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Positive Feedback ISSUE 73
Origin Live - Aurora Mk III + Onyx
Origin Live is a British company based in Southampton. It was founded in 1986 and its first product was a solid-core cable, one of the first of its kind on the market. The lineup was expanded to include various types of anti-vibration boards and racks, followed by speaker stands and, eventually, turntables. Before OL's owner started to develop audio products, he had worked for 10 years in the shipbuilding industry, building warships. His experience gained in the field of materials science was then applied to his work on refining the sound of audio components.
In his review of the Origin Live Calypso turntable, Jimmy Hughes says that Mark Baker, the owner of OL, is one of those designers who try a lot of alternative designs, shapes and materials, carefully listening to the changes they make. His products are based on scientific principles but "the ear is always the final arbiter" (Jimmy Hughes, Origin Live Calypso Turntable, Hi-Fi+ 16.01.2008, see HERE).
This approach is evident in his turntables at the very first glance. Even the least expensive Aurora MkIII under review today features design solutions that are not seen anywhere else. The Aurora is a non-decoupled turntable design that looks like it had an ordinary chassis. The company literature speaks, however, about a "chassis" and "sub-chassis." The former seems to be classic and is made of acrylic, although its shape is less than ordinary. The sub-chassis is an aluminum component for mounting the tonearm. It has a specific shape and is attached to the chassis in a special way (see the Design section below). The sub-chassis is mounted by the manufacturer and is not user-adjustable as the screws are factory set and should not be tightened by the user. While the milky-white platter seems to be a classic acrylic affair, it is made of an expensive type of acrylic, which Mark calls "loaded Acrylic." He is somewhat secretive about the exact composition of this material, just like he doesn't say much about the flat drive belt. Well, I can tell you that it is no ordinary rubber.
As you can see, this is a review of the MkIII. The differences from the previous version include platter thickness, a better main bearing and improvements to the design and mount of the motor. The ultra-precise new bearing is lubricated with special oil and machined to 0.00001" tolerance. The motor is mounted adjacent to the chassis, in a separate acrylic enclosure. Mark clearly avoids all things metal. The large cylinder that houses the motor and electronic control circuit (rotation speed is adjusted via a knob) can be positioned closer or further from the turntable. The company literature recommends having the motor between 214 mm to 221 mm from the center bearing. Paul Szabady in his review of the Aurora MkII from July 2008 says that he preferred a longer distance rather than a shorter one "to get the magic of music happening" (Paul Szabady, Origin Live Aurora MKII, Stereotimes, July 2008, see HERE).
• Depeche Mode, Leave In Silence, Mute 12 Bong 1, 12" single (1982).
• Frank Sinatra, The Voice, Columbia/Classic Records CL 743, Quiex SV-P, 180 g LP.
• Jean-Michel Jarre, Zoolook, Dreyfus Disque/Polydor JAR4 5, LP (1984).
• Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, Sunday Best SBEST25, 180 g LP (2008).
• Laboratorium, No. 8, Pronit M-0013, LP (1984).
• The All Star Percussion Ensemble, The All Star Percussion Ensemble, arr. Harold Farberman, Golden Strings/First Impression Music GS LP 001-LE, "First 1000 Pressings", 200 g LP (1982/2011).
• The Montgomery Brothers, Groove Yard, Riverside/Analogue Productions AJAZ 9362, 2 x 45 rpm 180 g LP (1961/2009).
• Wes Montgomery & Wynton Kelly Trio, Smokin' At The Half Note, Verve/Universal Music K.K. [Japan] UCJU-9083, 180 g LP (1965/2007).
• William Orbit, My Oracle Lives Uptown, Guerilla Studios/Linn Records AKH 351, 2 x 180 g LP; reviewed HERE.
• Yaz, Upstairs at Eric's, Warner Bros. Records/Mobile Fidelity MOFI 1-020, "Silver Label", "Special Limited Edition No. 2044", 150 g LP (1982/2012).
Setting up the Origin Live turntable is not particularly easy. It is best to let the dealer handle it. That is, unless you like the challenge and treat turntable setup as an integral part of the whole vinyl music experience. It would be completely understandable, as the black disc (and its comeback) is not only a search for better sound or a kind of sociological phenomenon, but also a special approach to life, which in the case of vinyl may be called "Slow Life". Audio files in this comparison would be the equivalent of "Fast Life", life in a hurry, without going into its shades and colors. Setting up the turntable on your own, making mistakes and correcting them to find optimal solutions will make for an exciting experience that prepares you for listening and vastly reinforces your perception of music. The Aurora, in the version under review, will reward you with its great looks and equally satisfying sound.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, removed from the context. This is also true about audio products reviews. In this case, what determines the audition is primarily the reference system and also other similar products. The Origin Live was seated on my Finite Elemente Pagode Edition rack on the same day that I took off its shelf another very interesting turntable, the WOW! from Acoustic Signature from Germany. This entry-level AS design looks great and is very easy to set up. Its price is slightly lower than that of the Aurora equipped with the Onyx. However, both turntables sounded remarkably similar, which mostly showed in their close tonality and matching sets of sonic priorities. While the British duo went slightly deeper in all aspects and offered something more, my first impression, which is a very important part of audio reviews provided it's backed up by experience, was exactly as described above.
With a quite low tonal center, the sound was rather warm. Its main strength was the ability to bind internal sonic events, creating a dense network of ties between them. What I liked best was the lack of any "pressure", in the sense that the sound didn't seem at all forced. It invited to listening without being pushy, like a poor customer service representative.
Both the WOW! and the Aurora/Onyx fulfill the basic premises for a turntable: they sound meaty, with a dense and warm midrange and rather gentle treble. The British system is meatier, with a denser and even warmer midrange and gentler treble. The latter is at the same time more resolving and better integrated with the midrange, which is more three-dimensional and differentiated, and the meatiness is better controlled.
You will really like this control, I tell you; you will love it! Bass is somewhat soft in terms of attack, but very well controlled in terms of sustain and decay. Its energy is fantastic and reminiscent of what I heard with expensive, heavy Transrotor designs and expensive decoupled turntables from Avid Hi-Fi. It's the kind of presentation where the energy released from the disc is transferred into the room, energizing the air and causing the glasses on the shelves to vibrate. Yes, it is a certain mannerism that is audible with most records but it is a first-rate mannerism, nevertheless.
Listening to the double bass sound in the opening track from The Montgomery Brothers' Groove Yard album I knew it's good, delicious even. The instrument sounded meaty but it occupied a clear place in space. It was pinpointed with harder sonic aspects associated with plucking the string. The soundbox blurred the sound as it does in reality, and I didn't have a false definition where it shouldn't have been. Played immediately afterwards, the recently purchased (unplayed before!) 12" Depeche Mode maxi-single Live In Silence, one of the best-recorded records from this band, simply exploded with bass and dense midrange. It had the kind of drive I really like and expect to hear.
On the other hand, records that usually sound somewhat lighter and have either a problem with recording or pressing, gained some weight. I had no doubt that their sound was boosted by the turntable. Not that it sounded bad, on the contrary, it was a kind of "remastering". The thing is that it was also a departure from absolute neutrality. I assume, however, that many music lovers with extensive vinyl collections actually look forward to something like that, even if subconsciously. That's why Jarre's Zoolook, recorded digitally in 16/44.1 and rather dry-sounding, here sounded surprisingly coherent and gentle. It was the blurred textures that indicated that any talk of high-resolution was out of question. The turntable under review didn't emphasize that, however, and the presentation was interesting and multidimensional.
A nicely-shown soundstage is another strength of the Aurora Mk III. The WOW! and other budget-oriented turntables, as long as they are well designed, can charm with a dense, tangible foreground. However, anything that is located further away is shown as part of the foreground, hence there is no soundstage depth. The Origin Live can skillfully draw further planes, but does not refrain from showing the elements extending towards the listener. Just to be clear, it is not as credible presentation as that offered by the expensive high-end designs from Kuzma, Transrotor, Avid or SME. But it's a good enough rendering of what we get for more money to not hurt the ears. I will go further to say that if a music lover does not have much experience with expensive analog equipment, they will not notice anything amiss. Which is just fine as they will be able to appreciate what they get here and now. And the presentation of instrument bodies and soundstage will appeal to those who perceive digital sources as sounding "flat". In my opinion, all that the latter really indicates is a problem with the player, but I also happen to know that many digital sources might be really perceived that way. For all advocates of such view, the sound of this turntable equipped with a Denon DL-103 cartridge will be the ultimate proof that digital audio is the devil's invention.
What can be improved
The Origin Live turntable is part of a larger project, featuring the basic components used in the more expensive designs from this manufacturer. A glance at its chassis is enough to realize that this is not another "plinth with a belt" (even though I have nothing against plinths), but rather a well-thought out design. With some space for improvements, at that. In addition to the basic chassis, you can buy an additional board for the second tonearm. It does not change the sound as much as extends the turntable functionality. You can, for example, equip the additional arm with a mono cartridge and listen to mono records the way they are supposed to be played. You can also order a board version designed for 12-inch arms.
But there are two things you can do to improve the sound of the Aurora Mk III. The first is to use a record clamp. I used one from Pathe Wings (see HERE). The difference is clear, even though it may not be immediately recognized as positive. First of all, it concerns the bass. Without the clamp, the bass is strong, meaty and energetic. Putting on the clamp brings slight restrain. It is only after listening to a disc or two and taking it off again that we realize that the clamp results in a better defined bass that extends deeper. And there's more of it! The initial impression is caused by a longer bass decay without the clamp, giving impression of a larger bass quantity. The most important change, however, concerns the midrange. Vocals become denser and clearer with the clamp on the record. If they are further up in the mix, as on the Depeche Mode maxi-single, they do not jump to the front but instead become bigger and better audible.
The other improvement you can try is to replace the small wall-wart 9V AC adapter with an optional large outboard power supply containing an ample toroidal transformer and quality power cord to power the turntable motor. This additional black box has no markings, except for a sticker on the bottom. It is quite expensive at 1100 PLN but it's good to know that the turntable can be upgraded in the future. Adding the outboard power supply results in a deeper and better articulated bass. While the treble becomes sweeter and smoother, it is the bottom end that gains most from this upgrade. If using the record clamp initially gives the impression of a slightly leaner sound, the power supply takes us back to the place we left while keeping all the advantages brought about by the clamp.
The turntable under review offers an equally pleasant and carefully crafted sound both from the audiophile reissues of 45 rpm discs and from old records from the 1980s, the "dark ages" of analog. The differences between them are clear and indisputable. However, due to its specifically shaped tonality, the inferior ones are "lifted up" and rehabilitated. This is not the kind of one-trick-pony sound. But still, the same warmth, bass energy and three-dimensionality bridge the entire vinyl collection. The resolution is not extraordinary, or at least it is not manifested in a large number of details. These, together with any pops and clicks, are in the background. Details are part of larger planes and build them. The treble is rather withdrawn, but also in a characteristic way. This is not a reduction in energy but rather rounding off the attack and smoothing out any sharpness. The sound is far from being closed or muddled, and yet all records sound slightly warm and soft.
The Aurora MkIII does not look like most turntables. The reason for that is that its chassis is complex and consists of many components. This is a non-decoupled but mechanically advanced design. The main chassis that serves as a base to mount other components is made of black acrylic. It has a tripod footprint with various cut-outs to do way with extraneous mass and semi-circle ledges in the "triangle" corners, with matched-size acrylic discs bolted to them. As I understand, it is all about a controlled mass distribution to offer the best possible sound. Mass distribution appears to be key in understanding this design. For example, the three feet that support the chassis are positioned to be as close as possible to the center of mass located in the center of the triangle formed by them. One of them is made of high quality steel and is placed exactly under the arm-mounting platform. The upper sub-chassis is made of black enameled aluminum and appears to be mounted to the base in two places – near the main bearing and on the axis joining the bearing and the armboard. Actually, it connects to the main chassis via a single bolt located almost in its center, very close to the sub-chassis' bearing assembly and far away from the armboard end. The sub-chassis has a variety of symmetrical cut-outs to lower its weight and is damped from underneath with a kind of micro-rubber decoupled by a thin layer of cork. Cork decoupling can be found in a few other places, too. It is used to decouple the upper sub-chassis from the main chassis and the arm from the armboard.
The main bearing assembly features a bushing-mounted bearing spindle that consists of a tapered steel shaft and hardened ball riding on a thrust pad. The acrylic platter is placed onto the spindle. A similar solution can be found in Avid Hi-Fi turntables. The platter is fitted with a blackened cork mat.
The asynchronous DC motor with no cogging torque effect is housed in a large acrylic 'pod' enclosure that slots in the chassis recess. Hence, the motor is not in contact with the chassis. The top surface of the pod features an aluminum knob to turn on the motor and switch between 33.33 and 45 rpm speed. Power on is indicated by a green LED but there is no indication of the selected speed. Mounted on the motor shaft is a narrow pulley made of white vinyl or similar plastic, with flanges from the top and bottom. It drives a long flat belt that is wrapped around the platter. The motor is powered from a wall-wart 9V AC adapter. It can be upgraded with an optional large outboard power supply featuring a toroidal transformer. The turntable comes with a small strobe disc and the manufacturer recommends adjusting the rotation speed after two days of use. This is carried out using small screws that are visible on the side wall of the cylinder pod housing the motor and its control circuit.
The Onyx is a 9-inch gimbaled tonearm with a 222 mm mounting distance between the platter center and the arm hole center and 15.7 mm overhang, which is exactly the same as in the Rega arms. The Onyx features a straight single piece aluminum armtube. The bearings that handle horizontal arm movement are widely spaced, in a very characteristic way. The steel counterweight is rigidly clamped to the rear end stub that is decoupled from the armtube. Anti-skating force adjustment looks slightly different than usual. It's an old, proven affair, using a string and weight, but here executed in a specific way. The string sports two weights—one is mounted with a small Allen nut to a rod on the side of the arm and the other is placed through a loop on the end of a rather long spring wire. The armtube internal wiring form one whole with the cables that connect to a phono preamp. They are of similar "quality" as those used by Rega, though… Another thing that Origin Live has in common with this British company is that the arm fits all Rega armboard cut outs whether old style threaded base or new 3-point mounting. The arm includes built in VTA adjustment but it requires accessing the underside of the armboard to loosen the clamping nut and cannot be done "on the fly".
DISTRIBUTION IN POLAND
Manufacturer: Origin Live Ltd.
Price (in Poland): 5,600 PLN + 2,500 PLN
Made in Great Britain