Tonearm Review - MK3 Conqueror
Audio and music journalist Christopher Breunig (reviewer for Hi- Fi News, The Hi Fi Critic and Record collector ) assesses the Mk.3 Conqueror tonearm.
Compact disc took a lot of the fun out of hi-fi: there wasn't much you could do with the player other than experiment with connecting cables and isolating platforms or support tables. With vinyl it was different. The three components (cartridge, arm and turntable) could be replaced one at a time; the enthusiast could spend hours experimenting with setup and fine-tuning; and then the magazine reviews would tempt fresh upgrades. When I first began collecting LPs you aspired to the ruggedly engineered, speed adjustable Garrard 301, and for stereo perhaps the Decca 'ffss' arm/cartridge.
This was well before the concept that the turntable could influence the sound – measured wow, flutter and rumble were the objective judgment parameters. Then the Linn/Grace/Supex caused a 'flutter' of a different kind... and subjectivism became the reviewing order of the day.
Though it's somewhat unfashionable nowadays, the LP12 turntable has proved capable of significant improvement by replacing the AC motor with the Origin Live variants (I've written about these in both Hi-Fi News and Classic Record Collector). What impressed me most was the fact that LP passages known to mistrack suddenly became free of breakup.
For the past 15 years I have lived with the unconventional Well Tempered Arm, by US designer Bill Firebaugh. He dispensed completely with bearings, suspending a stainless steel arm from a gantry by angled nylon threads; the arm had a pivot post connected to a paddle submerged in viscous silicone. The WTA was very good with the decay of sounds – superior, I thought, to my previous Zeta and Ittok conventional bearing arms.
With the Conqueror I was changing from simplicity itself to something quite complex and involving considerable design/engineering skills. For example, Origin Live uses a double unipivot (if that is not an oxymoron) for vertical movement, with tungsten pins that locate in very shallow inverted sapphire cups. The pin sleeves are clamped for transit and must be loosened for listening.
A single unipivot is felt by OL to offer poor bass performance, notwithstanding low friction advantages. I would concur from past experience that setting azimuth (the perpendicular axis through the cartridge cantilever as viewed from the front) can be fiddly too. Azimuth, like almost everything else about the Conqueror arm, is adjustable but has been accurately set before dispatch: it would be unwise to meddle!
Conqueror Mk.3 has a redesigned cartridge platform now with a curved finger-lift, ergonomically very satisfying, for those who prefer manual cuing. The machined holes both reduce mass and allow sighting of the axis or sides of the cartridge when using the setting-up template provided.
The arm tube has a matching satin finish and is machined from alloy with three stepped outer diameters. The 72mm wide bearing housing is finished in black; behind it sits a heavily chromed counterweight locked by a recessed Allen bolt. Also chromed is the height-adjustable rig that takes the arm rest and lift/lower device (which can be raised or lowered independently). The knurled VTA wheel rim has opposed markings to indicate a half- or complete turn (0.5mm/1.0mm corresponding height adjustments).
Bias is set by the thread and weight method. Two small chromed metal balls are linked by a nylon thread which loops over a shaped metal hook; the non-suspended one slides over an angled rod and may be locked by the 1.5mm Allen key. Should you have a blank disc – these sometimes came with box sets from EMI, where the music content involved odd-number side totals – you can see the force exerted by rotation, when a lowered stylus will skate inwards. Bias position may be approximated at a slow drift inwards, but is better determined using a proper test LP with increasing levels of modulated grooves. Mistracking in the right channel indicates too little bias, ie, move the ball backwards along the rod to correct. (Contact www.britishaudio.co.uk for details of the Pallas pressed 180gm vinyl HFN Analogue Test LP, £25.00 including UK delivery.)
I must admit that opening the wooden box and looking at what was involved prompted the thought that any sane person would get the dealer to set the arm up. In fact, it proved enjoyable. And if you want to do the same, you can buy direct from Origin Live, including a pre-cut arm board if required. The arm geometry, not surprisingly given its Rega modification service, is the same as Rega's (24-25mm hole, 223mm ±2mm from turntable spindle).
The Linn LP12 plinth has triangular ply corner fillets; with no armboard in place, a shallow 'vee' notch should be cut in the exposed one to avoid fouling the Conqueror's threaded base and securing nut. (There is room for a small hacksaw – don't file as the fillet will tear and splinter.)
Having threaded the cabling and earth wire through a new armboard, I hand-tightened the locknut including the serrated washer (dispensable for metal bases, where they will degrade the sound quality), and then gave just a 1/16th turn with a spanner. Origin Live strongly advises against a tight lock, since this affects musicality.
The Conqueror allows fine arm height adjustment, to optimise cartridge vertical tracking angle, by means of a threaded pillar and rotating assembly which is finally locked in place after listening tests. Before fitting the arm, run this up and down the threaded pillar to ensure free movement.
The cables are soldered to the fine Litz wiring within the arm (ie, they don't detach at the arm base) and are terminated in Bullet plugs. Those unfamiliar with these superior contact types should note that they need to be eased onto phono sockets by pre-heating with a hair dryer; they then adapt and set to the diameter. Undue force without heat will probably result in damage – OL ought to include a user note on this with its package of assembly notes and parts listings. All the Allen keys you need are supplied, as is a purpose-made cable to allow burn-in before installation, via your CD player. (I set a test CD burn-in track to repeat for 4 days before installing my arm.)
The stylus force gauge included is quite basic, since many audiophiles will already have such a device. I still use the old, rather fiddly Transcriptors balance, which I see has just [Feb 2007] been made available once more. For the enthusiast, OL's award winning digital gauge would be an investment at £57.00.
With the armboard tightened, the cartridge roughly balanced out (say to about 0.5gm downforce), but with the cable loose below the plinth, the LP12 suspension springs can be adjusted: writer Jimmy Hughes gives a fully detailed explanation of setting up an LP12 on Origin Live's website. The arm cabling is very pliable (there's a single spade-terminated earth lead too) and can just be accommodated by the standard P-clip which bolts to the turntable chassis. This flexibility means the sprung sub-chassis is not impeded in movement. There is some 900mm of free cable from plinth-exit to phonos.
With all this out of the way, the fun begins with cartridge setup. OL gives excellent notes on this. In fact I had prepared a card template [PDF appended to this review] based on Keith Howard's article in Hi-Fi News January 2007, p.92, with zero points at 61.6 and 118.4mm. The long fixing slots allow generous sliding adjustment for the cartridge position.
The cartridge I was using was the superb Zyx 1000-R (Airy 3-XH) moving-coil, which can also be purchased direct from Origin Live. Its fixing bolts have rather small heads which meant inverting them, with nuts visible above. As it happened, optimum performance at around 1.85gm downforce was with the upper surface exactly level.
At this point, everything came into sharp focus, with increased soundstage depth, ambiance and detail retrieval, and accurate instrumental colours.
Aesthetically pleasing, the new Conqueror is a lovely arm to use. The hydraulic lift, which has a nice feel to the lever arm, gently lowers with no sideways drift, and even with a sprung chassis deck effects a silent lift. Alternatively, the delicate curved fingerlift allows manual cuing and the arm feels almost weightless as you lift it over the vinyl.
Having the VTA adjuster is a real bonus during setup, when with so many arms the whole assembly clumps down when you slacken the pillar bolts, or it judders and jerks awkwardly when you try to raise it again. And then you need minuscule packing slivers somewhere to retain a datum...
Although the sound improves considerably with the arm locked, you can hear the differences wrought by VTA with the bolt loosened, just by rotating the knurled wheel back and forth, and listening. (Use say three different recordings, and only short comparative tests. OL suggests soprano voice; classical listeners will find the string quartet useful too.)
I was unprepared for the sound of the Conqueror/Zyx combination, not least because I had read suggestions of 'boominess' with the Airy 3, and Stereophile's reviewer qualified his commendation by admitting it didn't convey quite the emotional messages he sought. These must surely be due to arm artefact's. The Zyx can sound quite forward, hard even; but this is only when these are characteristics of the recordings played. Paradoxically, I found that everything I tried sounded involving yet the distinction between well-produced and poor LPs was also sharper focused.
What the Conqueror does is allow the resolution of the finest inner detail to register in a subtle way. In, for instance, pieces for string orchestra, you can follow the bass line even at the softest dynamic levels; whilst at the same time the upper string parts register – as in a real-life situation. The arm conveys the wide dynamic range on some recordings with ease: loudness without strain. You focus the exact replay level rather like using the lens on a Leica. Tiny nuances on voice are conveyed – the coloration of sibilants, for example. (Speech is the definitive test material for any hi-fi assessment.)
I have long felt that my Quad ESL57s don't 'do' depth, in the way that some box speakers can image. But the Conqueror has corrected this impression, since – if you listen to some of the classic material recorded in the old Kingsway Hall, London, or Boston's Symphony Hall – the ambiance portrayal will give a real insight into spatial magnitude. Much classical material has now vanished, with few sources other than Speakers Corner for new vinyl. I particularly recommend its remastering of the Decca Brahms First Piano Concerto [SXL6023], where you can clearly pick out pianist Clifford Curzon's humming and conductor George Szell's own occasional vocal sounds during the hushed Adagio movement.
Old mono jazz reissues, like the 1940–42 Duke Ellington In A Mellotone, sound almost 'stereophonic' – not surprising, since instrument to microphone distances will inevitably create sonic perspectives. And the Conqueror is so good at timing information that your feet begin tapping as soon as the stylus hits the groove. The suppression of any disc surface noise is another feature to commend it.
I have been genuinely surprised listening to pieces I have known for years to find so much that seemed new. Karajan's 1965 DG Rite of Spring (famously criticised by Stravinsky) may be slow, but it is full of interlocking singing parts that he – but few others – had found in that dense score.
It's an old reviewers' cliché to say something is 'like listening to the master tape' but LPs tracked with the Conqueror really do make you wonder what more could possibly be revealed. To which Origin Live's Mark Baker would probably say 'try the Enterprise and you'll know'.
Still, for the time being I am settling on the Conqueror: it achieves a consistent and outstanding performance far in advance of anything possible with the Well Tempered Arm. I have bought the arm sent for review and am now in a seventh heaven of completely rediscovering my substantial, well looked after music collection.