Origin Live Calypso Turntable (Hi-Fi+)

Origin Live Calypso
Origin Live Calypso Turntable (Hi-Fi+)

Origin Live’s Calypso is an updated version of the Aurora Gold - a turntable I’ve been using for a couple of years now. It’s broadly similar in concept, but has a new motor housing, different belt and platter, better main bearing, and an improved chassis. In other words, much the same but completely different!

I like the Aurora Gold very much, and have few complaints about its performance. The new turntable has a similar ‘skeletal’ type chassis, but the Calypso has been beefed up at a couple of points and has better decoupling. The motor – a DC type – remains the same, but the housing is much bigger and more solid. The platter is made from a different material. Like the Aurora Gold, it’s Acrylic but apparently what’s called a ‘loaded Acryclic’. Origin Live are being a bit secretive about the exact material but it has a smoother, shinier surface than normal acrylic, and looks a little like imitation marble. Designer Mark Baker tells me that it isn’t the main reason for the Calypso’s improved sound anyway. That’s down to a combination of factors, of which the platter is just one. For example, the way the belt drives the platter is very important. The Aurora Gold featured a main platter that sat on a smaller a sub-platter, driven by a flat belt. The Calypso has a round belt, and the platter is driven from its outside edge. The motor now runs at a higher rotational speed, and Mark reckons having the belt around the outside gives extra drive and ‘leverage’.

The usual 33/45rpm speeds are offered, with fine speed adjustment. Because the motor is housed in a separate outboard assembly, there’s a degree of choice regarding the placement of the motor in relation to the platter. While Origin Live claims that performance is not broadly affected, there are some differences. Moving the motor further away increases belt tension and (depending on how tight the belt is stretched) reduces platter speed slightly. Origin Live recommend having the motor about 214mm to 221mm from the centre bearing, but say a little deviation from this is not critical for sound quality. The belt is a made from another material Mark would rather not specify. It’s quite a bit stiffer and less stretchy than Nitrile and is spliced, as it is impossible to get a one-piece belt made in this material.

The new turntable has a thicker main spindle, and this works very well with the special lubricating oil used, creating a low friction, exceptionally low-noise bearing. Apparently the effect is as though the bearing walls were floating in an oil bath, yet properly ‘grounded’ on the point of rotation. The bearing takes a few seconds to bed-down as the oil is pushed out of the way. The tolerance here is claimed to be 0.00001”, and it takes about ten minutes for the bearing to settle down and run in.

When fully run in and full of oil, the bearing is near-silent. This perhaps explains the ‘quietness’ of the Calypso; its low noise floor and clean definition during quiet passages. Surface noise and vinyl roar are very low, and this (added to the increased dynamics) seems to create a stronger, cleaner, more noisefree end-result.

The sub-chassis is pre-adjusted at the factory, and it’s not recommended that you change the various settings. For example, some bolts are deliberately left slightly loose to create a bit of decoupling. The whole design is carefully tuned, and performance is degraded if you thoughtlessly tighten everything up.

Mark Baker is the sort of designer who tries lots of alternatives; shapes, sizes, materials - he listens carefully to them all. His designs are based on scientific principles, but the ear is always the final arbiter. He’s been making turntables for over twentyfive years now, and his products are highly refined. All of which sounds very promising. But, what might the Calypso offer in terms of improvements over the Aurora Gold? I was supplied with the turntable on its own, the idea being to use the Origin Live arm and Transfiguration cartridge I have on my existing Aurora Gold with the new one. Later on, I tried Lyra’s Argo cartridge. The deck is very easy to set up, and once set up it should not need tweaking. Once you’ve levelled the chassis, set the arm height, and dressed the arm cable, you’re 75% of the way there.

But, first things first. Before starting on the new turntable, I sat down and listened carefully to the old one, choosing a 1960s DG recording of Mozart’s Piano concerto No 15 with Geza Anda as soloist/conductor. It’s a good ‘average’ sort of recording – smooth, well balanced, and clean, but hardly a ‘reference’ disc in terms of sonics. I only intended to sample five or ten minutes, but ended up listening to the whole work. I didn’t want the music to stop. The sound was beautifully warm and nicely ‘distanced’, exuding a smooth almost sensuous quality. There was plenty of detail to catch the ear, but what struck me most was the effortless ease of the sound.

The Calypso was going to have its work cut out to better this, I thought. Anyway, the tonearm was duly swapped, and listening began again. I deliberately kept amplifier volume levels unchanged, and played the same disc. Tonally, the sound was slightly brighter and more forward, with a touch more detail and presence. It seemed a shade louder too, and dynamic extremes were wider.

Climaxes definitely seemed to project more forcibly, creating a sound with greater forwardness and immediacy. In most respects it was an improvement on what I’d just heard with the Aurora Gold - though I did slightly miss the latter’s beguiling sweetness and ease. That acknowledged, Geza Anda’s performance (via the Calypso) sounded more engaged and committed. The playing seemed to have a greater expressive range, with far more tonal shading, and a broader range of dynamics. I previously said the recording was a good ‘average’; suddenly, it was sounding quite a bit better than that.

Nevertheless, after trying a few more discs, I felt the top-end was perhaps a little too sharp, and experimented with vta, lowering the arm slightly. After a bit of trial and error, the tonal balance seemed smother and more even – the upper treble less exposed. The Calypso was starting to assert itself. All the major benefits – improved focus and better control - were there from the off, but what about the relaxed ease and smoothness of the Aurora Gold? You can’t always have you cake and eat it, but after making a few more adjustments, the new deck began to show its mettle.

Without question, the Calypso gives increased fine detail and tonal colour. It produces a far more precise sound than the Aurora Gold. Not in the clinical sense of the word, but in terms of keeping everything together and properly separated. The new deck was perhaps not quite as mellifluous as the old, but in every other aspect it was superior.

Staying with Mozart, I sampled several different recordings of his Violin Concerto No 2, and was impressed by the way the turntable focused the solo instrument. There’s a bit in the finale – a couple of minutes in – where the solo part suddenly enters the minor key. It’s one of those special magical moments. By Mozartian standards, the second violin concerto is not among its composer’s greatest masterpieces. It’s a lovely pleasant piece, but it isn’t music that shakes the world. Yet that sudden lurch to the minor key is a brief moment of genius. I always get goose bumps when I hear it. It’s so unexpected… Via the Calypso, I was able to hear clearly how the different soloists responded to this passage; some dramatically, others self-consciously. But, you could always tell that each player registered this moment as a musical turning point. I felt I could hear every little nuance of phrasing and dynamics, while tonally the individuality of the soloist was very pronounced. The sound had a CD-like precision and focus, but went further in terms of tonal colouring and subtle-shaded micro dynamics. The music had greater forward momentum and scale, too. Via the Calypso, music sounds crisp and focused, with bags of individuality and presence, one got a much clearer idea of the various instruments occupying a defined space in the hall, with a better impression of ambience. I ended up sampling four or five different recordings, and was impressed by the distinct individuality of the playing (and sound) in each case.

So far so good, but one important area where CD does have a big advantage over LP is speed (pitch) stability. Providing the original source recordings are stable, CD does not add wow and flutter. Speaking personally, I’m very sensitive to variations in speed, and in this respect the Calypso wasn’t always as rock-steady as I’d have liked. There are several points to bear in mind here. The first is that individuals vary in their sensitivity to wow. In my experience, most listeners are not overly sensitive to this problem unless it’s pretty obvious. The second is that an LP needs to be pressed absolutely concentrically to produce perfectly stable pitch. If it’s pressed off-centre (and probably 7 out of 10 discs are at least slightly off) you’ll risk hearing wow – even if the turntable and original recording are perfect. The third is that small variations in pitch can sometimes occur naturally - even in all digital recordings off CD. People play out of tune, and instruments go out of tune.

Playing the Geza Anda LP recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15, I was aware that the pitch was not 100% steady. So, I got out the CD and played that. Guess what? It wasn’t 100% stable either! However, it was better than the LP via the Calypso – and the Aurora too for that matter. I think it’s possible that the combination of a turntable with slight wow, and a recording with some inherent wow (or perhaps a pressing that’s off centre), have an additive effect, whereby two small problems combine to make a bigger one. But I’m still unsure as to how critical one can be of any turntable on this point.

A phone call to Origin Live resulted in a revised motor unit being sent. With this in place, the Calypso sounded far more stable. The new motor made a big difference, and reduced the problem by a significant degree. There was still the odd ‘twinge’ now and then, but overall things sounded noticeably more secure. Analogue LP is never going to be as pitch-perfect as digital CD, and you have to accept that. But, with a good deck, it can be extremely good. Incidentally, my wife (who used to be a professional musician and has a good ear) could not detect any speed variation, and half-suggested I was imagining it!

She did, however, notice the various strengths of the Calypso, and pointed out (more than once) how much better it sounded than CD – and even SACD come to that. I have to agree. Using Transfiguration’s Temper W cartridge, I was consistently entranced by the combination of crisp fine detail, and smooth relaxed ease. The bass sounded very full yet clear, and bass lines have weight and power, while retaining plenty of articulation. A good source component always gives the impression that instruments and voices are separate and individual – able to do their own thing, without being affected by other voices and instruments.

The Calypso sounded very cohesive and ‘together’. Voices and instruments were kept well separated and retained their individuality, but it always sounded like everyone was playing together. It wasn’t like the music was being pulled apart and split into different unrelated sections. Surface noise is very low, and the Calypso gives quiet inky-black backgrounds.

Sound quality is a relative (rather than an absolute) thing. It’s all about having your expectations fulfilled, rather than achieving an arbitrary standard. Certainly, while listening to the Origin Live at its best I thought, “It doesn’t get much better than this.” But that’s a dangerous thing to say, given that the Calypso isn’t even OL’s top model.

Indeed, I’d actually be slightly worried about having a turntable that did sound significantly better than this. It might mean I no longer wanted to listen to CD or SACD ever again. And that would never do…

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