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Positive Feedback ISSUE48
as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
Without a doubt, reviewing the London Reference Phono Cartridge was more fun and adventure filled than with any other cartridge I have ever auditioned. A design almost mythical as it is original, it has percolated since 1951! It has even outlived its name as "Decca" was sold years ago to Tatung and its unique cartridge designs were sold to John Wright to produce cartridges under the London name. Presence Audio, the London world-wide distributor, is run by the brilliant and mild mannered engineer, Brian Smith. The London Reference is no 90% cartridge. What is a 90% cartridge? It's a cartridge that need be only 90% tweaked via VTA, arm compatibility, cable choice, electrical adjustment, etc.,etc.,etc, and still perform well. The London is a 99%! cartridge and thatís being damn conservative. The London is not for the weekend audiophile warrior, as only a dedicated phono fanatic need apply i.e., yours truly.
What's so special?
Weighing in at 6.5 grams, the London Reference is one of 8 models distributed stateside by the renowned May Audio Marketing. At $5250, itís the most expensive and itís also the most sophisticated. It's sleek and cool looking, has a very special fine line diamond stylus, predrilled screw holes, an output at a dynamic 5mv's, and an elegant cartridge body with square edges easy to level. And level it must be because it has NO cantilever! The stylus protrudes directly out of the bottom of the body kept in place by a small string resisting the forward thrust of the LP. The stylus is held in place by a tiny assembly directly contacting the coils within. Tracking at 1.8-2 grams, I found 1.95 grams to be optimum in my Helius Omega tonearm. VTA is set when the tiny stylus is exactly vertical to the record. I used 180 gram records for setup.
The Reference is vastly better looking and far superior to its other kin making the older Jubilee look like a toy by comparison. I would even label the Reference a stunning engineering achievement both visually and mechanically.
I was told a fairly high mass unipivot damped tonearm (or a straight-line tracking arm) was best. I don't know of any tonearm exactly like that made today. The Helius Omega is a typical medium mass arm with mechanical damping and is similar to most fine arms owned today by audiophiles. The light weight Reference needed a 3.5 gram cartridge weight to allow the tonearm to balance correctly. The Reference is supplied with a 5 gram tonearm weight which proved too heavy to use. If you don't know what I am talking about, quit reading now and go buy a Grado Statement. Once you get the tracking force right, the cartridge exactly level, you must tweak the geometry with the supplied protractor.
Now remember, the cartridge body is really close to the record so be very careful. Since I use a highly adjustable E.A.R. 324 phono stage, I was able to dial in the recommended and ideal 220pf capacitance and 15k-ohm impedance. If you cannot achieve these settings, experiment. However, my review is based on these electrical settings and the resulting audible results. Though it's not over yet.
Choosing the tonearm interconnect!
Finding an optimum phono cable to interconnect the phono stage and tonearm was a two-week ordeal. I normally use either the excellent Kubala-Sosna Emotion or Elation for my tonearms. The London was too fatiguing with these superb wires. The Furutech Silver Arrows didn't work right either nor did the Jorma #1 with Bybee Filters on board...the London varied wildly with these cables. It was just not sonically attractive and timbres were just not right.
Finally, Dan Meinwald, US Distributor for E.A.R., Marten, and Jorma Design, brought over a meter of Jorma Origo interconnect. This wire is the top of the line all copper wire Jorma makes without Bybee Filters and costs $5250! I can't tell you exactly why, but with the Jorma Origo interconnect, the E.A.R. 324 at these settings, and the London in the Helius Omega tonearm sporting the cartridge weight, I achieved a level of LP playback far superior to any previous phono reproduction that has ever reached these ears. (By the way, Dan Meinwald made three trips to my home to adjust the London before we got it sounding as noted here in the review. He is a renowned phono setup specialist.)
The Jorma Origo Interconnect
Just a quick comment on the Jorma Origo interconnect (means absolute zero in Swedish.) I plan a full review soon on this important cable line. For now, the (shielded) Origo is intensely detailed with no discernible colorations or sonic signature of its own to report. This is a first for any high-end wire in my long experience! A wire this completely neutral has major ramifications for our hobby if an entire system of Origo pans out the way I believe it will. You will hear your components and speakers for the first time without the subtle tone control or added/subtracted dynamics your wires usually bring to the party. For now, lets say the ultra neutral Jorma Origo IS an extraordinary tonearm cable and clearly (to me) state of the art in this application.
The London Cartridge Sound
Not only is the performance of the London a game changer, it reproduces the superior musicality and definition of LPs while flawlessly tracking every record I tried...tracking was previously a challenge for the London (Decca) design. It exhibited unsurpassed definition, speed, snap, linearity, dynamic range, and master tape-like timbres I have only dreamed about experiencing. Riding on the E.A.R. Disk Master Magnetic Drive Turntable was icing on the cake and sealed the deal.
The London Reference makes all other cartridge designs sound thin or thick and rather artificial by comparison. I am stunned by its performance. As I report this, my only negative comment may be the London sounds too real, at least for some folks who are used to a more laid back or liquid romanticized sound. With the London, prepare for SACD and CD playback to sound a bit thin, unresolved, and lacking dynamics by comparison! I compared the 200 gram Classic Record LPs of Blues in Orbit and Jazz Party with their CD and SACD counterparts. Forget it. The LPs played with the London are dramatically superior with high end extension and a sense of reality thatís unsurpassed and unbeatable.
Orchestra, string quartet, organ, any jazz, all sound fabulous. Vocals and massed chorus are divine and in the room alive! Original Mercury's, RCA's, and classic jazz Columbia's are a wow! Imaging is rock solid. Depth is clear, open, and almost totally lacking in phase distortions of any kind. You want master tape sound, here it is folks! Older LPs reveal vast new levels of definition and new releases will transport you to nirvana. This is fasten your seatbelt sound. Every LP you play with the London will be an experience to savor!
Be sure your turntable has truly superb isolation and support. The tonearm becomes the virtual cantilever for the London and is easily upset by the slightest footfalls and the like. Also, use very little anti-skateÖ about half a gram worked well in my arm while a full gram caused jitters in playback. The London is very, very cable sensitive, more than any other cartridge in my experience.
The London will hum if not grounded carefully and securely. It's also incredibly microphonic. Use the tonearm cueing when raising or lowering the cartridge if the gain is up. Unlike Deccas of old, the London has four pins to properly connect the cartridge leads and this is cause for celebration. I would consider the fit and finish of the London first class and I can't say this about any previous Decca I've seen or used. By the way, I owned three Deccaís in the 1970-80ís. I missed the Decca sound. Nice to have it back in my home.
The properly setup London Reference will thrill you to the core. It will touch your heart. This means listening to cherished LPs till 2am. This means buying new LPs instead of so called hi-res media processed and compressed every which way but Wednesday. Sophisticated audiophiles will not be discarding their cherished Grado Statements, Koetsu's, Benz's, and Dynavectors... but I bet they will play them less often if they have a London Reference to enjoy. End of story.
Though a major challenge to set up correctly, the London Reference cartridge is, I believe, the best phono transducer yet devised and currently available. With dynamics, timbres, definition, imaging, and spatial cues eclipsing all other designs I have ever heard, the London even tracks flawlessly! Turns LP playback into an event! Works mightily well with the E.A.R. 324 Phono Stage, Helius Omega tonearm, and Jorma Origo phono interconnect cables. Look before you leap, but if you succeed in maxing out the London in your high-end system, donít expect to return to your other cartridges very soon. Recommended for the ultimate audiophile who wants to get past the flavor of the day phono cartridge playback and get there already! WOW, what a cartridge! Special heartfelt thanks and kudos to Brian Smith for a job well done in the service of recorded music and audiophiles everywhere who love LPís. You have bestowed on the London Reference the shock and awe of live music in real space! Robert H. Levi