I have been using an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge that came stock with the Pro-Ject RPM 1.3 "Genie" record player for about three or four years now. While it did well and certainly better than the heavily used second hand cartridge and needle I had before it, I was never fully satisfied with it. So when it became painfully apparent that the needle was very used up and I started avoiding listening to records altogether, instead of replacing just the needle I instead opted to find a nice alternative that, hopefully, matches my taste a little more, too.
One of the cartridges you'll likely see often recommended as a great bang-for-buck choice is the Denon DL-103. I was initially leaning towards trying this one, as what I could read about it certainly sounded appealing. However, there was one challenge, and that was that the arm of many of the Pro-Ject record players are quite light, too light for the DL-103. Without weighing the arm down somehow or doing other stuff I did not feel confident enough in doing, the results of using the DL-103 would likely end up being worse than it is capable of.
The DL-110 is in the same range as the DL-103, financially speaking, and is recommended as a good choice for record players with lighter arms like the one I have. And so I opted to try this one.
Removing the cartridge turned out to be a bit of a chore, as the wires connected to it are very thin and quite tightly attached. As I did not want to rip these cables, I took my time and managed to get them to come off. My first attempt at just kind of pulling them off straight using small pliers did not really work. I ended up using a knife to effectively give each an initial push by wedging the knife between the base of the cartridge and the metal piece of each wire. It sounds a bit scary, but it ended up going quite easily once I figured out the knife method.
I installed the Denon DL-110 with the included bolts, which was fairly trivial. I could've used a third hand to keep things in place, but so it goes. I also made sure to place the metal shim between the cartridge and the arm, as the extra weight is very much needed with my particular arm.
Looking back I feel like I never truly understood how exactly to calibrate both the arm and cartridge until now. I understood the individual steps on a theoretical level, but realized a few new things this time around that make me wish I had known them before. I don't think the Ortofon was mis-aligned or anything, it was just a bit of a retrospective derp moment, if you know what I mean.
Effectively what you want to do is both ensure the cartridge is on as straight as possible —relative to the record, that is— and the arm is calibrated in a way that the optimal downforce is given. The exact recommended downforce varies by cartridge, so check the instruction booklet (or online documentation) of your cartridge to see what you should aim for.
My record player came with a cartridge alignment potractor, which is basically a printed piece of paper with lines on it that you use to ensure the cartridge is properly aligned. If yours did not come with one, you can find many online for free that you can print out yourself.
I placed the cartridge on top of the protractor on the outer edge of the player, ensured it visually matched as closely as I could make it with the lines shown on the protractor, and then moved the arm inward and checked again. I went back and forth several times to ensure it was as close as possible before tightening the bolts down fully. The DL-110 actually has a small needle protector hinge thingamajig, which I used to rest the cartridge on when testing this. This ended up being quite useful, as it gave a very straight line right on top of the protractor I could measure against.
Next I had to balance the arm to create the right amount of downforce. My record player also came with a little doohickey for that, which in my case looks like a tiny seesaw. There are different types that behave differently, but the purpose is the same for all.
It too has lines on it with several numerical indicators. These indicators are for the amount of downforce you want to have — or, your cartridge needs to have. You'll want to adjust the weight on the back of your arm so that the weight of the arm can tip the seesaw down when the needle touches it at the correct spot, but is not able to tip it closer to the center of the seesaw, as that would mean its downforce is set too strong.
With the Pro-Ject RPM 1.3 Genie this experience is not very user-friendly, I have to admit, as you only have the option of physically moving the counterweight, which is tightened down with a bolt. Many other record players (including Pro-Ject's) have a counterweight with an adjustment wheel for finer adjustments, so you can more easily set the specific downforce required.
Then again, those tables also tend to have arms with replaceable cartridge heads, which this one lacks as-well. If you are looking to use multiple cartridges that you can relatively easily swap depending on what you want to listen to, do take this into consideration when finding a suitable record player.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the Ortofon 2M Red's needle was in dire condition. Switching to any new needle would yield an immediate and obvious improvement. Fortunately the difference the Denon DL-110 introduces is more than just that.
First and foremost the DL-110 produces a much clearer sound than the 2M Red ever did. I was able to notice new details that previously were hidden to my ears, and it is a true delight to experience that. This is, I would say, it's biggest selling point.
It also feels faster, and I believe this is largely due to it being a moving coil cartridge, as supposed to the 2M being a moving magnet cartridge. It feels a bit odd to describe the sound as "faster" as it certainly isn't sped up of course, but it feels like an accurate description. It's physically able to follow the grooves more sharply as what is being guided by the grooves weighs less, and the difference is, to my wife and myself at least, very noticeable.
Where this cartridge lacks a bit more than I anticipated is the mid-range and lower-midrange. My wife somewhat jokingly described the difference between the two being that the 2M Red was like a short, plump fellow, and the DL-110 being a tall, skinny person. I think that somewhat accurately describes it. The 2M certainly had more breadth in the lower mid range, with you being able to feel the bass press on your chest. In songs where that happened before, the DL-110 produces more clear and clean results. You hear these sounds, yes, but you don't feel them as much.
I, too, feel that while the upper range certainly goes beyond where the 2M could go, it has less breadth there. Less stereo separation, if that makes sense. While I certainly appreciate the raised ceiling, it would have been even nicer if it had sounded a bit less skinny.
The downsides of the cartridge are most apparent with classical music, specifically single instrument music. Large, heavy instruments such as a cello feel lighter, more airier. Only the lowest of bass can be felt pressing on your chest. Classical music is, indeed its weakness, but you might notice this same effect with other genres as-well, of course.
This may sound as a big negative mark on the cartridge, and to some it might be. It is not a clear win in my book, but at the same time I wasn't really expecting something miraculous. Both my wife and I have been going back and forth on the gains vs losses as compared to our previous cartridge, but we both come out enjoying it in the end. The wins outweigh the losses.
We, too, feel that our ears need some time to get used to the new sound. Things like the increased "speed" of the moving-coil cartridge are an interesting experience. But certainly not a bad one.
If I had to come up with an analogy, I would say that it is similar to watching The Hobbit in high framerate for the first time. When the first scene shows, your brain feel like everybody is walking around in fast-forward. But after giving it a moment, you'll start to see it for what it really is; increase in detail between the frames your eyes were already familiar with. Added resolution to movement. You are given more detail than you were used to. If you have seen those movies and remember that feeling, I think this might help you understand what this cartridge (and indeed, likely any MC cartridge over an MM one) does.
I am certainly enjoying it, and feel like it was a worthy upgrade over my previous cartridge. If you enjoy clear highs and lots of detail, for this price range I would say this is a solid consideration.