The call was from the inestimable Johnnie Nilsen at Audio Origami in Glasgow, who wanted to tell me about his new tonearm, the Uniarm which, you won’t be surprised to learn, is a unipivot design. Johnnie is rightly proud of the reputation his established gimballed tonearm design, the PU7, has gained for itself. The Uniarm is his claim to a state of the art unipivot tonearm.
Not long after the call, two parcels arrived in fairly quick succession. The first contained an immaculate black Audio Origami PU7 tonearm, a distant descendant of the much-praised Syrinx PU3. The second, a lustrous silver Audio Origami Uniarm, an entirely new design that unipivot intended, Johnnie told me, to fill the gap left by the Naim Aro. Arriving first, the PU7 got to bear the brunt of my thumb-fingered ineptitude, but aided immeasurably by Johnnie’s excellent online video setup guide, the Avid Diva II, Ortofon 2M Blue, and PU7 were soon intimately acquainted and made beautiful music together. Johnnie also kindly sent me a Dynavector DV10X5 high-output moving coil cartridge, the better to do his arms justice. After a little acclimatisation using the Ortofon, the remainder of the listening done for this review took place with the Dynavector installed on each arm in turn.
The contribution a tonearm makes to turntable performance is one of those things people have opinions about. The Avid Diva II is a very good, if mechanically uncomplicated, turntable which achieves its performance through a first-rate bearing and careful engineering; when equipped with the ProJect Carbon tonearm, it puts in the sort of entertaining performance entirely consistent with its price - and one that is rather better than many of its peers. Replacing the tonearm with one costing four times as much, and more than the price of the turntable itself, probably doesn’t make all that much sense on paper, but the PU7 raises the performance of the Avid to a degree which was entirely unexpected. This, perhaps, reflects the fact that both companies take considerable care to get the fundamental engineering properly sorted.
Those familiar with the Syrinx will certainly recognise its DNA in the PU7, albeit I suspect they’d be hard-pressed to find any of the PU3’s flaws and foibles in the AO design. The PU7 might reasonably be thought of as a PU3, reimagined and reengineered to do things more consistently and reliably. That does, however, risk doing Audio Origami a disservice; the PU7 is far more than merely a reworked PU3, Johnnie has put a great deal of careful thought into this arm’s design and execution, reflected in the impeccable fit and finish, and the painstaking, perhaps even obsessive, attention to detail and quality. Some tonearms impress, or intimidate, visually through their sheer complexity. Not so with the PU7. It is undoubtedly a thing of great beauty, the elegant simplicity of line combining to produce a tonearm which easily justifies its cost in appearance alone. When you factor in the three weeks it takes Johnnie to complete an arm, the £2000 asking price starts to look like a bargain. When you hear it, any remaining doubts quickly evaporate.
Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances [RCA Red Seal, RL25098] is one of those regulars I pull out for occasions like this. With the PU7, the performance was quick, dynamic and confident. The arm gave a sense of calmness and security which left the ProJect arm sounding somewhat coarse and crude in comparison. In its own terms, the ProJect arm is fun, engaging and lively, but the PU7 concedes nothing in terms of pace, energy, and dynamics - it also brings a sense of scale and authority, which makes for a much more mature performance. Bass was solid and weighty with the instruments having an excellent sense of mass, but this wasn’t at the expense of detail; the PU7 is extremely insightful, illuminating inner detail and nuance with a nicely judged sense of balance. Despite its title, I tend to think of the Polovtsian Dances as an orchestral suite rather than a series of dances, but the PU7 brought a rhythmic integrity to the performance which rendered many parts considerably more dance-like.
Sometimes, even the most expensive and highly-engineered tonearms achieve degrees of solidity, security and consistency at the cost of a bluff bluntness which renders the performance a tad stolid, or a slight greying at the expense of tonal colour. Like a slightly imperious butler, such tonearms seem to radiate disapproval of your musical choice and render it up grudgingly. The PU7, in contrast, felt more like a new friend, keen to explore the outer reaches of my music collection. Thus encouraged, I put on Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds [CBS, 96000], another, er, warhorse which keeps getting trotted out partly because I find recorded speech so revealing. Richard Burton’s voice was rich and sonorous, with the arm providing a very good rendition of its distinctive timbre, the orchestral introduction had very good scale and pace, and excellent textures, tunefulness and inner detail. Despite the weight and mass, rhythmically, there was plenty of movement and forward motion, with a real sense of the percussion setting to work.
And so it went on, the PU7 adding a sense of purposeful control and authority, without any suggestion that the control was achieved by constraint. If it eschews a ‘look at me’ aesthetic, it also spurns any ‘listen to me’ approach to music making; its contribution to the performance is discreet, yet fundamental, detail and expressiveness is abundant, without being thrown in your face, and nuance goes hand in hand with weight and scale. A neat trick. Equipped with the PU7, the Avid turntable put in a performance I’d hitherto had no inkling it was capable of, despite having heard Avid TTs with different and costly arms in other circumstances.