Presence Audio London Tonearm (£2495)

In spite of its lack of finish, this parallel tracker's performance surprises Ken Kessler

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For those who use SME arms as the yardstick for all others, the mere presence – no pun intended – of Presence Audio’s London tonearm will come as a slap in the face. No, make that a bucket of foetid, lukewarm water poured over one’s post-modern, refined-by-Wallpaper magazine sensibilities. It looks as if it was made of scrap metal scavenged from a skip behind the Meccano factory, circa 1956. Finish? The review sample hit every branch on the shabby tree, and didn’t even stop at the roots.
   In audio terms then (as opposed to the faultless work of, say, Savile Row tailors), it’s so British that it hurts. The ‘London’ moniker takes on a new resonance, as if it were named after what is one of the least pleasant cities in the world that’s not in a war zone. Yet even Heath Robinson and Roland Emett must be turning in their graves at this contraption.
   Design-wise, it’s as basic as a parallel-tracking, air-bearing design can be: an arm tube fixed to a cylinder that acts as a sleeve, over a primary cylinder connected to an air pump and the top of the turntable chassis. The idea is that the friction between moving and fixed cylinders should be so low as to virtually eliminate the mechanical drag, its horizontal motion ‘driven’ by the groove, against which the cartridge stays perfectly aligned. And that’s the arm’s entire raison d’être: zero tracking error.

Presence supplied the London arm on a Garrard 401, which suited me perfectly: my 401 is also Decca-mated, but with an original Decca uni-pivot arm and a London-era cartridge. (It’s worth noting here that all cartridges and arms supplied by Presence are named ‘London’; ‘Decca’ means the original firm.) Thus, by swapping cartridges, I was easily able to separate the arm’s contribution. Also part of the package is a surprisingly quiet air pump, with sufficient tubing to isolate it another room should you feel it’s too intrusive, though the shhhhhh is no more irritating than vinyl whoosh.
   Fed into the Musical Fidelity A5.5’s phono stage – a perfect match – and auditioned via Sonus faber Cremona Auditor Elipsas connected with Kimber Select, the all-London front end exhibited every one of the virtues that go back to Decca Reds, Blues, Greys and Golds. Only better, because the (£2199) London Reference banishes so many of the Deccas’ flaws: that solid body does more than eliminate a tin can which would surely reveal Fray Bentos tampo printing on the inside if you took one apart.
   Having satisfied myself that, horrifying assembly aside, the arm does extract the characteristic performance peculiarities that endear Decca cartridges (and now Londons) to a certain sort of listener, it was down to splitting hairs. And the first to be bisected was any argument that the old unipivot arm might even come close to this parallel tracker.

More than anything, the new arm eradicates the slight chatter familiar to Decca/London users if the damping isn’t ‘just so’. Given that there’s no damping applied to the arm beyond that of the air flow, part of it must be put down to the rigid-bodied Reference cartridge. Still, the Reference may be ghostly silent compared to a ‘Tin Man’ edition, but it is still excitable. In the London arm, it’s nearly as well-controlled as in a fully-damped SME 12in arm on the SME 20/12. Nearly.
   With every recording I tried, the London arm didn’t simply preserve the virtues of the cartridge, it reinforced them. It’s important that this chattery, highly-strung behaviour of a Decca/London cartridge is placed in the proper context: this is one of its charms,
not its demerits. It’s inseparable from still-unmatched transient attack, as heard with the acoustic guitar break on Mr Big’s ‘To Be With You’. The shimmer and woodiness of the guitar body itself supports heavily-strummed notes which possess incisive leading edges and near-perfect decay.
   With the electric guitar of Santana, on the Abraxas Mobile Fidelity LP [see p77], the fluidity stays as coolly liquid as you know it should be, while the transients at either end of the rapid picking are so sharp that you can’t help but follow up with recordings of brittle ragtime piano, brass and anything else that tries a system’s speed and recovery.

More important to me, though (despite the fact that transient ability is one of the most often cited virtues by devotees of these cartridges), was the preservation of warmth in the vocals and the wide-open soundstage.
   Nothing about the arm added artifice to the vocals or corralled the vista: this arm is shockingly neutral, and must only be auditioned with a cartridge you know intimately if you’re to appreciate this particular capability. Feeding it C&W LPs from the batch I bought secondhand, it also showed itself to deal more comprehensively with surface issues – minor pops and clicks flew by too rapidly to intrude – and its imaging was more stable than that of the unipivoting ancestor.
   With the glorious vocals of the Judds, the voices seemed to hover just above the line of the speakers, and were – from realistic sibilance to Wynona’s deliciously sleazy growl/purr – as authentic as it gets. If anything that has issued from the Presence stable lives up to its name, it has to be this arm, but only in tandem with Reference or Gold cartridges.
   With little difficulty, I fitted a Koetsu Urushi, and it was blindingly obvious that this arm was optimised for the behaviour of a London-née-Decca. The London/Koetsu combination lacked the openness, air and power provided by the SME Series V, and this swap also revealed its one downside. Beyond, that is, its unappealing construction and styling, which hardly suggest £2.5k.

Tersely put, the performance lacks the absolutely robust, carved-from-solid image specificity and sheer mass of the SME Series V. Bass is well-controlled and beautifully taut, but it’s missing that mammoth-stomping-on-a-caveman weight that is beloved of orchestral music lovers and Kodo-drumming aficionados.
   Yet, if you can overlook the cueing not working, the scarily thin wires at the back, the made-in-a-shed demeanour, it’s so ideal for a Deccaphile that you have to smile. As you would at someone who owns, say, a Reliant Scimitar. Shamelessly, this is of the school that remains oblivious to standards set by other disciplines after the same disposable income: cars, watches, pens. Forgive this its dreary, audiophilic countenance and you might find it charming as hell.

Ordinarily, I’d rip to shreds something this poorly presented, but that would be to deny the power of tradition. Here, London is simply being true to the original Decca tonearm, one of the worst-made in audio history. And yet that too defied its construction by sounding sublime... with the matching cartridge. If, as I do, you adore Londons, then this arm must be taken seriously.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue