Listening #108 Page 2

With its 13" platter and its thickly lacquered, 4"-tall wooden plinth, the DP-A100 looks decidedly more serious than most of its recent stablemates. And according to Jeff Talmadge, Denon's director of product development, the servo for the new model is the same one used in the classic DP-80. All in all, the DP-A100 was the rare contemporary turntable that looked at home sitting next to my own vintage Garrards and Thorenses.

The DP-A100 was also the rare deck that confounded my efforts at dissection: I never succeeded in removing its bottom cover, so I can only assume that its big plinth contains a full complement of motor-drive electronics, including power supply and transformer. (An IEC-standard AC cord—not a wall wart—delivers power to the Denon.) Among the more visible components were that generously sized platter—die-cast, machine-finished, and anodized with a pale gold finish, with a damping layer of silicone rubber neatly applied to its underside—and an ornate pivoting tonearm, also champagne gold, with a removable headshell, S-shaped armtube, gimbaled bearings, antiskating control, and a lockable arm-height adjustment.

Happily, the DP-A100 comes bundled with yet another product released to celebrate Denon's 100th anniversary: the DL-A100 phono cartridge. The DL-A100 is a reissue—what Talmadge calls "a fine-tuned replica"—of the company's classic DL-103, a model I've owned, loved, and recommended for years. The DL-A100 is also available separately, for $499 (compared with $229 for the original DL-103).

My review sample of the Denon DP-A100 had two things in common with most other products from mainstream consumer-electronics companies: excellent packaging, and an owner's manual that appears to have been the product of actual thought. Consequently, and apart from matters of cartridge installation and alignment—I'll get to those in a moment—I had the DP-A100 up and running in a matter of minutes. Fit and finish were excellent, and I admired the thick gloss of the plinth's finish (although I mistook for black the color that Denon describes as "dark brown"). The platter was reasonably free of run-out error, and I found myself coveting the thick, supple platter mat, which is slightly undersized so that only the LP's grooved area is supported and kept level.

I also mistook a portion of the companion tonearm—specifically the large-diameter height-adjustment ring—for plastic. That and other key parts turned out to be aluminum alloy castings with deceptively smooth, thick finishes. An even closer examination revealed a smooth headshell-locking mechanism and a set of bearings that were commendably free of both friction and excess play.

But when the time came to install and adjust the Denon cartridge, I was less impressed: With the DP-A100 and its supplied headshell, it was flatly impossible to achieve correct alignment as determined by the standard Baerwald geometry, measured with both the Dennesen Soundtractor and the DB Systems DBP-10 protractor. Even with Denon's own cartridge mounted as far forward as possible in the headshell, the stylus tip landed more than 3mm short of the target proscribed by the Dennesen. As the DB Systems protractor clearly showed, the lateral tracking-angle error was unacceptably high at or near the two standard zero-error "null" points, and although it was possible to achieve tangency at two radial points, neither landed within the grooved area of an LP. A headshell with another 4 or 5mm of forward travel would seem to be the cure, and would remain consistent with the offset angle of the Denon arm, as manufactured (footnote 3).

If only because the presumed tracking-error distortion would keep me from hearing the Denon DP-A100 at its potential best—thus rendering most subjective comments irrelevant—I spent less time than usual listening to the review sample. (Understandably, I was even more reluctant to use my own cartridges in the Denon arm.) But a brief audition suggested that the Denon's basic motor unit was capable of remarkable force, and commensurate musical momentum and pull. With my Linn Speedchecker strobe I confirmed the imperturbability of the Denon's drive system: I had to exert far more pressure on the edge of the moving platter than I'd expected to change the target speed, be it 33.33 or 45rpm. One assumes that even the draggiest groove would be no match for the Denon's sheer grunt.

In other words: The DP-A100 seemed capable of the same sense of drive I've come to expect from such unabashedly torquey choices as my own Garrard 301 and Thorens TD 124: vintage products both. (Confronted with the musical and sonic value of high-power turntables and low-power amplifiers, I can only wonder how it is that we've managed to get everything backward.) Notwithstanding the arm-length glitch, I'll be happy to retry the DP-A100—given a more appropriate headshell—and to continue looking into the whole direct-drive thing.

I turned my attention to Denon's new DL-A100 cartridge, which shares with the DL-103 its most pertinent specs: low output (0.3mV), high internal impedance (40 ohms), low compliance (5 x 10–6cm/dyne), a 16.5µm spherical stylus tip, and a recommended nominal downforce of 2.5gm. Rubber dampers of the same consistency and sky-blue color—picture an early-1960s Ford Galaxy 500, only much smaller—appear in both. Under magnification, it seemed that even their stylus shanks and cantilevers are identical, apparently sourced from the same supplier today as umpteen years ago.

The only obvious difference between the two is the DL-A100's clear body—which, Denon's Jeff Talmadge assured me, is essentially the same plastic as is used in the DL-103. The real difference, according to Talmadge, is the extra work that goes into selecting and tuning the motor assemblies for the DL-A100. "All of our coils are hand-wound," he said, "but we take more time with the Anniversary model." The new cartridge also gets a new storage case, and—when purchased separately—the DL-A100 comes packaged with the same lovely hardcover book as the DP-A100 turntable, to commemorate the company's 100th anniversary.

As I've mentioned on many occasions, the Denon DL-103—and, by implication, such variants as the Zu 103—is an easy recommendation. That does not mean, however, that it's easy to use. For one thing, experience tells me that the Denon cartridge takes longer than average to break in, before which time it can sound fussy and lacking in color and flow; the DL-A100 was the same. For another thing, the Denon's slightly unusual combination of low output and highish coil resistance means that choosing the optimum step-up transformer can be tricky. The Silvercore One-to-Ten, which is very well suited to most high-impedance moving-coil cartridges, left the new Denon sounding rather hi-fi, with exaggerated detail and spatial cues but little midrange body and color. The Lundahl transformers in my Shindo Masseto preamp, which usually work well with low-output cartridges, left the Denon sounding quiet and polite, lacking in drama and scale. I eventually hit pay dirt with two other models: the Auditorium 23 SPU standard ($1550) and the new 1131 CineMag from Bob's Devices ($895), the latter used in its 1:20 setting. (I'll have more to say about Bob's new CineMag within the next month or two.)

Given the right load, and mounted in my Schick tonearm (with a Yamamoto headshell), the DL-A100 sounded wonderfully, consistently engaging. The 1963 studio recording by Hans Knappertsbusch and the Munich Philharmonic of Bruckner's Symphony 8 (Westminster/Speakers Corner WST 235) is the sort of exceedingly dry recording that makes demands of phono setup in particular; played back badly, it's nearly impossible to enjoy. But with the Denon driving the affordable Bob's Devices trannie, it sounded better than ever before in my system, regardless of gear: big, open, clear, and emotionally riveting.

I compared the DL-A100 with my own DL-103: a well-broken-in sample, but one with more than a few miles left on its stylus and suspension. The differences were subtle, and in terms of dynamic capabilities—arguably the reason one should want a Denon MC cartridge in the first place—the two were identical. Playing the simple and moving title song of Neil Young's Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 (Reprise 512563-1), both cartridges were electric with the subtle dramatic inflections throughout Young's acoustic guitar performance, telegraphing every shift in intensity and keeping me on the edge of my seat. Both were also naturally detailed without brightness, and imbued with excellent musical flow. My old DL-103 was tubbier in the bass—some will hear that as "believably richer," I'm sure—while the new DL-A100 was cleaner down there. On Malcolm Arnold's own recording, with the City of Birmingham Symphony, of his somewhat obvious Peterloo Overture (EMI ASD 2878), the DL-103 gave a little more weight to the big orchestral bass drum; the A100 worked better to resolve the fade-in of the snare drums as something more than just noise.

In the end, I was more enthusiastic about Denon's 100th-anniversary cartridge than their 100th-anniversary turntable. That impression gained ground when I discovered that the former is made by Denon in Japan, while the latter is made in China—a curious birthday present for Denon's workforce. But keep in mind that, like the DP-A100, the DL-A100 is a limited-issue product, and will probably be gone from the scene by the end of this year.

Footnote 3: Again, please note that these observations are based on the most common, industry-standard alignment geometries and measuring protractors, rather than the more radical cartridge-alignment approaches that have been discussed in Stereophile's pages (although the Denon's alignment was sufficiently off that it failed by those standards, too).

Doctor Fine's picture

Once you solve the headshell issue please continue investigating direct drive for us Art.  I would have loved to hear your take on the Denon table in direct comparison to your Thorens and Garrard.

I find belt drive tables in general to have insuficcient torque to pull the stiff old fashioned stylus suspension of the 1960s based Denon cartridges without in some cases actually slowing down the record as it is spinning!  Unlike belt drive, direct drive with its massive motor power seems to be unshakable when dragging around such beasties.