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Origin Live Conqueror Mk III Tonearm
A tonearm has a tough job. It has to hold a phono cartridge in the optimum position so it can convert the wiggles in the LP groove to an electrical signal. That means it has to keep the cartridge in proper side-to-side alignment, called the azimuth, so the two channels of the stereo signal are equally strong. It must apply a constant downward force, called the vertical tracking force, to assure the stylus stays in contact with the groove, even when the LP is warped. It must let the cartridge move across the record from the lead-in groove to the lead-out groove with a minimum of tracking distortion. It must be adjusted so the stylus can track the record at the proper angle, called the vertical tracking angle, or VTA. It must provide a way to offset the skating force that occurs when the cartridge drags the tonearm across the surface of the record. And all these parameters must be easily and repeatedly adjustable so the cartridge can produce its optimum performance.
Origin Live first came to prominence as a modifier of Rega tonearms. Rega 'arms are probably the most popular in the world, because they are inexpensive (well, some of them are) and produce excellent sound for their low price. However, they are each made to a price, and a few modifications can make them sound even better. For reasons Im sure the company can explain but I cant, Rega staunchly refuses to include VTA adjustment to enable a cartridge to track at the optimum angle. It includes some shims to go under the 'arm when its installed, but theres no way to trim the adjustment so its perfect for any given record. Regas tonearm wiring is also of questionable quality, especially on the cheaper 'arms, which look like they are wired by Radio Shack.
These were some of the areas in which Origin Live found it could improve the performance of stock Rega 'arms. But predictably, Mark Baker of Origin Live decided he could only take Rega 'arms so far, and decided to develop his own tonearms. These 'arms were much more heavy-duty, and the $4285 USD Conqueror Mk III reviewed here is Baker's next-to-the-top model. While its built like a tank, Ive seen tanks, and none of them is built as attractively as the Conqueror Mk III. Maybe I should say its built like a Mercedes-Benz: polished but rugged. The Conqueror Mk III uses the same geometry as a Rega tonearm, so its a drop-in replacement for a turntable with a Rega 'arm.
The Conqueror Mk III has some notable innovations. Chief among these is the use of unipivot bearings. Note that I said bearings, not bearing. A unipivot bearing uses a sharp pointed shaft to support the tonearm and let it move with vanishingly little friction. Imagine an 'arm balanced on the point of a needle and you can see why friction would be so low. However, one of the chief criticisms levied against a single unipivot bearing is that it allows the 'arm to wobble, which means the azimuth alignment can deviate from vertical. The Conqueror Mk III avoids wobbling while retaining low friction by using a pair of unipivot bearings, one on either side of the armtube. This conceptually simple arrangement is actually a brilliant way to minimize friction in the vertical plane while assuring the tonearm doesnt wobble at all. Of course, with two bearings, the 'arm cant move horizontally, so a standard ball-bearing race allows this.
One welcome feature for a tonearm that uses Rega geometry is continuous VTA adjustment. The tonearm is mounted in a threaded collar, and when you rotate a wheel which surrounds the collar, the 'arm is raised or lowered. Of course, you need to loosen the setscrew that fixes the 'arm height while youre making the adjustment, and then retighten it after you get the VTA setting just right. One turn of the wheel raises or lowers the 'arm by 0.5mm.
Speaking of raising and lowering the 'arm, the machined aluminum cueing lever has a rather sharp end. Although I didnt impale my finger on its point, it could happen. I dont think a round or flat end would have sounded any worse. Also, there is no way to clamp the tonearm to the armrest, which is a nice feature to have if youre moving your turntable or making adjustments.
A larger issue is how the Conqueror Mk III handles warped records. To minimize tracking error as a pivoted 'arm moves across the record, the headshell and the cartridge mounted therein must be offset at an angle from the 'arm itself. So to keep the side-to-side alignment (or azimuth) vertical, the vertical bearings must also be offset at the same angle as the headshell. That way, when the cartridge moves up and down to track a warped record, the stylus stays vertical when viewed from the front of the cartridge. However, with the Conqueror Mk III, the vertical bearings are mounted perpendicular to the armtube instead of offset parallel to the headshell offset. That means that on a warped record, the cartridge's stylus must go out of vertical alignment with the grooves, in theory causing some channel imbalance and distortion. But I didnt hear any image wander that might have been attributed to the vertical bearings not being offset at the same angle as the cartridge, so that concern was laid to rest.
I guess you could throw out all your warped records, but for enthusiasts like me, who find musical treasures in used-record stores and garage sales, that would be a major limitation. Very few records in my collection are totally warp-free, even brand-new ones.
For tonearms more than any other component, setup is everything. The best tonearm in the world wont sound all that good if it, and the cartridge mounted in it, arent properly aligned.
To make sure the Conqueror Mk III was properly installed on my Linn LP12 turntable, I enlisted the assistance of Mark Heaston, the Linn setup guru from Concert Sound, the Linn dealer in San Antonio, Texas. Mark has a much finer touch than I have, tons more experience, and far more patience. Even so, the installation was not a drop-in effort. Mark began by mounting the Conqueror Mk III onto a Rega armboard for the Linn turntable. Then he attempted to mount the armboard onto the Linn, but the Linns base had internal braces that blocked the base of the tonearm. We had to use a Dremel tool to slice off one of those braces to allow sufficient clearance. The next problem came when Mark tried to dress the cables, which were permanently attached to the base of the tonearm. The thick, stiff cables were difficult to route to the P-clip clamp on the Linns base. If I used the Linns bottom fiberboard cover, the cable would have dragged on it, impeding the chassis freedom to move vertically on its mounting springs. Fortunately, like many Linnies, I long ago removed the bottom cover, so the cable routing wasnt a problem.
Once the tonearm was mounted, Mark mounted the cartridge. That was fairly straightforward, although Origin Lives alignment jig didnt make it easy. The paper jig consisted of a series of parallel lines surrounding a dot. You place the tip of the stylus on the dot and then align the cartridges cantilever or body so its parallel to the lines. However, Origin Lives jig consisted of light-gray lines on white paper, so they were very difficult to see. Fortunately, Mark had an actual Rega alignment jig with easy-to-see black lines.
The first parameter we set was the vertical tracking force, for which a separate stylus-pressure gauge was required. Thats done by loosening a setscrew in the counterweight, keeping just a smidgen of pressure on the 'arm shaft so the counterweight will not slip, then sliding the counterweight to the appropriate location and tightening the setscrew to hold it in place. Theres a ball bearing inside the counterweight that the setscrew presses against, and when you adjust the setscrew to apply just a tiny bit of pressure, the bearing rolls smoothly along the side of the arm shaft, making it possible to adjust the vertical tracking force precisely. Using an electronic stylus-pressure gauge, I had no trouble setting the tracking force to within 0.05 grams of the desired force, which should be accurate enough to assure that your cartridge is performing at its best.
Next, we set the antiskating force. The antiskating mechanism consisted of two metal balls connected to a thread. One of the balls had a setscrew and a hole through the middle. A small rod extending from the rear of the 'arm slid into the hole and the setscrew was tightened to secure the ball to the rod. The other ball, on the end of the nylon thread, dangles over a support to provide a force to offset the skating force. The antiskating force is varied by changing the position of the ball on the rod in order to change the length of the lever that is pulled on by the dangling ball. There are no markings whatsoever to indicate the amount of antiskating force applied at different positions on the rod. Im not sure that really matters, because tracking force is different for each type of stylus shape. I set antiskating by ear, with no particular confidence that it was optimally adjusted.
Setting the vertical tracking angle turned out to be fairly easy, thanks to the well-designed VTA adjuster. For a VTA freak like me, who sometimes adjusts VTA when switching from a 180-gram record to a paper-thin Dynaflex record, an easy VTA adjustment is a thing of beauty. The Conqueror Mk III is easy to adjust, but theres no scale to show exactly where the VTA is set at any given time.
Although I may have issued a few epithets during setup, the Conqueror Mk III really wasnt any harder to set up than most 'arms. True, some 'arms like the Graham Phantom and the Tri-Planar may allow more precise settings, but in reality the Conqueror Mk III is about average.
Like any other cables in a hi-fi system, those in a tonearm need to be broken in. Since breaking in a cable by playing records is a really lengthy process, I connected a load resistor across the cartridge clips and played a break-in CD through the cable for over 300 hours. Although the cable sounded enjoyable right out of the box, it sounded more relaxed and detailed after break-in.
After set up of the Conqueror Mk III, I began the enjoyable task of listening to some records -- lots of records. In use, the Conqueror Mk III proved to be a stable platform that was quite unfussy to operate. I cant overemphasize the importance of a stable platform from which the cartridge operates. This makes it possible for the cartridge to provide its finest performance. Virtually every sonic characteristic I will describe below can be attributed to the solid, stable platform provided by the Conqueror Mk III.
The first thing I noticed was solid, weighty bass that had great extension and detail. It was very well controlled, but went deeper than I had been used to hearing. One of the hallmarks of Telarcs early digitally recorded LPs was a gigantic bass drum that made the recordings prized by audiophiles and hi-fi salesmen. With Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's recording of Bizets "Carmen Suite" from the LP Carmen·Peer Gynt [Telarc Digital 10048], the drum whacks rolled forth dramatically, pressurizing my listening room with bass as deep as Ive heard from my speakers, yet clean and detailed. Although the grooves with the bass-drum parts look heavily cut, the drum doesnt obscure or modulate the rest of the orchestra.
On the other end of the frequency spectrum, the treble was smooth and extended, with a lot of natural bloom. At first I thought there was a bit of roll-off in the highs, but they were very clean and devoid of high-frequency hash. Id even describe them as silky. There was no peakiness, but detail was plentiful. Although some surface noise is unavoidable with LPs, with the Conqueror Mk III, it seemed rather minimal and was certainly not emphasized.
The all-important midrange was equally appealing. Divoxs recording of Vivaldis The Four Seasons, played by Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca, with Giuliano Carmignola performing the violin solo part [Cisco CLP7057], typifies how modern Venetian musicians play the music of Venices most famous composer -- fast, but with some slower passages tossed in for contrast. I could hear each note from soloist Carmignolas violin as he sped through the four sections with incredible verve and inhuman virtuosity. LPs are renowned for their beautiful string tone, and this LP lived up to the formats reputation with full-bodied sound that exquisitely captured the timbre of each instrument.
Though Im not a big fan of Diana Kralls voice, I admire her phrasing and musicianship, especially in her recording of "Almost Blue" on The Girl in the Other Room [Verve 00602498630686]. On it, the drummer very lightly brushes the snare drum throughout most of the song, and the Conqueror Mk III enabled the cartridge to reproduce that gossamer sound with great delicacy.
Used with the combination of the Audio Research LS26 preamp, the Audio Research PH5 phono stage, and the Art Audio PX 25 amplifier, the Conqueror Mk III cast an enormous soundstage that filled in the space between the speakers with a detailed depiction of the performance venue. The soundstage even had a vertical dimension, which one rarely hears from semi-point-source speakers. Performers could be located within the soundstage with pinpoint accuracy. This was easily the best soundstage performance I have heard in my system. While I give the soundstaging champion LS26 a lot of the credit, the soundstage wasnt nearly as vivid with the CD player (though still not bad at all).
Not only did the 'arms stability deliver a spectacular soundstage, it also let me hear fine details in the musical performance, details which added to the sense of realism and my enjoyment of the listening experience. The Conqueror Mk IIIs stability also assured excellent performance across the entire dynamic spectrum, from powerful crescendos to delicate changes in loudness that were barely detectable, but which showed insight into the way a performer phrased a musical passage.
On the other hand
Much to the horror of confirmed Linn purists, I use a Graham 2.2 tonearm ($3000 when last produced) on my venerable Linn LP12 turntable. Years ago, I replaced a Linn Ittok because I was dissatisfied with its crude VTA adjustment, which was just a setscrew. When you loosened the setscrew, it was impossible to make a fine adjustment to the VTA.
In contrast, the Graham is the easiest to set up and adjust of any 'arm Ive seen. Grahams terrific cartridge-alignment gauge makes it childs play to align the cartridge, especially because the armwand is detachable. Setting vertical tracking force is also easy; all you do is turn a knob that moves the counterweight on a threaded shaft, which provides for a fine adjustment. Because the Graham tonearm uses a true unipivot bearing, you must adjust the azimuth, which is also easy by rotating some outrigger weights. Gears at the side raise and lower the 'arm to adjust VTA, and a finely calibrated scale enables you to precisely see the tonearms vertical position. I find that invaluable when I switch from playing an old paper-thin record to a thick, new 200-gram record. I can raise the 'arm just a bit to compensate for the different thickness. I can also check the setting after several days absence and tell whether the VTA is set for a thick or thin record.
The Graham 2.2 also has a clip that clamps the 'arm to the armrest, so it wont escape while youre making adjustments or moving the turntable from one location to another. It also has calibrated anti-skate settings.
The Origin Live and Graham 'arms had distinctly different sonic personalities. Where the Conqueror Mk III had solid, punchy bass, the Graham 2.2s bass performance was respectable but a smidgen light. Above the bass region, the Graham 'arm had more open and airy high frequencies, although the Conqueror Mk III had a bit more control -- maybe too much control. However, sound from the Graham 2.2 was faster and more agile than that from the Conqueror Mk III, illuminating extra detail without adding any hardness or etch.
Is the Conqueror Mk III a good value? At or below its price, there are many worthy competitors, like the Graham Phantom, the Tri-Planar Mk VII, and even the substantially less expensive VPI JMW 10.5i. Many of these tonearms have more precise adjustments, so in theory, it would be easier to adjust your cartridge to produce optimum sound. I havent tried any of these 'arms, so I cant comment on their actual sonic performances. What I can say is that the Origin Live Conqueror Mk III sets a sonic standard that will be hard for any tonearm to exceed across the board.
Keep in mind, though, that the Conqueror Mk III achieved its stellar sound mounted on a Linn LP12 turntable, which is not the most compatible platform for tonearms. The Linns spring suspension has to be tuned just right for the turntable to yield its best performance, and some 'arms, like the SME Series V, are just too heavy for the turntable. Needless to say, the solid but somewhat light Linn tonearms work well. While the Conqueror Mk III did require a suspension adjustment, it was within the Linns comfort zone. For turntables that dont use a sprung suspension, the Conqueror Mk III should work just fine.
The Conqueror Mk III tonearm implements truly innovative ideas with rugged construction to produce clean, lively, even silky sound, and it looks as good as it sounds. It reminded me why vinyl is still so highly prized and why it will probably remain the high-resolution medium of choice for many more years.
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