London Decca Reference Cartridge Reviewed

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Twenty-five years is a long time to wait for anything, especially when it's something as trivial as a piece of hi-fi. That's longer than most marriages, mortgages or careers, but it marks precisely the length of time I've held on to a little dream: the ideal Decca cartridge. So you'll forgive me if there's a weirder-than-usual dynamic to this review. It's longer than we held our collective breath for the Sonus Faber Stradivari, the (hoped-for) LS3/5A Revived and the pending demise of Labour. It's a quarter-century, fer Chrissake. But, boy-o-boy, was it worth it.

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A latecomer by veteran standards, it was only in 1979 that I first bought into Decca cartridges, starting with a Gold, then, in rapid succession, discovering the recidivist joys of Maroons, Blues, Greys and - best of all - the late, great Garrott Brothers' modifications. I loved each and every one, in precisely the way you overlook the unreliability of Italian cars, or the leaking of a cherished pen. Now, in 2004, the latest descendant of the original ffss design - branded 'London' since 1989 - has rendered masochism redundant.

It even has four colour-coded pins on the back. I kid thee not.

Decca-philes know that this is not the first attempt at making a Decca cartridge that doesn't look like something made from recycled Pepsi cans by Third World peasants armed with tin snips. (See sidebar, 'From Decca To London'.) The long-standing jokes that have accompanied the Decca London body, especially when compared to its rather nicely-attired predecessors, are well-deserved. Because the body is made from folded tin, and finished - or, more accurately, unfinished - with poorly trimmed edges, because it boasted cartridge mounting hardware that screamed for some form of mechanical Viagra, because it featured three-pin connection when every other cartridge uses four, thus ensuring earthing problems, because it cannot withstand any rearward movement without snapping its vertical cantilever, well, let's just say it's one of those design that, on paper, simply shouldn't work.

Grump Old Men Moment: Due to its design and its inherent inability to back-track, no Decca nor London cartridge will ever be used by any butt-munch deejay or mix-meister to do 'scratch' playback. So, a thousand years from now, when musicologists determine who's to blame for the curses that are sampling, scratch, house, hip-hop, et al, only the London-nee¬-Decca cartridges will be certifiably blameless. OK, OK: and short-cantilever'd Dynavectors.

In the 12 years - exactly - since London launched the solid-bodied Jubilee [see HFN&RR, October 1992], John Wright has continued to tweak the standard models with their tin bodies, e.g. installing a van den Hul stylus in the Gold to create the Super Gold. While the basic 'motor' has been left close enough to its original form, you can rest assured that the internals have been tweaked here and there. As Brian Smith of Presence Audio - the London world-wide distributor and spokesperson - put it, 'We simply can't improve n the basic design from 1951.'

Understandably, Smith will not divulge what changes may have occurred inside of the new London Reference. Suffice it to say, the evolution of the stylus itself is enough to ensure that the cartridge has improved steadily beyond the bodywork; we'll simply have to imagine what other magic has been wrought by Wright. So while it's tempting to think of the Reference model as simply a traditional Decca transducer in an all-new, solid metal body, with a new and exclusive-to-London fine-line stylus, there could be even more to it. But, as you'll see, the new body alone merits a celebration.

Although the Reference sports a two-piece body like the Jubilee, it's a vastly superior construct. It even looks expensive, whereas the Jubilee looked like shit. No kidding: this is a London (I still have to bite my tongue when I start to say the 'D' word...) for which you need never apologise. Avid has done a wonderful job with the finish and fit, so I didn't feel perverse fitting it to an SME Series V arm. Putting a normal London or Decca in an SME is like dressing in tails and then putting on a pair of Birkenstocks.

Working in conjunction with Avid, the team rejected titanium and opted for aluminium parts, not anodised in the normal method but hard-anodised. Indeed, the assembly - which you could dismantle easily if you're fundamentally destructive - reminded me of the first Lyras, with a luxurious finish, a couple of screws holding the substantial body in place and an easy-to-read logo on the nose.

They thought of everything. The shape still conforms to the Decca near-cube with a pointed prow,' the sides are finned - looks cool and allows for the use of a slide-on stylus guard - and the rear sports the aforementioned four pins. Better still? The top is surgically flat, drilled with two holes 1/2in apart, and it embraces the underside of the headshell. Gone is the flimsy plastic mount, or the need for an aftermarket clamp. You lock this sucker in place with the best security I've seen in any cartridge, metal-under-metal.

Beneath the Reference, it looks like 1974, which is fine by me. I never had a problem with the weird topology, the exposed magnets, the tie-back string. Aside from knowing that it has an operating system unlike any of the moving coils or moving magnets that dominate the industry, this is a London that can be treated like a regular cartridge, with one caveat.

Set-up was super-quick, thanks to the cartridge's parallel sides and compactness. I used SME's template, but London supplies one with the cartridge. (Which reminds me: they've even dispensed with the cheap yet charming cardboard boxes. The Reference comes in a metal and Perspex container, in a purple velvet pouch, the packaging worthy of a fine watch.) I installed it with the cartridge top surface parallel to the LP, with the SME's damping set to maximum.

Now here's why I absolutely love the EAR 324 preamp. After conversations with Brian Smith, I was told that, although the world marches to a 47k ohm input for normal phono use, in an ideal situation 220pf capacitance and 15k ohm impedance would be the ultimate for the Reference. Lo and behold, the EAR offered those settings, as well as- get this - a 12db output cut because the 5mV output was actually higher than the other source components in the McIntosh C2200 pre-amp, and I wanted to compare LPs with CDs. This was fine-tuning to the nth degree, and the London responded to each adjustment with glee. God bless EAR.

Tracking was best at 1.8-1.9g, and there were no problems with the SME V in any area. Weight is an astonishingly light 6.5g, a boon for the paranoid. Compare that to the SuperGold 8g without Decapod and10g with, or the Jubilee's 10g. 6.5g is a throwback to original Golds, Maroons and Blues, which didn't have the London's mastic damping material inside.

Now the one caveat. Make no mistake: this cartridge is a microphonic as any of its predecessors, and touching the arm sends a cacophony through the system. Now this may sound like a cop-out, because I don't have my turntable in the line of my speakers, and microphony doesn't seem to be an issue, but Smith made one remark that brushed away this criticism like a trace of fluff on one's sleeve. 'Ken,' he sighed, 'how often do you touch the arm when the record's actually playing?' Fair cop. Just make damned certain you don't use this cartridge if your turntable is in the speakers' line of fire, or your floor is less than nuclear power station-solid.

In addition to the aforementioned components, the review system consisted of the SME 30 Mk II turntable, Rogers LS3/5as (15 ohm) and Wilson WATT Puppy System 7 speakers, Transparent cables and the AudioValve 'Baby' Baldur and McIntosh MC2102 power amplifiers. I don't know if the review sample was run-in, but it sounded fine from the outset, and improved little over time.

A flood of memories poured from the speakers the instant the stylus hit the LP. Deccas and Londons never enter quietly, and they do not emulate the velvet-on-silk whooshy near-silences of Lyras, Koetsus, Transfigurations or other moving coils, nor the tracing composure of high-compliance moving-magnets. Rather, the ride with a London is more Caterham 7 than Rover 75: purely British, purely sporting, but you wonder what's gonna fall off. Excitement? That's a given. It 'clicks' into place after the cueing lever drops down, and the effect is electrifying, the anticipation excruciating. Think amusement park ride. Think breathlessness. Think unprotected sex with a stranger. In a public place. With your spouse or partner nearby.

And yet there was the tiniest whiff of gentility, like a jolly hockey sticks 'gel' suddenly discovering make-up. It's hard to explain if you've never heard an uncensored Decca, so forgive the flood of analogies. But watch the film My Fair Lady, and you'll understand the degree of transformation. As Decca-philes have known, not merely suspected, for decades, the cartridges' main flaws have been attributable to the low-rent bodywork, the lack of internal damping, the sub-Trabant assembly. From now on, you can use the term 'sophisticated' or 'urbane', and none can argue.

Every virtue has been retained. The punch of horns - jazz or broadway, classical or soundtrack - has always been a Decca party trick. I dug out some Vegas-y Bobby Darin, a load of mono Mickey Katz, Miles Davs' Sketches Of Spain, even Blood Sweat & Tears. If you want to understand the concept of speed as it applies to sound, then the London Reference illustrates its every aspect with a clarity found nowhere else. Attack, decay, solidity: I hear my son's sax playing all the time, mere feet away from my ears, so I know the impact and power of 'real' way up close. The Reference preserves every characteristic, including convincing levels without clipping, and the honk and snap make other cartridges seem sluggish.

Read more about the cartridge on Page 2.

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