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Air Tight Opus-1 Ermitage Moving-Coil Cartridge

Air Tight Opus-1 Ermitage Moving-Coil Cartridge

Though Air Tight’s Atsushi Miura may not be well known to American audiophiles, this modest, gentle, dignified man has come to epitomize the Japanese high end for me. Formerly the head of Lux Audio—Japan’s oldest electronics company—Mr. Miura founded A & M Ltd. (the parent company of Air Tight) in 1986 solely “to contribute something to the development of world audio culture.” At the time, semiconductors were the kings in Japanese electronics; analog had been pronounced dead; home-theater and car stereo were booming, and Mr. Miura’s company, Lux Audio, had been sold to Alpine, where this former bastion of high-end tube electronics would be turned into yet another solid-state marque. Wealthy, middle-aged, and successful, Mr. Miura had no commercial reason to continue in the high-end-audio business. And yet he did, because, in his own words, he felt that high-end audio was “losing its original peerless ‘dream’ in the general shift from valves to transistors.”

With his engineering design partner (and A & M’s co-founder) Masami Ishiguro, Mr. Miura began work on the original Air Tight ATM-1—a 36Wpc, 6CA7-based tube amplifier of extraordinary build-quality (Hashimoto transformers, hand-soldered point-to-point wiring) and drop-dead-gorgeous looks. Rather like a Japanese take on the Marantz 8B (but much more beautiful), the ATM-1 was followed by the Marantz 9-like ATM-3 and ATM-4 and many other beam-pentode and single-ended-triode amplifiers. True to his ideals, each of Mr. Miura’s amplifiers pays homage to the Golden Age of High Fidelity while improving on Golden Age sonics.

For Mr. Miura, LPs are part and parcel of the “peerless dream” that animated the hi-fi industry in its prime. So it was not surprising that, in 2006, he and his colleague, Y. Matsudaira, developed an Air Tight phono cartridge based on Mr. Matsudaira’s research at My Sonics Labs. (The “My” in My Sonics Labs are Y. Matsudaira’s initials arranged in the traditional Japanese fashion—last name first. Just for the record “A & M” are Atsushi Miura’s initials, arranged in Western fashion.)

For forty years, Mr. Matsudaira has been, perhaps, the most illustrious designer of moving-coil cartridges in the Far East, having devised celebrated cartridges for Supex, Koetsu, and Miyabi, among many other marques. In 2006, he claimed to have solved a longstanding technical problem: how to achieve high energy from a low-impedance circuit. The problem in a nutshell was this: A higher-output (i.e. higher-impedance) moving-coil cartridge (on the order of 0.3 to 0.7mV output) typically has more coil windings, which leads to higher energy, richer tone color, and increased “liveliness,” but lower resolution of fine detail; a lower output (lower-impedance) moving-coil cartridge (on the order of 0.1 to 0.25mV output) has fewer coil windings, which leads to higher resolution and transparency but reduced density of tone color and dynamic clout. For thirty years, Mr. Matsudaira has written, nothing substantial was done to solve this “output voltage versus internal impedance puzzle.” You could have high energy and color or high resolution and transparency, but not both.

After years of exhaustive research, Mr. Matsudaira discovered a way to minimize coil windings (for higher resolution) and increase output (for higher energy) simultaneously. Many factors played into the design of Mr. Matsudaira’s new cartridge—including the geometry of the stylus and the design of the cantilever and cartridge body—but the fundamental breakthrough was the development of an ultra-high-µ core material (named SH-µX), which, because of its high saturation flux density (three times higher than conventional high-µ materials) allowed for a dramatic reduction in the number of coil windings (thus suppressing core-saturation losses and lowering impedance), while also generating the high voltage necessary to energize music from the top octaves to the bottom ones.

Mr. Matsudaira’s original design was released by Air Tight as the PC-1, and was an immediate critical and commercial success, primarily because it did exactly what it claimed to do—lowered noise and coloration and greatly increased resolution and energy. Details were clearer, timbres were truer, air was more plentiful, dynamics were more lifelike, and stage width, depth, and height were expanded in comparison with other moving-coil cartridges then on the market.

Several years later, Mr. Miura released Mr. Matsudaira’s improved version of the PC-1, the PC-1 Supreme, which was said to reduce internal impedance even further (down to 1 ohm, thanks to 40% fewer windings), as well as improve the cartridge body’s susceptibility to resonance. The sonic results of these and other changes, according to Air Tight, were improved bandwidth, dynamic range, transient response, and phase behavior. And in my review of the PC-1 Supreme I confirmed those claims. To quote my conclusion: “The new cartridge goes lower with much better timing, focus, and resolution, goes higher with greater incisiveness, detail, and speed, plays big dynamic passages with greater power and control, and stages with even greater width and depth and focus than the PC-1 (which, let me remind you, was and is no slouch in any of these regards). It is also a much more neutral cartridge than the PC-1, which sounds a bit dark (a bit weighted toward the bass and softened in the treble) by comparison, with considerably higher low-level resolution at both of the frequency extremes (and in the middle).”

Even though it was quite a bit more expensive than the PC-1, the PC-1 Supreme was and is a top-seller (Robert uses one as his reference), and is widely regarded as one of the über-cartridges currently on the market. [One of the world’s most famous speaker designers visited me to set up his flagship speaker, and after hearing the PC-1 Supreme, bought two for his own use.—RH]

 

Comes now the Air Tight Opus-1 Ermitage cartridge, released in honor of Air Tight’s thirtieth anniversary. And, folks, it is just as much of a winner as its two distinguished predecessors—and certainly the best Air Tight yet. Of course, the competition has stiffened since the PC-1 was introduced in 2006, with the Goldfinger Statement, the Lyra Atlas, and the Ortofon Anna (Ortofon seems to have taken a cue from Mr. Matsudaira, as its recent cartridges are now higher in output, richer in color and energy, but still high in resolution) leading the way.

Like the PC-1s, the Opus-1 uses an SH-µX core for even higher-efficiency output (0.5mV) at low impedance (1.4 ohms). However, the Opus-1 uses windings whose “cross-sectional dimensions are 10% larger” than those in the PC-1 Supreme. The Opus-1 also boasts a semi-line contact stylus with a 0.1mm square tip, an ultra-hard duralmin (an alloy of aluminum that contains copper, manganese, magnesium, iron, and silicon) cantilever, and a “hyper-solid duralmin” base for superior freedom from resonances.

How does it sound? In a word, solid. The Opus-1 may be the most three-dimensional-sounding cartridge I’ve heard in my home. Where (on my fabulously high-resolution system) a low-impedance/low-output cartridge like the Ortofon A90 will reproduce Dean Martin’s voice (on Analogue Productions’ superb reissue of Dreamin’ with Dean) with so much fine detail you can tell how much spit (or bourbon) Dean-o has in his mouth on any given note, the Opus-1 slightly dials down the analytics but turns up the volume, converting Dean from a highly detailed albeit paper-flat acoustic image to a fair semblance of an actual human being standing in front of you. As I once said of another remarkably three-dimensional transducer (the MBL X-Treme), it’s like the difference between watching a film and watching a play.

In addition to this remarkable dimensionality, the Opus-1 is an exceedingly neutral cartridge. While not at all rolled in the treble, it is also not at all aggressive up there either. (If you’re used to the sensational brilliance and speed of something like a Goldfinger in the top octaves, the Opus-1’s lifelike smoothness may come as a pleasant surprise.) In the bass it is a veritable powerhouse, with simply sensational extension and resolution in the lowest octaves, reproducing really deep notes on synth, organ, piano, bass drum, or five-string bass guitar, with superb definition, lifelike speed, tremendous power, and the same unflappable neutrality and transparency that it brings to the mids and treble. Nothing thickens or darkens or simply goes black and indecipherable in the Opus-1’s bottom end—or anywhere else. Kickdrum and Fender bass or synth? Top-octave cello and bottom-octave viola, as, say, on the churning ostinatos of the Penderecki String Trio in Yarlung’s superb recording of the Janaki emsemble? You’ve never heard them distinguished more clearly—or realistically. Trust me. (On an imperturbable ’table/’arm like the Acoustic Signature Invictus/T-9000, this thing tracks and traces at least as well and as cleanly as anything I’ve had on any ’table.)

Like its PC-1 brethren, the Opus-1 is also a superior soundstager. Though I don’t think its stage is quite as wide and deep as that of the Goldfinger (my benchmark in such matters), it is at least as good as that of the Ortofon Anna. Probably better. With its inherent transparency and superior trackability, it will certainly give you a clear picture of who’s playing what and where, no matter how busy or dynamic the music gets.

Speaking of dynamics…the Opus-1 has almost tape-like smoothness, speed, and power. Here is a cartridge with the dynamic “continuousness” of the real thing. (Don’t confuse this with a lack of transient punch—the Opus-1 has punch aplenty. But unlike certain other cartridges—and digital all the time—this cartridge doesn’t give you a sense that its reproduction of dynamics is subtly “stepped,” proceeding in a slightly mechanical fashion from one level to another. As in life, the Opus-1 reproduces changes in intensity, large and small, as a continuum, making the presentation that much more realistic and easy to listen to. If you’re used to something as thrilling as the Goldfinger, you may feel you’re losing a little zip, but listen for a while and see if what’s lost hasn’t been offset by the natural ease that has been gained.)

Bottom line. This is by far the best Air Tight yet, and at $15k it is priced accordingly. For that kind of money, you’re gonna want to listen to the competition, none of which sound much like the Opus-1. One of the great virtues of analog—or one of its most damning flaws, according to the analog-is-like-dragging-a-stick-through-a-ditch crowd of digital-philes—is that you can tune your system to sound any way you want it, and still end up with a simulacrum of the real thing. You can, if you choose, get a marginally more detailed presentation than that of the Opus-1, though you may do so at a price in sterility. You can certainly get a more scintillant top end, though you may do so at a price in aggressiveness and brightness. You can get an inherently riper, darker tonal balance, and a slightly wider, deeper soundstage. What you can’t get is a more neutral, continuous, three-dimensional presentation top to bottom. Whatever you end up choosing, you’re not going to get something that sounds substantially more like real musicians in a real space.

“One of the great virtues of analog is that you can tune your system to sound any way you want it, and still end up with a simulacrum of the real thing.”

You see, folks, those ditches that we LP lovers drag those diamond-tipped sticks through are literally filled with music—replicas of the actual soundwaves that struck the membranes of the microphones in concert halls and recording studios, sometimes fifty, sixty, or many more years ago. They are the real thing engraved in vinyl—not approximations of it passed through field-programmable gate arrays churning ones and zeroes.

The Air Tight Opus-1 gets my highest recommendation, and joins the Goldfinger Statement and Ortofon Anna as one of my references.

SPECS & PRICING

Type: Ultra-low-impedance moving-coil cartridge
Frequency response: 10–50kHz
Output voltage: 0.5mV
Internal impedance: 1.4 ohms (DCR)
Magnet: Neodymium #50
Stylus pressure: 1.9–2.2g
Channel balance: Within 0.5dB (1kHz)
Crosstalk: More than 30dB
Terminal pins: Rhodium-plated
Weight: ca. 12.5g
Price: $15,000

AXISS AUDIO
17800 South Main Street, Suite 109
Gardena, CA 90248
(310) 329-0187
axissaudio.com
info@axissaudio.com

JV’s Reference System
Loudspeakers: Magico M Project, Raidho D-5, Raidho D-1, Avantgarde Zero 1, MartinLogan CLX, Magnepan .7, Magnepan 1.7, Magnepan 3.7, Magnepan 20.7
Subwoofers: JL Audio Gothams
Linestage preamps: Soulution 725, CH Precision L1, Audio Research Reference 10, Siltech SAGA System C1, VAC Signature
Phonostage preamps: Audio Consulting Silver Rock Toroidal, Soulution 755, VAC Signature Phono, Constellation Audio Perseus, Innovative Cohesion Engineering Raptor
Power amplifiers: Soulution 711, CH Precision M1, VAC 450iQ, Siltech SAGA System V1/P1, Odyssey Audio Stratos
Analog source: Acoustic Signature Invictus/T-9000, Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Mk V, TW Acustic Black Knight, AMG Viella 12
Tape deck: United Home Audio UHA-Q Phase 12 OPS
Phono cartridges: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Air Tight Opus-1 Ermitage, Ortofon MC Anna, Ortofon MC A90
Digital source: Berkeley Alpha DAC 2
Cable and interconnect: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo LE, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power Cords: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo LE, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power Conditioner: Synergistic Research Galileo LE, Technical Brain
Accessories: Stein Music H2 Harmonizer System, Synergistic ART and HFT/FEQ system, Shakti Hallographs (6), Zanden room treatment, A/V Room Services Metu panels and traps, ASC Tube Traps, Critical Mass MAXXUM equipment and amp stands, Symposium Isis and Ultra equipment platforms, Symposium Rollerblocks and Fat Padz, Walker Prologue Reference equipment and amp stands, Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control discs, Clearaudio Double Matrix SE record cleaner, Synergistic Research RED Quantum fuses, HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses

Tags: AIR-TIGHT

By Jonathan Valin

I’ve been a creative writer for most of life. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I wrote eleven novels and many stories—some of which were nominated for (and won) prizes, one of which was made into a not-very-good movie by Paramount, and all of which are still available hardbound and via download on Amazon. At the same time I taught creative writing at a couple of universities and worked brief stints in Hollywood. It looked as if teaching and writing more novels, stories, reviews, and scripts was going to be my life. Then HP called me up out of the blue, and everything changed. I’ve told this story several times, but it’s worth repeating because the second half of my life hinged on it. I’d been an audiophile since I was in my mid-teens, and did all the things a young audiophile did back then, buying what I could afford (mainly on the used market), hanging with audiophile friends almost exclusively, and poring over J. Gordon Holt’s Stereophile and Harry Pearson’s Absolute Sound. Come the early 90s, I took a year and a half off from writing my next novel and, music lover that I was, researched and wrote a book (now out of print) about my favorite classical records on the RCA label. Somehow Harry found out about that book (The RCA Bible), got my phone number (which was unlisted, so to this day I don’t know how he unearthed it), and called. Since I’d been reading him since I was a kid, I was shocked. “I feel like I’m talking to God,” I told him. “No,” said he, in that deep rumbling voice of his, “God is talking to you.” I laughed, of course. But in a way it worked out to be true, since from almost that moment forward I’ve devoted my life to writing about audio and music—first for Harry at TAS, then for Fi (the magazine I founded alongside Wayne Garcia), and in the new millennium at TAS again, when HP hired me back after Fi folded. It’s been an odd and, for the most part, serendipitous career, in which things have simply come my way, like Harry’s phone call, without me planning for them. For better and worse I’ve just gone with them on instinct and my talent to spin words, which is as close to being musical as I come.

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