The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXLIX: Record Weights and Clamps
I've been writing this column for 25 years now. While I love to think I've covered most of the vinyl-loving bases over that time, there are a few frontiers I have yet to explore. For instance, I recently fielded a question about record clamps and weights and their increased importance in the marketplace. That's when I realized I've never mentioned this in nearly 150 Vinyl Anachronist columns.
Why do people place these clamps and weights on their spindles, right on top of the LP? What are the sonic benefits, if any? Well, the most accurate answer is this: it depends. Sometimes, it depends on the weight or the clamp, and sometimes it depends on the turntable itself. While I've used record weights and clamps for most of the time I've been spinning records on turntables, there have been times when it was not the best solution. For instance, a heavy weight placed on top of the platter may actually slow down the speed if your turntable has a belt drive or if the motor is not connected to some sort of electronic speed control. That's obviously not a desirable result.
But if you're running a direct-drive turntable like the Technics SL-1200 and its variants, or if you have a turntable that has the technology to lock in the speed, a record clamp or weight offers several advantages. First, it is important for the LP to sit perfectly flat on the platter, with no air space in between. If you've dealt with warped records--and you're not a real vinyl lover if you haven't--both record clamps and weights can achieve that and control any resonances such irregularities can create.
I'll give you an example. Years ago, I purchased a four LP 45rpm reissue of Willie Nelson's Stardust, which is very desirable for collectors. This Classic Records reissue was offered up like test pressings, with the cuts only pressed onto one side. This allows thicker vinyl pressings that also create a more stable interface with the record mat and platter, but in this case the one-sided pressing resulted in LP's that were shaped like very shallow bowls.
At first, I was devastated--mainly because Stardust did not come cheap. It would play fine for the first few minutes, but as the needle coasted inward to the spindle, that bowl got deeper, and the needle would start jumping around and skipping. This was inner groove distortion, of course, taken to an unsatisfying degree. But once I added a record clamp, the album--which sounds gorgeous, by the way--flattened out and played perfectly.
Over the years, the high-end audio industry has offered a variety of record clamps and weight and other more extreme solutions. This includes "vacuum" platters on some high-end turntables. That's right, a vacuum is connected underneath the platter so that the LP's gets sucked into place. Vacuum platter 'tables are still very much a thing because vacuum hold-down works, but it requires some extra effort as well as cost. For one, vacuum motors are notoriously noisy, which is something you don't want attached to your analog rig. That means you had to attach a very long suction tube that could reach between the vacuum and the turntable, but ideally you'd have to place the vacuum in the next room so you can't hear it while the music plays. Yes, people have drilled holes in walls and repurposed their hallway closets for such specialized installations.
Perhaps that's why record clamps and weights are a far more common solution for keeping LP's flat on the platter. In many cases, they're quite cheap. For years I used the now classic Southern Clever Clamp, which has been manufactured by Clearaudio for the last couple of decades. The Clever Clamp is basically a clear acrylic disc with a hole in it. I bought my first one many years ago, when they were just $10 or so. Now, they're about $30, which prompts prospective consumers to ask, "$30? For a little piece of plastic?" First, fabricating acrylic parts is not cheap--that's why a custom Plexiglas dust cover for your turntable will cost you hundreds of dollars at the very minimum. Second, the Clever Clamp worked. That's what I used for the Willie Nelson LP's, after all.
In recent years I've switched to the solid brass record weight from Fern & Roby in Richmond, Virginia. Fern & Roby is part of the Tektonics Design Group, a company that makes everything from hi-fi to furniture to precision machine parts. The solid brass record weight is different from a clamp because it uses mass to flatten the record, not a screw-down knob. The additional weight can be a burden on some motors, as I mentioned, but the increased mass also increases the "flywheel effect" of the turntable--the weight improves the speed stability. The cost of the brass record weight is just $75, but you can also try out the slightly lighter aluminum version, which costs just $49.
I also have a neat little Record Clamp from Pangea, called the Record Doctor, which runs for just $30. I've used a large assortment of record clamps over the years for the mere reason that many turntables already come with one. Some of these clamps can also be quite pricy, depending upon the materials used. I did not engage in rigid A/B comparisons to determine if the Pangea was just as good as those high-end audio versions, and some materials can change the sound in your audio system (some metals create inductance, which causes noise and distortion). But the Pangea performed as advertised, and this is the way to go if you're truly interested in record weights and clamps but you don't want to go nuts the first time out.
Can you spend a lot on a record weight or clamp? Of course you can--this is high-end audio. I've seen plenty of weights and clamps that cost more than a decent turntable. How about $1000 for a record clamp? How about $5000? How about $10K? They're out there. I've played with a handful of these as well, and in most cases, I didn't hear a sonic difference that justified the crazy costs. But once in a while, you hear something that makes you sit up and say "wow, I heard a difference there." A big difference, one that's easily audible.
This last summer, I visited Audio Group Denmark, a high-end audio manufacturer in Aalborg that has conducted all sorts of research and development for different types of rare metals. Remember when I mentioned inductance? Well, it appears that some of our most common manufacturing materials, such as the ubiquitous aluminum, actually create far more inductance than other types of material such as stainless steel, copper, titanium and even zirconium, which costs AGD about 30,000 euros for a single kilo. These products are expensive but they work, and in a way, that's easily measured.
But as I also mentioned, there is a high cost for pursuing science at this level. AGD manufactures three record stabilizers under their Ansuz Darkz line, and they range in price from $5,000 to $8,300. I heard all three in numerous comparisons, and yes, I heard big impossible improvements. AGD also sells plenty of these "resonance control record stabilizers" to clients with world-class analog rigs, equipment that already reaches lofty levels of musical fidelity. You're probably not going to hear a big difference if you place a Darkz T2 Supreme record weight on a Crosley, but I'd be curious to give it a try.
I'm not criticizing AGD, whose fantastic gear (Aavik electronics, Borresen speakers and Ansuz cables and accessories) I've been reviewing all winter. I'm just surveying the landscape and reporting what's out there. While spending several thousand dollars on a record weight may be beyond practicality for an overwhelming amount of music lovers, trying out something like the Pangea or the Fern & Roby seems like the smarter move in the beginning. There is a practical side to the enjoyment of LP's and turntables, as in most of high-end audio, where all these accessories do offer obvious solutions to everyday problems--like warped records.
Once you feel confident that record clamps and weights do what they are designed to do, but perhaps at a cost that doesn't make you regret your buying decision, you'll discover that this is a simple way to increase your love of all things vinyl.
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