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Air Force 1 Turntable and Graham Phantom Elite Tonearm

Although for our purposes Air Force 1 refers to the Japanese company TechDas’ new state-of-the-art turntable, the company freely admits it helped itself to the moniker of the presidential jet because the design is intended to be the “first among the first.” In other words, this is an all-out, no-holds-barred assault meant to answer and exceed every aspect and parameter of turntable performance. And it’s priced accordingly: $105,000 for the ’table alone, far from the priciest but still up there. Even these days, with ever-escalating cost and complexity (not to mention extravagance and extremity) in design, the AF1 is a component of rare sophistication, ingenuity, thoroughness, and the very highest competence and execution. The auteur is Hideaki Nishikawa, a man with more than five decades of distinguished work in high-end audio, starting in the mid-sixties at Stax, where he helped develop those fabled electrostatic headphones. Several years later he designed turntables and tonearms for various manufacturers, including Infinity’s famous Black Widow, much admired by TAS reviewers and readers in the early Eighties. (I owned one myself for a while, and it rivaled the SME 3009 series with high-compliance, low-mass, moving-magnet pickups like top-of-the-line Shures and ADCs.) From there he wound up at Micro-Seiki, where he designed what he considered a statement product: the SX-8000II turntable, an air-bearing ’table with vacuum hold-down. Drawing upon the best ideas in the 8000II and allying them to the latest research in materials and technology, the AF1 is his second statement turntable. Asked why such a long time passed between the two, he replied, “I waited for the technology to improve.” Stella, TechDas’ international distributor, has not been exactly reticent in trumpeting the AF1 as “the best turntable in the world.”

This is so complex a turntable that to describe its rationale, features, and setup fully would far exceed the space limitations of even a very long review. Inasmuch as I imagine any buyer will have a trained dealer do the setup, I’m going to concentrate on those design aspects that seem to me to account for its extraordinary performance, most of which involve air force and pressure, hence the name. Air bearing for the platter, air suction for the vacuum hold-down, and air bladders for the suspension system triangulate the nucleus of the AF1 design. In and of themselves, none of these is new, but I don’t know of another ’table that has combined them into one component. The most controversial of these continues to be the use of vacuum to secure the record to the platter surface. The typical objections are two: damage to vinyl owing to high vacuum pressure, and the so-called ripple effect of most vacuum pumps—that is, the pulsating of the pump to maintain the vacuum. The answer to the first is that, yes, high vacuum-pressure does damage, so the solution is to avoid it by using low pressure, which is benign. So far as I am aware, all current vacuum systems follow the practice pioneered by David Fletcher’s SOTA Cosmos, introduced in the early Eighties, which employs an initial high suction to evacuate the air and establish a seal, after which the pressure drops to a very low, harmless level more than adequate to maintain the seal and hold the record securely to the platter. The amount of time high suction requires to make the seal is design dependent, but even the longest—around 30 seconds in one brand, if I’m not mistaken—is not remotely long enough to do any damage. Even with the most warped records, the AF1 never needed more than five seconds to establish a seal. In my own experience of more than two decades with several SOTAs, I’ve never experienced any degradation of my records that could be attributed to vacuum hold-down.

As for the ripple effect, I imagine there must be something to it on the strictly theoretical level, since Nishikawa makes a point of addressing it in the AF1 with a sophisticated form of filtering—involving glass-reservoir chambers—that smooths out the ripples and thus prevents any modulation of the pumping from affecting the audio signal at the stylus-record interface. I have to say that I’ve never actually been aware of any deleterious sonic effects that I could attribute to rippling, chuffing, or any other untoward modulatory byproduct of pumps in any vacuum hold-down turntable I’ve ever heard, including products by Basis, Continuum, and SOTA. Suffice it to say that for me there is no more effective way to marry an LP to the platter and thus to damp vinyl resonances and drain away spurious noises from the stylus-record interface than a well-engineered vacuum hold-down. I can’t say that the AF1’s is better than all others out there, but it’s better than any other I know about; it’s also hard for me to imagine it could get any easier, more foolproof, or more trouble-free. The pump is dead quiet: Even standing right next to the open shelf on which the pump was placed, I couldn’t hear it in operation. And it’s baby-simple to use: Put on a record, hit the “Suction” button, and in moments—about a second for most records—the LP is flattened to the platter, the pressure drops to maintenance level, and you’re off and running. The rewards in background quietness (more on this anon), dynamic range, and tracking—all owing to the elimination of warps—must be heard to be believed.

The main platter employs an air bearing, for which Nishikawa uses the same kind of filtering to ensure that the platter itself rides on a rock-steady cushion of air, free from ripples and modulations of the air pump (a separate pump from the vacuum). Air is also used for the suspension. The base rests on three feet, adjustable for level via large knobs on the plinth, each foot containing a bladder and a reservoir designed to provide a damping to resist footfalls and structural vibration. A bicycle-type pump (supplied) is used to fill the bladders while a built-in bubble-level and spacer see to it that proper pressure goes to each of the three bladders. Inasmuch as an air bladder is basically a balloon or inner tube, it will inevitably leak over time, each bladder more than likely leaking at a different rate, just as tires do. This is no cause for concern. For one thing, the leakage is exceedingly slow and will probably go unnoticed for several months. There is no need to obsess about this. According to Robert (“Bob”) Graham, whose Graham Engineering Corporation imports the AF1, “The air suspension has a rather low Q and will not be adversely affected by minor variations. All that’s really needed is an eyeball approximation using the bubble level once every month or two—less effort than, say, cleaning the record every time or dusting off the stylus tip.” In the several months I had the turntable for review, I never noticed the bubble level change once.

One of the most novel and sophisticated aspects of the AF1 is how it addresses issues of speed accuracy and speed constancy, which are not the same things. Many turntables, notably direct-drives, employ fast-acting servos to ensure speed accuracy. But the problem with this is that it can result in a kind of constant “hunting” for the correct speed, which in turn can have a deleterious effect on the sound because, the argument goes, the speed is never strictly speaking constant. Some designers even believe it’s preferable to sacrifice that last degree or two of speed accuracy in favor of speed constancy in the interest of greater playback stability and solidity. Nishikawa has gone to great lengths to ensure both. The two phases of the asynchronous motor are each driven by a 50-watt Class A amplifier. Once the speed is selected—33.33 and 45 rpm are available—a “torque switching circuit” is engaged to bring the very heavy platter up to speed, which takes a few to several seconds. When the platter reaches speed, the circuit reduces torque to the minimum necessary to maintain speed and the servo is completely disengaged and out of the system. Speed thereafter is controlled only by the motor and the inertia of the exceptionally heavy platter. If due to some external force, such as brushing the record or stopping the platter by hand, the sensor automatically reengages to return rotation to correct speed.

A nice feature is the vacuum can be engaged or defeated independently of whether the platter is moving. Another nice feature is a tachometer with digital display that allows pitch to be altered in +/- 0.1 percent steps over a 10 percent range. Pushing either of the speed buttons returns to 33 or 45. Two parts that are essential for this turntable’s speed accuracy and constancy are the belt (4-mm wide, made of polyurethane flat fiber) and belt tension, which are also critical to the AF1’s overall performance. Like many belt-drive turntables these days, the motor is outboard and detached from the main chassis, which means that getting the correct belt tension involves a certain amount of cut and try. But the AF1 has a built-in tension-calibration circuit that automates the process. Your dealer will do this as part of the setup, but in case you ever move the turntable or have to get a new belt, you can recalibrate the tension on your own. (The exceptionally comprehensive manual provides full instructions.) During the review period, there was absolutely no speed drift. Indeed, as with every other aspect of this complex design, the tension-calibration system performed flawlessly. Day by day I’ve rarely experienced a record-playing setup that was easier or more pleasurable to use than this one: once set up, it just works.

Unique to my experience of turntables, the AF1 offers a choice of three platters. The base layer for all three is non-magnetic stainless steel, while the upper platter options vary from aircraft-grade, extra-super duralumin (the most neutral, supplied with the review sample), non-magnetic hard-processed stainless steel (for punchier bass), and an acrylic-resin black methacrylate (for a softer, presumably more tube-like sound). The platters are available with or without vacuum (though I have no idea why someone would eschew vacuum, especially when it’s this well implemented), and of course all three can be purchased for those who desire the ultimate in flexibility or want to cater to audiophile neurosis: I remember one audio reviewer of some celebrity from the glory days of the Seventies and Eighties, who used to rotate the platter mat for optimal playback of each individual record and note the position in order to return to it for the next playing. The AF1 comes with one mounting board drilled for the ’arm of choice, but it will support an additional board; standard and 12-inch ’arms can be accommodated.

The (by-now) predictable sandwich construction for the base uses three layers of considerable mass for resonance control, suppression, and damping: pure aluminum for the base; duralumin for the middle; another aluminum with an anodized surface for the top chassis, which gets a sapphire-hard finish that resists scratches. I do have to say that unlike so many Space Age-looking turntables, this one, with its light silver-grey matte finish, is much less bothered by scratches and shows dust much less plainly than any others I’ve used this side of wooden bases. As is clearly evident from the photographs, the turntable is physically large and heavy. Although it is not a piece of furniture or any sort of structure that takes up floor space in your listening room, the AF1 tilts the scales at a whopping 221.5–238 pounds, depending on the platter option. This mandates a very sturdy equipment shelf with a width of 30 inches and depth of 20 (though with cabling 24 would be better).

 

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.

 

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).

Summation
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.
Price: $105,000

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
(781) 932-8777
[email protected]

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