Despite growing up in a house full of records, turntables and reel to reel tape machines, I am a child of the digital age. My dad loves to tell people that I could be lulled to sleep as a baby watching ten-inch reels hypnotically unspooling tape from one side of the machine to the other, but damned if it wasn’t the first CD players, not to mention the shiny, futuristic discs themselves, that captured my attention when they started appearing in our house circa 1983.
I’m not sure any piece of equipment my dad reviewed when I was young made a greater impression than the Technics SL-P1200 CD player. This was their first “professional” CD player, their digital answer to the industry standard SL-1200 turntable (of which my dad had two at the time). The SL-P1200 was built like a brick shithouse. It looked serious. No tray. You could see the disc spinning under the hinged door. You could change the pitch on the fly. You could cue it by spinning the sexy silver wheel, causing it to loop a tiny portion of the track until you found precisely the start point you were looking for. For a technology obsessed kid in 1986, this thing was about as cool as it got.
And so, in those early days, although I did briefly have my own turntable, I was a digital kid, and I gravitated to collecting CDs. It wasn’t until after university, after the LP was supposed to have been dead and buried, that the vinyl bug bit. An old Rega Planar 2 and a bunch of record stores later I was deep into discovering what I had been missing from digital all those years.
And another fifteen years on from my LP awakening I find myself in an era where “Perfect Sound Forever” looks like it’s got less than a few years left on the clock and LP sales continue to rise. Why? Because enough of the MP3 generation wants to buy music that’s tangible, physical and less ephemeral than the binary code on the flash memory of their iPods. Not to mention the sound.
And, of course, older audiophiles never stopped listening to records, nor buying turntables, cartridges and tonearms. With the CD now breathing its dying gasps, we find ourselves blessed with a truly impressive array of hardware available to play records, and not just at the high end of the spectrum. There are so many beautiful turntables out there right now one hardly knows where to start.
Enter Origin Live
English manufacturer Origin Live would be a better place to start than many. This is a firm with some personality, which comes as no surprise when you consider that this all-analogue outfit was launched about twenty five years ago, not long after the introduction of the CD – a moment at which most people would have considered selling analogue front ends an utterly daft business plan. In fact, Origin Live first began selling cables, some of the first solid core designs available, and followed that with isolation tables, speaker stands and then turntables and tonearms (not to mention upgrades and modifications to products by other manufacturers like Rega and Linn). Mark Baker, OL’s founder and chief, is an engineer who began his career working on warships before segueing into audio equipment.
The Calypso is second from bottom in Origin Live’s stable of turntables, a belt-driven, non-suspended design with an outboard motor pod. In keeping with OL’s design philosophy (which can be read in detail here) the Calypso’s plinth and sub-chassis are a careful combination of several different materials, sized, shaped, positioned and joined together just so to minimize resonance. The design is the result of, to quote OL’s website, “countless hours of research and development into the main variables governing sonic performance. Every design detail contributes to the sonic character of a deck. Meticulous attention has been paid to every design choice on our turntables. The key variables are:
• Types of material used at each point in the structure.
• Choice of which materials to interface together.
• Dimensioning of materials.
• Shape and form of components – solid, hollow, plate, flanged, tube, etc.
• Method of attachment – bolting, gluing, welding, screwing, etc.
• Decoupling methods – springs, spikes, elastic bands, rubber, foam, air cushion, etc.
• Motor positioning and method of mounting.
In the case of the Calypso most of the ‘table and platter is made from what Origin Live calls “low stressed acrylic”, which, as acrylics go, appears to be a high-end variety. There is a cantilevered arm board made of steel, a (very) high precision steel bearing assembly (which, as OL’s instructions will tell you, must be full enough of their special lubricating oil that some overflows when you fully insert the spindle – mind you it’s only a few drops since the tolerance is only 0.0001” – tolerance on the new MKIII version is down to 0.00004″ or one micron!), and clamps and braces of varying shapes, materials and sizes to hold it all together. There are three feet (one metal, two plastic), all threaded and adjustable, which make leveling the ‘table a snap. The metal foot is specifically designed to drain, or earth vibration out of the turntable.
The motor pod is a circular aluminum box, with an acrylic top, from which a spindle and the power/speed switch protrude. The long, flat rubber belt fits around the platter and drives it directly. The motor itself is a high-torque, cog-less, DC type with a hefty, outboard transformer in a separate box that can (and should) be kept away from the ‘table. There are two tiny screws on the side of the pod allowing for fine tuning of speed, one for 33 rpm and another for 45.
No Chance Encounter
A turntable, of course, isn’t much more than a kinetic sculpture without a tonearm. Origin Live first dipped its toes into the tonearm business by offering modifications and upgrades to existing arms from the likes of Rega and Linn (I reviewed their end stub upgrade to the Rega RB 300 way back in 2004). The company has since produced a range of tonearms and has a stack of rave reviews from audio press all over the world to show for it.
The Encounter arm fitted here is fourth from the top of the range, and like all of the upper level OL arms, it’s a dual-pivot design with “floating bearings”. Unlike many traditional tonearm designs, the pivot bearings are “deliberately not machined to a tight tolerance,” says Origin Live, “as this degrades the sound to an intolerable degree. We have found that tightly held bearings are not beneficial but this is easily confused with “bearing play”… it is best to “float” them rather than “grip” them in a tight fitting housing.” You can see this at work very easily: just apply (gentle) force to the arm tube, as you might when tightening the grub screw on the counterweight, and you can observe the range of motion within the pivot. The first time this happened I thought I had broken it! Not to fear, however, the arm will settle back into its natural position under its own weight. The arm’s weight is more than enough to keep it firmly planted on its bearings, eliminating the possibility of bearing chatter or vibration.
Beyond the innovative bearing design, Origin Live’s arms are all about the business of gripping the cartridge as securely as possible, something the dual pivot design excels at, and minimizing resonance (spurious vibration) as much as possible. With a cartridge capable of amplifying vibration a colossal 8000 times, it’s critical that the arm not “sing along” with the tune, so to speak, as this muddies the sound. Again from the OL website: “Vibration transmits through the surface which supports the tonearm in various ways. Most significant is “rippling” – not just a simple 1 or 2 dimensional movement as some imagine. Ripple exerts twist or angular force into the structure. Unipivots are rigidly grounded in one sense but decoupled completely from ripple effects – However and it is a big “however” – they cannot hold the cartridge well against torsion exerted by bass notes. Floated bearings reduce ripple effects. However they have the added benefit of holding the cartridge rigidly in torsion which results in a more dynamic bass performance.” Or put another way, “it is helpful to picture a miniature man with a sledge hammer banging the stylus in all directions – this produces shock waves that ripple throughout the tonearm structure. If these waves are not controlled and eliminated quickly, they actually vibrate the cartridge again by being reflected back down the tube. Of course this is highly undesirable as you no longer hear the pure musical signal but also an additional spurious signal overlaid on the top.” As such, OL arms are designed for maximum arm tube rigidity and freedom from resonance, using high-grade aircraft alloys, as well as simple, thoughtful design. To this end there are no adjustment dials or springs on any Origin Live arms, as these, in the company’s view, would only lead to more parts to resonate. For instance, the arm is balanced simply by moving the counterweight along the end stub and locking it in place with a grub screw, the anti-skate is a simple weight and wire loop system, and the VTA adjustment is a threaded ring locked in place with another grub screw. Azimuth is factory set and not user adjustable. In a word? Simple. Lastly, the Encounter is hard wired with OL’s own specialized Litz-style cable, both internally and externally, and a ground lead is also provided.
While setting up the Calypso and Encounter is neither terribly difficult nor overly complicated, this is not a task you want to simply dive into without reading the manuals for both arm and ‘table first. It is in the manuals, in fact, that you’ll start to grasp the character of Origin Live. Perhaps what comes across most clearly from the literature is that this is a company that is not hidebound by established thinking or tyrannized by specifications. They have clearly experimented a great deal with their products (and those of others, for that matter) and the results of this trial and error are passed along directly in the manuals in ways that may appear a little eccentric to the uninitiated.
For correct performance you are, for instance, instructed that the turntable’s feet must be sufficiently unthreaded so that their tops do not make any contact with the bottom of the ‘table – they must be supported by the threads alone. While the grub screws for the counterweight and VTA adjuster should be fastened tight, the locknut which secures the arm to the ‘table should be no more than “finger tight” and you are encouraged to experiment with varying this tension. “This may seem labourious”, the manual explains, “but you will be richly rewarded as this adjustment makes a clearly audible difference to performance.”
Origin Live will also warn you that this is a DC motor, and therefore inherently noisier than an A/C model, but nevertheless sonically superior. You will be instructed on how to “tune” the screws which support the motor to minimize its noise. Mostly clear and very detailed, the manuals guide you through the entire process, including a detailed explanation of cartridge setup. Once you’re all dialed in you can either set it and forget it, as there’s not much to go out of tune, or get neurotic and fiddle with VTA, motor pod location/belt tension, and various screw tensions to your heart’s delight.
What the manual didn’t warn me about, however, is that the belt would have a habit of popping off when the table was started from a dead stop. I solved this by simply giving the platter a little spin before starting the motor, but it has since been fixed by Origin Live by fitting a flanged pulley on the motor. As for the motor noise, its “whispering” is audible when you’re very close to the ‘table, but I could never hear it from my listening seat.
Dropping the Needle at last…
It’s pretty well known in audiophile circles that when it comes to system balancing and budgeting, across the pond they favour the source over loudspeakers and amplification. Origin Live even suggests a ratio 65% source, 20% loudspeakers and 15% amplification. Perhaps not surprisingly for a company that makes turntables and tonearms, Origin Live goes as far as to break down the performance importance of the components of an analogue front end thusly: Turntable = 40%, Tonearm = 30%, Cartridge = 10%, Phono stage = 15%, Support table/isolation 5%. The idea that a tonearm could be 3 times more sonically influential than a cartridge will sound like heresy to some, but after having listened to the Calypso and Encounter combination for several months, with familiar cartridges and associated electronics, I’m inclined to agree with Origin Live. In fact, I’ve been so impressed with the sound of their gear that it’s hard not to get on board with their entire philosophy.
The Calypso/Encounter took the place of my venerable Rega Planar 3, which has been modified with a Rega motor upgrade, acrylic platter upgrade and Origin Live’s own end stub arm upgrade for the RB300 arm. I mounted my Clearaudio Aurum Beta S, wired it all up to my Audiomat Phono 1 phono preamp and started pulling records (The phono preamp feeds a Bryston B100 DA integrated and speakers were my Royd RR-1’s and a Sunfire True subwoofer).
I’m not sure I’d call it a “budget” cartridge, but the Aurum Beta S, at about $450 when new about ten years ago, is, relatively speaking, a modestly priced moving magnet pickup. To say it was transformed by the Origin Live front end is an sizeable understatement. Perhaps it’s a bias of growing up a digital kid or just my analogue ignorance, but intuitively it just seems that it’s the cartridge doing most of the heavy lifting in an analogue front end. It’s the thing that’s actually turning ripples in vinyl into sound, right? And yet, in the firm grasp of the Encounter with the Calypso spinning the platter beneath it, there was nothing entry level about the Aurum Beta S at all. It sounded more like a $2000 cartridge. It became immediately obvious that in the Rega I had simply never heard what it was capable of. In the Origin Live rig it was warm, boisterous, fast, big and ballsy with tone that could only be described as lush and gorgeously vibrant. It was shockingly good on anything with brass with gobs of realistic bite to trumpets, trombones and the like. It had dynamics and drive to burn. And the bass! So deep and authoritative with such unerring control and clarity that you could close your eyes and imagine a big 2” reel to reel tape unspooling on a Studer in the corner. Well recorded drums were a revelation. But most of all, the sound was so rhythmically astute that it didn’t just swing; it had soul. It made you want to move. Putting the Clearaudio back on the Rega made for sound that was, by comparison, lacking color, speed, control, air, lushness and vibrancy. After hearing what the Calypso/Encounter could wring from it, it sounded muddy, drab and a little tired on the RB300. In a word? Grey.
Many British hi-fi companies have a reputation for making gear that can really play a tune, so to speak, equipment that possesses what they call PRAT – Pace Rhythm And Timing. It’s something my Royd RR-1 speakers excel at. Clearly, Origin Live makes this list, and handily. Like the Royds, the OL front end “lets go of the notes”. There’s no overhang. Sounds start and stops on a dime. The result is not just clarity and detail and gobs of spatial information, but a sense of quickness, and remarkable tunefulness. Not just liquidity, but flow. With a great sounding record it could be more like gush. More music, less hi-fi. This is the sonic result of fanatical attention to resonance in a turntable and tonearm. The cartridge is simply much better able to do its job, and there’s less in the way of the music.
Next I moved up-market in the cartridge department, swapping in a Dynavector DV XX2 Mk II a friend loaned me. I’d never heard this cartridge before so I didn’t have much to compare it to, but that didn’t make it any less fun to listen to. Unlike the high output moving magnet design of the Clearaudio, the Dynavector is a low output moving coil (very low, in fact at only 0.28 mV) and it certainly demonstrated the characteristics that make moving coils so prized by vinylphiles. In place of the Clearaudio’s sheer enthusiasm and exuberance was delicacy and sophistication. Fine, fine treble detail made cymbals on good jazz recordings eerily realistic and surrounded them with a big halo of air. Soundstage depth was phenomenal. Bill Evans’ piano on Kind of Blue was waaaaaay back there past the rear wall of my living room, residing somewhere in the middle of my front lawn. Tiny details came pouring forth from the speakers, both spatial and tonal. Outright bass energy and drive were a little lacking, however, which was a symptom that my Audiomat Phono 1, even in MC mode with 64 dB of gain, didn’t have quite enough juice for such a low output cartridge.
And so, after a little hunting around, I found a used Shelter 501 Mk II, a highly regarded moving coil, which, according to analogue maven Rob Doughty of Applause Audio (from whom I bought my first real turntable way back when), is a great match for the Audiomat phono stage. As usual Rob’s advice was bang on, the Shelter proving to have enough output to really light up the Audiomat. It may have lacked some of the refinement and silky smooth highs of the Dynavector, but the luscious deep bass and greatly improved macrodynamics more than made up for it. I still had big, lush soundstaging too, the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions, for instance, sounding more beguiling than ever. All that air and space was so grandly rendered with the foot thumps and blower noise underpinning the sonic foundation more clearly than I’d ever heard before – a great late night record if there ever was one.
Sonically speaking, the Calypso and Encounter were truly addictive. I pretty much lost interest in listening to my digital front end. I marveled at just how much music was locked in a humble LP groove. I could go on and on about how the ‘table and arm hit all the audiophile buttons; gorgeous grain-free treble swimming in airy detail, powerful, present and liquid mids flush with vibrant tonal color, inky black backgrounds, and bass that I just didn’t think vinyl was capable of. Add to that rock-solid speed stability and fantastic dynamics, small and large. But the real beauty of this thing is that it’s so musical that you can forget about all that audiophilia almost immediately. Music flows more freely from this thing than from any other piece of equipment I’ve ever heard, let alone owned. The sense of speed is uncanny. Combined with what is perhaps best described as rhythmic rightness, the result is music that lives and breathes in front of you. I wanted to buy more records. I wanted to listen to music more often, and louder. In fact, much more often and much louder! Is there a better recommendation than that?
PS: During the review period the Calypso was updated to MK III status, incorporating a number of small changes from the MK II version reviewed here, including the flanged motor pulley