LONDON Decca, Tzar DST and similar cartridges

I have always been curious about these phono cartridges and the Stereophile review of the Tzar DST has heightened my interest. When I read about the peculiarities of these cartridges, I am put off from trying them. Can anyone offer persuasive reasons to try them and also provide real practical advice on how to make them work reliably?  Tonearm suggestions? Phono preamp suggestions? Damping recommendations? How badly do they grind out record grooves?  Any other words of advice? Thanks. 
I have the London Decca Reference
and Jonathan Valin fairly nailed it in his review late 2008
I don’t hold with all the current theories and folk-lore about cartridge and tonearm matching.
In my experience of a dozen tonearms and over 70 cartridges of all types.....I have HEARD the results of supposedly ’kosher’ and ’unkosher’ combinations and it is my view that the very best tonearms will work with every single cartridge regardless of weight and compliance. Because of the different cartridge body materials utilised by manufacturers....the headshell material of the tonearm greatly affects the ’matching’ to the tonearm.
Because most modern high-end tonearms don’t have interchangeable headshells, the majority of high-end audiophiles are at the mercy of poor cartridge/headshell compatibility.....NOT tonearm compatibility.
So I have my Decca London Ref mounted on my Dynavector DV-507/II which is a mighty weighty arm with extreme rigidity (particularly in the horizontal plane).
None of my arms utilises damping and three of the unipivots I owned which used it were a PITA 😡
The Decca London is one of the lightest cartridges I have owned so you will need a counterweight and arm which can balance this.

When I first mounted it, it certainly DID emphasise many more clicks and pops than I was ever aware of on my favourite discs. But after 10 hours or so of run-in....this flaw diminished.
What it also does is reveal any damaged groove wall on a particular disc......damage which is not revealed by any other cartridge.
But this has occurred (so far) only on my favourite 45 year-old test record...and only on a few grooves.
I think this may be the genesis of the ’myth’ that the Decca London "grinds out record grooves"....
It is also true that it picks up groove dirt and dust faster than others and it will repay you handsomely if you brush, dip in Magic Eraser and finally Onzow ZeroDust after every side.
The only shortcoming of the cartridge which may bother some, is its narrow soundstage.
There is plenty of soundstage depth but any width beyond your speakers is unrealised terrain.

That being said.....the Decca London Reference is perhaps the most ’alive’ cartridge you will hear. It is much more aligned to the great vintage MMs of the past in that respect, than to modern LOMCs and that pleases me enormously. 
Everyone speaks of its amazing midrange but it is certainly no slouch in the bass department...😍
For demanding classical recordings.....whether individual instruments, trios and quartets or full-blown orchestral is unsurpassed in my experience.

Art Dudley talks about the Decca cartridge in the December Stereophile (I would provide a link, if only I knew how!). His review is of an older model, and the current London's are considerably improved, from the entry-level Super Gold to the Reference. They all put out 5mV, needing no more than 40dB or so of gain, and are best loaded with 15k to 22k Ohms resistance and 220pF capacitance (which electrically damps the design's high-frequency resonance). George Couness provides a 15k Ohm input on his Zesto phono amp specifically for the Decca/London!

As halcro, I too dislike unipivots, though they are recommended for the Londons by their maker. The cartridge has no suspension to speak of, so some form of damping is found beneficial by many users. Whether the chosen arm does or does not offer damping, it had better have a very stiff arm tube and chatter-free bearings, as the Londons put a LOT of mechanical energy into the arm. As Warren Gregoire told me, any arm that's good with a contemporary mc will be fine for the London.

I prefer the cartridge to all others by such a large degree (again, as halcro said, it is by far the most alive---I like the old Gordon Holt term "immediate"---sounding design I've heard), that I picked not just my arm to best suit it, by my turntable as well. The Townshend Rock could have been designed specifically for the cartridge, as it provides mechanical damping right at the source---the headshell. A side benefit is that the Rock's "outrigger" hardware adds 11 grams mass to the cartridge's 6 grams, aiding in balancing the arm and achieving a good resonant frequency, which is tricky---the cartridge's compliance in the lateral and vertical planes differ considerably.    

Thanks for your responses. I have read that SME arms are a good match, any thoughts about that ? Or, as bdp24 says, is it best to specifically outfit arm and table for these cartridges?
I use a Jelco SA750 12" for my Decca Super Gold Paratrace and it is magic!
If you choose to live under the oppression of the illusion of tonearm/cartridge matching....there is precious little analogue joy ahead of you,
For those enlightened few who possess tone arms with interchangeable headshells....simply select a good wood one like the Yamamotos or Ortofons for metal-bodied cartridges and metal headshells for plastic-bodied ones. Stay clear of carbon fibre...😱

Of far more importance for the Decca London Reference cartridge as bdp24 the loading.
15K-22K Ohms Resistance together with 220pF Capacitance is about right......and this is far from the standard 47K and 0pF most phono stages are set for.
Attemtion to proven physics will reward more than the belief in voodoo superstition...🙈

The only table that is of particular appropriateness for the Decca/London is the Townshend, because of the damping trough endemic to it. One thing to be aware of is that because of the cartridge's unshielded magnets, Decca/Londons can not be used on a ferrous platter, like the one on the original version of the Thorens TD-124, though the aluminum plattered Mk.2 is fine.

As for arms for the cartridge, Ken Kessler (a long-time Decca enthusiast) is happy with the SME V, others with the Well Tempered, and the Zeta is an old favorite. Geoffrey Owen of Helius Designs in the U.K. has a fair amount of experience mating his arms with the cartridges (Robert Levi has his Reference mounted on a Helius Omega Standard), and the Kuzma's seem like they should be a good match (nice stiff tube and excellent bearings), though I haven't heard one way or the other. Art Dudley thought the Rega 300 was good enough for the Decca Maroon (spherical stylus) he just reviewed, but the cartridge deserves better. In fact, the best you can afford, just like any other great cartridge!

Received the January Stereophile today, and whatta ya know; in it Art Dudley reviews the Tzar DST! It seems like last months review of an old Decca was a prelude to the Tzar review. I'd love to hear one, but that's unlikely. What dealer is going to have one, let alone demo it?! Besides, I don't have 10G's sitting around for a cartridge at the moment ;-).
What intrigues me why the Tzar DST is so heavy whereas the Decca London Reference is so light...?

I was wondering the same myself, halcro. I have to reread what Art wrote, and see if the answer is in there somewhere. If it is, I missed it last night.
I have the Decca London, and use it with a Grace 747 tonearm.  Everything you've read is true.  It has a unique sonic presentation, and I haven't found anything that it doesn't play well.  
That said, you will still want to use other cartridges.  My personal favorites are the Nagaoka MP-11 Boron, and a Denon 103R.
If you keep your record clean you won't have an issues with the Decca.  I hear stylus wear is an issue, but can't comment on that as I haven't had my long enough to notice.. A sonic gem..

Some other arms people have found to work well with Deccas and Londons: The Arm by David Fletcher (designer of the original SOTA table); Mission Mechanic (a U.K. arm similar to The Arm); Fidelity Research FR-64/66; Keith Monks (a somewhat rare U.K arm---I've never seen one for sale); Eminent Technology or other air bearing straight tracker (Kuzma perhaps?); Decca International (no surprise there, ay?! It's a unipivot, though).

The long-held common wisdom was the design liked a damped unipivot arm, which London still recommends. I really dislike them ergonomically, however (the left-to-right-"floppiness". Plus, I'm not convinced highly modulated grooves are not capable of rocking the cartridge and hence rotating the arm tube about it's center, if you see what I mean).

The other belief was that the arm should be of higher than rather lower mass, for those who, unlike halcro, believe in getting the arm/cartridge resonance to around 10-12 Hz. After discussing the matter with Robert Levi (he recommends an arm with a lower "moment of inertia", i.e. mass), I entered the mass figure of the London Reference and Rock outrigger hardware (17.5g total) into the arm/cartridge resonant frequency calculator on The Vinyl Engine site, and was surprised by the results. Any arm is going to be a compromise, as the lateral and vertical compliances of the cartridge differ (15 and 10, respectively). Straight tracking air bearing arms have different moving mass figures, but I'm not sure if it's in the right direction (lateral versus vertical), or the opposite. The calculator suggested an arm with rather low moving mass for the 17.5g figure, like 8-10g, to achieve the 10-12 HZ figure.

Whether or not one is concerned with achieving any certain resonant frequency figure, a stiff self-damped arm tube (Geoffrey Owen claims his Helius arms are self-damped by means of their differential mass design) or externally applied damping is highly advisable, and all cartridges benefit from good bearings, none more so than the Decca/London. The massive amount of mechanical energy the cartridge passes down the arm tube and into those bearings is really going to put them to the test!

I have the Decca London, and use it with a Grace 747 tonearm. Everything you’ve read is true. It has a unique sonic presentation, and I haven’t found anything that it doesn’t play well.

Hi normansizemore

I am referencing your Reel to Reel thread here

and my post is specifically in reference to 15 IPS master tape dubs.

When you say for the Decca London " it has a unique sonic presentation"

In your experience how does "unique" relate to the sonic presentation of 15 IPS master tape dubs.


That's a great question. In my experience a 1/2 track 15ips master tape is a close to live as I've ever heard. However the Decca really does a fantastic job of simulating a tape. 
We've all heard 'dynamic, sweet, rich,robust,liquid,wet' sounding cartridges. What is unique about the Decca is the rendering of tones. I love jazz trios, I know the sound of live drums, bass and piano. When I play the Decca, it doesn't add accentuation or color to the music. (Most of us actually are very uses to hearing our music colored in some manner).  You can close your eyes and visualize the trio playing like never before. You hear the true piano overtones, the resonance of the upright bass and the real impact of the drums. Nothing is unnatural, which it what makes it unique. Many of my audio friends prefer other cartridges but I believe this is because they are not very familiar with live music. This cartridge sounds live. 
I've listened to old Deccas, new Deccas and three different models. The presentation is the same. If you enjoy live music you'll love what these will do for your record collection. 
Thanks for all the great responses. In the meantime, I have done some more background work based on your responses. I use Graham Phantom Elite and SME V and SME V-12 arms, and both have advocates for use with the Decca/London cartridges. The Decca/London manufacturer leans toward (but doesn’t necessarily recommend) the Graham, apparently because it is a damped unipivot, and Ken Kessler likes the SME, which can be damped at the choice of the user. The good news for me, dampened by Warren Gregoire’s assessment below, is that I don’t have to buy an arm in order to try the cartridge, unless you Decca/London users believe these arms would compromise the sound. Secondly, I found that my phono preamp can accommodate the loading and capacitance that halcro recommended. That’s a relief!

Thirdly, I spoke to Warren Gregoire, who didn’t like any of my turntables (Basis Debut and Technics SP 10 MK3, the Technics with Bill Thalmann overhaul, Krebs modifications, and Porter plinth) and none of my arms and especially disdained my turntable stands (Symposium Isis), because they are spring loaded to overcome acoustic feedback and footfall problems in my second floor stereo room. Just to be clear, he didn’t like my equipment for use with the Decca London cartridges rather than making any universal judgments. So that conversation left me wondering about any prospect for success with these cartridges and my equipment.

But, if I do take the plunge, which should I try? The London Reference? The London Decca Jubilee? The Super Gold, Gold or Maroon? After all of his reservations, Warren Gregoire suggested I try the Jubilee and then quickly explained his return policy in some degree of detail. He felt my equipment probably wasn’t good enough to realize the benefits of the London Reference. Your thoughts about the differences among these cartridges?
kmccarty, what was Warren’s basis for suggesting that a first rate analog rig like yours would disrespect a top London cartridge? Sounds more like he was trying to drive you into a corner with Woody Allen, who once said that he refused to join any club that would accept a person like him as a member.
Warren Gregoire, whom I've never met, seems to be quite a character. When I talked to him on the phone about the current Londons, he was rather brusque, coming across as someone who has had his fill of dealing with consumers, with which I can sympathize and fully understand. I felt as if I were being interviewed as a job applicant might be by an employer, and that I might not "qualify" to purchase a London from him. In fact, when he asked me who would be installing the cartridge in an arm, and thinking that if I said myself he might find that unacceptable, I replied Brooks Berdan (I actually intended to do it myself, but was thinking I would have Brooks double-check my job and hook my table up to his scope and other machines). To my utter astonishment, he had never heard of Brooks! Brooks was only the most widely known turntable man in the country (Bill Johnson flew Brooks out to Minnesota to set-up the tables in the ARC listening room, and had him out to his home here in the California desert to do his personal table). Warren asked me why would I have a dealer who hadn't sold me the cartridge mount and align it? And, hadn't I ever done it myself? After assuring him I had, including a couple of Deccas, and quite a few arms and other cartridges, and explaining I was merely going to have this Brooks guy double check my work, Warren calmed down a little. He had actually told me he didn't think he would sell me a cartridge! Well!!  

Hi Kmmcarty
Kmmcarty - my second floor stereo room

Curious...Have you heard your system kit on a ground floor / concrete slab?

Hi Normansizemore - quite the moniker you have :^)
thanks for your comments. There was recent discussions of the London Decca’s from owners on the Eminent Technology ET2 thread. These discussions re-piqued my interest in this cartridge. I think its the top contender for my next cartridge one day.
Ct0517, I can't use my stereo system on the first without disrupting family life. I agree that would be better for turntables. 

Regarding Warren, I am not sure what his issues with my system are. Perhaps he isn't familiar with my turntables. 

Maybe someone could respond to the differences between the different London Decca models or refer me to a good thread that discusses them. Thanks!

I'll give it a shot, k. The five current Londons---the Maroon, Gold, Super Gold, Jubilee, and Reference, all share the same identical internal design and structure (how could it be otherwise?---it's what makes a London a London!), but differ in the quality of the materials used to make them, and in their assembly tolerances. The internal wire and coils in the Reference, for instance, are of a higher grade than in the lesser models, and the magnets are of the more expensive rare earth variety. The stylus profiles differ amongst models as well, the Maroon being Spherical, the Gold Elliptical, the Super Gold and Jubilee Extended Fine Line, and the Reference Ultra Low Mass Fine Line. Other than that, the difference between models is in the housing the internal guts are installed in.

The Maroon, Gold, and Super Gold share the same stamped tin housing of the Deccas of the 70's, along with the old Decca mounting bracket, a real pos! The bracket is a somewhat flexible red block of molded plastic, the top of which is bolted to the head shell. The cartridge slides onto the bracket, the electrical signal from the cartridge passing through electrical contacts in the bracket to pins on it's rear for your arm wires. It's a terrible mounting and connection design, but you don't have to put up with it. London offers the Decapod, an aluminum block which replaces the bracket, and is installed as the top of the cartridge at the London factory. DO NOT BUY A LONDON CARTRIDGE WITHOUT THE DECAPOD!

As for the tin housing, Decca users have long applied various substances onto it's exterior in an attempt to lessen the resonances it exhibits; modeling clay, Blu Tack, Sorbothane, etc. Even with the resonances of the housing addressed, the cartridge is somewhat microphonic, one reason the Townshend Rock turntable is a favorite with Decca/London enthusiasts---the Rock's damping system eliminates that microphony remarkably effectively, making it a non-issue.

The Jubilee was developed to address the issue of the sonic consequences of the tin metal housing. It's more solid, less resonant/microphonic structure allows more of the Decca design's potential to be realized, and is considered by some (Warren Gregoire, for one) to offer more of an upgrade from the Maroon, Gold, and Super Gold, than the Reference does to it. The Jubilee's housing eliminates the need for the Decapod as well, having threaded mounting holes in it's top surface, and the normal cartridge pin design.

The Reference really brings the Decca design into the 21st Century. A very stylish machined aluminum body/housing, like other top cartridges. Superior parts and assembly tolerances, hand built by John Wright, the designer of the Reference, and owner of London.

So which London to get? As always, it's a question of system balance, the most effective allocation of your Hi-Fi Dollars/Pounds (in honour of the Britishness of Decca/London ;-), and, most importantly, of course, the other parts of your record player. There is no point in spending the extra money for the Reference if your pick-up arm won't allow it's superiority to the Jubilee to be heard. The great thing is, no matter which London you choose, it will have the Decca/London sound, unlike any other cartridge!  

I have been a Decca aficionado since the late 70s. I still have my  Garrott Brothers Gold, an old Maroon and a FFSSMkIV C4E rebuilt by John Wright. The vintage C4E is just stunning, significantly better than my Garrott Brothers cartridge (retipped by John Wright). I wouldn't sell my C4E - it would be one of the things you would have to rip from my dying hands.

However, no matter how good the Decca is, it doesn't beat a 15 IPS master tape - no way. I have three 15 IPS 2 track R2R decks and some master tapes (some distribution masters and some safety copies). The 15 IPS tape just stomps all over the Decca (installed in a rewired vintage Hadcock 228 on a Platine Verdier with GT Audio Battery PSU) - no contest!
interesting post Bdp24

Bdp24......So which London to get? As always, it’s a question of system balance, the most effective allocation of your Hi-Fi Dollars/Pounds (in honour of the Britishness of Decca/London ;-), and, most importantly, of course, the other parts of your record player. There is no point in spending the extra money for the Reference if your pick-up arm won’t allow it’s superiority to the Jubilee to be heard.

You got me really curious and I started googling

First I Googled Decapod - got me this.

2nd google on Decca Jubilee Cartridge - got me this

3rd google on Decca Reference Cartridge - got me this

4th google on Decca Tonearm - got me to this.

The path seems pretty clear to me.
you’re a bad influence Eric, you know ?
You’re taking my mind off my Quad subwoofer project and making me think about spending serious coin on a cartridge.
Cheers Chris
Thanks bdp24 - that's exactly what I was looking for. Great history of these cartridges. 
However, no matter how good the Decca is, it doesn't beat a 15 IPS master tape - no way.
I have several cartridges (out of the 70+ I have owned) that are closer to the sound of master tapes than the Decca London Reference. The high-frequency performance of the DLR is certainly not as vivid, crystalline or shimmering as many of my top MM and LOMC cartridges and as mentioned earlier, the width of the sound-stage is disappointingly narrow.
The charm of the DLR is in its sheer 'bravado' and unabashed delight in its presentation of 'SOUND'.
For those used to the inhibited and precisely self-conscious nature of most LOMCs....this can come as somewhat of a revelation. However, for those with an appreciation for the finer vintage MMs, the Decca London sound is merely a confirmation of what true vinyl reproduction can achieve.

Good points, halcro. True, the Decca/London does not have the delicacy in high frequencies of a great moving coil. As with every link in one's Hi-Fi chain, priorities must be chosen, as no one product is better than all others in every way. For me, the main failing in reproduced music is in it's sounding "canned"---a pale, lifeless, soft, thin, diffused, anemic copy of a colorful, vivid, energetic, explosive, full-bodied, whole, original. The Decca/London, for all it's faults, just makes the sound of the instruments and voices contained in the grooves of an LP sound more like their real-life selves than does any other cartridge I've heard. And, perhaps more importantly, the manner in which those instruments are being played and those lyrics being sung. The D/L is a very "physical" transducer, the force with which the bow of a cello or double bass is pulled across the instruments strings being heard and felt (Yo Yo Ma attacks his cello, non unlike how Keith Moon did his drumkit!). How hard a drummer is smacking a drumhead with his sticks can be felt (important to me---I'm a drummer), but so too can the faint sound of ghost notes be heard. The D/L does percussion better than any other cartridge I've heard, with an unequalled dynamic capability. The sound of a guitarists plectrum (pick) hitting the strings---very visceral. Then there is that "in the room, right in front of you" characteristic of the D/L sound, something I crave. Some attribute the D/L's "speed" as the reason for it's excellence in all these regards. Others, it's lack of cantilever "haze", etc. All I know is that instruments and voices sound more whole, fleshed-out with more body (it's as if all the frequencies making up the sound and timbre of an instrument or voice reach the ear at the same time, as in a time-aligned loudspeaker), and transients have more "snap". Hope this doesn't come off as sounding gratuitous or over-the-top!

kmccarty---I've been thinking it over, and here's what I suggest: The $5200 price of the Reference is an awful lot to gamble on a sound you have yet to hear. Some have tried a London, and found it to be too "relentless" or brash (who knows if that was a result of the tone arm used not being up to the task, or the proper 15k/220pF loading not being employed), as may you. Even the $3000 of the Jubilee is a lot to gamble on. I think trying the $1200 Super Gold is a good idea; if you like it enough, you could then move up to the Jubilee or Reference if you want. Don't forget to specify the Decapod! By the way, there is a virtual system (Small Attic Retreat) featured in the Audiogon weekly recap that contains a London Gold or Super Gold (they look identical) fitted with the Decapod. The owners name is jtnicolosi, and he has the London on one of his three tables, a Garrard 301 with a 12" arm (the Schick?).

ct0517---We are going to end up with very similar systems, aren't we? I had forgotten about the $12,000 straight tracking London arm. I've never heard from an owner of one, or seen a review. I couldn't use it on my Rock anyway, or afford it!

topoxforddoc---I have a R2R (Revox A-77 Mk.3), but it's a quarter inch/ quarter track. Have some pre-recorded 7" reels (RCA, Mercury), and those I made myself with a pair of omni condenser mics. But I still need my London cartridges (as well as table and arm), 'cause I can't get the Revox to play my LP's ;-).   

Hope this doesn't come off as sounding gratuitous or over-the-top!

It might if one hadn't actually heard the DLR....😎
Ct0517, I can’t use my stereo system on the first without disrupting family life. I agree that would be better for turntables.

yes, better for turntables, but also for large speakers with dynamic cone drivers that send excess vibrations downward.

Regarding Warren, I am not sure what his issues with my system are. Perhaps he isn’t familiar with my turntables.

Regarding the Decca folks/representatives discussed on this thread. I will say I have come across individuals in this business, and I am not saying that those mentioned here are like these folks. After all I don’t personally know them. The folks I am thinking about have been down their road, experiences, and have their own take on things. If certain criteria are not met; the answer will always be no, not good enough unless all the t’s are crossed and the i ’s dotted. The t’s and i’s here, as this is vinyl (a mechanical, vibration, resonance process) could very well come down to the Room Type/Location, and the type of tonearm. I say this from the limited information on this thread. Dealing with vibrations that get amplified from a very small signal are real. In the end, imo, these folks are as passionate as anyone else, and are just trying to make sure "you", meaning whoever they are talking to, get to their "place" and "experience" what they experience. Some are better at dealing with people than others when it comes to this.

True Story
I went to hear and maybe buy a 200 lb amplifier. I arrived at this person’s house who lived alone in a large two storey home with full 8 foot ceiling basement. After greeting me, instead of going down or across the main floor we headed up the stairs to my surprise. In the large master bedroom was contained high end audio gear including very large dynamic cone speakers that were sitting on concrete blocks. Long story short, this fellow was only digital but he was considering vinyl. I told him with his gear to strongly consider moving everything to a dedicated space in the basement. The first floor was also suspended wood beams, typical of Ontario Canada housing. He told me he couldn’t do this. His basement which he showed me before I left (with the amp) was full of racks containing electronic diagnostic gear, and vintage electronics pieces. He was an Electronics Engineer with the local Honda Automobile Plant. He worked with the actual electronic circuits.
Just sayin...

Cheers Chris

I have read a lot of what has been written here, the Tsar as mounted up on my massive gimbaled 3D arm on the Avenger Direct Drive is as good if not better than the Atlas and the Ortofon A95, which means it is as good as it gets with even more life than either of them.

You could pick some items from all three that you love the most but overall the Tsar is state of the art in phono.  I have an Ampex ATR-102 running 1/2 track masters and this is as good as it gets on vinyl.  If you have a disc with the hole in the center, a massive yet damped arm, the system warmed up, and your speakers broken, in this combo will put Gary Karr and his 400 year old contra-bass in the room.  I am stunned!!!

As close to master tape as I have ever heard.


I finally got around to checking out the website of Schiit Audio, the company selling the new products from Mike Moffatt, designer of the initial Theta Digital gear. Mikes focus with Schiit is on very inexpensive offerings, and his $129 phono amp is interesting in that in his description of its design on the website, Mike states that the lowest gain setting (30dB) is for very high output 5mV cartridges, specifically naming the Decca/London. For $129, sure worth a listen! Mike also mentioned that for that price, he couldn't include adjustable loading, no doubt referring to the requirements necessary for getting the optimum performance from the Decca/Londons, which he said could be added after purchase.