Air Force 1 Turntable and Graham Phantom Elite Tonearm

Magnificent!

Equipment report
Categories:
Turntables,
Tonearms
|
Products:
Graham Engineering Phantom Elite,
TechDAS Air Force One
Air Force 1 Turntable and Graham Phantom Elite Tonearm

The mention of dust reminds me to give copious points to TechDas for actually manufacturing a dust cover—it’s an accessory and costs extra, but at least there is one, as is not case with any turntable I’m aware of costing north of $40–$50k. Graham tells me the reason the dust cover is optional is that it’s so large many users don’t want to be bothered with it. So Nishikawa supplies as standard with every AF1 an acrylic platter cover; he even went to the trouble of inscribing a pickup alignment protractor on the top surface for cartridge setup. Whether you use a dust cover or not, you should always keep your platter covered when not playing records (I use an old record): Nishikawa’s solution, complete with knob, is novel, attractive, and salutary.

Graham Phantom Elite
Although the basic design principles, thinking, and features of Bob Graham’s classic Phantom unipivot tonearm remain unchanged, the Elite represents a substantial upgrade from previous iterations, which were already stellar in engineering and execution. As I reviewed the Supreme II only a couple of years ago, I refer readers to that article [Issue 226] for a full description of the ’arm’s features. The new model boasts improvements in materials and implementation. The pivot assembly has been redesigned to incorporate constrained-layer damping of two different metals, both having high weight-to-size ratio. A new, high-density, non-magnetic tungsten insert ensures zero-tolerance bearing-contact and high spurious-energy absorption. The pivot top has been reconfigured for superior energy rejection and chatter-free, extremely low-friction pivoting (Graham’s ’arms are unique in feeling as unwobbly as fixed designs yet without sacrificing the advantages of a unipivot). The patented Magneglide stabilizing system eliminates azimuth deviation as the ’arm negotiates warps; and since the ’arm is also in true neutral balance, tracking force will remain consistent regardless of warps. The removable ’arm wands—9-, 10-, and 12-inch lengths are available—have been made larger in diameter with more rigid and damped titanium. A new alignment gauge incorporates an adjustable height feature. The new counterweight is decoupled to ensure the ’arm has practically no sonic signature of its own. The ’arm wiring is now an updated Litz-based construction and approaches the ideal air dielectric absorption factor of 1, which is claimed to improve transient response without introducing energy into the wire at unpredictable intervals. The same goes for the new interconnects.

I have not had occasion directly to compare the Elite to the Phantom II—the last Graham I reviewed has now been discontinued to make way for the Phantom III, which I’ve not heard—so I can’t comment on the sonic improvements. But Graham’s past improvements have always been real and audible, even if occasionally not what one would call dramatic—after all, the design began and remains at a very high level of excellence. What remains unchanged, and for me of supreme (sorry about that) importance, is the ease with which you can adjust every parameter of phono-cartridge setup more precisely, more quickly, and more repeatedly than with any other tonearm known to me. If you subscribe to Jon Valin and Andre Jennings’ fanaticism when it comes to getting the ’arm /pickup combination nailed to the nines in every aspect and particular, I don’t know of another ’arm that will let you do it as accurately as this one. Not the least of its virtues is that you can adjust vertical tracking angle during play. Some believe correct VTA is as important as getting the stylus rake-angle right. The latter optimally aligns elliptical line contact and other special stylus shapes to the groove wall. But optimal SRA does not necessarily equate to the vertical angle of the groove-cutting stylus. Sometimes the correct VTA will sound better than the correct SRA. Thanks to the bubble-level Graham builds into his pivot-housings, if you note the position of the bubble once you’ve established the correct SRA setting, you can always easily return to it if you decide to experiment with different VTAs.

Like the AF1, the Elite is a true statement product in which you feel that every aspect of design, execution, and performance has been thoroughly thought through and addressed. The Elite retails at $12,000 with a 9-inch wand; the 10-inch may be substituted for an additional $500, the 12-inch for an additional $1000, each with a different counterweight appropriate to the added weight.


Bob Graham had long thought of designing a turntable of his own to go with his Phantom tonearms, but gave it up when he discovered the Air Force 1. He made the decision to import the AF1 because he felt it was the first turntable that would allow audiophiles fully to appreciate his own state-of-the-art tonearms. The two products are thus here reviewed as a unit, so the remarks in the next section on sound and performance refer always to the AF1/10-inch Elite combination, most of the time with my reference Ortofon Windfeld pickup. The retail for the package is $125,000, excluding pickup.

The Sound
One reason the AF1 turntable caught my attention right away is that Nishikawa announced he wanted to achieve levels of background quietness and silence comparable to digital. This is the first time I recall hearing an analog designer grant any superiority to digital reproduction. And it was evident from the first serious listening session that the AF1/Elite combination was onto something pretty special. Assuming cooperating media, i.e., high-quality vinyl, quiet surfaces, etc., the background blackness from this setup is extraordinarily deep and pervasive. I’m not sure I’d quite liken it to digital, but it’s pretty close and superior, if at times only very narrowly so, to any other vinyl reproduction in my experience. Put on ORG’s 45rpm reissue of Ella Swings Lightly and you’ll hear the voice and the performers emerge from a background of complete silence. Of course, not all records are pressed as carefully as that one, but even with standard issues of old recordings from major labels there is a perceivable reduction in all the background muck and detritus of typical vinyl playback. Such quietness translates into superior resolution and recovery of detail, though in no sense did I ever feel detail was exaggerated or thrust excessively forward.

This superiority also translates into an extended dynamic range, hardly surprising given that a quieter background indicates a lower noise floor that in turn widens the envelope. You hear this effect even on music of limited dynamic range, such as small ensembles, instrumental soloists, and vocalists. On large-scale material, like my trusty Bernstein Carmen or Abbado’s Verdi Macbeth, the effect of spectacle can be quite breathtaking, inviting playback at higher levels than you might typically use, so very clean and clear is the reproduction. This clarity derives from several aspects of the design: outstanding isolation from the environment, absolute speed accuracy allied to absolute speed constancy, and vacuum hold-down to eliminate the effects of warps and resonance anomalies in the LP/platter interface. There’s a certain school of reviewers who place great emphasis upon what they call pace and timing, the so-called ability of ’arms and ’tables to “play the tune.” I personally find many of the products they cite to be excessively articulated such that the-mu-sic-of-ten-sounds-like-this. You won’t hear any of that from the AF1/Elite, but you will hear literally sensational attack with absolutely no impression of smear or spread over time—and at all times control is absolute and stability rock-solid.

Bass response is of quite amazing extension, definition, and power (i.e., slam). The Sheffield Drum Test Record displays these qualities handily enough, but a recording like the Mehta Also Sprach Zarathustra on London is even more persuasive, the opening organ pedal point remaining absolutely pitch-firm, solid, and present, as the rest of the orchestra rises and falls above it. Or listen to the Bernstein recording of Beethoven’s Op. 131 quartet as essayed by the full string complement of the Vienna Philharmonic, the energetic last movement in particular—a marvel of clarity and articulation despite the conductor’s challenging tempo—passages where the doublebasses judiciously augment the cellos appear immediately obvious and beautifully registered.