Listening #156 Page 2

The Decca cartridge does indeed have a cantilever—if by cantilever one means the thingie that goes between the stylus and the generator—but it imposes no fulcrum between those two elements: A stylus excursion of, say, 1µm causes the moving armature in a Decca's generator to undergo a 1µm excursion. This aspect of their cartridge's performance was referred to by Decca Special Products as positive scanning, and they claimed that it resulted in a transducer that imposes far less dynamic compression than any other.

To test that claim, I asked Brian Tucker to loan me a current-production sample from London Cartridges—whose production chief, John Wright, was an engineer for Decca Special Products until 1989, when he bought the rights to manufacture the cartridges in his own facility in Shropshire. (Over a quarter-century later, the health-conscious Wright is still going strong: When he's not busy working as a hockey umpire, he does all of the manufacturing and repairing, while colleague Brian Smith, of Presence Audio in West Sussex, handles worldwide distribution and sales.) We settled on the London Maroon ($950), partly because it's the entry-level London, and partly because it's fitted with a spherical stylus tip, which I tend to prefer. (Most of the five other models in the London line, which range in price up to $5000, are fitted with elliptical or hyperelliptical styli.)

When my loaner London Maroon arrived, I set about comparing its design with that of an original Decca I have on hand—a nonfunctioning Decca Blue given me by the temporarily one-armed George. (I also accepted from George his similarly doornail-like Decca Gray and left it with The Soundsmith's Peter Ledermann, hoping it can be repaired.) The experience was like climbing a steep cliff and discovering, at the top, one of those plateaus where dinosaurs still live: Time had apparently stood still for these cartridges, which appeared identical. They had precisely the same dimensions, and appeared to be made of precisely the same materials—a light-gauge metal (tin?) for some parts, a distinctively old-style bright-red plastic (polystyrene?) for others. The only differences were that the London's coil looked neater and better made, and that the unfathomable numbers at the output-pin end of its red plastic housing were written in ink. (On the original Deccas, the writing resembles dried mud.)

Installing a London cartridge requires a procedure unlike that for virtually any other cartridge, since its antecedent was designed for quick, easy mechanical and electrical attachment to the headshell of a proprietary Decca tonearm. Londons come with a plastic mounting bracket in the above-described red, made with a pair of threaded holes of the size and spacing needed for standard cartridge-mount screws. A recess at the rear of the cartridge snugs on to said bracket, which also translates the cartridge's three electrical contacts—the ground is common to both channels—into the usual four output pins. Though fans of making things "Linn-tight" are unlikely to be satisfied, I was perfectly pleased with this arrangement, which also adds much-needed distance between the tonearm's headshell and the decidedly non-tall (or short, or shallow, or however you want to say it) body of the London/Decca.

A final setup note: Neither its very low stance—itself a consequence of being cantileverless—nor its width make the London very easy to align, which makes the choice of a nonfussy spherical stylus seem all the wiser. Just sayin'.

With slight reluctance
The London Maroon had a point of view. It stressed detail, presence, touch, and texture. With any device so blessed, the temptation is to give it a steady stream of recordings that promise greater-than-average tactile delights—and up to a point, I did just that. I wanted to hear the tactile qualities of all the wonderfully weird renaissance instruments on Musica Antiqua Vienna's Le Jardin Musical (Supraphon 1 11 2126), and the rattle of loosely strung guitars on Memphis Swamp Jam, by Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, et al (Blue Thumb BTS 6000), and the multihued thwack of the tabla on Ravi Shankar's Improvisations (World Pacific 1416). With those and other LPs, the Maroon did not disappoint: Its sound was impactful, sometimes startlingly so, and often downright breathtaking.

But in the long run, the greater pleasures came from simply playing whatever I felt like playing, and hearing the sonic and musical surprises the London Maroon found in grooves I'd thought I knew. It was a treat to play the recording, by Paul Tortelier with Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic, of Elgar's Cello Concerto (EMI ASD 2906), and not only enjoy the tightly controlled force with which Tortelier approaches some note attacks, but also to hear more clearly than ever the distinction between the sustained F-sharp he plays at the end of a 10-note run, and the same note picked up, softly, by the massed cellos behind him. Even Elgar's subtler Introduction and Allegro for Strings, on the album's flip side, gave up new secrets: a pizzicato note here, bowing techniques there, and so forth.

And I had a pleasant reunion with June 1, 1974 (Island ILPS 9291), which documents a Kevin Ayers concert in which the headliner's special guests came close to stealing the show, none more so than Brian Eno. Eno's "Driving Me Backwards," which opens the album, has Robert Wyatt on percussion, Archie Leggatt and Ayers both playing electric bass, John Cale on electric viola, and various keyboard instruments supporting Eno's synthesizer. Through the London Maroon, the two basses were distinct from one another, yet appropriately forceful when playing in unison on the downbeats—and the attack components of Cale's viola notes were particularly tactile, adding to this performance's very appropriate drive. Indeed, the whole album sounded wonderful: This cartridge found a whole new level of excitement, impact, and sheer fun in a record I'd thought I already knew.

I wondered: Would a stereo cartridge based this heavily on a single-channel design do a better-than-average job of playing mono records?

Yes and no, with an emphasis on yes. On the one hand, the London Maroon didn't ignore surface noise in the manner of a true mono cartridge: It didn't accentuate the ticks and pops of grooves that are contaminated with the baked-in badness of decades-old dirt or just plain worn, but it didn't shy from putting them across.

On the other hand, the Maroon was far better than most stereo cartridges I've heard at putting across the real dynamic juice of a good mono LP from the 1950s or '60s—such as Sonny Rollins's Tenor Madness (Prestige LP 7047). On that record's "Paul's Pal," Paul Chambers's double bass was brisk, agile, and tuneful, while "Philly" Joe Jones's brushed snare had the right snap and impact, and Sonny's tenor sax was richly textured and consistently engaging: a constant stream of nuance and melodic brilliance.

The London Maroon brought to every record I played, stereo or mono, a consistent sound—one in which the midrange was, for lack of a better word, illuminated. There was nothing bright about this cartridge's sound, yet midrange detail and midrange texture always grabbed my attention before anything else. And that was fine by me. The Maroon's treble seemed in good, natural balance with the rest of its range; I never felt I was missing anything in the way of air or sparkle, neither was I troubled by the sort of distracting zizziness I hear from some modern cartridges. The Maroon's bass range was dry and tight, and occasionally left me wanting just a little more. Then again, when compared with my EMT OFD-series mono pickups and their admittedly generous bottom ends, most other pickups can't help sounding a bit lean. To some extent, I suppose, my system is tuned with the EMTs in mind—speaking of which, owing to the London's high DC resistance of 2k ohms per channel and its similarly high output of 5mV, I sent its output straight into the moving-magnet inputs of the Shindo Aurieges phono stage, without using a step-up transformer. (Remember, those mathematical formulae promise not just L and R, but 2L and 2R.)

And I think that I have yet to find the most compatible tonearm for the London (or maybe I have, and it was the medium-mass Rega RB300 back in George's apartment). I say that because, when measuring the Maroon with the Hi-Fi News & Record Review Test Record (Hi-Fi News HFN 001, which is precisely the catalog number I'd have chosen for it), neither my EMT 997 arm nor my review loaner of the Abis SA-1.2B seemed ideal. With the Abis-London combination, the lateral-resonance level peaked at 12–14Hz, the vertical resonance at 5–7Hz. The latter is too low for comfort—and, throughout the entirety of the lateral tests, the cartridge was a little wobbly. Still, that was better than the EMT-London combo: Lateral behavior was nearly identical to what I saw with the Abis, but a 9Hz vertical resonance was so severe that the stylus wouldn't stay in the groove; instead, it did a most disconcerting Woody Woodpecker kind of thing. I was done with testing for the day.

And remember . . .
A cartridge's ability to track records under everyday conditions, while vulnerable to the effects of arm-matching described above, is something else altogether. With the London back in the Abis SA-1.2B arm, which I suppose it preferred by a slight margin, I used good ol' HFN 001 to assess just that, beginning at the manufacturer-recommended vertical tracking force (VTF) of 1.8gm and eventually working up to 2gm. At the latter force, I discovered a level of tracking performance that was fair but acceptable—especially acceptable when optimized by adjusting the antiskating while listening. (Previous to this, I suppose I was insensitive to the appeal of adjusting bias on the fly.)

The prospective London Maroon owner should also note that a positive-scanning cartridge such as this feels different in use, noticeable in the lack of compliance with which it settles into the lead-in groove. Simply put, cueing records with a stiff-feeling Decca or London cartridge takes some getting used to. A positive-scanning cartridge can also be more easily tripped up by record warps great or small, for the same reason that cars without shock absorbers can, at speed, have trouble keeping all four tires on uneven pavement. And the Maroon's lack of compliance between stylus and generator accounts for yet another idiosyncrasy: Deccas and Londons are somewhat microphonic, and may transmit through your system the noises you didn't know your tonearm makes when it's being lifted away from and returned to its rest (footnote 3).

Idiosyncratic? Inarguably. And thus this tiny little cartridge embodies the greatest conundrum in perfectionist audio, one found at the heart of so many exceptional products: It sets out to excel in a truly vital aspect of playback, and in doing so pays a bit less attention to aspects of lesser importance. Technologically conservative audiophiles (a friendlier way of saying "nerdy twits") would have us believe that the Decca produces more distortion than do more conventional cartridges, but that's not true: The Decca offers a different balance of the many distortions with which we all must contend—and it may well distort less overall.

Compared to the London Maroon, most moving-coil cartridges—with the exceptions of very early Ortofons and the similarly early EMTs they inspired—sound compressed. Those distinctions will be important to some hobbyists, considerably less so to others, and that's all well and good. We remain free to choose the distortions of least personal significance in order to revel in the strengths that matter most: a reasonable price to pay.

Footnote 3: And if your tonearm makes noises during normal record play, which it surely should not, I suppose you'll hear those, too.

matthillTX's picture

Cool. Thanks for the review. This may be my next cartridge. I have a weird fascination with how music sounded at the time it was produced, with the technology present at the time. I have a Rega P3-24 with the R301 tonearm, which works really well with a Denon Dl-103. While listening to Buddy Holly Reminiscing (Decca, Maroon label) I hear plate glass breaking in one portion of the song....maybe intentional since it was Slipping and Sliding and he was "peeping" and hiding. :) You ever hear that?

My point is, I never heard that before the Denon 103, the standard(?) of broadcast table cartridges in the 60's. Would love to give the Decca a try after your nice review.

Herb Reichert's picture

he said "latitudinarianism" hehehe