26
Jun
11

Airtight ATE-2 preamp and ATM-300 poweramp

Air tales
Air Tight’s astounding combo – the ATE-2 preamp and ATM-300 power amplifier

Looking at Air Tight’s round up of products reminds me of a multinational conglomerate about to set foot on the high end hifi industry. Like Panasonic and Luxman in their heydays back in the seventies, you get the feeling they put in so much care into making their products and they feel so well made and luxurious to the touch that you worry if they are trying to hide something. I mean just look at typical high end products, no need to mention names, but you can just feel the final finishing of the product seems like what’s left over of their design budget. All that cheap folded sheet metal, roughly painted, tell tale signs of rusting sheet metal beneath those blotches on the paint. Yikes, if it looks that bad when you unpack a new amplifier, just imagine how it’d looked given a few years down the road in our hot and humid climate.

Instead, the Air Tight stuff seems positively classy in comparison. They are well built, well put together and had that wonderful silky smooth touch to the knobs that it begs to be fondled over and over again. Hence the first order of the day – money saved on the remote controls and the attendant electronics (volume, selector, mute, etc) can be put to better use, like a better paint job that stays pristine after years of use. Or perhaps the use of better parts because they sound better and stays reliable.

The Air Tight components are classy looking things indeed, you feel good about them so much so you wouldn’t be embarrassed to show them off to your non-audiophile friends.

And they sound good too.

How good? Well, we have the ATE-2 preamp and ATM-300 stereo amplifier for review. The –300 as its name implies, uses a single 300B output tube per channel, with 8 watts of pure bliss. This single ended amplifier is compact and looks darn classy in all its birthday suit. Yup, the tubes are exposed in all its glory. The copper chassis sports a classy coat of paint that would be right at home on a luxury car. The colour options available is a shame though, all you’ll get is their signature green/grey tone that matches with the preamp.

The preamp ATE-2 is a phono stage coupled with a preamp output. How else would you get a preamp with two phono stage and … wait for this … one line stage? The Air Tight people must be vinyl fanatics and not too hot about CD. That said, the phono stage is MM only and it is a nice one indeed. If you are using a low output MC, then you’ll need additional step-up. Air Tight just introduced one – the ATH-2A, certainly worth checking out if you love black vinyl.

The ATM-300 amplifier on the other hand, is built for a specific purpose – to exploit the sonic characteristic of the 300B tube design. It is not meant to be a ‘be all, end all’ of amplifiers. Eight watts won’t get you too far so stop doing silly things like trying to pair it with inefficient speakers, Air Tight has other high power designs to suit these needs. Instead, if you plan to go the single ended way – Avantgardes, Feastrex, Lowthers, et al, then we are talking. To get the best dynamic range possible you need to match with a loudspeaker with high sensitivity ie >95 dB. For this reason we took on a pair of Avantgarde Meta Picco horns (106 dB/watt!). This speaker comes with a self-powered woofer system so in essence where power is needed most, the Avantgarde takes care of itself. So the ATM-300 essentially only drives the tweeter and the midrange unit from about 300 Hz and up.

One of the nice things about Air Tight is you know you’ll get the best components to get the job done, like Tamura output transformers so you wouldn’t need to do any after-market component upgrades. They even supply WE 300Bs as stock tubes so it goes to show where they put their money – where their mouth is. I can’t say the same about some French or American amplifiers though, you wouldn’t feel too comfortable about the stuff they put inside.

First impressions of the duo can be surmarised in a word, stunning. Huge airy soundstage, strong midrange presence with excellent tonal balance. If you hear the sound of a live instrument, the 300B sound comes close enough it can sound outright scary. This does not come at the expense of any form of exaggeration, or a glare-like effect to make things stand out from the mix. Its been said the 300B has a slight emphasis on the treble, no such problem here, perhaps that characteristic might manifest on lesser 300B designs. Instead, it has an easy flowing characteristic that allows music to ebb and flow just like it should. A slight perceptible lightness in the midbass region is about the only aspect I could criticize. This you can compensate a little with speaker positioning. With the Avantgarde, a slight tweak on the crossover point is all it takes to balance things.

The ATE-2/ATM-300’s lack of noise must be strongly commended. A speaker with a sensitivity of 90 dB/watt or less will ‘ground’ the noise by not being able to resolve all that useless information. Using high sensitivity loudspeakers (>100 dB/watt) mean the speakers will show up all sorts of electronic noise an amplifier throws out. How is it that tube amplifiers with poorer signal to noise ratio can sound less noisy than solid state? This has much to do with good design, good grounding and proper screening. I am glad the Air Tight combo performs par excellence in this aspect.

By now you could surmise the duo here is a pretty special package. It is well made and will outlive us and definitely outlive our memory of how many clams you’ve had to shell out for them (S$30,500 for the pair and as mentioned, with a pair of WE 300B). A truly remarkable achievement.

Conclusion

Pros: Excellent built, excellent sound, the epitome of the 300B tube, supplied WE300B an added bonus.

Cons: Careful matching with suitable speakers to bring out the best of the 300B design.

Verdict: Performance lives up to its price tag.

This article is contributed by Terence Wong of MOD AV magazine.

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