drum. The treble was extended and detailed, allowing one to hear the acoustic of the performance. Clarity in the treble was especially appreciated on percussion: cymbals ‘sang’ and decayed naturally, the harmonics of bells and gongs was well portrayed, as was the finger ‘squeak’ of wire wound strings on acoustic guitars. Flutes seemed to have the right ‘breathy’ quality. Transient attack was also good: on rim shot cymbals the initial tap was distinct from the subsequent note: on jazz double bass played with a bow, the ‘slap’ of the bow on the string was distinct. Other percussive sounds, be they piano, plucked strings (guitar, sitar or harpsichord), or mechanical music boxes sounded realistic. When things got busy the Denon made a reasonable job of keeping everything clear and separate, but this was very dependant on the recording: some recordings become muddled regardless of cartridge used (so far).

The EMT is a warmer cartridge than the Denon, so is not as neutral. It does however perform as well, if not better, than the Denon in most of the areas mentioned above. One area in which the Denon beats the EMT is in the control and portrayal of deep bass. Whilst not bloated or flabby, the bass of the EMT is fuller and not as well controlled. Transient attack is better than that of the Denon (although not up to Decca standards) and the treble more detailed. When things got busy I found the EMT to do a better job in separation than the Denon. One important quality the EMT has over the Denon is rather difficult to describe, but I’ll try. I believe the EMT offers more detail, however it doesn’t sound it. Whereas the Denon is a detailed cartridge the detail is made obvious. With the EMT, the detail is not immediately obvious, you just realise that you are hearing more. It’s as if the cartridge is doing its job quietly without fuss and without drawing attention to itself. This for me makes the listening experience more relaxing and more enjoyable, and for that reason alone I prefer the EMT.

So to conclude: the Denon is a very good cartridge, especially considering its very reasonable cost and I would be more than happy to live with it alone. The EMT to my ears, whilst not exactly neutral, is more detailed with greater transient attack. The portrayal of deep bass by the EMT is not as good, but this aspect is not very important to me (I do after all use electrostatic speakers). It has the virtue of ‘disappearing’ and so for me is the better cartridge. At three times the price (for used samples, 25 times for new) this is probably just as well. Both cartridges track very well, but the EMT has a mass 1.5 x that of the Denon / S2 and so doesn’t track quite as well. It was caught out only once: that was on the ‘Dafos’ track where Micky Hart (of Grateful Dead fame) picks up a drum and drops it on the floor. If you have a look at the record groove it is not surprising that some cartridges might mistrack at that point.

Examination of response plots for each cartridge shows that the Denon has the flatter response: displaying a ‘sag’ of 0.25dB over 3 – 10KHz. The treble falls off at 15KHz and is 1.5dB down at 20KHz. The EMT has a more ragged response: there is a 1dB dip at 65Hz and a very gentle sag starting at 200Hz and finishing at 7KHz, bottoming out at –2db at 4KHz. Extreme treble displays a 4dB notch at 18KHz.

Whereas I have used EMT s for nearly 30 years (first bought in 1979), I have had the Denon for less than 6 months. It is quite possible that I can get much more out of the Denon, perhaps by fitting it into a stiffer and heavier headshell, such as the ADC. I also think that there is great scope for experimentation with impedance loading; both cartridges might well benefit by using larger values. EMT suggest a minimum of 200 Ohms. Examination of the circuit for their STX-21 transformer shows that when fed into a 47Kohm input, the transformer will load the cartridge with 171.5 Ohms. A review in ‘The Absolute Sound’ magazine, however, suggested that 800 Ohms is the ideal loading.

Well that’s it - apologies for the length of this post. I hope it is of interest and useful; remember that a lot of it is subjective and personal. Any comments will be appreciated, especially on getting the best out of the Denon 103C.


PS The list of records used will follow as a separate post.

03-04-2009, 19:08
Hi Barry,

Well, what can I say? Thank you very much for taking the time and effort to put your thoughts down like this :)

I'll have a proper read through later and add my thoughts.

Thanks again!


Dalek Supreme D L
03-04-2009, 19:23

Fantastic, a nice writing style, informative and educational. Well done I am impressed.

Please feel free to write more like this, about anything in your set up and the length is great..plenty to get your teeth into.

Regards D S D L

03-04-2009, 19:26
Fantastic post, Barry! Thank you!

03-04-2009, 19:58
Thanks from me as well. Please can you try a Sumiko headshell, for sake of some continuity. i don't think the ADC shell is heavy enough and at least, SME can supply heavier counterweights if need be and possibly arm-tubes too. 15Hz is a good bit high for arm-cart resonance. try to get it down well into single figures if possible..

03-04-2009, 21:23
Records used for the listening comparison.

1. John Fahey ‘The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death’, Transatlantic TRA 173
Despite the strange title, this is an excellent record of acoustic guitar and banjo.

2. Larry Coryell ‘Standing Ovation’, Arista AN3024 (Nimbus pressing)
Larry Coryell playing Ovation guitar(s) with self-dubbing and piano

3. Miles Davis ‘Kind of Blue’, CBS 62066 (Nimbus pressing)
A seminal jazz record. Very good imagery and positioning of the performers within the sound stage.

4. Sandy Denny ‘The North Star Grassman and The Ravens’
Electric folk with good atmosphere, but not a particularly good recording: Denny is too close to the microphone and so there is a ‘shouting’ quality to her voice on some tracks.

5. Ravi Shankar ‘Improvisations’, Liberty 830776E
Used to listen to harmonic structure and detail (all those quarter notes) of the sitar, as well as the transient attack of the tabla percussion. Reasonable spatial separation.

6. Charlie Mingus ‘Right Now – Live at the Jazz Workshop’, America 30 AM 6063
Used for plucked and bowed jazz bass as well as providing the atmosphere of a jazz club.

7. Joan Baez ‘5’, Vanguard STFL 6043
Folk voice and guitar. Baez has a very pure voice and track 5 on side 1 (Bachianas Brasileiras by Villa Lobos) is a good test of treble clarity detail and attack as well as cartridge tracking.

8. The Doors ‘Morrison Hotel’ Electra EKS-75007 (American import)
An example of West Coast rock. Used to listen for drive, pace and rhythm.

9. Robert Woolley ‘The Popular Couperin’, Meridian E77012
Used to listen for treble clarity, and transient attack. Also for ‘tune’ and rhythm. Quite often a harpsichord played briskly sounds like a sewing machine rattling away. In this performance the tune is quite apparent and very enjoyable.

10. ‘Flute and Gamelin of West Java’, Tangent TGS 137
Used to listen to the percussive attack and harmonic structure of gongs as well as the natural rendition of the bamboo flute.

11. ‘Wehnachtliche Spieluhren Musik’, Siegfrieds Mechanisches Musikkabinett SMMK04
Used for the incredible clarity and attack of punched metal disc music boxes.

12. ‘Dafos’ Micky Hart, Airto and Flora Purim, Reference Recording RR-12 (45 rpm)
African and Indonesian based percussion, woodwind and bass guitar. The finest record in my collection. Absolutely unbelievable clarity, attack and sound staging. You feel as if you can just get up from your seat and walk into the performance. Amazing sense of acoustic. Probably the best test record ever cut, that’s not a test record.

13. Kabi Laretei playing the film music of Ingmar Bergman, Proprius PROP 7829
Piano performances of works by Mozart, Chopin, Handel and Scarlatti. A good recording of the piano.

14. Berlioz ‘Symphonie Fantastique’, Reference Recordings RR-11 (45rpm)
Chosen as a good example of an orchestral symphony. Like the ‘Dafos’ recording this portrays excellent acoustics: here the perspective is as from the front seats of the grand circle. Excellent sound field imagery with accurate and realistic placing of the players. Bass drum and cymbals sound exactly as they would in a concert hall.

15. Thelma Houston ‘I’ve Got the Music in Me’, Sheffield Lab LAB-2 (SL7/SL8) (direct cut)
Jazz/Funk singer with electric funk accompaniment. Not really my thing but being a direct cut has enormous presence and very good depth. Houston is placed well forward of the speakers. On the instrumental tracks, the position of the musicians is not especially precise, although the sound is beautifully clear.

16. Jacqueline du Pre ‘Elgar Cello Concerto Op.85’, CBS 76529
Chosen for bowed cello, especially low and mid bass. A pretty poor recording: spatially muddled on orchestral tuttis. Poor atmosphere, no sense of depth but the solo cello is well placed, slightly left of centre. This is a live recording, but you wouldn’t know it – only one small solitary cough from someone in the audience gives the game away.

17. ‘Cantate Domino’, Proprius PROP 7762
Organ and choir performing religious works (and sung in Swedish). Not my cup of tea, but recorded with a very good sense of space and position. It is clear that the choir is spread across the sound stage between the organ and the small orchestra. Everything remains distinct when all playing together. Can place the various organ pipes when played.

18. Holst ‘The Planets’ Music for Pleasure MFP 2014.
Bought around 40 years ago for 62.5p and played on various dubious players. Remarkably showing little wear. Reasonable sense of depth. The brass sounds harsh (wear?) Basses and xylophone still sound good. Chosen for low level detail: on the final track (Neptune) a double chorus of female singers enter almost imperceptibly, continue singing without words and are finally left to intone a cadence repeatedly with diminishing volume into silence.

19. Rolling Stones ‘High Tides and Green Grass’, Decca TXS 101
Chosen as a good example of British rock and roll. Pretty good recording with a great sense of ‘strutting arrogance’.

20. ‘Sessions’, A JBL test disc (no number found)
This record is designed to publicise JBL speakers. It does have several tracks of solo instruments, allowing one to assess instrumental fidelity. There are some interesting tracks whereby a solo violin has all the harmonics filtered out partway at 15KHz, then again in steps of 1KHz, down to 10KHz. Even though my hearing stops for pure tones at 10KHz, the effect of harmonic filtration is clear.

21. Bob Marley and the Wailers ‘Legend’, Island BMW 1
Lovely Jamaican reggae, great boogie effect and guaranteed to put a smile on my face. Just what is needed in these troubled times.

Dalek Supreme D L
03-04-2009, 21:37
Nice choice of music....respect is given.

Regards D S D L :)

03-04-2009, 22:22
Thanks from me as well. Please can you try a Sumiko headshell, for sake of some continuity. i don't think the ADC shell is heavy enough and at least, SME can supply heavier counterweights if need be and possibly arm-tubes too. 15Hz is a good bit high for arm-cart resonance. try to get it down well into single figures if possible..

Agreed, however to get the resonant frequency down to single figures, the headshell would have to be very heavy.

Assuming Denon's quoted compliance of 5cu for the 103C and an effective mass for the SME 3012 (less the S2 shell) of 8g, I calculate that to place the LF resonance at 9Hz, one would need to use a headshell (or headshell plus metal shim) of 46g mass !

I have seen the measured compliance quoted as 13cu. Recalculating, an LF resonance at 9Hz now requires a headshell mass of only 7.55g. I believe the ADC shell weighs 7.7g - I'll check. How heavy is the Sumiko shell? I don't have a Sumiko shell but I do have a few ADC shells.

Anyway, with an initial (calculated) resonance figure of 15Hz for the Denon 103C / SME 3012/S2 combination, I thought damping would be useful.

I have seen the mass of the Orsonic headshell quoted as 16g. Using this shell would bring the figure down to 12.5Hz (assuming 5cu) or 7.75Hz (assuming 13cu). I don't think they are still available: I saw one up for auction on eBay - it went for quite a lot of money (around £80 if I remember; about the same as that for empty Ortofon Type G shells and EMT-G shells). How much is the Sumiko shell? Are they still available?



03-04-2009, 22:40
Hi Barry,

Just to come in quickly for a minute... The Sumiko is 12g, and if you want to try an Orsonic, this is your place for genuine NOS ones:


Or perhaps a nice brand new Ikeda?


From experience, I can tell you that a 103 will not work properly on a headshell of any less than 16g. Everyone mentions the Sumiko; it's a good headshell but still too light for a 103.

I'll be back later to add more! :)