Positive Feedback ISSUE 70
PC1s Cartridge - The Postman Delivers
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
The other day FedEx delivered a small, cubic package wrapped in olive green, hand-made paper and tied with a red silk cord. Hmm, I was expecting a phono cartridge—what was this? I undid the silk cord and removed the olive paper wrapper to find a lidded box covered in more beautiful, hand-made paper. Inside was a warranty card on hand-made stationery, then a hinged, bamboo box, and …
Ahh—there it is—the new Air Tight PC1s Cartridge. Wow! What a presentation! I daresay I've not encountered the like in all my years in audio. The aesthetic at work here is so refined and dignified, obviously from another culture—and guaranteed to bring a smile: a luxury product from a foreign land, hand-packed by Miura-san himself.
This precious package arrived as I was finishing up a Brinkmann analog front-end review consisting of the Oasis turntable, the new 10.0 arm, and Pi Cartridge. A killer front-end, it will be my reference for this review.
The Brinkmann front-end was notable for possessing extreme resolution. This rig maintained a steady focus and a state of high dynamic tension. Like a thoroughbred, it was ready—and eager—to pounce at a moments notice. It traced the grooves and dredged up sharp transients and a slightly truncated decay, which conveyed the impression of a staccato-like performance. A note begins, and then ends; the next begins, then ends. There was plenty of space between the notes. I would not describe it as relaxed.
These two things—the steady focus and the quick start-n-stop—made the Brinkmann a real swinger, portraying swift action and nailing the twists and turns of the musical line.
When I observed this in my Brinkmann review, I speculated about what was responsible for the staccato-like behavior—the table, arm, or cartridge? I credited the table's direct drive mechanism.
A Sonic Seizure
If you want pure, unedited, orchestral sound, you must acquire Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (Sheffield Lab, LAB 24), a direct-to-disc recording from a single-point stereo microphone, dating from 1985.
For purist analog, this LP is about as good as it gets. (Some of my buddies will contest that and argue that the latest generation of 45 rpm LPs will spank it. They can be persuasive, but let's hold that debate for another day.) The Khorovody, which opens side two, calls for a soft dynamic and a slow tempo.
I swapped the Air Tight PC1s ($8,499) for the Pi Cartridge ($2,700) on the Brinkmann 10.0 arm, and… My, oh my, the sonic landscape shuddered!
The Major Difference
The major cause of the sonic seizure was that the staccato-like behavior was AWOL, nowhere to be found. In its place I found a continuous musical line. Transients, while sharp, dropped their razor-like edge and decay trails lengthened. The PC1s connected the dots. Oy! That means I have to issue a correction: the start-n-stop can now be truly attributed to the Pi cartridge.
Gone, too, was the thoroughbred-like state of high dynamic tension. The PC1s introduced steady-state calm. There was no falloff in resolution—the PC1s met the high bar established by the Brinkmann Pi (that's the Pi's strongest suit)—but focus backs off from the Pi's emphatic 20/20 vision and high contrast image boundaries. The stage has moved back a bit so it starts at the plane of the speakers and the objects on it are quite a bit different, being both larger and with softer edges. The PC1s does not push details into the foreground.
When I think about it, the Brinkmann Pi reminded me of a night at the Jazz Standard, a midsized club that seats maybe 100 ticket holders and features the top luminaries on the scene. The house policy is to always use amplification. Really, in a hall this size there's no need to amplify a brass instrument, a saxophone or drums. As soon as you put a mic in front of an instrument and play it through a PA system the sound changes—it becomes something else. As soon as you amplify it, you lose the subtle cues that make it acoustic and it starts to sound … staccato.
The PC1s reproduces the same recording with nothing between you and the instruments. The sound is another experience altogether—thus the sonic tremors. Do you attend amplified entertainments? You'll recognize the Pi. Personally, I love the all-acoustic venues that are common to classical music. (They're getting harder and harder to find in other genres these days.)
Another major difference was a very noticeable gain in body. From the top down and front to back, images are decidedly more massive. And this applies to the PC1s treble, which has a rounded top: it does not come to a point. Consequently, there is less of a tendency for it to hurl sharp treble projectiles at you.
Overall, the stage dimensions are about the same. However, a group of instruments now has volume. From a pair of doubled flutes to a whole string section, the volume of space occupied by the images seems appropriate.
We move into the next movement, Infernal Dance. The sonic drains stay open and clear with the bass drum volleys that come thundering out. Man, oh man! Macro dynamics are kicking, something to behold! The PC1s' low-end is very powerful—frankly, a tad oversized—but who's complaining? I like how the cartridge throws the double basses way off on the right in tight images that don't interfere with the rest of the action. They seem to have a life of their own, wholly independent of what's happening elsewhere.
My favorite recording of Berlioz' Harold in Italy is Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, with Nobuko Imai as soloist (Philips 9500 026, French pressing). I hasten to say I'm not talking about sound; the Philips mid-seventies, heavy-hand in post-production is all too evident. Things like the tone of the viola and violins are just too clean and sanitized and the spatial relationships among the sections of the orchestra are not right. It's the performance that can't be beat (as is most of Colin Davis' Berlioz series on this label).
Interesting, how dynamics play out towards the end of the first movement. Maestro Davis holds the orchestra to ppp, a very soft pianissimo, so that the solo viola, also playing quietly, can be heard. Immediately, the orchestra responds with fff. And then again, the cycle repeats many times. The PC1s swings between these dynamic extremes with utmost aplomb and complete control.
A Unique Insight and a Disclaimer
I have to say, this front end—the PC1s paired with the Vitus SP-102 phono stage, Brinkmann Oasis turntable, and 10.0 arm—was stellar, a paragon of virtues. I can vouch for the Vitus' extreme vision into the subject and grant kudos to the Brinkmann as a fine groove plunger. All together this package is among the very best analog front-ends I've come across.
Time for my usual disclaimer. The extreme level of insight can be a shocker. You will probably experience a lot more intimate details than you've heard before. On certain recordings the view was uncomfortably close; the perspective was like being at the position of the microphone. But let's be clear: It's not the fault of the front-end—that's how some LPs are engineered. This is truth and honesty. (Isn't that strange, to find myself making excuses for the excellence of this front-end?)
Swapping in the Shelter Harmony
Now, to give you a wider perspective, let's swap a stronger competitor onto the Brinkmann 10.0 arm. The Shelter Harmony MC (MSRP $5500) gave Harold in Italy a much needed credibility boost.
Remember I said the presentation relaxed with the PC1s? The Harmony took that one degree further. Likewise, the Harmony did nice things towards repairing string tone. (Especially if you get VTA correct; make it slightly lower in back.)
Let's talk about space first. Soundstaging is roughly equivalent to the PC1s (the Pi was also excellent in this regard), but the contents of the stage morphed slightly as transients became even softer and images more diffuse. There was more of that holistic feel across the stage—you know, where the musicians seem to be in the same space playing together.
More on the Shelter Harmony
That said, I was surprised to find these two Class A cartridges more similar than different. After installing the Harmony, I didn't have to re-balance the system. The tonality of these two carts is cut from the same cloth. They both handled the treble absurdly well, in equal parts silky, smooth, and delicately filigreed.
The main points of difference were the PC1s has a lot more fullness, a more substantial low-end and punchier dynamics. The Harmony has richer timbre and is more forgiving.
Theoretically, the Harmony should be the quieter of the two as noise absorption is one of the properties of its carbon fiber body. I couldn't say one was quieter than the other—both were excellent in this regard.
That sonic chasm between the Pi and the PC1s was also present in the Harmony. The two Class A carts were fundamentally similar to each other and fundamentally different from the Brinkmann Pi. Now, this is not a matter of small increments and it's not like the Pi is weak: I have noticed this with all of the sub-$3000 carts I've tried.
What I observed supports a long held opinion regarding the pecking order in an analog front-end. Once you've got a reasonably good table and arm combination, the cartridge exerts the greatest influence on sound. You should put the cartridge at the top of your upgrade path.
I'd like to share something about the Oasis turntable power supply that I thought worth passing on. I don't know why, but what you plug the little motor power supply into makes a big difference. Don't skimp on the power cord and experiment with conditioning. And note that Brinkmann makes an optional tube power supply that I'm told offers a huge improvement.
For most of the audition, I was using the Vitus SP-102 Phono Stage. I started with loading at 315 ohms, well within the manufacturer's range of 100-800 ohms. (They recommend ~400 ohms as optimal). I wound up liking 240 better.
VTA was set to level, parallel. VTF was set to 2.1 grams. (Manufacturer recommends 2 - 2.2 grams.) The PC1s took 100 hours—no, it's safer to say 125 hours—of burn-in to come together. Output voltage is a healthy 0.6 mV.
The PC1s is the improved successor to the original PC1, which is NLA. It has the same exterior and same motor. The major differences are the number of windings and the gauge of the wire. The price has been kept the same. (FYI: The PC1 Supreme is another thing altogether, with a different motor design and gold-plated exterior.)
Wires were all Kubala-Sosna: Emotion phono cable and Elation! power cord.
Somewhere along the line, I acquired the notion that Air Tights' PC1 family of cartridges gravitated to the cool and analytic side. That's because everyone mentions their incisiveness, resolution, and dynamics. Yes, the PC1s is all of that, but I should have known better. The truth of the matter is no product from Air Tight can be described as cool and analytic. The house sound veers towards the warm, full-bodied and musical, and the PC1s conforms.
I want to emphasize that third attribute above: make that powerful dynamics, which is buoyed by a slight rise in the mid bass. Yet, apart from that, the PC1s is extremely well balanced, such that no single aspect of performance sticks out. It is not a product that can be summed up with a single descriptive adjective.
The Air Tight PC1s Cartridge has become my new reference, replacing the Shelter Harmony, which will assume the secondary slot. Marshall Nack
PC1s MC Cartridge