Holbo Airbearing Turntable and Acoustical Systems Aiwon and Palladian MC cartridges – part 1
Review samples supplied by Colab
Retail prices in the Benelux (including 21% VAT): 6.500 euro
Holbo Airbearing Turntable:
Acoustical Systems Aiwon: 6.980 euro
Acoustical Systems Palladian: 8.980 euro
High-end turntables tend to be bulky, large, heavy and complex but the Holbo is none of these. With this turntable, there is no separate motor, no ridiculously bulky platter and no bridge-size arm carriage. In all honesty, the Holbo looks conspicuously simple and I have to admit to having underestimated it.
Especially when it comes to linear tracking turntables and air bearings, one may think this will involve lots of care and results in an ongoing tweaky operation. But the Holbo air bearing turntable aims to completely turn that notion upside down. This turntable is incredibly simple to operate and when adjusted properly is pretty much a set and forget solution. All of its parameters have been carefully considered to achieve the best possible sound as well as the most trouble-free operation. It is the perfected result of a long study into perfecting the ideal turntable, culminating in this one-stop solution and that is why there is only one model in the Holbo catalog.
While visually understated, a close inspection reveals that the Holbo turntable contains many clever ideas that make adjusting and operating it a breeze. The arm can be adjusted in all directions but once adjusted (by your dealer, if you like), it is fixed in position very rigidly. There are two external boxes, the power supply and the air pump. The former can just be connected and never needs a second thought after that because switching on the platter rotation is done from the turntable itself. The air pump is not 100% inaudible but it is so silent that it can be positioned behind the system without being audible. You can hear a soft whirr when up close but you can’t hear this from the listening position. My refrigerator, for example, is way louder. If desired the pump can be fitted with a dehumidifier but as was explained to me, that really is not necessary unless one consistently forgets to switch off the pump at the end of the listening sessions.
The air pump provides pressurized air for the platter as well as the arm. The funny thing is that when the air pump is off, the platter rests directly on the metal layer underneath and it cannot be rotated until the air pressure is on. Then, all of a sudden, it rotates entirely freely. I totally understand how this works but it still is fascinating to see it in practice. The platter is rotated via a precision-cast (not glued) rubber belt that is driven by an electronically-controlled DC-motor. This motor seems to be coupled rigidly to the turntable chassis but thanks to the air bearing, this has absolutely no audible influences. The tangential arm is attached to a collar that moves over a polished steel tube. Rather than this tube being perforated for creating the air cushion (and losing a lot of pressure via the exposed holes), the arm collar itself is attached to the air pump via an extremely thin and very flexible tube, making it move silently, efficiently and without any friction. In fact, the arm’s motion is so very smooth that you can witness it moving left and right by more than a millimeter when playing a record that was cut off-center. With regular pivot arms, this would result in speed variations as the arm gets shorter and longer but with the Holbo’s tangential arm, that just does not happen. Reassuringly, you can even see that the cantilever is entirely static while the entire arm assembly is being moved left and right by the grooves in the record. That’s how little friction the arm has!
The cabling to the arm has been cleverly routed through a slid in the turntable’s body. This way, there is no getting stuck in any protruding wires while it makes for a very tidy look.
When the turntable was delivered to me it was fitted with an Acoustical Systems Aiwon MC cartridge. Quoted as having high-Purity 5N Silver Coils, a special dampened timet 1100 titanium alloy corpus, 0.33 mV output, a Q4 Shibata EVO stylus and a C37-coated tempered aluminum Cantilever, this is no ordinary cartridge and it is priced accordingly. Delivered along with the Aiwon was Acoustical Systems’ latest novelty the Palladian MC cartridge that is even more special but I’ll get to that further down. For now, my listening starts with the Aiwon.
The Holbo was listened to using a range of phono preamps such as the Lejonklou Entity, the Line Magnetic LP-33 and the Jeff Rowland Cadence with BPS-2 power supply. With a regular power supply, the latter is a little too sweet and relaxed for my current taste but with the BPS-2 and associated huge switching power supply, the Cadence was actually not that far removed from the epic performance of the CH Precision P1. My reference, however, remains the P1 and so this is what I used predominantly.
Listening with the Aiwon
Fitted with the Acoustical Systems Aiwon MC cartridge, set up on a 36-mm MDF shelf atop an Artesania Exoteryc rack and connected to the CH Precision L1 phono preamp with an AudioQuest Water cinch interlink, the Holbo sounds surprisingly robust. Due to earlier experiences with air bearing arms, I’ll admit to expecting a very detailed but relatively thin and powerless sound. But with the Holbo, there’s none of that. This turntable has superb bass but also sounds exceedingly neutral and even-handed and is fabulously expressive. There is no excessive treble air nor an artificially tipped-up treble, no hardness or coloration anywhere and the bass really is just perfect. And I really mean that. There is no excess or extra body but also absolutely nothing missing. The bass has an amazingly linear and coherent quality from the lowest notes all the way to the lower midrange without any humps or valleys or any changes in tonality. And not only is the bass extremely linear, it is also extremely well-defined and this makes that the turntable is amazingly articulate, revealing subtle plucks and soft ghost notes more clearly even than my Origin Live Calypso mk4 turntable with Illustrious arm, Silver Hybrid cable and ViRa Aidas Rainbow MC cartridge.
In order to achieve this level of performance, it is very important the cartridge is set up correctly. But that is the case with every turntable. Fortunately, the Holbo makes it very easy to get everything sorted. Unlike with regular pivot arms, linear tracking arms are designed to have zero tracking error and this value does not change depending on the position on the LP. This means that all one needs to take care of is that the arm guide is set to a precise 90-degree angle and the cartridge is mounted in a straight fashion. Then, the overhang is adjusted by means of a supplied protractor with only a single line. When the needle tip is right on the line across the LP’s surface, then everything is peachy. All that remains is the tracking force which is easily adjusted with the counterweight and the VTA, the vertical tracking angle. This is where the Holbo again surprised me by offering VTA adjustment via a thumb-wheel that, if you like, can even be used while the turntable is playing! With the Holbo, there is just none of the fiddly stuff than one might fear for when thinking of a linear tracking turntable.
All this talk of perfection may make one think that the Holbo sounds overly technical or, perhaps, non-emotional. Although it has no detectable character of its own, this is most definitely not the case. The Holbo is very neutral and clean itself but it can sound clean or voluptuous, cool or warm, flat or room-filling and anywhere in between, depending on the record, cartridge, cable, phono preamp and the rest of the system.
One choice that is left to the owner is in the interlink that is used between the Holbo and the phono preamp. I started with the AudioQuest Water which immediately revealed the turntable’s strong points as I mentioned above. This AudioQuest cable has a well-controlled and strongly delineated sound but it is not exactly lush and it can lack some subtlety and air. And in comparison with the Origin Live turntable with its lush-sounding Silvery Hybrid cable, I felt that the Holbo, while allround great, was just a little bit flat and overly controlled in terms of front-to aft soundstage movement.
Raiding my cable drawers to find alternatives with a different sound I found the “VLS high grade audio cable”. This is a very cost-effective cable which does not look like much but it sounds very smooth and fluid and while it is a little soft it avoids sounding clogged. One may think it heresy to use such as cable with such a fine system but I know that, above all, obtaining good results in audio is about synergy. And, clearly, this cable worked very synergistically with the Holbo and the Acoustical Systems cartridges.
With the AudioQuest’s stridency replaced with a sweeter rendition, the previously slightly rigid soundstage became more fluid and more engulfing indeed. Meanwhile, the Holbo’s supremely good speed and definition were largely unharmed.
The next cable that I tried was the Vermouth Reference which has a similarly controlled delivery as the AudioQuest but brings a more colorful sound along with more forceful bass which was working very well with the Holbo.
Thanks to its air bearings, the Holbo is said to be immune to influences from the material onto which it is placed. These same air bearings make that the turntable can be made from a single slab and with no suspension anywhere because those cushions of air inside the bearings are all the isolation that it needs. Given that I found no differences with the Holbo set up on the MDF shelf atop the Artesania Exoteryc rack’s outer frame or on the Artesania Modular Rack, there seems to be truth to the immunity statement.
The turntable’s integral feet contain spikes but no bases are supplied and so, Francois of Colab delivered 3 nicely matching stainless steel spike bases with the turntable. To test the influence of the feet I replaced the stainless steel bases and replaced them with Neoprene pads as supplied with Artesania racks.
As it turned out, this made a very noticeable difference. The steel bases make for the tightest and most articulate bass while the Neoprene pads provide a fuller and fatter bass with a thicker and more relaxed lower midrange which helps reduce the sense of leanness when the turntable is used with a lean-sounding cartridge. With the Acoustical Systems, I’d say that the stainless steel bases are perfect but it is good to know that different materials do lead to audible differences.
Part 1 – Part 2