Afew years ago, Continuum Audio Labs made the Caliburn turntable. It was an air-suspended, air-bearing, air-and-vacuum everything design that pushed the frontiers of both what you can get out of a record and – let’s be brutally honest, here – just how much you can spend on a record player. Just 100 of these six-figure decks were made, and then Continuum became little more than a footnote in sister brand Constellation Audio’s back story. The electronics brand was growing exponentially at the time and making a hundred six-figure turntables was considered saturation point, even with a deck as highly prized as the Caliburn and its Copperhead arm partner. Many thought that would be the last we would ever see of Continuum. And many were wrong, because the company is back with the new Obsidian turntable and Viper tonearm.
The Obsidian is a complete departure for Continuum. Where its predecessor was all air and vacuum, sucking the record in place and creating an almost suspension, the Obsidian is a solid chunk of deck. This doesn’t mean compromise, however, every aspect of the turntable might be different from before but that doesn’t make it inferior, more ‘differently better’, and given that you could buy almost three Obisidians for the price of a Caliburn, ‘differently better’ is one hell of an achievement.
Obsidian is actually the end result of the project that spun out of the Caliburn. Launched in 2005, that turntable was Continuum’s vision of the best turntable it was possible to make at the time. With more than a decade of research into turntable design and materials science since then, the Obsidian represents Continuum’s vision of the best turntable it is possible to make today. That the vision itself is very different does not change the goal.
The root of the clever parts of the Obsidian is that ability to not be hide-bound by past conventions, and especially by past glories, and instead to start ‘tabula rasa’. In the process, Continuum liken the development of the Obsidian to that of an elite sports car, spending dozens of man-years researching into motor technology, bearing manufacture, chassis design, platter design, and more. The company didn’t just throw out all the elements of the Caliburn for the sake of it; they analysed the original project to see what aspects of the design could be recycled, transplanted, or improved upon, and what parts could be consigned to history.
For example, the nested platter is retained, but radically improved. The turntable maker deployed a lot of finite-element analysis modelling to damp vibrations, both the ones coming from the stylus-record interface, and the ones coming through the ground via the base. By careful design, any unwanted resonances are pushed way outside of the audio band where their influence is minimised. According to Continuum, the platter is the component that contributes the largest amount of character to the sound thanks to those resonances. By removing those resonances well outside the audio band, the turntable loses an intrinsic character of its own. As you will see, this is something of an obsession at Continuum. It’s also worth noting that the new version of the nested platter is of sufficiently high mass to create its own flywheel effect.
That can be exploited if the platter sits on a bearing hard enough (both in literal ‘Rockwell’ and figurative ‘hard man’ terms) to benefit, and Continuum nailed this by going big. Really big. The massively oversized bearing in the Obsidian is larger than that of almost every other turntable brand on the planet. In fact, this is not simply to help spin a massive platter, it’s because of the relationship between bearing size and platter resonance that only Continuum and a handful of other deck makers seem to have noticed. By replacing the normal spindle-sized bearing with one that wouldn’t look out of place on an axle of a small truck, resonance is kept below 10Hz.
The really interesting part here is the bearing is magnetically opposed, but does not float, so it acts as a low-friction design, but retains a mechanical grounding path. That means none of the risk of wobble found in other mag-bearing designs. It also has a ball and shaft made from tungsten, which means torque transfer is excellent and the bearing will last a lifetime or three.
The obsessiveness applied to the bearing and platter housing are echoed in the design of the motor and its housing. Continuum refers to this motor as The Quiet One because the 35mm, 60V DC motor uses a high-power design with graphite brushes and ball bearings instead of sleeve bearings, making sure that any vibrations are damped elsewhere in the structure. The DC motor itself is servo controlled at a higher rate (53.6kHz) than its competitors, meaning cogging effects are functionally zero. This is fed by an off-board power supply that can be used to set precise, drift-free 33 and 45 rpm, or can be speed controlled slightly through a series of button pushes on the external box’s front panel. The logic to drive the speed control is a little ‘modal’ (press to engage 33 rpm, depress to disengage 33, then press to engage 45 rpm, and so on) but this soon becomes second nature. Almost.
Even the armboard has been given careful consideration, and as that is the part that is usually given lip service in a turntable design, this is impressive in the extreme. The armboard housing has two outriggers (it can be connected to both the regular position to the right of the turntable, or applied to the two covered holes in the front, allowing for two arms should you wish. The arm is actually ‘suspended’ using a magnetic attachment system, although this is – once again – to prevent vibration interfering with the arm’s operation.
This creates a high-mass arm base, but also one that is double-isolated against the transfer of vibration or resonance. Like the deck itself, much of the mount is tungsten.