Introduced in 1983 to wide acclaim, the Rega RB300 was arguably the world’s first truly modern tonearm – sporting a straight pipe, tapered tube with integral headshell, high quality bearings and a small tungsten counterweight for just £90. Its brilliance was such that its natural rivals were the Linn Ittok LVII and Syrinx PU3, costing three times as much; it wasn’t better than these, but did better them in some ways, which was a staggering achievement. What then followed was fifteen years of ubiquity; the arm just sold and sold and sold, ending up on practically every turntable on sale, from Michells to Pink Triangles to Roksans – plus of course it came as standard fitment to the Planar 3 for which it was frankly far too good!
Nevertheless, there were always doubters. In some ways, yes, the new arm was dramatically superior – its focus, detail, grip and image placement was superb. But the music didn’t flow as well, suddenly lacking that lovely lyrical quality associated with the LP disc. It soundstaging seemed narrower; possibly because the R200 was so vague and euphonic, but still there was less scale, less warmth and less musicality. Companies duly started doing aftermarket mods, particularly the tonearm wiring which Rega always rather disingenuously claimed to be excellent. Rewired RB300s did sound better, but it wasn’t until Mark Baker from Origin Live got his claws into one that the arm took on a new life, in the late nineties. His structural modification, which involved replacing the resonant end stub, made a huge difference, bringing a far more natural and musical sound; suddenly the arm truly took off.
Fifteen years of modded Regas followed, with a number of companies turning out great products at an affordable price. For a while Origin Live built a range of arms from the Rega platform; the higher priced the model, the less of the original RB300 could be seen! But Mark Baker slowly evolved the Rega arm ‘out’ of his arms, and eventually there were no shared components at all in any except the entry level OL 1. Even the £600 Silver, which has started as an obvious RB250 variant, had become an entirely new product by the time I reviewed the 3c. All that was needed now was an OL1 replacement.
“There are a number of considerations on why a complete replacement became the right thing to do,” Mark Baker told me. “Firstly, for reasons outside our control, the base was supplied as a three-point mounting and this was universally frowned upon as it makes accurate VTA adjustment a major pain…” Origin Live could have sub-contracted production to low wage countries, but choose to manufacture all parts itself, which is expensive in the UK but allows absolute control in terms of quality and correct specification of alloys, Baker says.
The secret of the Onyx (£450 at launch) lies in its “careful choice of materials” that are less expensive to work with than those at the top of the range. For example, the rear stub uses stainless steel rather than ultra hard steel alloy that needs to be polished, sent for hardening then repolished and sent for plating. Similarly the counterweight was manufactured from stainless instead of the more costly material we normally use. Also the counterweight has a rubber O-ring to enable a friction slide on the rear stub instead of the superior hard clamping employed on the upper arms (which would also indent stainless steel), Mark Baker told me.
“The armtube is a high grade aircraft alloy with special internal profiling to reduce ringing effects.This is largely modelled on the extensive research carried out in the development of the early Silver arm which left no stone unturned in terms of alloys. The headshell is black acrylic, chosen for its inert nature and low cost”, he adds. “The Yoke is no longer a soft cast aluminium as used on the OL1 but rather a much harder and more substantial affair in which the vertical bearings are housed. The bearings are conventional ball bearings manufactured to our own low friction specification”.
The base of the arm is a drop-in replacement for all Rega arms, which is “dead easy to fit and adjust without any complication” thanks to its identical geometry with Rega arms, and there’s an adaptor plate that caters for SMEs. The Onyx also fits LP12s with a pre-drilled Origin Live armboard specifically tailored for it. The Onyx base has the added advantage of a built in threaded VTA adjustment. Wiring is said to be a “high grade litz” type internally and the same external wire shared by all our arms up to the Conqueror.
The arm is well finished and nicely put together; it certainly doesn’t have an air of cheapness about it, reminding me in a way of the Linn Akito in its general neatness and feel. Although there are the typical Origin Live gripes; the hanging weight bias adjuster arrangement isn’t as neat as the Rega’s internal spring design, although I am sure Mark Baker would claim it sounds better. Also, the packaging is very average and the instructions thorough but rather hard work to read; it’s all forgivable at the price but others do better in these respects. With its standard ‘old’ Rega circular mounting, it proved a breeze to fit to my Technics SL-1210 with Origin Live Rega armboard.
Having heard umpteen Rega variants on the Technics SL-1200, including a fairly recent specimen of Origin Live’s own OL1 (which the Onyx replaces), it was fascinating to hear the near arm. I kicked off with Blondie’s Hanging on the Telephone, a classic slice of late seventies new wave, and it proved a great way in to understanding the Onyx. Immediately my attention was drawn to Debbie Harry’s sublime vocals, which sounded particularly natural and lyrical. The arm seemed very strong at conveying not just the timbre of her voice but the timing; the way that her vocal inflections worked with the snare drums and guitars was interesting to say the least, and not something I got from the more ‘matter of fact Rega-based OL 1. The latter seemed more mechanical and rigid in its approach, with a feeling of being slightly more constrained.
The Buggles’ Elstree was another ear opener; being a Trevor Horn production (and indeed composition) it’s full of little studio effects which the OL 1 would highlight in a highly conscientious way. The Onyx however, seemed more locked into the lead keyboard line and the vocals, apparently better able to carry the tune. I’m not sure if it was quite as precise in terms of its imaging, but the soundstage seemed a little wider from left to right, and elements of the mix appeared bigger and more tangible, if perhaps slightly more diffuse. There seemed to be a little more stage depth too from the Onyx, making the Rega-based arm feel rather two dimensional.
Bass was supple and bouncy in a way that the OL 1 never was. The latter seemed drier when playing a 12″ single of De La Soul’s A Roller Skating Jam named “Saturdays’. This is an infectious pop flavoured piece of hip-hop with a great drum and bass line, the beats heavily syncopated with the vocals. The Onyx revelled in this track, showing a carefree nature that’s closer in spirit to the SME M1 or Hadcock GH-242 tonearm than the Rega; the OL 1 always sounded frigid on music like this, failing to really get into the groove. Instead, it dutifully retrieved all the low level detail and delivered the bass in a grippy, determined way, but never seemed to be having fun.
Spring from a Deutsche Gramophon imprint of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons pretty much crystallised the Onyx’s character for me. Even on the relatively analytical Technics, the recording came over with real warmth and a tangible, almost ‘touchable’ quality that the OL 1 never had. The latter always seemed like a highly accurate ‘field observer’ by comparison, dispassionately recording events for others to interpret; whereas the Onyx got right into the fray of the musical event more and had some fun. I was pleased with its timbral accuracy; violins sounded like real instruments rather than digital facsimiles and cellos had just that bit more body.
There’s been something of a tyranny of Rega-based arms in the budget sector for too long. The reason for this is simple – they’re blooming good, and can be made better still, cheaply. But even when expertly modified they never lose that Rega sound completely, which as anyone who’s ever owned one will know is rather ‘mechanical’ and ‘matter of fact’. The Origin Live Onyx however, finally takes you out of this budget tonearm ‘honey trap’ altogether – and so you get a completely different sort of presentation for your money. Whether you like it of course is subjective, but on most types of music I personally found it preferable.
Put simply, it sounds more musical. So those who want a more cerebral, ‘technical’ presentation of their black plastic should choose a Rega variant, but I feel there will be large numbers of buyers who’d prefer the Onyx, thanks to its more naturally organic character – especially on decks such as the Technics. Until now, such folk have had to fork out for the SME M2-9 to get this sort of sound. The Onyx offers most of this arm’s charms for considerably less, which of course is a lot of money towards a good moving coil cartridge. This bespoke pickup arm represents excellent value for money and comes highly recommended.