The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CIV: Ultrasonically Speaking...
Just the other night Colleen and I were watching Storage Wars. Colleenís a big fan of the show, while Iím just a big fan of Brandi Passante. Well, Brandi and her business partner/fiance Jarrod had discovered some sort of strange machine in one of their lockers, a machine from the Ď50s or Ď60s that appeared to be some sort of automated cleaning device. Small cylinders were filled with fluid, and then a switch was flipped that sent sonic vibrations into the fluid. It was one of those confounding items that send the showís regulars to a local expert, where itís determined what the doodad is and, most importantly, how much it is worth.
Brandi and Jarrod knew enough about the machine to take it to a local watch repair expert, and he told them it was an ultrasonic watch cleaner--and thatís when my ears perked up. The expert explained how watches were placed in the fluid and then ultrasonic waves gently cleaned out the spaces in between all those tiny gears and cogs inside the watch.
ďI guess thatís just like the ultrasonic record cleaning machines everyoneís talking about," I told Colleen, and she nodded her head in agreement. We had first experienced ultrasonic record cleaning machines about a year ago when we visited our dealer in Rochester, New York--Craig Sypnier of Audio Renaissance. While visiting his store, Craig played all of his favorite albums for us. The first thought that came to my mind was ďMan, this guy really takes care of his LPís!" I heard almost no surface noise on his records--it was like listening to CDís, but way better.
I finally mentioned the fabulous condition of these records to Craig, and he pointed over to a strange gray box sitting on one of his display counters. ďThatís the ultrasonic cleaning machine doing its job," he replied. Iíve been hearing the buzz about these cleaners for some time, but the limiting factor, of course, was price. These machines usually run about $4000, making them the ideal cleaner for audiophile clubs, used record stores and well-funded analog lovers. But for the average guy whoís been brown-bagging it at work for the last six months so he can spend $500 on an RCM from Nitty Gritty or a VPI, thatís a heck of a lot of dough.
So what is an ultrasonic record cleaning machine and how does it differ from the more conventional and affordable machines most of us use? Well, an ultrasonic cleaner uses sound waves to remove the debris from grooves, as opposed to the bristles of a brush. Once the debris is knocked loose, cleaning pads move in opposite directions to wipe the filth away. On ultrasonic cleaners such as the one from Audio Desk Systeme of Germany, the one Craig uses and the first of the ultrasonic record cleaning machines, the cleaning is 100% automatic. You place the LP in a vertical groove, much like those cheap rotating vacuum cleaners from the late Ď70ís, and you press the button. When the red light on the front of the machine turns green, your record is clean. The entire process takes about five minutes. The best part is that you can walk away and do other things while itís working. That alone is a compelling reason to check these machines out.
The Audio Desk Systeme--which is the one Michael Fremer of Stereophile uses and recommends, by the way--costs $3995. Thatís just as expensive as the finest conventional machines from the likes of Loricraft, VPI and even the legendary Keith Monks, but these innovative and effective products are far more sophisticated from a technical point of view. First of all, the non-alcoholic cleaning fluid is actually filtered and recycled inside the machine, which means you wonít re-contaminate the second LP with the goo that was removed from the first. Secondly, internal fans are mounted inside to dry the record perfectly before that green light appears--there are no noisy vacuums. When you remove the LP from the ultrasonic cleaner, it is ready to play. For everyone who has ever cleaned an LP conventionally and then placed it on a turntable, only to discover a wet ring of fluid on the dead wax or the lead-in groove, this is a godsend.
Finally, the whole ultrasonic technology isnít cheap to start with--Brandi and Jaredís old rusty machine was still worth $500, according to that watch expert. So that probably means the cost of these technologies wonít come down in the same way that VCRís and CD players and Blu-ray players eventually came down. But the advantages over conventional cleaning are stupendous--an ultrasonic machine creates no static on the record surface, and there is utterly no need for a vacuum seal in order to properly remove the fluid from the grooves. Most importantly, the A/B comparisons between ultrasonic cleaning and more conventional methods are simply astonishing--there is no controversy about the effectiveness of these new technologies. For most users, there is simply no going back to the old ways of cleaning records.
In other words, cost seems to be the only real obstacle to buying and using one of these machines. In my last column, I asked Jim Pendleton, the manufacturer of Audio Intelligent cleaning fluids, about his thoughts on the subject. ďThe ultrasonic cleaning machines are convenient and don't require as much attention from the person cleaning records," Jim replied. ďI think each individual has to judge for themselves what method suits them best and what level of results that they are satisfied with." To me, this implied that the high cost of the ultrasonic machines would probably prevent them from becoming the mainstream standard. I also suspect that people as knowledgeable as Jim probably achieve equally spectacular results from conventional methods because they have a few tricks up their sleeves.
Craig Sypnier, however, has a solution: merely charge people $5 a pop to come in and have him clean their records. Five bucks may seem like a lot of money to people who are used to paying $1 each for records at the local Goodwill, but most new audiophile-quality LPs run from $30 to $50 each or even more. I personally have dozens of rare albums in my LP collection that are worth hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars. So five bucks ainít nothiní. Craig keeps telling me to pack up ten or twenty of my favorite LPs and ship them off to him--heíll send them back to me so I can hear the difference for myself. I keep reminding myself to do this--but I also secretly want one of these machines for myself.
I donít know about you, but I donít have $4000 burning a hole in my pocket. There arenít a lot of cheaper alternatives, either--the Klaudio ultrasonic cleaner, which looks just like the Audio Desk Systeme, is also $4000, But Iíve recently discussed these machines with a manufacturer, and he told me that he had discovered an industrial ultrasonic cleaning machine that could be easily converted for LP use. He isnít sure how low he can get the price, but heís crossing his fingers that he can do it for less than a thousand bucks.
If heís successful, itís a game changer. Iíve already heard that at least a couple of the big RCM manufacturers are working on their own. Until then, find someone like Craig Sypnier or a local audiophile who will help you discover the true potential of your LP collection.
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