Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XLIV: More LP TLC
(April 2004)

I really do travel on a razor's edge when it comes to this audio stuff. Most people in my daily life still look at me funny when I tell them about my enthusiasm for LP's and turntables. Just yesterday I was explaining the depths of my madness to a co-worker by revealing that I owned a $2500 Koetsu Rosewood cartridge, and he replied, "That must be some DJ setup you have!" Then, while hanging around an audio forum a few hours later, I was chastised by some audio snob for not having spent an additional grand on the Rosewood Signature. "That famous Koetsu sound really doesn't kick in until you buy the Sig," he wrote, grinning smarmily, or so I easily pictured.

I was similarly thrown off my game a few months ago while exchanging a few e-mails with some guy about record cleaning. He was interested in trying out the Disc Doctor cleaning system, but didn't want to go to all of the trouble that the Doc recommends on his website. I offered a few compromises that I and others use, and he seemed genuinely thankful. Then he asked me what kind of record cleaning machine I use, and I told him about my trusty twenty-year-old Nitty Gritty 2.0. "Nitty Gritty? I thought someone like you would own a VPI 16.5 at least." I did feel a bit ambushed by that comment, but it did get me thinking that it was time for me to re-evaluate my LP cleaning rituals. It's been almost six years since I last talked about LP care in LP TLC, and while people are still pretty much sticking to Nitty Gritty and VPI and Disc Doctor and the like, the Vinyl Renaissance has inspired people to perfect their cleaning techniques like never before.

At first, I wanted to venture where few had gone before, by actually comparing the VPI machine to the Nitty Gritty to see which one cleaned records better. I found there was precious little information on the subject, since both machines are so reliable and robust that people tend to purchase one and keep it for the rest of their lives. I can remember Corey Greenberg doing a comparison between the two about a decade ago in Stereophile magazine, and coming away with the perception that while the VPI seemed easier to use, it was noisier. And the end results between the two machines seemed to be about the same, that the LP's were equally clean. Nevertheless, if you wander onto an audio discussion forum on the Internet and ask which record cleaning machine to buy, the answer will be, to an overwhelming degree, the VPI 16.5, which also happens to be the best-selling machine by far.

I really wanted to know why this was the case. I seriously contemplated just going out and buying one and giving my Nitty Gritty to my father-in-law, who not only collects LP's, but 78's, too. That way, I'd be one of the apparently very few who could say that they've owned both, and they prefer this one over that one because (fill in the blank). All those audiophiles on the Internet merrily chanting "VPI, VPI, VPI!" certainly weren't giving me any help, even when I asked specific questions. "Uh, well, this one goes to eleven," they'd finally say, exasperated with my brazenness for besmirching the fine VPI name. And just when I'd decided to take the plunge and spend the $500 on a new 16.5, a recalcitrant LP slipped from my fingers one fine spring day, colliding with my SME V tonearm, sending the stylus of my Koetsu to Needle Heaven. There went my audio budget for the year.

So I did the next best thing. I went sheepishly to a VPI dealer and asked for a demonstration. The salesman predictably went over all the reasons why VPI machines are better than Nitty Gritty machines, most of which seem to be various rehashes of the fact that VPI's are built like tanks, and they never break down. I mentioned to him that my Nitty Gritty was almost twenty years old, and aside from a $20 factory tune-up a few years ago, it had performed flawlessly. "The VPI would have never needed that tune-up," he sneered. Evidently, in a post-apocalyptic future, the only things that will survive are cockroaches, VPI 16.5s, and my wife's twenty-year-old cat.

I played around with the VPI, and I was impressed with the overall quality of the machine, which I had to admit was more substantial than the Nitty Gritty. The VPI 16.5, and its bigger brother, the fully-automatic HW-17, resemble turntables much more than the NGs, which brings me to one concern I had about the VPI's. On the VPI's, you place your LP on a full-size platter, much like you would on a turntable. When you apply the fluid and the brushes, the whole activity seems much more easy and stable. On the Nitty Gritty, the platter is the same size as the record label alone, so the whole LP can kind of flop around on you if you aren't too careful. At first, I thought this was an advantage for the VPI, but then I noticed that on one of the LP's the salesman cleaned, the record label had gotten a little wet from the fluid. Then I noticed that after a cleaning a few records in a row, the entire felt mat on the platter was slightly wet. In other words, it would be very easy for an unusually dirty record to contaminate the one after it, and the one after that, and the one after that. On the Nitty Gritty, the surface of the album stays in the air. Sure, it does come in contact with the machine at the velvet-lined vacuum slot, but you can (and should) regularly replace those velvet strips. And I really didn't like the record label getting wet and potentially damaged. If you're a serious collector, this may be a major concern. I haven't heard anyone else complain about this, however, so it may just have been an unusually clumsy salesperson.

Still, I can see the allure of the VPI machines. They are indeed built like tanks. They come with plexiglas dustcovers, just like turntables, while the Nitty Gritty machines only offer an optional soft-plastic cover. But there is one more factor to consider, and that's cost. The VPI 16.5 and 17 are $500 and $1100, respectively. The Nitty Gritty machines start at less than $300. There's a stripped-down version sold exclusively for the mail-order firm Audio Advisor that is frequently on sale for $199 (confusingly, it's called the Record Doctor). And the top-of-the-line Nitty Gritty, at under $1000, does something neither VPI can do. It can clean both sides of the LP simultaneously. Cool. So I think I'll hold onto my 2.0 for a while longer. Hell, in five years it'll be an antique!

If I learned a lesson from this comparison, it may have been that the machines aren't quite as important as the brushes and the fluids that are used in conjunction with the machines. I think that's why no one can really say that the VPI cleans records better than the Nitty Gritty, because the differences between machines are merely in the conveniences. That's why most serious collectors now use the Disc Doctor brushes instead of the ones that VPI and Nitty Gritty supply. The Disc Doctor system, as I've mentioned before, is merely a variety of scrubbing brushes and fluids, with no machine involved. If you are a Disc Doctor purist, then cleaning records involves distilled water, an immaculate dining room table, and lots of clean towels (or, better yet, one of those old-school plastic dish-drying racks that used to sit on your mother's kitchen counter before your father made her happy by buying an automatic dishwasher). You can see the Doc's method on his website, and while by almost every account this is the best way to clean records, it is a lot of work.

That's why many people tend to use a combination of a record cleaner and the Disc Doctor products. I use the brushes and fluid with my Nitty Gritty, and I've found that it works great. Music Direct, the huge mail-order audio company, sells the VPI 16.5 in various packages which includes the Disc Doctor brushes and Record Research Labs' Vinyl Wash. They seem to prefer this cleaner over the Disc Doctor cleaner, and I think this is because the Doc recommends rinsing all your records with distilled water after using his fluid, and then letting everything air-dry. I don't know about you, but when I clean a record, it's usually because I want to play it right then and there. And the Record Research fluid leaves less of a residue on LP's than almost anything else I've seen, so you can scrub and play that new reissue of Sandinista! immediately (yes, that's what I was listening to when I mortally wounded my Koetsu).

The Disc Doctor method of cleaning does, however, seem to undermine my previous and strict admonishment that a record cleaning machine is essential to the enjoyment of vinyl. The Disc Doctor system, while not cheap for what it is, adds up to less than $100. This may be the best way to clean records, and for those of you balking at the high cost of VPIs and Nitty Grittys, this is certainly your first and best option. And I have to say that if you've already decided that you prefer LPs to CD's, you've already eschewed the whole music-needs-to-be-convenient mantra, and scrubbing LP's in your sink might actually be a fun way to spend your Friday nights. But for every person who has gone this route, there's another who has taken it a step further by coming up with their own homebrew cleaning solution that can be made for forty-seven cents a gallon, and works better than all those high-priced foo-foo fluids. These are the crazy fools who wash their LPs the same way they wash their dishes, and somehow achieve spectacular results.

While hanging out on Steve Hoffman's excellent audio forum, I ran into one of these brave souls, and read his thorough and decidedly inexpensive method for cleaning LP's. You can check it out for yourself at Steve Hoffman's site. And you know what? I tried it. And it works pretty well. I played the LP after it dried and it was clean and free from surface noise, and it was a pretty dirty LP to start with, culled from my late mother-in-law's very eclectic collection. I'm not sure if my Nitty Gritty 2.0 with the Disc Doctor brushes would have done any better or worse, since I'm way too apathetic and lazy to employ the Scientific Method in my everyday life. But for all of you people who can't even afford the Disc Doctor gear, give this a try. And be careful, 'cuz LP's can get really slippery when they're wet, or even when they're dry. Trust me, I know, and so does my poor Koetsu.

I've been stressing cost-effective solutions for cleaning LP's, so I've neglected to mention that the record-cleaning market has been expanding the other way, too. Both Loricraft and Clearaudio have recently introduced some very exotic machines with some very exotic prices. The Loricraft machine uses a thread that continually moves forward, like the ribbon of a typewriter, so the issue of contamination is solved. Michael Fremer of Stereophile reviewed one recently, and was quite impressed, but mentioned that its complexity might send the average vinyl-lover "headed for the hills." It is a beautiful machine, however, and if you're not paying close attention, you might actually mistake it for a turntable. Its $1795 cost might make you mistake it for a turntable too. The brand new Clearaudio Matrix is even more impressive. At $3750, it just might be the ultimate statement in record cleaning (see Clear Audio for a pic of this incredible machine). There is no greater testament to the fact that vinyl is alive and well than the existence of this machine. If I didn't have to pay for reconstructive surgery for my Koetsu, I'd buy two.

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