Paul Szabady (Senior Editor) Stereo Times
Manufacturer: Origin Live,
Unit 5 362b Spring Road, Sholing,
Phone: 02380 578877
Fax: 02380 578877
Price (including shipping): Structural modification, internal and external rewire, premium phono plugs on owner’s arm – $US 330.
Same with Origin Live-supplied new Rega RB250 – $472.24
(Prices subject to variation based on UK Pound versus US$ exchange rate)
“The midrange and high frequencies improved in the same way, offering increased naturalness, sweetness and resolution. I spent one memorable listening session just listening to the cymbal work of Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Chico Hamilton–and being rewarded with deep insight into their respective artistry and style.”
If one pursues this hobby long enough, either as an enthusiast or as part of the business (as I did for over 25 years), one inevitably finds favourite designers and favourite companies whose products somehow just click with one’s own musical proclivities. Roy Gandy of Rega Research has consistently won my admiration, not only for the sonic and musical qualities of his products, but also because they are so affordable. In this day, when “high-end” has come to mean merely “high-priced,” it’s refreshing to see his products wiping the streets (musically) with a competitor’s product at up to 5 times the price. Nobody cheers for Goliath (especially when overpriced), and some of Gandy’s designs evoke images of David in all his Goliath-slaying glory.
The Rega Planar 3, along with its tonearm, the RB 300, has long held a cherished place in my audio hierarchy: I consider it the least expensive turntable that delivers the true musical goods. Through clever and balanced engineering and design, prescient manufacturing techniques (investing heavily into automation for mass-producing the tonearms), and letting the product’s own merits sell it –a refreshing throwback to the days before marketing schemes, and artificially inflating prices to placate the common distortion of what high-end should really be–Gandy has produced a truly classic product in the RB 300 tone arm.
Producing a good, cost-no-object design needs no special talent (one can simply farm out design and manufacture), but a truly effective inexpensive product earns my special respect. Partly for selfish motives (just because one sells high-end audio doesn’t mean one can afford to buy high-end audio) but also because passionate music lovers don’t always have high incomes. I’ve always gained more satisfaction in offering a tightly budgeted music enthusiast a truly musical system at a price they could afford than from relieving the wannabe carriage trade of their mad money.
Gandy’s designs are famous (or infamous depending on your proclivities) for building tweak-proof products. Audiophilia nervosa, the obsessive need to tweak, is not only a US phenomenon–the UK has long been the home of the world’s most ardent tweakers–many of our standard tweaks originated in the UK. One of the common pitfalls of tweaking is ruining the musical and mechanical qualities of the product or, what amounts to the same thing, to become so obsessed with sonic changes as to quit listening to the music. Both Rega and Linn have long warned against counterproductive tweaking and have actively discouraged the act, opining that if the tweaks really worked they would be incorporated into the product.
There is much to commend this view, but ultimately, if a tweak creates overall improvements in the abilities of the product, I don’t have any philosophical objections. After all, no product is perfect. I have tried the standard Rega/Linn tweaks and, yes, most of them don’t work. What have worked are the Ringmat, the Atmosphere arm wrap, the Seismic Sink, and the Aurios Media Isolation bearings. So when I heard of the Origin Live modifications to the RB 300, I was initially sceptical, but willing to listen with an open mind.
The UK has produced and championed products that have consistently struck me as musical–from the BBC-inspired research into originlikers to Linn’s insistence that it “don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” Simply put, a complete UK system, in my experience, has a better chance of producing music than its US audiophile equivalent. Although I had some reservations about some of Origin Live’s claims on their website, their analysis of the weaknesses of the stock RB300 jibed with mine, so I gave them a shot.
Origin Live’s structural modification of the RB300 and the RB250 involves the stub at the back of the arm, which holds the counterweight: this is removed and replaced with their own design, as is the stock counterweight. In addition, tonearm rewiring is also offered, as is a device that allows for easy VTA setting. Since none of my tables had the clearance necessary for the VTA adjuster, I sent one of my RB300’s off to England for a complete rewire and their structural modification. Turnaround from door-to-door was just shy of 2 weeks, most of which was transient time through the mails.
I reinstalled the OL RB300 on my Linn LP12 and was pleased to find that the OL RB300 and the Linn were now dancing together, where previously the stock Rega arm was a little lead-footed. This pleased me to no end, because for $330 I now had a simpatico match for the Linn and no longer had to spend $2500 or more for one of the “killer arms”. Sonically the OL tracked dynamic and transient changes more accurately than the stock arm and this was noticeable and welcome all across the frequency band. Bass instruments were clearer and more articulate–they no longer mumbled. The fabled Linn ability to portray tonality in the bass, (more than just rhythm) was manifest in greater force. Not only did the sense of rhythm improve, which was particularly welcome on the polyrhythmic music I listen to, but timbre and pitch also became clearer, presenting greater differentiation between different instruments playing in similar frequency ranges. Rock bass and drums were heard as separate entities, contributing to the beat of the music. This particular boogyin’ fool was well served. This gain also applied to jazz, where rhythmic virtuosity was immediate and accessible. In classical music the double basses were clearer, better inflected and more readily separated from the cellos, which in turn were harmonically richer and more realistic in timbre.
The midrange and high frequencies improved in the same way, offering increased naturalness, sweetness and resolution. I spent one memorable listening session just listening to the cymbal work of Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Chico Hamilton–and being rewarded with deep insight into their respective artistry and style.
Now the stock RB300 arm was no slouch in these aspects of reproduction, but always struck me as a bit dynamically limited in the bass and extreme highs–not enough to capsize the music, but significantly limited compared to the best arms. And though its rhythmic abilities are quite good, it can at times become rigid in its articulation and remains somewhat military when the rhythm needs to ebb and flow. In addition, the upper midrange would exhibit a modicum of glare with some cartridges.
The OL RB300 eliminated most of my objections to the stock arm’s limitations, greatly improving upon an already good product. The OL RB300’s modifications all readily translate into musical improvements. Mark Baker recommends not using the spring-applied tracking force of the RB300, claiming that it introduces an unwanted resonance in the arm. Now on the stock arm, I preferred the spring tracking force. However, I must admit that on the OL arm, statically set-tracking force (you set the Rega’s dial to 3) proved far superior and more neutral. This tended to allay my scepticism of OL’s views, still I pondered their insistence that the RB250, the 300’s cheaper brother (included on the Planar 2) was actually a better arm when modified. Considering the excellence of the OL RB300’s sonic and musical performance, this was an intriguing claim. “Hmm, it’s better and it’s cheaper? This I’ve got to try,”so I ordered one.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, Rega’s motor upgrade for the Planar 3 became available, the first improvement on the Planar 3 turntable in 25 years. Considering the conservative nature of Gandy’s designs, I suspected that this wouldn’t just be a cheap minor tweak, but a wholesale improvement. Since I was going to use my 10-year-old Planar 3 as the test mule, installing the new motor seemed logical. The new motor attaches via an adhesive directly to the table’s plinth, thereby eliminating the old motor’s belt suspension and the primary weakness of the Planar 3: the occasional tendency to speed variation, particularly on long-held notes. Cost is $155 plus any labor for installation. If you can solder and unsolder 4 leads and align the motor, it’s a quick DIY job.
“Both the stereo illusion and the musical performance on classical music with the OL RB250 is mighty convincing and orienting, requiring very little willing “suspension of disbelief” to accept the illusion as a reasonable facsimile of reality. This is as welcome as it is rare.”
I’ve listened to enough motor upgrades and power supply improvements on other tables to know that the improvement can be substantial and musically significant, but even with these expectations, the improvement in the Planar 3 was marked and welcome. Dynamic range, rhythm, phrasing, pulse. timbre, and stereoscopy improved, increasing the excitement and emotion of the music, almost, but not quite, approaching the capabilities of my old pre-Valhalla Linn. A listen with a Lyra Clavis Da Capo cartridge into Herron electronics, Belles amp, and Audio Physic Avanti speakers was revelatory. The Lilliputian-priced table and arm was producing genuine music through its more breathtakingly priced brethren and offering the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with this cartridge and these speakers. Impressive.
The stock Planar 3 has always outdone its competition in conveying subtlety and communicating the logic and quality of the playing, but the new motor increased the subtlety and expanded the table’s retrieval of lower-level detail and micro-dynamics in a major way, as well as increasing its large signal dynamics and resolution. The effect was like removing a compressor from the system–the music flowed and moved much more like live music does. This was a definite across-the-board upgrade.
I listened to the OL RB250 and OL RB300 arms on the upgraded Rega 3 with a variety of cartridges. First up was the Sumiko Blue Point Special, not only for its price and frequent matching with the Rega arm, but also because it’s somewhat controversial in its sonics, i.e., capable of sounding bright and edgy depending on the system. With the stock RB300, the sound was indeed bright and hard, especially on sudden dynamic increases and climaxes. The OL RB300 was a revelation, the harshness was gone and the subtleties of the cartridge began to emerge. As good as this was, the OL RB250 was even better: smoother, sweeter, and with more natural detail and timbre, but still a bit light in the bass. Moving to Linn LP12 revealed that I was now hearing the limitations of the cartridge: its ultimate lack of the finest resolution, somewhat gray tonal colors, and rather light low bass. Also revealed was that the capabilities of the OL RB250 arm are far beyond the Planar 3’s. To really hear all of this arm’s capabilities, a better turntable is necessary.
I repeated this sequence with the addition of the Aurios Media Isolation Bearings and the results were duplicated, except the degree of difference was now enormous. I then listened to the Grado Conqueror Jr, The Goldring Eroica LX, the Grado Conqueror TLZ-V, and the Grado Reference Sonata following this sequence of arms, tables, and isolation systems. The OL RB250 on Aurios MIBs consistently produced the most natural, clearest, and most musical reproduction.
The difference between the OL RB300 and OL RB250 is quite marked, and most obvious on well-recorded acoustic and classical music. The 250 eliminates a slight metallic coloration of the 300. Violins sound sweeter, more organic and closer to live, as do cellos and double basses, their harmonics and richness of tone are more in evidence. The OL RB300 can sound a tad more exciting on pop and jazz, but close listening and comparison to what instruments sound like live will reveal that the addition liveliness is coloration and indeed the result of resonance. A slight electronic-sounding sheen rides on top of transients and harmonics, particularly in the upper midrange and high frequencies. This can get annoying over time. Whatever the cause of this coloration (Mark Baker of OL attributes it in part to the resonance of the tracking weight spring, the bearing support and the material of the arm support of the RB300) it is a flaw. Once its absence from the OL RB250 is noted, going back to the OL RB300 is hard. The superiority of the OL RB250 over the OL RB300 lies in its truth of timbre, nuance and subtlety–an overall naturalness, not to mention its considerably more convincing stereo effects. I don’t normally subscribe to the audiophile values of enhanced stereoscopy as absolute indicators of improvement, unless the musical communication and naturalness is also improved. Imaging, depth, placement and resolution of soundstage minutiae are, after all, adjuncts of the musical experience and supplementary to it. This dichotomy is perhaps flawed–true higher resolution should enhance imaging effects as well as musical values–but there’s no point in gaining a better sense of where an instrument is if you can’t tell what it’s playing. Both the stereo illusion and the musical performance on classical music with the OL RB250 is mighty convincing and orienting, requiring very little willing “suspension of disbelief” to accept the illusion as a reasonable facsimile of reality. This is as welcome as it is rare.
While the increase in low level resolution and detail most striking, the clarity gained in crescendos and tuttis is magnificent, the OL RB250 controlled dynamic shadings and maintained clarity far better than the OL RB300, and, of course, the stock Rega arms. The overall musical and sonic performance of the Origin Live RB250 is simply astounding. Considering its sub-$500 price, the only appropriate reaction is to yell, “Eureka!” Running naked down the street is optional.
The OL RB250 has been touted as equalling the capabilities of the “superarms”–the $2500 and up arms that have become the darlings of the audiophile world. How does it stack up against these Goliaths? System context and personal preference are, of course, crucial, but frankly, I don’t care. For the price of a superarm, one can buy the OL RB250, an excellent phono cartridge, a phono stage, a set of Aurios Bearings, an Origin Live turntable kit (my next review), the Disc Doctor record/stylus-care products and even 50 or so used LPs. The stock Rega RB300 has been long been rated one of the best bargains in audio. The Origin Live modification of the RB250, which sells for only $50 more in the US, appears to be the new giant-killer.
Rega Planar 3 turntable (upgraded motor) 2 Linn LP12s (1 Nirvana, 1 Valhalla), Meitner PA6i Preamp, Meitner STR55 Power Amp, Analysis Plus Oval 9 speaker wire, SoundLabs Dynastat originlikers. Ringmats on all tables. Records and stylus cleaned with Disc Doctor products. Archetype rack, Townshend Seismic Sink. Aurios Media Isolation Bearings under entire system. Supplementary system included Hegeman HAPI 2 preamp, Rotel RB980 amp and Spendor 2040 and Infinity QB speakers.
Paul Szabady (Senior Editor) Stereo Times