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Audio Origami PU7 and Uniarm tonearms

Audio Origami PU7 and Uniarm tonearms

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.

 

So then I unpacked the Uniarm. Audio Origami offers a standard matt silver, beadblasted, finish on its tonearms – the silky black anodised finish of the PU7 is an extra cost option. The Uniarm came in this standard finish and I have to say, much as I love the look of the black, the silver is so beautifully done I personally would be entirely happy to take either arm in this basic finish.

The Uniarm addresses some of the shortcomings of unipivot designs by machining the arm, with pivot bearing cutout, and headshell from one piece of aluminium (including the finger lift), for unimpeachable rigidity. Thus, a unipivot has the ability not only to trip along lightly with the best of them, but the potential to deliver scale, weight, and authority to boot. The pivot bearing is sapphire, seating into a tungsten cup. Audio Origami supply a small phial of sticky silicone damping fluid whose use is optional, but seems to aid stability.

Setup was barely more complicated than the procedure for the PU7, indeed the unipivot’s lack of need for azimuth adjustment more than offset the slightly tricky matter of aligning a cartridge in an arm with more degrees of freedom than a gimballed design. The Uniarm also comes with a very clever baseplate which replicates the Linn mount, and both types of Rega mount (threaded tube and three-hole) within the same, beautifully machined, collar. This will make it much easier to accommodate one’s arm on turntables of differing types (but, ironically perhaps, meant I needed an adaptor from Avid to convert from its standard SME mount).

Going back to the War of the Worlds, Richard Burton’s voice was more natural, still sonorous, but devoid of any hint of emphasis on any particular part of its frequency envelope. The opening theme, when it entered, still had that portentous feel, but with a lightness of touch, and a subtlety, I’d hitherto not noticed. The opening chords resolve a cadence where the last note is sustained. What I’d not noticed before was the subtle crescendo on that sustained note. It is there of course, when you go back, but to have it pointed out on music I’ve played to death over the years is enlightening. And enlightening is a very good way to describe how the Uniarm goes about its business, both in terms of the degree of insight and musicality it brings forth, and in the way the music seems so light on its feet.

Percussion, in particular, is lively, fast and detailed, with subtle inflections brought out to great effect. The closing section of Mike Oldfield’s Incantations [Virgin, VDT101] uses a repeated motif played on vibraphone, and for many years I’ve been trying to replicate a memory of hearing this piece on a friend’s top-end Linn LP12 back in the 1980s. The woody sonority of the vibraphone, the feeling of rhythmic solidity yet with a sense of ‘bounce’ has proven elusive. But here it was again, yet more than that, there was also an inflection on the off-beat which I had not been properly aware of. This extra pulse contributed to the momentum of the piece, keeping up a subtle pressure and driving the music forward.

Pitch and tunefulness are also exemplary, no doubt this is a corollary to the natural and unforced sense of timing the Uniarm allows. Music drives along when necessary, and it is propulsive without being relentless, while bass is both agile and tunefull. Dave Grusin’s Mountain Dance [Arista, GRP5010] skips along, yet is constantly underpinned by a repeating ostinato bass riff. It is easy to ignore the contribution this bass makes to the coherence of the piece, focussing instead on the piano and the effortlessly subtle percussion, but via the Uniarm this bass riff is just so darn tuneful it takes its rightful place at the heart of proceedings. Guitar and bass on Joni Mitchell’s ‘God must be a boogie man’ from Mingus [Asylum, K53091] explodes with a speed and precision which takes the breath away. Charles Ives’ A Symphony, New England Holidays [CBS, M42381] has all the scale, drama, dynamics and impact I could wish for, yet its complex timing is rendered intelligible, and tonal colour and subtle detail is beautifully expressed. I’ve heard criticism of the bass quality from unipivot designs in general, to the extent that unipivots are all about midrange and concede bass depth and weight to gimballed designs. Yet here was bass with utterly sufficient scale and weight, while remaining fluid and agile, and supporting rather than dragging down the music.

 

What the Uniarm does so effectively is allow the listener to perceive a piece’s gestalt while also presenting all the individual components without any suggestion of deconstructing it. This is closer to how you experience live music, being aware not only of the parts and their respective contributions, but most importantly, perceiving the music as a whole. Some systems throw detail in your face, but without enough precision (and context) to enable the listener to make sense of it all. This can be exciting (in the same way that plummeting down a snowy hillside on a tea tray would be exciting), but ultimately unsatisfying and fatiguing. The Uniarm’s remarkable resolving powers, coupled to its stability and timing precision, allows music to unfold naturally in front of the listener, and any drama is all in the performance, not the presentation. It’s been a while since I listened to a vinyl system which had me looking forward to getting home from work so I could play some music, and my music collection has also expanded in hitherto unexplored directions.

All of which makes the Uniarm’s £1,500 asking price look like a bargain. For me, it is the arm I’d take from this pairing, but there is also something very special about the PU7 which the Uniarm, for all its capabilities, doesn’t negate. The PU7 is a very grown up arm, it brings confidence, gravitas, and insight, yet isn’t afraid to get down and boogie with the best of them. It also offers more options in terms of configuration – length, effective mass, which may suit some cartridges better. The Uniarm is keen to make its mark. Like the PU7, it doesn’t draw attention to itself, preferring to let the music do the talking. And boy, does it communicate. Which of these two arms you ultimately prefer may well depend on what you are partnering it with, and what sort of music and presentation you are looking for. There are no winners or losers here, just two limbs of a very convincing argument.

Technical Specifications

Audio Origami PU7

Type: gimbal bearing phono pickup arm

Tonearm length: 239.3mm (Rega geometry, mount distance 222mm), 228.6mm (Linn geometry, mount distance 210.4mm)

Effective tonearm mass: 11g standard, configurable up to 20g

Offset angle: 23 degrees (Rega), 24.1 degrees (Linn)

Weight: (typical customer configuration) approximately 900g

Signal cable length: variable (typical 1.2m)

Price: £1,999 (standard specification); extra finishes and lengths at additional cost, by arrangement. As tested (9” length, black finish) £2,460

Audio Origami Uniarm

Type: unipivot, sapphire bearing pickup arm

Tonearm length: 239.3mm (Rega geometry, mount distance 222mm), 228.6mm (Linn geometry, mount distance 210.4mm)

Effective tonearm mass: 11g

Offset angle: 23 degrees (Rega), 24.1 degrees (Linn)

Weight: approximately 650g

Signal cable length:variable (typical 1.2m)

Price: £1,499 (standard specification); extra finishes at additional cost

Manufacturer: Audio Origami

Tel: +44 (0)7581 184189

URL: www.audioorigami.co.uk

Tags: FEATURED

By Steve Dickinson

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