soulful ambivalence and the world’s most expensive turntable

Estimated reading time is 6 minutes.

RECENTLY, I was made aware of Greg Milner’s book Perfecting Sound Forever, which is subtitled “An Aural History of Recorded Music.” When I reserved it at the library, I wasn’t expecting it to inspire an article about soulful ambivalence and a turntable—even a very impressive, very expensive turntable.

Of course, I really didn’t know what I was in for, but that’s one of the joys of reading! Here is what the book’s blurbs told me:

Perfecting Sound Forever is purported to be “an exhaustively researched, extraordinarily inquisitive book that dissects the central question within all music criticism: When we say that something sounds good, what are we really saying?” 1

 

By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, even Dr. Strange doesn’t spend that kind of money for protection!

 

Perfecting Sound Forever “tells the story of recorded music with novelistic verve, ferocious attention to detail, and a soulful ambivalence about our quest for sonic perfection.” 2

Perfecting Sound Forever “begins with the Big Bang and never quiets down in a voice that’s equal parts lay scientist and used-record-store guru.” 3

Perfecting Sound Forever is full of “provocative questions for any music lover [and] Milner makes these questions more fascinating—and more—unsettling—than ever.” 4

 

Soulful: first hardbound edition of Greg Milner's PERFECTING SOUND FOREVER.

The rather boring cover art on the dust jacket of the first hardbound edition (Faber & Faber, 2009).

The world’s most expensive turntable

In the introduction, Milner relates to traveling to the basement of legendary audiophile and stereo-addict Michael Fremer for a demonstration of the “most expensive turntable ever made.” That would be the Caliburn from Continuüm Audio Labs (CAL) which had a $65,000 price tag at the time of this book’s publication in 2009. I am assuming the cost included CAL’s Cobra tone-arm.

But apparently it was worth it, as Master Fremer declared Caliburn it to be the “best turntable he had ever heard.” Fremer’s Caliburn was set upon CAL’s complementary Castellon stand: 

“The Castellon was built to defend the Caliburn from external vibrations. Continuüm Audio Labs developed a scientifically designed ‘floating platform’ which uses a combination of magnetic and pneumatic isolation technologies. Two heavy opposing magnetic plates isolate the Caliburn from external vibrations with no hard flanking paths.” (CAL)

Fremer had reviewed the ensemble in 2006 for Stereophile, in which he opened his review with a dash of clever writing:

“Part New Jersey diner, part Wurlitzer jukebox, with a snakelike tonearm that at certain angles looks vaguely lewd, this boxy, man-sized creation from Australia seems to have been built around its distinctive looks rather than for any functional purpose.

Combine that with its sky-high price—itself almost obscene—and the result is apparently the sort of product that envious, cynical, self-loathing audiophiles love to hate, and reviewers love to write about.”

 

Soulful: first UK paperback edition of Greg Milner's PERFECTING SOUND FOREVER.

The even more colorful and more attractive UK paperback edition (Granta, 2010).

Fremer concluded his lengthy piece very positively:

“The Caliburn-Cobra excelled at every aspect of vinyl reproduction. As its noise floor dropped lower than I had ever imagined possible, it dug new low-level information out of most records I played. I was constantly being surprised by musical information buried in the mix that I’d never before heard. (I thought I’d written that cliché for the last time some years ago.) I wasn’t trying to hear things—they just appeared.

Yet there was no sense of hyperreality or enhanced image edge or tipped-up top end. And with the elimination of ‘overhang,’ the Caliburn’s rhythmic abilities, too, were second to none. The Caliburn’s bass performance was also singular: it produced bottom-end extension, weight, control, texture, dynamic authority, and—especially—agility better than any other ‘table I’d ever heard. It rocked!

The Caliburn-Cobra-Castellon performed better than any turntable I have ever heard, and by a gaping margin. That’s all there is to it. When you hear the music it lets escape from the grooves, you, too, will be astounded and swept off your feet. Count on it.”

 

Soulful: photo of the Caliburn-Cobra turntable-tonearm by Continuum Audio Labs.

Caliburn and Cobra.

Gawdawful expensive stereo gear

I knew none of this background information when I opened the pages of Perfecting Sound Forever. Oh. I knew who Michael Fremer was—I had read his stuff years ago, even though I rarely understood it. I knew there were gawdawful expensive turntables and tone-arms and even isolation stands.

I just didn’t know about the Caliburn ensemble until I read Milner’s account. And my response to his writing echoes much of the non-so-hyperbolic blurbs quoted above: he is inquisitive, his style does seem to have a noticeable novelistic verve, and best of all, he seems to display an ambivalence about Mr. Fremer’s quest for sonic perfection. Hell, he almost sounds cynically detached about the whole project, even though it’s the opening tale in his book!

I’m saying I enjoyed Milner’s writing and look forward to reading the rest of the book. Of course, to do that, I have to stop babbling/writing stuff 0n my websites.

 

Milner Caliburn Castellon copy

Caliburn and Cobra atop Castellon.

Deflecting bad vibrations

That said, I did want to point something out to any prospective buyers of products by Continuüm Audio Labs and similar audiophile-oriented companies: I know a way to save the thousands of dollars required for an isolation table or stand like the Castellon—and it doesn’t require anything as unlikely as a chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.

I have some New Age friends that have been assuring me—I mean absolutely assuring me!—for years and years that just as there are crystals and gemstones that attract good, good, good vibrations, there are crystals and gemstones that deflect, counteract, or otherwise fend off most common bad, bad, bad vibrations.

So, here’s my advice: place one such anti-bad crystal or gemstone on each corner of the surface on which your turntable rests and—Voila!—your listening should be vibration-free. 5

So if you’re in the market for a toppermost-of-the-poppermost, high-end audio gear but are working with a limited budget ($65,000 or less, obviously), leave me a message in the Comment section below and I’ll turn you on to one of my friends.

The cost of even the more powerful protective crystals and magical gemstones don’t come close to the Castellon’s $25,000.

By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, even Dr. Strange doesn’t spend that kind of money for protection!

 

Soulful: photo of a chunk of Black Tourmaline.

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is a piece of Black Tourmaline. I chose this rather lovely piece of Black Tourmaline as my featured image because it looks like a massive object that the USS Enterprise might happen upon somewhere in the void of deep space in an upcoming Star Trek movie. When that happens, Kirk should consider it a must to avoid.

But what do I know?

 


FOOTNOTES:

1   Quote from a blurb on the back of the dust jacket attributed to Chuck Klosterman, author of Downtown Owl, an “unpretentious, darkly comedic [novel] of how it feels to exist in a community where rural mythology and violent reality are pretty much the same thing” (from the publisher’s promotion of the book).

2   Quote from a blurb on the back of the dust jacket attributed to Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise, a “voyage into the labyrinth of modern music, which remains an obscure world for most people that shows why twentieth-century composers felt compelled to create a famously bewildering variety of sounds, from the purest beauty to the purest noise” (from the publisher’s promotion of the book).

3   Quote from a blurb on the back of the dust jacket attributed to Will Hermes, author of Spin: 20 Years of Alternative Music, a “twentieth-anniversary tribute celebrates the passion and fury of the music, with original essays, quotes, and photographs by contributors who are as hopelessly obsessed with it as you are” (from the publisher’s promotion of the book).

4   Quote from a blurb on the back of the dust jacket attributed to Bob Sheffield, author of Love Is a Mix Tape, a “stunning memoir [by] a veteran rock and pop culture critic and staff writer for Rolling Stone magazine [that] tells the story of his musical coming of age, and how rock music, the first love of his life, led him to his second, a girl named Renee [who] both became music journalists” (from the publisher’s promotion of the book).

5   And I hope that you have properly feng-shuied the placement of your turntable and the rest of your stereo set-up, otherwise, it’s all for naught . . .

 

Soulful: first US paperback edition of Greg Milner's PERFECTING SOUND FOREVER.

The much more colorful cover of the first US paperback edition (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

 

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