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Reviewer: Jeff Day
Listening Panel, Technical Advisors, Set-Up & Fine Tuning Artists: Terry and Leslie Cain, Stephæn Harrell, Pete Riggle and Bill Van Winkle
Licorice Disc Source: Garrard 301, Cain & Cain plinth, Denon 103 cartridge, Origin Live Silver arm [in for review], Pete Riggle Audio VTAF (Vertical Tracking Angle on the Fly), Auditorium 23 moving coil step-up transformer [in for review], Monolithic Sound phono stage
FM Source: Vintage early 1960s Scott 370 FM vacuum tube tuner supported by Yamamoto ebony audio bases, Magnum Dynalab ST-2 Vertical Omnidirectional FM Antenna
Digital Source: Meridian 508.20 CD player used as a transport with the Audio Logic 2400 vacuum tube DAC crunching the digits
Preamplifier: Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe
Integrated Amplifiers: Almarro A205A EL84 single-ended pentode; Sonic Impact Class T digital
Amplifiers: Fi 2A3 single-ended triode monoblocks with Tung-Sol JAN-CTL-6SF5GT (5842) inputs, Sovtek 2A3 outputs and Phillips 5V4GA rectifiers
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo 2.0, Omega Super 3 & matching Skylan Stands
Cables: Nirvana S-X interconnects between DAC and preamplifier; Nirvana S-L interconnects between preamplifier and amplifiers; Nirvana S-L speaker cables between amplifiers and speakers; a custom Nirvana wiring harness to connect the Duos midrange and tweeter horns and woofer module; Nirvana Transmission Digital Interface [on loan]; Cardas Neutral Reference digital cable; Auditorium 23 speaker cable [on review]
Stands: Atlantis Video Reference equipment rack, Billy Bags 2-shelf rack
Power Line Conditioning: none
Room size: 15' x 25' x 8', short-wall setup
Review Component Retail: £599 in the UK, Export £509.79 GBP ($959.32 US at the exchange rate at the time the article was written)

While we were working on the ongoing Garrard 301 transcription turntable restoration project, audio pal Pete Riggle mounted a temporary outboard armboard -- a wood block -- with one of his VTAF™ (pronounced "vee-taff") bushings onto the smelly old plywood plinth that came with my eBay purchased Garrard 301. We wanted to get the 301 up and running and give it a quick listen to make sure the old fossil was in working order. Pete then installed his Origin Live modified Rega RB250 tonearm mounted with the Denon 103 cartridge he normally uses on his beautiful vintage Thorens 124. After Stephaen made sure table speed and cartridge setup were correct, we put on a record and dropped the stylus. As I wrote in the Garrard 301 introductory article, "We were all floored. The unimposing-looking Garrard 301 in its scabby old plinth and with our makeshift outboard arm mount, budget Origin Live-modded Rega tonearm with VTAF and the Denon
103 cartridge sounded stunning. Friends Pete, Bill (revered blind master piano restorer), Stephæn and I enjoyed spinning records for the rest of the afternoon. We were mesmerized and astonished at what the old Garrard could do."

I was so impressed that I contacted Origin Live about a review loaner of their Silver tonearm, which seemed like a good match in price and spirit to the Garrard project goal of building an "audio everyman's" super table at a real world price. I really wanted to comment on how a newer and highly respected tonearm like the Origin Live Silver compares to an equivalently respected vintage tonearm like the SME 3012 in the upcoming Garrard Restoration installment that focuses on tonearms. The Silver arm didn't impress straight out of the box for reasons that shall shortly become obvious but boy did it deliver the goods in the end. I was so impressed by the Silver arm that I decided it deserved a stand-alone review and coverage in the Garrard Restoration Series. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Back to the main story.

Enter Origin Live
Let's talk about Origin Live for a moment. Gentleman audio enthusiast, Garrard 301 nut and Shindo USA importer Jonathan Halpern was kind enough to loan me his personal vintage SME 3012 12-inch tonearm for comparison. With Pete's hot-rodded Rega, the Origin Live Silver from England and Jonathan's mint SME 3012, we were ready to rock! Or so we thought. Due to a snafu with the mounting template for the SME 3012, we couldn't get it mounted in time for today's review. To get the full skinny on how the Silver stacks up against the vintage SME 3012, you're going to have to wait for the Garrard Restoration "tonearms' article. I'm getting ahead of myself again so let me switch gears. I'll tell you a little
more about Origin Live located in the Sholing district of the city of Southampton, England. When I read through their website, I was really impressed with the obviously thoughtful consideration of what they believe to be the most important factors for reproducing music in a HiFi rig. Their system philosophy brochure emphasizes the importance of high musicality, outstanding sonics, simplicity of design and a high value for the money approach and thus mirrors my own criteria for evaluating and buying HiFi gear.

Accurate musicality is my term for describing that rare piece of equipment that portrays the full emotive and artistic qualities of a piece of music and sounds good in the traditional HiFi sense of imaging, soundstaging, tonality, separation of musical lines, pace, rhythm and timing, etc. A piece of equipment that has accurate musicality reproduces music that both feels right and sounds right, a fairly rare thing in today's HiFi world as odd as that may seem. A lot of good sounding gear can't play music to save its ass, sounding for all the world like a symphony of typewriters clicking out their notes in synchronous sterility. Then there's gear that plays music well but sounds like poop. If I had to choose between those two extremes, I'd pick the gear that plays the music well and not worry about the sound. But I want it all. I want gear that sounds good and plays music well, and I want it made by small cottage industry craftsmen and craftswomen known for excellence in quality of construction and attention to detail.

According to Origin Live, one of the key technical parameters for achieving accurate musicality is exceptional transient speed. Notes must be able to start and stop on a dime and decay naturally. Compromised transient speed causes a blurring of notes and a reduction of accuracy by introducing noise to the signal. If, says Origin Live, you have ultra-fast transient speed and accurate timing, then you will hear its benefits as a "natural unforced sound, wonderful imaging and depth of sound stage, superb tonal balance free from edginess, and (paraphrasing here) a separation of all voices and instruments that allows the listener to clearly hear everything without masking". That last sentence sums up exactly what I want in my own HiFi rig.

Origin Live also believes the issue of timing of the bass notes (and all notes for that matter) is very important. They describe how some of the more analytical turntables "have a noticeable slow and overhung bass decay - in other words the timing of the bass is out of synch with the rest of the music." Musicians sometimes use this same timing effect with notes to make music feel faster or slower. If you play a note slightly ahead of the beat, it makes the music feel faster, if you play it slightly late, it makes the music seem slower. A piece of equipment with timing issues overlays all of the music played with a timing thumbprint it's not supposed to have. It's okay for the musician to do it but not for a piece of HiFi gear. One is the artist's intent, the other a blatant design screw up.

The Origin Live guys have been tweaking and refining their tonearm design ideas for about fifteen years.They are hard-core analogue hammerheads who believe that vinyl replay is inherently better not only for its more musically satisfying subjective listening qualities but also for its technical superiority. For the full skinny on why they think vinyl stomps digital, check out Issue 4 of the Origin Live newsletter. To briefly summarize, they admit that both formats have issues to overcome but at least for now, digital cannot overcome the disadvantage of digitally sampled analogue signals. No matter how high the digital sampling rate is, it is always only an approximation of the analogue signal, never the full Monty. To add insult to injury, the analogue signal has to be recreated which introduces further problems. Can a shattered Humpty Dumpty signal put back together again ever be as good as the original? Probably not. Without access to musical stem cells, Humpty is screwed - and so are you. Analogue's 'infinite sampling rate 'can't be matched by any digital sampling rate. For the moment at least, there is no such thing as musical stem cells that can heal a digitally sampled Humpty signal.

Of course there are analogue issues too and that's what Origin Live is dedicated to solving or minimizing to the extent possible. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative! That's pretty good advice for HiFi, too. In the case of your stylus reading information from the record groove, there are good vibrations and bad vibrations. Accurately tracking the groove is a good vibration, but resonance from the ground, air, turntable motor and other sources rattling your delicate analog gear is bad vibration. The stylus being modulated only by the information in the record groove is the ideal while extraneous vibrations contribute to the stylus modulation as noise degrade the sound and music as a result.

To minimize these effects, Origin Live believes that the pursuit of low resonance is a key design criterion. Non-signal vibration is transmitted through the cartridge to the tonearm, then up the tonearm where it is reflected back down the tonearm to reinforce the original vibration for additional and time-delayed noise. Origin Live strives for low resonance to deaden the resonance pathway inside the tonearm.

Origin Live also considers high rigidity in the arm key to obtaining maximum dynamics from the signal. If the arm isn't rigid, its play will result in a loss of detail and dynamics of the modulation of the stylus by the groove. In the words of Origin Live, "the reason rigidity is important is that the cartridge needs something to 'kick' against if it is to generate a dynamic signal. Designing for rigidity extends far beyond the choice of materials - it influences everything from the type of joints to the dimensioning of components."

Not only does Origin Live desire to give you the best in sound and music, they also want to do it at a fair price. They focus their budget on high quality engineering & materials with a minimum of marketing & glitz. "Our top design priority is to recreate the original sound and thus to offer a definite upgrade to your listening experience. Some products offer showy engineering at the expense of sound quality - on a tonearm, for example, arrays of spring-loaded dials may look high-tech but in fact degrade the sound by introducing distorting resonance into the structure. We'd rather invest in a better bearing than an engraved dial."

If your tonearm is more than a couple of years old, Origin Live believes that you'll get a big improvement by upgrading to one of theirs due to advancements made in recent years. In fact, you're promised more improvement by upgrading your tonearm than your cartridge: "Unlike cartridges, a tonearm upgrade will produce a far more profound improvement and last a great deal longer. It is also transferable to other decks should you ever want a change." If you happen to have a Rega arm, Origin Live can work it over to give substantially improved performance, just like they did on Pete's impressive Origin Live modded Rega RB250.