When I lived in Tokyo for a spell in 1998, I was fascinated by the avidity for vinyl records among Japanese hi-fi enthusiasts. In America vinyl had not really made its big comeback. But as near as I could tell, the Japanese never lost their love for the black disc. Quite the contrary. To enter a record shop—and there were many—in Shibuya was to see grown men frantically rifling through bin after bin of LPs, their fingers moving with a speed that would rival a professional touch typist. It was, in its own way, a deeply moving sight, if you know what I mean. Once I stopped blinking in amazement, I had a go at it myself, eventually returning home with several suitcases full of Japanese pressings, many of which are stellar. Upon return stateside, the customs officer at Dulles airport looked at me as though I were a serious nut job and queried, “Are you reselling these?” After I assured him that I had no intention of parting with my precious cargo, he shrugged and waved me through.
If Japan is obsessed with LPs, it is also a mecca of high-end stereo equipment. It has a long tradition, among other things, of producing superb turntables. The new TechDAS Air Force III is a case in point. As the “III” suggests, this ’table is the third progeny of TechDAS, with the mighty $105k Air Force I (reviewed by Paul Seydor in Issue 254) at the head of the line, both in sonics and price. The belt-drive Air Force III is a different customer. It offers a tremendous amount in a small package, ranging from vacuum hold-down to an air-bearing platter. The vacuum is pleasingly silent during operation and never once failed to lock onto an LP when I used it. The front panel control, with its array of buttons to set the platter speed (33 1/3 or 45rpm) and to control the vacuum, is compact and elegant. The panel also contains a nifty digital readout of the precise platter speed; if necessary you can also increase or decrease the speed. My review sample automatically hit the right numbers without fail. The Air Force III can accept virtually any tonearm thanks to an array of interchangeable armboards.
The ’table was delivered to me by Maier Shadi of the Audio Salon in Los Angeles, whose fastidiousness knows almost no bounds. He stayed up all night to assemble the ’table, then bounced in—well, at least emerged—the next morning eager to get it running, which he did. The ’table came outfitted with a Swedish Analog Technologies (SAT) tonearm, designed by the brilliantly talented Marc Gomez. The ’arm, I gather, is the personal one of the venerable designer of the TechDAS ’tables, Hideaki Nishikawa. The SAT ’arm, which is as inert as they come, made an indispensable contribution to the overall sound.
So what was that sound? In a word, silky. It was evident from the very first needle drop that the Air Force III, coupled with a TechDAS cartridge, possesses a remarkably continuous sound. This makes for an extremely non-fatiguing presentation, one that will you have pulling out album after album, not in a search of the last detail contained in the grooves but for the lovely—dare I even say holistic?—sound produced by the Air Force. For there is something reassuring about listening to this ’table. The Air Force simply sails soothingly but also punctiliously through any LP you play on it.
Sometimes older jazz and classical LPs can sound a little strident or thin. Not with the Air Force. Take Stanley Turrentine’s marvelous album on the Impulse label Let It Go. Like me, Turrentine was a Pittsburgher and jazz was in his blood—the liner notes disclose that his father took him as a kid to hear the Jimmie Lunceford band at the Savoy ballroom. His father was himself a saxophonist who played with the Savoy Sultans and taught his son to play with a sumptuous and bold tone. On the sixteen-bar composition “Let It Go,” Turrentine performs with organist Shirley Scott, who’s also his wife. The album provides another reminder that Turrentine wasn’t a sheets-of-sound kind of guy in the Coltrane school; rather, he played in the mainstream bop vein with a heavy dose of ballads. On the title cut “Let It Go,” his tenor sax sounds beautifully mellifluous. The lavish abundance of micro-detail, coupled with the sinuosity of the ’table, gives Turrentine’s sax work a live quality that is anything but easy to reproduce. At the same time, Scott’s organ notes pealed out with a jaunty bounce that I’m not sure I’ve ever really sensed to this degree. In listening to this album, it also becomes clear that the Air Force has wonderfully silent backgrounds, another reason that the instruments sound so vividly palpable and present. Something similar occurred on the number “Ciao, Ciao.” A great sense of hall space and depth became apparent at the outset when Mack Simpkins enunciates a Latin rhythm on drums from the rear of the room. The clarity of the interplay between drums and Scott’s organ was simply delightful to experience. Never underestimate the time machine aspect of LPs. To listen to this kind of lofty musicianship at these sonic heights is a rare treat, one that makes you almost feel like a time traveler to the past.
Indeed, I had much the same feeling in listening to another great jazz album, an old Blue Note, one of many that, in a fit either of madness or wild generosity, my audiophile chum Bob Stenerson recently gave me, called The Big Beat. Listen to the first cut “The Chess Players,” and I defy you not to get goosebumps when you hear Lee Morgan, one of the all-time trumpet greats—may his name never be forgotten—deliver a blazing solo, bending the notes, offering a variety of tonal shadings, driving the band forward with propulsive force. I could break it all down, but it comes a little like the proverbial frog on the dissecting table. What the TechDAS conveys above all is the emotional intensity of the music. Obviously, the rest of the gear has a lot to do with it, starting with the new Wilson WAMM Master Chronosonic loudspeakers and subwoofers. But there’s no disputing that the source, the fons et origo, is where it all starts, and how, with the TechDas.