Holbo Mk II Airbearing Turntable Review
James Michael Hughes gets in a spin over this exotic new Eastern European air-bearing turntable system…
Mk II Airbearing Turntable System
AUD $12,000 RRP (without cartridge)
Meet this stylish new linear-tracking belt-drive turntable from Slovenia. That's novel enough, but it doesn't stop there because it features air bearings for both its tonearm and platter. Yet despite such sophisticated engineering, it is actually delightfully straightforward and uncomplicated to set up and use. That pretty much puts it in a gang of one, as far as high-end vinyl spinners are concerned…
While air bearing turntables are hardly new, it's only comparatively recently that the downsides affecting such designs have finally been eliminated. In theory, floating the arm and turntable platter on a cushion of air seems ideal. Unfortunately, it's easier said than done because it often involves noisy and unreliable air pumps.
Also, why go to the bother of a linear tracking tonearm when so many manufacturers use simpler, conventional designs? When an LP is cut, the grooves are engraved by a head that traverses the lacquer in a straight line, yet nearly all tonearms are pivoted. This leads to slight geometrical errors that result in tracing distortion. So there's logic in playing records with an arm that traverses the disc in a straight line.
Alas, it's not that simple. A linear tracking arm is a 'leader' – excellent when it comes to cutting a new groove but not so adept at 'following' a pre-cut groove. To move the arm laterally, what's needed is either a motor with some sort of servo correction or else a bearing with virtually zero friction. An air bearing seems like the best option of the many possible engineering solutions for making a functional linear tracking arm.
The trouble is, designing an air bearing tonearm that works reliably and quietly isn't easy. The main drawbacks – pump noise and lack of day-to-day consistency/reliability – can very easily become frustrating and annoying. You actually needed to house the air pump in another room with older designs!
Fortunately, these caveats do not apply to the Holbo. Designer Bostjan Holc has neatly solved all the issues associated with air bearings efficiently and gracefully. Consequently, you get to enjoy the advantages of air bearings with none of the drawbacks.
Holbo's elegant and straightforward design delivers smooth, friction-free results. The benefits of an air bearing are – in my view – more significant than the relatively small reduction in tracing error gained with linear tracking, although that's certainly useful. With air, you get a bearing with almost zero free play and virtually no stiction. The Holbo arm glides effortlessly on a 200mm long, 15mm diameter tube, floating on a cushion of air and following the groove with minimal exertion. Due to intelligent design, Holbo's air bearings seem to run on relatively small amounts of air. This helps keep noise levels down and reduces the amount of dust that might be sucked in.
All this should increase reliability and minimise the need for servicing. Obviously, much depends on how clean the air is in your specific environment. But Bostjan Holc reckons the air pump should be good for at least a decade before any cleaning or maintenance is required.
The compressed air to float the main bearing and arm, and electrical power for the deck's DC motor, are now supplied from a single box measuring 225x147x120mm; the original Mk I Holbo had separate boxes for the pump and motor power supply. After switching off, the air pump remains working for a few minutes before everything closes down.
The power supply box is virtually silent and runs cool. There's no hint of hiss or swish to be heard – only a faint transformer buzz that's barely discernible even with your ear right next to the unit. Putting your ear close to the turntable itself, you can just detect a soft, hardly audible whirr. In terms of air noise, the Holbo is fractionally quieter than the Bergmann Magne, albeit not by much. You'd need to have your ear close to either deck to detect any sound at all.
The platter is made from 25mm thick aluminium alloy and weighs a hefty 5kg. The air bearing itself is said to weigh around 2kg. Unusually the platter is not removable, as such. It feels very 'dead' and does not ring when tapped. Drive is via a thin round belt.
With the unit no longer powered up, the bearing loses air, and the platter comes to rest on an alloy support. The platter only spins when air is fed to the bearing. As it's floating, the bearing is very quiet and has extremely low friction. Spinning freely at 33.3rpm with the belt removed, the platter takes 3 minutes to stop turning. By way of comparison, Origin Live's excellent Resolution deck lasts 1m 42s, while Acoustic Solid's MPX with its massive 12kg platter only turns for 1m 20s. This gives some idea of how remarkably friction-free the Holbo's main bearing is.
Given the high mass of the platter, start-up time is surprisingly fast, and the correct running speed at 33rpm is achieved within one revolution or so. The motor has a fairly high torque drive, then. Speeds of 33.3 and 45rpm are offered, and fine-speed adjustment is via preset pots on the rear of the unit. The deck is intended to be used without a platter mat, although you could always experiment here. Any mat you try needs to be pretty thin, as the centre spindle (made from Delrin) is relatively short and stubby at only about 8mm in length. The deck comes supplied with a reasonably heavy record puck.
A nice feature of the Holbo tonearm is the way it allows user adjustment of VTA as an LP plays; azimuth and SRA are also adjustable. Being able to alter the VTA while listening is unbelievably helpful. It makes a tricky and often frustratingly time-consuming adjustment simple during set-up.
A further benefit of parallel tracking is that the arm can be relatively short. In the case of the Holbo, the arm is around 163mm long. It has low effective mass, too, said to be around 7.5g. This, coupled with a low friction air bearing, makes this tonearm extremely good at tracking warped LPs.
Two LPs of mine demonstrated this; both have nasty edge-warps that cause most pickups to jump. One LP of songs by Hugo Wolff that I have owned for about forty years is almost a write-off, as no pivoted arm I've tried has ever been able to play it without jumping – but amazingly, the Holbo managed it! And it did so with very little audible evidence that the record was damaged. There were no thumps and hardly any pitch wobble. This same LP on a pivoted arm typically jumps about thirty times, with low-frequency noises each time the warped section comes around. One potential drawback with short tonearms can be an increased susceptibility to audible pitch change when playing warped LPs, sometimes referred to as warp-wow. However, I could not detect any pitch variations playing warped LPs here.
Out of the box, I had things up and running within forty minutes – and hardly needed to refer to the instruction book. Holbo thoughtfully supplies all the tools you'll need, including Allen keys and a small screwdriver to adjust platter speed. It was easy to set up, but you need to take great care over accurately levelling the deck; otherwise, the arm will skate. Sensitivity to correct level is something that affects all air-bearing parallel-tracking arms. As the arm is not pivoted, there's no need for anti-skating correction. The Holbo's three adjustable spiked feet are usefully offset so that levelling is made easier to achieve. Three dimpled support discs are included, so the spikes don't damage your shelf.
Measuring 430x400mm, the deck is not so large as to require a special platform. At the same time, it's quite spacious; including the arm, the whole unit stands about 160mm tall. No lid is provided, but you'd need one about 12cm high to clear the top of the arm. The tonearm's lift/lower device is not fluid damped as such, and the lever feels firm when moved. However, the operation is smooth and even.
The Holbo Mk II retails in Australia for $12,000 (without cartridge), which is a fair amount to pay for a turntable. However, when you consider its status as a reference-class air-bearing design, the cost is low. The Bergmann Magne is over $5,000 more, and while it's undoubtedly gorgeous, so too is the Holbo!
Superficially, the two decks have much in common, but the Holbo often differs slightly from the Bergmann. The latter has compressed air pumped into the tube that the arm sleeve runs on, with numerous tiny holes in the tube so that air can escape to support the arm sleeve. The Holbo's tube is solid; air is taken via a neoprene tube direct to the arm bearing itself. The Holbo arrangement works more efficiently, reducing the amount of air required.
However, having the air tube attached to the arm potentially adds mass and might impede movement. Theoretically, this could make the arm slightly harder to move. However, any adverse effect on travel is slight. Playing the LP with edge-warp, I could see the bearing sleeve moving 2 to 3mm left/right very quickly – so movement is definitely not impeded.
My review sample wasn't supplied with an arm cable; you'll need to source your own – which is a little odd. The cartridge tags used by Holbo are very nice, though, feeling sturdy and gripping the pins on the cartridge firmly. Swapping cartridges is straightforward. I used Origin Live's excellent Discovery One phono stage, which lets you hear subtle detail with outstanding clarity.
The first LPs I played immediately conveyed impressions of a crisp, detailed sound with precision and presence. Musically, Holbo's presentation is extremely solid and focused. It's a crisp, analytical sort of sound; sharp and immediate, rather than warm and relaxed. Music is reassuringly secure and comfortable, and it feels as though the stylus is tracing the groove with absolute assurance, imparting a sense of ease to the listener. The sound is clean and firm, and it feels like nothing can go wrong.
Surface noise is very low, and so too is vinyl roar; there's no low-frequency noise to speak of unless it's on the vinyl itself. Putting the stylus on a small box, so it contacted the plinth, I could detect no transmitted noise from the motor or bearing. The deck is also completely hum-free. Having a DC motor, you might expect this, but the arm has a fairly long run of unshielded Litz cable, which could be prone to hum pickup. I had a slight issue with hum using the Bergmann Magne, but not so here.
Playing Jazz at the Pawnshop on Proprius, the focus and precision of the sound was very impressive, and effortlessly dynamic. Quiet background noises such as people talking and drinking glasses clinking were reproduced so clearly, that I felt able to hear right into the recorded acoustic. Likewise, Keith Jarrett's Koln Concert on ECM sounded airy and tactile. Solo piano was reproduced smoothly yet with a pleasing sense of bite and dynamic attack. Pitch stability was outstanding, as the piano tone was solid and stable without so much as a hint of wobble or waver.
I was also impressed by this deck's transparency and neutrality. The Holbo deftly unpacks multiple layers of voices and instruments – something that was very apparent when listening to ELO's A New World Record LP. I found myself hearing all manner of quiet background voices and instruments that I hadn't ever noticed before. Indeed you might even say that this deck's presentation is too tight and clean. Of course it's a matter of taste, but with Elvis Costello's Almost Blue, things seemed almost CD-like, so dry was the bass. The sound was excellent, though; I can't say otherwise!
Trying Origin Live's Resolution turntable with Illustrious arm and Transfiguration Temper W cartridge, the sound was noticeably fuller and weightier. It was almost as though the album had been remixed so the bass guitar and drums were more forwardly balanced. I had partnered the Holbo with a Transfiguration Aria moving coil, and tonally this is just a little on the lean side. Fitting a Lyra Argo cartridge gave the bass line noticeably more body. So the Holbo delivers a very neutral sound, one that's not especially warm or romantic but sure is clear and detailed. A cartridge with a lean, cool balance won't suit, then.
I'm always gratified when my wife remarks on the sound without being prompted. One night as I played Randy Crawford's Secret Combination, she spontaneously said, “that sounds good!” And she was right; it did. Rich, clear and lustrously deep, there was a lovely sheen to those unique vocals.
Stereo imaging is outstanding, and the separation is wide, with everything in the soundstage firmly placed. There's a real sense of voices and instruments being separate and individual, yet cohesive at the same time. On Bob James's Open Music, the manic drum solos that close side one were holographic and tactile. Even more impressive was the stability of the stereo image and how everything stayed in its place no matter how complex the music grew. Something similar – but opposite – could be heard playing a Phil Spector compilation, Echoes of the '60s. The vintage mono recordings were reproduced with a super-solid central image and no hint of spread. The great producer would have loved it, as it was mono just as it should be!
Overall then, the new Holbo Mk II is an excellent turntable. It reproduces vinyl LPs with the sort of ease, naturalness, precision and solidity that you hear from mastertapes. At the same time, it has all the effortlessness, depth and spaciousness you only get from the finest vinyl front ends. Partner it to a suitable cartridge, and you'll hear your prized LP records reproduced stupendously well. The sound will be as good as it gets – or maybe even better!
An avid audiophile for many decades, Jimmy has been writing about hi-fi since 1980 in a host of British magazines, from What Hi-Fi to Hi-Fi Choice. Based in London, England, he’s one of the UK’s most prolific record and CD collectors – no streaming service can yet match his amazing music collection!
JOIN IN THE DISCUSSION
Want to share your opinion or get advice from other enthusiasts? Then head into the Message Forums where thousands of other enthusiasts are communicating on a daily basis.
CLICK HERE FOR FREE MEMBERSHIP