Is There A Difference?
Article By Sedrick Harris
When Steve asked me if I wanted to write for Enjoy the Music.com, I asked him what he thought about me submitting an article (updated) I had researched and written (but never published) for a printed audio magazine about the sonic differences between Decca and London classical pressings. At the time I wrote it, I had spent several years listening to and evaluating the differences between British Decca pressings and British London pressings. What I wanted to do was an in-depth study regarding the mystery surrounding the controversy of the apparent sonic differences between these pressings produced by the Decca Record Co. Ltd. Steve's response was something like, "Dude, it rocks!!!" The task was set!
When I began my search for the musical truth, I outlined the task that lay before me into two major categories. The first category was to interview several serious and noted audiophiles who have conducted comparative listening sessions between the London pressing of a recording vs. the Decca pressing of the same recording. The second category (the refreshing one) was to personally listen to London and Decca pressings from the same master tapes. While I was at it, I expanded the task at hand by including the pressings of these recordings by the folks re-mastering these recordings.
Before I embark with this review, let me explain why the Decca Record Company, Ltd. pressed most albums in both a Decca SXL-2xxx or SXL-6xxx (SET-xxx for boxed sets) series version while also making a record available in the United States using the London CS-6xxx series (CSA-xxxx and OSA-xxxx for boxed sets). British Decca was forbidden to import their record albums to the U.S. using the Decca name because there already was a U.S. based record company in America named Decca Records, Inc.1 (not affiliated with the Decca Record Co., Ltd.). For this reason, Decca of England chose to export their albums to the USA under the London label. While I was at it, I also included some of the other pressings by this company in the form of the Decca SDD and SPA series and the London STS series.
How did I select the people to interview? I personally know a small group of audiophile acquaintances whom I proceeded to call and formally interview. I augmented this by calling a key individual of a printed audio rag and asking him for telephone numbers (or cell numbers) of current and former reviewers I could use for this project. Many of these individuals provided me with the names and telephone numbers of other discriminating listeners that reinforced (but did not change) the response pattern that I received from the group as a whole.
My investigative efforts over the past years have revealed that the very subject of possible sonic differences between London and Decca pressings is one that evokes heated emotions from audiophiles throughout the community. I was told by some of the interviewees that my writings could cause the price of London pressings to skyrocket. However, other people told me that my writings on this subject could cause the price of the Decca pressings to soar even higher while the price of the London pressings could plummet. I accepted this assignment without concern as to the effects on the already somewhat costly used record marketplace (I guess the politically correct term is "previously owned records"). If we were to restrict our words based upon their effect on the marketplace, every product review would end with glowing statements about a products excellence and value. (where have we seen that type of worthless commentary written by reviewers?)
Several individuals I interviewed expressed strong sentiment on this subject. This may have been motivated by the concern that their efforts of many years to collect the "...sonically equal or superior..." London pressings at a fraction of the Decca price may have been an erroneous decision. Had they spent all these years searching for something that led them down the wrong path causing them to waste not only time but also good money? Nothing seems to bring out intense emotions more than impact to ones' wallet or ego. It is pretty easy to tell someone that they have an ugly dog but try to tell that same person that they have squandered their money, the sound of their stereo system sucks or they have tin ears and you are in for the fight of your life.
In my feeble attempt to collect this information, I approached the task of interviewing these people by initially writing a questionnaire that I would use during the interview process. I had to be certain that the questions asked did not in any way express any pre-conceived notions I may have had on the subject. The questions had to be comprehensive enough to discriminate between what elements, if any, caused specific sonic differences. The first group of questions related to the sonics vs. the mother, lacquer or stamper numbers/letters and run-out grooves of the various albums2. The second group of questions pertained to each individuals' system equipment, listening environment and listening biases.
In response to these questions, the answers spanned the gamut of possibilities from the London is usually sonically better to the Decca always has the best sonics. We must also include those people questioned that said the London CS and Decca SXL records sound indistinguishable from one another (several respondents) and one individual who said the sonics of an album will always depend on the specific pressing (record) you are auditioning and has nothing to do with this stuff of stampers, lacquers, mothers or labels. Most of the individuals who could be placed in the category of saying that the London is sometimes better and other times the Decca is better almost always said you will have identical sonics if you have copies of the London CS and the Decca SXL with identical mother, lacquer and stamper numbers3. The consensus amongst those individuals was that The Decca Record Company, Ltd. did not make any special provisions for mastering and pressing either the London or Decca albums for them to sound different from one another.
Many people confided to me their findings as to what causes one of the pressings (either the London or the Decca) to sound better than the other only under the condition that I do not print the information in this review. They feel it would cause certain records with certain characteristics to become even more scarce while others became nearly worthless. I do not feel that I am violating any trust from these individuals when I repeat what was told to me, which was: "...it's the lacquer number. You always have to have a mother and stamper from the first lacquer4...": and "...you have to have a first mother...": and, of course, "...the primary factor is the stamper number. You must have a 'B' or a 'U' stamper for the sonics to sound great..."!5
A couple of the individuals that I interviewed became quite caught up in the activity of trying to determine if there were characteristic sonic differences between the Decca and London labels of the same album. One of these individuals told me that he had worked at the New Malden pressing plant in the UK during the "golden era" and he felt sure that the records were pressed with no forethought as to whether they would end up with Decca or London labels. I questioned and continue to question that statement. One specific reason I have for this disbelief pertains to multi-record sets. The Decca labeled albums were pressed in a sequential format (side one was combined with side two, etc.) whereas on the London labeled albums, they were pressed in a mirror image format (side one with the last side, side two with the next to last side, etc.) to accommodate the record changers they were prevalent in the American audio scene at that time.
There was a significantly large group of people who were firmly entrenched in the belief that the Decca SXL pressing always sounded equal to or better than the London CS. Actually, most of these individuals never even used the term "...equal to...". They said that the Decca SXL always sounded better than the London CS equivalent! At no time did anyone ever voice the opposite opinion; i.e., the London always sounds better.
I also asked the interviewees if they had compared the London CS or Decca SXL pressings to other pressings of the same master tape; i.e., Decca SDD's or SPA's, London STS's RCA LSC's or Victrola VICS6? How about the new (or old) Super Analog releases or the German Decca re-issues (they were re-mastered by Tony Hawkins -- the 'K' of Decca fame7)? Only one person I interviewed had listened to the German Decca re-issues8. All the rest of the pressing variations were generally considered inferior to the Decca SXL and London CS pressings. Inferior was defined as lack of stage presence, hall ambiance, deep bass (not so on the SDD's and STS pressings) and detail information. Only a couple of the respondents had even bothered to evaluate the sonic differences between these albums on their various labels and their SXL/CS counterparts.
I additionally asked each person what general comments they could make relative to the sonic differences between pressings made in different countries; e.g., British Decca's compared to Dutch or German Decca's and British London's compared to the Dutch or American pressings from the multiple manufacturers of London's in the USA? I also asked them to describe their reference system, listening environment and any listening biases that they had that might affect the differences they heard or did not hear between the pressings they had compared. This question could be of some importance in quantifying the responses of the individuals if there was a correlation between responses and the sophistication of their system or listening environment or biases (there wasn't).
There seemed to be general agreement about the sound of non-British pressings; however, even with this question, there were differences of opinion. Almost everyone said that non-British pressings were inferior to those pressed in the U.K. While some respondents wrote off Dutch and American pressings, a few individuals said that they had heard a few Dutch recordings that were "...very good". German Decca's were generally considered inferior to British Decca's as they lacked mid-bass and lower bass response. Regarding American pressed London recordings9, most individuals agreed that they "typically" were not very good, lacked in image and hall spaciousness and were rolled off from the upper bass frequencies down to the basement. However, this may not always be true (nothing is easy). Some London records were pressed by RCA at the Indianapolis plant. They have a somewhat characteristic and realistic RCA sonic signature when compared to the other pressings. Watch for them!
I always finished my interview with two questions. The first was "How often do you attend live symphony orchestra concerts"? The reason for asking that question is obvious. How can one judge the relative excellence of a recording if we do not have a basis of judgment that references the absolute sound; i.e., live concerts. I discovered that I could have asked a permanent "shut-in" how often they attended live orchestra concerts and I would have been told "...not as much as I should -- pause -- pause -- three or four times a month...harrumph -- harrumph" (the arts flourish)!
The last question was "Why do YOU think some people can hear or cannot hear the sonic differences between the pressings on these labels?" The stuttering became severe, most notably amongst the "there is no difference" crowd10. When comments were made, they usually referred to the lack of quality of the other individuals stereo system or their "tin ears"11. My only comment at this time is that to my knowledge, there was not a single individual that I questioned whose stereo system could be purchased for less than $10,000 USD.
So what conclusions would I have fashioned regarding sonic differences between London and Decca pressings if I exclusively used the information that I received from learned individuals that I questioned? I would have learned that "...there are no sonic differences"; "... the London pressings are actually superior because the Decca record company was very concerned about returns from 'across the pond...'"; "... it's a crap shoot, all you can tell from listening to a particular record from a particular label is the sonics of the specific disc you are listening to..."; "... sometimes the Decca sounds better and sometimes the London sounds better..."; "...the Decca pressings (SXL) always sound better".... In other words, I would be exceedingly confused and totally without a definitive answer if I had to make my conclusions solely from the interview process. But I didn't!
The fun part of this assignment had begun many weeks before the interviews commenced and has continued for many years past the conclusion of my interview sessions. This listening process began with the selection of the albums that I had at my disposal on both the London CS and Decca SXL labels. I additionally added a couple of Super Analog (Japanese and U.S.) pressings, a Mobile Fidelity UHQR, a couple of London STS copies, and Decca SDD and SPA recordings to round out the listening plan.
What did I expect to find in differences? I did anticipate that a portion of the London albums I auditioned would sound inferior to the Decca pressings because of the care, or lack thereof, of the U.S. owned albums. Anyone who has walked into a used record store in the USA and in Europe comes up with the same thought which is "...I sure wish the albums I found in the US were in as good a condition as the albums I find in Europe"! The Europeans were never fond of record changers (the reason for the differences in the stamping of the multi-record sets already mentioned) and took care not to mistreat their valuable albums while most Americans were/are notorious for mistreating records. Hell, the difference in the mentality between Europeans and Americans and the way they care for their personal belongings is obvious in all extents (open your car door and ding the car next to you in Europe and you will be fortunate if you escape with your life).
I adopted some listening standards for the comparative listening sessions to prevent erroneous results from occurring. They included washing each album with the same cleaning fluid on my VPI HW-17F record cleaner prior to listening. I also adjusted the VTA (when necessary) to compensate for differences in record thickness and sound. As a note of peculiarity, I found two albums, both happened to be Decca's, that were extremely critical regarding VTA settings. By this I mean that with both of these albums, there was only a small point where the VTA setting yielded great sonics. All of the other albums I listened to had a greater latitude with respect to proper VTA settings. At the time, my reference system used a Koetsu Pro IV mounted on an SME V arm (I now use a Lyra Evolve 99 on a VPI JMW 12 that is not as critical regarding VTA setting as other cartridges I have owned or auditioned). I also used a sound pressure level meter to adjust the volume of each album to the same level between the multiple pressings of the same master tape. Yes, the sound level of the different records of the same recording varied by up to 5 db. In my listening sessions, I did not find any correlation between the level with which the record was cut and the comparative sonic quality of the album.
Before beginning my listening sessions, I catalogued each album that I was going to reference and listed the lacquer, mother and stamper numbers/letters. I also measured the width of the run-out grooves and weighed each album (they ranged between 100 grams and 200 grams (Mobile Fidelity UHQR)). Armed with a stop watch and a large ledger to take listening notes, I began my learning experience. I would randomly select one of the albums to be reviewed, listen to the section or sections that I was going to compare and then place the next copy of the album on the turntable and repeat the same section or sections. At first, I had to repeat this process multiple times until I had adjusted my listening skills to the critical level necessary to do justice for this review12.
The first album I selected was the Mehta -- Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra performance of the Holst Planets on London CS-6734, Decca SXL-6529 and Super Analog KIJC-9145 (U.S. pressing). For those individuals interested in the detail inner groove markings, the British London and Decca both came from the first mother. The London was a 4W,5W lacquer with stampers of BC and BC. The Decca had later lacquer and stamper numbers of 6W,7W and CB,UH. Run out groove distances for side one and two of the London, Decca and Super Analog respectively were 11/23mm (London), 19/16mm (Decca) and 22/8mm for the Super Analog. The selections I used from this recording were Saturn, Neptune and the perfunctory Mars (one of my least favorite planets of this work).
The Holtz -- Planets listening session began with the Super Analog copy I had just purchased (KIJC-9145 -- US pressing). This album rendered excellent inner detail including being able to hear the breathing of the woodwind players in the Saturn -- Neptune pieces. The listening position was 10 or 12 rows back from the center stage and a stage width well beyond the extents of the speakers. There was; however, a lack of harmonic richness that I associate with live music and its analog reproduction. This reduction of richness seemed to be caused by the lack of the lower overtones (undertones?) in the harmonic presentation. Unfortunately, this apparent sonic deficiency translates into a diminishing of the intensity of this work, which is a significant attribute to be missing when one is listening to the Holtz Planets.
The mid and low bass was present in abundance but without the air that normally surrounds the notes of a wind instrument in a live performance. This lack of air from the bass up through the mid range can be interpreted by the listener as a slight muddling or confusion in the soundstage. The high frequencies were crisp and rich by live music standards. Dynamic range was excellent and the surfaces of the album were quiet to the level that would please the most critical CD aficionado.
The next copy of this album out of the cover was the British Decca (SXL-6529). The differences in sonics were monumental to the point that my hand instinctively wrote my thoughts on paper as I was totally engrossed in what I was hearing. The overall richness of the harmonics for all the instruments was not a small difference. Combined with the added richness was a significantly larger hall sound with an appreciable increase in the depth and height of the soundstage. Part of this euphonic pleasure comes from the new listening position in the fourth or fifth row of the "concert hall" placing one closer to the performance and the performers. As we all know too well, one can only fully understand what we are missing when we are exposed to what it was we were missing.
However, the most significant difference was the absolute imaging of the individual instruments. I was able to exactly pinpoint the location of any instrument that I selected in the orchestra. One can hear the individual vibrato of each of the instruments of the woodwind choir. The timpani not only sound precisely as timpani do sound, you could tell the left -- right placement of each of the kettle drums without trying. The scrub of the bows on the bass viols was just that, the scrub of the bows on the bass viols just as if you were at a live concert. This copy of the Mehta Holtz Planets is both riveting and exhausting.
The last copy of this album out of the cover was the British London (CS-6734). Had I not listened to the Decca just prior to putting this disc on the turntable, I would have been overwhelmed by the passion and sonic pleasure that I would have received from this London disc. But... I played it after the Decca, which brought out several significant shortcomings that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. The London appears to have a diminished amount of the upper harmonics of the fundamental tone that causes one to feel a lack of intimacy. Do NOT equate diminished upper harmonics with a lack of edge or impact from the leading edge of the note(s). Instead, look at this as missing the air around the sonics (high frequencies) that you are hearing. Other comments as read from my listening notes are: "Tubbier bass in pizzicato; hammer used on bells seemed like it was a softer hammer; 2nd violins lack full harmonic richness; trumpet has fundamental pitch impact without harmonic richness".
The good news is that the dynamic contrasts and the passion energized by the performance on the London pressing was almost as absorbing as that from the previously auditioned Decca. The seating position and hall dimensions appear the same as with the Decca -- broad, high and deep.
The most striking difference between the Decca and this London pressing is the inability to again pinpoint the placement of instruments in the orchestra. Sure, you could point in the general direction of any instrument but the width of the instrument was much larger on the London. The best way I can describe the difference is by stating that when listening to the Decca pressing, I pointed at a particular instrument with my finger. When listening to the London pressing (and the Super Analog), you pointed at the same instrument with your open hand -- not your finger. Overall, I must say that if I had not listened to the Decca, I would have drooled all over the London. But I did!
The next comparison was another laid back composition (Mahler Symphony #2 -- Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic) using London CSA-2242 and Decca SXL-6744,45. The sequencing of the sides of the London was mirror image 1/4 and 2/3 whereas the Decca was typical British using 1/2 and 3/4. Again the Decca had the later lacquer numbers but a couple of the sides had earlier stamper numbers. Run-out groove distances were mixed between the sides -- some longer and some shorter.
Using primarily the fourth movement of this work to add the complexity of voices to the orchestra, I placed the London CSA on the turntable. The sonic stage was again open, wide, deep and high with intense and harmonic rich sonics throughout the work. I did find myself once again pointing at the specific instruments with my open hand instead of a finger. There also did not seem to be the proper amount of air between the voices of the choir as one would hear in performance (confirmed after I listened to my Decca copy).
I then placed the Decca SXL pressing on my turntable and heard the same significant differences that I had heard on the previous London/Decca comparison. The opening bass drum roll was highly focused. You could hear the timbre of the skin of the timpani as the mallets struck. The already large hall opened even deeper than with the London. When listening to the multiple flutes play, it was easy to discern the differences of tonality between the instruments and players.
The most significant difference I heard was during the passages of mixed voices and instruments. From the Decca, there was air between the multiple voices and multiple instruments that made me feel as if I was hearing this performance for the first time. During the pianissimo passages of the voices, you could differentiate the placement and timbre of the individual vocalists. And yes, while listening to the power of the mixed voices and orchestra, goose bumps magically appeared from the bottom of my legs to the top of my head. It was so beautiful!
Since I am obviously an aficionado of serene and restrained musical compositions, the next selection was the Respeghi -- Feste Romane with Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra. My comparison was limited to the Decca (SXL-6822 -first mother, 3W lacquer and BK stamper with a 14 mm run-out groove) and the Mobile Fidelity UHQR (MFQR1-507 with an 8mm run-out groove). At the time of the comparison, I did not have a London copy as I had previously made a critical comparison between the London and UHQR copies and had determined that the UHQR was sonically far superior to the London copy I had.
The difference between these two pressings was far less than what I had heard between the other pressings and the Decca. The differences primarily relate to hall sound with the Decca having a significantly larger hall sound than the UHQR pressing. The other listening notes I wrote remark on how the Decca pressing has a better center balance -- not as left/right oriented -- and a richer timbre with more harmonic overtones yielding a more rewarding listening experience.
Moving to the next selection, I decided to also compare a copy of one of the new German Decca re-issues. This selection is the Stravinsky -- Petrouchka with the OSR, Ansermet conducting. The copies compared was the London CS-6009, a blueback ffss copy with lacquer numbers of 1E/2E and stampers of H/BM; a Decca SXL-2011 -- original, and a German Decca reissue SXL-201113.
The two Decca's sounded very similar which says that the German re-issues are really excellent and a great value (the major differences is in the dynamics of the pressings with the original having a greater dynamic impact and a slight softening of the transient high frequency information). The original Decca was a real "bear" when it came to setting the proper VTA. By varying the VTA by a very small amount, the soundstage would shrink or grow significantly. The soundstage on both Decca's was wide and full with seating position being in the center of rows six to ten. The London ffss had a much more narrow soundstage where the sound was well in-between the speakers. Seating position with the London was much further back -- around row twenty of the concert hall14. Whereas the London had a slight edge of overall brightness (lack of lower harmonics?), both Decca's were darker and richer like that of the real instruments.
The other difference I noted between the two Decca's was that the English Horn solo at the end of the 1st movement was not as focused on the re-issue as the original. The detail of the re-issue (including hearing the pianist breathing during the solo in the middle of the second movement) was superior to my original but that may have been caused by former cartridge/tonearm combinations that had previously played the original.
So which Petrouchka do I like the best? That's elementary. It is the RCA pressed Mercury SR 90216 (FR2,FR1) performance with Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony. But that's another story for another time.
Many of the individuals I interviewed said that if it was possible to find a London and a Decca with identical mother, lacquer and stamper markings, it would unquestionably sound the same. My next record that I auditioned was the Dvorak Overtures with Kertesz and the London Symphony Orchestra. The London CS-6574 was a 2nd label (first pressing) with run out groove numbers of 1,4W,U on side 1 and 1,2W,U on side 2. The Decca pressing (SXL-6348) has the identical mother, lacquer and stamper numbers on both sides. Yes, the measurements of the run-out grooves are also identical for both sides -- 16mm for side one and 15mm for side two.
Since both of these albums have all of the same markings, everything else about them should be the same and they should sound identical. Right? WRONG!! First of all, they are not the same thickness and they do not weigh the same amount. The London weighs 150 grams while the Decca weighs 170 grams. So is the Decca thicker than the London? Yes, by 0.0104". (The Decca is almost 20% thicker.) But I have been told by many that identical mother, lacquer and stampers were pressed at the same time, ergo they should be the same thickness and weigh the same amount.
Did they sound the same? Not even close! Let's see if this sounds at all familiar to you. The Decca had much richer harmonics with a significantly deeper hall sound. The resonance of all of the instruments was significantly more focused on the Decca giving the listener the ability to point at the instruments with a finger instead of pointing at the instruments with an open hand as one has to do with the London copy. The hall reverberation of the French Horn on the Decca can be heard as its sound decays. Even after listening to the Decca, I was unable to hear this hall reverberation on the London.
Was the added thickness the difference? It could be for this album but many of the other albums that I auditioned either did NOT weigh different amounts from one another or the London weighed more and was thicker than the Decca. I was NOT able to make any kind of correlation between weight, thickness and sonics when assessing the many albums I auditioned.
Without making this article boring to the brink of tears, let me just list the other albums that I used for comparison and report on the differences at the end of the listing. They included the Khachaturian Gayne & Spartacus Ballet (CS-6322 ffss and SXL-6000), the Chabrier - Argenta - Espana (CS-6006 - ffss and the Decca re-issue SXL-2020), Ravel - Monteux - Daphnis & Chloe (CS-6147 -- ffss, SXL-2164 re-issue, STS-15090 organge/silver label w/V-groove), Strauss - Mehta - Also Sprach Zarathustra15 (CS-6609 - 2nd label (first pressing) and SXL-6379 in both Dutch and British variants), Holst - Boult - Hymn of Jesus (CS-6324 ffss and SXL-6006), Wagner - Solti - Die Gotterdammerung (OSA-1604 and SET- 292,7), Dvorak - Kertexz - Scherzo Capriccioso (CS-6358 ffss, CS-6358 - second label and CS-6358 RCA pressing), Verdi -- Karajan Aida (OSA-1313 and SXL-2167,69) and several others.
So what results can I claim I achieved in this marathon listening session. If someone plays a copy of a British London and a British Decca of the same album, both my significant other and I can always sonically identify which one is the Decca SXL and which one is the London CS16. Yes, the Decca CONSTANTLY sounded more analogous to a live performance than did the London for all of the reasons previously stated. Did we ever listen to a British Decca and become fooled into thinking that we were listening to a London? Yes, this occurred on two different occasions during the multiple month series of listening sessions. In these two instances, we placed a Decca onto the turntable (1st review record of the listening session) and it lacked the images and resolution that we had experienced with Decca's. We "Fluxbusted" the cartridge and voila, the Decca regained its richness and authenticity. The second occasion duplicated this experience so to answer the question did we ever listen to a British London and think that it sounded better than the Decca, the answer is NO!
Did I ever hear a copy of a non-Decca SXL pressing that sounded better than the Decca SXL? Yes -- once. That album was the Super Analog -- Japanese pressing (K38C 70003) -- of the Dvorak - Kertesz/LSO New World Symphony and Decca SXL 6291. My listening notes for the Super Analog say: better dynamics, even tighter instrument placement, better hall sound (wider and deeper), very realistic sounding.
In a future article, I will cover the sound of the Decca/London classical catalog regarding the London STS, Decca SDD and SPA, RCA (multiple pressing companies in the USA) and more on the reissues. Let me just wet your appetite by saying that I believe the STS and SDD labels are some of the best value buys in the used record marketplace.
In conclusion, should everyone "dump" their London's and buy Decca's? Hell no! I have many London's that I will never be able to replace. If for no other reason, to do so is price prohibitive (...now if I hit the Lottery this week...). Many individuals and many system configurations will not have the resolving power to differentiate between many of the Decca and London pressings. If you want to enjoy listening to the performance, ALL of these pressings from The Decca Record Company, Ltd. are outstanding although I do believe that my significant other summed up the sound of the Decca's with two words -- "...ear candy."