Turntables come in all shapes, sizes and prices. But here's one so extreme in its pursuit of perfection it breaks the mould. The Continuum Caliburn is not only the most expensive turntable ever made; it's also one of the heaviest, one of the most solidly engineered and (not least) one of the most functionally attractive and elegant too.
The Caliburn is undoubtedly a tour de force – a labour of love. The design aim was simple: produce the finest turntable possible, regardless of cost.
But this is 2009, not 1979. That the 'obsolete' vinyl LP still fascinates fresh generations of listeners is nothing short of remarkable.
The creators of the Caliburn are living proof of this. They didn't start as vinyl aficionados; being of a certain age, their introduction to hi-fi came via CD. The love affair with analogue LPs began when they encountered a top-class turntable and experienced a quality of sound CD didn't approach.
This led to a desire to produce a new 'super turntable' – one designed from the ground up and without compromise.
Access to universities with advanced testing and measuring facilities meant the early part of the design process could be 'simulated' using advanced computer software.
After certain fundamentals were established, prototypes were built and evaluated. While no single factor explains the Caliburn's superior performance; there are several significant design details.
Among the most important is the motor – a battery-powered DC-type, developed to be free from the 'cogging' effects common to virtually all motors.
It has sufficient torque to drive the 30kg platter and is in absolute control – power isn't reduced once the platter reaches speed, nor is any deliberate belt slippage allowed (two-ways lesser turntables reduce the cogging effect).
The motor is built in-house and constitutes a significant part of the Caliburn's cost. Speeds of 33, 45, and 78rpm are available, with +/- fine-tuning.
The Caliburn's chassis is made from solid magnesium alloy, chosen for its strength and low resonance properties. However, magnesium is a difficult material to work with and not easy to finish, so the front and sides of the deck were given aluminium panels, creating a more attractive appearance, with the top section veneered in French walnut as standard.
A magnetic suspension system was developed for the centre bearing and plinth suspension. With the latter, powerful magnets are placed with their poles opposite one another to create a 'floating' system that's firm, but de-coupled.
While the platter weighs a hefty 30kg, magnetic part-suspension ensures the oil-Pressurised hydrostatic centre-bearing only supports a load of around 2kg. Magnets also play a similar role in the Castellon stand.
A great turntable deserves a special arm and the cobra looks quite different to most tonearms on the market. Its shape was dictated by the desire to avoid symmetry, which might lead to common resonance modes.
The arm shell is made from fibrous resin and is inherently self-damping. Many different types of bearing were considered, but eventually a kind of stabilised uni-pivot arrangement was chosen. This has the advantage of very low friction, high torsional stability and excellent rigidity.
Cartridge vta and azimuth can be precision-adjusted while the disc plays and the counterweight is placed below the tonearm's centre of gravity to improve stability and the tracking of warped LPs. Not that warped LPs would trouble this deck; the Caliburn incorporates a special vacuum mat with air pump that sucks the record flat to the platter.
This virtually eliminates LP dishing and warpage, while dampening resonances that might occur within the vinyl LP itself. The pump takes a few seconds to achieve suction; after that, it's switched off while the record plays.
Our review Caliburn was pre-fitted with a Koetsu Red K Signature which sounds absolutely magnificent – rich, tactile and highly detailed – even if it could be considered a bit 'low-priced' in this context!
Although the Caliburn is highly inert and very well isolated, the Castellon stand is an integral part of the package. It provides a solid, stable platform for the turntable, houses the motor power supply and pump, and raises the deck to mid-chest height, making it easy to use.
The complete package comes in six boxes with a total shipping weight of about 450kg and an actual weight of 300kg. Installation is a two-man job, taking about eight hours.
So – what might the 'perfect' turntable actually sound like? While CD sets a benchmark in terms of pitch stability and overall security, it lacks other qualities.
The Caliburn certainly equals CD on its home territory, giving an exceptionally solid, secure and stable musical presentation. It sounds absolutely unflappable – as though nothing short of an earthquake could upset it.
On instruments such as piano or acoustic guitar, there's no wobble or pitch waver. Playing a recording of Beethoven's Pathétique piano sonata, the heavy chords that open the work decayed with absolute steadiness. There was no hint of pitch variation – none.
Not knowing, most listeners (this one included) would assume that a CD was being played – it's that stable. And the Caliburn boasts another type of stability. Voices and instruments stay put in the stereo soundstage and don't shift or wander as the music alters – each individual strand maintains complete independence and individuality, while overall the music sounds cohesive and coherent.
Playing the live 1982 LP Ongaku Kai by the Crusaders, the turntable creates a coherent, yet holographic soundstage with huge amounts of percussion detail. Partnered by darTZeel amplification and Magico V3 loudspeakers, it reveals previously hidden space and detail.
On the 1989 LP Sybil, the spatial width and depth of the various layers of voice and backing are almost palpable; the music seems to hang in free space – behind, above and around the loudspeakers. The bottom end is very deep, with impressive weight and power.
It's like listening to master tapes rather than LPs. The music has the sort of effortless ease and fine subtle detail you get from first-generation masters. Soundstaging is airy and holographic – very 'out of the speaker boxes' – extremely dynamic and lively.
The Caliburn offers an intriguing mix of opposites: exceptional tightness and control, allied to extremes of bandwidth, dynamic contrast and tone colour, topped off with a creamy-smooth effortless ease.
It's capable of the utmost subtlety and delicacy, quiet passages possessing considerable refinement. Yet there's nothing fragile about the sound; it's always solid and full-bodied and the overall presentation has an impressive robustness.
The deck is like the best CD you never heard; it presents the music with comparable security, but brings extra finesse and broader dynamic extremes to the mix.
The Caliburn also has the ability to keep surprising you. One minute it sounds smooth and honey-rich, the next it's sharp and tactile. But, to be accurate, it's not the turntable surprising you; it's the music and the original recording.
The Caliburn liberates your recordings – allows them to be more like they really are, rather than constrained by limitations in the playback equipment. As a result, voices and instruments display a greater range of tonal colours.
It's this that distinguishes the turntable from even the best CD players. The Caliburn produces a wider variety of sounds. Given a reasonably good LP, the music keeps on surprising. By comparison, CD has a degree of 'sameness' – LP offers subtler individual tonal colours, plus more finely shaded dynamics.
Of course, the vinyl experience encompasses more than just sound quality. There are all those enjoyable little rituals – removing the disc from its sleeve, wiping the surface, cleaning the stylus, cueing the arm. Playing LPs is a very 'hands-on' personal thing. Because you're part of the process, you're more involved.
And there's something else. When you play an LP – especially a vintage original – something intangible happens. Your listening experience changes. It's almost as if the living, breathing aura of the musicians permeates the LP sleeve and grooves, making the music sound and feel different. Fanciful, perhaps – but often, that's how it seems as the stylus touches down…
The Caliburn/Cobra/Castellan is an exceptional combination, producing results far greater than the sum of its parts. It offers outstanding focus and solidity, allied to incredible detail and stunning dimensionality. Of course, it costs a bomb. But you definitely get what you pay for.
Value is a tricky subject. A product that offers class-leading standards of performance, a genuine pride of ownership, plus an exceptional finish and battleship build quality can be said to offer good value even if its price is very high. And anyway, how do you define 'expensive'? Aston Martin recently launched its one-77 sports car in Geneva – at a cool £1.25m, it makes the cost of a Caliburn look like small change.
But equipment like the Caliburn is worth celebrating. Yes it's expensive, but it also sets standards. It takes a certain dedication to the cause to push the theoretical performance limits of a format beyond typical price constraints.
And as Dr Murugasu says in our Q&A, the quest for absolute perfection was only limited by the restricted amount of exotic materials his team could get their hands on. Will anybody else put this much effort into finding perfection ever again?
The Caliburn is for life. It's not inexpensive, but how do you value a lifetime's pleasure and enjoyment?