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Decca Phono Cartridge Review: Part 2

One cartridge for all LPs

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If you’ve been around long enough, and you follow the various comings and goings in the cartridge universe, you’ve heard that the Decca cartridges are like nothing else. That’s a loaded statement. Yes, they’re like nothing else. You’ve probably heard that they have better dynamics, sound “more real” and are the fastest cartridges. That might be true, though they couldn’t give faster rise time than the source, whether it’s a microphone feed, or a master tape. You may have heard that they are impossible to set up, have poor quality control and will always track poorly. There’s some truth to that. Everything you’ve heard, good and bad, is somewhat true.

Decca cartridges carry a lot of baggage. The cartridges from the ‘60s through ‘80s were plagued with sample-to-sample variability. In the era of improving manufacturing techniques, statistical process control, Kaizen, and Toyota, the Decca remained a hand built product from England, where TQM was slow to catch on (I can site many examples in Britain’s auto industry—sexy cars that fell apart). On the other hand, there have always been firms like Linn that built products of the highest quality. Of course, that’s beating a dead horse and Great Britain is great again. Europe, like America was slow to catch on to the “total quality” movement. I digress.

For some reason, the Decca was notorious for such poor quality control that many fans would purchase several samples before finding one that performed well. Mind you, even when they found a good one, it didn’t track as well as most other cartridges. But once they had one that “sorta” tracked, the Decca was a real ear opener. In my experience, the Decca sound is similar to what you get from a ribbon or planar speaker. Once you’ve heard the detail and speed, everything else will sound slower in comparison. Other components that seem as fast are 2-track open-reel units and OTL vacuum tube designs. That is a subjective observation, but OTL amps don’t have transformers, ribbons have less moving mass and the Decca cartridge doesn’t have a cantilever and its suspension is less spongy than other cartridges. While I’m being totally subjective, I’ve never heard a CD that sounded as fast as a 2-track tape or direct-to-disk record. I don’t know exactly why that is. Or, maybe the apparent speed is because of a tipped-up treble response (the Decca, ribbons, etc.)? Just a thought.

So, for many years, there were thousands of audiophiles constantly tweaking these cartridges, trying to get every record to sound good. There are several possible reasons these cartridges developed a bad reputation. Decca’s came with conical and elliptical styli of marginal quality. As you know, conical stylus tips have more harmonic distortion and track poorly compared to hyper-elliptical, line contact, VDH and other exotic shapes. Since the cartridge had very few losses, it faithfully reproduced all the mistracking. Further, the body resonated like a musical instrument, which fed noise back into the generator. Also, I’d like to hypothesize that many of the records that couldn’t be tracked, were actually poorly made records that sucked.

“… with a Decca, you can hear problems in the recording, the mastering and the pressing that moving magnets gloss over.”

Let’s suppose that the record was bad, and the only cartridge that revealed the “badness” was the Decca. If your other cartridge sounded fine, then the Decca must be at fault. That could be part of the problem: it was “too” accurate. In my experience, with a Decca, you can hear problems in the recording, the mastering and the pressing that moving magnets gloss over. Another potential problem for the Decca is poor isolation from its environment. Because it doesn’t have a long cantilever with a spongy pivot point (less compliant), any mechanical vibration, or feedback, or bad pressing can excite the somewhat stiff suspension. The Decca can fly from the groove! Also, the vibrations can induce something I’ve seen in Grados: a jittery dance that causes mistracking in one channel and then the other, as the cartridge bounces from one side of the groove to the other, and up and down, and around. It sounds bad and looks worse.

If you don’t know for sure that you’ve ever seen the “Grado dance”, then you haven’t seen it. You’ll know it when it happens. With the Grado, the “dance” is less audible because it has a long cantilever. Since the Decca is devoid of a traditional cantilever and suspension, the mistracking is worse, and more audible.

Just think of the Decca as a Formula 1 car with a very stiff and short suspension, designed for very smooth roads. The Denon DL102 is like a 4X4 off-road vehicle. The worst quirk of the Decca cartridge is that the lateral and vertical compliance are significantly different. The flex of the iron former determines the lateral compliance. The vertical compliance is more impacted by the rubber damper. The result is that the vertical compliance is lower than the lateral compliance. What this means is that the Decca tracks mono records better than stereo records. A groove with a very strong bass signal in only one channel can cause mistracking that wouldn’t occur if it were a mono signal. Most finally gave up on the Decca as a promising product that was never fully realized. Some were able to find a really nice example (or had one rebuilt with superior materials) and could live with it when it occasionally misbehaved.

Some technical details about the Decca cartridge are in order since it’s different from other stereo cartridges. The Decca is a mono cartridge with a vertical coil added. It’s an evolutionary change of the mono cartridge that preceded it. However, here’s something that is rarely mentioned: Decca presented a proposal for stereo records that worked differently from the 45/45 system we are familiar with. Their proposal was for a system where the horizontal (side-to-side) motion of the stylus was one channel and the vertical (up/down) motion was the other channel.

Thus, the Decca system was a combination of the vertical cut record system (AKA hill-and-dale) employed by Edison and Pathe and the lateral cut used by virtually everyone else. I think Edison and Pathe stopped using vertical cut in the mid ‘20s, if I remember correctly. Ultimately, it was decided by the NAB and the RIAA that he 45/45 stereo system was the best way forward. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Decca stereo cartridge employed a true mono cartridge with a vertical cut coil added. The use of the vertical coil allows a mono cartridge to become a stereo cartridge because of sum and difference with the mono signal. Directly beneath the vertical coil is a piece of iron that holds the stylus tip. When you cue the Decca, the stylus tip is virtually invisible. I lack the technical expertise to fully explain this cartridge so here’s what the manufacturer has to say (this applies to the FFSS/MK1 through the current version):

“How and why is this cartridge different from, and possibly superior to all the others?
Is it a “moving coil” or a “moving magnet” design? Neither! Only a lighter, thinner shorter, magnetically active metal foil, bearing the stylus, comprises the entire moving system. This results in lower moving mass than either moving coil or moving magnet models.
The London Decca cartridges may be the only ones which have no cantilever, in the conventional sense. This appears to be the underpinning of their stunning success- it has been said that the London Decca’s “reek of musicality.”
Other cartridges (both moving coil and moving magnet) mount their styli on the long end of a thin tube (cantilever) which works like a lopsided “see-saw.” The short end of the cantilever attaches to either a coil of wire or a magnet. At the fulcrum point, a flexible “rubbery” sleeve functions as a pivot, allowing the stylus/cantilever assembly to respond to the “wiggles” in the LP groove. Because the front section of the cantilever, which holds the stylus, is much longer than the rear section which is attached to the coil or magnet, a large movement of the stylus is transformed to a smaller movement at the coil or magnet, possibly causing cantilever-design cartridges to sound dynamically compressed and lacking in transient attack. London Decca’s engineers advise that this problem with dynamics and transients is compounded by the cantilever’s “rubbery” fulcrum point which tends to absorb a significant amount of the stylus-generated motion, before it can reach the coil/magnet electrical generator assembly. Also, a smearing of the sound is said to occur, which they refer to as “cantilever haze.”
But in the London Decca, there is no long cantilever and no “rubbery” fulcrum point to absorb, dissipate and smear the vital musical energy. Instead, the stylus is attached directly to a magnetically active, metal support just a few microns thick (armature) which passes through the center of the main generating coil-positioned only about 1 millimeter above the stylus! The stylus motion is not inverted or “transformed” to a smaller value, as in long cantilever designs. Flowing from this immediate- positive-direct scanning of the groove is a breathtaking “alive” quality. The listener tends to feel that the performing artists are actually in the same room, with a startling, palpable presence.”
Further, study these drawings, courtesy of Rudolf A. Bruil:

From Decca literature:

If you want to make things more basic, then think of the Decca as a Grado with no cantilever and forget all the vertical/lateral and 45/45 stuff. The Decca and Grado cartridges both have a moving hunk of iron that does the signal inducing duties. Some audiophiles think that the moving iron approach is best. I refuse to accept that any one technology has all the answers. All these various technologies have their strengths and weaknesses.

When I received my C4E that I purchased off eBay, I was somewhat surprised by the construction. Plastic is a big player in these cartridges. Thin, cheap, resonant plastic. It wasn’t impressive. All that cheap, thin plastic is a contributor to the sound of the Decca, and not for the better.

The cartridge was obviously shot. The tie-back and stylus tip were missing. I was concerned that perhaps it was too far gone. The seller was in Florida, home of humidity, and these cartridges can actually rust out like an old car. I was starting to feel like I wasted $50! The next step was contacting Expert Stylus.

Expert Stylus doesn’t have a web site. They’re too busy working. However, they have purchased a domain name, expertsylus.co.uk, and they have a working email address: info@expertstylus.co.uk. I was able to find their phone number and gave them a ring. When I first called, it was before they had activated the email address. After the first couple conversations on the phone, we followed up via email.

The proprietor is one of the nicest gentlemen I’ve dealt with, Mr. Wyndham Hodgson. I know that he has some background in engineering, though I didn’t take notes. He advised me to send my cartridge (I actually sent two) and mark “for repair and return” on the customs form. He’d take a look and let me know if the cartridge could be repaired.

There was a period of 3 months or so that I procrastinated after my initial contact with Wyndham. I sent the package airmail and it arrived quickly. At this point all correspondence was still fax or voice and he faxed me a note saying that the cartridges could be repaired and broke down the services, which were:

“Decca C4E: complete overhaul, including examination of coils, removal of magnetic particles about pole pieces, fitting new mu-metal stylus holder together with paratrace profile diamond, damping as required and auditioning. $315”

Note: the “paratrace” profile he recommended is a hyper-elliptical and I decided that he knew more about it than me, so that’s what I went with.

“Clearaudio Aurum Beta: Repair cantilever (stylus in excellent condition) $85”

I’d like to point out that these prices are very reasonable (it’s probably gone up since then due to the worsening exchange rate). This is before I contributed to DAGOGO. I didn’t have any industry connections and couldn’t say, “Hey, do you know who I am?”. I paid the real street price. Everyone will receive the same courteous professionalism. Comparable services from other rebuilders start at $375 (though I didn’t get quotes from everyone).

The Clearaudio belonged to a friend. The cartridge was virtually new when he snapped the cantilever. Wyndham could’ve said it was a total loss and required all new materials, but he didn’t. I don’t know how he fixed it, but if I hadn’t known it was broken, you could’ve fooled me into thinking it was new. As far as the owner was concerned, it performed as new after the repair.

At this point, I procrastinated some more. I procrastinate. Constantine can back me up on that. So, two or three months later I finally got Wyndham the $400. At this point it was time for a delay on Wyndham’s end. Karma demanded it! He rebuilt the Decca and then discovered that his supplier had improperly tempered the armature. How he determined that, I don’t know. It would be a month before he got the new holders in. I should mention that this didn’t hold up the Clearaudio and wouldn’t affect a moving coil rebuild. He apologized profusely, and after 6 weeks, he got me the cartridge. Usual turn around on a cartridge is 4-6 weeks.

The first thing I noticed when I got the cartridge back from England was that it was well packed. Also, Wyndham supplied new brass hardware to mount the cartridge. Except for a new tie-back and stylus tip, the cartridge looked the same. Wyndham doesn’t feel the need to put stickers on the cartridges he repairs. Good for him!

The connections for the C4E and other early Deccas are by three pins, instead of four. There is a fourth pin, covered with a bit of rubber, but I can’t figure out why it’s there. Remember, the Decca is a mono generator with a vertical generator added to give the sum and differences needed for stereo. This is why you only need three pins. I don’t know what the fourth pin is for. It’s not directly connected to the other three–____ohms difference.

There are several ways to take care of the connection problem. The original Decca cartridges, the FFSS or MK1, came with the Decca arm, and the necessary connections were completed for you. Later, Decca provided plastic (yuck, more plastic) adaptors that you could mount to a regular headshell or arm. The adapter provided two ground pins and the two hot pins. Since I was going to first audition this cartridge with a detachable headshell, I decided to adapt the headshell to the cartridge (see pic). This is okay, but I wouldn’t try it with a really nice headshell with nice wires. This headshell cost me all of $5 from MCM, so I soldered the wires/connectors to the pins that run through the tonearm connector.

It takes some patience and practice, but I notice big gains in noise performance when I modify these cheap headshells by soldering the wires to the headshell. Obviously, a better headshell would give better results, but this is pretty similar to the headshells used with SME 3009, and is probably superior to the headshell on the Decca International arm (surprise! a piece of plastic!). Another option is to connect one ground wire and add a jumper at the preamp to combine both grounds (I like this idea least of all). A third option, that I’ll get to in a little bit, is to do the connection in a box, inserted before the preamp.

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