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 Con­tinuum 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. Con­tinuum 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 Con­tinuum 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?



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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