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2014 Midwest Audiofest Tent Sale & Vintage Audio Swap
Origin Live Resolution II turntable and Illustrious 3c Arm Review
Post justification is such an easy pit into which to fall. You know the trap: buy a component on the back of a good review by a magazine, or the recommendation of someone on a forum, and, boy, does it sound good. Except…ahhh…there’s something not quite right that niggles like a worm in your brain as the box settles in and you gradually swap the flush of new passion for the reality of a long term relationship.
My affair with a Voyd, The Voyd (this is the three motor variety) was not like that. It came with a Helius Cyalene when I bought it a few years ago, and it became the platform for an Audio Note UK IO II. I LOVED the Voyd. It had drive and musicality in spades. If digital analogue is your style, you’ll not ‘get’ the Voyd sound. But if you want drive and rocking musicality then a Voyd’ll likely do you nicely. Later, I swapped the Cyalene for a Helius Omega and, my word, the Voyd sounded even better. Did I mention I loved the Voyd?
But after a few years I did begin to listen to other TTs to see if my sitting room sounds could be improved, according to my particular prejudice for musicality. I had a price point, like we all do. I tried a Hyperspace with SME’s best, Funk’s carbon and the top Omega, and an Orbe with two of them. For me, the IO II was and is non-negotiable. For my money it is a stand-out cartridge. The new TT and arm had to work with it, or be hurled into outer darkness.
There’s no point in sugaring the pill to avoid insulting folks, so I’ll simply say that it’s not personal. Your choice is just as valid as mine. But this is my review, so I’ll talk about what floats my boat, OK?
With the IO, the Funk and Omega made more music than the SMEV – actually the Funk an awful lot more – and I found the Orbe to be a marginally more musical platform than the Nottingham. But all still felt too digital to be compelling. Very detailed, but grey and uninvolving.
Origin Live, Mark Baker’s company in Southampton, feels rather like a garden shed operation until you get the tour. It’s a tatty building – Baker’s landlords are evidently not keen on cosmetic maintenance – but check out the mega-quids CNC machinery within. It’s where Baker and his employees turn out some rather interesting audio stuff and from which they make a disarmingly open offer: buy it direct from us – no discount by the way – and try it at home. If you don’t like, simply send it back for a full refund.
I collected a Resolution II turntable and Illustrious 3C arm. It was the work of 10 minutes or so to unbox and put them in place, and another 20 or so to install and align my IO II. The arm was already on the arm board, so all I had to do was place the motor pod the recommended distance from the turntable, thread the belt around the motor pulley and platter circumference, and level the ‘table. The IO sat, as it does in most arms, well forward of the head shell. It was then a case of setting a starting tracking weight of 2g, a rule of thumb anti-skate force and a by-eye VTA via the arm’s adjuster wheel, and we were off.
The Resolution II breaks a lot of rules. Or at least what some TT manufacturers would have us believe are rules. It has no suspension, and neither is it, in comparison to others designs, high mass either. It is ostensibly simply a medium mass platform with an accurately engineered bearing supporting a platter driven via belt by a motor in a separate housing. Buy a Project RPM series and that’s also pretty much what you get – and you’ll pay a lot less than what a Resolution II costs. However, despite its trivial similarities to the RPM, Baker’s deck achieves a sonic performance worlds apart.
Control of vibration – either induced via airborne energy, or mechanically by a motor, a cartridge or footfall, is of course crucial to the performance of any turntable. On that the industry can agree. Baker’s insight – and it has to be said that many in the industry do not share this view – is that vibration can be cost-effectively controlled without any kind of suspension, simply by the careful and informed use of different materials. Baker argues that if suspension-less is done right, the result can look very simple, but sound startlingly good.
The Resolution II has an appearance that some visitors to our house have found rather disturbing. “Look at all that space between the platter and the body of the turntable” is one common observation. They’re right. It’s almost as if the platter has levitated and is holding station above the base. The platter is made from an opaque material that looks very similar to the Voyd’s Lexan platter, and is topped by a very thin black mat, the latter being available from Origin Live as a retro-fit for any turntable for, I believe, about £40. Without the mat, the Resolution II loses a touch of weight and clarity, so it’s clearly an important element in Baker’s overall thinking. The base of the turntable is itself is striking. Cut out of a piano black – I assume acrylic like material – it has two energy-absorbing counterweights at the front and it stands on three adjustable feet that make levelling of the whole thing very quick and easy. An assembly of different thickness and different mass materials supports the precision bearing while the arm board flies out to the side, again engineered in different thickness and different mass materials.
Acres of real estate underneath the platter on the Resolution
The motor is a DC Maxon of the type Origin Live also sells in its turntable upgrade packages. It sits in a large black stand-alone pod with its pulley poking out of the top, adjacent to a rotary switch that selects 33 and 45 rpm, and a blue power indicating LED. Low down on the side of the pod are a pair of holes through which can be found the speed trim pots. The pod itself sits on three thin cork feet and is simply placed adjacent to the deck and slid back and forth until the required belt tension is achieved. The motor is fed from a remote toroidal transformer, and it uses no feedback speed control technology, just a simple stable power supply. Baker says he’s experimented and found that speed correction trickery always kills musicality. That’s his claim, and of course it might be interpreted to mean that he’s been unable so far to make speed correction work. Other engineers could well have achieved what he has not. Anyway, buy an OL Resolution II and that’s what you get.
Baker’s arms are similarly challenging. Origin Live built a nice business on the back of first modifying Rega arms and then developing its own series of products with the same Rega geometry. Today, from the cheapest Origin Live arm up to the seriously fat-wallet Conqueror, every one will go in the same hole on a turntable as a humble Rega.
The Illustrious 3c that I bought embodies Baker’s ideas about how best to get a wide range of cartridges to give of their best. He likes unipivot bearings for the way they allow virtually friction-less movement, but he asserts that a unipivot cannot reliably deliver the bass weight of other bearing designs, and so from, I believe the Encounter upwards in the range, Origin Live arms have a dual pivot design. Vertical tracking is enabled by what is effectively two unipivots side by side at 180 degrees to the arm tube, while conventional gimbal bearings handle lateral movement. This arrangement, Baker says, delivers the decoupling and fluidity of a unipivot, but without the accompanying tendency for fiddly setup behaviour and lack of bass weight.
Cosmetically, the Illustrious lacks the cut-by-laser and built-from-rock appearance of the SME V, but it is still a neat and visually appealing package, with the black bearing housing contrasting nicely with a polished alloy head shell, chromed counterweight beam and counterweight, and a black composite arm tube. Azimuth is set at the factory. It is adjustable, but Origin Live would rather you didn’t because it is achieved by tweaking the heights of the paired unipivots. The worry is that the ham-fisted will break something. VTA is altered by a knurled collar around the threaded arm pillar. Loosen an Allen bolt, twist the collar and VTA is raised or lowered by 1mm per revolution. It does not inspire quite the same joy as the adjuster on a Graham, but it is simple, easy to use, and it does work. The arm comes with a Litz copper internal wire, connected internally to a screened metre long pair of interconnects made to Origin Live’s own specifications and terminated in Eichmann phono connectors.
The Illustrious 3c. VTA adjuster is the shiny disc with Allen bolt peeping out from underneath. Linear Flow-2 interconnect is captive.
I deliberately set out to cheat on my Voyd. I admit it. I was bored. I was intrigued by Baker’s against-the-flow ideas and seduced by the try it/full refund offer. Frankly, I was expecting to set up the Resolution/Illustrious, have a play, find it didn’t suit, and take it back after a few days. But that’s not how things have turned out. Dammit if the Origin Live pairing doesn’t have the drive and musicality of the Voyd but with better pitch stability AND a large chunk of added resolution that I heard with the NA and Michell turntables. I’d call it a turntable for people who like their detail served with a large side order of organic foot-tapping enjoyment.
In my system, the OL sits on the topmost shelf of a Hutter rack. Spin the platter with your finger to minimise belt stretch and turn the speed dial to 33, and away she goes, the DC motor churning away with a plainly audible rustle. This caused alarm to at least one ‘wammer who attended my bake off last weekend, but we agreed it’s a noise that isn’t transmitted to the stylus. Baker says this noise is normal – in fact he devotes a few paragraphs in the user manual to calming anxious owners – and he insists that while AC motors are quieter, the OL arrangement using a DC device sounds better.
Having used the IO II on six different arms now, I find its performance when suspended from the Illustrious 3C to be its best yet. The Illustrious has an effective mass of 12.5 grams and I run the IO at a tracking weight of 2.3 with minimal anti-skate.
The Resolution and Illustrious with the IO generate a serious weight and authority that the Voyd and Helius arms did not, combining it with the sweetest mids and an airy delicate top end. There is an underlying blackness that the Voyd did not achieve, and transients build with astonishing speed and clarity. I find that it excels on well recorded violins, woodwind and the human voice, seemingly lifting several veils on pretty much any performance and getting, for my money, much closer to the wood, the breath, the gut strings and the organism of acoustic music. Not that it doesn’t do electronic music with similar grip. Playing Some Girls by the Stones, the band’s loose-limbed swagger is writ large, so ‘right’ does the OL get the timing, while at the same time conveying more than I’d heard before of the texture and colour of the recording.
On Saturday at the bake off, one of the last records we played was gthang’s copy of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington on Classic Records (SR52074). This is a 200g pressing, transferred directly from the three track session masters, and if you haven’t got a copy yet, I’d urge you to buy one. It’s a real corker. What we heard epitomised for me the drive, musicality, openness and yes, sheer fun that the OL/IO combination delivers. All six of us – even the most repressed – were jiggling about and wearing big grins.
And it should be fun. Shouldn’t it?
Health warning: I have no commercial involvement with Origin Live. The views expressed above are my own, as are any mistakes or misunderstandings.
Associated boxes: Audio Note S3 SUT, M5 Phono Preamplifier, P4 18W PSE monoblocks, various AN cables, AN-E SEC Spz speaks, furnished but untreated room.
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