AIR TIGHT ATC-5 PREAMPLIFIER REVIEW


I'm not seeing myself to be already in the club of elderly audiophiles and music lovers. Then again, at 45, I'm surely not that young anymore. As often told, I do feel (well most of the time) as being somehow stuck at my pre-thirties high-octane spirits, presumably due to my unaltered enthusiasm and curiosity for the high-end audio products and music. This particular passion is most probably also one of my biggest assets. 

Anyhow, what I'm trying to tell is that I've been around long enough to have a luxury of experiencing a vast array of high-end audio gears over the years. Through this path, I've established my own set of rules, strict preferences, and requirements. And the list of high-end audio preamplifiers coming through my different dens is rather lengthy. 



The preamplifier is without the doubt one of the fundamental parts of the high-end audio system that we cannot ignore. There are many roles it needs to perform, yet the very essence and priority of any preamp is the gain handling. I’ll dive further into the subject again later on so let me dial the focus towards the Air Tight and their ATC-5 preamplifier.  

The brand needs no introduction to the fellow high-enders and audio enthusiasts. The iconic Japanese company is one of the stand out high-end audio manufacturers from The Land Of The Rising Sun. Over the years they’ve managed to establish a strong market presence and present a steady pace of well-renowned products. 

The toughest thing aside the sonic recognition for any brand is achieving its own aesthetics that differs from other high-end audio manufacturers. I've always liked Air Tight’s visual appeal. There is something timeless and monumental about Air Tight’s design cues and particular chassis color finish. Grey - bluish in hue to be exact!


After a few exchanged emails with Yutaka "Jack" Miura of A&M Limited (son of Atsushi Miura), we’ve established our collaboration with the Air Tight ATC-5 preamplifier. After a good week, the ATC-5 has arrived straight from Japan. 

There are consistent preconceptions regardless of one’s mileage and experiences when the new device is on its way. Still, I’ve disciplined myself not to form any mental block until the specific product lands into my own listening test. 

MEET THE ATC-5


"Compact as it is in size, the ATC-5 admits of no compromise in design and components selection not to speak of manufacturing in total. Bearing a common resemblance to its predecessor A TC-1 in design concept, we poured into a tiny body all of our 30-year accumulated technologies and know-how in terms of pre-amps’ presentation, while putting globally-selected capacitors and components into a mere 1.6mm-thick chassis featuring monocoque structure, we keep sticking to our famed, traditional manual wiring by our expert technicians, totally abandoning cost-saving printed circuit’s. On the volume control sector crucial to overall sonic quality, featured on board is the Alps gold-plated multi-contact wire-brushed controller sealed in a machined brass case. Needless to say, all the Air Tight audio gear is designed and made in Japan.

To ensure perfect playback of analog discs, we employed a highly rated 2-stage NF-CR circuitry for the most faithful realization of RIAA curve. The NF and CR sections are made independent with a thorough elimination of interference between treble and bass ranges, and unnecessary low-frequency signals are crossed out to prevent unwanted vibration of speaker cones. Also provided is a useful muting function when vinyl discs are replaced in the course of playback. Abundant 3-line input allows listeners to enjoy multiple digital sources. A timer-relay system mutes output at the outset of playback, thus protecting the power amp section from the transient current. The line amp section consists of orthodox 2-stage configuration featuring the 12A T7. For the sake of tight and spacious soundstage, placed are optimum decoupling circuits at all the necessary points to prevent harmful interferences.

The ATC-5 is a high-resolution preamp that even represents the sense of ambiances and emotions at the time of recording, and the reality of reproduced sound with its second-to-none spatial reproducibility outstrips those of its all predecessors.

At Air Tight, we have been keeping on manufacturing tube amps since the very inception, believing in the unlimited potential of Vacuum Tubes which were once thought to be out of date in contemporary digital days.

It was 30 years ago when we introduced the first tube pre-amp ATC-1 at Air Tight with the firm intention to reproduce real, dynamic sound, and thanks to our unyielding zeal and efforts we have been successful in winning the constant fame and reputation in the industry. After the years’ strenuous research & development we are now proud to present you the totally redesigned, mighty descendant ATC-5 to cater for the serious demand for real music sources, whether analog or digital.

To simplify the signal path in audio circuitry has been an influential idea since digital music sources represented by CD got rapidly widespread, but does such simplification really enrich the scope of music reproduction? We believe the development of control amp depends on a never-ending process to find the optimum balance between the technology and art itself. A technology to process properly in both analog and digital ways is not always in alignment with that of creating joy, emotions, excitements, and artistry of music. Air Tight believe that the ultimate optimized combination of the technology and art shall eventually create a sort of supernatural phenomenon in the form of real musical sensation. This is our uttermost goal and sublime dream commonly owned by all the discerning audiophiles in the world."

OPERATIONAL 


Our industry might have evolved over the years, but there is no confusion of the preamplifier key task. With the drifting from analog-to-digital and with an ongoing resurgence of turntables/tape machines back towards the analog, any preamplifier needs to treat both of the "contrary" worlds with equal attention. 


ATC-5 Valves employs three 12AX7 (phono equalizer) and two 12AT7 (line stage), two phono MM inputs, three line inputs, one phono output and two line outputs. 


On the front panel, appearing from left there is phono input selector, balance knob, main input selector, operate (mute) switch and on the far right the main on/off knob. 



There are a plenty of electronic parts to inspire under the “hood” and I’m sure many of you have already identified the upper echelon ALPS brass potentiometer. ALPS RK series are well established and accepted by some of the most exotic high-end audio brands. Air Tight ATC-5 uses a custom version of the RK-501. Any DIY enthusiasts or well-informed high-ender know, how these don't come cheap. The basic ALPS RK-501 potentiometer costs almost 500 EUR. Surely wish I would encounter more of such premium parts across some exuberantly priced preamplifiers out there. 

Don’t be deceived by the ATC-5 size. Air Tight team deliberately made it compact. It was their goal from the start to creates a mighty musical machine of smaller proportions. As you’ll read on, they’ve more than succeeded. 

THE MUSIC


“Go with the flow." This should be any high-end audio preamplifier motto. It’s pleasant to talk about the flow or continuity and lot can be told within marketing blurb. As you’ll learn, the Air Tight team seemed to put in a lot of efforts in assuring ATC-5 the intimate density and natural flow of the music. This sonic impact and efficacy is no happy accident, but an obvious result of painstaking voicing. 

The real discovery of these attributes is not exactly the frequent stumbling point within the preamplifier realms, regardless of the cost and I was joyously surprised and inspired by ATC-5 ability to ignite such an organic signal flow. 

While it’s not possible to write down all the music used in the review, there is always a way to establish a possible silver lining. While I’ve listened to various music during the ATC-5 evaluation, I’ll break down and focus on three music majors; human vocal, the piano and orchestra for this particular analysis. 

Too often we’re underestimating the sheer gravity of proper transcription of the human voice. Within my book of norms, it carries the same significance and importance as the piano. Human voice should be one of the cornerstones of any reference reviewing. It’s something we’re intimately acquainted with and even the non-seasoned listeners are capable to distinguish the elemental varieties of the playback material. 

As with acoustical instruments, the golden trinity of timbre/tone and color will determine how far the product under testing scope will reach at the realism and drama. As much as some modern preamplifiers and thus manufactures are struggling to push so-called transparency as the main garland of the high-end audio momentum, such endeavors are oftener of artificial origins as the fake flowers. No matter how real might occur, such duplicates are in an omission of any organic qualities. Comparably, a human voice cannot be reflected with the non-natural attributes. There are many exemplary records to test these peculiarities. I always prefer to pull out the Nat King Cole - Love is The Thing and Sam Cooke - Night Shift black disks. These essential records challenge any preamplifier to carry out an accurate and convincing scale of the human voice. If I include the  the plot thickens even further. All three records have suggested a splendid portrayal of the human voice, a stand out achievement in its class.

Despite many misunderstandings and as a fact, it's never easy to recreate a full-scale piano. Considering all the octaves and dynamic range it can provide, the piano is one of the most challenging instruments to emulate. Take the Saint-Saëns/Liszt - Michele Campanella, Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra, Aldo Ceccato ‎– Piano Concerto No. 4 or the opening scene of Andrei Gavrilov, Riccardo Muti, Philharmonia Orchestra, Tchaikovsky ‎– Piano Concerto No. 1. There are too many attributes to touch upon, but along with dynamics, the capacity to illustrate complex note overlaying is one of the more challenging tasks. Air Tight ATC-5 might be of more compact dimensions, but there is nothing modest about the sound it can portray. ATC-5 has managed to convey a full-scale piano with considerable above the mere believable scale.

One of the rare qualities, that takes place is the formation of being there factor. This means that preamplifier must derive and convey the very essence of the music without altering it. Too quickly, too many pieces of information can be lost in translation and this is where the mediocre preamplifier diverges from the standouts. ATC-5 obviously focuses on the music. There are many approaches of dealing with or altering the sound passing through the preamplifier’s veins. Like it or not, the selection of electronic parts, cables, transformers translates to the voicing and ATC-5 embodies the radiant essence of the music that can spark our inner senses in an ideal way. Whatever the piano songs were of solitude standing or as a part of the accompanying instruments or the orchestra, the ATC-5 has kept its timbral correctness. And this attribute alone is well worthy of the high praise. 

The preamplifier can perform well on so many stages, yet when it comes to the orchestral music all develops into the much more difficult challenge. Big orchestra reproduction serves as a preeminent challenge for any high-end audio component and preamplifier will either make it or break it. Handling (or lack) of the complex music arrangements and thunderous dynamic shifts can quickly bring to shame even many of so-called top high-end audio preamplifiers. Like with amplifiers, the preamplifier can literally collapse under the music’s overload.One of such compositions is Modest Mussorgsky's Night On Bald Mountain. The ever varying and evolving tempi, firework alike dynamic, and tense drama literally cries for the preamplifier that can relentlessly carry the ecstatic and potent essence of this classical masterpiece where constant-changing momentum builds up from the tinnies dynamic subtleness to the submarine-like depths. Air Tight’s flagship preamplifier inner heart was no stranger in captivating my attention and creating lasting shivers and thrills even under such heavy league orchestral impact.

CONCLUSION


I have been and will always be fond of high-end audio products from Japan. My appreciation goes beyond our niche industry, but I cherish the general logic, essence, and apparatuses of the Japanese way of doing things. 


In the era of globalization, one can too quickly fall into a generalization. Even when it comes to such a delicate topic as the sound. 

Yes, Air Tight ATC-5 owns the intricate Japanese spirit. Then again, with its sonic performance, it rises above the typical precognitions. ATC-5 clearly builds upon the Air Tight’s rich legacy DNA, but also transcends any attributes that would keep it in the trap of the past. 

Make no mistake. This is the 21st-century preamplifier, that is proud of its profound roots and happily explores and take advantage of the modernity when it’s needed. 


When it comes to the purity of sonic deliverance Air Tight ATC-5 is anything but. One of the biggest surprises was the open, transparent yet always palpable sonic performance. Being all tube preamplifier one would expect the complete opposite.

Yes, Air Tight ATC-5 is a single-ended preamplifier and as such it provides only RCA inputs. It was undoubtedly designed to fit within the Air Tight’s family tree of products and to be accompanied with other non-balanced front ends and power amplifiers. 

It’s not easy to forget Air Tight ATC-5 organic and chameleon-like nature acted equally well with both digital and analog front ends. 


Too often the "on-board" phono stages are of mere decorative value. Not the case with ATC-5! I’ve encountered more than just sublime synergy with another stand out Japanese analog gem — the ARAILab MC step-up transformer. In many respects, this combo was not solely on par with quite a few of not exactly affordable standalone phono preamplifiers, but exceed few of them with an essential analog impact. 

I’m not the biggest fan of high gain preamplifiers, but I’m standing corrected with the Air Tight ATC-5’s 40 dB... There must be something profoundly correct within those circuits and tubes implemented as Air Tight ATC-5’s density allows an effortless flow of the music and sonic completeness, that shouldn’t be attached to its given price. 

Unlike many of the contemporary preamplifier, Air Tight ATC-5 didn’t drop on musicality for being transparent. When science and art are fused and aligned properly something wonderful can arise and ATC-5 is the result of such juxtaposition. 

Similar to the photography, where some people prefer to savor the minutiae, colors etc. over the moment’s aura being captured, some audiophiles will adopt the details over the music’s and musician's message. ATC-5 was made for the music lovers that acknowledge the later and cherish the music for what it is. 

The music just seems to possess the right amount of anchor points when being played through the Air Tight ATC-5 preamplifier. The music message is not lost in translation and this is the major thing. ATC-5 deserves to be appreciated for its sonic potency and value. That’s why I’m giving out the Mono and Stereo 2018 Highly Recommend Product Award to this Air Tight tube preamplifier. 

I’m looking forward to further explore the unique audio ecosystem of Air Tight so do stay tuned.

Matej Isak

PRICE


MSRP of the ATC-5 is US$9,500.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS


Valves employed: 12AX7 × 3, 12AT7 × 2
Phono equalizer input: RCA/MM × 2
Input impedance: 47kΩ(Gain 40dB)
Phono equalizer output: RCA × 1
Output impedance: Recommended load more than 47kΩ
Line input: RCA × 3
Input impedance: 47kΩ (Gain 18dB)
Line output: RCA × 2
Output impedance: Recommended load more than 47kΩ
Output voltage: 20V(Load 100kΩ/1% distortion) Line amplifier distortion: THD 0.02%(1V/1kHz)
Frequency response Phono equalizer: 50Hz~20kHz(±0.2dB) /20Hz-2.5dB
Frequency response Line amplifier: 20Hz~100kHz-1dB
Power consumption: 50VA
Dimensions: 400(W) × 260(D) × 90(H)(tentative) Weight: 9kgs(tentative)

CONTACT


A & M LIMITED
4-35-1 mishimae
Takatsuki-shi
Osaka
Japan 

tel: 072-678-0064