Decca cartridges are unique transducers with quite a bit of interesting history behind them, starring with the Decca company itself. From their 1929 beginnings as a British record company and gramophone (phonograph) manufacturer, the company later contributed to the 1940s war effort by developing radar and marine navigation systems. Decca produced records in both Europe and North America and quickly became the second-largest record label in the world, known for technical innovation and advanced recording techniques.
My vintage 1960 copy of the soundtrack album from Spartacus (the original, with Kirk Douglas) is a fine example of their work. The record is impeccable in every way, starting with the jacket and inner booklet. The vinyl record itself is quiet with outstanding dynamics that ebb and flow effortlessly, a lush, silken tonal quality, great soundstage depth, and fine detail with no etchiness in the sound whatsoever. (Decca Records is now part of the Universal Music Group.)
This is just a small bit of the colorful history of the Decca company, and if you find the subject interesting I suggest you read some of the many online articles about Decca. Even the origin of the Decca name may surprise you. It is the word “Mecca” with the initial “D” from their trademarked 1914 “Dulcetphone” replacing the M. It was also chosen because “Decca” was found to be easy to pronounce in most languages.
The Decca cartridge design is as interesting and unique as the company itself. It uses a “positive scanning system” generator design that is comprised of a piece of metal foil with the stylus mounted directly to it. This eliminates a conventional cantilever (and a sonic effect the company called “cantilever haze”) resulting in the shortest possible path from record to electrical signal. Along with the singular design and the sonic qualities of this cartridge, with its reputation for unrivaled musicality, also came a reputation for having many compromises, such as being unforgiving of dirty record and tracking abilities that fell well behind conventional moving magnet and moving coil designs.
Fast forward several decades and Decca is no longer in the business of manufacturing phono cartridges, the company having been sold in 1989. The cartridge design was licensed to Decca engineer John Wright, a license that is still in effect today. Now sold under the London brand name, “Decca” is often unofficially inserted into product description as the new manufacturer does not have the rights to use the Decca name. Referencing Decca makes the cartridge instantly recognizable to customers familiar with this unique transducer.
The latest London cartridges have been improved with a wider choice of styli and an improved mounting plate. All the cartridges, including the styli, are handmade in London to exacting standards, with the company being particularly proud of their stylus quality and the precise ways they are made and polished. The current London cartridge line-up is distributed by Pro Audio Ltd. of Tower Lakes, Illinois and is comprised of the following models:
Professional (DJ), $1,100
Maroon – Spherical, $950
Maroon DP*, $1,100
Gold – Elliptical, $1,200
Gold DP, $1,400
Super Gold – Line Contact Super, $1,500
Gold DP, $1,600
Jubilee – Line Contact, $3,000
Reference Low-Mass Fine Line, $5,000
*DP = Decapod
Any of the cartridges are available in mono or 78 RPM versions by special order. Re-tipping and servicing is available for all models as well.
As part of this feature I was loaned a London Super Gold cartridge to review and provide an update on a modern version of this classical, historically relevant piece of audio gear. I was most interested in seeing if the mythical status of the Decca cartridge was deserved, in both its positive and negative aspects. I used it with my Technics SL-1200GR feeding a Graham Slee Accession phono preamp. The Super Gold has a strong 5 mV output so no special phono preamp is required, and it tracks at 1.8 grams. The cartridge starts sounding its best after 30 hours of break-in so if you try the cartridge be sure to give it enough time to open up.
The legendary musicality is definitely not a myth. Whether it is the elimination of “cantilever haze,” the unique transducer itself or a combination of the two, there is something special to the sound that is different from other cartridges, analogous to the way that planar speakers are different from speakers with dynamic drivers. It made some of my $800 moving magnet and moving coil cartridges sound almost digital at times, and not good digital at that. Though the difference in price would certainly justify it in sounding so much better, as I mentioned before, there is a difference to the sound that is difficult to quantify.
There is an immediacy and clarity to the music that has to be experienced to be appreciated, along with tonal color and roundness I have never heard from any other musical component or transducer of any kind. Listening to the soundtrack from Breakfast at Tiffany’s featuring the music of Henry Mancini, the percussion had an immediacy and clarity I have never heard on that recording. The strumming at the beginning of “Moon River” had a richness and silken tonality that made took the listening experience to a new level.
The notion that the cartridge is intolerant of less-than-perfect vinyl also has some basis in reality. The qualities that make it so good at extracting music out of the groove make it somewhat unforgiving if your records are not well cared for. It is not unlistenable in these cases, but it seems to make imperfections come to the forefront a bit more than other fine cartridges I have used. If anything, the Decca Super Gold will encourage you to keep up your vinyl as pristine as possible. There is not much clearance between the stylus and the cartridge body so I recommend checking it frequently for dust build-up. The very fine stylus of the Super Gold managed to collect dust from records that were quiet and seemed clean, and if you have any accumulation it will degrade the sound more quickly than with other cartridges. Keep that stylus brush handy!
Tracking was not an issue whatsoever and the 1.8-gram tracking force handled everything I threw at it. I did find the set-up to be somewhat fussy, and if you have an arm with easily-adjustable VTA it will help you get the most out of the cartridge.
If you are looking for something to take your analog system to the next level and are willing to try something different, London Decca cartridges definitely belong on your shopping list. You will not only experience the distinctive and beautiful sound, you will also enjoy the pride that comes with owning something classic, unique and a part of audio history.
Pro Audio, Ltd.
111 N. South Dr.
Tower Lakes, IL 60010-1324
Photos courtesy of Don Lindich.