I have in the past remarked upon the sense of size, ease, and relaxation that physically large and/or heavy and massive turntables all seem to possess. But sometimes this comes at the expense of a certain difficult-to-define sense of agility. Not so here: the AF1/Elite projects size, scale, and mass with an unrivaled granitic strength and power, yet what it can do with intimacy and nimbleness is no less impressive. Paul Badura-Skoda playing Beethoven sonatas on a period pianoforte is as persuasively essayed as Klemperer conducting the same composer’s massive Missa solemnis. The AF1/Elite constitutes a superlatively even-handed and comprehensive platform for music in all of what Bernstein once called its “infinite variety.” At no point during the listening evaluation did I feel that any kind of music was favored over or short-changed with respect to other styles. This extends to imaging and soundstaging, as well: Over a wide variety of recordings I found it impossible to ascribe any characteristics to the turntable/’arm combination.
We reviewers often talk about neutrality and accuracy, qualities all reproducing components should ideally possess. Yet these are not necessarily the same things. Neutrality, by which we mean tonal neutrality, refers principally to deviations in frequency response from flat, and it is easy enough to hear, especially when it comes to broadband deviations, such as shallow troughs, rising top ends (which seem to be endemic to almost every super-expensive speaker system now made), valleys in the upper bass and lower midrange (the bane of almost all floorstanding speaker systems with their drivers a foot or more above floor level), and swollen or anemic bass response. But accuracy is a considerably thornier issue when it comes both to subjective reviewing and source components. (An old saying among audio designers has it that a component which is flat is not necessarily accurate, but one which is seriously not flat is for sure not accurate.) The AF1/Elite, particularly when used with a pickup as neutral as the Ortofon Windfeld, constitutes an extremely neutral reproducing setup. It also presents to my ears a rare impression of apparent accuracy to the source. Obviously, my choice of words—“impression,” “apparent”—are important qualifiers. The truth is that without a known reference setup by which we can compare the source to the reproduction, it’s impossible to determine how accurate any reproduction is. To do that would require comparing the reproduction to the mike feed or the mastertape.
So when I say that I hear an impression of apparent greater accuracy, what do I mean in the absence of a verifiable source reference? Well, one thing is that I perceive more difference from recording to recording. To put this another way, I get no impression of definable characteristics reappearing on each and every recording, regardless of where the recording was made, how it was miked, or on what label it was released. Now most of the time when you hear such things, what you’re really hearing is frequency response anomalies from transducers (phono pickups or speakers). But when those components are reasonably flat, what you’re left with are colorations and other artifacts in the rest of the setup (or the room). Some record-playing setups offer an excessively detailed presentation (those that pride themselves on their “resolution”); some are always warm, heavy, and relaxed; some are always bright or forward; others distant and laid-back; some are light and a little drummy (often found in small, physically light turntables that lack suspensions); and still others have a “liveliness” or “airiness” that, however pleasant, is plainly not accurate (more often the result of euphonic resonances, as sometimes happens when moving coils are inadequately loaded or ’arms and platters insufficiently damped). The list goes on and on. Most of the time when these characteristics occur in quality vinyl setups, their effects are relatively subtle or at least benign enough to allow us to enjoy the music with little or no distraction as such.
But when you hear components that generate few or none of these anomalies, you realize that what you’ve been listening to has been a lot of “information” that does not actually derive from the source. For me, it’s this quality of absence that many of the better record-playing systems approach—and that is perhaps the only thing that even remotely justifies their high prices. (Two of the true luminaries of audiophile recordings, Doug Sax [Sheffield] and Kavi Alexander [Water Lily], both use moving-magnets—Sax, a Stanton 881 Mk II; Alexander, an Audio-Technica ATLM-170—for their greater accuracy. Both men find these cartridges yield results that prove very faithful to the mike feed or the mastertape, far better than any moving coils either has found previously.) [Sax once said to me in jest “I like moving-coil cartridges—when they’re in somebody else’s system.”—RH]
The AF1/Elite obviously possesses this accuracy in abundance. It’s the audio equivalent of what Keats called “negative capability,” and it refers to the way some components have of being able to disappear from the reproducing chain. Among vinyl-playing components with which I have long familiarity, the AF1/Elite combo possesses this to a degree unsurpassed and only rarely equaled. For that alone it merits my highest recommendation (but, of course, it is not alone).
As sound reproduction continues to improve, it’s getting harder and harder to describe it without using terms that result in repeating yourself. This is because the improvements are mostly along the same lines as previous advances, only in ever-smaller increments that, ironically, also result in exponentially higher prices. It was Gandhi who defined an expert as someone who knows more and more about less and less until eventually he will know everything about nothing. I’ve sometimes wondered if a parallel observation cannot be made about audio reviewers and audiophiles: People who inflate tinier and tinier differences of ever more minute significance until they quite literally disappear into thin air well after they’ve ceased to be meaningful. (Particularly in areas of reproduction such as “resolution” and “detail,” two related characteristics that beyond a certain point have rather less to do with natural and realistic reproduction of music than you might think.) Every time I review very expensive products, these concerns loom large, not least because there is so much hyperbole in journalistic reviewing of everything from consumer goods to books and films, so that a temperate and reasonable response, indeed anything less than a hat-in-the-air rave, can sound unenthusiastic, if not like a pan.
Is the AF1/Elite the best recording-playing system money can buy? Yes. Are the Basis Inspiration, the Clearaudio Statement, the Continuum Caliburn, the Kuzma Stabi M/4 Point, the Rockport Sirius III, the SME Models 30/2 and 20/2, and the Walker—to name only a few that to varying degrees I’ve heard under reliable circumstances (please note the order here is merely alphabetical)—also the best record-playing systems money can buy? Yes. If this sounds confusing, good: because I don’t regard the question as a serious one. The “best” doesn’t exist, and it absolutely doesn’t exist when it comes to sound reproducing systems, with their constituent parts as interdependent upon each other and upon the conditions under which they are used.
That said, let me state that while the Air Force 1/Phantom Elite pairing is not the most expensive recording playback setup out there, it did perform in certain key respects, which I hope I’ve articulated adequately in this review, better than any other to which I’ve had a reasonably long exposure. Further, as is far too typically the case in high-end audio (setting aside monster speaker systems and certain kinds of electronics with designed-in tonal flavors), the margin of superiority of outlandishly expensive gear—notably source components and electronics—is in most areas rather modest, the rhetoric of its champions notwithstanding. This is certainly true of AF1/Elite with respect to other fine record-playing systems I’ve used, such as several SME models, the Basis 2200 and Vector 4 ’arm, and the SOTA Cosmos with an earlier Graham or SME ’arm. The reasons are obvious: the really high excellence these last twenty years in components of moderate and even budget cost and, specifically with respect to vinyl reproduction, the ceiling on the technology itself. I personally believe that ceiling was in every practical sense nearly reached a couple of decades ago. Analog is a mature technology, which means that while as a genre the latest turntables, ’arms, and pickups are usually better than those of the past, the key questions remain how much better, how much better can they get, and how much that better costs.
Here’s what I will say with some confidence: If you elect to purchase this combination, you can rest assured that you will have one of the very finest record-playing setups in the history of the planet—one that, given the limitations of vinyl technology and the available media now and in the foreseeable future, is unlikely to be significantly surpassed, if at all, during your lifetime. Add to this the fact that despite its considerable weight, the AF1/Elite is rather compact compared to several of its Rube-Goldberg oil-derrick-in-your-living-room brethren, gloriously easy to use and both flawless and foolproof in operation, unfussy to maintain, beautiful to behold without being garish or ostentatious, and absolutely magnificent sounding.
SPECS & PRICING
Air Force 1 Turntable
Type: Belt-driven turntable with vacuum hold-down
Speed: 33-1/3, 45
Dimensions: 24" x 20"
Weight: 221.5—238 lbs.
Graham Phantom Elite Tonearm
Type: Unipivot tonearm with user-replaceable 9-, 10-, 12-inch removable ’arm wands
Price: $12,000–$13,000, depending on ’arm wand
GRAHAM ENGINEERING, INC.
25M Olympia Avenue
Woburn, MA 01801