Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part LIV: Super Tables!
(September 2006)

Rome, as they say, was at its most decadent right before the fall.

Over the last couple years, however, things have been changing in my parents' cozy little adopted Colorado hometown. First, they put in a Walmart, which is usually the first sign of the apocalypse to come. Then, they broke ground on a shopping mall. And then one of the Ford dealerships turned into a BMW dealership. And finally, big gaudy houses started popping up all over with koi ponds, atriums, courtyards, turrets and Japanese maples. Yes, the Californians were on their way, ready to drive the property values up so high that the average local would no longer be able to afford the old Crawford house at the end of the block

I was there a few weeks ago, visiting my parents. I dragged them into a new furniture store, one that specialized in Western decor. I kind of dig that stuff, as over-the-top as it is, but I had no idea what was in store for me when I walked through the doors. I mean, this was expensive stuff. Hideously expensive. Ten thousand dollars for a sofa.

Then I told them something I've learned, mostly from dealing with high-end audio over the past few years. "For every consumer item you can think of, from toothbrushes to automobiles, there's an ultra-expensive version of it for rich people. Rich people simply don't want to own the same products that the masses do." The expensive items usually don't work any better than their mass-produced equivalents, but they're made of solid gold, or the jawbone of a Tibetan monk, so the price is justified. My parents seemed to accept this idea, but I can tell they didn't approve. I'm not sure I do either. But, in the words of Elvis Costello, I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.

High-end audio, of course, has always been a haven for this kind of marketing. There was quite a bit of controversy a couple of years ago when Wavac, a Japanese audio company, introduced their statement product, a eight-chassis tube amplifier which retailed for a mind-boggling $350,000. I won't even tell you all of the things you can buy with this kind of money, because every single review of this amp spends quite a bit of time laboring over this point (you can see Michael Fremer's review of the Wavac SH-833).

And I myself was a bit stunned when I saw a pair of Audio Note AN-E Sogon loudspeakers at an audio show last year. These speakers are rather modest-looking stand-mounted two-ways, based upon the old Snell E loudspeakers of the '80's, which retailed for about a grand. However, the Sogons retail for an incredible... wait for it... $125,000 A PAIR. That sounds like a horrific joke until you find out that the innards are wired with several pounds of pure, oxygen-free silver. And, of course, they sound great (for a picture of these, click on this:

I'm sure you know where I'm headed with this. I've mentioned the $73,750 Rockport Sirius III turntable many times in the past. I've never really criticized Andy Payor, the head of Rockport, for pricing this 'table so high because it is a truly awesome machine that boasts some extraordinary and complicated engineering. It weighs several hundred pounds. It looks gorgeous (click on this for a picture: And yes, it pushes the envelope in terms of absolute sound quality, even in the digital age. In fact, the Sirius's detractors feel that it makes LP's sound so perfect and pristine that they could be mistaken for CD's which, if you've been following this column, you'll know is not a good thing.

So I'm sure you won't be surprised when I tell you that the Rockport has been surpassed by at least two other 'tables. Most people thought it would be the Rockport Sirius IV, which never really materialized. Rockport, it seems, has been concentrating on manufacturing their excellent (and yes, very expensive) line of loudspeakers, and more than one person has told me that Payor believes that the Sirius III is as perfect as it can be (for some reason I doubt this- complacency is a rare thing in the high-end audio industry).

The first pretender to the throne is from Australia, from a company called Continuum. The Caliburn 'table is both stunning and strangely retro-looking at the same time: check here for a pic and note the wording of the web link. And yes, it costs anywhere from $90,000 to $112,000, depending upon finish. In its defense however, the $12,500 Cobra tonearm and the $25,000 Castellon equipment stand are included (yes, the stand costs as much as my Subaru WRX). Unlike the Rockport Sirius, the Caliburn does not look like a $100,000 turntable. It's certainly flashy and unique, with its somewhat blobby, oversized tonearm and its shiny metallic base, but it doesn't look like it would cost a fortune. Upon closer inspection, however, you begin to understand the technology, and the innovation, and, ultimately, the performance.

The second 'table is from a more well-known source. The Clearaudio Statement turntable, from Germany, is from a company I know and trust. I've been recommending their $400 Aurum Beta cartridge and their $800 Virtuoso Wood cartridge to anyone within shouting distance for years. And while these two products are certainly outstanding bargains for the performance you get, I might be more reluctant to throw the same praise at a $125,000 turntable. However, unlike the Continuum, you immediately understand why the Statement costs $125,000 (see here for a pic: I know people who would pay this kind of money if the Statement was a static sculpture that had no discernable function other than to stand there and look beautiful. The fact that the Statement makes beautiful music is icing on the cake.

Unfortunately, I have not yet heard the Statement, but I have seen it and yes, I've touched it. It is truly something to lust after. But so far, Clearaudio has only been displaying this turntable at the various audio shows I've been to in the last year. I haven't seen any formal reviews yet. I suspect they're waiting for the buzz to die down about the Caliburn.

I have heard the Caliburn however three different times, in three different systems, at two different shows. I'm reluctant to state my opinion about this turntable however because show conditions are so tricky, and exhibitors can give you a thousand reasons as to why their $400,000 audio system isn't sounding right- everything from small rooms to noisy crowds. It's never the equipment. But the Caliburn did sound awesome, in many ways, each of the three times I've heard it. But is it six figures worth of awesome? I'm not so sure yet.

The only way to know for sure is to have Continuum send a Caliburn to my house so that I can evaluate it in my system (I'm still waiting for them to return my call). And I suspect that in those circumstances, I would find it to be the best vinyl playback system I've ever heard. I know it would completely embarrassment my otherwise extraordinary J.A. Michell Orbe SE/SME V/Koetsu Rosewood analog rig. I know I would start the paperwork on my second mortgage so that I could keep it. But $100,000? Really?

See, the problem is that I keep hearing phenomenal rigs that cost a whole lot less than $100,000. I've heard turntables at audio shows that have moved me far more than the Caliburn did, at one-tenth the cost. I've been blown away by various 'tables over the years, such as the Brinkmann Balance, the Shindo Garrard 301, all three of the SME turntables, and yes, my own Michell. I even heard the venerable Linn Sondek a few weeks ago and thought, I could buy one of these and live happily ever after. And all of these 'tables, while far from affordable to the average non-audiophile, cost far less than these new supertables. In fact, without bringing my calculator out, I think I can buy all of the turntables I just listed for the price of the Clearaudio Statement.

In fact, I've recently made peace with the fact that I have a favorite turntable, and that one day I will probably sell my Michell so that I can buy one. It's the Wilson-Benesch turntable, the original one that's sometime called the Act ONE, and sometimes just called the Wilson-Benesch Turntable. It's the one that my friend Dr. Cameron owns, the one I've written about twice already (see here for a pic: It's even been discontinued for five or six years. And every time I hear one, whether it be at Dr. Cameron's house, or at an audio show, or at a dealer, I'm utterly entranced by what I hear. And the crazy thing is that they retailed for just a few thousand when they were new. How much would a used one cost?

I found out at the recent Home Entertainment 2006 show here in L.A.. I met with the new Breuer distributor because I wanted to know more about the elusive, legendary Breuer tonearm which is now being sold in the U.S.A. through a regular network (in the past, you had to deal with Mr. Breuer himself in Europe. He makes them by hand, one at a time). I knew from past shows that the distributor was a big fan of the WB turntable, and I told him how I thought it was the best turntable I've ever heard. He agreed completely and of course, he told me where I could find two Wilson Benesches, both mounted with Breuer arms. And yes, once again, my eyes turned into spinning pinwheels, and I started reaching for my checkbook...

I didn't go through with it. I may, however, in the near future. The point is, a used WB with a Breuer arm would cost me a tiny fraction of what the Continuum Caliburn or the Clearaudio would cost. And it moves me like no other 'table I've heard. So why would anyone buy either of these two supertables? Is it the Law of Diminishing Returns in action? Is it appreciation for the art and the engineering? Or is it case of just giving the rich people what they want?

I don't know. All I do know is that I've got to get back to work and make enough money so that I can give that Breuer rep a phone call. It's truly a sickness.

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