Zu Audio DL-103 MC phono cartridge Page 2

In my Naim Aro tonearm, a stock Denon DL-103 requires no fiddling whatsoever to achieve accurate van Baerwald alignment, measured with a Dennessen protractor. Significantly, the Zu DL-103 also exhibited literally perfect overhang and offset in the Naim, indicating that Zu Audio has been careful to retain all of Denon's original mounting dimensions in the design and manufacture of their cartridge body. (Used with the Dennessen and similar gauges, the very square-sided Zu makes it a breeze to judge offset angle in particular.)

For those reasons alone, most of my listening to the Zu DL-103 was done with the Aro—and I did use the heavier of Naim's two counterweights, with which the Zu performed slightly better than with the stock weight. A mild caution: Neither the stock nor Zu DL-103 can be used in the Aro if the arm's signal-lead connectors have been changed to ones that are longer or bulkier than stock: For the right-channel pins in particular, the connectors will foul against part of the Aro's headshell structure.

I also used the new DL-103 in a Rega RB300 tonearm—upscale versions of which were relied on by Zu while developing the cartridge, also with heavier-than-usual aftermarket counterweights—mounted on a Rega P3 turntable. The results were fine. Note that, in a properly installed Rega RB300 arm, a DL-103 can be correctly aligned in accordance with van Baerwald geometry, but only barely: The outermost of the two mounting bolts will have to be pushed as far forward as the slot allows, with the innermost one set back no more than 1mm, to optimize the offset angle. Curiously, the downforce adjustment of the RB300 can accommodate the DL-103's required 2.5gm downforce, but the arm's antiskating adjustment maxes out at 2gm. Such is life.

Measured in the Naim Aro, using the excellent Hi-Fi News & Record Review test LP, the Zu DL-103 exhibited a lateral resonant frequency centered at 11Hz, with significant residual jiggling at 9 and 13Hz. In the vertical plane, it went off at about 12Hz. (I didn't measure the cartridge's resonant behavior in the RB300; if anything, given the Rega arm's marginally higher effective mass, those numbers might have been very slightly lower. Which is still fine.) Tracking was acceptably good, but it was apparent while viewing the cartridge head-on during record play that the Zu would have liked a little more antiskating force than the Aro could provide at even its highest setting.

In my experience, any DL-103 cartridge is best enjoyed through a good-quality step-up transformer, the primary impedance of which must be suited to the cartridge's own, relatively high impedance. The K&K Audio transformer ($275 kit, $335 assembled), which I wrote about in the September and October 2007 issues of Stereophile, is an excellent choice; the Auditorium 23 Standard ($975), described in the October issue, is even better. Without a well-selected trannie, the DL-103 can sound dull, uninvolving, and rolled off at both frequency extremes.

As I'm sure the Zu folks would agree, the stock Denon DL-103 is very much worth a spin. Its sound is pleasantly forward, free from exaggerated brightness and sibilance, endowed with excellent bass depth and impact, and downright exciting. In a perfect world, one might hope it to be exciting but still neutral—but it isn't, quite. The stock DL-103 departs somewhat from perfectly flat response, though it's the sort of thing that sneaks up on you after a while rather than screams in your face. While bass instruments sound just as quick and impactful as you'd want them to, musical tones in that region are a bit thick and timbrally less open than the ideal. More severe is something that sounds like a response peak in the neighborhood of 1kHz, and that may in fact add a bit to the excitement, especially with otherwise listless-sounding records—but if a recording is too hot or forward, the stock DL-103 can make it sound just a bit more forward than ideal.

The Zu modification tamed that quality without banishing it altogether: Voices and brass instruments were still a little more pungent than neutral—acceptably so, I thought, in the context of such a fine abundance of tone overall. More important, the Zu mod turned up the Denon's sense of impact. Sound leaped from the silence better with the Zu—much better. Whenever I gave it a well-made recording of an orchestra, such as Josef Krips and the London Symphony's LP of Schubert's Symphony 9, my attention was held from beginning to end. Even the horn solo at the beginning of the first movement—something I've listened to literally hundreds of times—was more present and commanding, and more like distant music than merely distant sound. (This recording is easy to find on London STS 15140, but sounding slightly better on Decca SXL-2045, the latter also available in a really excellent Speakers Corner reissue.)

The Zu was consistently, engagingly tactile—literally the best I've heard in that regard for less than $1000. Charles Sawtelle's guitar fills on "Pow-wow the Indian Boy," from the first, eponymous Hot Rize album (Flying Fish FF206), were almost as punchy as in real life. More than any cartridge short of my Miyabi 47, the Zu drove home the fact that listening to this album on LP and CD are two very different experiences. Similarly, when I played the Replacements' "Alex Chilton," arguably the strongest number on the uneven Pleased to Meet Me (Sire 25557-1), not only did Tommy Stinson's electric bass have more color and tone with the Zu DL-103 than with the stock cartridge, but Chris Mars's drumming sounded more dramatic, with an even richer, more impactful kick-drum sound.

On natural-sounding classical and folk-music recordings—the latter including the Cisco reissue of Ian & Sylvia's Northern Journey (Vanguard VS-79154)—the Zu was consistently colorful and well textured. Compared with the Denon, the Zu was even better at filling in the sound at the center point between the speakers. Instruments behind soloists had more substance, and less of a tendency to sound phasey or irrelevant. Even with the a cappella "Texas Rangers" from that Ian & Sylvia record, in which there's little bleed-over between Ian's voice in the left channel and Sylvia's in the right, the Zu allowed the performance to sound more like that of two singers who happened to be on opposite sides of a (reverberant) room, and less like an annoying "dual-mono" studio creation.

Hall sound was also nicely handled on the well-loved recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA Living Stereo LSC-2446), as was the sense of orchestral scale overall. Again, the Zu's good center-fill characteristics helped restore body and presence to solo flute, violin, and the like, while instruments at the farther edges of the "stage" were also pleasantly substantial. Above all, in playing that record's many thunderous tuttis, the Zu DL-103 bowed to no other cartridge in its great sense of impact without the slightest bit of strain.

What would you get by spending more money—say, $1600 for the Koetsu Black that I reviewed last July? In my system, the Black has lots of beautiful tone and texture, while sounding less colored, less pungent, than either version of the DL-103. But for all that, the Zu DL-103 in particular was capable of sounding bigger, and had a better, more impactful way with uptempo music. In that respect, the Zu was more stirring—more involving—than all but my Miyabi 47. Really.

In many instances, the Koetsu Black or the EMT JSD 5 (also here on loan) had a prettier, even more realistic sound—a flute with a clearer timbral signature here, a more realistic guitar tone there—but for sheer fun, the Zu was usually the one I turned to.

When I met Sean Casey at Home Entertainment 2007 in New York City, I asked him what Zu meant. I don't recall his exact words, but the response was something to the effect of: "Long story."

I forgot about it until today, when I happened to glance at Casey's business card on my desk—except that now, the card was turned 90 degrees clockwise, and I saw the stylized Zu-in-a-circle logo from a different angle. It's clearly a picture of a bunny.

Zu's first phono cartridge is like their logo: What you make of it depends on the direction from which you approach it. It also depends on what you bring to it in terms of experience, attitude, even the records themselves. The Zu DL-103 doesn't much reward the quest for subway-train noises or the "sounds" of the walls of recording venues, arguably because it's too busy finding the momentum, impact, and tone of the music in the groove. Whether or not that notion pleases you will determine, in large part, whether the Zu itself will please you. I already own a Denon DL-103, so you can pretty much tell where I stand on the matter.

The stock Denon DL-103 is a superb cartridge and a remarkable buy; if $229 is the limit of your moving-coil cartridge budget, you can do no better, assuming you're prepared to work with it and to toe the setup line described above. But for almost twice the money, the Zu DL-103 will indeed bring that much more pleasure, and then some. The Zu doesn't just slay giants: It rips their beating heart from their chests, shows it to them, finishes them off, then chases their souls and drags them down to hell. Recommended.

Zu Audio
Ogden Commercial Industrial Park
3350 South 1500 West
Ogden, UT 84401
(800) 516-8925