Analog Corner #243: TechDAS Air Force Two turntable, Graham Phantom Elite tonearm

How big is the performance gap between TechDAS's new Air Force Two ($52,000) and original Air Force One ($105,000) turntables? How do you halve the price without also sacrificing the build quality and features of the flagship model that defines the brand? Even $52,000 is more than most people pay for an automobile, not to mention a turntable. Still, TechDAS's assertion on their website (footnote 1) that the price of their new model price is "reasonably improved" over the old strikes me as an understatement.

How much sound and build quality, and which features, do you give up by saving $53,000? Very little of any of those things, as far as I can tell. The Air Force Two retains most of the Air Force One's core technologies: belt drive by an outboard AC synchronous motor; a microprocessor-controlled Twin Phase DC power amplifier to drive that motor (allowing 10% pitch control in steps of ±0.1%); and the One's air-bearing platter and vacuum record hold-down system, driven by an absolutely silent outboard air pump and condenser, housed in a box that also includes the 'table's power supply (footnote 2).

TechDAS has cut costs in the Two's 22lb platter, which is machined from solid aluminum. (The One's stainless-steel platter weighs 63lb.) And instead of the One's three user-changeable platter-surface options, the Two offers one: an unspecified "thin film damping material."

Because of the Two's different distribution of weight, the One's tripod air-suspension system has been replaced by a four-poster design. The height of each corner support column is adjustable. Each column has a sealed, air-filled upper chamber, combined with a sealed, oil-filled, "rubberoid" lower chamber with a built-in spring.

In the Air Force Two, TechDAS has also saved a bundle by replacing the One's curvaceous, CNC-machined, multilayer chassis—magnesium alloy on bottom, zinc-aluminum alloy in the middle, and a different aluminum alloy on top—with a large, massive chassis of two layers, both made of precision-cast aluminum painted in a shade of gray that TechDAS describes as "a calm color of feeling." This chassis is about 27" wide by 7.5" high by 18" deep and, on its own, weighs 72lb—hardly a lightweight. (The Two's total weight is 103.4lb, compared to the One's total weight of 173.8lb.)

Here's where taste enters the picture. I've heard some people complain that its painted surface—which, if you gaze deeply into its "calming color of feeling," has visible orange-peel—makes the Air Force Two look cheap. Not me. I like the Two's fit'n'finish. What's more, I prefer the Two's appearance overall to the One's, which I think looks too busy.

The Air Force Two arrived in two large wooden crates shipped from TechDAS's US importer, Graham Engineering (footnote 3). Bob Graham and I hoisted it in place atop my Harmonic Resolution Systems rack. Even my oversize HRS M3-1925 isolation base wasn't quite wide or deep enough to accommodate the Two's feet, but Graham had brought along an even wider, deeper TechDAS base designed especially for it. I placed four Stillpoints Ultra SS feet at the corners, between the bottom of the TechDAS platform and top of the HRS base, "just because." I then had no practical way of removing the Stillpoints, so I can't say whether they contributed in any way to the sound, or to the efficacy of TechDAS's isolation system.

I'll skip the setup procedure. For this kind of money, your dealer should perform it, though it's worth noting that the belt's tension is set using a knob on the motor housing. This moves the motor's pulley enough to tighten the polished, nonflexible belt of polyurethane fiber. The motor controller's microprocessor aids in precisely calibrating the ideal tension, after which it calibrates and precisely stores in memory the settings for both 331/3 and 45rpm. Every aspect of its setup exuded the precision that the Air Force Two then fully delivered, both mechanically and sonically.

Graham Engineering Phantom Elite tonearm
Because Graham Engineering imports the Air Force Two; because TechDAS's parent company, Stella Inc., imports Graham Engineering tonearms to Japan; and because the two companies' products are often displayed together at audio shows, I figured it was a good time to get acquainted with Graham's new Phantom Elite tonearm ($12,000). I also asked Marc Gomez, of Swedish Analog Technologies, to send me an armboard for his SAT arm, and Bob Graham was kind enough to supply the same secondary mount for the Kuzma 4Point arm that he'd sent when I reviewed the Air Force One. As with the Air Force One, the Two's second tonearm base is a cantilevered add-on that's bolted to the side of the chassis, rather than a duplicate of the first arm base bolted to the top.

The Elite looks very similar to the standard Phantom arm, with the same features, including an inverted unipivot bearing that's ingeniously laterally stabilized by Graham's patented Magneglide system; the latter uses a pair of magnets to enable easy adjustment of azimuth, and to maintain azimuth under all record-play conditions. It also allows for true neutral balance: In unipivot designs from many tonearm makers, including VPI and, formerly, Graham, arm stability is achieved with weights placed well below the pivot point; that puts the arm's center of gravity below the pivot, producing a stable balance. (Having an arm's center of gravity above the pivot point would result in unstable balance.) Stable balance may sound like a good thing, but it means that the arm resists any change in position in the vertical plane: Assuming VTF was set with the stylus at the level of the record, which is as it should be, VTF will measurably increase as the headshell rises above that level—meaning that VTF will continually change when a stable-balance arm traces a warped record. With Magneglide, the arm stability that traditionally required a low center of gravity is achieved magnetically, allowing the arm to have neutral balance—and consistent VTF when playing warped records.

While it looks very similar to the Phantom, Graham insists that the majority of the moving system is upgraded, made using more costly materials. For example, the Elite's completely redesigned pivot-housing assembly is made from brass and tungsten in a "constrained-layer combination." The use of such high-density materials is claimed to ensure high absorption of energy and tighter manufacturing tolerances, for ultralow-friction pivoting that's free from chatter. The counterweight is decoupled at a subsonic resonant frequency, which is said to result in cleaner, more dynamic bass extension and amore detailed midrange. The new, removable armtube of damped titanium is thicker and more rigid, and is available in lengths of 9", 10", and 12". (I was sent the 10" version.) Also new are internal Litz wiring and a refined alignment gauge that's adjustable to accommodate cartridges of all heights. Nonetheless, the Phantom Elite is, for all intents and purposes and as its name suggests, a reimagined and upgraded Phantom, not something completely new—even if almost all of its parts are.

The Phantom and Phantom Elite are available with both circular and SME-type sliding-base mounting platforms; the latter makes it easier to adjust the pivot-to-spindle distance using Graham's nifty spindle-to-headshell alignment system. (For the Air Force Two, TechDAS supplies an armboard with a wooden insert that accommodates the SME mount.)

Fig.1 TechDAS Air Force Two, speed stability data (left); Fig.2 TechDAS Air Force Two, speed stability (right; raw frequency yellow, low-pass filtered frequency green).

The Air Force Two's Fortress of Solitude
When it comes to turntable plinths, I'm generally a less-is-more guy—unless the design is heroic, as in Continuum Audio Labs' Caliburn's computer-designed plinth of cast magnesium alloy. This is one area in which VPI's Classic Direct turntable falls short: Its large MDF base, despite being damped with a massive aluminum top plate, is surprisingly lively: With the stylus sitting in the groove of a non-spinning record, tapping the plinth or its support base produced through the speakers a loud thump with a significant low-frequency component.

When I applied that tap test to the Air Force Two's massive cast chassis, my speakers produced a faint, very well-damped pep. Tapping some locations on the top of the chassis produced an almost complete absence of audible response. Impressive. Equally impressive were my measurements of the Air Force Two's speed of rotation, using Dr. Feickert Analogue's 7" test record and PlatterSpeed app (see figs.1 and 2). All of which are as they should be in a turntable that costs $52,000 without tonearm. For $30,000, VPI's Classic Direct includes the highly accomplished 3D printed tonearm and produces speed results almost as good.

Easy to Use, Easier Listening
I preferred the Air Force Two's looks to the One's. More to the point, I preferred the Two's sound. In all fairness, the Air Force One I reviewed was a very early sample that I probably shouldn't have been sent in the first place. Mid-review, the One's suspension system was changed to air, and upgrading the review sample wasn't possible.

Whatever it was, the Air Force One I reviewed seemed not to speak with one voice, in the manner of the VPI Classic Direct. Something about its sound seemed discontinuous, in a way that prevented me from forgetting about it and just sinking into the music. Perhaps the designers at TechDAS heard it too, and that's why they changed the suspension? I really should revisit the Air Force One.