Air Tight PC-1 Supreme
Price: 28 000 zł
ul. Skrzetuskiego 42, 02-726 Warszawa
tel.: 22 586 32 70
fax: 22 586 32 71
WWW: Air Tight
Text: Wojciech Pacuła
The Japanese are masters of small forms. Haiku, beautiful miniatures painted on silk, etc, those are the things they master with perfection. It seems, that this is a result of their attachment to precision, to incredible patience and the ability to concentrate on the goal. This sounds like a tabloid story, but knowing many owners of Japanese audio companies, reading about them, talking to them, testing their products, I think, that this, maybe oversimplified vision, is very true. And the most important thing, I think, is something, no so common in Europe: the attachment to perfection. This is the reason, that the Japanese editions of CDs are usually regarded as masters in terms of quality, and the K2 process, also in the commercial XRCD and K2HD versions, is the point of reference for many. A similar thing happens to a topic as distant to the digital world as it is possible, to phono cartridges. It is enough to mention some of the Japanese manufacturers, like Dynavector, Lyra, Phase Tech, My Sonic Lab, Yamamoto Sound Craft Corp. Sumiko or finally Air Tight. Those are absolute world class companies. And we shouldn’t also forget about not so expensive, but almost iconic cartridges from companies like: Takeda Labs, Denon and Audio-Technica. Should I quote more?
Together with the most expensive turntable of the world, the German Transrotor Argos, I tested the cartridge PC-1 from the company Air Tight (review HERE). This was a lesson of life and humbleness, because I learned again, how much differs that sound from the live one, and that the two worlds, of live and reproduced sound, will maybe never meet, and that there are still many territories uncharted by me. But also during that test, maybe due to my impertinence, or my lightheartedness, I knew, what I would do differently, what I would expect from a cartridge, that would be even better than the tested one.
And so the idea to test the almost twice as expensive version of the PC-1, the gold plated PC-1 Supreme, was born. This is nominally a “version” of the basic model, but in reality a completely different product. This is a true summary of 50 years of work and experience of Mr. Miura and his friend, Mr. Matsudaira, the owner of the company and his friend (respectively), who was responsible for the best cartridges from Koetsu and Miyabi. PC-1 Supreme is a cartridge with an internal impedance around 1Ω, with the coil wiring with a larger cross-section than the PC-1 and a smaller number of windings, by 40%. Its output voltage is nevertheless quite OK – it is 0.4mV. The diamond has a semi-line cut, with the dimensions of 3x30µm, and the cantilever is made from boron. The body is covered with gold to provide best possible shielding. We should add, that this is one of the best rated cartridges by the American magazine “The Absolute Sound”, which awarded it with the following prizes:
We tested the following Air Tight products:SOUND
Discs used for testing:
It may seem, that it is difficult something exceptional. And the PC-1 cartridge was something really EXCEPTIONAL. Really. Listening to it, I finally understood, from where the opinions about the outstanding dynamics of LPs come from. Although technical data tells a different story, because dynamics measured as the distance from the weakest to the loudest sound is rather small, yet in reality we perceive it differently. The sound from a digital source, and especially from CD, is emotionally flat and boring. We can, of course, say, that the superiority of vinyl is not due to it “being better”, but due to a spread of distortion, that is better tolerated by us, than the one coming from CD. This is true, however only for the smaller part… Living for three months only with turntables – first with the Avid Acutus, then with the Bergmann Sindre and finally the Transrotor Argos (my new Lektor was under construction at that time), so when I received the long awaited CD player from Ancient Audio, I was disappointed. Although it is splendid, in many aspects even better than the older Lektor Grand SE, top class, yet I needed time to get used to that vision of the world again. Yes, a vision of the world, and not the sound. So when the most expensive Air tight cartridge arrived, I was already after being re-adapted to the digital world, after testing the fantastic file players Linn Klimax DS and Bladelius Embla, when I listened mostly to hi-res files, much better than that, what is offered by the CD. But still, after a short while of setting it up, the PC-1 Supreme brought me back exactly to the same place I was two months ago.
This is a brilliant cartridge. Yes, I know, I deal only with the best products, the most expensive ones, etc, so it seems easy to be written. But not in reality. Not because most of the hi-end would be rubbish, at least the part of it that I know, but because I always need to evaluate all “pros” and “cons”, and because everything can be done better. With the Supreme the case is harder, because this is the best cartridge I heard to date. In such a case, the “weakest link” is the reviewer, who reviews that piece of hardware. This is something that cannot be overcome, and happens every time I learn something new. But with each such experience I am getting richer with experience. Anyway, the PC-1 Supreme sounds in an incredibly balanced way. The basic version was extremely smooth and fluent, but it could be heard, that we could approach some of the recordings with even greater care. The Supreme sounds in a slightly warmer way. But this is the warmth of the type I am talking about, when discussing low distortion. This is not rounding of the sound, or manipulation of the timbre, but the natural warming of the sound, which we get while the sound path gets more transparent, and the sound gets closer to what we can hear on a non-amplified concert. If the vocal will have some sounds stronger than they should be, then it was recorded that way. Even the splendid, two disc edition of the disc of Diana Krall A dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio, with Bernie Grundman mastering, has slightly, but really slightly, stronger sibilants. This is not annoying, it is just, that this can be heard, that somebody overdid the recording, what made the “s” and “c” sounds brighter than the rest. The Supreme, although fluent, smooth, etc, showed it nicely, not emphasizing on this shortcoming, showing it in the broader context, with all the other elements being splendid, but on the other hand, it did not try to mask it. If there is a lot of the treble, then there will be a lot of it. If there is little, then we’ll get little. So let’s take another disc as an example, Open Sesame Freddie Hubbard, in the 200 g re-edition of Classic Records – the energy of the treble is there very big, the recording is quite bright, and that was presented clearly. But what music it was! And that was also very clear from the beginning, and with time, it covered up the technical issues of that recording. The energy of the upper octaves was shown as a choice of the recording engineer and producer, and not as a technical error. The music and sound melted into one, with their own idiosyncrasies, with communicates of the musicians filtered first by the sensibility of the creators of the recording, then by the sensitivity of the maker of the audio chain, which I used.
Like I said, this is an incredibly balanced cartridge. Its most important range is the midrange. Not because it would be emphasized, or colored, but because the dynamics of this subrange, its saturated timbre and finally the outstanding resolution make the new class of reproduction. This is absolutely unique, how this cartridge differentiates planes, how the internal tension is built, how the sound is developed in longer time periods. The timeline is led perfectly here. There is no rush, not because we have a siesta now, but because with the Air Tight cartridge everything is exactly on time. Every sound has to come in its specific timeframe, just like it was played by the musician, and not because we want it to be like that, or the system enforces us to “mechanize” this process. I say – the most striking, hypnotizing thing is the fact, that everything plays TOGETHER, that this perfect timing has a goal, it serves something: it draws the instruments, their relationships, etc.
One of the factors, defining the CD player quality is for me the ability of reproducing an instrument, or a vocal, as a three dimensional shape. The stereophonic ability to place the instruments on a stage is one thing, but the reproduction of the third dimension of the sound is something completely different. The first ability is quite common, albeit with some restrictions. Sometimes precision is sacrificed on the altar of vividness, but in the result we get an incredibly nice soundscape, but without the fight for every centimeter of space. This is heard best with digital sources – the player from Reimyo sounded just incredible, but when compared with my Lektor Prime, or the Lektor Grand SE, then it could be heard, that those had a bigger space. Especially the Grand gave a feeling, that we are in front of a real performance, that we see “real” space. Reimyo, but earlier also the Jadis, influenced the reproduction in a way. I do not claim, that that was a bad thing, or that it would not be “real” in the sense of happening only once, and never again. They gave something more in the kind of “performance” – studied, worked out, but repeatable. And that made them predictable. The Japanese cartridge is a hybrid of those two approaches. If I would compare it with its real competition, meaning the Dynavector DRT XV-1S (unfortunately I do not know the new one – XV-1T), or Lyra Titan i, then the Supreme would be somewhere in the middle – between the precise Lyra and the vivid Dynavector. Yes, this is exactly where I’m heading: it combines the best of both of them.
The biggest help in creating such a world between the loudspeakers is the incredible resolution and low distortion of the Air Tight. Sounds appearing from beneath others, combining with them are reproduced really incredibly well. From time to time I had the impression, that this sounds better than in reality, that the techniques used to boost that what was in front of the mikes, help the listener in getting closer to the event, allow him to connect to it more, enhance the emotional link. This is a falsification of the “real thing”, but how brilliant! And the Japanese cartridge just shows that, adding a kind of softness and smoothness, not coming from the lack of detail, but from the ability to integrate everything together. If music would be represented by cogwheels and sprockets, then the PC-1 Supreme acts as a zipper, connecting everything perfectly. But that what I am talking about relates not only to live music, because that is how you should treat jazz recordings from the 50-ties, but also to electronic music, so a kind of music which is “artificial” from the very beginning. With discs like Mulligan Meets Monk, especially in the 45rpm version, integrating everything is simple for this cartridge. It is enough not to destroy anything, and the music, the recording, will lead to synergy on their own. But it is different with the Exciter Depeche Mode, or Autobahn Kraftwerk. Those are multi-mono recordings, with artifact reverb, with sounds, that have no counterparts in the real world. And although the vocals on the DM disc allow orienting this sound against the real world, it is still an approximation. And with those discs, the PC-1 Sureme showed that what I wrote about in such a way, as if it would be something completely normal, something not worth talking about. It played synthetic sounds treating them completely naturally, with no effort. I have not heard such a good timbre from those discs before. And those are vinyl discs pressed from digital master tapes!
Those discs made me also stop and consider the phenomenon of the bass, which is related to this cartridge. The basic model, which is also simply fantastic, is not as smooth and not as resolving. It plays music in a more “raw” way, closer to the mentioned Dynavector or Lyra. The Supreme sounds different, not everything with it is so unanimous. For some time, I thought that the tested cartridge does not reach as far down, as the basic model, that the midrange is favored here. But this impression was wrong. I might have been used to the fact, that in a stereo and on an amplified concert, bass is underlined, to be heard at any volume level. When I listened to DM, especially to Dream On (end here the ending) and When The Body Speaks, when the bass reached down in a clean way, so far down, as never before, I noticed, that all previous presentations were a bit overdone. No, Air Tight does not sound light, it is not thin – this is just another league. It is simple – when bas in a recording is thin, like on the Monk and Mulligan disc, then it will be thin and that is it. But there will be no impression of any shortcoming. I perceived it as a kind of a characteristic of this recoding, an asset, not as a flaw. It was the same case with the piece Techno Pop Kraftwerk – power, fullness, vibration. But only when it was coded into the groove. With Autobahn the midrange ruled, with Tour de France bass pressed us into the sofa.
This is the best cartridge I heard in my life – one, I would like to own… For sure it has its weaker points, but I cannot find them at the moment, mostly because I do not have another reference point. This is of course my error, no doubt about it. This is why everything I wrote, you need to take with a grain of salt, this will have to be confronted with something else, sooner or later. But regardless or that, it is worth to listen to this Air Tight cartridge. If it would be only to know, where the limit is, it would still be advisable. But you should not be in a hurry; you should not expect fireworks, etc. The Supreme will sound only as good, as the recording, turntable and the rest of the stereo system will be. It will not modify anything; will not make anything more pleasurable, or colored. Do we need anything more?DESCRIPTION
Like I mentioned in the beginning of the test, the PC-1 and PC-1 Supreme were designed by two people: Atsuchi Miura and Y. Matsudaira. The first one is the former owner of Luxman, and now the owner of Air Tight, and the second one is the engineer, who designed cartridges for Koetsu, Miyabi and for his own company My Sonic Lab. Although both cartridges are new for the Polish readers, the PC-1 was introduced at CES Las Vegas in 2006 and the PC-1 Supreme three years later. Mr. Miura mentions, that the plans for this cartridge reach far deeper, than anybody could think of – the initial idea was, that the cartridge would be designed by Mr. Sugano, the owner of Koetsu: “Over 30 years ago, at the time I worked at Luxman, I planned a cartridge, named MC-115C, and I asked Mr. Sugano, the founder of Koetsu to make it. Unfortunately, at that time, he was quite aged, and finally we did not cooperate.” The death of the Koetsu boss could end the whole project. But Mr. Miura had luck that he heard about the work of Mr. Matsuidara, who worked for Koetsu for some time, and who had over twenty years of experience in cooperation with the company Tokyo Sound, which made tonearms for professional use, in radio studios. In the years 2003-2004 Mr. Matsuidara founded his own company, called My Sonic Lab, which first product was a MC cartrdige Eminent. In this cartridge magnetic material with high μ, was used, but Mr. Miura suggested using coil wires with higher diameter. But it turned out, that this was not sufficient. So they developed a special material called SH-µX with ultra-high μ. This allowed to increase the diameter of the wires – from 40μm in PC-1 to 55μm in the Supreme, what allowed to minimize the number of windings by about 40% and lower the internal impedance to 1Ω. Working on the cartridge SME and Trio tonearms were used, as well as a few different phono preamplifiers – Mr. Miura: “Although I had my own preamplifiers, I used my reference, the AudioValve Sunilda and Audio Research PH5.” The ideal tracking force for this cartridge is 2.15g.
Technical data (according to manufacturer):
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