Analog Corner #294: TechDAS Air Force One Premium turntable & Graham Engineering Elite tonearm Page 2

I found that one end of the acceptable belt tension range produced greater absolute speed variation measurements but impressively flat and stable high-pass–filtered results (smooth green line), while at the other end, there were smaller absolute speed variations but greater filtered speed undulations.

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Crisply executed commands
For this kind of money, you should expect your playback wishes to be obeyed. The Air Force One Premium does not disappoint. Once set up, it remains set up. It's physically quiet (including the pumps), responsive, and neither finicky nor tweaky. The status screen lets you know when the platter has achieved speed and "locked," and with the push of a pair of buttons, you can adjust pitch up or down in increments of 0.1%, or, by holding down the buttons, by 1% per second up to 10% maximum. Hold down the "stop" button and the 'table goes into "standby" mode, which turns off the compressor and "unfloats" the platter.

The Graham Engineering Elite tonearm
Graham Engineering, which imports and distributes TechDAS turntables, loaned me one of their Phantom Elite Tonearms ($13,500; the price varies somewhat depending upon armwand length). TechDAS has distributed Graham tonearms in Japan and recommends the Phantom Elite for use with the Air Force One Premium, so supplying one for this review made sense.

The Elite is a completely redesigned and substantially upgraded (in terms of parts and execution) reimagining of the basic and highly regarded Phantom design. Like the less-costly Phantom, the Elite uses an inverted unipivot bearing featuring Graham's patented Magneglide magnetic stabilization system, which mitigates the typical unipivot "wobble" and ensures that the arm will not deviate from correct azimuth as it pivots across the record.

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Graham supplied an additional armwand: an optional TechDAS-manufactured wand made from titanium (approximately $4000). I auditioned both it and the standard armwand. I've not had any previous experience with the Elite, so it's impossible for me to strictly separate the sonic performance of the arm and the turntable. Switching out the armwands, though, allowed me to get some insight into what the tonearm was doing, as discussed below.

What price serenity?
Referring to the aforementioned two extremes of the belt-tension range, though the audible differences were minor even when comparing solo piano and other music with long sustained notes, the flatter green line produced a smoother, more serene, and one could even say "creamy" sound, which I believe is the goal of designer Hideaki Nishikawa.

The reason I think that's his goal is that the smooth-midband, "bubbly" sonic character of the two TechDAS cartridges I've heard was very similar, especially the top-of-the-line TDC01 Ti titanium-bodied cartridge ($15,500; not supplied for this review). That cartridge has a smooth, rich, midrange-to-die-for sonic signature—not surprising since Nishikawasan is a big opera fan, and vocals are critical in his musical world.

That cartridge, combined with the $450,000 Air Force Zero demonstrated earlier last year at The Audio Salon in Santa Monica and later at High End Munich 2019, produced among the most realistic and convincing vocals I've ever experienced from an analog front end.

When I compared TechDAS's titanium armwand for the Graham Elite with Graham's standard Elite armwand, using, among other cartridges, the Ortofon Anna D, the differences were not subtle; those differences helped me distinguish between the sound of the arm and that of the 'table—as well as the sonic differences between the armwands, which were considerable.

While I stand by everything I wrote in the January 2020 Stereophile about the $15,000 VPI HW-40, the TechDAS Air Force One Premium, at 10 times the price, produces dramatically blacker backgrounds and a far more sophisticated level of transient subtlety and precision. You wonder how much blacker backgrounds can get until you hear them. The blackest by far were on the Zero, but the One Premium comes close! Can you measure serenity? No, but listen to the Air Force One Premium and you'll immediately hear it.

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On the Blue Note Tone Poet release of Grant Green's Born to Be Blue (Blue Note BST 84432), on which the guitarist performs a set of six standards with Ike Quebec, Sonny Clark, Sam Jones, and Louis Hayes, the ensemble exploded almost violently from the speakers. Green's precisely placed single-note lines were richly textured yet endowed with sharply and cleanly delivered transients and surrounded by a satisfying and subtle decay envelope. Each note was like a major event, as were Hayes's rim shots. Clark's piano, centered in the stereo mix (and lower in the mix on some tracks than on others), was rendered between the speakers with unforced clarity.

Equally impressive (and expressive) was the 'table's microdynamic performance on a new, superbly mastered, pressed, and packaged Deutsche Grammophon box set reissue of Pierre Fournier and Friedrich Gulda's Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello and Piano (3 LPs, DGG 483 7316), recorded in June 1959 and originally released individually.

The limited-edition (1700 copies) set was half-speed mastered at Emil Berliner Studios and, like the Bernstein Beethoven cycle box set issued earlier this year, includes facsimiles of the original production sheets, and I can attest that the set's Cello Sonata in D major sounds far better than on my single-LP original (DG 138 083). Pressing quality, on my set at least, was absolutely perfect: black backgrounds, not a single pop or click. The recording quality is "you-are-in-the-hall" natural.

Gulda's piano is center stage, Fournier's cello stage left (right channel), and the recording space—the 600-seat Brahms-Saal of the Wiener Musikverein—subtly reveals itself behind and around the two players. Fournier's low-note "growls" have appropriate traction—sufficient grit to excite and be believable—and Gulda's precise playing is well-preserved both in the mastering and especially in the Air Force One Premium/Phantom Elite's transcription of it. Image stability was rock solid. Attack, sustain, and decay were natural. (Attack was neither edgy nor too soft.) It was believable on all well-recorded material.

No wonder that, lights out, you can time-travel back to 1959 and be in the hall for the performance. This recording is why people with the cash (and some without it) lay it down for a turntable like this.

The Air Force One Premium's smooth and serene personality doesn't mean it can't transmit grit when grit is in the recording. The Kinks' overlooked concept album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (Pye NSPL 18317) has just been reissued, but since I have two original UK pressings and a 1983 Japanese PRT label reissue (SP-20-5030) that's spectrally better balanced, I'm set!

This is a bright, bass-shy, in-your-face but oddly in-the-studio–natural recording that the 'table does not smooth over or make pretty. But the Air Force One Premium's commendably low coloration and nimble bottom end helped reveal inner details, like Dave Davies' complex, unusual, "Middle Eastern" overdubbed guitar lines on "Mr. Churchill Says." Ray's voice on the 1920's "flapper" tune "She's Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina" hovers between the speakers, sounding as if you are listening from the microphone side while all of the sound effects and oldfashioned sonic ephemera shimmer, well-defined, bright, and silly, more clearly defined than is necessary—but the Air Force One Premium laid it all out evenhandedly.

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The turntable's uncolored nature and freedom from resonances and stored and released energy guarantees that almost every record you play is likely to reveal, in an unforced way, details that, even if not previously hidden, seem to fit more comfortably into the fabric of the whole.

While I couldn't directly compare the SAT CF1-09 tonearm and the 75% less expensive Graham Phantom Elite on the TechDAS 'table, going back and forth between the former on my Continuum Caliburn and the latter on the Air Force One Premium made it clear: As good as the Elite's overall performance was in every parameter, the SAT's bottom-end extension, drive, and definition remain unchallenged in my listening experience.

Conclusion
With its ultraquiet backgrounds, the generosity of its presentation of instrumental sustain and decay, its neutral spectral balance, and a dynamic presentation that seems to project and establish the musical picture far from the speaker boundaries and without limitations, the Air Force One Premium has a knack for getting out of the way and letting your cartridge of choice exhibit its sonic character without restrictions. It's as much reliable test instrument as supreme carrier of unassuming musical pleasure.

Up to now, I've avoided comparison between the Air Force One Premium and my long-term reference Continuum Caliburn (which over the few years it was in production underwent significant running upgrades), because the latter is now almost 14 years old. However, in terms of smoothness, sonic sophistication, background blackness, and yes, the unmeasurable aforementioned serenity (which is not a euphemism for boredom!), I have to give the nod to the Air Force One Premium. The longer you listen to it, the more musically surefooted and certain its performance becomes.

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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