06 June, 2014

Talk Vinyl: Decca ffss MkIII

Click pics to enlarge.Note the adaptor.Time Out mono six-eye on the platter.

Letter from NYC(31)2014(3):
Talk Vinyl: Decca ffss MkIII Cartridge, Part I
Talk Vinyl: Mono Replay III
Talk Vinyl: Take Five (Time Out), do you know it?

Editor's Note: this article came about because my good friend shidi recently got the vintage Decca ffss MkIII cartridge AND the Dave Brubeck Time Out mono 6-eye LP, which he made the mistake of sending to my NYC home - well, he may not be getting them back! :-)

Background on Decca Cartridges Due to its unusual design, the history of Decca cartridges is inextricable linked to Decca tonearms and adaptors, so it is not straightforward but not unduly difficult to trace. Info can be rather piecemeal on the internet. A search reveals a lot buried in various forums, notably Lencoheaven, but if you don't have the time, start with the current manufacturer's concise history of Decca Cartridges and this somewhat rhapsodic but informative article by Philip Holmes. Also informative are two reviews of current models by enjoythemusic (Super Gold, Jubilee) and hifipig (Jubilee) that include some history and technical info.

My previous experience has been limited. Certainly, although I have always wanted one, I had never got around to it. In HK, as elsewhere, there are Decca fans and while I heard some reasonable performances, they pale next to my best experience, indeed one of the very best ever, at AL's place in NYC (Decca SC4E), chronicled here.

R. Against the correctly aligned Denon DL-102 (top) the Decca is short by at least 1 cm; L. close-up of adaptor. 

Decca ffss MkIII, make-shift setup. Never heard of Baerwald!
Warning: Perfectionists and TT setup freaks should stop here. You have been warned!

Considering its age, the Decca ffss III cartridge arrived in amazingly fine shape, together with an SME-type adaptor (3-pin connection to the cartridge, which has a common ground pin only; 4-pin out to the tonearm), so I was able to fit it on the lowest of my turntables, while it happens all my reference TTs all have fixed headshells (Garrard/SME 3009R; LP12/Ittok LVII; Clearaudio Concept, Thorens TD-309).Perfectionist will frown upon the so-so built quality of the adpator, but it comes handy.

I'd like to slip in here a word of caution: the adaptor fits very snugly onto the cartridge; you must have a firm hand when you try to detach it - otherwise one slip and you'll damage the stylus.

Note absence of cantilever.

Turntable 1 Technics SL-1200 MkII
Since I happened to have the Technics running with the Denon DL-102 mono in the reference system (shall be covered in the next article), I simply swapped it out for the Decca ffss III.

Now, as you see in the middle pic, the Decca with adaptor is short by at least 1 cm, and there is no way to move it forward. I reckon if installed on an SME arm with removable headshell one can move the entire tonearm forward and if the hole was centered well achieve alignment. Too bad my SME 3009 has fixed headshell!So, forget about Baerwald and all that for the moment!

Phonoamp: Parasound JC3 or ZPhono USB (reports to come)/iFi iPhono
Preamp: Manley Neo-classic 300B
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Speakers: YL 4-way horns

AA Little Time Out The first LP I played was the mono Time Out.It only took a few notes for me to recognize the Decca's well known qualities: Clean leading edge and fast transients. Morello was most obviously showcased - the drums were tight and tuneful; the cymbals positively shimmered, with great harmonic faithfulness. Even Brubeck's piano, which I have never found well-recorded or tonally alluring, came through clearer than usual. But the Decca is not just about speed; it effortlessly unearthed a myriad of details and rhythmic felicities.

Like many others, I have long used the Take Five track as a test (search this blog for Take Five and you will see many mentions). Morello's long drum solo serves as a most accurate means of assessing a system's transient response, microdynamics and rhythmic exactitude. But this is also one of the tracks that I morbidly fear on home visits.

Me, the long suffering audiophile Given the popularity of this track, you can imagine the uncountable number of times I had to suffer through it on home visits in HK. More often than not, particularly in the case of tube users (especially vintage types), when the saxophone cuts out and the spotlight is on the drums, the proceedings become so lethargic that each return of the bass drum just drags me further into that audiophile quicksand known as boredom. And in HK, audiophiles are in general not sensitive to rhythm and pace. They simply don't get the intricacies of the drum solo, instead patiently waiting for the saxophone's return; by then it is too late for me, all energy drained out of my body, too weak to go on and time for, yes, time out! Yes, home visits can be hell when Take Five is played.

For me, a successful replay of this track must reveal how Morello varies his beat, his touch: the varying force of each strike and the speed of withdrawal that the drummer uses to color his playing. Now, this is not the most coloristic of compositions, but whatever color there is must be revealed for the whole to have rhythmic finesse, to draw one into the music. What I previously wrote on the YBA DAC's plaback of this track also sums it up: "...All of a sudden, you can hear all the stressed beats effortlessly. This kind of replay enlivens a track like Take Five from Brubeck's Time Out. Focusing on Morello's drums, the bad CD player can make the strong beats only that little louder than the weak ones; the average CD player gives you an approximation of the playing; but the truly outstanding player, like the YBA (or an old Naim, say the CD2), makes you aware of the infinite dynamic shading and brings out the full flow. Whatever the CD, the YBA delivers the music in spades..."

Material like this is better on vinyl and well nigh tailor made for the Decca. I suspect the Decca's mono lineage also makes it uniquely suitable. You will need a very very good cartridge to match the Decca's performance: to cite an example, my Air Tight PC-1 is even better all-around, but that is a very expensive cartridge!

Turntable 2 Audio-Technica AT-PL120
You will recognize this as the TT in my Casual System, which gets as much actual use these days as the reference system - reason why I installed the Decca on it.

Preamp: Audio Research SP-9
Amp: McIntsoh MC-2200
Speakers: Linn Kan I

This turntable, clone of the above Technics, great value as it is, is the least of my TTs, yet in the latest iteration of the Casual System the performance of the Decca was astonishing.

Although limited in the bass and not full-range, the quality and refinement of replay in many ways equals that of the system 1. I played more LPs on this system, and no matter it is violin or piano or orchestral material I was very satisfied. I would guess the tubed phonostage (albeit a hybrid) proved synergistic with the somewhat lean Decca (see below)

More details on Decca ffss III Sound Quality
  • as mentioned, fast transients, clean leading edge; great rhythm and pace.
  • Excellent detail retrieval, including hall sound and air around instruments.
  • On both TTs, there is a somewhat LEAN quality. At first I thought perhaps the direct drives are partly responsible, but then just before installing the Decca on the Technics I was using the Denon DL-102, and there was no such problem. I consulted my friend AL (mentioned earlier), who owned just about every Decca's, and he told me this is indeed so. Usually we frown when we hear "lean", but this is not the case here - the sound is unfailingly musical, and cushioned by bags of air. This isn't the peaky treble that we find in many MC's, just a slight pallor in texture, so to speak. But I can imagine, with lesser electronics, the leanness and fast transient of the Decca can cause problems.
  • Now, if you have read this far you may be wondering why I haven't said more on the misalignment when used in the ordinary tonearm. That is because all else pales in the face of excellence. Yes, there is definitely mistracking, especially at the beginning. But the occasional distortion was tolerable and, even with big orchestral climaxes the needle did not jump out of the groove, as many have reported. If you ask me, I'd say the mono lineage of the cartridge makes alignment not so critical. In any case, both AL and I believe alignment requirement for cartridges in general is not as stringent as portrayed by many.
  • On the one hand, I am sure a proper arm would get even more out of the Decca; on the other, I rather think, as usual, many of the "woes" of the Decca's to be exaggerations. It is easy to get good sound if your system is balanced. The modern Decca's can be fitted with adapters ("pods") that allow mounting on any arm.
  • The sound of the Decca has nothing in common with the only other moving-iron design that I know about, the Grado. Hence, I think the absence of cantilever is the most important factor for the Decca sound. This leads me to think the modern Decca models would sound very much like the old ones, only with less headache.
  • Not surprisingly, given its lineage, the Decca is equally adept at playing mono than stereo. With the Decca, unless you are a perfectionist, you may not really need a dedicated mono cartridge. 
More later...

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