[ Home | Staff & Contacts | HiFi Playground | Listening tests | DIY & Tweakings | Music & Books ]

Audio Origami Arm damp(en)ing Fluid

damper, dampener, dampenest, damn!

Adding a damp proof course to your pick up arm

[Italian version]

Product: Audio Origami Pure Silicon Damping Fluid Kit
Manufacturer: Audio Origami
Approx. price: 9.99GBP or 12.40€ 0r $15.60US (YMMV)
Availability: specialist audio shops and ebay
Reviewer: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: July, 2012

Introduction

Whether the correct term is damping or dampening in mass/spring systems complying with Hooke's law (remember from school physics F=-kx) to describe reducing the system Q (boinginess) probably depends on where you learned to speak English. When talking about loudspeaker panels, pickup arm fundamental resonance or vehicle suspensions, the different spellings either go unnoticed or infuriate pedants.
"It is not pedantic to demand correct use of English" insist a small but insistent minority of the plebs chorus, stage left.

That introductory paragraph will be lost in the translation on the Italian pages of TNT-audio.com. More importantly than how the words sound is how the product affects the sound.

There have been attempts to control the movement of pick up arms since the early days of microgroove LPs. In a nutshell, slow arm movements are desirable to ride warps and tolerate spindle eccentricity while permitting the arm to be dragged towards the centre of the record by the stylus following the relentless inward spiral.
Very quick arm movements, excited by surface ripples or vibrational energy caused by the cartridge's imperfect (inevitably) suspension system, are very undesirable as the cartridge will also convert these non linear, non musical, movements to electrical signals as though they were music; which they are not. We call this "distortion" - it is a bad thing.

The mass of the arm bouncing on the stylus cantilever suspension causes it to resonate as a system, either at around 12Hz or 15Hz depending which of the two dominant theories is preferred by the selector of the arm/cart combo under consideration. More unstable arm/cart systems can flop around down below 10Hz when folk stick their favourite high compliance moving magnet cartridge in a Rega RB250/RB300 based arm. This results in almost constant oscillation that leads to pitch instability similar to that of the dreadful compact cassette. It also results in comb filtered boomy, poorly controlled, bass. Equally, ultra low compliance moving coil cartridges mounted on lightweight tone-arms like the SME 3009/II improved (fixed headshell) can resonate above 20Hz causing problems well into the audible band above 20Hz. The consequences of either condition include overworking amplifiers and out of gap voicecoils in reflex speakers. Getting arm cartridge matching right is absolutely fundamental to competent vinyl replay.

Even when the arm cartridge resonance is in the right ball park, some degree of resonance control has long been considered desirable especially in the bass region. Ideally applied at the cartridge end, as close as possible to the cantilever pivot, attempts using damping brushes mounted on stylus assemblies were tried in the 70s by cartridge manufacturers Pickering, Stanton and then Shure. Then the (Townshend/Cranfield) Elite Rock turntable with Excalibur arm went further with a radial damping fluid trough arranged for immersion of a paddle mounted on the headshell. Sony went bonkers with an electronically dampened arm dubbed the Biotracer. Meanwhile unipivot arms like the Mayware Formula 4 and Hadcock GH Unipoise applied damp(en)ing fluid wells around the pivot and SME followed with the FD200 damper for their long lived Series II family of arms (it was actually developed for their then new Series III), a curved trough to sit as close to the bearings as the arm lift would permit. All of these used silicone fluid of various viscosities, which puzzled your old scribe who was more familiar with mineral oil as a Hooke's Law tamer in motorcycle forks. Mineral and synthetic oils do work in arm damping situations, as does DOT5 silicon brake fluid (never use DOT3 or DOT4 as it strips paint finishes). Most of these automotive products are of excessively high viscosity for arm damping apart from the DOT5.

solutions more complicated than the problems themselves

What is Audio Origami's USP for this stuff?

You get a lot for your money. 2 x 20ml syringes of the magic gloop, together with "2 extra long wooden cleaning pads to clean out dirt and grime. Even in those hard to reach areas"...

"Sounds like a daytime TV ad for housewives" laugh plebs, stage left.

The fluid has twice the viscosity of water and is "the purest available on the market today", Audio Origami claim. Water at room temperature is set as the point at which viscosity is defined relatively. More viscous than water is called (wait for it) 'viscous' (MSc Stating The Obvious curriculum) while fluids less viscous than water are called 'mobile' and will seem quite thin to those audiophiles who have played with damping in the past. This is what attracted me to the Audio Origami product.
Complicated paddle shapes may be subject to uneven reactions [especially with higher viscosity liquids]

The Audio Origami Pure Silicon Damping Fluid Kit also includes 2 lint free cloths for cleaning. Being lint free is essential around turntables so that they absorb oil without dispersing tiny fibres, because tiny fibres are the enemy of good vinyl care. Also bundled is Audio Origami's own alignment protractor (more later) and 2 plastic pipettes (fluid suckers) for extracting fluid from the pick up arm well, making its use easily reversible.

In use, familiar with years of using syringes to apply tiny amounts of fluid to tiny components, your old scribe happily anticipated not needing the mop up cloths. Pride comes before a fall, and without checking the syringe for stiction before holding it over the well on my Hadcock GH242SE Silver, silicon fluid ejaculated all over the Michell Orbe SE arm base. It was easy to clean up with the cloths provided and even easier to fill the well to the correct level just below the top. On the Hadcock an inner cylinder hangs below the unipivot housing, surrounding the pivot spindle when in place. It is this tube shape that is immersed in the silicon fluid to provide frequency selective resistance.

The cylinder (acting as paddle) will turn easily with minimum friction between metal and liquid, but rocking in any plane will be resisted by the fluid's viscosity as the tube has to push fluid aside to move, and fluid has to rush in to fill the space on the opposite side. Thicker fluid will provide more resistance to any given movement than thinner fluid, and down to lower frequencies too. At certain velocities, dependent on material and temperature, liquids behave like solids (ask anyone who has misjudged a dive into a pool) and thinner (lower viscosity) fluids will make this transition at higher frequencies than with heavier liquids. It would make sense for unipivot pickup arms damped by wells of silicon fluid to have their cylindrical paddles shaped to provide high yaw resistance (that means they will rock less from side to side) but low resistance to warp riding. This could be easily achieved by shaping the lower face of the cylindrical paddle curved at a radius whose axis is the unipivot tip. However, this would also increase resistance slightly to turning along the arm's arc following the groove spiral inwards.

Sound Quality

First cartridge to be tested damped vs undamped is the Dynavector XX2 mkII which is a cartridge benefiting from years of research into optimum damping characteristics, culminating in their soft magnetic shunt damper in the current generation of pickups. Expectations would therefore imply that adding more damping (mechanical this time) would trash the sound of this cartridge. Surprisingly damping neither trashes nor improves the Dynavector performance. It changes, but the changes are not a net gain. Bass definition tightens up and the envelope of bass notes become better defined, notably Lee Sklar's bass work on Billy Cobham's jazz-rock classic Spectrum becomes easier to work out. The skill of "King of the whole note" [semibreve to us Europeans] at punctuating rock solid grooves with occasional rapid grace notes and fills becomes much clearer, but with damping it sounds like he's playing through a combo with no bottom end; phat it ain't. Adding damping to this cartridge is like the flat earth sacrifice of body and tone in a trade off for definition and speed. Effects like this at the lowest frequencies heard by human beings are to be expected from damping an already well balanced system.

The resistance to yaw movements (side to side rocking) results in wider soundstage. Given that a mono groove wiggles laterally side to side, parallel to the earth's surface, listeners might expect true mono recordings to be more accurately centred. This is confirmed by Eartha Kitt's spectacularly seductive voice on the That Bad Eartha EP. Readers more venerable than The Old Scribe will know why this is a true test of a system's ability to communicate the unconscious dimensions of voice and performance. Readers of the next half-generation will know Ms Kitt as Catwoman from the 3rd series of Batman on TV. The effect of damping on mono solo vocals is to make the body more central and more real. Purrrrfect....
"Steady on old chap" warn plebs chorus, stage left, "Don't get too carried away".

On stereo recordings, especially those that are accurate simple microphone recordings, the soundstage gets wider with damping. Obviously this is connected with the damped arm's capacity to stay still rather than wobble about axially, during playback. Any pick up arm twisting motion in the audio band (or an octave either side, that might intermodulate with the audio bandwidth) is likely to cause distortion of, or loss of, spatial information, which can either be resolved as the vertical vector of stylus movement or thought of as 45° activity when summed with basic mono data. The increase in width is tempered by a reduction in depth on some recordings, as if the overall area of the soundstage remains constant but is stretched laterally. On other recordings the increased soundstage width arrives without penalty.

While bass and stereo image are expected to be affected, stranger still is the effect of damping higher in the frequency spectrum. Tape hiss and circuit noise become much more explicit with damping, such that punch ins (aka drop ins in yer old scribe's day) become really obvious by the change in previously unnoticed background hiss quality. The damping fluid is stripping away some mid treble masking and moving a resonant emphasis of the arm cartridge system to a higher frequency. For the Dynavector the undamped state is slightly preferable.

For the most refined moving iron (and moving magnet) cartridge on the market, the Cartridge Man MusicMaker, the damping might seem superfluous due to the MusicMaker's high compliance dumping less energy into the tone-arm. This is absolutely the opposite of what physics tells us. The softer cantilever suspension of a high compliance cartridge creates a much bigger amplitude resonance at a much lower frequency. Either of these conditions would increase instability in the arm/cartridge system, but they combine more to a product of multiplication than to the sum of addition. It's that bad. Excepting it works well enough in the Orbe/Hadcock/MusicMaker combo, planting it on a sprung subchassis turntable suggests more of a recipe for disaster than building nuclear power stations on known geological fault lines exhibiting high levels of seismic activity.
"No it does not." state the plebs chorus, stage left, both flatly and correctly, "turn that hyperbole down, sport!".

With the Hadcock GH242SE Silver damping fluid well filled with Audio Origami Silicon Damping Fluid, the bass cleaned up, gaining 2 extra points for both definition and for tunefulness on the judging system; pace is up a point or maybe 2, rhythm is up 1 point and there is something clearer about the treble, but it is not something necessarily musical. For Flat Earthers, this would be a no brainer, pace and bass are so improved that nothing else matters. For neutrality freaks, and they are freaks because music is about emotions and no one should be neutral about emotions, the damped version is more neutral as bass loses any artifice or bloom, a well known Orbe failing, if less of a problem than from a Gyro or a Linn LP12.

The extra treble clarity does seem to be at the expense of some increased treble emphasis of certain frequencies. It may be that the damping is actually damping a higher frequency resonance in the system, thus revealing more details. It is more likely that the stripping away of some superfluous low frequency energy in the arm/cartridge resonance, is revealing more at higher frequencies as the phono stage and pre-amp are less swamped by LF energy causing some dynamic compression. With this high compliance cartridge in this low mass arm the balance of virtues is that damping is an improvement overall. The low frequency improvement is of such an order of magnitude that it is worth owners of high compliance pickup cartridges to risk a punt of about 12€ just to hear the effect, even if you do not prefer it in the long run.

Despite snipe bidding on several SME FD200 damper kits on fleabay, none became available during this review, so tests have not been undertaken on either of the old scribe's two SME's. Testing on either the SME 3009/II imp, or the SME 3012 series I (circular cueing pot, before bias weight arrangements) would have indicated the suitability of the Audio Alchemy potion in the arc of the SME curved trough, and thus other paddle in long trough arrangements too. Used SME FD200 damper kits do seem very overpriced compared to the wonderful arms on which they belong, such is the distorted nature of collectors' markets. The old SME damping gloop was, from memory, much thicker (specified 200kcS viscosity) than the Audio Origami Silicon Damping Fluid and could, with the wrong paddle and cartridge combination, overwhelm the other mechanical parameters of the system. Folklore had it to use the smallest (black) paddle if in doubt, to avoid over damping the system. Given that viscosity measurements are temperature and pressure dependent, it is not possible to know absolutely how different these fluids are, but it looks like the SME fluid is 100 times higher viscosity even though not specified in current SI units. Some websites suggest unipivot damping wells needs viscosities 2-6 (two to six) times higher than SME troughs. These received wisdoms do seem to contradict one another so empirical testing should be a must, as always.

Finally we get to a cartridge designed to be used in a damped unipivot pickup arm. The Decca London, designed to be carried in the Decca International pickup arm. The resident London Blue here is not really a "Blue" at all. Firstly, some Maroon spec pickups (cartridge seems too modern a term for this old timer) seem to be found in blue bodywork. Secondly, there are at least two types of Blue and myriad versions of Maroon, regardless of the certainty to be found in articles on the net. Check out how many of them are just repeating each other and how many disagree on their 'facts'. To make matters less predictable, this sample was subject to a total rebuild by Len Gregory with a line contact stylus and modified armature.

Applying damp(en)ing fluid to the Hadcock GH242SE Silver pivot well for the third time is now an easily practiced art. Your old scribe had anticipated a welcome reduction in the handling noise that plagues this cartridge. There seems little reduction, but a slight lowering of pitch; curious. As the stylus lands in the run in groove, the hoped for reduction in surface noise does not manifest itself either. Indeed, perceived surface noise seems slightly increased by an uptilt of its frequency balance. It sounds as if FM interstation white noise has been subject to the tilt control of a Quad 44 preamplifier! This is the opposite of the handling noise effect, which makes no sense but is repeatable.

Once the tunes start, the improvements are obvious. The Decca loses much of its edge of the seat quality. Usually the Decca sounds as if it is just about to start mistracking; it does this on test discs at almost all higher modulation levels and yet it never quite loses grip, a bit like driving on predictable crossply racing tyres rather than street radials, controlled drift is possible on the edge of breakaway. The addition of Audio Origami Pure Silicon Damping Fluid renders the whole experience more sure footed, regardless of modulation level.

There is no loss of the Decca's famous snap and dynamic punch. Snare drum strikes leap forward as ever. The Decca's superb timing remains intact. If anything, there is some unwanted treble emphasis right at the top end. The Decca is one of the very rare cartridges that can reproduce a square wave, because of lack of cantilever time smearing and much higher tip mass resonance due to the lower moving mass. With damping it is almost as if the tip resonance has come down closer to the audible range. This is not a possible effect of pickup arm pivot damping so it must be some other artifact; it remains present when double checked. It is a minor side effect and the preferred state is damped.

The fast articulate bass, for which the Decca is equally famous, gets even faster and more articulate. Now I can really identify the timing on Lee Sklar's mint bassline on Snoopy's Search, demonstrating even more clearly why this simple figure is such a brilliant groove.

The Decca has stayed fitted in the system ever since this review, and the only time the damp(en)ing trough has been emptied, was to double check whether the effects are consistent on a wider range of material than that listed below.

[the paper holds their folded faces to the floor]

Conclusions

At a tenner a throw (YMMV), for 2 tubes of Audio Origami Pure Silicon Damping Fluid Kit plus an excellent alignment protractor, this is a no brainer for owners of any pickup arms with damping facilities. The alignment protractor is as good as any in stock here, more accurately cut than some and actually correct, unlike one that came free with a Hi-Fi comic years ago. How many other tweaks will give you so many hours of experimental fun, so many opportunities to play and so much opportunity for paranoia audiophilia?

If it works, you have just made the cheapest upgrade to vinyl replay that it's possible to imagine. If it doesn't work, you've just had the cheapest afternoon's entertainment and the lowest cost audiophile learning experience in your personal hi-fi Odyssey. How good is that to keep the plebs chorus busy over the TNT-audio summer break?

Music enjoyed during this review

  • Billy Cobham: Spectrum; late seventies fusion classic familiar to new generations through extensive sampling (Massive Attack etc)
  • L T J Bukem: Journey Inwards; intelligent drum'n'bass building on Logical Progression project
  • Lou Reed: Transformer; vinyl masterpiece whose snare transients were made for Deccas and including the track "Vicious" not viscous.
  • Arne Domnerus: Jazz at the Pawnshop; audiophile cult classic
  • Eartha Kitt: That Bad Eartha; HMV mono 250mm (10") EP
  • Free: Live:....
  • Robert Johnson: Delta Blues
  • Various artists: The Blues Story: splendid double vinyl compilation

© Copyright 2012 The Old Scribe, il vostro vecchio scriba - www.tnt-audio.com

[ Home | Staff & Contacts | HiFi Playground | Listening tests | DIY & Tweakings | Music & Books ]