Premiere US Review of Mark Baker’s New Breakthrough Affordable Turntable
One of the most satisfying experiences of reviewing audio gear is discovering new companies whose products truly get the music right. The UK’s Origin Live, headed by Mark Baker, has been one of my happiest finds of the last eight years. I have more or less systematically attempted to review all their products – tonearm modifications, tonearms, turntables, DC motor kits, and connecting cables. Origin Live’s products have proven so spectacular musically and sonically that I’ve actually bought ten of them. I have used their Aurora Gold turntable and Conqueror tonearm as my reference LP sources with a level of satisfaction that usually only accompanies successful Grail Quests. The Gold/Conqueror combination, augmented by the Townshend 3-D Seismic Sink and the Ringmat LP Support System, running The Cartridge Man MusicMaker Classic cartridge into the Graham Slee Reflex phono stage, has maintained its position as the most musically communicative LP playback I’ve ever heard.
Origin Live’s designer Mark Baker is THE vanguard of turntable/tonearm design today. Indeed, sometimes he is so far ahead of the pack that he makes the competition seem like amateurs. For, despite the continuing emergence of new analog gear, far too many products are either obscenely over-priced, unbalanced and incomplete in design and execution, or amateurishly obsessed on single design factors (such as high mass, or futilely trying to meld the LP to the platter.) Part of the reason for Baker’s pre-eminence is the amount, sophistication, and intellectual depth of his engineering, research and development. These are allied to a truly holistic practical understanding of all the factors that make a turntable/tonearm work, and a uniquely clear understanding of the demands of music. This last attribute is all-important; while the Origin Live products excel in sonics and in all the audiophile sound-staging tricks, these are subsumed to the clear and direct portrayal of the music.
Particularly notable is the speed of the development of OL’s products. Mark Baker has been on an inspired rush of creativity and design insight in recent years. Many of his products now bear Mark III status. I have been completely satisfied with the performance of my Aurora Gold/Conqueror set-up, so much so that the announcement of the Aurora MKII, even though it is half the price of my Gold version of the Aurora, did not exactly have me salivating. After all, how good could it sound?
Visually comparing the new Aurora MKII to my obsolete Aurora Gold (replaced by Origin Live’s new Calypso) showed a family resemblance: Drive is by belt from an outboard DC-motored ‘pod,’ the two tables both show a small tripod footprint, and both do away with extraneous mass, revealing a clear and functional form. The changes in the Aurora MKII from the Aurora Gold seem like subtleties, but loom large in terms of performance and price-saving. The most obvious visually is the change in the drive belt, which is now clear and of round section and drives the outer rim of the one-piece platter and spindle/bearing. Gone is the flat belt driving the sub-platter, and separate platter of the old Aurora Gold. The motor pod is squatter and larger in diameter, with a larger footprint, its footing more stable. Electronics for motor control are now incorporated into the motor pod, offering 2 speeds, fine screw-driver adjustment for each speed, and input for 2 different power supplies, an included wall-wart type and an optional upgraded, outboard transformer type. The chassis and arm-mounting platform of the MKII are thicker and constructed of a different combination of materials. The VTA adjustor (dedicated to OL arms and single-pillar style Rega arms) is new and now incorporates cork de-coupling of the arm from the turntable. The new and thinner platter is whiter in color and looks to be of a different material from the old acrylic type. Overall the new Aurora MKII is more visually integrated and less top-heavy than the departed Gold version. Oh, yes! It also sells for half the price.
Initial set-up is straightforward and quick, greatly eased by an excellent owner’s manual. Set-up is lengthened only by the necessary burn-in time of the electronics, belt, and platter bearing. One positions the sub-chassis, levels it (the feet are adjustable), fills the bearing cup with the supplied oil and inserts the platter bearing spindle. Next place the motor pod into the chassis’ cut-out, measure the distance between the motor pulley’s center and the center of the LP spindle, and install the belt. Install the arm, taking care not to tighten the nut too tight on the arm pillar so as to compress the cork de-coupling of the threaded VTA adjustor (and thereby defeating it.) Dress the arm cable through the P-clip that attaches to the arm mount platform, and the table is up and running. Now comes the critical part of the table’s performance–burn-in and fine tuning–essential to extracting the magic potential of the Aurora MKII.
A simple approach is to set the table up initially as well as possible, listen to it for a few days or so (leaving the platter spinning overnight). Once broken-in, one can then fine tune by re-setting platter speed and doing a final tonearm adjustment. Origin Live supplies a strobe disc to set the speed, so it’s just a matter of setting the fine speed potentiometers in the motor pod base. The moveable outboard motor pod allows variation in the distance between the motor pulley and the spindle center, and depending on this distance, the speed setting can slightly change. I preferred a longer distance between the pulley and spindle rather than a shorter one (OL gives a range of acceptable distances) to get the magic of music happening. It is essential to settle on a given distance of the motor pod from the chassis before finally fine-tuning the speed. Origin Live’s DC motor speed adjustability is exceptionally precise. Once burned-in and set, the speed consistency remained spot on and required no further adjustment. The Origin Live DC motor drive makes all AC synchronous motors sound crude and wobbly by comparison. For an additional $291 one can add OL’s Upgrade Transformer to drive the DC motor, and get even steadier and more rock solid speed.
The tightness of the tonearm locknut is crucial too. Just finger tight is right. While the fine-tuning of the platter speed and the tonearm mount might appear finicky and tweaky, they are essential to the performance of the Aurora MKII. Be cavalier with them and the results will have you remarking on the sonics–the deep bass, clear highs and transparent midrange–and swooning over the sound-staging and precise imaging with typical audiophile naïveté. Take the effort to set them exactly right and you’ll be raving about the music.
The Aurora MKII’s feet look matter of fact but are part of a remarkable achievement–the Aurora is so effectively isolated from the physical environment and so immune to the pernicious effects of internal vibrations that no further isolation systems are really needed. This is a true breakthrough. Most turntable feet are useless for isolating subsonic frequencies and appear almost as afterthoughts. Since turntables are extremely susceptible to non-musically related vibrations of all kinds, I have used isolation products with them now for 12 years as a standard essential set-up procedure. I played the Aurora MKII on 3 different, state-of-the-art isolation systems and found no significant musical improvement with them. (Concrete basement floor, turntable placed on small furniture-type table.) Since isolation can run from $300 up to the thousands of dollars, the designed-in isolation of the Aurora MKII is a terrific boon. Congratulations to Mark Baker for dealing successfully with this all-important issue!
The Aurora MKII’s platter, while looking innocent and non-descript enough, is uniquely successful in not exacerbating the resonances generated into the vinyl LP by the tracking of the stylus. Despite the variety of platter materials, weights, clamps, special mats, and vacuum systems that have appeared over the years, none of them have proven completely successful. While they can change the sound, most offer no improvement to the communication of the music, especially those that attempted to somehow meld the LP to a high mass platter. The exception has been the Ringmat, which isolates the LP from the platter and damps the resonances within the LP with a low-tech looking combination of parchment and cork rings. The complete Ringmat LP Support System, which adds platter damping, shims to adjust LP height to accurately set VTA/SRA of the stylus, anti-static mats, and an LP-top mat to the Ringmat, has been my default tool for LP playback. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Aurora MK II played neat, with the LP resting directly on the table’s white platter (and, of course, no record clamp or weight) sounded so similar to a full-monty Ringmat set-up that I was hard pressed to favor one over the other. Since a full Ringmat LP Support System will cost close to $400, the sophistication of the Aurora’s platter is another significant boon. Add the savings gained from not having to buy an aftermarket isolation system to this saving and the Aurora MKII’s already extremely reasonable US$1300 price becomes even more of a bargain.
I listened to the Aurora MKII with the Origin Live Conqueror MKII, Silver MKII, and with their modified version of the Rega RB250 tonearm. Results were commensurate with the ultimate abilities of the tonearms: I was deeply impressed at how well the Aurora worked with my reference Conqueror arm. Here was a $1300 table armed with a $4400 arm and it was clear that the Aurora MKII was not out of its league. In fact its performance rivaled the almost three times as expensive reference system I am used to. This is astounding performance for such an affordable turntable.
All of Origin Live’s products excel at revealing LP’s music-making strengths: believable and true-to-life timbre, coherent recreation of low-level detail, accurate tracking of subtle volume and dynamic shifts, and a sense of swing, rhythm, and timing that makes perfect sense and is infectiously involving. Above all is the communication of the artistic intent of the music. As you move up the OL product line each LP strength improves, yet each product is deeply satisfying at its own price and position in the OL hierarchy. Origin Live’s product line is one of the most rational in the industry. You get improvements in degree, not in kind, as you ascend the product line, maintaining the trademark OL balance of sonic coherence and the essentials of music-making. Furthermore, I’ve always found Mark Baker’s claims and recommendations to be utterly reliable, even when they went against my own preconceptions.
Though Origin Live’s entry-level table, the Aurora MKII is a truly significant product. No other turntable near its price is even close to its sonic and music-making abilities, and all will demand after-market ancillaries to even begin to be able to work as they should. The saving of the price of these isolation and record interface ancillaries pays for an arm upgrade or for the phono cartridge. The Aurora’s ability to handle even an ultra arm like the Conqueror expands its range of application. I would say that the symmetrical price of the $1691 Origin Live Encounter arm would yield a truly balanced system, allowing choice of just about any cartridge on the market.
Analogue playback is necessarily expensive to fully exploit the LP’s true potential, and unlike much of the screw-the-rich pricing rampant in ‘The High End’, OL offers a direct and musical payback for its higher price. Considering that there are turntables on the market that demand a mortgage to buy, the Aurora MKII’s $1309 ($1600 with the Upgrade Transformer) price is unusually rational. Mark Baker has done it again: the Aurora MKII sets the musical and sonic standard for its price range. It is capable of communicating the intent of all kinds of music and of triggering the deepest and most exalted musical ecstasy. My wholehearted recommendation.
Belt-drive DC motor turntable.
Price: – $1309.05. Upgrade Transformer – $291.02