Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part 8: LP TLC (September 1998)

Back in the late '70's, the stereo company SAE offered a little $199 black box that completely removed pops and ticks from vinyl playback. I discovered, unfortunately after buying one, that it also removed most of the high frequencies from those recordings. No more pesky cymbals. No more tinkly bells. No more air around the instruments. No more reverberance from the recording venue. All of the things that made an LP sound real, live, had been removed. But at least those infernal pops and clicks were gone, by gum!

As I've mentioned before, that remains the argument that is most often voiced by those who oppose me in my effort to keep the masses spinning vinyl... surface noise.

I usually retort that a) you have to keep your records clean, and b) the better turntables out there, specifically those with belt-drives instead of direct-drives, do a surprisingly good job of relegating pops and ticks more to the backround where they are not quite so infuriating. And usually the person with whom I'm arguing will state, usually in a high, nasal, whiny voice, "You don't have to worry about all that with CD's, now, do you!"

Well, I have never proclaimed that LPs are more convenient to use than CD's. Let's be honest for a moment. Much of the success of the CD format is due to two things- that CD's are more convenient to use, and that they have no surface noise. (Tape hiss is another subject altogether. I find that CD's, with their pumped-up, aggressive dynamics, tend to accentuate tape hiss in some recordings.) Trust me, even I ooohed and aaahed the first time I heard a CD, as did most of you. The music came out of complete silence. It startled me! But over the long term, the musical satisfaction dissipated and the fatigue set in. That's why I state, with no uncertainty, that the most realistic-sounding playback systems are still turntables. The gap is narrowing considerably, but as of October 1998, analog is still king.

But it takes work... and money. This has vexed some of you. At least two PSF readers have written to me complaining about the high price of record cleaning machines. The cheapest Nitty Gritty machine, a fully manual cleaner (meaning you do most of the work), still retails for about $250. The cheapest VPI cleaner sells for almost $200 more. I highly recommend both companies for reliable, effective LP cleaning, and if you can afford it, that's really what you should do. But $250 for a record cleaning machine? I know, that's more than most of you want to spend on a turntable, not to mention a mere accessory. So I'll try to offer you a few alternatives.

How about just a brush? I, like millions of other music lovers in the '70's, used the Discwasher system. I'd never even heard of a record cleaning machine. The Discwasher was a nifty wooden hand-held brush which was hollowed out to make room for the bottle of D2 cleaning fluid that came with it. (This was also a great place to hide your stash, which is another story altogether.) Everyone I knew had one, and we all swore by them. But unfortunately the Discwasher had its flaws. The fibers of the brush weren't stiff enough to get out the real stubborn gunk, and the D2 fluid left a residue behind which could make a recording sound worse after cleaning. The lead-in grooves of an LP often remained wet after the D2 treatment, which made a gurgling noise much worse than any pop or click.

Brushes, however, have gotten better over the past few years. The bristles have gotten stiffer. Sure, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, but in reality the brushes can't scratch the record. It confounds me that for years I wasn't getting the deep cleaning I wanted from my Nitty Gritty machine because I was afraid to really scrub. These new dry brushes, however, weren't made for scrubbing but the stiffer bristles will not harm the playing surface as you'd think. The most famous of these newer brushes is the Hunt EDA, which retails for around $25. There are many more carbon fiber brushes on the market that appear to be generic equivalents of the Hunt, and they all retail for about the same price. Anyone who sells turntables or LPs also sells at least one of these brushes. See Shop 'Til You Drop or Turntable 101 for specific dealers. But remember, a dry cleaning cannot take the place of a record machine over the long term. It's something that should be used on more of an everyday basis, before each time you play a certain LP.

Years ago, in the heyday of the LP, Allsop made a nifty little product called the Orbitrac. Allsop, as you probably know, is famous for its head cleaners, but this record cleaning device was actually quite unique and effective. It was a tad awkward to use due to a strange clumsy arm that sweeps the entire record, but it worked, and for relatively little money. The advent of the CD, however, killed the product, and Allsop rushed to market a similar device for use on the little silver discs. Vinyl lovers everywhere mourned the loss. Well, Stereophile contributor and The Tracking Angle editor Michael Fremer lobbied (a nice word for "bitched and complained") long and hard to bring the Orbitrac back. And last year, they listened and reintroduced it, and they've been selling like hotcakes.

Many believe, however, that the Orbitrac is merely the first step of a two- step cleaning process. The finishing touch being, of course, a wet-washing with a Nitty Gritty or a VPI. I suspect these people also Simonize their water heaters and organize their sock drawers by thickness. But I'm seriously toying with the idea of buying one for use in tandem with my Nitty Gritty. What if I discover that this combo opens the gates of Nirvana? Can I let this opportunity slip by? As an audiophile, I unfortunately cannot. Let no tweak be unturned. Several places sell the Orbitrac but I'd like to suggest Audiophile International (877-SPIN LPS) because they have it on sale right now for $33.

Finally, I've told you stories of wonderful turntables found at garage sales and flea markets for chicken scratch. Well, you might have to look a little harder, but for every twenty fools that have relenquished a turntable to the open market for fear of a digital-only future, I bet there's one who has a Nitty Gritty or a VPI that needs a home, too. I've seen 'em, too, for as little as $20. I mean really, in this day and age, who needs a record cleaning machine?

You do.

I know a few hundred dollars is a bit extravagant, especially when you have to buy food and silly crap like that. But let me ask you a few questions. Do you plan on holding onto your LP's indefinitely? Do you suspect that there are things you own on vinyl that will never be available on any other format, including CD? Do you love vinyl, but really hate surface noise? Do you consider yourself a music collector? Do you just really really really have a thing against dust?

Well, if you answered yes to any of the above, then you should own a record cleaning machine. Acoustic Sounds sells them. Elusive Disc sells them. Lyle Cartridges sells them. Gifted Listener sells them. Audiophile International sells them. The Audio Advisor sells one, in fact, that is a stripped-down Nitty Gritty and sells for as low as $169 during one of their frequent sales. Everyone who sells turntables sells record cleaning machines. These bastard offspring of turntables and vacuum cleaners are everywhere, and incidentally, are selling more than they did a dozen years ago. That's because they are important.

I haven't even mentioned stylus cleaners, record preservatives, cartridge de- magnetizers, record de-gaussers, turntable mats, tonearm wraps, and all the other things that add to the enjoyment of vinyl reproduction. Sure, you can go nuts and spend a lot of money. I certainly have. But I am rewarded every time I sit down and listen to my vinyl copies of the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime and the Meat Puppets' Up On The Sun and the Pixies' Doolittle and Thomas Dolby's The Flat Earth and Beck's Odelay and Sonic Youth's A Thousand Leaves and Bill Evans' Everybody Digs Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins' Way Out West and Klaus Schulze's DigIt and Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding and Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend and Talking Heads' Fear Of Music and Itzhak Perlman's Prokofiev: The Two Violin Concertos and the Squirrel Nut Zippers' Hot and Dead Can Dance's Into The Labyrinth and... well, you get the idea.

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