Tonearm Review by Stereo Times on Conqueror
Awarded the prestigious "Most Wanted Component of the Year" by Stereo Times magazine
Is There Such a Thing as Too Good a Tonearm?
May 3, 2005
- Fixed-pivot tonearm.
- Ceramic bearings in de-coupled bearing yoke.
- Variable diameter arm tube
- Bob-weight and thread anti-skate
- Standard Rega arm geometry
One of the more frustrating uncertainties facing high performance audio is determining the ultimate capabilities of a component. Being able to identify a component as excellent is easy enough. Knowing exactly just how excellent is rather more ambiguous. Since any component will only be audible when placed in a system, judging its ultimate limits requires that one know the ultimate prowess of each component in the system, each of which in turn faces the same conundrum. The uncertainty raises its head in the ugliest manner when one is trying to identify the source of a flaw in a given system. Upgrading an individual component becomes a shot in the dark: will the upgrade bring a genuine improvement and will the rest of the system be capable of resolving the difference?
Although this uncertainty affects everyone – manufacturers, retailers, reviewers and end-users alike – as a critic I feel it perhaps more intensely than most. The difficulty is less trying, however, when the basis of one's judgment is the ability of the component to make more music, rather than just sound good or different. It is very easy to get distracted by focusing on sound and paying undue attention to extra-musical sonic artifacts. The larger, far more important questions should always be the central concern: is the component in question producing more musical information? Is it more faithful to the music? Is it, thus, higher fidelity?
We all tacitly assume that no component will ever be truly perfect, particularly those mechanical transducers at the beginning and end of a system. The term "tonearm" itself stems from the days of mechanical recording and playback; it has long outgrown that name. Its duty now is to produce no 'tone' at all, but purely to allow the cartridge's stylus to scan the LP grooves accurately, thereby transmitting uncorrupted mechanical information to the cartridge's electrical generator. The various scale analogies of this task - removing a mote from the eye of a drunk flea from ten miles away with a bamboo pole in the dark, while a hurricane and earthquake rage and after drinking 800 cups of coffee - all point to its seeming impossibility. Yet the LP still holds its own as a supremely musically affective format. Playback quality continues to improve through meticulous development of cartridges, turntables and tonearms, not to mention isolation devices and LP cleaning fluids.
I gave Origin Live's Aurora Gold turntable and Illustrious arm my vote for Most Wanted Component for last year. I found it the most musically satisfying record playing system on the market. Origin Live's head, Mark Baker, has been on a rush of inspired tonearm design in the last few years, each new product building on the music-making strengths of his least expensive products (the superb modifications of the Rega RB300 and RB250 tonearms,) and expanding into ever finer levels of transparency, detail, accuracy and natural-ness as own ascends through the Silver, Encounter, and Illustrious arms. Having reviewed each arm over the past years I have continually been struck by the Origin Live arms' intense musical adroitness. Each new arm has not only sounded better, it has allowed deeper understanding of the music. This is extremely rare in the world of the US High End, where musical criteria are rarely the desiderata for higher priced items, though it is the driving force of British design culture.
Frankly, after living with the Illustrious arm, my expectations for the Conqueror were somewhat tentative. The $1400 price differential to $3815 is a substantial jump, and if the improvement proved to be only minor, would raise the always-difficult question of value for money. I was wrong. It was immediately obvious that the Conqueror was clearer and more accurate than the Illustrious across the entire frequency band, handling all the sonic demands and devices of music with almost arrogant ease, indifferently filing its nails as if to ask: "Is that all you want me to do?" Since I had been so deeply satisfied by the musical performance of the Illustrious, the Conqueror's superiority was all the more impressive.
The Conqueror's masterful ease rests on an exceptional ability to start and stop accurately: the transient envelope of each note is tracked with supreme coherence. This coherence translates into easy identification of instrumental timbre, along with immediate apprehension of each note's rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, dynamic and affective value. Bass response is thus taut and tight with no overhang or transient slurring. This control and precision extends across the frequency bandwidth. Get starts and stops right and everything musical and sonic falls into place: clearly identifiable instruments are coherently placed in the sound field, rhythm, melody, tempo and harmony laid bare to perception. Truly great components take these basics of reproduction to their ultimate goal - the unerring illusion of music. The Conqueror arm definitely qualifies. Its music-making abilities are unequalled. Most importantly for me is the Conqueror's ability to handle all kinds of music, from all genres and sub-genres. Since any given listening session can lead all over the musical map, it is of prime importance for me that a component handle Captain Beefheart as well as Beethoven, medieval Minstrels as well as Mozart, and the Mongolian horse-head fiddle as well as a Stradivarius.
Particularly striking was the Conqueror's ability to unravel the complexities of virtuoso musicians. Early in my musical life, imbued by the Blues aesthetic of "Why use ten notes, when the one right note will do?" I tended to discount virtuoso players as empty show-offs. It took higher resolution gear for me to understand what virtuosi were doing musically and aesthetically. The Conqueror arm shines at unraveling the technique of virtuoso playing in all genres of music. It makes no difference if one is listening to Heifetz, Horowitz, John McLaughlin, Charlie Parker, Hamza el Din, or Ravi Shankar. Classical compositions that demand virtuoso performance are reproduced in an utterly clear manner. The Conqueror is unfazed by the most complex and dense music, yet also retains the ability to communicate the meaning of comparatively simple forms where the value of each note is completely transparent. It can both play the Blues and unravel Bach.
Set-up of the critical VTA/SRA adjustment was the easiest of any arm I've ever worked with: so transparent were the effects of maladjustment that nailing the 'perfect' alignment was completely obvious and unambiguous. If you've ever waited for the sound to "snap into focus" while adjusting arm height and only achieved various degrees of out-of-focus, the Conqueror will be a revelation.
I ran a wide range of cartridges with the Conqueror, along with 6 phono stages. This most tedious and time-consuming of reviewing chores proved to be a very satisfying exercise. Each cartridge revealed its strengths and limitations in a manner so obvious that it is hard not to feel that its ultimate limits were now readily knowable. This knowledge goes beyond simple arm/cartridge matching (at heart a loose term for getting sympathetic colouration's from the pair,) to a very strong feeling that all the cartridge was capable of doing, both good and bad, was now laid bare. Best of all, the Conqueror managed to do this while sounding natural and organic, without a hint of clinical sterility or a-musical analytic tendencies.
This raises the question of appropriate cartridges to use with the Conqueror. Obviously, there's no point in using Roseanne Barr as a dancing partner for Fred Astaire, or Ellen Degeneres for James Brown. While the Conqueror's rhythmic, timing, and dancing abilities are nonpareil, and while it will extract the maximum that a cartridge is capable of doing, the less coordinated dancing partners are best avoided. My esteem for cartridges like the MusicMaker III, Garrott-modified Ortofon SPU, Shure V-15 V xMR, Reson Etile, and Garrott Optim FGS rose considerably when played in the Conqueror: they have never sung or danced better. Similarly, the musical and sonic limitations of stalwart cartridges like the Blue Point Special, Dynavector Karat, Grado Signature TLZ-V, and Talisman Boron were patently obvious.
I used the Origin Live Aurora Gold as the auditioning turntable and the electrostatic/dynamic Sound Lab Dynastat and Harbeth HL P3ES-2 mini-monitors as speaker references. Lesser turntables and lesser speakers will not reveal the full abilities of the Conqueror arm, a break-up of the old Linn paradigm that there is no such thing as too good a tonearm. Yet that conclusion is impossible to ignore. It was clear that my Linn Sondek LP12 and AR/Merrill turntables could not relay all the additional sonic and musical information that the Conqueror easily extracted from the grooves. Similarly, much of the Conqueror's improvement over the Illustrious was lost on the Spendor 2040 and Celestion 3 MK II speakers.
The Conqueror uses the same mounting arrangement, tonearm geometry, and arm height adjustment method as all the Origin Live arms (the geometry is the same as for Rega arms, which have become the industry standard.) The most obvious change in physical characteristic of the Conqueror is its multi-diameter arm tube, it changing in discrete steps. Like the Illustrious, the Conqueror uses a de-coupled bearing yoke; ceramic bearings are unique to the Conqueror. But these 'features' only point to the integration of all critical elements in Mark Baker's designs. Baker has always been a supremely organic designer, masterfully balancing sonic characteristics to yield true resolution and natural clarity. Indeed the Conqueror succeeds in that most difficult of technological engineering feats: the arm transcends its artificial mechanical aspect and seems a part of nature. These are heady regions to inhabit.
The Origin Live Conqueror arm is another masterpiece from the fertile mind of Mark Baker. It merits the highest of recommendations and is the obvious choice for Most Wanted Component of the Year. Simply, the Conqueror is in a class by itself.
Analog Front End
Origin Live Aurora Gold, Linn Sondek LP12 w/ Origin Live DC motor, Merrill/AR turntables.
DNM/Reson Ringmat LP System, Stillpoints Universal Resonance Dampers, Townshend Audio 3-D Seismic Sink.
Musical Surroundings Phonomenon w/battery PS, Acoustic Signature Tango, EAR 834P, and the phono sections of Meitner PA6i +, Hegeman HAPI One and Two, and AMC CVT 1030 preamps.
Grado Signature TLZ-V, Grado Signature Jr, Dynavector Karat, Reson Etile, Audio Technica AT OC9ML, Garrott Optim FGS, Garrott-modified Ortofon SPU, Talisman Boron, Denon DL 160, Sumiko Blue Point and Blue Point Special, Goldring Eroica LX, The Cartridge Man MusicMaker III, Shure V15–V xMR phono cartridges.
Meitner STR 55 PLUS, Rotel RB 980BX, Lavardin IS Reference.
Sound Lab Dynastat, Harbeth HL P3ES-2, Celestion 3 MKII and F15, Spendor 2040, Infinity Qb.
Meitner, DNM/Reson Solid Core, Origin Live Reference, XLO PRO, Van den Hul The First.