The Zu DL-103 Mk. II phono cartridge prompts a single question: Can magic be found in the ordinary?
When Brian Hunter asked if I’d like to review the Zu DL-103 Mk. II cartridge I immediately said yes, I would. If you’ve been following the Vinyl Noob Diaries, you’ll know I’m on a sonic journey down into the rabbit hole of the tactile world of analog vinyl. Having another cartridge to compare to my Hana SH and Dynavector 10×5 scratched that audiophile itch. Call me a gear slut, overly curious, obsessive compulsive, desperate, pathetic, or what have you, but just send me some new gear!
Words and Photos by Graig Neville
Zu has a reputation for tossing norms to the wind and focusing on the fun. I’ve only heard wild stories, but Zu modus operandi seems to be, “We put the FU in fun.” With their focus on tone and dynamics over neutrality in their speakers, I didn’t expect anything less from their turntable cartridges.
Inside the Zu DL-103 Mk. II
Released in 1963, the original Denon DL-103 was developed in cooperation with the Japanese
Broadcasting Corporation. It has been in continuous production ever since, an incredible achievement.
Zu has done two things with this Zu DL-103 Mk. II cartridge that departs from the stock DL-103 as described below on their website:
“The Mk.II update is significant, both in performance and handling. The body is machined from 6061-T6 and hard anodized to aid in the matching of tonearm-mount properties and further reduce pickup stored/reflected energy. The shape of the housing has also been refined to reduce resonance and stress risers resulting in a much stronger design that better supports the motor assembly. We have also changed the epoxy matrix formulation that binds the assembly further reducing noise and increasing stability to the pickup system.”
The second aspect Zu attends to is grading. And I think this is where the magic hidden in the ordinary creeps in. Each Zu DL-103 Mk. II pickup is comprehensively tested and graded, the better the grade the better the stereophony, but even the standard is pretty damn fine.
Standard ≤ 2.5% | Grade 1 ≤ 1.0% | Grade 2 ≤ 0.5% | Grade 2 PRIME ≤ 0.1%
Grade indicates stereophony performance much more so than tone. Zu performs extensive final testing on each Zu/DL-103 Mk. II and then grades them. Tolerance is measured between left and right internal impedance, full bandwidth phase, time-domain, and full bandwidth output curves. The tolerance spec is not an average of measures but accounts for the lowest of any measurement, thus giving a true tolerance perspective. Final grade is referenced to serial number, marked on the tests and measures sheet, as well as the box label.
For those into manufacturing or engineering, the tolerance of a product can have significant influence on how the item performs. For example, rebuilding a race car motor for a spec Miata, which has a stock motor with very minor modifications allowed, can vary by ten to twenty horsepower! This is from an engine that develops about 113 horsepower from a 1.6L 4-cylinder motor. Stock tolerances on the motor can vary by more than 10%! This does not happen by accident and requires an exemplary engine builder and a whole mess of parts for them to puzzle together.
And this is how I see Zu’s grading. Thru testing they have dialed in the grade of the Zu DL-103 Mk. II based on the performance of each unit. Zu sent a Grade 1 version. Pricing for the Standard starts at $599, increasing to $791 for the Grade 1, $959 for Grade 2, and $1,319 for Grade 2 Prime. There’s also a DL-103R version if you need more treble energy, which I could see being desirable in some systems.
Not every cartridge will work with every phono stage. The Zu is a moving coil with an output voltage of 0.3mV. Electrical impedance is 40Ω but Zu recommends using a load between 80 and 200Ω. Going towards the 80Ω side will give a more damped and tighter high end and towards the low end will give more bass but a less damped presentation.
The original motor is still the Denon, but Zu has placed the motor in a Alcoa alloy 6061-T6 chassis. This is a relatively heavy cartridge that may need additional counterweight. Recommended stylus tracking force is a nominal 2.5 grams. The recommendation is a bit lighter for higher ambient temperatures (2.2 grams) and a little lower for cooler temps. I usually keep my house around 70 or less so I went more towards the 2.7 gram limit.
I Heard It on the Radio
Setting up the cartridge on my Rega P3 posed one significant challenge. The Zu DL-103 Mk. II is a heavy sucker. The stock counter weight provided with my P3 wasn’t heavy enough to reliably counter the weight. I had to go full armor-piercing tungsten on the Zu DL-103 Mk. II to get the specified tracking force.
Once the Zu DL-103 Mk. II was set, aligned, and properly weighted I tossed on some of my favorite Spyro Gyra and Daft Punk records. I was immediately transported to my pre-teen years. When I was about ten years old I had this crappy clock radio that I would listen to late at night with all the lights off. It was mono and didn’t get great reception, but this all predated digital–along with CDs–wouldn’t be introduced for another year or two.
But what it DID do was provide great midrange tone. Literally, it was the sound of radio and the Zu DL-103 Mk. II that immediately reminded me of those childhood memories of listening to “Message in a Bottle” from The Police on that POS, but in the greatest nostalgic way possible. The sound was immediately recognizable and iconic, but an audiophile version of radio that I had never experienced before. It was flipping cool.
Zu DL-103 Mk. II Sound
The Zu DL-103 Mk. II isn’t the most extended in the treble I’ve heard, nor the deepest in the bass nor does it have the dynamic slam of some gear, but it has this tone, this sound, this unique flavor that I’ve never heard anywhere else.
The midrange is rich in a way that would never be considered neutral, but is recognizable and touches the spirit down to the roots. Music takes on a bloom that is in some ways soft, maybe with a touch of warmth, but all the musical nuance is there in spades with nothing glossed over or lost. You would think the word smooth would be the word that comes to mind, but that’s not quite right. “It sounds like radio” is the best description, but for those too young to know that sound I’ll say that the midrange takes center stage. It steps into the spotlight saying, “All eyes on me!” with open arms, a strong powerful voice that’s always groovy, wide, and with a sense of space. When the needle of the Zu DL-103 Mk. II drops, you know you just started a new musical journey.
The Zu DL-103 Mk. II, to my ears, always sounds good. Besides listening to my usual audiophile grade records, I played several of my “pop” records that maybe aren’t the best studio efforts. For example, the version of Robert Palmer and Power Station that I have usually sounds terrible. With the Zu DL-103 Mk. II it took on a whole new life. It had slam and tone–it was all rockin’ party time.
All the albums I played, in fact, took on that characteristic tone. If you want neutral and sterile then look elsewhere. Zu DL-103 Mk. II is unabashedly itself and isn’t all that sensitive to gear changes. I tried multiple speakers and phono stages and the DL-103 never really changed its character. I’m a radio man and that’s how I radio jam – all radio, all the time.
Zu DL-103 Mk. II Conclusion
Though my time with the Zu DL-103 Mk. II was relatively short, the musical experience was
breathtaking. I was transported back to my musical roots in a way that perhaps no other gear I’ve had in my system for the past 30 years has done. That makes this cartridge remarkable in and of itself, but that would only describe the grossest overview of what Zu has created with this “Magic from the Ordinary” type of product. For those looking for a seductive sound for their pop records or those recordings that need some sculpting to bring out the soul of the music, the DL-103 certainly fits that bill.
The Zu DL-103 Mk. II won’t be the ticket for every system or every taste, but those looking for that vintage radio sound will be transported back to bygone eras of musical bliss.