This article pertains to the manufacturers of decoders and sound decoders including controllers, digital readouts, reliability and warranties. The basis of the discussion is my experience as well as eight fellow railroaders in my area. The experience of all of us is between 45 to 50 years as model railroaders. Experience with DCC is three years plus for all of us.
First I would like to go over some of the manufacturers I and my friends have had experience with. We will begin with decoders in general and their reliability based on manufacturer.
We will start with Digitrax and their decoders including the various DCC equipment they manufacture. The decoders are good but I have had more failures with Digitrax than any other brand. The Throttles are excellent as is the Zephyr Digitrax Command Control Basic Set. I have one and it is the only one among all manufacturers’ products that has a digital readout so you can set the CVs and control number and see immediately if the decoder has accepted your commands. The digital screen will tell you if you have a short by blinking across the face of the screen. It tells, you using specific codes found in the handbook, if the command and control is communicating with the decoder. It should be noted that the Zephyr will talk to all decoders discussed in this article.
The odd thing is that Digitrax does not have the digital readout on their more advanced command and control sets. The throttle can be plugged into any of their command and control sets to run trains.
Digitrax has very good downloads on the WEB site for installation, CV usages and other information to allow the user to maximize Digitrax decoders.
The issue I have with Digitrax is that they have the worst warranty program than anyone else. It is the reason I no longer buy Digitrax decoders. The reason being, that if you do not have you purchase receipt, you must pay a $17.00 fee for a replacement. It is a $25.00 fee for the throttle repairs. Even when I had the receipt for a throttle that failed and it was still within the warranty time period, they charged me the $25.00. However, the most grievous part was when I bought five (5) DZ123 decoders on line from a dealer and they were all bad. The DZ123 had a known problem where the small wires coming out of the decoder had bad solder joints. I did not immediately try and used the DZ123 decoders. In fact, it was several months before I found the problem when I went to strip the leads and wires just fell out of the decoder. I went through all five and each one had the same problem.
I no longer had the receipt but sent the decoder back anyway without and payment. I learned after I had sent the decoder back that there was a known problem with a specific batch of DZ123 decoders. I received a letter from Digitrax requesting payment for the replacement. I in turn wrote back about their admitted known flaw and that I had four other DZ123 decoders with the same problem. They responded requesting a credit card number to pay for the one decoder. Needless to say, I refused to pay twice for the same decoder.
If it was not for the throttles and command and control set I would never do business with them again. This is sad since the power supplies, command and control sets, throttles, track block controls, etc., are excellent. This is a judgment call and the modeler must determine for his or herself what to do.
The next manufacturer is NCE who produce decoders primarily. They are very good to excellent and I have had no trouble with them. The are easy to install and program with the Digitrax Zephyr. They provide very good downloads off their WEB site in decoder use and installation.
NCE has an excellent warranty for their products. I had one decoder fail and I returned it with an explanation of what happened and it was replaced with no problems. If you explain the circumstances that occurred when the decoder failed they will check the decoder and will either replace it or return it to you with an explanation of what went wrong and how to re-install the decoder so it works.
The manufacturer that I now do the most business is Train Control Systems (TCS). From my perspective they are the best producers of decoders and their warranty is “Our Famous Goof Proof No Questions Asked Warranty”.
They have more decoders to fit any diesel and steam engine made. Their WEB site is fabulous. You can download all their decoder data with color pictures of each decoder. In addition, you may download a huge installation program with colored pictures of each engines’ installation and written explanation for just about every manufacturer’s engines. I’ve done this and placed all the data in a binder and now have a quick reference for any engine I have. The exception is brass engines. There a breed all their own.
When it comes to sound decoders there are only two that I would recommend for steam sound. For diesel there are three I would choose from. For steam sound the best is Soundtraxx Tsunami’s and Quantum (QSI). QSI has now released the Quantum Revolution Aftermarket HO DC/DCC Sound Decoder Systems. Quantum Revolution has been developed for installation in existing non-sound HO engines. Before, QSI sold only to engine manufacturers and importers. Lok-Sound is okay in a pinch but the chuff is more for European trains. Lok-Sound is manufactured in Germany.
Broadway Limited (BLI) now produces their own sound. It’s good but you have to buy a decoder since BLI does not have decoders built into their sound system. BLI once used QSI sound decoders exclusively but a falling-out change all that.
Precision Craft Models, a sister company to BLI, uses LOK-Sound exclusively.
The MRC steam sound is junk. They use MRC exclusively which is unfortunate. The MRC CVs cannot be changed permanently. You set the sound levels where you want them and then you take the engine off the track. Once you do that, when you go to run the engine again the CVs have automatically rest themselves to factory settings. MRC does not produce any WEB site downloads.
When it comes to diesel sound all four manufacturers sound decoders are very good. The odd thing is that the MRC diesel sound decoder CVs can be set permanently. I have several Athearn Genesis F units and the sound is great and I set the CVs and everything is copasetic.
It is the Athearn new steam engines that are causing modelers to rethink buying them. The earlier steam engines came with or without sound. In some cases you could not get, for example, an Athearn Big Boy without sound. Several of us model railroaders bought Big Boys with sound and immediately tore out the sound system and installed Tsunami’s. This was expensive so we are ignoring the Athearn steam engines for now. This is sad since Athearn Genesis steam engines are excellent but the MRC sound is not friendly to the hobbyist.