In a period when the vinyl market was in a serious decline, Mark Bakers’ decision to develop turntables was a matter of principle and judgement. The principle was that he wanted to offer the ultimate quality of music playback, regardless of convenience, market or group think. This interview is a MUST read for every vinyl and music lover.
You come from a boat-building background, and you studied Naval Architecture! Are there any advantages of this background to create a company like Origin Live?
Yes, I’m very thankful for my previous career. I spent my first 10 years in Vosper Thornycroft, a warship-building company of 5000 employees that built frigates and minesweepers. Building a ship is like building a floating city and encompasses an incredible array of different disciplines – from machining huge propellor shafts to turbine blades, hull structure, electrical wiring, and furniture – this is just the start of an endless list. Warships are even more complex than cruise or cargo ships as they have to include weapon systems and have the ability to withstand nuclear, chemical and biological attacks. Minesweepers also have to withstand massive shock waves from underwater explosions.
My first 4 years in the company were spent in the production engineering department, where I served as the development engineer for Hunt-class minesweepers, including the first-of-class, HMS Brecon. These ships had to be completely non-magnetic to avoid setting off mines. So they were made from fibreglass and non-magnetic metals. I think Vospers employed me partly because my Father ran a very successful fibreglass boat-building company employing 60 people. During my education, I used to spend summer holidays helping to make fibreglass racing dinghies in the factories.
It is worth mentioning that I also used to race my Fathers boats in fleets of up to 150 boats at the National Championships. Competitive sailing involves careful attention to boat tuning, among many other things, and this can get quite technical. This fostered in me a natural mindset towards constant innovation and improvement, which is foundational in product design. It also gave me an early interest in different wave behaviours.
During my time in production engineering at Vospers, I learned a great deal about design and initiated a number of significant changes to manufacturing methods. These included projects like a redesign of the rudders and funnel to make them easier to build.
It was also a great introduction to how people can sometimes be very stubborn in their views. Implementing change was not always easy amongst peers that were considerably more experienced and older than I was. This problem is no different in the Hi-Fi world, and getting new ideas to be accepted can be difficult.
One event, in particular, occurred during this time, which proved to be the key to unlocking many problems in the design of Hi-Fi structures. We were trying to get the Ministry of Defence to approve a design change for the Minesweeper decks -, away from a ribbed panel construction to a sandwich panel. They were worried about delamination under shock and duly arranged for us to witness a demonstration of an actual ship being blown up by an underwater mine. High-speed cameras were installed in compartments inside the ship to record the whole event in great detail.
It was a fascinating and mind-altering experience. We watched the huge explosion shoot clouds of water up the sides of the ship. Very sad watching it sink, but a short while later, we watched slow-motion films of what happened inside the ship. It was astounding to observe steel walls (bulkheads) ripple like guitar strings. The ripple was so fast and so devastating that anything attached to the walls was ejected off at speeds of 400mph. This included welded steel brackets and bolted cabinets etc. This created a shrapnel-filled compartment which would have killed anyone inside. The picture of what happens to structures on a large scale vibrating has never left me and helps so much in visualizing what happens when much smaller structures vibrate.
Of course, vibration is critical in designing many Hi-Fi components, and you can only address this issue once you are convinced it exists and how it acts. I’m not sure many designers pay really serious attention to structural vibration because it is so microscopic and demands a lot of imagination. People are not always aware of just how small the signal levels are from a phono cartridge and the massive levels of amplification required before the signal reaches the speakers. It is the massive scale of amplification which makes the very small levels of vibration significant because the electrical signal generated by the cartridge’s vibration is magnified approx 8000 times by the time it reaches your speakers.
There came a point in my career when UK shipbuilding entered a time of severe difficulty for various reasons. To try and save the industry, British shipbuilders brought in a team of the world’s best shipbuilding consultants. These were the experts who had developed the Korean shipyards, which led the world at the time.
The Korean shipyards ran on modern Japanese production techniques, both in equipment and build methods. I was assigned to this team and experienced fantastic exposure to some of the best minds in the industry. This experience included working to implement modern construction methods and advanced material control systems in many other shipyards. This, in turn, has been of immense help in Origin Lives factory practices and helps us produce high-end-sounding products at a fraction of the normal price.
When did you start Origin Live? You started with tonearm modifications. When did you start producing your own Turntables and Tonearms?
- 1986: The company was founded and called Cable Design. The first product is the solid-core cable, the first of its type specifically designed for hi-fi applications.
- 1987: We launched Hi-Fi stands, for turntables and speakers, and the company name changed to Origin Live to encompass everything hi-fi related – it is short for “hearing the original source as played live”.
- 1989: The Skyline Platform wins the first major award for the company, from Hi-Fi Review magazine.
- 1990: Origin Live speaker stands win Hi-Fi Choice group test, beating nineteen other brands.
- 1991: Turntable production begins. Modified Rega tonearms are produced for Avondale Audio. Award-winning amplifiers were assembled for Kelvin Laboratories.
- 1993: Origin Live Rega tonearm modification service for the public began. Also, a DC turntable motor upgrade kit was offered.
- 1995: Origin Live stand-mounting and floor-standing loudspeaker range launched, including Sovereign, Resolution, OL1, OL1A, OL2 & OL2A2002. The Silver Tonearm MK1 was launched and hailed as “the best arm ever heard” and “design of the decade” by Hi-Fi World.
- 2004: Origin Live turntables and tonearms began winning major magazine awards, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Motto of Origin Live is to reproduce music as played originally live. Was this your aim from the beginning?
I have always believed that the goal of Hi-Fi should be to reproduce music exactly as it was played in the first place. However, this view is not universally held, and some manufacturers aim to produce a certain kind of perspective on the music. This may be to draw out the details in the music or to make it sound inoffensive and easygoing by ironing out anything that could sound jarring. There are many variations of these themes.
Some reviewers have been told by their editors not to compare reproduced music to live music in their writing. This may seem strange, but it allows everything to have validity and may be one reason that all products nowadays get a favourable review. After all, once there is no reference point, it’s just a matter of personal taste.
Another reason for not referring to live sound is that it can mean quite different things, from a band in a pub, a piano recital in a small room or a full orchestra. Not all live music sounds great. Many “live” events involve microphones, amplifiers and speakers, which all introduce their own degradation to the sound. Some concerts and smaller events can be free of this problem and therefore offer the purest form of reference. However, it’s interesting that live events often have a life and vibrancy, which many Hi-Fi systems lack. I put this down to the increased dynamics available once you get rid of the recording and playback stages necessary for Hi-Fi Systems.
The way we perceive music is a big subject and one which we cover in our article “the 3 pillars of great sound quality”. In essence, people tend to have a leaning toward either dynamics or tonality or clarity in the way they listen to music. If all 3 of these aspects are reproduced well, it maximizes the pleasure of music for the vast majority of people. It’s a bit like a good book or film will usually include excitement, romance and interest. When we talk about reproducing the original sound, we’re talking about recreating a sound that is as pure, as captivating, and as exciting as being in front of a great live band with your eyes closed. We want you to feel like the recording artist is in the room with you, playing the take that made it onto the record.
What are the advantages of Origin Live Turntables-Tonearms compared to other brands? Why do OL decks compete with decks of much higher prices?
As I mentioned earlier, We believe that a truly great product will be strong in dynamics, clarity and tonality. So we strive to achieve these characteristics in all our designs. Balancing conflicting solutions calls for judgement based on good hearing ability. There is a continual stream of difficult decisions which go into making a great product.
To give an oversimplified example, a metal platter may have great dynamics, but tonally it will ring and disrupt correct tonal balance and clarity unless controlled. If a designer does not have nearly pitch-perfect hearing, the flawed tonality will not trouble them. When you consider that only one in a hundred people have pitch-perfect hearing and one in a hundred are tone deaf, then it’s easy to appreciate that not everyone is going to produce a tonally correct product.
Crucially, at Origin Live, we conduct listening tests on nearly every single product change we make, from materials down to the tightness of screws. There can be different opinions in the room, but once we’re all in agreement on a test, the development is usually put into production. We are not aiming for a certain price. We are aiming for a certain standard. When we can, we try to roll out improvements on as many of our products as possible.
Four of the designers at Origin Live have played a musical instrument in bands and are highly tonally sensitive. This is one reason that professional musicians love our products. Musicians are one group of people who are very tuned in to pitch and tonal accuracy.
In a nutshell, our products compete with those in much higher price brackets because we have a feeling of what different voices and instruments should sound like live, and we work hard to find solutions for unsolved problems. This does not always involve using the most expensive materials, but it does involve a lot of research, experimentation and development.
Which is most important, the Turntable or the Tonearm? New customers of Hi-Fi, tend to underestimate the importance of tonearms and they spend a lot more money on Turntables than on Tonearms, what is the balance between these two parts?
Opinions tend to be based on personal experience and perceptions. Until you realize the importance of micro-vibration, it’s easy to perceive that an arm is there just to hold the cartridge, so why should it be important? Coupled with this is the problem that so many arms are seriously flawed and often very similar in design. So until a significantly better arm is heard, it’s easy to assume that turntables make more difference. However, within our range of products, we advise that to achieve the best return on investment, a good rule to follow is:
- 28% Turntable
- 28% Tonearm
- 28% Phono Stage
- 16% Cartridge
There are a lot more turntable brands in the market than 20 years ago. Do you see big improvements on the Turntables in the recent years?
There have been very significant improvements in turntables over the last 20 years, and these have often been made by smaller companies that have been committed to developing turntables and tonearms for a longer amount of time. With the recent boom in vinyl sales, it’s curious, but unsurprising how many well-known Hi-Fi companies that have never produced a turntable, are now releasing overly expensive, inherently flawed designs. For some companies, the demand to roll out a product that can catch the wave of the vinyl revival has superseded the research and development time needed to make a product that produces sound worthy of its price tag.
Many older turntables still outperform new arrivals, simply because they were designed better. Learning how to not only replicate but to build upon those designs takes time, discernment and dedication.
Copycat designs in re-styled modern packages find success for many reasons but if you want great sound quality, be careful to audition for yourself wherever possible. Listening for yourself really is the bottom line, as most technical specifications and design philosophies will tell you very little about how a turntable actually sounds.
Many High-End decks tend to play well only super audiophile vinyls, they do not forgive a mediocre recording or pressing. A good deck should play well all the records of any kind of music? Is this happening in the whole range of Origin Live products?
I have read this comment often in Hi-Fi magazines and look at it more as a coded message, maybe saying something like, “This product does some things extremely well but gets tripped up over certain aspects in a recording”. I believe that if a product is unforgiving with certain recordings, then something is wrong with the product or the system. We find that a better design improves the sound of all records, and so this problem of “unforgiveness” is more to do with showing up the nasties in the design of the system. Notably, in a recent review of our high-end Sovereign turntable, the reviewer commented that what he had considered a terrible recording, made sense for the first time when played on our Sovereign Turntable and sounded wonderful.
You started the company in a period when the vinyl market was in a serious decline. Did you have a vision that this is going to change? Do you think the revival and new interest on vinyl is going to continue, while the new generation is listening to music on streaming?
I had no idea there would be a revival in vinyl. Our decision to develop turntables was a matter of principle and judgement. The principle was that we wanted to offer the ultimate quality of music playback, regardless of convenience, market or group think. If something truly better came along, then turntables would only be valid for nostalgia and their ability to replay vinyl titles unavailable on digital.
Back in the day, the CD was gaining popularity and crushing the turntable market; there were many who voiced their misgivings about CD sound quality. Digital fans dismissed these concerns and forecasted that CD quality would soon improve and invalidate these concerns. This was a great marketing argument, and many turntable manufacturers believed it and gave up.
This is where our decision to press on with vinyl, was a matter of judgement. I had heard so many exaggerated claims and misinformation regarding the CD medium that I didn’t trust what was being said. There are strong pros and cons in the technical arguments surrounding the analogue vs digital debate. However, it’s interesting that Michael Fremer says that digital designers in Silicon Valley are now designing turntables because they recognise the huge complexity and issues involved in digital reproduction.
Streaming poses the same threat to vinyl that CD posed many years ago. Yes, it is convenient, low cost and, in some cases, superior to poor-quality turntables. However, in terms of ultimate sound quality, there is something very special about high-quality vinyl reproduction. The reasons for this are not clear to some and have given rise to much intense debate on internet forums.
In conclusion, there are many who recognise the unique virtues of analogue sound and who will continue with this medium into the mists of time. I see Digital and Vinyl co-existing. Digital is cheap and convenient, but for serious listening, many make vinyl their medium of choice due to its superb imaging and natural sound.
What is your advice to a beginner in the world of High-End audio? Which part of the sound system should we buy first?
The importance of neutrality.
This is really like the question, “which came first, the chicken or the egg? The difficulty is that in choosing audio components, you need to use other components to use in any evaluation. Unfortunately, we can’t just test one product in a vacuum. In order to test an audio component well, the other components in the system need to be tonally neutral. If this is not the case, then you can end up choosing components that offset the flaws of poorly chosen components already in the system.
For example, you acquire a set of very bright-sounding speakers with excessive treble. To tame things down, you will be drawn to choosing other components with a very dull sound and excessive bass. The problem with this is that those non-neutral components usually have multiple flaws besides the most obvious ones, and this will ultimately prove impossible to rectify.
Making good choices in Hi-Fi is a huge and important subject, so we have written extensive articles on how to do this and avoid common pitfalls. The following advice is an oversimplified summary of the sequence of selection. For brevity, I’ve excluded discussion on the many options surrounding system choices.
To judge anything, you need a source, an amplifier and a pair of speakers plus cables. CD players and digital sources tend to be relatively neutral, so one of these should be the first component you acquire. I would then recommend choosing an amplifier (ideally without an inbuilt phono stage) by auditioning various amps playing through a popular speaker with well-known neutrality. Once you have chosen your amp, move on to auditioning a range of speakers and make these your next acquisition. Cables are surprisingly influential so try some in your speaker/amp combination. Ensure you compare twisted and parallel (dumbell) types. Speaker cables tend to yield more variable and unpredictable results than interconnect cables, so it’s worth focussing more on these.
For playing vinyl, you need a Turntable, Tonearm, cartridge and phono stage (if it is not included in your amplifier). In a vinyl-based system, the phono stage is far more important than the amplifier and is critical because its quality is directly linked to how well you will hear what is coming from your future vinyl source. For this reason, you should acquire a high-quality phono stage before choosing your turntable/tonearm/cartridge. Without a good phono stage, turntables can sound very similar, and it can be difficult to hear the massive performance differences between decks.
Now that you have chosen a great down-stream system, you are ready to choose turntable/tonearm/cartridge – in the aforementioned order.