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Phonostage | MM

Air Tight

Manufacturer: A&M LIMITED
Price (in Poland): 95 000 PLN | 1 PLN = 0,23 EUR / March 1st 2020

Contact: 4-35-1 Mishimae | Takatsuki-city
Osaka 569-0835 | JAPAN


Provided for test by: SOUNDCLUB

The Air Tight brand belongs to the Japanese company A&M LIMITED. It was founded in 1986 in Osaka by two friends: Atsushi Miura and Masami Ishiguro (letters 'A' and 'M' in the name, respectively). A year earlier, the prototype of the ATM-1 amplifier is ready, which goes into production the year the company was founded. Two years ago, M&A Ltd. was taken over by Mr. Yutaka "Jack" Miura, son of one of the founders.

he lucky few had a chance to listen to the new phono preamplifier developed by the Japanese legend, Air Tight, even a few months before its official premiere. I was one of those lucky ones. And I immediately requested a possibility to REVIEW this device as soon as possible. It took a while, and in the so-called meantime, many people had their chance to listen to this amazing device during the Audio Video Show 2019 in Warsaw.

Let me, however, go back to the premiere presentation, led by Mr. Yutaka Jack Miura, son of the company's founder and its main designer Mr. Atsushi Miura, at the headquarters of the Warsaw distributor, Soundclub. Lovers of tube devices and good sound need no introduction to the Air Tight . This is one of the legendary Japanese brands focused on the production of tube devices from the very beginning. The new ATE-3011 phono preamplifier is by no means an exception. That is why during the presentation, Mr. Miura focused on the unique features of this device.

RIAA and more | First of all, a user can connect up to three cartridges to it, using three RCA inputs. Secondly, it features two outputs (also RCA), plus a mono output (single RCA). Such a abundance of connectors would be enough to make this device stand out from the majority of competitors. However, the clou of this design is something else. Namely it by default it allows user to choose one of five correction curves. In practice, due to the independent choice of two parameters, the "turnover" (bass boost by 3 dB) and "roll off" (low-pass filter value for 10 kHz), one can also use it to play records produced using also other curves (I mean ones mainly from before 1955).

So what? - a person owning records released over the last 60 years may ask? Ever since 1954, one common standard has been used – the RIAA curve (short for the Recording Industry Association of America). And it's true - if you don't have older vinyl records, the possibility of using different correction curves will have no use for you. But the fact is that many lovers of black discs have in their collections older releases, from such labels as Decca, Columbia, Atlantic, Blue Note, and even older 78 R.P.M. American records

If you've ever tried to play such a release using a "normal" preamplifier, meaning one using a RIAA correction, it probably didn't sound very good. And this is because, before the introduction of one standard, no rules applied, so to speak, that is, the labels used their own, different from others, correction curves. According to Wikipedia, there were as many as 100 different curve corrections, which obviously caused problems for owners of record players or actually phonostages. The standard set by RIAA put an end to these problems.

Why do we need a correction curve anyway? | So actually, why do we need any correction at all? We've written about it many times, but since in the recent years many young people have caught the vinyl bug, so maybe it's worth bringing it up once more, at least in general terms, what it's all about.

It's about the method of recording sound on a vinyl record. Without going into details, the method used to record the signal is a kind of compromise that allows to include several dozen minutes of recording on two sides of the record. To achieve this, low frequencies are significantly - by 20 dB - reduced, and thus is the width of the groove on the record. This enables encoding of more music material on the record. At the same time, the other band's extreme, the treble is amplified - by 20 dB. The correction during playback of the record is executed in the phono preamplifier and it reverses the described process, which allows users to hear a "normal" from the speakers. Without correction, listener would hear a presentation with a bright treble and completely devoid of bass.

Japan | Japan is one of those places where music lovers have huge collections of vinyl records. So also, and maybe above all, those released decades ago. And this is because many of them simply sound better than those released today. One could assume that there are not so many titles published before the introduction of the RIAA standard and that would be true. But there are some and they often contain recordings that were never re-issued again later. To have a chance to hear such discs sounding as intended by their creators, one needs a phonostage that will allow them to choose appropriate parameters for each particular record. I have already dealt with several devices that allowed user to choose 2-3 different curves (even such an inexpensive one as the iFi phono), but the solution chosen by Air Tight engineers offers unprecedented possibilities.

| ATE-3011

It allows users to independently set two parameters - "turnover" and "roll off". It is only together that they determine the parameters of a given correction curve. On the front panel of the ATE-3011 preamplifier there are a kind of two convex „windows”. The surface under them is divided into five parts, each of them has a different color and backlit. For some reason my first association was with some old music box. Anyway it does have a „retro” vibe. There are two knobs placed on two sides of these windows/displays that allow user to set up the parameters of the curve with them. They are described primarily by the names of respective curves: RIAA, FLAT, FFRR, NAB/NARTB and AES.

Each curve name is accompanied by a time constant value. To use one of them, one selects the appropriate value with the left and right knob, and they will be highlighted in both windows. To use one of the five standard curves, in both windows one chooses the same name, i.e. in the right and left the same one should be highlight e.g. the RIAA. However, having the option of independently setting both parameters, the user can "combine" different values to find optimal ones for particular record using some other curve. The Air Tight offers combinations that should be chosen, e.g. for Columbia records from before 1956, or for old Teldec releases. An owner of some records from the "pre-RIAA" period, ones that are not listed in the manufacturer's manual can still experiment on their own looking for the best sound.

For the Mr. Miura's presentation I brought with me the oldest album from my collection, released in Japan by Angel Records, originally recorded in 1928 (Thibaud, Casals and Cortot). In terms of music, this is a beautiful album, but the quality of the recording itself leaves something to be desired. Regardless of this fact, justified by age of the recording, I always perceived its sound as not quite how it should have been like. It's worth mentioning that both phonostages I own feature only a RIAA correction.

Although Mr. Miura didn’t learn anything from this record's (Japanese) booklet or even with the help of Google, but by experimenting with various parameter values he found those that made this record sound better than ever before. After this experience, I was already sure that if I had at least a dozen, maybe: few dozens of records with great music released in the "pre-RIAA" period, the ATE-3011 would have immediately become one of my most desired audio components.

Before I forget, there is one more important piece of information regarding the reviewed device. Namely, the ATE-3011 is a preamplifier designed for MM cartridges. To use it with MC cartridges, one should use an appropriate step up transformer. The distributor offered the ATH-03 model from the same manufacturer for this REVIEW.

AIR TIGHT in „High Fidelity”
  • REVIEW: Air Tight ATM-3211 | power amplifiers (monaural)
  • REVIEW: Air Tight ATM-300R | power amplifier
  • REVIEW: Air Tight PC-7 | cartridge
  • REVIEW: Air Tight ATM-2 | power amplifier
  • REVIEW: Air Tight ATM-211 | power amplifier
  • REVIEW: Air Tight ATM-300 | power amplifier
  • REVIEW: Air Tight PC-1 Supreme | cartridge
  • REVIEW: Bergmann Audio SINDRE + Air Tight PC-1 | turntable + cartridge
  • REVIEW: Air Tight ATC-3 + ATM-1S | preamplifier + integrated amplifier

  • Recordings used for the test (a selec- tion)

    • Patricia Barber, Companion, Premonition/Mobile Fidelity, MFSL 2-45003, 180 g LP
    • Arne Domnerus, Jazz at the Pawnshop, Proprius ATR 003, LP
    • Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11, EMI Music Poland, LP
    • Keith Jarrett, The Koeln Concert, ECM 1064/65 ST, LP
    • Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain, Columbia Stereo, PC8271, LP
    • Cannonball Adderley, Somethin' else, Classic Records BST 1595-45, LP
    • Dead Can Dance, Spiritchaser, 4AD/Mobile Fidelity MOFI 2-002, LP
    • R.E.M., Automatic for the people, Craft Recordings 0888072029835, LP
    • Muddy Waters & The Rolling Stones, Live At The Checkerboard Lounge. Chicago 1981, Eagle Rock Entertainment B0085KGHI6, LP
    • Pink Floyd, The Endless River, Parlophone Records 825646215478, LP
    • Vivaldi, Le Quatro Stagioni, Divox/Cisco CLP7057, LP
    • Thorens, 125th Anniversary LP, Thorens ATD125, LP
    • The Ben Webster Quintet, Soulville, Verve Records M GV-8274, LP
    • Daniel Gaede, The tube only vinyl, TACET L117, LP
    • Albeniz, Suita Espanola, KIJC 9144, LP

    A phonostage, a Japanese one, featuring tubes... So what should I start my listening sessions with? An acoustic trio? Some captivating vocals? A violin quartet? Or maybe it should be an album, which I finally, several years (OMG, it's already been so long!) after the original release I recently bought on vinyl. An album that I have always loved, but which until recently I always listened from CD or music files. But if I finally got it on vinyl, so...

    And so on my J. Sikora turntable with Mr. Janusz's Kevlar KV12 tonearm and AirTight PC-3 MC cartridge, I cued in the Carlos Santana Supernatural, and the signal went to the REVIEWed preamplifier, supported by the ATH-03 step up transformer. There is no shortage of great vocals on this album, there is also an acoustic guitar, but these are mostly recordings in which the master's electric guitar reigns, supported by electric bass, drums, keyboards, in a word - elements that are not always the strong point of tube devices.

    As I quickly found out, the ATE-3011 did not care at all about these stereotypes. The master's guitar sobbed beautifully, or quickly rushed forward, it was dense, soft, singing, one of a kind. All percussion instruments performed perfectly, and there are plenty of them on the disc. The cymbals were properly weighted, sonorous, the drums were springy, fast, powerful, and I couldn't find even slighREVIEW issues with the timing – it was spot on. Vocals, one by one, as there are many great artists sing on this album, bursting with energy and emotions, and their differentiation was excellent. Each one was rich in individual features, each sounded different, each was amazingly present and highly expressive. Although I'd listened to this album tens, maybe hundreds of times, this first time from a vinyl record, thanks to the ATE-3011 I will remember for a long time as an extremely intimate, purely addictive, natural, just unique.

    Immediately after Santana, an acoustic trio landed on the turntable's platter: the Blicher Hemmer Gadd from the excellent Special 33 album. This is a live recording, and thanks to the Air Tight, even if the quite active audience was not loud enough at times, I would have had no doubt that it was a capture of a live performance. It was splendidly captured in it, and the preamplifier conveyed it perfectly, the space, reverb, sound reflections from the walls, the impression of maybe not so huge, but definitely larger than my room space, and an unique atmosphere that usually accompanies such events.

    Performing in front of the audience winds up the musicians, makes them have a great time, and the lively reactions of the fans only raise the concert temperature even more. Each of the three musicians gives an intense show of their talents and technique on this recording, but while the high-end tube preamplifier can be expected to reproduce the saxophone very tangibly, faithfully, and to allow Hammonds to sound great, even after listening to the Santana's album, I couldn't really know how Steve Gadd would sound like on his drums.

    What happened was that the saxophone breathed beautifully, its timbre was extremely realistic, I could hear a lot of the smallest details including the work of the flaps. Hammonds charmed with their characteristic sound and analog fluidity. And the drums? Those who know the skills of the musician in question know perfectly well that if he is properly recorded and played, he's damn impressive. The recording is of absolutely fantastic quality, just like the pressing, and the ATE-3011 has added its 5 cents again with perfect timing, agility, attack speed and long reverb. Let's add to this the extraordinary spatiality of this recording and there is simply no choice but to get sucked in into this unique musical event inside the Danish club.

    Staying in similar mood, but this time with a studio recording of our own jazz masters - Wojciech Karolak and Adam Czerwiński – from an album released by the exclusive record label belonging to the latter, AC Records. The recording was made in Poland, and mastering was done in the famous Abbey Road studio by Alex Wharton. In addition to the composition of the aforementioned musicians, they also played some standards, for example by Duke Ellington.

    The recording itself is quite unique because it was recorded live in the studio in one take. The gentlemen, accompanied by several other great studio musicians, simply sat down and played the music. Everything was recorded beautifully, and it sounds fantastic on vinyl. Especially in such a company as the one provided by the Air Tight cartridge and phono preamplifier. There is a lot of energy in this performance, but there is also exceptional fluidity and naturalness.

    Changing the climate, I reached for an album with electronic-acoustic-vocal music, The great jazz gig in the sky with variations on the legendary Pink Floyd album. The ATE-3011 adapted to the extraordinary nature of this album smoothly. It played it in an extremely spacious way, enchanting with the naturalness of vocals and saxophones, the deep, low, powerful sound of the double bass, its compactness and speed, and equally convincing rendering of all electronic effects. The album has an equally unusual, though different, atmosphere than the original The Dark side of the Moon, and the Japanese preamplifier added a high level of expression on top of that. This resulted in a presentation that I listened (almost) holding my breath, changing the following sides (this is a two-disc edition) as soon as possible, so that this unique atmosphere would not escape me.

    I couldn't resist the desire to return to the rock rhythms and decided to listen to the new release of the Love over Gold album, which has recently become available again thanks to the Mobile Fidelity. This is my favorite album of Dire Straits, and MoFi engineers, as usual, did a good job. The Air Tight proved again that contrary to stereotypes regarding tube devices, it was able to deliver impressive PRAT, properly deliver even a very low and powerful bass in a properly weighted, energetic and controlled way, and the drums that were springy, fast, and really kicking.

    It was particularly clear on the Private investigations. The drums in this song are extremely powerful, they come in with very strong beats, and I raised my eyebrows high, hearing how convincing and powerful they were conveyed by the ATE-3011. Importantly, it did it easily, effortlessly, freely, as if it was the most natural thing under the sun for it.

    The fact that my cartridge, PC-3, is capable of delivering THAT kind of performance was no surprise, but so far it sounded like THAT only with solid-state (or hybrid - see Tenor) preamplifiers. Knopfler's guitar sounded just as great as Santana's before, although men's styles differ significantly. It was properly saturated, but also fast, dense, but at the same time slightly sharp, and the fragments played on the acoustic instrument sounded very natural.

    To diversify the repertoire a bit, and at the same time try out the ATE-3011's capabilities, I took out my beloved opera from the shelf, i.e. Carmen by Bizet conducted by Karajan with the brilliant Leontyne Price in the title role. The extremely energetic and dynamic overture already proved that the Japanese device is not afraid of challenges. In fact, I have no doubt that during its development and tuning classical music was used o lot and it was the device that had to play it perfectly to satisfy its creators. In a word - the end result should not have surprised me.

    And yet, as I recall I had been impressed that much with the dynamics and momentum of the presentation of this opera maybe two or three times before. Certainly, the already mentioned Tenor Phono 1 played it in an equally remarkable way, also the top Audio Tekne phonostage but that's it. The point was, among other features, in how fast the signal was rising and how quickly it faded out when needed, especially with the great tutti of the orchestra. Also in how black, how palpable the silence between the notes was when it needed to be there.

    Another, absolutely remarkably presented aspect of this unique recording was space. I don't know that many records on which the size of the opera stage is so clearly presented, I mean both, soloists moving around in the foreground and choirs moving much further in the distance behind them. All this the ATE-3011 conveyed in an insanely convincing way, making me feel like I was sitting in the first row at the opera house, focusing on performers just a few meters away from me.

    The sound of the orchestra with, maybe not entirely natural (after all, in the opera the musicians are sitting below the stage so, especially when sitting close we do not have normal insight into the orchestra's arrangement), precise layout in space it was not only incredibly dynamic, powerful, it also sounded very natural. Knowing the whole thing almost by heart, I was once again carried away by the Carmen story, told in such a beautiful way (who could have expected that, given the conductor?) by the orchestra and the singers.

    I just love the performances of Price, Freni, Corelli and Merill, and the Air Tight showed them in the best possible way, fully using „the magic” of the tubes. With all due respect to solid-state devices, but without any tubes in the signal's path, the vocals simply do not sound so natural, so expressive, so convincing. They are also never as present as in this case. The ATE-3011 did a marvelous job!


    My vinyl collection consists almost exclusively of releases based on RIAA correction curve, hence I did not have too much chance to experiment with other curves, apart from the aforementioned presentation by Mr. Miura at Soundclub. We listened to various discs there and there was no doubt that playing each of them using the appropriate curve was the optimal solution. What I could do in my system was to evaluate the sound of the phonostage using RIAA curve. It's, without a doubt, one of the best I've ever listened to in my system.

    This is a tube device, which can be heard when it comes to playing acoustic music, as well as vocals that sound extremely natural and engaging. Only, that this „tubeless” is much less obvious when it comes to rock, electronic music or the classical one. One would expect rounded bass and treble, or at least some roll-off, but there is any, not really. There is no emphasis in the midrange (OK, maybe some, but definitely less than one expects from a tube device), there is no coloration. The sound is clean, transparent, dynamic, well-controlled and defined, which allows listeners to fully experience music whether it is an acoustic trio concert or a rock band or a symphony orchestra. In each case the ATE-3011 will offer an outstanding performance, with proves a true passion of its creators and their love of music.

    The ATE-3011 is the laREVIEW top phonostage from Air Tight, designed to work with MM cartridges, and in combination with an external step-up also with MC ones. The external design of this brand's products always brings the expression "modest elegance" to my mind, as well as "exceptional robustness and highest quality of make&finish". As for a phonostage the ATE-3011 is quite big, as it measures 400 x 375 x 151 mm, weighing 12.2 kg.

    Front | Its housing is very rigid and painted in graphite, except for a separate, thick titanium colored front. There are three knobs on the front panel - one is input selector and the other two are used to choose the parameters of the correction curves. On the right side there is an on/off switch. What distinguishes the ATE-3011 from all devices I know, including other Air Tights, are two centrally located convex "windows". Under each of them there are five horizontal fields, each in a different color, each separately backlit, each described by the name of the curve and the corresponding parameters.

    Rear | The rear panel of the device features three inputs, with excellent RCA sockets, which allows user to connect up to three cartridges at the same time. There are also have two RCA (stereo) and one mono outputs available. The set of connectors is complemented by solid grounding terminals for each input, and an IEC power socket.

    Inside | The interior is as elegant as what can be seen from the outside. On the right, cables connecting the inputs with the selector on the front are routed in metal tubes that act as a shield. The central part of the housing is occupied by the correction circuit and output stage featuring three 12AX7EH tubes manufactured by the Russian company Electro-Harmonix, selected by Air Tight. The whole section, divided into right and left channels, which are separated from each other by a copper shield, is separately shielded, and the tubes are placed on its outer edge pointing to the back of the device. The advance power supply was placed on a separate PCB bolted to the side panel of the device. It is based on Plitron transformers and Nichicon capacitors.

    Technical specifications (according to manufacturer):

    Tubes: 12AXT x 3
    Inputs: RCA/MM x 3
    Input impedance: 47 kΩ (gain 40 dB)
    Outputs: RCA (stereo) x 2 + 1 mono
    Output impedance: > 47 kΩ
    THD: 0.02% (1 V/1 kHz)
    Frequency range: 50 Hz - 20 kHz (+/- 0.2 dB) | 20 Hz (-2.5 dB)
    Power consumption: 50 W
    Dimensions: 400 (W) x 375 (D) x 151 (H) mm
    Weight: 12.2 kg