Tonearms - Why the secret of great sound quality lies in tonearm performance
The information on this page is foundational and applies to all tonearms, hence it is not repeated on pages specific to each arm.
"Why upgrade to a better arm?" It's easy to think tonearms are fairly alike. A popular view says " invest in a good cartridge and great sound will naturally follow."
This supposition is a big mistake. Experience shows conclusively that the level of performance your cartridge reaches is inextricably linked to the performance of your tonearm. Sometimes it takes a counter intuitive approach to make a real breakthrough and this is what we hope to give you.
Most people are unaware that they are experiencing only a tiny fraction of the performance available from their cartridge. It's really useful to understand the logic of this idea because you will benefit from;
- Far higher levels of performance than otherwise possible.
- Significant financial savings in the long term.
- Your record collection will last longer.
After surveying over 1000 audiophiles along with over 25 years of real world experience, we are aware of how to dramatically improve client's systems. Literally hundreds of delighted e-mails prove an approach that really works. Later we examine the research necessitated to deliver this better understanding of what is often a misunderstanding.
"In fact, this tonearm-table combo is one of the finest performers I've heard at any price....But regardless of price, this is one of the truly special products I've reviewed in the past 18 years." - STEREOPHILE MAGAZINE MICHAEL FREMMER (One of the most respected vinyl reviewers in the world using the Origin Live illustrious tonearm)
"The biggest improvement I've made in 25 years of listening to music and lots of exchanges of hi-fi stuff!! ....breathtaking, big new level! It's like coming to Nirvana". OWNER COMMENT- FERDINAND ROEHRIG 07/12/12 (upgraded to an Origin Live Encounter Tonearm
“The most addictive product I've ever heard” - AUDIO 10 MAGAZINE ( on the Origin Live illustrious tonearm)
How can we quantify cartridge performance?
When it comes to upgrading an arm, we want to know the return on investment. One method of quantifying improvement is to look at the pricing of cartridges. Trials show that your cartridge performance can be increased to the level of one costing up to 70 times as much – the tonearm being the only difference. This claim is staggering but backed by a wealth of evidence.
For example, 25 years ago, when all serious audio systems were vinyl based, magazines went to great lengths establishing system hierarchy. One test took a cheap £20 AT95E cartridge, verses an expensive £500 cartridge. The only difference being the cheaper cartridge residing in a better tonearm. With utter astonishment, the £20 cartridge sounded significantly better than the £500 one! This translates to the cartridge performing at over 25 times it's value!
Another example of hierarchy is related by a German dealer hosting an evening for 40 clients. He compared a cheap £100 Denon 103 cartridge with a well respected £2500 cartridge. Again, the only difference being the cheaper cartridge in a better tonearm. Sure enough, the cheaper cartridge won by a jaw dropping extent.
It's worth mentioning that this wasn't a poor arm in the ring with a good arm. Rather it was the highly respected Origin Live Silver arm against the Conqueror tonearm - much higher in the range. For perspective, the lesser Silver arm, was reviewed as “probably the best arm in the world”, when it first entered the market in 2002. We are looking here at an extraordinarily good arm, versus an absolutely top flight arm. Furthermore, the “best arm” statement on the Silver (£600 at the time) was no wild statement made by a newbie reviewer, but a magazine editor with years of experience of SMEVs, Linn Ekos, Naim Aros, tri-planar, Grahams and a host of other high end arms.
The good news is that the performance of Origin Live arms is such, that even the more affordable in the range, will replace much more expensive arms by other brands and still give the results mentioned above or your money back. These arms are exceptionaly easy to fit and set up, unlike uni-pivots.
It's natural to want an explanation for what lies behind the spectacular transformation of cartridge performance. Firstly – To use a poor tonearm is like expecting to view an object clearly through a powerful 100X optical microscope, whilst holding the lens tube with a trembling hand!
Your cartridge amplifies vibration not 100 times, but a colossal 8000 times. How well does it need to be held is the all important question?
HOW MUCH DOES YOUR CARTRIDGE REALLY TREMBLE?
You cannot see tonearm vibration so nobody gets alarmed. However, this does not mean that it is not happening – big time!. After all, you can't see the stylus vibration that generates the audio signal for your music.
YOU CAN'T SEE THE STYLUS VIBRATE AS IT CREATES THE SIGNAL!
Tonearm design normally focuses on high quality bearings, with the view that if bearing quality and fit are well engineered, then mis-tracking, or bearing “chatter” are avoided. These assumptions are partially correct, and hence shift attention away from structural vibration which is actually very significant in terms of sound quality. A survey we conducted with over 1000 people, gave the result that 82% thought bearings affected tonearm performance more than the armtube structure.
Of course an inadequate bearing will kill performance, and yes, we research bearings very carefully, but as a rule, testing shows that the arm-tube has the most influence on performance. We shall attempt to illustrate why the tube “micro-vibrates” and how this disrupts the proper working of your cartridge.
Because Micro-vibration cannot be seen, we need analogies to illustrate the effects. It is similar in this sense to electricity or sound waves, which you know to exist because of their effects. We can picture Micro-vibration by taking larger scale examples. For instance, if you hit a long tubular railing, you can hear it resonating even though you cannot see it moving. If you sit in an aeroplane, you can feel the engine causing the whole structure to vibrate but again you cannot see the movement.
A cartridge is an amazing device! It tracks with pressure measured in tons per square inch, and momentarily melts vinyl as it travels down the undulations of your record grooves. To visualize the micro-vibration generated by this tortuous travel, imagine a miniature man with a sledge hammer standing in front of the stylus and banging it from side to side with all his might. This energy goes into your tonearm and once it does, things get very complex.
One powerful illustration of unseen vibration, can be seen in the effects of underwater shock on Naval ships. When a mine explodes under a vessel, it turns compartments into areas full of bolts and fittings, flying around at 400mph (600km/hr)– nothing survives, but much of the hull structure remains largely intact, whether or not the hull is even breached.
Only fast frame photography at 800 frames per second, shows why these fittings fly off with lethal consequences and it's down to the incredibly high-speed vibration “ripple”, that is sent through the structures – so fast that it snaps 10mm bolts in half. You would never see this ripple, as the eye can only see the equivalent of 60 frames per second, but it is there - revealed by slow motion replay, of the high speed bending that “flicks” off any object attached to the structure.
In summary we have discussed two major aspects
1) Your cartridge amplifies microscopic movement by a colossal 8000 times and needs to be held motionless at a level well beyond the scope of normal comprehension.
2) Your tonearm moves, flexes, ripples and resonates, in micro-vibration- In combination, these movements are extremely complex but must be reduced.
DEGREES OF FREEDOM DUE TO TINY FLEXURE IN MICROVIBRATION
To illustrate the complexity of cartridge movement, it helps to give an extreme example of just one of the types of motion experienced. If you imagine a ship in a storm, the movement can be broken down into 6 degrees of motion namely – 3 rotational axis to give roll, pitch, and yaw, along with 3 linear movements, heave, surge and sway. These movements all occur with a cartridge - this seems far fetched understandably, but we are talking about very minute movements, amplified to such an extent that it is almost impossible to get our heads around.
SHIP MOVEMENTS ILLUSTRATE UNWANTED STYLUS MOTION
Because of the influence of these 2 factors, it is easy to see why tonearm design has to be of the highest quality. When tonearms cause cartridges to under-perform, the results are, loss of clarity and almost every other vice imaginable. For example some arms can sound “dull and lifeless” whilst others have a tendency to sound “harsh and uncontrolled”. Improving your arm will enable your cartridge to sing in ways that you would not have conceived possible. In fact the true extent of the sublime improvements wrought after changing to an Origin Live arm always seems to come as a delightful surprise to people.
Music lovers tell us that after years of searching, they finally find the solution to many flaws that had previously bothered them or that they were not even aware existed with their old arms. These are owners of respected and expensive arms. The good news is that you do not need to spend a fortune to achieve true high end performance. Our tonearms are renowned for extraordinarily high performance and extreme value for money.
HOW TO REDUCE TONEARM VIBRATION AND MICRO-MOVEMENT
Tonearms appear quite similar, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. There are various schools of thought on how to tackle the design challenges presented.The most popular theory is that energy is best absorbed by damping, so there are manufacturers who go to great lengths to use this plausible theory to “prove” superior performance by comparing technical measurements using accelerometers.
The big problem with this approach is that technical measurements have proved time and again to have their limitations. Suffice to say, there are many well known examples in Audio history from CDs low distortion figures, to speakers with perfect frequency response that sound terrible.
HIGH SPEED RIPPLE EFFECTS IN TONEARM STRUCTURE CAUSE UNWANTED CARTRIDGE MOVEMENT
We noticed that accelerometer tests conducted on tonearms which gave “better” technical figures for damping did not always give better results in subjective listening tests. So what is going on? To oversimplify a complex subject is always dangerous and it should be pointed out that accelerometers do not measure four very important aspects:
a) Actual deflection and angular rotation of the tonearm in vibration – This measurement is in our view more important than resonance figures.
b) The " recovery speed" (the speed to get back to correct position) - e.g a good long bow, recovers very quickly to it's original shape when firing an arrow, but a soft wood bow is slow and ineffective because it is more damped.
THE HIGHER THE DAMPING, THE SLOWER THE RECOVERY TO ORIGINAL POSITION. ROBIN HOOD AVOIDED DAMPING - TONEARMS BEND MICROSCOPICALY OUT OF POSITION UNDER LOAD AND NEED TO RECOVER QUICKLY, BUT THIS IS OVERLOOKED AS IT CONFLICTS WITH THE MORE PLAUSIBLE NEED FOR DAMPING.
You actually need the correct balance of both high speed recovery and damping which is why we test exhaustively to achieve this.
c) The speed of energy transmission and the locations at which damping or energy loss occurs is not measured. These factors introduce timing issues and energy reflections.
d) The measurements given are usually in only one axis which leaves 5 more, equally important ones totally unmeasured. One axis measurements are not at all indicative of what the rest are like.
We have a chartered engineer with experience of complex structural analysis working within Origin Live. It was his conclusion that current models for tonearm behaviour are oversimplified to the extent of being plain misleading. This also explains why the compliance formulas bear little so relation to practical outcomes.
Is Build quality the answer?
Build quality with underlying design flaws is a waste of money and does not deliver real results however pretty it may be look at and admire.
For example a side bias mechanism with a beautifully engraved spring dial may look to have better build quality than the thread and weight that we use - the problem is that the spring mechanism invariably "rattles" in micro-vibration and the degradation is clearly audible when amplified 8000 times. We have exercised a steady refusal to be seduced or pander to these flawed values which mitigate against true sound quality. Small details like this may seem insignificant on their own, but a multitude of similar instances soon start to add up and eventually a very significant performance lead is built up.
UNIQUE DESIGN DEVELOPED FROM EXTENSIVE LISTENING
Musical Values need to be true to life
Origin Live arms are designed on the belief that equipment should be outstandingly enjoyable to listen to, and as close to the original sound as possible. This may sound obvious, but there are some who are so fixated on isolated facets of sound like deep bass or excessive detail that they lose sight of the big picture - customers are told they need their ears retraining if they don't like what they hear. To us, this is nonsense, if the music produced is not enjoyable, then the design is fundamentally flawed.
Our tonearms have steadily earned a reputation for being the best at ultra musical performance. Musicality has a lot to do with how we enjoy music. It's like watching a group of dancers on stage. If they all perform in unison then the effect is brilliant. Conversely if they are out of time with each other and not co-ordinated, the effect is spoilt! In much the same way, some equipment can produce individual strands of music well enough but when things get more complex, they start to get out of time with each other, Common problems are either slow overblown bass that lags behind the rest of the mix, or insufficient bass which leads to listener fatigue.
Intensive research and innovative thinking
The design of our arms is the key to their performance - it doesn't matter so much that over 20 years of continuous development has gone into these arms - if the designers are not true "outside the box" thinkers, then the product will be nothing special. Origin Live arms are extremely innovative, not only in concept but also in the choice of superior build materials. They do not employ cheap soft cast aluminium - instead aircraft alloys are employed. Cheap, easy to finish stainless steel is avoided wherever possible because of its poor sonic qualities and high grade alloys used instead. These alloys are very expensive to machine and finish but are so worthwhile in terms of performance.
Most arms look great on the outside so it is easy to miss the massive hidden differences. With an Origin Live arm you can be sure that it's not just a matter of high grade components but far more importantly, you have a design that really delivers in terms of performance.
Tonearm design philosophy
Much of the design philosophy behind Origin Live tonearms is discussed in our web page Aspirational design which is an important introduction.
Tonearm design specifics
The specific design attributes of our tonearms are described in detail on the web page Tonearm design specifics. This page applies to all our tonearms and is not repeated elsewhere.
The first Rega arms we modified, received fantastic reviews and were compared to a variety of well known high end arms. Next came the Origin Live “Silver” tonearm in 2002 which was hailed as “probably the best arm in the world” but at a fraction of the cost of established high end models. Not content with this, Origin Live went on to launch a range of much higher performing arms, establishing entirely new benchmarks for performance. In addition to this our arms have won over 9 magazine awards from many sources. This level of improvement over older and established references is dramatic and makes upgrading a highly worthwhile investment.
Put us to the test
Our tonearms bring genuinely stunning improvements. In fact even the lower tonearms in our range outperform arms at over 6 times their price. This seemingly incredible claim is underwritten by our offer of a full refund should you not be absolutely delighted.
P.S. Unlike cartridges, a tonearm upgrade will produce a far more profound improvement and last a lot longer. It is also transferable to other turntables should you ever decide to change in the future. Lastly you can save money in the long run by running lesser cartridges in great tonearms which lowers replacement costs and you still end up with a better sound than before.