Analog Corner #294: TechDAS Air Force One Premium turntable & Graham Engineering Elite tonearm

In 2013, when I first wrote about it (footnote 1), the TechDAS Air Force One ($105,000) was that company's best and most expensive turntable; it joined the handful of products that have earned an A+ in our semiannual Recommended Components feature—a rating that remained in place for six years. But too much time has passed since the Air Force One was auditioned by a Stereophile writer, so it has now fallen from that list.

The Air Force One is still available, but it's now a special-order product that, according to distributor Graham Engineering, can take up to six months to deliver. So rather than revisit the One, I decided to check out the readily available Air Force One Premium—the upgraded and costlier version ($145,000). The TechDAS Air Force Two and Air Force III also now have Premium versions, but hey: one 'table at a time!

Meanwhile, the $19,500 Air Force V, which I reviewed in the September 2019 issue, ended up in Class B (where I said it should go), just above a $1500 VPI! Oops. My thinking at vote time was: Had I put the Air Force V in Class A along with the far more costly TechDAS turntables, that would cheapen the Air Force One's own Class A rating. In retrospect, I don't think I've heard a ca-$1500 turntable that belongs in Class B.

What distinguishes a $145,000 Air Force One Premium ($162,000 with Titanium upper platter, as supplied) from a "plain old" $105,000 Air Force One? The upgraded 'table's chassis is identical to the original's. The two biggest differences are a new and far more complex, more effective, and more convenient air delivery system that "floats" and thus isolates the chassis, and all-new motor-drive electronics.

The Premium retains the original turntable's air bladder–based suspension system, but it's been improved with an automatic, continuous pressure-monitoring system. And in light of my experience with the original Air Force One, the new air delivery system isolates more effectively. In addition, bladder inflation no longer relies on a bicycle pump. Instead, the new system incorporates a motorized air pump: A coiled hose, connected via a pneumatic fitting, is used to inflate the bladders, then keeps them properly inflated as needed—which, during the months I had the Air Force One Premium, was never. The system was 100% stable and required no topping up.

220ap.arm

As on the original Air Force One, removing a small magnetic plate on the chassis front reveals three air plugs, one for each bladder. On the front panel of the 'table's new outboard Air Condenser/Air Charger unit is a diagram of the turntable chassis in which the position of each bladder contains a button switch and an LED indicator; the latter glows red when that bladder is underinflated and green when it is properly inflated, at which time the air pump automatically stops. The new unit also doubles the air capacity of the original's, reportedly for smoother air flow and more dynamic sonic performance.

Each of the three insulators also incorporates a rotary height adjustment mechanism that allows for precise chassis leveling once the bladders have been inflated.

I'll skip the rest of the inflation and suspension setup details, other than to say that when you pay $100,000 or more for a turntable that includes an inflatable air-suspension system, an elegant and effective automatic inflation system—not a bicycle pump—should be included. And now it is. This system takes the guesswork out of the inflation process.

The newly refined isolation system proved extremely effective. I could bang on the platform the turntable sat on—a six-foot HRS base made for large, heavy turntables—and I heard nothing through the speakers, not even the faintest tap. This is as effective a turntable isolation system as I've used.

What's more, I could tap the turntable's main chassis while a record played; nothing got transmitted through the system that way, either. That's obviously not due to the suspension but rather to the combination of a high-mass, three-material sandwiched chassis (only aluminum is specified, so I don't know what the other two materials are) and the air-suspension platter bearing. I could even put the stylus onto a stationary record, after applying the vacuum hold-down, and tap on the record directly adjacent to the stylus—and again hear nothing through the speakers, even with the volume cranked up.

In addition to the aforementioned Air Condenser/Air Charger unit, the Air Force One Premium comes with a second outboard unit—the two can be stacked—containing a pair of totally silent air pumps. One floats the platter; the other is for the platter's vacuum hold-down system.

The compressed-air systems of the two outboard chassis are connected to the 'table via a total of six hoses—one each for platter float and vacuum hold-down and four to deliver, stabilize, and monitor the suspension system and smooth the airflow that floats the platter. It is a complex, sophisticated system designed to ensure instant, secure platter levitation and vacuum hold-down (as well as instant vacuum release), smooth, silent operation, and complete freedom from air "pulsing."

It's a long way up to this system from the Eminent Technology 2 air-bearing tonearm I once owned, which was pressurized by an aquarium pump whose pulsing was "smoothed" by a "floss"-filled 5-gallon plastic water bottle!

A DC amplifier controls and monitors the rotational speed of the outboard AC motor, which is housed in a substantial outboard pod. The motor, topped with a crowned, machined–stainless-steel pulley, drives the platter via a flat, nonflexing, surface-polished polyurethane-fiber belt. The main platter of nonmagnetic, forged stainless steel weighs approximately 42lb. You have an upper plate choice of aluminum (approximately 9lb) or pure titanium (13lb) for respective totals of 51 and 55lb.

220ap.lights

Based on the clearly audible differences between the two platters I auditioned for the original Air Force One review, I'd say that if you're already planning to spend $145,000 on a turntable, why not go the $17,000 extra for the titanium upper platter? It's well worth spending the additional money to get the extra levels of background quiet, dynamic punch, and bass solidity the titanium upper platter produces. The total weight of the main chassis, platter, and outboard motor is in excess of 160lb.

The fit 'n' finish of the original Air Force One was what you'd demand and expect from such a costly product, and though I don't have an original handy with which to compare the Premium, it appears that TechDAS has further upped the finish quality.

Get your motor running
TechDAS claims its unique, non-stretch-fabric belt, used in conjunction with the frictionless air bearing platter, produces direct drive–like speed consistency. Achieving this result requires careful setup that, considering the 'table's cost, will surely be done by a well-trained dealer.

Because the belt offers no flex, the motor pod must first be angled so the belt can fit over the pulley, at which point the fit will be loose. Critical belt tensioning first requires precise motor pod positioning using supplied spacers. Loosening fixing screws allows the motor to slide, within the pod, farther away from the platter as needed.

A calibration mode then guides you to the proper tension, which is within a narrow range of pulley-to-platter distances that, using the Feickert Platterspeed app, I found produces results that are measurably and audibly different, the latter subtly so.

Due to the air bearing's low friction and the belt's nonelasticity, the motor's job is to provide a small, encouraging "nudge" to the platter's rotation while at the same time preventing a "runaway" platter—certainly more so than it is to maintain a tight, controlling grip. The new motor control system monitors and adjusts as necessary the platter rotation speed to keep things rolling smoothly.


Footnote 1: See my review in the April 2013 Stereophile, and my reassessment in the April 2016 issue, neither yet reprinted on this website.

Footnote 2: TechDAS, Stella Inc. 51-10 Nakamarucho, Itabashi-ku Tokyo 173-0026, Japan. Web: techdas.jp. US distributor: Graham Engineering, 25M Olympia Avenue, Woburn, MA 01801. Tel: (781)932-8777. Web: graham-engineering.com.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

I suppose it to mean Serenity in Ego.

Owning the most admired is greater than Status.

Maslow's science is the logical explanation for reviewing rich man's extravagances.

One more hubris laced proclamation of superiority.

Can we have a report on which player Mr. Chad Kassem relys on ? , I'll guess it's a VPI.

Tony in Venice

Ortofan's picture

... SME 30 turntable.

https://www.monoandstereo.com/2008/01/interview-with-chad-kassem-of-acoustic.html

tonykaz's picture

Thanks for the reference.

The Audiophile Industry holds Tape as the ultimate format but I'll agree that: the folks with nearly unlimited funds and cubic footage storage capability can and might continue to support the incredible increasing prices that are the dominant feature of higher performing Vinyl.

I am facilitating my grandchildren's vinyl adventures but they are exploring Garage Sale $1 albums with used Pioneer PL15 turntables/integrated NAD3020 and smallish English Box speakers. For them, vinyl is a cultural Musiem.

Vinyl seems a committed belief system for Mr.Kassem who, I think, is the highest integrity person in the entire Vinyl World. I can't think of a close second. ( maybe Harry Wiesfeld who also has beautiful Tape Machines and many Tapes )

$10,000 Phono Cartridges have a short life span. phew.

Tony in Venice

Ortofan's picture

... do we really need a $10,000 phono cartridge to make LP playback sound quality as close as possible to that from tape?

Not according to (the late) mastering engineer Doug Sax.
According to him, LP playback via the Stanton 881S Mk II cartridge provided the closest sound quality to that of the master tape.

When he made that statement a quarter century ago, the price of the Stanton cartridge was $250 - and the stylus was user replaceable. $250 then is equivalent to about $450 today.

Kavi Alexander, of Water Lily Acoustics, made a similar assertion in regard to the Audio-Technica AT-ML170 - at the time a $350 moving-magnet cartridge, also with a user replaceable stylus.

The present day top-of-the-line Audio-Technica MM cartridge - the VM760SLC - will set you back all of $649.

http://www.regonaudio.com/Stanton881AudioTechnicaATML70.html

tonykaz's picture

I loved his Sheffield Labs work, we overplayed it to the point of..... He kind of established or cemented the idea of how good 33.3 & 45 could get.

My final summary of Phono Cartridge performance derives from thinking of them as singing voices. Some with personality, some with dynamics, some with emotion, some able to follow the record grooves, some have compliant suspensions, some are extra fragile. I collected ( an obsession ) and sold Koetsu for their seductive voice. ( I learned of Koetsu from John Atkinson when he was still in England editing HFN&RR )

Once I got to Koetsu level I discovered Vinyl was far too expensive for the typical audiophile, 16/44 saved us from bankruptcy. Now we can spend our $15,000 Mono Cartridge money on Loudspeakers made in Minnesota, NY or even Utah for gods sake.

Tony in Venice

Anton's picture

Nothing in our hobby is about "need," this is all a leisure pursuit. We don't even "need"the VM760SLC, so I can't relate to criticism of gear according to need.

We don't need prime aged beef, Wagyu, Romanee Conti, Cristal, Bugatti, etc.

I agree with you when it comes to pricing....it seems we mostly need social signaling!

Cheers man. None of my mini-rant was meant as personal criticism.

Herb Reichert's picture

he was using a Sao Win (Win Labs) turntable and strain gauge cartridge

hr

Ortofan's picture

... in the Audio-Technica product line-up from about 1989-1993.
The article referencing Kavi Alexander's comments regarding that cartridge dates to the early 1990s.
Do you recall approximately when it was that you visited with him?

Herb Reichert's picture

I met him in 1994-95. I consider him a kind spiritual and sophisticated human and the greatest recordist of all time. I visited him to pay homage and to learn what he listens for. We are still friends and speak occasionally. I visited him a couple times between 1996-97 and really enjoyed his Stax F-81s and Tannoy Ardents. Kavi used an Audio Note 300B integrated with the Tannoy and Electro Research A75s on the Stax. He had several turntables, but I only remember the Win Labs because I had never seen one before. It IS possible and sensible that he drove the MM input of the Audio Note integrated with an Audio-Technica moving-magnet. The Staz and Tannoy were two separate systems, and I know the AN amp would play well with an AT cartridge.

h

JHL's picture

...that someone always leaps at the opportunity to make character assessments of those he's not met and was not invited or appointed to analyze.

-virtue signalling and projection being what high end audio is about because obviously it's not about really fine engineering and really fine reproduced sound.

Aren't you embarrassed? -Sebastian Maniscalco

tonykaz's picture

I've owned a lot of this gear, judging it is what owners do, plus I have the engineering background & tools to critically evaluate mechanical systems accurately.

I've also known industry people in High End, I was one of their peers.

Crazy $$$,$$$ sets off Alarms, especially in a Era where outstanding Sound Quality is dropping in cost.

Tony in Venice

ps. the Velvet Rope people seem to be the opposite of embarassed

JHL's picture

...where extreme engineering goes, your expertise invalidates products like the above from which your armchair analysis of the personalities and characters of others is justified.

Is this a free service and might there be a handy periodical newsletter?

PS: It's this sort of intolerant, uninvited, signalling, forceful stance that puts us normal people off of the obvious parallels in modern society, in culture, and in a particular political stripe I think I see creeping in around the edges. In other words, you're indulging yourself again and you're well off topic.

tonykaz's picture

but Gaslighting isn't.

Tony in Venice

JHL's picture

...couldn't agree more. About gaslighting.

MatthewT's picture

By not reading (or responding to) anything to do with vinyl. I'm new here, but already know what you will say in response.

Ortofan's picture

... worse measured performance than one priced at only $500-600?

https://www.analogplanet.com/content/onkyos-cp-1050-direct-drive-turntable-offers-extraordinary-speed-stability-attractive-retro

JHL's picture

...your audio expertise then question "The Measurement" rather than the device? Or has the $500-600 product magically become superior?

-and if it has, what does your expertise equate that superiority to; what superior ability does the cheap table have at doing the intended job?

Ortofan's picture

... validity of the measurement data that MF includes in his reviews?
Perhaps he can address that concern to your satisfaction.

Is it not conceivable, to you, that the performance of a direct-drive type turntable might exceed that of one driven by a belt?

If the comparison between a $500-600 turntable and one priced at $145K is, for you, an unreasonably far stretch, then we could instead use the performance of a $20K product.

https://www.analogplanet.com/content/exclusive-one-week-technics-new-sl-1000r-direct-drive-turntable

JHL's picture

...that's fallacious.

Originally you used "measurement" - prefaced by "the" as if sole and exclusive, which we know in turntables speed simply is not - and now you use "performance", twice, again as if whatever you're pointing at is just as primary and exclusive.

The Measurement. The device's Performance.

It's elementary to see that in that formulation MF's review isn't the sticking point. The sticking point is what I originally asked you, and what you've since reinforced.

Is this really a question of X vs. Y based on a tremendously narrow sliver of, as you put it, the "performance" thereof, or is it that The Measurement is obviously rhetorically faulty.

-which we can see in audio, it virtually always is.

Ortofan's picture

... discussing the equipment being reviewed, or do you visit this site simply to argue semantics?

JHL's picture

...whether to respond to the obvious begged question, the sheer exactitude of that pot-and-kettle inversion, or how you swept your rotational speed right under the rug, Ortofon.

Ortofan's picture

... confirmed.

JHL's picture

Concession accepted: Turntables *aren't* compared in speed control, performance isn't either, The Measurements involve appreciably more than that, you don't stand by either, and S'Phile comments threads are for trolling the editors by wrongly comparing products from entirely different universes.

Michael Fremer's picture

Is not dispositive by any means

Ortofan's picture

... determine the points at which improvements in speed stability and speed accuracy are no longer audible?

JHL's picture

Heh. Your inversions of logic are as telling as your trademark diversions. If speed stability is the be-all of tables, prove it.

Glotz's picture

Perfect logic for him. Sadly he deflected once again.

Anton's picture

...but I will say that the only thing that table lacks is that red basket from the Mousetrap Game.

Glotz's picture

The red basket is there, but the captive rod that holds it is extra.. $5k.

And if I had the money, I would BUY it!

David Harper's picture

Holy Moly! 145 K for something that cannot possibly sound different or better than a well-designed $300.00 TT! Unless one has also invested in the $10K component stand, I guess. And the $20K cartridge. This is why stereophile is ridiculed by anyone who has not surrendered completely to the placebo effect.

JHL's picture

Offered as a de facto proof of the patently preposterous.

This is why objectivism is ridiculed by anyone who has not - for some unfathomable reason - surrendered to the powers of its baldfaced speculating projection.

volvic's picture

If you think you can design a turntable that can sound as good as the TechDAS, and charge only $300! Please let me know, I will order three from you.

Anton's picture

The economics of scale to make five should get us down to 275 dollars, tops.

Ortofan's picture

... comparing the TechDas/Graham combo with an Audio-Technica AT-LPW40WN, while using an AT-VM95E cartridge fitted to both turntables.

https://www.audio-technica.com/en-us/turntables/all/at-lpw40wn

Michael Fremer's picture

Your assertion is born of total ignorance, though it must be a comfortable perch from which to spew nonsense. I can very easily ridicule you but the editor is against that. On my own website I would not be so kind. Seriously, on what basis do you assert that it "cannot possibly sound different or better than a well designed $300TT (exclamation mark)?". I was recently asked to "proof" test pressings for the about to be released Tom Petty "Wildflowers" 9 LP box set. I digitized a track and sent it to the engineer who put together the box set and he responded "damn, my turntable doesn't sound like that!" But as you say, mine cannot possibly sound better than his. If I sent you a file of some familiar music you'd understand how foolish was your statement and why it's you who deserve ridicule.

Jim Austin's picture

His editor is against that. We are all respectful here.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Jim Austin's picture

The suggestion that a $300 turntable would sound the same as a $300,000 turntable is so preposterous that I wonder if it was meant in jest.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Glotz's picture

For once again, cutting through the junk.

And sometimes I truly forget I'm on the Stereophile website vs. Analog Planet.. (hence some recent transgressions...)

Go Mikey Go!

Go Mikey Go!

Jim Austin's picture

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

volvic's picture

Else, it may have been out of reach.

Anton's picture

Hey, they gotta contain cost somewhere.

mcrushing's picture

...of having the exact same discussion about every six-figure product?

The price of X is an obscenity... The manufacturer of X is a crook... Owners of X are self-deluding zealots... I could build X in a weekend with $1,500 in materials ... Y measures better than X, therefore X is inferior to Y.... If you buy X, you must be compensating for Z...

Did I miss any of the old saws?

I'm glad the AF1 exists. I'm glad people wealthy/insane enough to buy one exist. Most of all, I'm glad magnanimous TechDAS dealers exist — ones who let VPI-owning riffraff such as myself listen to gear they absolutely cannot afford.

Before you reach for your pitchfork: I'M JOKING. VPI makes killer tables and I am magnificently fortunate to own one. But I've heard the AFIII, – and the Zero – and they're better. Not a little better. A LOT better.

This is not to say you couldn’t drop my table into an AF1 owner’s system and still get a lifetime of satisfying music. Likewise, replacing my VPI with that $600 Onkyo would objectively increase the speed stability of playback in my system, and I could likely live with that table forever. But is that the point of all this?

Of course not. This is about PASSION. It’s about me stretching to afford my (used) dream table. It’s about Hideaki-San pushing his design concepts to absurd extremes. It’s about all of us living vicariously through Mikey, who gets the hifi equivalents of Formula 1 cars delivered to his house on a regular basis. (Speaking of: please tell me your review of the AF Zero is still going to happen at some point, Michael!)

So I guess my point is this: If you didn’t read this piece because you wanted to ogle an impossibly unaffordable state of the art piece of audio gear...why did you read it?

AaronGarrett's picture

Thanks for saying this. I've long ago given up on vinyl but I do love the insane perfectionist aspect of the pursuit of the perfect turntable. If you have this kind of money there are a lot worse things you can spend it on. Of course you could give it to Habitat for Humanity but if it's between this and a fancy car, or a very fancy watch, at least this is dedicated to making beautiful music. And music is one of the things that makes life worth living.

Glotz's picture

Loved it.

Ortofan's picture

... does not exhibit the highest levels of speed accuracy and stability, how can it possibly be referred to as an exemplar of the "state-of-the-art" for this type of product?

mcrushing's picture

...is a rubbery term. I'd define it as the highest level of general development in a given field at a given moment. I look at the AF1's design, engineering, ongoing R&D, materials, build quality, overall performance and sound quality, and I can't think of a table more deserving of the term. If you want to disqualify it for failing on one specific measurement, that's certainly your prerogative. SpaceX's rockets blow up on the launchpad sometimes, are they not state-of-the-art?

SOTA (the acronym, not the manufacturer) is subjective....like a lot of things in audio. Designing a SOTA turntable that costs $100k is one thing. Designing a SOTA turntable that costs $100 is another, and probably much harder. Either way, the designer sets priorities and makes compromises. You might prioritize speed stability. I might prioritize black backgrounds and reducing coloration from internal and external vibrations. Which is probably why I dig TechDAS's approach.

When it comes to speed accuracy/stability, I think there's a lot you can't control once you get a couple digits past 33.3. What's the speed stability of the cutting lathe? What's a warped record, or one with a slightly off-center hole, doing to your wow and flutter stats? I even question the integrity of the actual measurements: Which is more likely accurate? The onboard tacho and 0.1%-stepped speed control system in a $145,000 turntable? Or the pre-2017 iPhone Mikey keeps around to run the Platterspeed app? I don't have the data to tell you for sure.

But I do have experience listening to two of TechDAS's designs, and I can tell you I heard NO HINT of pitch problems. In fact, I heard no hint of an audio system at all. All I heard was MUSIC – around, behind, above, even below the speakers... But actually FROM those speakers? From them, and all the other the parts of the room where the music "wasn't" ....I heard NOTHING.

The music those tables/systems reproduced felt as alive as the people who once performed it. In my book, THAT is "the art."

dial's picture

I didn't know the designer was from micro seiki (http://www.hifiplus.com/articles/meet-your-maker-hideaki-niskikawa-of-techdas/?utm_campaign=Hi-Fi%2B+Weekly+Emails&utm_medium=email&page=2&utm_source=email-262). His main goal is to reduce vibrations. But like Teragaki the looks seem important.
Thanks Mr Reichert for your answers, didn't know about the Sao Win turntable, really beautiful like the Transcription 300 from IMF Electronics glass or plexi & metal... Saw one for sale at 2200 (don't ask me where USAM us audio mart).
Thanks to Mr Fremer too, we all know turntables with tonearms and cartridges don't sound the same, don't be angry please because of one person (still own my Goldmund studio/Magneplanar/Goldring 1042 but for everyday vinyl I use an old Sony PST 15, is it any good ?). I've heard strain gauge cartridges produce less crackles.

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