The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXIV: As Good As It Gets
Over the last couple of years, I've been very fortunate when it comes to listening to high quality stereo equipment. Instead of frequenting the local audio salons and attending every audio show in the Western United States, I'm now able to have this stuff shipped directly to my house, or at least to the offices of the magazine where I work (which is just down the road from me, here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest). Sometimes my publisher and I glance at each other with a look that implies, "Can you believe we get paid to do this?" It's a charmed life, to be sure.
Sure, I'm spoiled. I remember back in my days as a fledgling audiophile, when I could only imagine what a $10,000 turntable or a $50,000 pair of speakers sounded like. Now, it's part of the daily grind. What, you want me to review another expensive tube amplifier? Just throw it over there in that pile in the corner. What's that, a $5000 cartridge? I'll get to it when I get to it.
To tell the truth, I'm hardly that jaded. I do thank my lucky stars every day that I have access to such extraordinary hardware. In the last year, I've had hands-on experience with a $33,000 CD player, a $110,000 speaker system and other assorted niceties with price tags designed to initiate cardiac arrest in most normal folks - but there's another side to all of this, a facet that reminds me of a certain Peggy Lee song. Is it really a good thing when you reach the apex of a hobby or an enthusiasm? Is the journey you take to get to your ultimate destination more rewarding than finally arriving?
More succinctly, is that all there is to a $60,000 turntable?
Yes, I've been listening to the Continuum Criterion, an Australian-made turntable from an audio company that has really shaken things up in High-End audio. You've probably already read a couple of articles about Continuum, which were undoubtedly wedged in between those fluff pieces about the guy with a $6 million home theater system, and that other guy who has such an awesome stereo system that he has to hire a full-time assistant to keep everything running. (Neither of those guys, by the way, own a Continuum turntable, so there.) You can read more about Continuum turntables at continuumaudiolabs.com. While you're there, you'll probably notice that the Criterion isn't even their state-of-the-art effort. That distinction belongs to the $125,000 Caliburn, the Criterion's big brother.
So, what does a $60,000 turntable sound like? Well, I'm not going to lie to you. It's pretty fantastic. I've never heard anything like it. Mated with the Dynavector XV-1, one of the finest cartridges in the world, and connected to the new Conrad-Johnson reference phono stage, the Criterion did what only the best equipment does. It laid out every single detail in the recording, and it did so without sounding bright, harsh, or fatiguing. It sounded relaxed, laid-back, and open, and at the same time it was a ruthless tool for revealing every nuance in every LP. It was everything I dreamed about when it came to perfect analog reproduction. It was the end of a long, long journey. It was Emerald City and that stupid volcano in The Lord of the Rings all rolled up into one.
So, why don't I feel excited? Well, I'm sure a tiny part of me is saying that if the Criterion is so amazing, then the Caliburn should be extra-primo amazing. Also, I have to check my naivety at the door and leave room for even more improvement in the future, and think of the likelihood that this kind of technology will trickle down, and in 10 years we'll be able to extract this type of performance from a $20,000 turntable, or a $10,000 one. I'm reminded once again of J. Gordon Holt, founder of Stereophile magazine, who in 1985 declared that analog couldn't get any better than the SOTA Star Sapphire turntable and SME V tonearm. That's when he made his famous declaration, which I've quoted before, that every technology becomes perfected just as it becomes obsolete. Well, Mr. Holt, that was 23 years ago. I couldn't imagine your reaction if you had been able to hear a Continuum back then.
Another reason for my lack of enthusiasm for a $60,000 turntable is that these kind of products are met with almost universal disdain these days, and presented as examples of decadence, or pure snake oil and chicanery. More and more, I find myself arguing about the merits of these kinds of products, and it always turns into some kind of class war. A $60,000 turntable, or a $350,000 or $1 million speaker system always winds up being evil in some way. Never have I heard the Law of Diminishing Returns invoked with such inaccuracy. I'm often criticized for championing such products. I've been called an elitist snob more than once, which is very amusing to me, because I'm pretty much a working-class schlub like many of you. I can't afford this stuff. I'm just fortunate enough to be paid to play with it for a while. When I'm done, I have to pack it up and ship it back to the manufacturer, because I can't afford it, either.
In other words, it pains me to have to mention that I've heard the Continuum, and that I heartily endorse it. I know what some people are going to say.
What bothers me, however, is that I do still get excited about this stuff. I don't hate manufacturers like Continuum for building something I can't afford. I congratulate them for taking engineering to the extreme and seeing what is possible. I know that the trickle down theory is alive and well in audio, and what I can't afford today, I may afford later. For instance, I recently had the pleasure of reviewing a used pair of Celestion SL600s, which were the first premium-priced mini-monitors available. In 1983, these tiny speakers cost around $1600. I loved their sound back then, but I knew I could never afford them. Flash forward to 2008, and I have the opportunity to buy them... for about $300 for the pair. They still sound good to me, by the way.
I don't know if the Criterion can be bought for a song in the year 2033. Besides, I'll be 71 then, and my hearing will probably be shot; however, I can love and respect a $60,000 turntable now without one iota of resentment. It reminds me of those TV commercials when I was a kid, where the hot model says, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." Don't hate high-end audio because it's expensive. No one is twisting your arm to buy it.
That's what it all comes down to... listening to music, having fun, and not getting angry about this stuff. I am still utterly flabbergasted when people become upset with the idea of a hyper-expensive audio component. It's designers and engineers strutting their stuff, nothing more. You don't see seething and hatred when it comes to Ferrari or Rolex or Lear. It is what it is. It's fun to talk about these products, and it's fun that they exist. Yet, they all perform a function, just like the Criterion does. It's not like it's a $60,000 diamond, or something useless like that. I took a picture of the Criterion with my cell phone and sent it to family members and friends. "What's that?" they asked. "A $60,000 turntable," I replied. They mostly laughed and said, "Wow!" They didn't pull out their copies of Das Kapital and start lecturing me about the fall of Western Civilization.
The most surprising part about my experience with the Continuum Criterion was that I still went home and enjoyed my system immensely. That's one of the jokes about becoming an audiophile, that once you hear something better you have to buy it, because you'll never be satisfied again with what you own. Maybe that's where the jaded part comes in. I've heard quite a lot at this point, and it's all good. Some of it is in Australia, and costs as much as a small house. Some of it is in my living room, and I got a really good deal on it, which is why I was able to afford it on my working-class wages.
Some of it is still out there, waiting to be invented. Maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to afford it by the time it shows up.
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