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Air Tight PC-1 Cartridge

Like most vinylphiles, I’ve listened to a lot of fine moving-coil cartridges over the years. The Air Tight PC-1, TAS’ 2006 Phono cartridge of the Year award-winner, is, IMO, the best yet in nearly every aspect of phonographic reproduction—the most complete.

I am scarcely alone in my admiration for the PC-1, which has been a big success critically and commercially. This is not one of those products that hides its light under a bushel. All you have to do is listen to a violin recording, like, say, Joseph Silverstein playing Bartók’s great (and greatly difficult) Sonata for Solo Violin [Columbia], and it quickly becomes obvious that you are getting more information with less distortion and greater speed than you’re used to hearing from an mc.

In the third movement “Melodia,” for instance, when Silverstein plays those tricky high harmonics, you not only hear how these wispy little curlicue-notes sound; you hear how they are sounded. You hear, beneath the harmonics, the faint silken rush of the bow and the shift of fingertips lightly touching strings. This is extraordinary low-level detail, bespeaking a very low noise floor and very high resolution.

But the PC-1 isn’t just very quiet and highly detailed; it’s unusually fast. I thought the London Reference was a world-beater when it came to transient response; but the PC-1 audibly bested it. Just listen to any of the pizzicatos in this same movement of the Bartók Sonata to hear a new benchmark in the lifelike reproduction of plucked strings.

In addition to its world-class distortion, resolution, and speed, the PC-1 is also extremely natural in timbre for a moving coil. Once again, listen to Silverstein’s violin on the double- and triple-stopped chords and trills of the “Melodia.” With their rising treble response, moving coils tend to brighten up or thin out timbres in the upper mids and highs. Not here. (At least, not when the cartridge is properly loaded to 100–500 ohms.)

The PC-1 isn’t just a wonderment in the treble. Its bass is just as remarkable— and in the same ways. On something like Robert Helps’ Steinway on Arthur Berger’s Two Episodes (from New Music for the Piano [CRI), you not only get the fullness of timbre of the big pedaled chords; you get the full energy with which Helps sounds them, the power with which they are projected and sustained. Many moving-coil cartridges (many stereo systems, for that matter) make big instruments like concert grands sound as if they’re getting smaller in volume, power, and projection as they descend in frequency, as if their sound is being funneled to a point, like a “V.” The PC-1 reproduces deep sustained notes as they sound in life—expansive, bottomless, and open, like an upside-down “V.”

Happily, the PC-1 is also exceptional in the midband, reproducing voices from John Shirley-Quirk’s resonant baritone on Lutoslawski’s haunting Les Espaces du sommeil [Columbia] to Joan Baez’s gorgeous soprano on “Gospel Ship” (from Live in Concert [Cisco]) with in-theroom- with-you presence, while, at the same time, fully reproducing the acoustic of the hall each singer is singing in.

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