Audio Origami PU7 Tonearm
by Roy Gregory | April 23, 2015
© www.theaudiobeat.comIf Audio Origami s nomenclature evokes a dull echo somewhere in the deep recesses of your memory banks, seeing it in the flesh might well seem like déjà vu. Back in the day, when real turntables came from Scotland and they all carried Ittoks, more enlightened audiophiles (or just those who saw themselves as different, independent or free thinkers) sandwiched a Syrinx PU3 between their Asak and the rest of their Linn/Naim system. While Linn were based in Glasgow, all working class and heavy industry, Syrinx were based in Edinburgh's the rather more effete atmosphere, with its academic associations and old-moneyed, Royal heritage. If Linns products eliminated unnecessary fripperies (like azimuth) in the pursuit of an almost Puritan simplicity, imposing mechanical integrity with the long arm of an Allen key, the PU3 was a study in fundamental engineering theory and elegant execution. I suspect that Ivor would have condemned it as, "too %$#&*@ clever for its own good," a judgment thats not entirely wide of the mark.
The Syrinx 'arm was built around a wide cylindrical bearing housing that allowed for considerable pre-load on its gimbal races. The armtube was machined into a subtle cigar shape for added stiffness and attached to the bearing assembly via an incredibly fine-pitch thread, secured with an external collet. Loosening the collet and turning the armtube along its thread allowed you to set both overhang and azimuth with considerable precision. The finer the thread the more rigid the coupling -- and Syrinx used an incredibly fine thread. The counterweight was locked using a similarly fine-pitched thumbwheel while the 'arm height was locked by yet another collet. Once everything was locked down, the result was a seriously solid and stable platform for your cartridge -- and one of the best-sounding 'arms then available. At least it was as long as it worked, with reliability issues dogging the design throughout its life.
Outwardly at least, Audio Origamis PU7 owes more than a little to its predecessor. Now hailing from Glasgow, its close enough in overall appearance to have you doing a double take, but once you look a little closer, you realize that, whilst there are indeed common threads to the two designs, the PU7 is more of a hybrid, blending the simplicity and reliability of the Linn ethos with some of the thinking and the adjustability that went into the PU3. The thing that rings all the bells is the Audio Origamis cylindrical bearing housing, supporting a hollow "stub" that accepts the armtube. The tube itself appears to dispense with the cigar shaping of the PU3 along with its fine-threaded interface, instead being located by a socket and a pair of small Allen screws. Overhang is handled using a conventional slotted headshell, its larger platform being one of the main visual differences that separates the '7 from the '3. The counterweight is also more conventional, a thick, solid puck that slides on a smooth stub and is locked in place with another grub screw. The 'arm height is set using a standard post-and-collar arrangement and yet another grub screw, with bias applied through a simple falling weight attached to a large diameter pulley, which is, once again, strongly reminiscent of the PU3.
To some extent the PU3 was undoubtedly a victim of its own engineering, with users (and dealers) unfamiliar with its collet fixing and brought up on the "it can never be too tight" philosophy current at the time, confused by the finger lock arrangements. Overtightening them led to frequent bearing damage and thus the reliability woes. By reverting to more familiar practice, the Audio Origami avoids those issues. Setup and alignment are a model of intuitive clarity -- and if you are in any doubt, theres an excellent video setup guide on the company's website.
So far so good, but hardly groundbreaking when compared to the exotic materials and disparate bearing types cropping up all over the analog world. But a lot of what makes the PU7 so special isnt obvious to the naked eye. What might seem like nothing more than a simpler iteration of some old tonearm is actually anything but. The absence of collet fixings tells you that the PU7 is very much its own 'arm, not a PU3 redux, while fans of gimbal-bearing 'arms will tell you that bearing quality is the make-or-break factor in their performance.
The large-diameter bearings used in the PU7 are hand-built, dry-running stainless-steel units sourced from Japan, in place of the chromed versions used by Syrinx. Their even expansion and resistance to corrosion play a huge part in the 'arms consistency and imperviousness to environmental factors like temperature and humidity. The armtube is not the simple pipe it appears to be. It actually retains the cigar profile of the PU3, but inverts it so that the tapers are on the inside. By varying the wall thickness and internal foam damping, Audio Origami can tune the effective mass and mechanical characteristics of the 'arm, while the simplicity of the fixings is both a practical consideration and a reflection of the 'arms hand-built nature, a constructional model that imbues it with a few unusual features.
For starters, you can order a PU7 with a 9" or a 12" effective length, as well as specifying effective mass (from 9 to 20 grams) and various different counterweights. You can also specify Linn or Rega geometry (the latter collar mating with original one-bolt or later three-bolt fixings), hard-wired leads or a five-pin termination on the base, as well as armtubes and bell housings in a choice of either brass or alloy. And thats before you get to finish options, cable choices and custom colors. Of course, all these things cost money: a standard 9", matte-finished 'arm like the one reviewed, but fitted with Cardas internal wire and a fixed OFC lead-out will cost you £1999, while the anything-goes Deluxe Signature Model, giving you free reign over all available options, including 14K gold or chrome plating will set you back £3500 -- getting on for double the price.
My only practical reservation with the review sample involved the five-pin connector on the 'arms base. Designed to accept the standard IEJ five-pin plug (as used by Linn, SME, Jelco and a host of other manufacturers over the years) this PU7 is unusual in that it dispenses with the normal collar and locating slot that ensure that you orient the plug correctly for connection, and protect it from side loading. I say "this PU7" because this isnt a standard arrangement but one that was specified specifically for this 'arm by another reviewer. Normally, Rega-based 'arms are supplied with captive leads, while those with Linn-type collars that choose the option of a detachable lead also feature the normal collar-and-slot arrangement to locate and support the connection. Their absence in this case is a function of the 'arms narrow-diameter post, necessary to allow a collar-and-post arrangement thats compatible with a Rega mount, but it means that tables that dont anchor the 'arm lead at its exit from the plinth leave it vulnerable to accidental disconnection or even violent removal (with a less-than-positive impact on those delicate pins) if something or someone accidentally tugs on the cable. Thats why it is not an arrangement that Audio Origami promotes or recommends, although it does underline the companys willingness to respond to individual requirements. If I were using this PU7 long term, Id definitely be taking the simple precaution of ensuring that the 'arm lead was firmly clamped to the plinth, using a P-clip or twin-screw clamping bar, to avoid any risk of accidental dislocation or decapitation.
Given the range of options available, the facility for user input and the flexibility of the manufacturers response, what we have here is a bespoke service, supplying high-quality gimbal-bearing tonearms -- a type thats become increasingly rare -- that can be matched to the performance requirements, preferred geometry, mechanical characteristics and aesthetics of your cartridge and record deck. The only stock parts are the Rega armrest and lift-lower device, but again, thats a common theme these days and theres no denying the purposeful elegance of the review sample. Much as I loved my various PU3s, I wish theyd been as consistent, reliable and beautifully put together as this 'arm.
A perfectly built gimbal-bearing tonearm should give you wonderfully contradictory tactile sensations. It should feel incredibly solid and yet move with a silky smoothness. I remember the great Jimmy Hughes demonstrating his acid test for bearing quality -- in that case with a Breuer Type 8. Holding the 'arm by the bearing housing with no counterweight fitted, he let the headshell hang, suspended vertically below it. (Dont try this with a unipivot!) He then gently -- when it comes to 'arms with gimbal bearings, do everything gently -- started to move the bearing housing in small, horizontal circles, watching how accurately the movement of the headshell, mimicked and magnified that movement. Try it with a few different 'arms and its remarkable what flattened, squared off or misshapen paths their headshells trace. Not the Breuer, which scribed perfect, smooth circles in the air, just like a figure skater on ice -- and just like the PU7. This 'arm feels like a beautifully engineered 'arm and it behaves like one too.
Despite the availability of different counterweights, the supplied example proved beautifully judged, happily balancing cartridges as diverse as the Allnic Puritas, the Lyra Dorian and the (17-gram!) Kuzma CAR-50. That smooth-counterweight-stub-and-sliding-weight arrangement means that making small incremental and repeatable adjustments in tracking force is a bit hit and miss, making me wonder why Audio Origami didnt opt for a fine-threaded stub instead. But fortunately the 37mm (1 1/2") diameter of the counterweight means that the Soundsmith Counter Intuitive will work with this 'arm too, and although you dont need the offset for azimuth in this case, Id still consider adding it if you want to set the tracking force by ear. One small point worthy of mention is that with the exception of the two grub screws fixing the armtube (where mechanical continuity is essential) all the other fixing screws are plastic tipped, to prevent scoring or marking of the surfaces, critical if the 'arm is going to retain its micro-adjustability as well as its surface finish.
With the 'arm installed and ready to play, we get to the really good news: The PU7 doesnt just look like an updated PU3, it sounds like one too -- and thats a very, very good thing. Back in the day, the Syrinx 'arms were notable for their seamless top-to-bottom integration and their quicksilver, articulate rhythmic and dynamic agility. There was nothing peaky, soft, smudged or forced about their musical performance, which left the likes of the Ittok sounding splashy and disjointed, the Zeta dark and heavy, and the Alphason overly smooth and dynamically constipated. As Ive already said, the Audio Origami is very much its own 'arm, not just some homage to past glories, but that doesnt mean it ignores the lessons of history. The quick, open and coherent sound that characterizes its performance embraces everything that the PU3 did well -- but adds greater bass linearity, depth and weight to the mix, bringing added musical authority to proceedings to augment the feeling of delicacy, unfettered response and resolution.
In many ways, the PU7 represents everything thats great about gimbaled 'arms. It has that planted sense of temporal integrity that gives purpose to the musical performance, momentum and direction to the rhythm and phrasing that creates the musical sentences. What the Audio Origami brings to music is shape -- shape to the leading edge of notes, shape to instruments and shape to phrasing. In turn that injects the music with pattern and forward motion, the rhythmic structures and recognizable grids that get your toes tapping and put a grin on your face. But this is no interpretive metronome, imposing a rigid march-time on everything that passes its way. Part of that sense of overall shape is the ability to define pauses and rests in the music, deliberate gaps to accent a rhythm or the almost subconscious hesitations as players gather themselves for the next note or notes, a sinuous line or a sudden, stark tutti.
Playing the fourth side of the recent Coup Perdu release Sine Qua Non [Coup Perdu CPLP001], its hard not to be struck by the sheer range of musical contrasts present in the recording. With a jazz quartet augmented by strings, guitar, bandoneon and additional percussion, the expressive palette is way wider and more varied than most generic small-group recordings can muster, whether the quartet is jazz, strings or a "beat combo." The PU7 presents the opening guitar phrases of "Hélicoptère" with a beautiful balance of delicate shape and presence, the phrases gliding together, moving naturally and logically from one to the next. When the backing instruments enter, the increase in weight and scale is again a natural progression, and when the track transitions, shockingly, into its second half, the resulting wall of sound is suitably strident yet still full of texture and the individual instruments working so hard to produce it. The familiar waltzing tempo and lilting melody of "Scène de Bal 3" has an easy flow and deft caress that stop it becoming chintzy or clichéd, while the organized chaos of "Les Goémons" is exactly that -- structured. Building from the sparsely poised sax and piano opening, the entrance of the drums and bass signal a switch to Coltranesque sheets of sound, yet the track never loses its overall shape, the core melody continually emerging or peeking from behind the clashing rhythms and percussion.
But the short vibes-and-sax interpretation of the closing track, "Les Papillons Noirs," is perhaps the most telling of all. The gentle tinkle of the vibes and soft, chuffing underblown sax are an object lesson in dynamic texture and delineation, the musical restraint adding a fragile delicacy to the track that transforms it into a thing of beauty. What might seem trite becomes really quite compelling if the system can reveal the deft control and perfect balance achieved by the players -- something the PU7 achieves without once losing its grip on the tracks overall shape, where its going and when it arrives. Short and simple, the Audio Origami leaves you in no doubt that, musically speaking, there are times that less is definitely more.
The PU7s combination of dynamic and temporal coherence with a tight, driving bass makes it a natural match for big, powerful cartridges. The Kuzma CAR-50, a moderately priced pickup by flagship standards (£4495), continues to delight and surprise. Its overall warmth and substance make it a perfect match for the PU7, and I could see the newer Koetsus and revived Kisekis fitting like a glove as well. The 'arm will happily deliver a stable platform for the insight and transparency of the Lyras and doesnt limit the richer hues and natural tonality of the Puritas, but if you want to follow its natural tendencies, Id look for cartridges that place an emphasis on musical energy and presence, because this 'arm has the unflappable sense of control, dynamic agility and musical momentum to make the most of them. In that respect, its maybe showing its roots. British turntables, especially the more noteworthy (or notorious) Scottish examples, always tended to a quickened sound built on midbass projection rather than genuine extension. Its one reason their protagonists decry imaging as a false altar on which you risk sacrificing "musicality": Limited extension means limited acoustic development. The PU3 could get away with its light and quick bass, simply because it was the perfect antidote to the fattened midbass of the early LP12. Back then, two wrongs made a right, but not today. Thankfully the PU7 delivers all the linearity and extension you might want, but that tight, driven bass, so crucial to the toe-tap test and preachers of PRaT, still sets the musical agenda.
Pull out almost any record that was a hi-fi standard back in the Linn/Naim heyday and the PU7 will make no bones about its musical appeal. You can immediately understand why this was a record that sold systems and then got played on them at home. As soon as the CAR-50s tip hits the lead-in groove of Steely Dans Gaucho [MCA 6102] those familiar, tactile, propulsive opening bars of "Babylon Sisters" remind you just why this was the "tune-demo" disc deluxe. No, I normally wouldnt play it either, but the nostalgic need to investigate the PU7s roots made it a necessary evil. What I wasnt ready for was the way that driven, purposeful presentation carried me straight back to my formative audio years.
Richard and Linda Thompsons I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight [Island ILPS 9266] possesses considerably greater musical merit, while displaying the same appealingly solid presence and purposeful rhythmic progress. What the PU7 brings to the party is way better spatial and textural separation to go along with the sense of instrumental identity and organization, bringing the listening experience right up to date. The characteristic mix of fuzz guitar and brass band on the title track was way more effective than I remember, while Lindas throaty vocals and Richards backing harmonies took on a new presence and natural immediacy. The deft arrangements were revealed without their cleverness becoming overbearing or forced. The careful balancing of acoustic and electric instruments seemed just as fresh as it was back then, but the extra air and presence I heard was crucial. While the music has all the temporal integrity and toe-tapping tendencies you could wish for, it no longer sounded constrained by the need to get on, driven forward to the exclusion of expressive range and flexibility. This was vivid and exciting without the helter-skelter insecurity that marred so many of those early Linn/Naim systems.
I was so intrigued by the transformation I even pulled out some Joni Mitchell! Sitting through the whole of The Hissing of Summer Lawns [Asylum K53018] is something I havent done in a while -- and its not something Ill be doing again anytime soon. Which just goes to show that what the PU7 does is reveal more of whats on the recording rather than sweetening the pill or drawing a veil over its shortcomings. You just get a more direct, substantial and immediate reading of whats on the disc -- for better or worse.
Dont go getting the idea that the PU7 is ham-fisted or muscle-bound. Yes, it moves tracks along at a healthy, engaging clip, but thats not just down to the bass but the quick, agile mids and treble that rest on that low-frequency foundation. Christopher Taylors fluent performance of Vivaldi Flute Concerti (Philomusica Of London, Pini, [Merlin MRF 78101]) highlights the precision and dexterity of the PU7s upper registers, the unforced organizational integrity of its midband. Shorn of deep bass underpinnings by the original instrumentation, the Audio Origami really allows you to appreciate the complexity that Vivaldi brings to his Cello and Harpsichord continuo parts, adding a deeper textural background behind the music in place of the simple chugging throb and tinkle that less precise or controlled 'arms produce. Up the orchestral scale to Berglunds Sibelius 2 (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra [EMI 3497]) and the PU7s overall grip and musical command allow the drama and power of the reading, the swelling weight of the bass and texture of the timps, the fragile, hanging notes of the violins and punchy brass ejaculations to work in perfect concert, producing music with a spell-binding presence and authority. Its a bravura performance that sums up the PU7 perfectly, putting the heart and soul of the music first, whether thats some dark and brooding Scandinavian introspection or a bit of up-beat Aretha -- "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me." Believe me, you will.
Simultaneously controlled and solid yet alive to the music, this is the compelling dichotomy that makes the PU7 special. It gives recordings a planted solidity and presence, while its precise tracing and delineation of dynamic steps keeps things from getting slowed or earthbound. It can do energetic and lively, or just as easily encompass musical delicacy and restraint. Its a range of virtues that dovetails perfectly with the Langer No.7, making the most of that tables pitch stability and even-handed clarity, or the VPI Classic 4, where the scale, stability and richer hues of the deck work hand in hand with the 'arms dynamic resolution and expressive range. With a range of effective lengths available, a choice of well-established geometries and a moderate weight, I can foresee few if any matching issues when it comes to pairing the PU7 with a turntable, be it an LP12 or something altogether more modern. While I think that the Audio Origami 'arm might well extract the best possible performance from a Sondek, I cant help feeling that you really need (and it really deserves) something quite a bit better to really stretch the 'arms capabilities.
Compared to the more expensive options I have to hand (the VPI JMW 3D and the Tri-Planar Ultimate) the PU7 favors dynamic integrity, timing and musical pattern over the harmonic development and identity of notes and instruments. The VPI 'arm in particular offers a rounder, warmer, more dimensional and more intimate presentation -- albeit at a price. Compared to a price peer like the SME V, the Audio Origami lacks that 'arms camera finish and mass-produced operational niceties. Instead it has the sort of artisan build and mechanical qualities typified by an 'arm like the Tri-Planar, a different set of aesthetic and physical markers that reflect its genuinely bespoke nature. It also avoids the dynamic constriction imposed by the SME, offering the light and life more normally associated with the best unipivots, but combined with a top-to-toe precision thats entirely its own. This is a product that puts performance first. It allows you to specify certain of its mechanical characteristics (such as effective mass and length) and adjust and optimize the alignment of the cartridge with considerable precision. Id definitely add a Counter Intuitive over-rider weight to the setup, allowing finer (or certainly easier) adjustment of VTF. Like all post-and-collar 'arms, VTA is also a set-and-forget parameter, although that will worry most other listeners less than it worries me.
Which brings us to the nub of the question: Like all tonearms, the Audio Origami offers its own specific blend of musical attributes and operational niceties, but are they a fit for you? If you want to run multiple cartridges, tweak VTA on a record-by-record basis or feel that a magnetically damped string bearing and a wooden armwand are the way to go, then the answer is clearly no. But if you value the positive dynamic integrity and sense of purpose that comes from a good gimbal-bearing 'arm, you want a fit-and-forget solution to playing records that will maximize musical involvement, you want an 'arm to get the most out of an existing deck, or something with that personal touch, which means you wont bump into another one when visiting a friends house, then the Audio Origami PU7 could be just the ticket. While its available as an off-the-shelf solution, dont overlook the various options that allow you to tailor it to your turntable and cartridge, elevating its performance significantly.
Exciting, engaging and entertaining in equal parts, this 'arm has an awful lot going for it. The mechanical choices made throughout the design mean that it should remain stable over time, which in turn means that once you have it sounding great, it will stay that way. With the market for high-quality record replay dividing between those who want ever greater degrees of disc-by-disc optimization -- be that cartridge choice, VTA or EQ -- and those who just want to play records and enjoy them, the PU7 will serve the latter camp admirably. It might not look as beautifully finished as the SME V or offer the complex instrumentation aesthetics of the Tri-Planar, but then the direct, uncomplicated clarity of its performance mirrors its construction perfectly.
There are tonearms that appear more exotic or refined, are prettier to look at or way more expensive to buy, but there few -- very few -- that make listening to LPs quite as much sheer downright fun as Audio Origamis PU7.
Price: From £1999.
The hand-built nature of the product means that development of the PU7 is constantly ongoing. Lets face it -- youve got to be a tinkerer to even embark on a project like this, and the perpetual manufacturing and assembly of parts and complete 'arms is an open invitation to indulge in ongoing experimentation. Currently under consideration are a more complex machining for the headshell involving vertical bracing and a titanium armtube option. Schedule for the arrival of these innovations? Who knows? Im guessing that their appearance will be dictated by time and ultimately by customer demand: There are never enough hours in the day, but a man waving money definitely attracts attention! Given that if you want to get the most out of this 'arm, Id strongly suggest discussing the sonic effects and benefits of the various options with the manufacturer. Hell be only too happy to give you a progress report. That way, if you have to have or merely fancy a bit more titanium in your system, you can decide whether the wait will be worthwhile.
Talking of which, fact-checking this review and discussing my findings with the manufacturer, it appears that Im not the only member of the press to remark on the challenge of making repeatable, incremental changes in VTF (you see, just occasionally even reviewers can agree), and Audio Origami will be bowing to the pressure by introducing a fine-threaded counterweight stub and matching weight. The plastic tip on the grub screw will still lock against the thread, without damaging it, making really precise assessment and setting of tracking force simplicity itself. As you can see, gradual evolution constantly improves the breed.
Analog: VPI Classic 4 with SDS and Classic Direct Drive, with JMW 3D, 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII tonearms, Kuzma Stabi M with 4Point tonearm, Langer No.7 turntable. Stillpoints LPI record weight. Lyra Etna, Titan i, Skala, Dorian and Dorian Mono, Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Kuzma CAR-50, Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono cartridges. Connoisseur 4.2 PLE phono stage.
Preamps: Connoisseur 4.2LE, Tom Evans The Vibe.
Power amps: Berning Quadrature Z, Jadis JA-30 and Engstrom & Engstrom The Lars 2 monoblocks.
Speakers: Focal Scala Utopia V2, Coincident Pure Reference Extreme, Wilson Benesch Square Five and Endeavour.
Cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin or Crystal Cable Dreamline Plus from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via QRT QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.
Supports: racks are Hutter Racktime, HRS or Quadraspire SVT Bamboo. These are used with Nordost SortKone equipment couplers throughout. Cables are elevated on HECC Panda Feet.
Acoustic treatment: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of RPG Skyline and LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices.
Accessories: Essential accessories include the SmarTractor protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.