Review of MRC's #1663 DCC decoder with sound for the Atlas S2/4
By Mark J. Redmond with Scott Jay
March 1, 2011
Long story short, my new VO-660 with a Tsunami decoder was great but would not pull a load up the steep grade my old 1980's era Atlas S2 would. My Atlas S2 could not take the Tsunami decoder because the stall current test (click here to see what stall current is) showed it pulled 1.2 amps which is higher than the .75 amp fuse in the Tsunami. My questions about the MRC #1663 decoder, the only other choice, were met mostly with, 'Don't bother." or "Not worth it." Yes, I had to have sound, it was the main reason for going to DCC.
Again, my trusty S2 was just sitting there. After reading a great review on just this decoder, I figured $60 was a lot cheaper than buying a second new locomotive or rebuilding my layout. (Limited space caused the steep grade in the first place.)
I have to start this review by saying you should check out Scott Jay's review and installation process. It is a great review and have his permission to reference it. Click here for Scott's page. Scott is also quick to answer any questions. This review will mostly focus on my experiences.
One thing I must mention is MRC's customer service. Even before I purchased the decoder, MRC replied to all my E-mails within a couple of business days.
Scott's review was excellent in helping with installation. His review made an easy installation even easier. It took me about an hour to complete the installation. You will have to do some milling of the top weight but it is very easy. One thing to take note of is MRC does not give you everything you need for the decoder installation. You will need to find some Kapton tape and a 2-56 nylon screw so you can insulate the motor. You will need a fair amount of Kapton Tape as you have to tape almost all of the upper weight. I strongly recommend Kapton tape over electrical tape. Kapton tape is very thin and leaves no sticky clue residue when removed. I happened to have these items at work but any large electronic warehouse type should carry these items. Radio Shack does not carry these items.
After the installation it took me a bit to get it working. Mostly due to the fact I was new at DCC and never did an installation before. One of the things I liked, is that unlike my Tsunami decoder, the MRC decoder only makes a click so you know it has power. The locomotive does not turn the sound on until you select it. Once I got the locomotive running the first thing I noticed was the sound. Kind of hard not to because it was so loud. I programmed my locomotive on my layout using my NCE Power Cab throttle. After a short learning curve, setting the locomotives road number, changing the horn, bell and volume adjustments, was a bit time consuming but easy.
I have had my decoder about 6 months now and am still learning how to really program it. As I mentioned, the sound is on the loud side. All sound settings except the bell have only 4 settings, 0 - 3. This means you have a limited volume control. Sound volume defaults are set to 3, the loudest. The bell sound has 8 settings , 0 - 7 (default setting is 3). Note, sound level 0 is not always off. I only just realized this recently trying to reduce the overall volume. I discovered by setting CV55, Diesel rumble volume to 0, I still heard the engine sounds but now it was not deafening. There is also no master volume control so you must go in and manually set each of the 12 sounds the locomotive has. You have a choice of 17 different horns and 8 bell sounds. You can also set the bell ring rate.
My first real test for the locomotive was at a 2 day outdoor train event on my club's layout and I never had any issues with the locomotive itself. Here the extra loud sound was a bonus as I could let people hear the locomotive sounds without much of a problem. However, in my 10 X 10 train room, the sound is a bit of an issue. Even at level 1, the sound is loud. Almost drowns out my VO-660 sound. Here too, I have had no real issues. As I mentioned, it is nice that the locomotive sounds to not turn on until you select the locomotive. Note, if the locomotive is the locomotive you last used, you may get locomotive sounds on system power up. A nice feature is the power down option. Press the 8 button 3 - 4 times quickly and the locomotive powers down and the headlight goes out. Press any key and the locomotive powers back on. It is important to note there is an undocumented mute feature you can easily find. If you press the 0 button, which also operates the headlight, twice quickly, this will mute the locomotive. This is easy to figure out because the only sound the locomotive will make is the horn. Press the 0 button twice quickly and the sound returns. F12 also mutes the locomotive. A nice sound is the wheel clack, (F10). The speed does not change with the speed of the locomotive but it's a cool sound anyway.
I really was not planning to ever consist my 2 locomotives but for this review and practice I did attempt to consist them. My first attempts were not too encouraging. I was only able to get the locomotives to team up twice and then only if the MRC decoder was lead. If my Tsunami decoder was lead, the MRC locomotive never ran. With the MRC decoder as lead locomotive, I could get the horn, headlight and bell to work but the locomotive did not move. The Tsunami did. An E-mail to MRC got this response, "The Power Cab does not follow NMRA specs for programming on the main..which encompasses advanced consisting on the program track. Input the consist number into cv#19 of the S2 loco." I did this and the locomotives did consist although if I went into reverse, the rear light on the S2 lit instead of the VO-660 front headlight. Also when you kill the consist, the MRC locomotive retained the consist locomotive number. For me, my locomotive was 2, consist 100. After I canceled the consist, the locomotive remembered it was 100 and not 2. I had to reset the locomotive number. I was never able to re-consist my locomotives. Some of this I believe, is my lack of experience and some due to not having a programing track. Guess I need to get Decoder Pro. I suspect if I had left the consist set up, I would not have had these issues.
Overall, I am very happy about the MRC decoder. If you are looking for an inexpensive sound decoder to get into DCC or keep your older locomotives running I think this is a very viable way to go. I cannot really complain. While features, sound quality and controls do not compare to a Tsunami decoder, I did not by the MRC decoder for that. I wanted my old S2 running on my new DCC layout and that is exactly what I got.
Since showing this review to MRC, they have heard us about the volume issue and will be releasing a 16 bit version of the 1663 in the not too distant future. (No, they did not give me a date yet) The 16 bit decoder will offer a greater range for volume control, will feature an adjustable back EMF along with a master volume CV and function button. The new decoder will also have the correct engine sounds for the 539t prime mover instead of the 244 (RS-3) it has now.
MRC also provided me with a PDF file on how to program your MRC decoder for consisting on the main. Click here for the PDF.
Nice to know they listen.