Thursday, February 27, 2014

LP Week with AQL, Special Report: Decca versus London Part 1

The Lyrical Lyrita Series has brought us into the realm of Decca these last weeks as Decca recorded all of these LP’s (stereo) and pressed most of them. And what better place for LP week to weigh in then with the Decca blue bloods (“membership in a royal or socially important family”) and their eccentricities. The blue bloods have had quite a run over the years and the top Decca recently have been selling for as much as $1400, whilst the lowly London blue back can’t seem to even garner $140. Why is there a price difference between these labels when all of the records were pressed in England by Decca? There has been much debate over this market differential and we’ll be exploring this over the coming weeks. 

The most thorough study of this phenomenon was done by Mr. Sedric Harris on Enjoy the Music.com (official Internet partners with The Absolute Sound, Australian Hi-Fi Magazine, CANADA HiFi, Hi-Fi+, HIFICRITIC, HiFi Media, Hi-Fi World, Sound Practices and VALVE Magazine) and it is squarely in support of the superiority of Decca: http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/viewpoint/0102/londondecca.htm
On the other side, some maintain there is no difference, (including our host AQL, who we have gagged with a sock in his mouth this week, as he doesn’t have any Decca vs. London duplicates.) The prodigious Maestro Salvatore of Supreme Recordings has overwhelming evidence that there is no difference:

Of course, both are wrong and we are here to set you straight on LP Week. We’ll put out some initial hypotheses after our first round of Decca versus London comparisons. And in upcoming episodes we will explore the different pressings and hopefully with our viewer’s input come to a definitive understanding. But first a tutorial for those not steeped in reading the Decca tea leaves.

All Decca pretty much look the same, even the ED4 "narrow band"
There are two ways to classify your London LP’s. One we will call the Blue Blood method (popular with British record dealers) and the other is the matrix method. This is the safest and simplest method, but it has it downfalls. It is Decca label driven, but works quite well for the London releases. First we have the tube ED1 pressing and the ED2 pressing. These are identical except that with the ED2, the words "Original Recording By..." are replaced with "Made in England By...". The third label ED3 is identical to the second except that there is no groove in the label (a trench almost at a radius of about 2 inches on the label.)  Then we have the “narrow band” ED4 which is a smaller label with a ridge in the dead wax/lead out and the lettering around the circumference of the label encompasses the band. Of course the Blue Blood method is a little bird brained compared to the matrix method as we’ll see when applying to the London’s.

First off with London the ED2 vs ED1 line does not exist. We do have some very early pancake pressings (also on Decca too) that don’t have a groove in the label, but they are completely distinct from the grooveless ED3. The pancake pressings have no lip when you grab the edge of the record which is not ideal for record changers. Decca used there mono presses to make these when the grooved stereo presses were at capacity. They may have deemed the pancake inferior since it appears mainly with box sets and a few of the London releases, but never with the Decca SXL single LP releases (readers, feel free to correct in the comments and we’ll update this.)


The first label line we cross with London is from FFSS to FFRR with a distinct transition in the CS 6350’s which also marks the end of the blue backs (some records after this have the FFSS label as Decca used up their stock of labels, readers?) Right around this time, the sound also changes from the classic romantic tubey sound to something more modern. All of these are grooved pressings and this means that the ED2 label is no guarantee of the classic and incredible London tube sound. With a Decca ED3 you are guaranteed not to have a tube pressing.

All of these are half speed mastered (as discussed in Lyrical Lyrita Series) until we reach the narrow band label. 

With London, the transition to the ED4 style small label (no narrow band, but the same ridge) is earlier than Decca and coincides with the introduction of the Neumann helium cooled SX-68 cutter head. With Decca the labels stay in the ED3 style label (“wideband”) for a few more years after the change to the first Neumann (readers?), so again the Decca label fails as a sound indicator. Both Decca and London labels are unchanged for the transition to the pristine treble cutting Neumann SX-74 around 1975. And around 1979 Decca closed its British plants, transitioning all production to the Netherlands.

In conclusion the Blue Blood method is actually more effective with the London label than with the Decca label. It is extremely good at determining the rough age of an LP, so onto the Matrix method.

For the Matrix method we must look at the dead wax or lead out area of the vinyl; the end of the record where if one doesn’t pick up the arm a click sounds every time the LP goes around. First orient the record to read the ZAL matrix number (ex. ZAL-8284-3G) which will place the matrix number at 6 o’clock below the label. The last two characters of the matrix are of extreme interest as the letter refers to the engineer and the number of the master lacquer. Here are the engineers:

A = Guy Fletcher
B = Ron Mason
C = Trevor Fletcher
D = Jack Law
E = Stan Goodall
Add caption
F = Cyril Windebank
G = Ted Burkett
K = Tony Hawkins
L = George Bettyes
R = ????
V = Quentin Williams
W = Harry Fisher


     At 9 o’clock we have we have the number of the Metal Mother used to make the Stamper. Lower is better.

At 3 o’clock, the stamper number consists of letters from the word BUCKINGHAM. The first Stamper to be made from the Mother has the letter B, the second U, etc., with combinations indicating even later stampers.





At 12 o’clock, the faint Date code here actually is borrowed from the UK official sales tax code:
RT - from 1959
ET - from 1960
ZT - from 1962
OT - from 1963
MT - from 1965
KT - about 1967 to 1969
JT - about 1969 to 1972
No age codings were used after 1972"

So which of these codes do we care about? The master lacquer number is quite important as this will define the sound from the engineer. We prefer to have the first mother from this lacquer with a ‘1’ at 9 o’clock. An early stamper from a mother is nice, but may not be critical (500 records made per stamper). The Date Code can be very helpful when used with the other numbers (ex. While investigating for this piece I noted none of my London Stereo Treasury records had codes prior to 1967.) Of course the one thing we can’t tell is whether a record in hand is the first or five hundredth off a given stamper.

So now armed with this knowledge we begin the journey of Decca versus London versus Stereo Treasury versus Ace of Diamonds, and we will see if this is purely a tale of matrices.



Decca SXL 6482 vs London CS 6680 Saint-Saens, Symphony No. 3, Organ Symphony, Mehta, Los Angeles Philharmonic OrchestraLondon:
2K/4K
(1/1)
stamper: A/C
JT
(69-72)

small label


Decca:
4W/5W
(2/1)
stamper:
U/B
no date
(73+)
narrow band


This audiophile war horse rates an Honorable Mention in the Supreme Recordings. Very uninteresting sound. Side 1 better on the Decca, but who cares. Two different masterings sound very similar. Salvatore must have had better pressings, but for me this one is "sell, sell, sell!" For sonic reviews of all recordings of this piece except the best one, see http://www.high-endaudio.com/SR-BASIC4.html#Dec . The best is EMI's CFP 40053 PCO, Pretre, Durufule, Organ.  It may not be the ultimate in sound floor, but it is special never the less. Issues of the original LP, ASD 585 ($50+) will also have good bass, but are unlikely to match the CFP's bass for tightness and drive.

Decca SXL 6535 vs London CS 6738 Liszt, The Battle of the Hunds, Mazeppa, Orpheus, Mehta, Los Angeles Philharmonic OrchestraLondon:
4W/2W
(1/1)
stamper: I/U
JT
(69-72)

small label
Decca:
1W/2W
(1/1)
stamper:
BN/N
JT
(69-72)
narrow band
Side 2 of the Decca is way better than the London on side 2. This is interesting as they share the same lacquer and the London has an earlier stamper. The best side though was side 1 of the London. Perhaps the 4W is a better lacquer, but I suspect this is something akin to the Tom Port of Better Records "hot stamper" LP's where he simply charges more for better sounding copies. Side 2 of the London should be better by the numbers, but again perhaps the difference between the sound of the 500th record off a stamper and the first few is a factor. I enjoyed these works and the performances. Servicable sound.


Decca SXL 6535 vs London CS 6738 Liszt, The Battle of the Hunds, Mazeppa, Orpheus, Mehta, Los Angeles Philharmonic OrchestraLondon:
1W/1W
(1/1)
stamper: U/C
JT
(69-72)

small label
Decca:
1W/1W
(1/1)
stamper:
BB/A
JT
(69-72)
narrow band
Here is a case where the London has the early stampers (same lacquer and mother for both).  The London is better here, so perhaps the second stamper off a mother is better than the 11th. This record is a resident of the Salvatore's Honorable Mentions. I would not rate this LP that highly though it is better than the Mehta Saint-Saens above. I enjoyed the music and the performance.


Decca SXL 6000 vs London CS 6322 vs Super Analogue KIJC 9018, Khachaturian, Spartacus, Gayaneh Ballet Suites, Khachaturian, Vienna Philharmonic London:
2E/2E
(1/1)
stamper: C/U
JT
no dates codes, but grooved FFSS puts this as early
Decca:
4W/4W
(4C/1)
stamper:
IA/IK
JT
(69-72)
narrow band
The London Blue Back TAS Super Disc List resident has disappointing congestion with the massed brass. The later Decca helium cooled Neumann SX-68 pressing gives servicable, if undynamic sound in comparison, but still fights congestion some, a good filler. For best sound, go right to the Super Analog ($30 on ebay, versus $20 for the blueback, and $100 for an ED1 Decca.) These Japanese half-speed 300 watt tube pressings were made by a direct connection to the tape machine (tricked out Solid State Tandberg unit). Despite the slight solid state coolness, the Super Analog noise/sound floor obliterates the British. (Listening to more of these soon, as they may outclass all Decca reissues in this area.) Luxuriant, silky sound. In spite of extreme amplifier power and half speed mastering we still have tape congestion.

The score so far is kind of a yawn with no clear winner except for perhaps the Super Analog. I will say that the later Decca covers are superior to the London with better artwork and more substantial clarifoil covers.  The blue bloods may take umbrage when I state that the Decca SXL 2000 artwork is rather boring and the gloss covers flimsy; I'll take the more substantial, early blue back cover any day with its schlocky artwork.

The operating hypothesis moving forward is that all records will sound different.  In some cases, certain pressings of Decca or London may be superior to anything on the other as the records did not come off the press with one for London, one for Decca, etc. In general, I expect a vintage used classical LP from England might be in better shape since the record changer was more prevalent in the USA. 

Be advised, if you already have a loved, great copy of a Decca or London be careful.  You are more likely than not to be disappointed with a second copy because you probably already have a "hot stamper". For now, given the inflated Decca prices (and deflated London prices), please save your dollars and get yourself an FFSS London Blue Back (back cover is light blue).  They are often cheap enough to not bother with a cheap, later filler pressing, and they could be better than the Decca. We still have several more reports to do, so this is our interim advice for your LP dollars.

That is the picture for now, but we will continue this special report with part 2 with a number of vintage blue back comparisons and we'll start exploring some of the ED2 type pressings, including grooved ace of diamonds/stereo treasury and early London FFRR.
 
Well you've again and wasted another week with LP Week, and please remember, those who plug their computer keyboards into hi-fi systems aren't idiots. That would be stereotyping.


Update: Be sure to see our Living Decca SXL Blueback Guide.

9 comments:

  1. Miles, thanks for the in depth report. This has long been a topic of debate, and I was very glad to see the evidence on the High End Audio website demonstrating that Deccas and Londons are made of the same cloth. In summary, my thoughts concur with yours: save yourself the dough and embarrassment of telling your spouse that you just blew $500 on a Decca. Go for the London. To date, I have not heard a significant difference between the two. I can't say that I've done several A/B comparisons, but the ones I have done didn't prove that either was superior. In contrast to you, I tend to like the laminated Decca covers a little more, but that's no good reason to pay 5-10 times the price. I will also say that some of the highly rated Deccas in the FFSS book are a bit disappointing. Case in point: SXL 2113, Ansermet conducting Rimsky-Korsakov is given a rating of 17 out of 20. I bought my copy last year on Ebay and was thoroughly disappointed. Dynamic range seemed rather constricted, and I was not impressed. I sold it within a month of buying it.

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    1. Robert Moon and Michael Gray teamed up to write Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound which is really basically a London Blue Back guide. You are showing your Decca blue blood tendencies going for the SXL. They actually reviewed the blue back in the guide, CS 6036 Rimsky-Korsakov Suites. That might be a case where the London is better. I've only got a late pressing of this piece which basically allows me to look at the cover (good sound, but I don't listen to it). I edited out this week's lengthy piece, but I disagree strongly with Robert Moon that the later pressings are better. First, one should know that you won't have later pressing per se with the same cover if Decca put the title out on a budget label like Stereo Treasury(STS) or Ace of Diamonds(SDD). This is usually only a downgrade in cover art, the pressings are the same as if they were reissued under the same title (not the case with rival RCA's Victrola budget series). There are many cases where a later pressing might be better, when the original is really bad (CS 6129, Karajan, Zarathrustra) and later pressings are better. We both prefer grooved FFRR, STS, SDD, and similar age SXL reissues (the ED2 SXL is a poor indicator since many of these are in fact full blue backs with excellent tube sound) over the later reissues. But, a really good original pressing is unbeatable if you want a great record with blue back magic (the few Super Analog reissues of early stuff may sometimes be an exception.) The solid state reissues bring a lot to the table, but they will never have that magic.

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  2. I'd also like to add that many of the London Stereo Treasuries are absolute bargains and can sound fantastic. In particular, the ones with the deep groove label (analogous to the deep grooved Decca Ace of Diamonds) were reportedly cut from the same stampers as the early London/Deccas and may sound very similar. I will say this much. I listened to several of the early London/Deccas that were plagued with bright treble and distortion at high volumes, then I listened to their STS counterparts. What a world of difference. The distortion is absent, and there is a much more natural sound. The Krips Tchaikovsky 5 is a good example, and there are many others. I have the STS of Campoli performing the Bruch and Mendelssohn violin concertos, and I found it to be pretty stunning. These can run for $5 and under. I'd recommend experimenting with them.

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    1. Robert Moon and Michael Gray teamed up to write Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound which is really basically a London Blue Back guide. You are showing your Decca blue blood tendencies going for the SXL. They actually reviewed the blue back in the guide, CS 6036 Rimsky-Korsakov Suites. That might be a case where the London is better. I've only got a late pressing of this piece which basically allows me to look at the cover (good sound, but I don't listen to it). I edited out this week's lengthy piece, but I disagree strongly with Robert Moon that the later pressings are better. First, one should know that you won't have later pressing per se with the same cover if Decca put the title out on a budget label like Stereo Treasury(STS) or Ace of Diamonds(SDD). This is usually only a downgrade in cover art, the pressings are the same as if they were reissued under the same title (not the case with rival RCA's Victrola budget series). There are many cases where a later pressing might be better, when the original is really bad (CS 6129, Karajan, Zarathrustra) and later pressings are better. We both prefer grooved FFRR, STS, SDD, and similar age SXL reissues (the ED2 SXL is a poor indicator since many of these are in fact full blue backs with excellent tube sound) over the later reissues. But, a really good original pressing is unbeatable if you want a great record with blue back magic (the few Super Analog reissues of early stuff may sometimes be an exception.) The solid state reissues bring a lot to the table, but they will never have that magic.

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  3. Just re-read your comment about the date codes for the London STS. Are any of your STS albums deep grooved?

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    1. I've got scores of them. Ditto for London FFRR. I was noting this the other night and I'd say roughly only the first 50 or so STS are groove (we'll get that number nailed down). As these subjects keep coming up I foresee this special report going to like part 10. I've got groove and no groove STS of a number of releases. There definitely was an evolution in sound over the years from the earliest blue back until the helium cooled Neumann arrived on the scene in 1970. I think the date codes may be better than the groove for deciding if there is some break point during the 1964 to 1969 period. Within the tubey blue backs I will be digging for some ZT, OT date coded stuff which would be tube reissues of the earlier material for the first releases. It is interesting. I'd like to complete my blue back collection, but these pressing issues have stopped me. I believe we both have quite a few LPs in the CS6200-CS6259 range that are really good and that intrigues me.

      I've had these Decca's in piles for almost a year now, but got distracted by the amazing EMI stuff.

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  4. I've listened to some audiophile Decca reissue vinyl last night. I did not get to any mofi Decca, but despite their excellences they are almost irrelevant given the limited number of titles. I have no ORG reissues which may be good and are already going out of print (maestro Salvatore is investigating these on his site and it will be interesting to see his comments.) Speakers Corner and Super Analogue are the two biggies. Super Analogue has always sounded weird to my ears until recently. The tube pressings have been a bit ponderous and the use of a solid state playback deck I thought negated many of the advantages. The Speakers Corner were always good, but not a hint of tube magic.
    As it stands overall, it is Speakers Corner; however the Super Analogue has closed the gap and surpasses Speakers Corner on my system in many ways. The big change is sound floor. The Super Analogue appears to be better on the handful of the early Decca’s they reissued. I have three such LPs and at least two of the three are exhibiting a silky, luxuriant sound unique to the Super Analogue with these early Decca. I’ve never heard it anywhere else. All three LPs have massively improved sound floors compared to the best original Decca’s (London included when I say this). They also are much better in sound floor than all Decca reissues of any kind I have heard so far.
    Speakers Corner is very nice on my Weller Prokofiev 6 from the late 70’s (SXL6777). It has very impressive bass with nice timbral qualities. The Super Analogue of Mehta’s Mahler 3 is another heavy hitter from the late 70’s. The bass is a bit more wooly, but a very nice sound floor helps a lot. Maestro Salvatore has write ups on these with which I agree. I’ve got other Super Analogue from the 70’s I’ll be reviewing for this special report (Holst Planets Mehta), but right now I favor the Speakers Corner for this later material. I’ve got a nice original pressing of Weller Prokofiev 7 which I will compare with the Speakers Corner. They seem very similar. The original might have a few things going for it, but at this moment I favor both of these reissues over the original.
    I have wanted the Kertesz Kodaly Hary Janos Suite (SXL6136) on Speakers Corner for some time, but new copies from Super Analogue are around new still. I had presumed this to be an early transistor recording, but I see that it predates some well-loved late blue backs I have (the London release of this is much later.) The Maestro reviewed these, and liked both, but definitely liked the Speakers Corner best. I may just have to get both.

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  5. Part I

    Sorry for the delay in commenting about this, for me, very interesting topic. (If anyone is doing any serious digitizing of music files - my most important advice is BACKUP!!! Fortunately I have been meticulous about backups in my giant ripping project which is up to 20TB in size, including about 6000 records and prerecorded tapes. My 36TB NAS drive with two back up drives and the Synology version of RAID 5 crashed almost two weeks ago. Fortunately I had two complete backups of the contents. But rebuilding the NAS with 12 new 4TB drives and loading 20TB of data into it takes more than a few minutes!! and has been occupying my time).

    When Sedrick Harris first came out with his article comparing Decca and London, I was very interested, having acquired a very large number of used London records from our SF Amoeba store, when it had a huge room devoted to classical music. The records were generally very cheap, many at $1 and $2 including many blue back box sets for $6-$15 for sets of 2 to 5 records. Even some early blue backs were $10 or less. I got a chance to listen and determine what I liked. I was starting my regular visits to London then and could pick up many of the later Deccas for 1-5GBP, not much different than the prices of used London records in the US (similarly with four digit EMI ASD's.) I deliberately tried to find a few records where I could buy the London and Decca versions with the same matrix and many with the same stampers. What I discovered in this limited, but non trivial sample of different records was that for those with identical matrix, mother and stampers, the Decca pressings were always better or at least equal to the London pressings. That is, sometime the differences were substantial, while other times the differences were non existent, But I never found a London pressing that was better than a Decca, if both were from the same stamper. Now I had plenty of albums where I had two different stampers for the London and Decca and in those cases, there were some Londons that were better than Deccas, but mostly the Deccas were better than the Londons.

    Here is speculation on my part of the reasons, similar to Miles. First, the British tended to take better care of their records, fewer or no automatic changers for example. This meant less wear in general. Second, for a run of records with the same stamper, logically, either the Decca or London records were pressed first, since they had different labels. My understanding is that in general more London records were pressed for the larger US market (which was also more affluent than the UK which was still recovering from the economic effects of the war.) If that was true, then probably the smaller run of Deccas was done first, and then the Londons. This means there was a better chance of getting an early pressing from a stamper if it was a Decca than a London. If the records were pressed near the switchover point, then the sonics of the two records would be very similar.

    Larry (Part II coming)

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  6. Part II


    Based on my conclusions and having easy and relatively inexpensive access to Decca records my collection efforts for London/Deccas focused initially on the SXL6000 series and mostly Decca SDD pressings of the SXL2000 as well as London CS blueback pressings of the early issues. With time and greater affluence, I have been able to buy most of the SXL2000's as well. At this point, I have all of the narrow band SXL6000 (and few SXL7000 non digital) Deccas and all but a handful of the wide band SXL6000's (those which I don't have, I have as Lon CS). I also have all of the titles of the SXL2000's, about 75% or so as SXL2000 wide bands and the rest a combination of London CS, STS, Decca SDD, ECS and a handful of mostly Speakers Corners reissues. I don't collect the opera highlights except the few which were not issued as complete sets.

    Speaking of sets, the Decca SET, D and BB series are generally much cheaper and easier to find, even those corresponding to the wide band groove issues and I have complete sets of those also (except for sets which are reissues of earlier sets.)

    There are quite a few interesting anomalies that I have discovered which make comparing pressings difficult in some instances, like the Mehta Maher 3 which was issued as a British pressing in its London version but issued as a Dutch pressing in its later Decca release. Also there are a bunch of Decca SXL's that were never issued as London's and a bunch of London's that were never issued as Decca SXL's (some came out in the midpriced and bargain SDD and ECS labels and a few in the semi-popular SKL series.)

    I also have a handful of Super Analogue reissues, some Japanese pressed and some US pressed.

    That's enough for now.

    Larry

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