Stereo Times Review of Onyx Tonearm
I first became aware of Origin Live at the turn of the Millennium, when my Linn Sondek LP12 Valhalla turntable suddenly made a popping sound and emitted a puff of smoke. The Valhalla circuit board, which helped regulate the speed of the LP12’s AC motor, had gone to its namesake. Loath to fund an expensive status quo replacement, I searched the Internet for other options.
Origin Live had long offered DC-motor kits to replace the stock AC motors for a wide variety of high-performance turntables, and since the price was far less than Linn’s own stock replacement parts, the decision was simple.
I was so impressed by the sonic and music-making results of that DC-motor upgrade that I decided to also try Origin Live’s modification of my Rega RB 300 tonearm. Again I was astounded by the improvement. Moreover I found the sonic improvements exactly as Origin Live’s Mark Baker had described them. I had found a designer able to challenge audio dogmas and to think outside the box, with the technical and engineering intelligence to solve the problems of analogue LP in affordable products. But most importantly, Baker possessed the rare ability to link a highly accurate critical intellect with a highly refined musical sensibility. Simply, his products worked as described and they made music.
Shortly after my initial acquaintance with Origin Live, Mark Baker embarked on a torrid creative design streak: new product after new product was introduced – tonearms, turntables, interconnects, speaker cables, and loudspeakers – forever eclipsing Origin Live’s beginnings as a modification-based company.
I’ve reviewed a wide selection of Origin Live products over the years and I’ve been so impressed by their music-making merits that I purchased 10 of them.
Baker’s torrid creative streak continues unabated, as I found when I returned to reviewing after my long sabbatical. Most of the Origin Live products I owned had evolved into new generations and iterations, fueled by Baker’s never-ceasing pursuit of perfection. Since the most exalted music listening I’ve ever experienced in my life used Origin Live components in the front end, I was keenly aroused to hear what Baker’s current line-up could do.
Origin Live now manufactures 2 tonearm lines, divided by the type of pivot bearings used. The Onyx tonearm uses gimbaled bearings and is the second least expensive arm in their range. Priced at $625 (ordered direct from OL in the UK, and at current (5/11/18) Pound-to-$ exchange rate), the Onyx sits in the affordable range for those serious about their LP playback quality. Origin Live intended this arm to be a benchmark for affordable arms. It utilizes OL’s considerable experience in producing state-of-the-art, cost-no-object tonearms to solve the engineering and design problems a budget arm entails. This experience reveals itself in knowing what to trade-off, which presupposes knowledge of the relative hierarchy of the effects of various changes in design and manufacturing.
The Onyx uses a one-piece arm tube constructed of aircraft alloy. Like all high-performance tonearms, the cartridge mounting platform is not detachable. Internal cabling is litz-wire and terminates in simple unpretentious RCA connectors to the phono stage. The de-coupled arm bearings use the wide-apart spacing first used in OL’s original Silver tonearm. Tracking force is by a friction-fit rotating counterweight (un-calibrated, so an accurate outboard tracking-force gauge is required), anti-skate by hanging-ball and thread. The arm uses the common Rega arm-mounting standard, and incorporates arm-height adjustment by a round nut on the threaded arm shaft above the armboard. Tonearm securing is by a large nut and cork washer which screws onto the arm shaft below the table’s armboard.
Included set-up instructions are detailed and comprehensive, augmented by OL’s excellent website and further enhanced by YouTube tutorials. Though my own innate mechanical aptitude is closer to that of Curley Howard of The Three Stooges than to that of a Master mechanic, the ‘trained monkey’ skill-set obtained from my many years of tonearm set-up facilitated installation and alignment. Those intimidated by setting up their own analogue rigs should be encouraged to learn how to do it for themselves. There are great compensations and satisfaction in being in control of one’s technology. If I can do it, anyone can! Invest in the right tools, lighting, and patience, and go slow.
Even freshly installed out of its box I could tell that the Onyx is a very special tonearm, and at 25 hours usage I began serious listening. My immediate impression was of grace, subtlety, and a nuanced high-resolution, unusual at any price, but unheard of in this price range. Convincingly, this high resolution came without any pretense or showiness, sounding very organic and natural.
I first used The Cartridge Man’s MusicMaker III to test the arm’s performance with Classical Music, as I’ve found Leonard Gregory’s cartridges unerring in evoking the accurate timbre of orchestral instruments. Individual instruments in each orchestral choir were strikingly natural sounding, both playing solo and tutti. The interplay of the different choirs did not obscure the contributions of the individual instruments in each choir, and the MMIII’s reputation as a champion music-maker was not compromised. ndeed the reproduction of instrumental virtuosity was exceptionally good, critical when listening to any performances of artistic merit.
I often use Classical warhorses to evaluate audio components, you know, those over-played and ubiquitous pieces of music that you hear as background music on elevators. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons certainly qualifies. My long-standing reference performance is the St.Martin-in-the-Fields/Marriner recording on the Argo label. The Onyx/MM3 tore the music from its overly familiar quagmire and brought it to life again, and revealed its delicacy, rhythmic propulsion, and subtle beauty. I was moved to the verge of tears, and, obviously, terrifically impressed.
Moving to LP Gear’s superb new high-output moving-coil cartridge – the $329 BIN 323 (review to come) – was terrifically satisfying. The movement in moving-coil cartridge designs away from their old stereotypical rising high-frequency response is well done in the BIN 323, the Onyx arm’s control of high frequencies only aiding its performance. The Onyx and BIN 323 proved excellent dance partners, each complementing the other’s prowess in fundamental music-making. Timing, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, and punctuation were top drawer. It was incredibly easy to enter into the music rather than focusing on the sound, a definite plus for all serious music lovers.
I next installed Shure’s classic but now long discontinued V-15 V xMR. This cartridge had long been an exemplar for affordable cartridges that can do it all. The Onyx revealed all of the Shure’s considerable strengths, including its finely detailed high frequencies, inspiring a long listening session devoted to percussion work.
I’ve found the Nagaoka MP 500 to be a stellar successor for the V-15 as a readily affordable (and available) ‘do it all’ cartridge. The Onyx w/ the MP 500 matched the performance of my older Origin Live Silver MKII (see my review of the MP 500) adding a dose of delicately detailed filigree to the timbre of acoustic instruments. The Onyx’s ability to combine sweetness and high resolution is exceptionally good and very rare. I was frequently taken aback by the Onyx’s self-effacing portrayal of detail. No fanfare – detail was simply there
For years, the Origin Live modification of Rega’s RB250 tonearm reigned supreme as the budget tonearm (handily out-performing the more expensive, modified RB 300). Blessed with a sweet and forgiving demeanor coupled to a sinuous and driving bass performance, the Origin Live RB250 humiliated all the other “budget” arms available and challenged the ’Super Arms’ to justify their existence. The Origin Live Onyx preserves all the good things of the OL RB 250, but significantly improves upon it. The sweet and forgiving demeanor is intact, but is now superceded by the Onyx’s wonderful and substantial increase in detail and precision. Low-level detail, one of analogue’s major strengths, is simply terrific. But most important is the increase in musical communication: it is easier to follow all the musical instruments and to understand what they’re doing.
Compared to Origin Live’s loftier tonearms, the Onyx is slightly soft focused in ultimate detail and resolution. This, however, proved a boon when I tried 3 older moving-coil cartridges with rising high-frequency responses. The Onyx never turned harsh, steely, or brittle, though the frequency imbalance was audible. Its performance with Audio Technica’s AT-0C9 ML, for example, was by far the best I’ve ever heard with that cartridge, radically altering my estimation of its ultimate merits.
Mark Baker chose the right trade-offs in designing the Onyx. The most common complaint of many listeners using rudimentary audio components is artificial brightness, sterility, and coldness. This dissatisfaction seems endemic to digital-sourced playback and is one of the prime motivators for the current analogue Vinyl LP resurgence. Quiz any Vinyl newbie about why they prefer analogue to digital and the likely response is ‘warmth.’ Though inarticulate enough to be ambiguous, perhaps more revelatory synonyms would be ‘natural,’ ‘organic’, ‘involving’ and ‘beautiful.’ The Onyx could certainly be described by those adjectives. But most crucial is the Onyx’ direct communication of the music: how it is performed and what it ultimately means. The Origin Live Onyx is more than simply a budget benchmark, it truly serves as an engrossing and revealing musical reference. Hats off to Mark Baker for another simply terrific, readily affordable music making product!