Reviewer: Wojciech Pacuła
CD player: Ancient Audio Lektor Air
Phono preamplifier: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC
Cartridges: Air Tight Supreme, Miyajima Laboratory Waza
Preamplifier: Ayon Audio Polaris III with Regenerator power supply version II
Power amplifier: Tenor Audio 175S, Soulution 710
Integrated amplifier/headphone amplifier: Leben CS300 XS Custom version
Loudspeakers: Harpia Acoustics Dobermann
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, AKG K701, Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro
Interconnects: CD-preamp Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, preamp-power amp Wireworld Platinum Eclipse
Speaker cable: Tara Labs Omega Onyx
Power cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300
Power conditioning: Gigawatt PF-2
Audio stand: Base
Resonance control: Finite Elemente Ceraball under the CD player, Pro Audio Bono platform under CD player
Review component retail in Poland: 48.000zł V-Edition; 40.000zł basic version
My acquaintance with Jarek Waszczyszyn is no secret. We live and work in the same city, had professional interactions for years and from time to time meet at Janusz’ place who is one of our Krakow Sonic Society hosts. Only recently and after at least 10 years of being acquainted we've finally quit calling each other 'sir'. It simply happened. So yes, we know each other very well. I've been using Jarek’s CD players for years. It was a conscious choice I never regretted but over the years I enjoyed their appearance less and less and was pretty sure it should be changed. Nothing is perfect of course.
On the other hand I've never tried to hide my reservations towards his loudspeakers and always pointed out what I liked and disliked about his amplifiers and even CD players. In my opinion only honesty helps a designer make better products. Today’s machine is supposed to take its place in the company's portfolio between Lektor Prime and Lektor Grand SE.
In looks it resembles the former but many technical solutions were taken from the latter. It remains a top loader with tube outputs and an integrated preamplifier function. It still is a unique design that places an exposed CD on top of the player. This solution was originally and simultaneously adopted by Ancient Audio and 47Labs. Later Musical Fidelity’s now discontinued A1008 revisited it as did ISEM, Metronome with an earlier Kalista Reference and so on.
The Air has been part of my reference system for more than a year. I’ve got to know it pretty well. During that time I had a chance to compare it to several other top players where it surprised me with something I'll come back to. I haven't experienced any operational troubles during this entire period and the remote control—albeit quite standard—has proven to be rather handy.
There is an issue with testing devices which already are part of your reference system. You can't reference them to the reference system. Each part of my system is supposed to be a ‘reference’ of its kind. This same reason forced me to spend far more time than usual when I wrote a review of Soulution’s 710 amplifier for Audio magazine.
I had to start by revisiting all the reviews I’d done using this amp as a reference to draw certain universal conclusions. Ditto for the Lektor Air by Ancient Audio. Since 2006 I relied on the Lektor Prime. Although I never claimed it was the best player in the world, its very well balanced sound, predictability and user-friendliness all made it a great ‘reference’ deck. Furthermore I only listened to three players that were clearly better – the Jadis JD1 MkII+JS1 MkIII, Reimyo CDT-777+DAP-999EX and last but not least Ancient Audio’s own Lektor Grand SE. There may have been a few more turntables which sounded better.
Replacing the Prime with the Air was a huge personal step forward. The sonic signature remains within certain boundaries that Jarek Waszczyszyn has set for all his products. Even so this new integrated machine from this amazing designer comes much closer to the twice as expensive three-box Grand SE. Surely it's not on the same level but the leap forward is so huge that the remaining differences aren't that relevant anymore.
My personal Air was a bit tweaked from the very beginning. Previous experience with upgrading the stock capacitors in the Prime and Grand units to V-Caps had me order my new Air ‘V-capped’ from conception. Ancient Audio has embraced V-Cap's Teflon-film/tin-foil units for years. Then Mr. Chris Ven Haus from VH Audio released his latest hit, the CuTF capacitors with copper foil/Teflon-film makeup. Those would become part of this project from the start.
Another upgrade I suggested was replacing the brass spikes with finite elemente Cerapucs. I also ordered my personal unit with Rhodium-plated Furutech sockets which better fit my interconnects. The standard sockets are from Neutrik and not popular among some audiophiles whilst being highly regarded by others, Mr. Waszczyszyn included. The last upgrade I’d already used for the Prime was Electrocompaniet’s Spider. This replaces the stock disc puck. That's how the new version above stock was created. At first I thought to name it High Fidelity Edition but as vanity is no virtue I finally decided to give credit to the key upgrade ingredient of the V-Caps. The final name thus became V-Edition.
Again it’s not easy to review a device one has used for a long period already. The Air became my reference comparator for all other such components since I bought it. It appeared in reviews like the Loit Passeri, Soulution 540 but also in certain turntable articles like the SME 20/3 and the Scheu Analog Premier Mk2 + Scheu Classic Mk2. There I might have pointed at some minor weaknesses of the Air but those were rather the exception.
If you revisit the linked reviews carefully you will see that I did my best to remain objective and point out little weaknesses with the Air. My conclusion in prinicple was that the best sources both digital and analogue remain capable of delivering even richer deeper sound. But don't get me wrong. Ancient Audio’s player was great, outclassing all others at its price level. It simply could not compete against more expensive ones as the Prime had many times before. This proved to me how Jarek Waszczyszyn's competitors had made huge progress over the years. Still there remains room for improvement even amongst top-level digital decks.
I was thus really surprised when I started listening to the new Air in the standard version, the one that will be delivered to customers. It sounded different than my ‘first’ Air. Surely its sonic signature was similar but it sounded a class better, perhaps even two. But eventually the sound of the fully broken-in V-Edition Air has matured—-and that's the upside of small manufacturers whose designs never need to be set in stone and may be improved after some time—to be extremely deep and smooth. What bothered me initially, namely that it wasn't rich and full enough especially in the lower midrange; and that cymbals were not tangible enough against the best turntables... all this ironed out. Yet those changes didn't make the Air's sonic signature similar to the conceptually related Loit for example.
Compared to the new Air, the Passeri sounds a bit colored. Although midrange amplitude and timbre are similar, the Air delivers a more natural sound - one that's closer to what I know from my studio recording experience, closer to analogue tape. I would call this sound ‘totally analogue’ but what I really mean is the sound you get from tape rather than vinyl. Although in my opinion still the best medium for music, vinyl has its own problems which are not shared by tape.
The Air's sound is quite soft but without any transient blurring or warmth. It's more about an extremely three-dimensional sound. The ability to show the precise location of all on-stage sound sources, the spaces between them, the acoustic ambiance around them and wonderful timbres is truly unique not only for a digital player (CD at that) but for any source.
I think its secret lies in its inner coherence. I mentioned that aspect from time to time reviewing different components but never before did 'coherence' so precisely describe what I felt. It's this level of coherence which defines this player's core nature for audiophiles. Never before did I get something like it from digital save perhaps with the Grand SE and Soulution 745. The best turntables surely achieve it but they are analogue devices. They should. If they don’t there must be something wrong with a particular turntable. When it comes to digital players this quality is very scarce and only rarely achieved with HD files or SACD but even then not too often.
I'm not really sure how to describe the sound of this machine on a whole. It seems very even throughout. I could risk saying the midrange is a bit stronger than the treble but I can't really tell for sure. Other decks with a stronger treble usually are too annoying for my taste. But I might be right. The best turntables also sound this way whilst adding even more detail and air. The Grand SE can reach deeper yet into a recording to be ultimately more revealing. Having said that, I think both are equally consistent about delivering the most from any CD.
Dynamic range here seems just right. There is no exaggeration, nothing is missing and there is no unnatural scaling up or down. To add some perspective I can say that both the Accuphase DP-700 I reviewed for Audio and the Soulution 745 have slightly more averaged dynamics to feel more relaxed.
The Air V-Edition’s most obvious advantage over almost any other digital source is its amazing soundstage. It's really deep. It is wide too left to right but that's a far more common trait offered by many other good players. The Air simply delivers an incredibly deep soundstage which wouldn't be possible without remarkable resolution. Images are shown very precisely without cutting them out of the background. They never become a central element of the musical spectacle but instead direct attention at what else is happening on the stage.
What’s most important is the sheer pleasure and comfort listening this player delivers and enables. I really can't say the same about too many other machines. Most, even the very good ones, attract the listener's attention to themselves by way of specific technical aspects which divert attention away from the most important thing, the music. The latter must always come first or nothing else makes any sense. The Lektor Air is not the best player in the world as I know some—very few—which are still superior in both digital and analogue realms.
However, what its designer has managed to achieve and how he put all the elements together is amazing to make for a brilliantly finished product. I do realize how the audio business is about constant development and exploration of new possibilities. But in the here and now, at 11:12AM, I would call this is a perfectly thought-out and wrapped-up project. I suspect that it will be enhanced again in the future but I hope that no achievement of the present version will have to be sacrificed in the name of any specific aspect. I love it as it is now.
Another important thing is that it plays every kind of music equally well. Its advantages remain the same. Any recorded flaw of the recording is always shown clearly because this very revealing device differentiates small details amazingly well. In the end it simply works like the best turntables do which always manage to sound natural. This means that we accept any recording as is. While we realize the existence of flaws, our perception treats them as mere subordinate elements of a bigger picture. As such they remain natural. Attacks are always fresh and fast, the soundstage is extremely precise yet the overall gestalt seems to be on the soft side. How is this possible? I don't know. To be honest I don't really care.
I could go on and on. I had a lot of time to listen to this player. But enough is enough. What I wanted to get across is that the Air ensures comfortable listening to your favorite music. Here comfortable encompasses each and every sense of the word. This is a very revealing machine that won't mask any recorded flaw yet manages to extract the music from each and every album. The sound is very coherent throughout, with perhaps a gentle emphasis on a softer midrange. The bass is well extended and differentiated like the best turntables. The virtual images are still not as three-dimensional as they are with vinyl or the Lektor Grand SE but these differences are no longer significant.
The integrated preamplifier here is far better than it had been in the Prime. Although the best preamps deliver still bigger images with more body, the fact that we get this one as a bonus is simply outstanding. The only real shame is that this version still lacks a digital input which has almost become de rigueur these days. But there is a strong possibility that such an input will soon be an option. Each current Air already includes an internal connector for such a module. There is a huge demand for DACs today. The lack of one—or a CD player which might be used as a DAC—is very surprising in Ancient Audio's present portfolio.
Description: Jarek Waszczyszyn's new CD player continues with the company’s signature cosmetics and is made from the same granite and metal. The invisible guts are in fact suspended beneath the main granite slab into which was cut a longitudinal hole for the drive. The electronics tuck into a metal can that’s bolted to the granite. The player decouples from your shelf in two steps. First are integral viscoelastic sheets glued between the main granite board and the narrower granite side rails which conceal the metal casing. Then comes the second step. One mounts cone/spikes to those decoupled pieces of granite. In my version the spikes were upgraded to finite elemente Cerapucs with ceramic ball bearings. The player is quite heavy so this double-trouble isolation scheme is sensible.
On the front some black glass covers a low-noise red LED display which presents track numbers and volume setting where 0dB equals 89 (99 becomes 10V out). Small dots in this display indicate current functions like use as CD player, preamp or (future option) DAC. The display is quite large though not as good as the one in the SDMusA.
On the back are high-quality Rhodium-plated Furutech FP-901 RCA sockets for the analogue outputs and inputs. An inferior RCA socket serves as S/PDIF output. If you choose the optional digital input, the same RCA socket serves as both input and output unlike competitors who separate their digital i/o ports. Combining them isn’t the best idea and makes this player less functional than others. Gold-plated Swiss Neutrik XLRs—this is a fully balanced circuit—and a Furutech Rhodium-plated IEC power inlet round out the connectors. There are no fuses in the mains path.
There are two gold plates, one on top with the company logo, one on the back with a serial number. The control buttons remain chrome-plated as they were in the previous version. Because the Air is a top-loader, the disc is placed directly on the exposed transport axle and the spinning disc remains unprotected. After removing the bottom panel we see that although the Prime’s main layout hasn't changed, it was modified sufficiently to talk of a ‘new design’. The silk screen on the mother board still reads ‘Prime SE’ as this had originally been conceived as an upgraded version of the Prime. Over time the project evolved into an altogether new model. There is no possibility to upgrade the original Prime to this version as there is for the Lektor IV if you want to move to its 5th version.
The Philips CD-Pro2 LF mechanism bolts to the casing with long standoffs. Underneath a microchip controller is soldered to the main PCB. A rather long digital cable carries the signal from the laser assembly to the DAC stage. I don't know which converter is used as it remains soldered beneath the board. Next to it sits a fantastic ultra-low-jitter Tentlabs clock with thermal and mechanical compensation exactly as is used in the Lektor Grand. I/V conversion seems to be passive as I couldn't spot any amplifying circuits. The first-order analogue reconstruction filter is identical to what’s common for SACD players. There are four large V-Cap Elite Reference CuTF capacitors with copper film soldered above two volume control boards for the digitally controlled analog resistor ladder (in amp-direct mode this machine becomes an analog preamp with digital source).
The signal then proceeds from the PCB to the output tubes. The point-to-point output stage sports more V-Caps, this time reference-grade OIMP oil capacitors. The signal from the tubes and analogue inputs travels on silver wires in Teflon dielectric. The ground wire is a fat silver ribbon as Ancient Audio uses in almost all their designs. The tubes are 6H30П-EB twin triodes from Sovtek as in the Grand SE.
There are two small toroidal transformers over the Prime’s single one. These are custom wound and potted by Polish company Trafber according to Ancient Audio’s precise specification. Using two transformers allows for a fully separated power supply for the transport mechanism. There are a lot of expensive Sanyo capacitors in the power supply circuit. And that's it.