Manufacturer: Stella Inc.
tereo Sound is an A5 sized quarterly magazine (issue No. 189, 2014 Winter, 520 pages) that has been published in Japan for over 40 years and is considered in the land of the samurai and Sony to be the final and absolute authority on audio. The language of publication is still somewhat of a challenge to me – I may know five or so Japanese words by now – yet I have read many of its reviews in their English translation. Such “cheat sheets” are released by the representatives (agents) of Japanese manufacturers.
Only a year ago, TechDAS was a virtually unknown name for the vast majority of non-Japanese people. Very "technical" and "angular", it was immediately linked to the name that is, in turn, known to everyone – Air Force One. The name of the U.S. president’s airplane was used to designate a turntable that was to become the "first among the first." An ambitious goal, especially given that it was the first such product from TechDAS; actually its first product ever. Every new manufacturer usually needs to pay its dues before reaching a level where skills and knowledge are complemented by experience that, combined, turn audio components into something more than a bag of electronics in a metal box. To quote Jeff Rowland, "it takes years to understand the complex relationship between component parts and the end design. Audio design is an art form that requires a lifetime to master. There are no shortcuts.” How very true, indeed.
Micro-Seiki is a legend that has the status of a "cult" company. It has its own fan clubs and dedicated websites, such as www.micro-seiki.nl (Dutch website in English). Its more expensive turntables very rarely appear on the secondary market and if they do they fetch exorbitant prices. The Air Force One is nothing but cheap, either. Looking at its design, however, it is not difficult to understand why. This is not another "audiophile" product that mainly appeals to us with a brand reputation (which is new here) or design solutions with difficult-to-pronounce names that are hard to find in scientific literature (because they do not exist, and their names are pure PR gimmick). Its quality is guaranteed by the authority of Mr. Nishikawa, while the solutions applied are solid hi-tech engineering.
Design focus included the following criteria:
The Air Force One is a mass turntable, weighing in at 79 kg without the power supply, air pump, and air condenser unit. Its platter weighs between 21.5 kg and 29 kg (depending on the sub-platter choice), and consists of the main platter made of non-magnetic steel and an exchangeable upper sub-platter. The customer can choose the A7075 aircraft-grade duralumin which is supposed to be most neutral sonically, the SUS316L non-magnetic stainless steel for tighter bass response, or methacrylate for a softer sound. The unit that arrived for a review featured the aluminum version. The platter is suspended on a thin air film, with as little as 0.06 mm distance between the platter and the glass base surface underneath. Air cushion is the hallmark of top Micro-Seiki turntables, which found its logical development here. The air is supplied from an external pump, housed in the same chassis as the two 50-watt power supplies (separate for each phase) for the AC motor. The power supplies are controlled by a circuit sporting a microcontroller and quartz oscillator. The control circuit has been borrowed directly from the artificial heart’s power supply, which can be found in the best hospitals. The motor is housed in a very heavy chassis decoupled from the turntable base and supported by its own isolation feet. The drive is transmitted via a flat 4 mm belt made of polished non-stretchable polyurethane. To some extent, it resembles a string drive.
Preparing the turntable to work requires experience and muscle. I seated the AFO on the upper shelf of my Finite Elemente Pagode Edition rack. You can also purchase a custom made anti-vibration platform from HRS (Harmonic Resolution Systems), with milled out seats for all isolation feet. HRS is a company that distributes Stella products in Japan. After setting up the base and seating the platter using clever screw-in handles, the height-adjustable feet with air suspension system need to be filled with air. Two feet are located on the left side with the motor and the third one is on the right side. Pneumatic decoupling is reminiscent of that offered by the Acoustic Revive RAF-48H air board, except that here the foot resonance is designed for the specific turntable load. Air is filled using an excellent pump - I need to buy one for my RAF air boards. The next step involves levelling the turntable and adjusting the distance from the motor unit. Only then can the belt be mounted. The latter is very important, as evidenced by a fairly long belt-calibration procedure that is part of the initial setup and needs to be repeated when changing belts. The belt-calibration process is done automatically, after pressing a button, and involves checking belt tensioning. If it is incorrect, the motor unit needs to be repositioned before repeating belt-calibration. Once the turntable communicates that it is ready, you can start listening.
As I have mentioned earlier, the pump is used not only to supply air to the air bearing, but also to create vacuum under the record to hold it down to the platter. The AFO employs a "total" hold-down solution as the entire LP surface is clamped down, not just the center label area. Tapping anywhere on the black disc surface feels like tapping a stone. So we put on a disc and a record ‘clamp’ on it, press the "Suction" button, then push the desired speed button the and lower the tonearm. I put the ‘clamp’ in inverted commas as it doesn’t actually clamp anything but is used to set the resonant frequency of the main bearings. The rotational speed is reached in a rather long process. First the motor control circuit slowly accelerates the platter slightly above its normal speed before gradually slowing it down to a predetermined value. This is not really an "exhibition" turntable. Although where there’s a will there’s a way… Since I wanted to make use of the available turntable to the maximum, I came up with a rapid LP swapping system. I only pushed the Suction button, changing LPs “on the fly”. I didn’t have the slightest problem with it and the rotational speed would never change. Indications and messages are displayed on a small dot-matrix display.
TechDAS has recently added a phono cartridge to its product lineup but it was not available during this review. The company does not as yet offer any tonearm, though. The turntable reviewed by "Hi-Fi News & Record Review" had been equipped with two tonearms: the Continuum Cobra with Koetsu Blue Onyx MC cartridge and the EAT E-Go with Koetsu Gold Onyx (the pictures show a different tonearm so they apparently had been provided by the distributor). Both arms had been mounted simultaneously as there is an optional second tonearm base. RCM, Polish distributor for TechDAS, offers SME arms and Dynavector cartridges. Hence, I auditioned the AFO equipped with a pair that I knew from several other turntables: the SME Series V arm with MCS150 cables (priced at 16,900 PLN) and the Dynavector DV XV-1t cartridge (29,900 PLN).
Albums auditioned during this review
Try as I might to avoid evaluating right at the start of audition, it always ended up the same way. I would begin to describe the sound only to blurt out, halfway through my third sentence, something that clearly showed my attitude to the Air Force One turntable. I gave up fighting it once I realized that I was unnecessarily stressing. Knowing how much money you need to shell out for it, knowing its design and realizing whose "child" it is, you have the right to expect certain results and my opinion won’t change that in the least. Audio components are not created in a vacuum but result from a combination of designer’s knowledge, experience and artistic hand, financial resources, access to necessary technology and perseverance in the pursuit of the goal. And no review, even the best, will ever change that.
Yet even knowing all this, one is still unprepared for what this Japanese Mechagodzilla brings. A similar thing happened to me during our group audition of the dCS Vivaldi digital system (see HERE) and, earlier, the Studer A807-0.75 VUK reel-to-reel (see HERE) that played analog master tapes. The Air Force One is the third vertex of an equilateral triangle which describes the potential of today’s audio technology. Alongside the dCS and the Studer, it is top of the tops.
To say that the sound is phenomenal or outstanding is to trivialize it. Of course it is and there is not much to get excited about. What’s actually more important is HOW the sound is the best – not "to what extent" or "in which aspects", but HOW it describes the records’ sound, HOW it renders the events that took place in front of the microphones, and HOW it interprets them.
The AFO shows the music in one take. There is no time to analyze it and it’s not because a given track is somehow “rushed in” or because of its “dynamics” or “pace”, or some other descriptions that are simply worthless in this case. Actually, it’s a bit like being at a live concert. We sit down in front of the speakers or put on the headphones (in my case it’s 50/50) and do not analyze the sound but rather concentrate on musical and extra-musical aspects. At a concert, we sweep our glance across the hall searching for our friends, at the same time watching with interest other people around us. Listening to the Japanese turntable, we sweep through the music presentation, searching for similarities to what’s inside us and looking for familiar emotions, while at the same time remaining open to new experiences.
Eventually, we arrive at the form of this presentation; we are audiophiles, after all. Even then the content, that is an attempt to convey what has been recorded and processed further, stays in the first place. But it takes on a different meaning because of the way that Mr. Nishikawa’s turntable fills the gaps between the recording and the music. That is how I understand what happens when we let it do its magic.
Firstly, then, depth. In his review I referred to earlier, Ken Kessler says that for him this is as near as it gets to the sound of a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I would venture to go even further and to say that most tape decks sound inferior. They have poor electronics and are often not properly aligned, and the tape is poor quality. Although master tape would seem to be the sonic reference, there is something in the process of vinyl preparation and then its playback that makes its better suited for home listening.
Secondly, massiveness. Including a well-reproduced bass that provides foundation for the whole sound. There is no treble without bass and no vocals without an order in the bottom end. Many turntables handle it very well, to name expensive SMEs, AVIDs and flagship Transrotors. A few digital sources, headed by dCS, Ancient Audio and CEC, have also something to say in this department. The bass presentation referred to in this review is something different altogether. Deeper than anything else and better defined, it is at the same time the softest of all the above sources. The quest for high resolution, dynamics and definition continues in various directions, by perfecting various elements. Here, nothing seems to be perfected - we get a coherent, finished whole, in which it is difficult to discern anything as it is all part of music.
These three aspects combined result in a deep, full and weighty sound that leaves no time to discuss tonality, treble or hardness. Treble could be described as honey-sweet and delicate, were it not for its huge energy and incredible reach into the recording. The mechanical aspect of reproduction, which is what is really described in audio reviews, here is hidden behind music and its presentation.
AAA | DAA | DDA
Despite all that, digitally recorded and mixed analog discs can sound better than CDs. Why is that? First of all, vinyl masters use high-resolution file format like 24/48, 24/96, and even 24/192 (The Doors box set). There are also other reasons, which I will save for another time. When I listened to this kind of LPs on the Air Force One, I knew exactly where digital technology had pushed things forward, and where that push backfired.
For over two years I've been trying to arrange an interview with an audio journalist from Japan. Little did I know in January 2012, when I started a series of interviews with audio journalists from all over the world, that it would be so difficult to get through to people from Japan (my first interview in “The Editors” series was with Srajan Ebaen, chief editor of “6moons.com” and can be found HERE). For two years I've been hoping to make a breakthrough, with the help of my friends from Japan, including audio distributors and representatives of Japanese companies. However, trying to set up an interview for me with one of audio journalists they have been either politely declined or told "maybe someday". At the High End 2013 in Munich I accidentally bumped into Mr. Takahito Miura, a journalist for "Stereo Sound" and didn’t let him go until he promised to think about giving an interview. With all due respect, he is still thinking. A possible explanation for this attitude can be found in the history of Japan as a country that has been closed to foreigners, self-sufficient culturally and focused mainly on its internal market. Audio journalists are considered demigods and they feel comfortable in that role. No wonder they have absolutely no need to go out of their own camp.
I do not remember when exactly but it must have been a good few years ago that we introduced a special award category to recognize outstanding audio products. We called it the RED Fingerprint award to symbolize product designer’s hand that leaves a distinctive impression on the audio history.
On May 16th, 2013, we granted a special GOLD Fingerprint award. Our intention was to award a man rather than a product. Its recipient was Mr. Ken Ishiguro, the owner of Acoustic Revive (see HERE).
It is our real honor to give the second such award in the history of "High Fidelity" to Mr. Hideaki Nishikawa. This is truly a man with golden hands.
Mr. Hideaki Nishikawa has said on several occasions that his design objective for the Air Force One was to achieve the best performance in a compact-sized turntable. It may be hard to believe looking at its technical specification, especially its weight (79 kg) and dimensions (600x450 mm), which doesn’t include an outboard power supply and air pump, plus an air condenser unit. But once the turntable was seated on my Finite elemente rack, I knew what Mr. Nishikawa meant. There is strength and power in its body, no doubt about it. At the same time, the body is compact and rather low. I absolutely love it; its rounded edges make it look smaller than it really is and not much bigger than basic AVID, Transrotor, Pro-Ject or Thorens designs.
The turntable chassis is assembled as a three-layer sandwich that consists of:
The platter consists of the main platter that weighs 19 kg and is made of SUS316L non-magnetic stainless steel and the upper sub-platter which can be ordered in a choice of three different materials. It can be made of A7075 aircraft-grade duralumin (3.5 kg), SUS316L non-magnetic stainless steel (10 kg) or methacrylate (1.5 kg). The platter is mounted on a steel spindle. The surface of the base facing the platter’s underside is of tempered glass, with a small cut out for a speed sensor. An included record mat is made of special material with shape memory properties and serves to eliminate static electricity. The main platter material is forge-processed (heat treated) to increase hardness and then precision machined at low speed to avoid magnetizing. Inside the platter is a 1.1 liter air chamber that is part of the vacuum hold-down system and produces damping effect to eliminate resonance between the main platter and the upper sub-platter. The drive mechanism is silent and can hardly be heard even when you are right next to the turntable. A massive AC synchronous motor is housed in a separate chassis that sports the same three-layer sandwiched design as the main chassis.
What we have here is a high-end build and finish of a high-end product - hi-tech at its best. After seeing the AFO, all other turntables look like they were made after hours in a small metal workshop.
Motor weight: 6.6 kg
Chassis weight: 43 kg
Rotation speed: 33 1/3 rpm / 45 rpm
Total weight: 79 kg
Wow & Flutter: below 0.03% (W.R.M.S)
Dimension: 600 (W) x 450 (D) mm
Power consumption: 60 W
Power supply unit dimension and weight: 430 (W) x 150 (H) x 240 (D) mm/10 kg
Air condenser unit dimension and weight: 260 (W) x 160 (H) x 240 (D) mm / 4 kg
- Turntable: AVID HIFI Acutus SP [Custom Version]
- Cartridges: Miyajima Laboratory KANSUI, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory SHILABE, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory ZERO (mono) | Denon DL-103SA, review HERE
- Phono stage: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC, review HERE
- Compact Disc Player: Ancient Audio AIR V-edition, review HERE
- Multiformat Player: Cambridge Audio Azur 752BD
- Line Preamplifier: Polaris III [Custom Version] + AC Regenerator, regular version review (in Polish) HERE
- Power amplifier: Soulution 710
- Integrated Amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Stand mount Loudspeakers: Harbeth M40.1 Domestic, review HERE
- Stands for Harbeths: Acoustic Revive Custom Series Loudspeaker Stands
- Real-Sound Processor: SPEC RSP-101/GL
- Integrated Amplifier/Headphone amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Headphones: HIFIMAN HE-6, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-300, review HERE | Sennheiser HD800 | AKG K701, review (in Polish) HERE | Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, version 600 - reviews (in Polish): HERE, HERE, HERE
- Headphone Stands: Klutz Design CanCans (x 3), review (in Polish) HERE
- Headphone Cables: Entreq Konstantin 2010/Sennheiser HD800/HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE
- Interconnects: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, review HERE | preamplifier-power amplifier: Acrolink 8N-A2080III Evo, review HERE
- Loudspeaker Cables: Tara Labs Omega Onyx, review (in Polish) HERE
- Interconnects: Acoustic Revive RCA-1.0PA | XLR-1.0PA II
- Loudspeaker Cables: Acoustic Revive SPC-PA
- Power Cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300, all system, review HERE
- Power Distributor: Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu Ultimate, review HERE
- Power Line: fuse – power cable Oyaide Tunami Nigo (6m) – wall sockets 3 x Furutech FT-SWS (R)
- Power Cables: Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version, review (in Polish) HERE | Oyaide GPX-R (x 4 ), review HERE
- Power Distributor: Oyaide MTS-4e, review HERE
- Portable Player: HIFIMAN HM-801
- USB Cables: Acoustic Revive USB-1.0SP (1 m) | Acoustic Revive USB-5.0PL (5 m), review HERE
- LAN Cables: Acoustic Revive LAN-1.0 PA (kable ) | RLI-1 (filtry), review HERE
- Router: Liksys WAG320N
- NAS: Synology DS410j/8 TB
- Stolik: SolidBase IV Custom, read HERE/all system
- Anti-vibration Platforms: Acoustic Revive RAF-48H, review HERE/digital sources | Pro Audio Bono [Custom Version]/headphone amplifier/integrated amplifier, review HERE | Acoustic Revive RST-38H/loudspeakers under review/stands for loudspeakers under review
- Anti-vibration Feets: Franc Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc/ CD Player/Ayon Polaris II Power Supply /products under review, review HERE | Finite Elemente CeraPuc/ products under review, review HERE | Audio Replas OPT-30HG-SC/PL HR Quartz, review HERE
- Anti-vibration accsories: Audio Replas CNS-7000SZ/power cable, review HERE
- Quartz Isolators: Acoustic Revive RIQ-5010/CP-4
- FM Radio: Tivoli Audio Model One