Illustrious Tonearm & Aurora Gold Turntable
Stereo Times Review
Paul Szabady April 2004
My 25 years in the retail audio trade left me with at least one good habit: to investigate in depth the complete line of any company showing strong merit. Origin Live is one such company. I have over the years reviewed their superb modifications of the Rega RB 250 and RB300 tonearms, their Standard and Ultra Kit turntables, the DC motor modification of the Linn LP12, and their Silver and Encounter tonearms. (See Archives) Consistent in all the products is the guiding hand of designer Mark Baker: one of that rare breed of audio designer who is informed by a superb musical ear and intelligence and who possesses the engineering nous to bring his designs off. It has been a stimulating and rewarding exercise, both intellectual and musical, listening to and reviewing each new product.
Mark Baker is a restless and creative engineering spirit, constantly evolving his designs and expanding Origin Live’s product line. The Illustrious tonearm is topped only by the cost-no-object Conqueror in OL’s range. The Aurora Gold turntable can be conceptualized as an ultra high-performance, ‘racetrack’ version of OL’s less expensive Aurora table.
Baker approaches tonearm and turntable design professionally, that is to say, holistically, realizing that a variety of factors and trade-offs need to be dealt with intelligently in order to produce a musically successful product. This, of course, is just common sense for a professional engineer. Engineering is the art of the trade-off; the best designers make the best trade-off to achieve their ends. So there’s no attempt to re-invent the wheel, nor is there the sign of the amateur – naive fixation on one design idea (say heavy mass) – that afflicts so many other turntable designs popular in the USA. Instead, each arm and turntable model applies a well thought-out balance of construction and design factors to optimize performance, given the price of the product. Baker rejects the dogmas that form all too often in Audiophile Land: his designs attempt to break up too-long resonance paths in both arms and turntables, he eschews clamping (hurrah!), he uses DC motors exclusively, and he realizes the musically fatal flaws of excessive mass.
Origin Live’s products have always been exceptional value, particularly so in the US, where we’re spared the UK’s VAT. The decline of the US dollar against the GB Pound has cut into the advantage a bit in recent months, but the OL line still are exceptional bargains. My last review of an Origin Live product, the Encounter tonearm, the model below the Illustrious, had me eyeing my Hi-Fi Piggy bank with murderous intent, hammer in hand.
The Illustrious arm arrived in my possession before the Aurora Gold turntable, so I ran it through its paces on my Linn LP12 (Origin Live DC motor). Compared to the performance of the Encounter, I was immediately struck with the Illustrious’ superior ability to decode and keep separate multiple high-energy transients. The musical result was an additional level of urgency and expression in the music while building on the grace and unflappability of the Encounter. It was also clear that there was something going on in the bass that the Linn simply couldn't express or control.
The Aurora Gold turntable is a visual match to the Illustrious arm: deep black with gold accents. Its open design lets you easily see the mechanics of its operation and is pleasing in an austere and architecturally skeletal way. The laser-cut metal base, or plinth (just thick enough to do its job), of the table rests on 3 elastomer pointed feet, which are also de-coupled from the base itself. Upon the plinth rests the sub-chassis, also constructed of laser-cut metal. The cut-outs and cuts in the sub-chassis and main plinth are of various shapes and sizes, (looking at times like arabesque stencil templates), all designed to control and break up resonant paths. The amount of time and effort to optimize these cuts (and to manufacture them) only makes me groan and makes me glad that I didn’t have to do it myself. The sub-chassis uses two smaller elastomer feet; the third support is spring-loaded, allowing leveling of the sub-chassis and additional isolation of the tonearm, whose mount, equipped with sliding-collar VTA adjustment, is at its furthest extremity. The sub-chassis has a slight up/down and side-to-side movement all delicately balanced into Baker’s larger design goals.
Support of the platter bearing (OL’s tried and true oil-bath type) is substantial. The Aurora Gold uses OL’s decoupled sub platter upon which their acrylic platter rests. There is no mat and no clamp. Motor drive is by belt from OL’s legendary DC motor, which is housed in a cylinder whose plinth rests also on elastomer feet. The motor housing fits into a cutout of the plinth and subchassis: the motor’s only contact with the platter is thus the flat drive belt. A usefully long umbilicus connects the motor to its Ultra control box and power supply regulator. A 2-position rotary switch selects 33.3 or 45 RPM operation, a blue light glows when AC is connected. Two small potentiometers, accessible via a cutout in the bottom of control box, allow speed adjustment. A strobe disc is included to correctly set the speed. Another umbilicus connects the regulator/control box to the DC transformer and AC plug. Total weight is 10 kilograms or 22 lbs.
Set-up was relatively easy, even for this left-handed mechanical dyslexic with a poor tolerance for frustration. Though admittedly, having assembled Origin Live’s 2 kits, I’ve had previous experience with the bearing and sub-chassis. The instruction manual is fairly complete, flawed only by some poor-contrast photographs and by neglect of a few points that will initially baffle the Complete Idiot (I include myself here.) Hint: the arrow at the top of the motor pod should point to the platter bearing.
The most frustrating aspect of set-up though is the lack of instant gratification: burning-in the motor and power supply regulator and then setting the speed potentiometers precludes immediate serious listening. The wait is worth it: once set and burned in, speed was unerring and constant.
I must admit to severe disappointment with the musical delivery of most of the High End turntables and tonearms beloved of US audiophiles. This was as true in 1973 as it is today. Consequently I ran Duals and AR’s instead of the Thorens and Japanese direct-drives that were the rage in the mid-70’s; a Connoisseur when everyone lusted for a Technics SP 10, Kenwood KD 500 or Denon direct drive. Similarly, I owned Regas and Linns when Goldmunds, Well-Tempereds, SOTA’s and VPI’s were the High End darlings.
The overall pre-occupation with stereoscopy and with sonic special effects of most High End record players pays too little attention to the core values of musical communication. (One prominent designer even admits that he was no idea of how to design a turntable with that sine qua non of the UK design school: articulating rhythm, phrasing, tempo and drive.) Consequently I find these tables turgid, dissecting, prosaic and unable to dance: you hear everything about the sonic event except what the music means. I find this completely unacceptable, especially in high priced items. After all, if affordable record players (say under $1000) from Rega, Pro-ject, Music Hall and Origin Live can create genuine musical communication, exactly what is the point of a $5000 or $10,000 player that doesn’t?
Simply stated, the Origin Live Illustrious tonearm/Aurora Gold turntable produce the best musical results of any turntable I’ve ever heard, regardless of price. Since I’ve been listening for turntables professionally for 32 years and am aware of the pitfalls of ultimate proclamations, I hesitate somewhat to make this statement. Nevertheless, it is true. The level of musical communication available from the Illustrious/Aurora Gold is in a class by itself. It sets a new reference.
The heart of music is time and timing: music unfolds in its own created universe of time, divided into smaller sections placed within that fluid time scheme, divided further down to the individual note. Each individual note begins with silence, rises to its intended volume and then decays. Identifying that note, the instrument playing it and the physical location of it are all based on an exact sequence in time. It wouldn’t be too false a metaphor to understand music as an emotional language based on intervals of tone and time.
Accurate audio reproduction of music demands that same accuracy of time, not only in the correct reproduction of each note, but also in the time intervals between the next note and the previous note. This needs to be done equally well for all the instruments playing.
When done successfully we have the equivalent of clear written expository prose. When done extremely well, we have the sonic poetry that is music. We have all probably attended student performance recitals. Some students totally blow the basics of music, hitting wrong notes and faltering in tempo. Some students play all of the notes correctly and more or less in time – technically correct prose. But some students play the notes and their timing so well that they flow and connect and become poetry. We call this music. That is what the Illustrious/Aurora Gold does so well.
How does it sound? It sounds like the ancillary components used. Yes, I realize the fatuity of that statement. The OL duo are, however, unusually transparent to the other components in the chain. The sonic signatures of all the items in my ’reference’ system were unambiguously revealed, both merits and flaws. The high resolution of the record player demanded selection of components with the best rhythmic flow and musical phrasing, the most neutral tonality, quickest dynamics, and the highest definition.
The most obvious aspect of the Illustrious/Aurora Gold is the utter coherence of rhythm, timing, dynamic variation, and musical phrasing. This coherence extends across the frequency range and encompasses all instruments; its articulation in the bass is simply unequalled. My long time reference for these qualities has been the Linn LP12. It is my reference no more. The OL combination outperformed it in every aspect of sonic and musical values, including the famed boogie factor.
The OL combo maintains its coherence with simple lines, complex intertwining lines, simple rock rhythms and the most complex polyrhythms. The OL duo possesses the marvelous ability to track and reveal complicated dynamics and phrasing occurring simultaneously in multiple instruments. Yet it also allows one to follow each one, alone, or in combination with any other you want to focus on. This freedom of listening mimics live music perception. You choose what to listen for at will.
Performance was equally strong with complex orchestration as with simple instrumentation. Complex harmonies and chords (those most difficult of musical devices to learn to perceive) were as clear as single melody lines. Combo jazz was as well done as its cognates in classical forms – the string quartet, quintet and trio. The Illustrious/Aurora Gold‘s abilities extend to all types and genres of music: a deep joy, given my broad tastes in music. A typical Szabady listening session can include Reggae, medieval troubadour music, Captain Beefheart, a Mozart divertimento and Joe Cocker: no need to conform one’s tastes to the limitations of one’s turntable.
The OL duo was exceptional coherent in communicating the essential musical devices used in all music. Call and response, tension and release, crescendo and diminuendo and an absolutely superior ability to keep the flow going at the slowest of tempi allowed a depth of musical communication that is unrivalled.
Since accurate tracking of the timing of a note - it’s loudness, attack, flowering and decay is also the perceptual mechanism behind reproducing a coherent stereo image, it’s no surprise that the I/AG is as adept at reproducing the stereo illusion as it is with the music unfolding within that illusion. On orchestral recordings, the only trustworthy reference for true stereo reproduction, instruments were stable in their position and precisely located within the geography of the orchestra, both in height and in depth. Moreover their sound emerged within the acoustic ambiance of the recording venue. One of the most misleading reviewer clichés of praise - sound emerging from a black background - is actually the description of a distortion. Truly highly resolved sound does not emerge from a black background but from the acoustic of the recording site, be it the natural setting of a performance hall or the artifice of the recording studio.
There is an old mechanic’s joke about the proper way to torque a bolt: Simply tighten the bolt until you hear a loud crack. Then, back off a quarter of a turn. The pursuit of ever-increasing detail and resolution in audio is similar. Whatever one’s philosophic preference, be it replicating an absolute sound or replication of the master tape, we can all agree that practically speaking we are dealing with producing the believable illusion of music on our audio systems. The believability of this illusion is sourced from the recorded artifact, however variable in quality or aesthetic intention it may be. The danger in pursuit of resolution and detail is that this illusion can be punctured so that all one perceives is the man behind the curtain and the great illusion of OZ is deflated. Resolution is turned up so that the bolt cracks.
The great strength of the Illustrious/Aurora Gold is that it tightens the bolt of resolution just to the point of cracking. Yes, you can hear miking techniques, gain-riding, compression. Yes you can hear differences in pressings, and variations within tracks of a single record. Yes you can hear absolute phase, and can differentiate between natural ambiance and that which is electronically generated. But you can easily shift your attention to the believability of the illusion. The artifacts of recordings are not spot-lit; you can back off that quarter of a turn at will.
The musical and sonic resolution of the OL pair results in a deep aesthetic reaction to music, the most satisfactory and consistent I’ve yet experienced. A Most Wanted Component of the Year? Yes.
Fixed-pivot alloy tonearm. Statically balanced. Thread and ball anti-skate. Rega arm hole geometry. VTA adjuster included.
Price: USD $2,549.13
Aurora Gold Turntable: Belt drive by outboard DC motor, semi-sprung sub-chassis, acrylic platter, sliding collar VTA adjuster.
Price: $2386.75. (Prices are mail order direct from the UK and do not include shipping and are subject to change based on exchange rate variations in US dollar to GB Pound. Price calculated as of 2/18/04 at 1 GBP=US$ 1.90)
Review by kind permission of Stereo Times Magazine