TechDAS Air Force Zero
Stereophile|September 2021
TURNTABLE
MICHAEL FREMER

The Air Force Zero turntable is very large for a turntable, but it is not as large as a house. At $450,000 for the base model, it does, however, cost as much as many houses and more than many others.1

This observation will set off howling among some audio enthusiasts of a sort that never happens in the wine world, for instance, where well-heeled oenophiles routinely spend large sums for a short-lived thrill.

Yes, I know, some people are homeless. Others are hungry. Isn’t it wrong to spend the equivalent of a suburban home on a means of playing records? It’s a legitimate question, and I don’t dismiss it, but it’s not for me to say, except when it comes to my own choices. It’s a decision each of us must make for ourselves. Now, where was I?

Nishikawa’s ultimate analog statement?

I’m sure TechDAS founder Hideaki Nishikawa has heard more turntables than I have, and I’ve heard a lot of them.

He received his mechanical engineering degree in 1963, when I was still in high school. He then joined Stax Ltd., where he was instrumental in developing that company’s legendary electrostatic headphones. He was involved in other projects, too.

The finger snaps were slower— almost suspended in time and far fleshier than I expected from long familiarity.

Nishikawa-san left Stax in 1980 to join Micro Seiki. As manager of the technical department, he was involved in the development of a long line of turntables including the company’s statement product, the SX-8000, which remained in production from 1981 until 1990. Find an online photo2 and you’ll notice more than a passing resemblance to the Air Force turntable line, especially in the large metal platter topped with a double lipped vacuum hold-down system. Also notice how the outboard motor drives the platter with a belt around its periphery.

Micro Seiki’s slew of talented engineers produced turntables and tonearms for other brands and performed precision machining work for other industries, much as SME does in the UK and Ortofon does in Denmark. Diversification helps with a company’s stability—hence its longevity—something every audiophile should consider when investing in high-dollar gear. What good is a lifetime guarantee from an out-of-business company?

In 1989, Nishikawa founded Stellavox (now Stella, Inc.), an importer (into Japan) of high-performance audio gear. In 2010, he started TechDAS as the Stella house brand.

Even if you’re not a fan of TechDAS turntables, you have to admire Nishikawa’s passion and decades of accomplishments and the consistency of his vision of what constitutes good turntable design.

Nearly a decade has passed since TechDAS introduced its first turntable, the Air Force One. Last year, I reviewed the updated version of that ’table, the Air Force One Premium,3 which is now second to the top of the TechDAS line. Six months ago, the formidable Air Force Zero arrived in many crates. Assembling it took a team of two several days, but since then, I’ve been listening to it and enjoying everything about it, from its impressive size, which at first felt almost cartoonish (a feeling that quickly dissipated when the stylus touched the record with a gentle “bip”) to its ease of use and trouble-free, non-fiddly performance.

We’ll probably see a few product enhancements throughout the TechDAS line. Maybe we can hope for a truly affordable model that retains the line’s key features, priced below the current “entry-level” V, or perhaps a more compact, less expensive version of the Zero: call it Zero.1. But to me the Air Force Zero looks very much like the ultimate fulfillment of Hideaki Nishikawa’s turntable vision.

The massive Zero took three years to develop, from inception to launch. Just watching the technicians unpack the Zero made clear the company’s careful attention to detail. All of the many modules, feet, and platters, and the ultraheavy main sub-chassis assembly, were securely and efficiently positioned in stacks of sub-packages within each crate. It took two people almost two full days to repack it for secure shipping, and of course it took much longer to set it up.

How many of these half-million-dollar, 725.5lb boats does TechDAS intend to float? I was told that TechDAS is at least halfway through a 40-unit run. The serial number of the review sample was 018.

The three-phase, synchronous Papst motors used in the AF Zero are new old stock, originally used to spin Revox tape recorder capstans. (The size of the AF Zero’s production run was determined partly by how many new-old-stock Papst, high-torque, three-phase, 12-pole AC, synchronous motors the company was able to source.) TechDAS takes them completely apart and rebuilds them into highly modified motors that include a customized air-bearing spindle and flywheel. The rotor assembly floats, so no load is applied to its thrust plate, minimizing noise and producing the largest possible moment of inertia, which TechDAS has precisely calculated. The flywheel and rotor together weigh 5lb and produce a moment of inertia of 116lb·cm2.

TechDAS’s goal for the motor was to produce “virtually zero wobble” thanks to the combination of air and metal bearings, the “enormous” inertia generated by the flywheel effect, the extremely high S/N ratio made possible by the air bearing, and what TechDAS claims is the best speed stability and consistency of any Air Force turntable—the latter due to a new electronic drive circuit designed for stable, precise rotation with low vibration.

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