Origin Live Agile tonearm
The Origin Live Agile tone arm is distinctive enough for anyone familiar with this British brand to spot it as one of Mark Baker’s creations, what may not be immediately obvious is that it’s the £10,500 penultimate model in Origin Live’s High-End range. Rather than employing more conventional gimballed bearings for vertical movement Origin Live has long preferred what might described, rather contradictorily, as a dual-mono-pivot. In every arm from the company’s £1,500 Encounter and upwards, two pivots are arranged some distance apart at 90 degrees to the axis of the arm. A conventional bearing handles lateral movement. This unusual compromise imbues the arms with an advantage that is more than theoretical; in the vertical plane they have the virtually friction-less properties of a pure mono-pivot, but unlike a mono-pivot are not burdened by fussy set-up and handling issues, and less than authoritative bass.
Origin Live’s founder and designer Mark Baker is very focussed on extracting what we might call a rounded, full-range performance from his arms, with an ability to recover from the groove not only fine detail but every drop of sonic energy too. This leads to a second design characteristic we can spot straight away; the employment of comparatively wide and heavy yokes. Baker’s insight here is that maximum energy transfer requires that the tail (the stylus) doesn’t wag the dog (the arm). In other words the arm must resist sideways deflection caused by the stylus.
This is not about static horizontal stiction. That would be disastrous for replay. It is about dynamic control. Origin Live’s arrangement of yoke mass either side of the horizontal pivot of the arm imposes a dynamic grip on the cartridge so that the stylus cannot take the path of least resistance and jitter from side to side as the groove walls slide past. Instead, it is compelled to fully trace the large groove amplitudes that encode loud deep bass, the fractional excursions that encode the quietest of events such as strikes on a triangle, and everything in between. There are other factors at work here too, but in simplistic terms that’s one of the reasons why in the more costly Origin Live tone arms the effective mass of the yokes is positioned wide apart, either side of the horizontal pivot point.
Price-wise, the Origin Live Agile is bracketed in the range by the Enterprise at £5,300, and the Renown at £26,000. The yokes on all three arms look similar, if not identical, and the arm wands themselves seem to have the same parallel diameter and semi-matt black finish. Appearances here are deceptive though. Baker isn’t particularly forthcoming, but the Agile arm wand has additional internal stiffening over that of the Enterprise, as well as external coatings applied. And while the yokes on all three arms have a chrome nitride mirror finish, they are each uniquely milled in order to achieve different energy reflection and absorption properties.
The most obvious visual difference between the three arms is that while the Enterprise has what might be regarded as a conventional axially-mounted counter-weight, both the Agile and the Renown combine an axial weight with a cantilevered secondary counter-weight that allows fine adjustment.
Visually, the Agile is a real stunner; the mirror-like finish on the yoke contrasting with the deep semi-matt black of the arm tube. The counterweight, VTA adjustment, bias and cueing assemblies are impeccably executed and finished. The Agile simply reeks of quality and attention to detail – as indeed it jolly well should for that kind of money. It is available in 12 inch, 10 inch, Rega-fitting 9.5 inch and Linn 9 inch lengths.
There was no point in feeding strawberries to a donkey, so the review sample Origin Live Agile was fitted to a turntable worthy of its price point, an Audio Note (UK) TT-Three turntable powered by a PSU4 with a combined RRP of circa £18,000. Once the turntable’s spring suspension had been adjusted for the 2,050g weight of the arm, a Soundsmith Paua II moving iron cartridge (£3,900) was installed on the headshell. Part way through the evaluation the Soundsmith was swapped for a Hana Umami Red moving coil cartridge (£3,400). Later still the arm and Hana were transferred to a Linn LP12 fitted with a Rega-mount arm board.
The Agile’s adjustment mechanism allows positive and repeatable changes of VTA to be achieved once the locking bolt had been fully slackened and gravity allowed to do its thing. Tracking weight proved to be easily adjusted too, initial coarse settings quickly achieved and then dialled in fully using the fine adjuster. Neither cartridge required azimuth to be changed, but should it be necessary the Agile allows easy changes with the nearside Allen-headed pivot bolt via a shaft in the top of the arm’s yoke.
The Origin Live Agile is supplied with the company’s Silver Hybrid Series II tonearm cable, notable because it features no less than four different grounding leads and tags. Overkill? So it seemed to me until I had used two different cartridges on the arm, fitted it to two different turntables and tried it with two different phono stages. Ring the changes like this and the wisdom of Origin Live’s approach is made forcefully clear; what we might call the normal single grounding lead supplied with many cables is not always able to fully suppress hum and this explains why so many vinyl rigs exhibit residual noise. The multiple grounding permutations enabled by the Origin Live cable allowed complete silence to be achieved with every combination of cartridge, phono stage and turntable in the review system, leaving me wondering why all phono leads are not built the Origin Live way.
The phono stage used during the evaluation was a M2Tech Nash with its optional Van der Graaf external power supply, loaned by UK distributor Audio Pinnacle. The Nash and supply can be had for a combined UK street price of around £2,000, yet when reviewed some 18 months ago the Nash turned in a level of performance and flexibility quite out of proportion to its modest cost. Now, doing RIAA duties in a review system wherein it was by far and away the humblest component, the Nash proved well up to telegraphing that with the Agile we were in the presence of tonearm aristocracy.
Playing genres from opera and chamber music to dub-step and fusion jazz, the Origin Live Agile gave a masterclass in how a high end tonearm should behave; not favouring any genre but transcribing everything thrown at it with equanimity. As a system becomes progressively better, the greater the contrasts in quality it exposes between recordings. Some recordings – actually quite a lot – are truly dreadful, but rather than wanting everything blanketed in cuddly homogeneity, we should embrace a system that is even-handed and tells it like it really is. This not an argument in favour of gritted-teeth listening sessions. An outcome is that the high resolution required to present us with the contrast also shows us the good parts along with the less than good. We might still enjoy the performance while at the same time being aware of its shortcomings.
Thus it is with the Agile, whose resolving powers turned out to be of a very high order indeed, for example uncovering previously hidden bass and thereby some semblance of sonic balance out of early 1970s Pointer Sisters recordings that before had been just too horrible to play. The Origin Live Agile did a similar thing with Led Zeppelin recordings where choices made during mastering hid John Paul Jones’s bass behind a wall of uncomfortably thin and bright overall sound. The Agile did not colour things by boosting the low-end and attenuating the brightness, but it did recover previously masked tonal and dynamic detail to make the recordings more interesting and more enjoyable.
Not all studio output during that decade was blighted by poor engineering, and to confirm that happy fact an Osibisa album from 1971 was pulled from the shelf. On Woyaya, producer Tony Visconti successfully captured the band’s dense and joyful live sound, and with an appropriate tonal balance. Playing the opening track, Beautiful Seven, the Origin Live Agile demonstrated an impressive lack of smearing and overhang, and a consequently fine timing ability that enabled it to trace the multiple layers and cross-rhythms without the overall sound descending into a chaotic blur as it can do with less competent arms.
Jekyll and Hyde
This planted a seed that grew over the evaluation period into a realisation that Origin Live has somehow imbued the Agile with a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde nature; the on-its-toes dynamic speed and drive of a 9.5 inch arm along with a good helping of the more flowing and relaxed sound we might expect of a 12 inch. Mark Baker declined to say exactly how he’d achieved this result, perhaps by way of a clue pointing towards the arm’s multi-material partly cantilevered counterweight, and the way it is clamped to a sleeved rear stud, yet at the same time acoustically de-coupled, the aim being to minimise reflection of energy back down the arm tube. The partial counterweight offset results in the contact pressure at the adjacent pivot being higher than that of the pivot at the opposite end of the yoke. The reduction in friction is tiny, but Baker says it is still audible in the form of improved detail retrieval.
Wayne Shorter’s 1988 release Joy Ryder presented a different challenge. On side two, the Origin Live Agile transcribed with highly satisfying weight and authority the doom-laden opening motif of the first track with its phasey percussion and synth pulses, going on to demonstrate class-leading soundstage depth perception and specificity. With the Soundsmith cartridge, and playing quality pressings, groove noise was so low that it approached digital levels of sonic blackness, with a consequent dynamic range and impact that at times was quite startling. To check that this was not wholly a result of the ultra-low effective tip mass of the Soundsmith, the cartridge was replaced with the Hana and the same tracks played again. The swap confirmed that the Hana presents a slightly cooler tonal perspective on recordings, along with levels of detail, timing, and spatial information that are towards the top of what we have a right to expect from a moving coil design at its price point. Groove noise, largely a product of stylus jitter, was up – no moving coil can compete with moving iron in the effective tip mass stakes – but was still at a lower level than heard when the cartridge was mounted to two alternative arms.
Agile and LP12
Mark Baker says that Origin Live arms are agnostic about the turntable they are fitted to, and so to test this claim the Agile and Hana combination was transferred to the household’s low-spec LP12 using an Origin Live supplied Rega-mount armboard. The result was a little surprising. I had not expected the Agile to provide any mitigation of the Linn’s low-end colouration, and yet the impact of fitting the arm was plain to hear – teamed with the Agile, the LP12 gave a notably more neutral performance, transcribing Purcell’s Songs and Airs(L’Oisea Au-Lyre, DSDL 713) with less of the normally attendant warm over-wash. A best guess of where the credit for this improvement lies has to be that the Agile’s multiple layers of decoupling make it less prone to transferring energy from the arm pillar to the cartridge.
Emma Kirkby’s high register on the recording tends to cause some arm and cartridge combinations to suffer break-up distortion, and yet the Origin Live Agile and Hana simply breezed the challenge. On the track Hark! Hark! How All Things, the Agile maintained the bell-like sweet purity of Kirkby’s voice, right to the very top notes, delivering an overall highly satisfying performance that belied the rather humble turntable that it was now mounted on.
It had been an experiment just to test a point, but the result raised an interesting question: might we ignore conventional ratios and permanently use a £10,500 arm with a £2,000 turntable? Hearing what the Origin Live Agile can do in such a setting we might conclude that it’s not such a wholly daft proposition.