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Origin Live Conqueror MK3c Tonearm
by David McCallum

In the spring of 2011 I wrote a review of the excellent Origin Live Calypso turntable with the equally striking Encounter MK3C Tonearm. I spent a good number of months with both products and was thoroughly impressed with what I heard – so much so that after the review I asked Origin Live’s principle owner and designer Mark Baker if I could set up the combination for The Inner Ear's editor Ernie Fisher for an extended run of additional listening.

As the year reached its end, I contacted Mark about sending back the demo table and arm. However, after a brief conversation, rather than returning the whole kit, Mark suggested we up the ante and offered to send an upgraded tonearm to be paired with the same Calypso table. His recommendation was the Conqueror MK3C.

Tech Stuff
In my 2011 review I wrote technical sections for both the Calypso turntable and the Encounter MK3C tonearm. Origin Live also maintains an excellent website that’s full of useful technical information about all aspects of their analogue products, and I would encourage any reader to spend time referencing their System Philosophy and Upgrading Brochure, as well as their Tonearm Overview. I’ve included a few details that stood out about the Conqueror, and asked Mark Baker for some additional comments.

Like the Encounter MK3C, the Conqueror MK3C is a dual pivot bearing design, a hallmark of the upper range of Origin Live tonearms. However, the Conqueror offers improvements in a number of key areas:

It includes a more advanced Hybrid arm tube composed of five materials designed to improve dampening or energy dissipation, which improves transparency, dynamics and bass performance. Origin Live has spent the better part of 20 years developing their composite arm tube. Understandably Mark wouldn’t elaborate on the materials used, but the design of the arm tube is clearly something they are proud of.

The Conqueror utilizes ultra low friction dual pivot bearings aimed at increasing clarity and high frequency performance, along with floating vertical bearings that decouple the arm tube from the turntable, preventing vibrations and unwanted energy from adding color to the sound. Also included is a high strength aircraft alloy headshell along with an external Linear Flow 2 arm cable, fully balanced and 95% shielded. In comparison to the Encounter MK3C, there is a noticeable difference in mass (950g vs. 570g). The increased mass is due to higher density alloys being used in the arm yoke and base. Regarding the additional mass, Mark commented that in the right place, mass has the effect of adding inertia, which in turn affects dynamics throughout the frequency range, extending the bass and adding power, weight and definition. The Conqueror also has a heavier effective mass of 14g, up from the Encounter’s12g. All other basic technical arm attributes remain the same.

Effective length (240 mm), overhang (17.24 mm), offset angle (23 degrees), mounting distance from the platter centre to arm hole centre (223 mm) diameter of mounting hole (24 - 25 mm), size of base mounting nut (32mm A/F), maximum arm board thickness (27mm), length of external cable (1.2m), 2m capacitance in pF (130 pF per channel), capacitance in pF for linear flow 2 cable (340 pF per channel) resistance in Ohms (0.002 ohms).

A Note on Tonearm Compliance
Prior to the Conqueror review, I had been doing my own research on cartridge compliance and the relationships amongst a tonearm’s effective mass, a cartridge’s compliance and the resulting resonance frequency that any cartridge and tonearm combination produces. In the midst of the research, I asked Mark his opinion and if he could offer some words on Origin Live’s philosophy on cartridge and tonearm compatibility. He responded that he didn’t consider it to be a concern, mentioning that he gets asked all the time about compliance and cartridge matching and the advice he gives is to ignore compliance — in a low friction, stiff, low resonance, well designed arm it is not an issue — in other words compliance is well down the scale of significant factors to the point of irrelevance in a good arm.

Mark’s response was particularly relevant as I planned out the details of my review. My intention was to use two cartridges, a Dynavector DV XX2 MKII and a Koetsu Urushi Vermillion with a Signature Platinum upgrade. Of the two cartridges one offers a good compliance match with the Conqueror (Dynavector) and one doesn’t (Koetsu). The last thing I asked Mark was to articulate what he is most proud of about the Conqueror MK3C – it is after all one of his top arms. He replied that he doesn’t want to try and sell his products based on technical specifications:

“The trouble is that if people make decisions based on a technical specification or even fine sounding technical arguments, it can be hopelessly misleading — I know it's not very exciting to write about, but I tend to pay a lot of attention to what stuff sounds like and have theories as to why stuff performs the way it does. For example why does a 4mm diameter bolt generally sound better than a 5mm diameter bolt and a 3mm diameter bolt? Not very exciting to write about and most of the countless hours of development that go into our arms would be lost as attention to every detail is mind-bogglingly tedious.”

Arm Set-up and Configuration
I tested the Conqueror MK3C on two turntables with two cartridges. The first table was the Origin Live Calypso turntable used in last year’s review, and the second was a vintage Garrard 401 restored by Matthew Taylor at Audio Grail in Devon, U.K. The plinth for the Garrard was designed and built by Russ Collinson at Layers of Beauty in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, U.K. The custom cherry plinth has interchangeable arm boards and mounting the Origin Live tonearm onto a Rega arm board cut-out worked perfectly.

Setting up the Conqueror MK3C on the Calypso turntable is fairly simple. The table includes an attached arm board with a Rega-style mounting hole. The tonearm base and cable thread through the mounting hole and clamp under the arm board via a screw-style clamp. Once attached to the table there is a clip that can be attached underneath the table in order to secure the tonearm wire, while the arm swings freely on the arm board until the mounting screw is secured tight. The installation instruction booklet included with the arm suggests that the clamp be tightened a comfortable amount using only your hand.
Once secured to the arm board, a threaded arm base allows for vertical tracking angle adjustment (VTA). The vertical tracking force is adjusted via a combination rear counterweight and smaller fine adjuster that is attached to the counterweight. Antiskate (or side bias) adjustment can be controlled by a pair of threaded silver balls — one ball attaches to the tonearm while the other, connected via a thin tread, sweeps over a wire loop. There are no measurements or dials for either Antiskate or VTF adjustments. Similar to the Encounter MK3C tonearm, azimuth is set at the factory and adjustment isn’t recommended.

Mounting the arm onto the Garrard turntable was also simple. The Garrard’s custom plinth includes multiple arm board cutouts, including a 9” Rega board. The only real difference was the original mounting position — the arm needed to sit much higher on the arm board in order to accommodate the height of the Garrard platter.

The two cartridges used for testing included a rebuilt Dynavector DVXX2 with a new MKII body, and a Koetsu Urushi Vermillion with Koetsu’s Signature Platinum upgrade. The Dynavector was used on both the Calypso and Garrard table, while the Koetsu was used exclusively with the Garrard 401.

Subjective Analysis
For the first week, with the arm mounted onto the Origin Live Calypso table with the Dynavector cartridge, I spent most of my time listening to folk, modern rock and jazz music: Wilco, Fleet Foxes, Leonard Cohen, Radiohead, Nico Case, Miles Davis, Charlie Byrd, Stan Getz, and Wes Montgomery all made their way onto the table. While I was mostly listening to tunes I knew well, Andrew Bird’s new album Break It Yourself and Patricia Barber’s Cole Porter Mix were both given their first listen with the Conqueror, Calypso & Dynavector combination.

My initial impressions of the arm with the Origin Live table and Dynavector cartridge were positive. I heard a lot of detail with excellent high frequency extension, while lower bass and percussion also sounded strong. I noted a perceived improvement in clarity compared to my time the previous year with the Encounter MK3C tonearm, and thought there was definitely something good happening with this first configuration.

After about two weeks, as my listening became more serious and I started to write down some notes on what I was hearing, I ended up switching musical genres, transitioning to classical music. Three pieces ended up playing a significant role in my testing and comparative analysis: Ravel’s Bolero, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2 and Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. These albums became reference pieces for the three previously mentioned set-up configurations.
The Conqueror spent about a month on the Calypso table before I changed over to my second set-up. Using the same Dynavector DVXX2 cartridge, I mounted the Conqueror onto my Garrard 401. With this second configuration, curiously little in the overall sound changed. The two tables are very different in style and technology; the Garrard 401 uses an old idler drive design and the Origin Live a contemporary belt design. However, the performance seemed quite similar. I wondered if the sound was a little muddier on the Garrard than it was on the Calypso, and or if perhaps the bass was a bit more robust on the Garrard, but I didn’t feel completely confident in either observation. After these first two configurations, I hesitated to draw any substantial conclusions about one set up being better than the other. With the Conqueror tonearm, they were both good.

Allow me a brief digression before I tell you how things sounded when I switched over to the Koetsu cartridge. You see, I have a love-hate relationship with my Koetsu and have often considered replacing it. Sometimes it sounds great, sometimes it sounds downright awful. I find it fussy to set up, it doesn’t always track inside the groove well, and I’m often mentally thrown out of listening sessions as I lose faith in what I’m hearing. As I mentioned above, the low compliance Koetsu cartridge also happens to be a technically poor match for the Conqueror tone arm.

Put all that aside — with the Conqueror tonearm mounted on my Garrard table, the Koetsu left me speechless. The combination produced the most engaging, musically satisfying vinyl listening experience I’ve ever had in my home. As I suggested earlier, there are times when you can throw compliance numbers out the window, and the performance of the low compliance Koetsu cartridge mated with the medium mass Conqueror tonearm proves this point for me.
With this third and final configuration, my system reached a new high in its musical performance level. After listening to the three reference classical pieces, I went back through most of my original folk, rock and jazz selections, spending hours re-listening to the albums with nary a flaw to be heard. I could not detect any trace of record tracking problems or distortion, and for the first time in a long while I was able to remain fully immersed in the music.

I’ve now spent between 60 and 80 hours listening to Origin Live’s Conqueror MK3C tonearm. After that time my primary observation relates to musical coherence and how everything just fits together. I find myself thinking about how we aren’t supposed to take music apart when listening, breaking the compositions down into small pieces. For reviewers, the first and easiest instinct is to dissect in order to describe what we hear when listening. Bass, treble, midrange, dynamics, power, smooth, clinical, engaging, musical, warm, detailed… These are all words one might use to describe sound. However, unless you’re trying to learn an instrument or compose your own song, I don’t believe our first point of engagement with music is with its individual parts. Rather, we engage with it as a whole. The Conqueror tonearm plays music coherently. Good music sounds beautiful. Good music that’s also been recorded well sounds spectacular. The Conqueror MK3C performed well in all three configurations and with both cartridges. I’m impressed by the arm’s flexibility, ease of set up and most importantly its sound.

Summary Thoughts
I’m suspicious that this particular review started out as a challenge, that after reading my original review of the Origin Live Calypso and Encounter combination, Mark Baker was curious to see how I would respond to one of his top arms. I must admit the Conqueror has surprised me. I expected to hear a good arm, and perhaps an improvement from what I heard with the original Origin Live pairing. However I didn’t expect to hear great — the Conqueror MK3c is a great tonearm. It has established a new benchmark for me in analogue performance. It’s products like this one that keep me enthusiastic about my Hi-Fi hobby.
There’s no doubt. Four full notes.

Music selections used for review:
Ravel’s Bolero
Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2
Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez

Conqueror MK3c Tonearm - $3,700.00 USD
Origin Live, UK
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