Tonearm Conqueror - 10 Audio Review
Origin Live Conqueror Tonearm and VTAF
Date: July, 2006
If you have a set bedtime and need a certain number of hours of sleep each night, do not install this tonearm. Upon installation, several things will happen to you:
You will start thinking, "just one more record". You will immediately start hating your job (if you don't already) or whatever else demands your attention in the morning. You will wonder how you enjoyed your record collection before. Your sex life will take a turn for the worse. This is a review about a component that is the singularly most addicting piece of gear I have ever heard. Here is some background before I share with you how this tonearm sounds.
Mark Baker at Origin Live has been in the tonearm business for many years. He started modifying Rega arms, and now has a full line of tonearms ranging from the OL-1 at US$570 to the Enterprise at $7700. The Conqueror is next in line below the Enterprise and will set you back $3815. It features ceramic bearings that – now hold on to your preconception hats – are not tightly fitted. The arm can be moved within the bearing housing. The arm just rests on the bearings without any extra tension or friction.
As is common in the other Origin Live tonearms, the Conqueror includes a hard wired, high quality cable with silver-contact RCA connectors and some of the best cartridge connectors in the business. It arrived in a nice wooden crate with a sliding top. Installation is not difficult. It is even easier to install if you buy a precut armboard (25mm hole), and easier still if you have your dealer do the deed for you. Although I installed the arm myself, I was aided by Jay Kaufman at Audio Revelation, who helped me over a couple of speed bumps with great kindness and unending patience. Thanks again, Jay.
My experience with tonearms has been somewhat limited. I had a SOTA Sapphire with Premier FT3 arm, and moved on to a Well Tempered Reference table and arm for about 9 years, the length of residence a clear indication that the WT table was doing something right. I then wandered through a couple of other tables with the SME V and Graham 2.2 arms, and then my current Kuzma Stabi Reference table with the SME V, Graham 2.2 and Graham Phantom arms. The Conqueror is hands (arms?) down is the best of the bunch. And not just by a small margin. Here is why.
Music is not bass, midrange, and treble. It is not sound staging or dynamics, sweetness or harmonics. It is not any thing. It is everything, all together, all coherent, all joined together into a life-breathing, warm, tactile and complete whole that defies dissection and compels involvement. Basically, this is what you get with the Conqueror tonearm, and what is frequently elusive with the SME and Grahams. Let's use the $5000 (including the $700 IC-70 cables) Phantom arm as a point of comparison and talk about all the things that the Conqueror does to make me lose sleep.
The Phantom is an improvement over the 2.2 because it is more dynamic, has more bass power and somewhat smoother highs. Sound staging is also improved to a noticeable degree. Comparing the two arms is like comparing a chimpanzee to one of Dian Fossey's silverback gorillas. Sure, they are both members of the Great Ape family, but the gorilla is more powerful, stronger, and heavier. It can make a forest home with large branches and break small trees. In contrast, a chimp uses leaves and twigs. The sound of the Phantom is more grounded and better able to communicate the power of music.
Both arms share a serious shortcoming. Connections. There is one connection for the cartridge clips, two connections for the arm wand, two connections for the tonearm cable, and another connection for the RCA or XLR plug. That is six connections. The Conqueror has just two, one at the cartridge clips and one at the RCA plug. Imagine using three 1 meter interconnects tied end-to-end instead of one 3 meter interconnect. Remember that this multitude of parts is used for the very fragile and delicate millivolt signal coming from your cartridge. Would you volunteer for the three 1 meter cables, or insist on one unbroken cable? I tested the impact of using three end-to-end cables from phono to preamp and heard an audible level of added distortion and signal degradation. Grain, hardness, lack of resolution, less depth to the sound stage. No, thank you.
How would the Phantom sound without all of these connections? Who knows? But I can assure you that they do not increase your listening pleasure. On the other hand, near-instant cartridge changes, very easy – and potentially safer – cartridge installation and the ability to change the cable to your preamp are the benefits of this arrangement. The only problem is that it sounds bad. Eliminating four of the six connections to the minimum required two connections results in a large reduction in audible distortion. The sound is far purer, smoother, and easier on your hearing. Less stressful enjoyment increases instantly.
The result of having the absolute minimum of connections, ceramic bearings, and all of the other features of the Conqueror is a musical presentation that is totally coherent and uncommonly believable. Music simply flows without any thought of bass-midrange-treble. Each range is so intricately woven into the adjacent sonic tapestry that I stopped dissecting. However, bass is even more powerful and detailed than the Phantom. The midrange has a bit greater resolution and presence. The upper midrange and treble is far, far smoother and, even on poorer recordings, practically free of glare. The improvement in tonal depth and resolution is not subtle.
The Conqueror also includes, at no additional charge, an even greater increase in dynamics, both micro and macro, than is offered by the Phantom over the 2.2. But that is not the end of the story.
Enter the VTAF, Pete Riggle's $150 aftermarket "VTA adjustment on the Fly" accessory that allows you to adjust VTA without the genuine pain in the ass process that is required with the stock OL arm. (I use the term "stock", but please note that the VTAF does not modify the arm in any way, and so the warranty is unaffected.) Stock, you loosen the big nut on the bottom of the arm post under the arm board, turn the included adjuster, and retighten the nut. Depending on your table, you may then have to reinstall the armboard, all the while being insanely careful not to damage the stylus. Repeat until satisfied. With VTAF, just 1) turn the beautifully finished wheel, and 2) sit down. If all the VTAF did was to make adjusting VTA a very quick and simple and safe matter, it would easily be worth the cost. But that is not quite all it does.
Remember the chimpanzee-gorilla reference? Comparing the Phantom to the Conqueror with VTAF, we are now talking gorilla-Kong, as in King Kong. The dynamic range of this combination is scary. Turn off the limiters and let her rip! Or maybe turn on the limiters, because if your power amplifier has clipping indicators, they may start flashing. This is the most immediate and obvious change that the VTAF brings to the (turn) table. Less striking but no less important are improvements in high frequency purity and extension, and a deeper soundstage. The midrange may have gained some richness, but that impression may be an effect of better low level resolution in the upper frequencies. No negative effects from adding the VTAF have been observed.
I have a couple of gripes about the Conqueror besides the stress-inducing VTA adjustment without the help of Pete Riggle's excellent, and in my opinion, necessary VTAF. The arm has slipped from my fingers more than once when I used the vestigial tonearm lift tab on the side of the head shell. I suppose there is a good reason for this design, but I wonder if an extra 3-4mm would really hurt the sound. I would also add an additional set screw for the platform that holds the arm rest and the cueing lever. With just one set screw, the entire platform can literally flap up and down. It certainly vibrates, and I eliminated a very small, narrow band resonance by applying a Marigo Dot under the arm rest.
Before the Conqueror arrived, I would listen for two or three hours and then want to take a break. Now, I actively dislike turning off the music. Listening fatigue is at a level below the amount time I have to listen. If there is anything that indicates enjoyment better than not wanting it to end, I can't imagine what it would be or how good it could possibly sound. Having definitively surpassed what many consider to be the best tonearm in the world, I expect the Conqueror to be in permanent residence in my reference system.
Overall Rating: 10 LPs
Review copy granted by kind permission of 10 audio