Rega RB250 Tonearm Upgrade - TNT Review
Upsetting the Apple-Cart
Over the last year or two a small UK company called "Origin Live" has caused a great stir in the community of analogue (read LP-Records) lovers. How so? These quaint English people from Southampton claim to have developed a range of modifications to the old budget favourite - the Rega RB250 and RB300 tonearm. They claim that these mods transform the Rega arm into something that can match almost any of the high-price arms out there.
The British Hi-Fi-press as well as Internet news groups and e-mail lists were buzzing. The reactions were hymns of praise from owners of modified arms and scepticism from others. Rega's Roy Gandy even went on record in the British "What Hi-Fi" magazine EXPLICITLY counselling AGAINST modifying the Rega arm in any way or form. Maybe here we should recap a little. The Rega RB300 and 250 Arms where designed by Rega's Roy Gandy in the early 80's if memory serves. Everyone said the star of LP was waning, CD would take over soon, but Rega had a very expensive custom mold made, so they could cast the solid one-piece armtube for the Rega arm. This was seen before in the ultra expensive SME Model IV and V tonearms. Rega reckoned, that the rigid single-piece armtube of the SME arms had a lot to do with the quality of the SME arms. Seems they where right. The arm was sold with Rega's own turntables for a ridiculously low price and became an instant hit. It has been in production for ages now and is a legend.
The price is still very low and the Rega arm is the first choice for any budget conscious analogue lover. Now sold for about 150 UK Pound ($ 250) in various guises, the arm is also standard on any Rega Turntable. OEM Versions of this Tonearm are found literally on almost any entry-Level to mid-price turntable, from Michell (Mycro, Gyrodeck) and Basis to Audio-Note. A lot of People think the Rega arm is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
How do you improve sliced bread?
However, almost from the beginning many people felt that the Rega arm was compromised by putting it on the market at a very low price. The armtube and the high quality bearings where the secret weapons of the Rega arm, but it also had a number of Achilles heels. Long known and decried is the rather lousy wire, internal and external, that Rega uses. Roy Gandy has defended his choice many times, I still feel it was a bad choice. Another constant issue is the lack of convenient VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle) adjustment with the Rega arm. Lastly, the arrangement that Rega uses to attach the counterweight to the arm-tube is less elegant than the one used by SME. The SME arm has the attachment for the counterweight in the same cast piece as the armtube and the counterweight is mounted via solid tensioned set-screws, so the mechanical integrity is absolutely first-rate. No spurious resonance's can develop and the whole Arm/Counterweight acts as one solid piece. Rega's arrangement of a screw-on rear stub and rubber-decoupled counterweight leaves something to be desired, causing some resonance and coloration's in the arm. Still, even in stock condition the Rega tonearms are serious contenders for anyone's tonearm money. So, many Rega arms where sold, particularly in England, Scotland and Wales. Soon various people set up shop modifying the Rega Arm's with all sorts of approaches.
Rega hot-rodding has a long tradition here on the British Isles. But still, Origin Live claimed they had got much further than anyone else. Instead of going on at length about what the modifications consist of, I shall quote from Origin Live's web site: http://www.tonearm.co.uk/index.htm . "A stunning mechanical modification by Origin Live elevates them to above the performance level of some of the very best (no hype!). This unique modification transforms the arm in such a way that every aspect of performance benefits. The results have astonished users who report the difference is a night and day experience.
The modification entails reconstructing the rear end of the arm on which the counterweight is attached. This is an extremely critical area, as the counterweight represents by far the highest moving mass in the arm and affects any arm's performance more than can be imagined. The work involves removing the rear end stub (which is normally just screwed into the end of the arm - a sonic disaster), and replacing it with a new stub, which is then torqued onto the arm by a thin high tensile bolt. The stub is also designed such that it presents a low contact area onto the arm tube and is therefore decoupled, yet far more rigid than the original. This also allows the counterweight to be rigidly torqued onto the stub using an Allen bolt. On an unmodified arm, the counterweight must not be rigidly coupled in this way due to the poor vibration characteristics of the standard arm / rear stub joint. This ingenious Origin Live modification elevates a good arm into the same league as the super arms and at an insignificant outlay.“ Origin Live will also replace the arm’s internal wire with a "Litz" wire and fit a new external lead. If your turntable has enough clearance for the added arm height, Origin Live can supply an arm-base that will allow the VTA to be adjusted very easily. Time for me to ring them up and get a review sample. Mark Baker, CEO of Origin Live, was very kind and helpful. So soon I unpacked the arm he sent.
A killer on the loose!
Instead of sending him a Rega, which I did not have, he sent me a complete new and fully modified unit. I got the works. Looking at the arm as it came out of the box, the workmanship for all the mods is very good. Mark believes that the RB250 is actually in some specific ways superior to the RB300, so this what I got.Product: OEM RB-250 with all Mods fitted The Origin Live RB250 replaced an early Linn Ittok on my turntable. The other arm on hand was a heavily modified OEM Sumiko arm; similar to the Audio-Quest arms sold nowadays. It took a bit of work and consideration to fit the arm onto my Oracle Delphi, mostly because I did not have a Rega cut arm-board handy. After mounting my trusty Goldring Elite cartridge, aligning it and getting everything sorted I sat down to listen. Putting on again my "calibration" Record, Steely Dan's "Pretzel Logic" I cued in the first track - "Ricky don't you loose that number". Tarnation and blimey - that marimba sounded a lot fuller than I am used to! And when the drummer came in - wow what a weight in the Kick-Drum. Certainly - that is where the work Mark has done shows up most.
The bass of this arm (the original Rega arm’s performance is well known to me) is something else. The Tympani on the 1967 recording of Copland "Fanfare for the Common Man", by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on Turnabout Records, plummeted to new depths and had much more impact. Listening to Suzanne Vega's "Solitude Standing" (killer bass record) revealed a solidity, impact and weight in the lower registers, that I had never heard before from my system. When I changed the PSU on my Oracle from the stock "Lump in a Cable" power supply to a very high energy exceptionally well filtered one (my Oracle has a DC-Motor) the OL arm allowed me to appreciate again just how much the extreme low-end was improved. Sure, there is also plenty of Detail, a very good sound-staging and so on, almost everything is notably improved with respect to the stock Rega.
It took me a long time of enjoyable listening before I could put my finger onto the single area where I felt the Origin Live arm did not match or exceed my "reference" arm (the modded Sumiko). This was "airiness" and treble extension. Sure, it was all there, but the final bit of refinement remained elusive. After some playing around with parameters, looking at all sorts' things, I e-mailed Mark with my suspicion. I said, that after a lot of thinking I felt that the lead-out from the arm was a limiting factor. A few e-mail exchanges with Origin live later, the score was this. Mark did note that the choice for the external cable was very deliberate and that the cable was chosen after testing to many cables. But he also agreed that it might be possible to improve on the supplied item. And I do agree, that given the cost; the cable chosen by Mark is more than good. However, I experimentally placed a 5-Pin Mini-Plug into the base of the arm and fitted the suitable plug to the original cable. This allowed me to compare the supplied cable to my usual DIY cable, based on Cardas 23.5 Gauge OEM wire, with air dielectric and a shield spaced as far away from the conductors as possible. This cable uses all Cardas connectors (RCA Plugs and the 5-pin Connector) [ Post review note - Origin Live has substantially improved both internal and external cable 1 year after this review was published]. Using this cable is a bit unfair, because it costs a lot more in materials (plugs, wire, Teflon tubing and so on) than Mark charges for his cable + fitting. The commercial Cardas equivalent will cost probably as much as or more than the full package (new arm and all mods) from Origin Live. Still I had it and I wanted to know. Substituting this ultra-tweaky cable showed what this arm was really capable of. Sweeter midrange, cleaner treble and even deeper, lower bass-extension. In comparison my other DIY arm-cable, an XLO-inspired job, sounded different, but not necessarily hugely better than the external cable Origin Live supplied. So, indeed, the external cable will be the limiting factor for VERY high resolution systems. Then again, the cable Origin Live supplies is a substantial upgrade over the stock cable for the Rega and (I know it's a cliché) most people will not feel that this cable is the limiting factor. Good value for money at any count.
As I did not have a SME V or Graham or Triplanar handy, I cannot really comment how close the OL RB250 comes to these arms. However having heard any of these a few times, I would say that there is little that any of these does that the OL modded Rega cannot match. So before shelling out over a grand and a half (UK money) for any of these super-arms, do give Origin Live a try. Either as a mod-job to your existing Rega arm or as an outright buy, I am sure you will consider yourself having come out on the better side of this bargain.
Last orders please!
So, the Origin Live RB250 (and likely also the RB300) are true giant-killers. They go way beyond the performance of the original Rega arm. I love mine. I am keeping it too. Another of these "I bought the review sample" cases. If you have any reasonable turntable (Systemdek, Michell, Basis, VPI or whatever) fitted with Rega RB250 or 300, dismount the arm and send it off for the mods NOW. You have no idea what you are missing. If you have a simple stock Rega Planar 3, this is a bit more difficult. I never felt the Planar Series to be that good as turntables go. The arm is a lot better than the turntable. If you want better sound from your Rega, better sell it and buy an Origin Live RB250 directly, together with a real turntable. Origin Live makes some very interesting ones by the way. DIY enthusiasts should have a good hard look into the Turntable Kit Section on Origin Live’s web site.
If the kit's are made to the same standard (and why should they not?) as the tone-arms, you have a killer turntable on your hands, for what is only little more than beer - money. Now please excuse me, I have a stack of new vinyl to listen to, so I cannot tell you more about how good this arm is. Just go and get one for yourself. Until another time - keep it spinning at 33 1/3.
The Origin Live tonearm was auditioned in my own system consisting of:
- Oracle Delphi MK 3 turntable Linn Ittok LV II & Sumiko tonearms
- Reson Reca cartridges
- On a Mana inspired DIY turntable support
- With the "Mezzoforte" DIY interconnect
- Edison 60 Kit build Valve Amplifier (now with Svetlana 300B Output Valves)
- From which in turn the DIY UBYTE-2 speaker cables lead to
- My DIY Wilson Audio Watt/Puppy copy speakers
- Mains-cabling was the "UBYTE-M" Cable and a Pair of Thunderstone Audio Superstealth Megamanga Mains Line Ultracleaners where used
- The speakers where topped each by three "Shim Mick" wooden pucks (review still in progress)
It should be noted that 1 year after this article was published, Origin Live upgraded the external cable significantly.