Artisan, science or snake oil?

Vinyl Frontiers: Stanley Engineering walnut body for Decca London cartridges


Walnut puns possible?

Product: Walnut Cartridge Body for Decca London cartridges
Manufacturer: Stanley Engineering, online shop and list of body options
Price: depends on the wood chosen but as usual YMMV due to currency fluctuations
Author: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: Summer 2020 - Spring 2021
Published: April, 2021

Decca London Walnut Body

Recently someone posted an enquiry about aftermarket wooden cartridge bodies on one of the many turntable groups on FaceAche. Within a couple of comments below the question, someone responded with just two words, “snake oil”. Whether this response was based on first hand experience of either an aftermarket wooden cartridge body or of reptile lubricant was not revealed. Other, more constructive responses varied from the sceptical but curious to the eager to try. What was notably absent was any 1st hand experience. There was no carefully explained context given for these florid opinions. There was absolutely no information offered that might have enabled the humble querent to form their own opinion on taking the risk.

“Risk?” moan Plebs Chorus, “What does the old fool mean? It's hardly base jumping or open heart surgery!”

For many cartridges, installation of an aftermarket wooden body or mount may involve modification of the original cartridge. For those about to sacrifice their AT95 the generator part of the cartridge is worth less than a third of the wooden body (the main cost of many cartridges is the stylus/suspension assembly). For some cartridges, like most moving coil pick-ups (the OP was asking about a re-body Denon DL103) the process could be irreversible. Today, your Old Scribe will describe taking the knife to that most divisive of all pick-ups, the Decca London.

Installation

Installation & set up depends on the arm and headshell type. Only the mumetal bodied Decca Blue, Grey, Maroon & Gold versions of the Decca London (laterally merely titled “London”) are suitable for conversion with this wooden body sleeve. The Decca Super Gold, London Jubilee and Reference models already have stronger more inert bodies that are not suitable for conversion. There is no opportunity to compare the Stanley Engineering Walnut body with existing alternatives like the Martin Bastin Deccapod. Even if a second sample Decca London were available, comparisons would be unfair because of the inevitable variation between different models and different vintages.

The Stanley Engineering Walnut body may prove to be a challenge to fit in some classic headshells with reinforcing ribs or sides, due to its greater width than the standard plastic Decca 1/2 inch centre mount block. With the walnut body already thread tapped, threaded headshells (like the aforementioned Hadcock GH242SE will need to be drilled out to use the Stanley Engineering Walnut cartridge body. Screwing metal bolts into wooden bodies requires care, this is not "Linn tight".

There's another tough choice when installing this body on your donor Decca. On enquiring of Stan what the best adhesive might be, your Old Scribe had in mind the findings that glue in loudspeaker cabinets can have a profound effect on performance. Loudspeakers can be big brutal things prone to comparatively large masses being hurled forward and back by big magnets and big coils, pick-up cartridges are at the opposite end of the scale where the magnets and coils are tiny and the slightest change in their mutual orientation equals musical information lost, or distortion added. Therefore the implications of erroneous adhesive choice at the information retrieval end of vinyl replay systems are amplified many times over, by the time the now considerably amplified signal is converted to sound at the other end of the chain.

History

The Flat Earth mantra GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out) explains the great lengths they would go to reinforce the bodies of very basic...

“Groan - a pathetic pun fit only for the consumption of those in the Flat Earth audio fraternity from the late 70s, many of whom are now in their 70s,” groan Plebs chorus, stage left, realising this might be a bad day.

Some very basic Audio Technica entry level moving magnet cartridges were beefed up to create Flat Earth favourites like the Linn K9 and assorted brackets and bodies were added to rebranded Nagoaka, Sumiko, Jico, Shelter, and even Shure some of which were so cheesy...

“Waaagh!” shriek the Plebs chorus, stage left, “That hurts. The last century existence of Stilton cartridges does not justify this torture of the language and will not have us Stilton-rolling in the aisles.”1

It is possible to infer from this half century long tradition of paying particular attention to cartridge rigidity as much, if not more, than to stylus polish and profile, that there is enough evidence of the effects to enquire whether the adhesive between cartridge and bodywork is of significance.

Sticky Situations

Your Old Scribe enquired of Stanislav what adhesive he would recommend. Stanislav replied, creating the horns of a new dilemma:

“We have always to choose between something and make compromise. If you don't plan to remove the cartridge from the wood body some day the best solution would be epoxy glue as you can fill all space between the cartridge and wood body and do not create any chance for vibrations coming from the hollows. Otherwise you can use acrylate to fix it. As the wood bodies were made as perfect as I can inside, quite without unevenness so that there are no hollows between cartridge and wood body. That's why acrylate can also be used with 1 small drop for each side to fix the cartridge. If you do want to remove the cartridge again, it can be done easily using using a scalpel; just slide the scalpel between cartridge and wood body and pull it out.”

Given that one day this ole Decca will need to be retipped, and given what you're about to read, that this cartridge will in future deserve something like the ESCo Paratrace, it behoves this review to stop short of 2 pack epoxy and try something potentially removable. Your Old Scribe did have to use the scalpel to extract the cartridge when one of the original Decca internal connections needed attention.

The Final Cut

Another irreversible cut involves severing the 1/2 inch centre red plastic block from the contact carrying part of the original Decca mounting bracket.. The removable lid also needs to be removed. Anyone who tells you that Decca cartridges are prone to hum is simply repeating the drivel that originated from some fool who does not know how to earth turntables and cartridges properly. Even with one side of the cartridge Faraday Cage removed, hum does not prove to be a problem even when wafted in the vicinity of a Garrard 401 motor. Slide the topless cartridge into the wooden sleeve to check for fit. At this point your Old Scribe created slightly deeper grooves in the wood body to enable the close contact between metal and wood without deforming the lip on the metal can, that usually holds the metal lid on. Thus, with a four drops of cyanoacrylate, the wooden body is secured flush to the Decca generator.

Cartridge set-up

Having carefully glued the Decca London Blue chassis into the Stanley Engineering walnut body using the more reversible cyanoacrylate adhesive option it was installed in the vestigial headshell of the Hadcock GH242SE Silver pick-up arm. Careful cartridge set up includes lateral balance and azimuth by null signal, especially in a unipivot pick-up arm. This Hadcock has all the features associated with synergy with the Decca London cartridge including stainless steel armtube and pivot damping facility.

Bias (aka antiskate) is set up by 300Hz tones at three different radii. Bias should never be set up with a flat blank disc. Bias corrects forces created by the groove wall friction pulling against the headshell offset angle and, to a lesser extent to unequal friction at groove wall contact patch, not by the friction at the tiny horizontal end of the stylus cone. Tracking is tested on the Len Gregory HFN test disc and the Stan Ricker disc. Tracking remains typically Decca London in that it sounds like it is about to let go from 40uS upwards but gets no worse even above

The extra body width of the Stanley walnut body, combined with low slung Decca London body means that with many LP's, the new walnut body fouls the Michell Orbe SE clamp on the LP run-out groove. Fortunately, on no discs so far, it has not dislodged the stylus from the groove, merely made a horrible noise. If it's a keeper, the walnut body might need a slight chamfer on the inner lower edge.

Listening Notes & Sound Quality

Pink Floyd's Animals has always been a cartridge test for your Old Scribe. Animals did not acquire this status because it is difficult to track. This copy of Animals was bought in the week of the album release. The pressing is neither particularly good nor bad, unlike its dreadful pressing predecessor Wish You Were Here. For most audiophiles, the albums bought during the most fertile period of adolescent audio upgrades rewarded every front end upgrade with more insight into performance and recording, so these albums set up expectations. Animal expectations suitably sated, but Pink Floydinvestigations further piqued, a more challenging spin is MFSL Heart Mother. The Decca dynamics, lightening speed and superb PRaT exploit AHM's grooves and leave your Old Scribe wanting more. Its another Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Original Master Recording of another Pink Floyd masterpiece Meddle.

Regular readers will notice a whole paragraph has passed without passing much comment on the sound quality impact of the newly installed Stanley Engineering Walnut cartridge body. That is because its main contribution is to reduce sins of commission. The clanky and papery colourations of the standard Decca mumetal can are markedly reduced. The lack of odd Decca resonances allow more of the Decca London qualities to shine through.

With the Stanley Engineering Walnut body the reduction in resonances affects the decay of every transient. While the Decca rise time has never been in doubt, it was the only cartridge at any price capable of a clean leading edge on a square wave in a HiFi Choice test (back in the day of little booklets of tests of similar components). What the Stanley Engineering Walnut body does is clean up the decay. The Decca mount has a notorious flexure mode at just over 200Hz


This exposes the Decca's incredible speed (possible because there is no conventional hinged cantilever) and perfect electro-mechanical phase coherence that a direct vertical stylus armature enables. While the snake oil sceptics might opine that a wooden body adds timbre (or should that be timber) to mask one colouration with another, there is no added warmth. The counter argument in favour of wood is that the random cell structure, compared with more engineered products, better serves to dissipate vibration. It also adds rigidity compared with the thin metal of the Decca original.

Furthermore, the flimsy plastic Decca bracket has been cut away. This plastic bracket allowed obvious flexure of the whole cartridge which is completely eliminated by direct attachment of the headshell screws into the threaded walnut body above the generator. Hence the previous vertical flop (a problem every chap wishes to avoid) is replaced by fixings whose vectors align as perfectly as possible with stylus vectors, given that this is an aftermarket artefact. This helps ensure that the damping applied at the pickup arm pivot (strongly advised for the internally undamped Decca London cartridges) accurately applies at the armature effective pivot.

So the Pink Floyd Meddle (MFSL 1-100) gets enjoyed with little thought to the reproduction chain. The Decca can still be harsh with the wrong discs and the decca still feels like it is constantly on the verge of mistracking. Just as aftermarket bodies transformed modest Audio Technica bodies (for Linn) or Nagoaka bodies (by Stilton) back in the day such that they performed competitively at price points way above the the original generator, the Stanley Engineering Walnut body enables the core Decca strengths to emerge less blighted by obvious weaknesses.

From one Pink to another. After early-ish Floyd next up comes Caravan's In the Land of Grey and Pink. The Decca London range have always been special with human voices (less so with singing dogs and cats) and this album foregrounded this quality at first until the scale and whimsy of the music takes over, which the Decca manages despite its apparent tracking limitations. The Walnut body makes its presence felt mostly by dramatic reduction in mechanical resonances from the standard body colouring the music, especially when music gets busy or percussive. While a little Decca London colouration is still present, albeit at a reduced quantity, the quality of the cartridge colouration is much more sympathetic to the music. The cartridge colouration is now less that of cheap poorly assembled drum shells, beaten with garden implements, but now more good quality wooden clarinets gently beaten with celery sticks. Still not the ideal way to get sound from a clarinet, but substantially less intrusive while listening to other instruments actually being played.

Something feels correct about the delivery of the Stanley Engineering walnut body between the modified Decca London Blue held by brass screws onto the Hadcock GH242 SESilver with damping trough brim full of Audio Origami silicon damping fluid, carried by the Pedersen modified Michell Orbe SE. This is one of those synergies where the whole ensemble far exceeds the sum of the parts. Listening to Caravan's In the Land of Grey and Pink it is more obvious than ever before, what a fine job was done of capturing instrumental nuance, by engineers at A.I.R Studio and Decca Studios. This was maintained by them through those more time consuming analogue overdubs. The familiar final 100% Proof section of the 22 minute opus Nine Feet underground, inevitably in the tightest curves close to the LP label, sounds clear and filled with dynamic impact.

This is despite the Decca cartridges usually sounding as if they're just beginning to mistrack at any cutting velocity from from 40u to 100u on test discs. Only Decca London cartridges have this peculiar sound as though on the verge of mistracking from gentle cutting velocities at the outer radii to high velocities cut in a crescendo at the inner radii climax of a record. Despite this almost mistracking quality, with a decent polish elliptical or hyperelliptical stylus fitted, the Decca London cartridge family (not to be confused with the David Cassidy vehicle, the Partridge family) do track velocities as high as many high compliance moving magnet cartridges and higher than many moving coil cartridges.

Such was the engagement offered by Caravan's In the Land of Grey and Pink that Cunning Stunts is immediately dragged to the platter as the last chord of Grey and Pink fades away. Quirky Canterbury English rock often sounds at its best on a classic all Linn (Valhalla/Ittok/Karma or Cirkus/Ekos/Troika) front end. Indeed these very slabs of vinyl spent their formative years on just such a felt mat. Reader alert: oncoming reviewer's cliché of rediscovering gems among familiar discs.

“Oh no! Finally the Old Scribe will sound like all those advertising driven reviewers from the 1980s to the present day, droning on about previously unheard page turning, dropped rosin and head scratching” Challenge Plebs, stage left, understandably

The lack of cantilever on the Decca/London cartridges enables a speed unequalled by any other design. Cymbal strikes match the timing perfectly with the swell of the envelope of their shimmer and decay in a way usually more familiar to analogue master tape listeners, high-res digital recordings and other Decca cartridge users. Big bass sounds, and their big groove lateral waggles have less of a tendency to warble higher frequencies, due in part to the arm damping. Such arm pivot damping could flatten the sound of any conventionally damped cantilever cartridge. The Dynavector XX2 mkII that usually resides in this Hadcock GH242SE arm is best with no damping due to the inbuilt magnetic damping, for example. These are two fundamentally different approaches to controlling resonances. The integrity of the walnut body compared with the mumetal can and plastic bracket improves the capacity of the whole stylus/cartridge/arm/turntable to work as a coherent whole system.

Another listener who had found the naked Decca London Blue to be “Too shouty” in the context of the Old Scribe revealing active system was invited to listen. This listener is very familiar with the system in many configurations, using material familiar to them. They were not aware of what, if any, changes are afoot this time. Hania Rani's Esja is solo piano, played quite percussively at times could be a test of this subjective quality. This second listener never mentioned shoutiness once. This second listener did however observe that the cartridge frequently felt on the edge of mistracking and insisted that your Old Scribe check stylus cleanliness on one occasion.

More familiar solo piano, almost an audiophile cliché, is the Keith Jarret Köln Concert. This LP too stayed just the right side of shouty and not quite mistracking. However, it was the lower colouration levels that enabled the cartridge to be far less noticeable, while maintaining the Decca strengths. Having heard this album via Linn Asak, Linn Karma, Koetsu red, MusikMaker 2, Sumiko BPS, various Audio Technica and Dynavector, Ortofon MC & MM, Shure, Stanton and other cartridges not remembered over the years, the Stanley Engineering walnut body Decca London would be among the most enjoyable. For different reasons, the Linn Karma, the Dynavector Te Kaitora Rua & XX2 Mk2 have stood out as particularly enjoyable at the time. The Stanley walnut bodied Decca London now joins that select crew.

Your Old Scribe's late grandfather was named Stanley but he was more rose grower than engineer, so there's no nominative determinism or influence here.

Conclusion

There's no extract of carnivorous squamata here. If you have an old mumetal bodied Decca London cartridge, look no further.

The Stanley Engineering Walnut body is a natural partner to the Decca London cartridge. It reduces the resonances of the original mumetal can. It improves the mounting integrity compared with the original Decca mount. Both of these aspects contribute to reduced handling noise, reduced needle-talk, reduced colouration and increased information retrieval.

Furthermore, other high-end cartridge manufacturers have claimed that walnut suits cartridge bodies due to the grain pattern and density. Stanislav does make bodies in various other exotic and beautiful looking hardwoods which may well be the sonic equal of the walnut body.

Since mounting the Stanley Engineering Walnut body Decca London cartridge on the Hadcock GH242SE Silver (remember that stainless steel arm tube), it has remained in situ. At no point has there been any urge to refit the much more expensive Dynavector XX2 mk2 that is the usual "daily driver" in this high resolution system.

For detail, for pace, for bass resolution & impact the Decca London has always been a front-runner and now, with improved mechanical integrity the colouration is more bearable. The edge of the seat sense that it is all on the point of collapse (like some of the most exciting contemporary composition) remains ever present, and a little of the Decca hardness persists. The Stanley Engineering walnut bodied Decca London is good enough that when this stylus begins to show signs of wear, it will be worthwhile retipping with a paratrace or similar profile.

A whole review completed without recourse to walnut puns or even Stilton &Walnut recipes...
No, wait here comes a recipe for Stilton & Walnut Balls

Music enjoyed while writing this review

Reference system

on vinyl of course

  • Pink Floyd: Animals
  • Pink Floyd: Atom Heart Mother, MFSL
  • Pink Floyd: Meddle, MFSL
  • Caravan: In the Land of Grey and Pink
  • Caravan: Cunning Stunts
  • Hania Rani Esja
  • Keith Jarrett Köln Concert
  • Toots & the Maytals From the Roots
  • Neil Young Re-ac-tor
  • Nick Drake Five Leaves
  • The Who Live at Leeds
  • J S Bach Orchestral Suites No 2 & No 3 Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Neville Marriner
  • J S Bach Brandenburg Concertos No's 1, 4 & 6 Schola Cantorum Basiliensis/Wenzinger
  • Chopin Sonata in B flat minor & four short pieces Arthur Moreira Lima
  • Tchaikovsky Swan Lake French National Symphony Orchestra/D&eactue;sormière
  • Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet remaster
  • Rolling Stones Let It Bleed [Decca] London Sleeve containing US abcko inner sleeves & pressing
  • Beethoven Symphony No 6 Pastoral Boston Symphony/Munch RCA Red Seal
  • Beethoven Symphony No 7 Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Scherchen
  • Miles Davis Siesta

Equipment used in this review:

  • Turntable: Michell Orbe SE with Pedersen subchassis & suspension kit
  • Orbe armboard: Pedersen Michell Armboard isolator
  • Turntable 2 vibration isolation: Polycrystal PolyCrystal Point Discs beneath Orbe feet and Deflex plain sheet beneath Orbe motor pod
  • Pick-up arm on Orbe: HadcockGH242 SE with all silver wiring from cartridge to silver Eichmann Bullet plugs
  • Turntable 2: Garrard 401 in plywood & concrete plinth on Polycrystal Isolators
  • Pick-up arm 1: SME 3012 II with FD200 damper
  • Pickup arm 2: SME 3012 I rewired with Missing Link fine
  • Turntable shelf frame support: Origin Live Ultra wall support, chrome plated, nylon cord replaced by chains, outriggers filled with kiln dried sand
  • Turntable shelf wall isolation: RCD Cups (larger surface area than Polycrystal Point Discs to reduce wall plaster deformation)
  • Turntable shelf frame support: Rawlbolts embedded in hard plaster
  • Turntable shelf 1: 10mm laminated glass
  • Turntable shelf 2: Something Solid end grain balsa
  • Turntable shelf alternative: ERaudio Large SpaceHarmoniser
  • Turntable support 3: Wilko AV shelf frame, filled with kiln dried sand, RDC cone feet
  • Other tuning includes: Yamamoto Sound Craft including Yamamoto PB9 & PB10 and BrightStar extra large IsoNodes and various vibration control products.
  • Various cartridges: Audio Technica VM95 range of all styli options; Dynavector DV XX-2 MkII; Decca London (John Wright serviced 2020); Cartridge Man Music Maker II; and a selection of classic Stanton, Ortofon and Shure moving magnet types.
  • Phono pre-amplifier 1: Canor TP306 VR+ still top phono-preamplifier, on BrightStar extra large IsoNodes
  • Phono pre-amplifier 2: Gold Note PH-10 supremely adjustable phono-preamplifier, on Polycrystal isolator cones
  • Line Pre-amplifier: Audio Research Corporation Reference 3 with steel top cover removed, casework damped by BrightStar Little Rock 5, tube rolled and vibration further controlled internally by silocone O-rings and Pearl valve cooler/dampers, on Something Solid end grain balsa plank, on kevlar sling supported by separate sand-filled steel frame support
  • Crossover: Behringer CX2400 analogue variable Linkwitz Reilly (4th order) 3-way active crossover
  • Treble Amplifier: de Paravicini (HiFi World) designed SET6080 in RATA Torlyte case and outboard mains transformer, and passive components to match mid and bass
  • Midrange Amplifier: Assemblage SET300B Signature variously tube-rolled and components to integrate with treble and bass
  • Bass amplifier: Care Music prototype class A biased to 20W, 1.2kVA ps, and passive components chosen to integrate with mid and treble
  • Alternative amplifier: Breeze Audio Nelson Pass Zen clone SE class A FET 10W
  • Tuning planks beneath treble and midrange amplifiers: ERaudio Large SpaceHarmoniser on ERaudio steel cones
  • Vibration isolation under crossover and bass amlifiers.
  • Active Loudspeakers: 3-way active loudspeaker drivers:
  • Active Loudspeakers Bass drivers: Focal Audiom 12 VX with dual layer Cerwin Vega 2 layer cone roll surround, in 3 layer 25mm birch-plywood braced, hardwood " chipboard " fibreboard - birch-ply reflex cabinets, with Deflex subwoofer sheets & and with Deflex wedges and centre supported long fibre wool.
  • Active Loudspeakers: mid-range drivers: Focal Audium 7K with rubber solution surface damping removed. Mounted in separate enclosures with sculpted & radiused fiddleback sycamore baffle, 25mm birch-ply bracing, Deflex standard sheets. Rattletrap Extreme damped, decommissioned missile warhead, aluminium tipped copper mesh reinforced resin outer shells - literally.
  • Active Loudspeakers high frequencies: Focal TC120TDX with felt focus ring.
  • Alternative high frequencies: ESS Heil Air Motion Transformer
  • Active loudspeaker bass cabinet feet: Three tapped RDC cones seated in three Yamamoto Loudspeaker Spike Receiver.
  • Active loudspeaker bass cabinet to mid/top enclosure interface rear: Michell Tenderfoot into Yamamoto PB-21 pin point receiver base; front: Yamamoto VB-18 Ebony V groove tuning base.
  • Passive Loudspeakers:TQWP/Transmission-line hybrid passive loudspeakers (18mm & 25mm birch-plywood cabinets; long fibre natural wool stuffing; Deflex panel lined) loading the late the late John Wyckoff's Hammer Dynamics bass-mid driver
  • Passive crossover with litz-wired inductors & couture capacitors) and B&CDT400N & B&C DE-35-8 tweeters and Fostex ring tweeters.

Extensive and ever evolving acoustic treatment including corner bass absorption, high frequency (above 2kHz) absorption at primary tweeter reflection points, high frequency diffusers at other critical points, sloping ceiling with absorber >2kHz. Solid walls and argon filled triple glazing and no radiators. Hanging rugs and thick textured floor rug between listeners and loudspeakers, solid slate floor.

Some wire is used to join these components together. No interconnects cost more than 10% of the device at each end, much of it made by the Old Scribe from high quality components without Pixie Dust. Old Scribe amplifier-to-loudspeaker wire (full range, mid-range, tweeter) is ultra-low impedance Black Rhodium S900, a low-Z variation (3x3mm^2 csa) on the Black Rhodium S300 & S600 cable that came out well in Ben Duncan's objective and subjective correlation tests, selected primarily to match the OPT/driver damping factor, not for any magical qualities. Bass only loudspeaker cable Naim NACA 5, which remains rarely challenged below 300Hz. Mains is supplied by an audio only ring main with Radex earth (ground) non-inductive connections and a technical earth. Crossover and power amplifiers fed by a minimum connections hydra. Sources and pre-amp from terminal blocks within the audio only ring.

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Copyright © 2021 Mark Wheeler - mark@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com

Footnote 1: cheese rolling, particularly Stilton Cheese rolling, was a popular sporting activity in England until the invention of domestic audio proved to be a rival attraction