The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Record Cleaner 2018
If you have a big audio system, and I mean so big that you currently live in a house in the middle of nowhere due to pending litigation from your former neighbors, then you owe it to yourself to run out and get the soundtrack album from Blade Runner 2049. Yep, it's on vinyl. Once you get it home, power up the mega-system with the 300 lb. loudspeakers and the thousand watts per channel amps and a turntable so fancy it has its own integral stand (don't forget about the Japanese phono cartridge that costs more than your brand new Honda Fit). Get past the two Elvis songs, "Suspicious Minds" and "Can't Help Falling in Love," crank up the volume and strap yourself tight to something that's been bolted to the floor.
The track is "Hijack," and it's nothing more than cyberpunk blasts of pure synthesizer sound so startling that I remember laughing in surprise at the moment I first heard it--while watching the actual film in a big IMAX theater. I remember turning to Colleen and saying, "I'm gonna bring the soundtrack album to the next trade show we do just to play THAT." Buying this Hans Zimmer electronica masterpiece on LP has been an enormous highlight in a very young 2018.
As much as I enjoy the two Blade Runner films, there's always been a flaw--not in its premise per se but of its anchors in a history that keeps rolling forward. Simply stated, it's not set far enough in the future. This film takes place in 2019, just a year from now, and it's a little too obvious that this 1983 film missed a lot of its predictions especially when it comes to how everything looks when you go outside. We forgive that, I think, because we all still like the film enough to say, "Hey, don't even think about the year. Go with it." Still, the filmmakers of the sequel probably had to think long and hard about that conundrum when they set their film in 2049, something they felt important enough to put right there in the title. If you've seen the film, you know that they've chosen to progress thirty years from the world of the first film, not thirty years from where we'll actually be next year.
While listening to "Hijack" over and over and over--yeah, I admit it--I started thinking about the state of vinyl in 2018 and how common perceptions of analog playback don't follow what's really going on, especially in the context of high-end audio where the gear gets better and better every single year. That's why people keep asking me about all-in-one record players that come in a carrying case, something I haven't experienced or recommended since 1978 (I promise I'll stop harping about that...soon). Now, I'm getting another strange question over and over again, and it's about record cleaning products. Some of this is coming from newbies, but at least one is from a hardcore audiophile who has a stellar digital-based system and is only now considering a new turntable rig.
The question goes something like this: "I still have my Discwasher system from the old days. That'll work, right?"
That's one of those questions where you can't quite decide which way to say "no" first. To be fair, it's been a very long time since I've owned and used one. Back in the ‘70s, Discwasher was the only game in town, so everyone had one. I had one. Heck, I might have had three or four over the years. It was a great product for the time. But record cleaning technologies have improved in the last thirty years or so--record cleaning machines, cleaning fluids, record brushes (wet and dry), enzyme cleaners and perhaps the biggest of them all, ultrasonic cleaning.
The Discwasher faded away for two reasons. First, the brush was soft. Too soft. While the brush and the fluid did a pretty good job of removing dust and surface artifacts from record surfaces, the brush pads didn't really dig deep into the grooves. Once the Decca-style dry record brushes hit the market with their stiffer bristles, the Discwasher brush seemed a little inadequate for the job. Second, the cleaning fluid that came in the little bottle that fit inside the wooden handle of the brush--the one cool and nostalgic feature of the Discwasher everyone seems to remember fondly--was alcohol-based. Alcohol-based record cleaners fell out of favor when it was discovered that rubbing alcohol, an old-fashioned record cleaning remedy, caused long-term damage to your vinyl. These days, the cleaning fluid market is dominated by cleaners that either have no alcohol, a generally very little--usually no more than 25% of the fluid volume.
So can you use your old Discwasher system to clean your records? Sure, why not. Just don't expect great results. After thirty years, the fluid in the bottle has probably either completely evaporated or turned into a vile and pungent goo. Don't use it.
Originally, I was going to use this column to discuss and compare all those new-fangled record cleaning fluids, especially if you're the kind of person who still thinks that Discwasher is a viable product in 2018. But I've tried most of the fluids out there, and while I have my own preferences I can't really say one is better than the other. That's not because there aren't differences between these products, but rather how difficult it is to evaluate those differences through A/B comparisons. The only way to do it is to have two identical LP's with identical levels of surface gunk, which is probably next to impossible to achieve. You could look at the grooves through a microscope before and after cleaning, which is the most scientific way to conduct this comparison, but what if your ears told a different story from the microscope? What would you have learned that will increase the enjoyment of your record collection?
So the answer is yes, there's probably some scientific way to pick the best record cleaning fluid, but we're going to circle back to the word "preference." Preference is important. This reminds me of a recent high-performance SUV comparo in Car & Driver where it came down to an almost neck-and-neck tie between the Mercedes-AMG GLC43 and a Porsche Macan S. The AMG's numbers were better than the Macan's, but the reviewers kept thinking about how the Macan made them feel as they were driving it "through the twisties."
That's what you'll probably discover when you try to select your favorite record cleaning fluid and, to a greater extent, your record cleaning hardware. Some products will objectively perform better than others, but usually at a higher cost. You can spend $3600 on an ultrasonic record cleaning machine, for example, and have it all. Or you can spend $129 or so on a Spin-Clean, which is a bare-bones manual record cleaning trough that works really well. You can buy machines from VPI, Nitty Gritty, SOTA, Okki Nokki and you'll probably be happiest with the product that's the easiest to use with the greatest number of useful features for the least amount of money. You might want to show off to your audiophile buddies and buy something classy like a Loricraft or a vintage Keith Monks machine. Ultimately, you'll land on your favorite combo for some unexpected and possibly goofy reason, and that's perfectly okay.
In this regard, however, I'm settled in for the night. I use the SOTA RCM (which I reviewed at https://positive-feedback.com/Issue74/sota_rcm.htm), the Audio Intelligent Vinyl Solutions cleaning fluid (which I reviewed at https://positive-feedback.com/Issue76/audio_intelligent.htm) not because I was convinced that this combination was able to outperform all other record cleaning devices, but because I enjoyed the ease of use more than anything else I had tried. This came down to one thing--being able to clean a record completely in the least amount of time. Since I tend to have record cleaning marathons before I bring a bunch of vinyl when I exhibit at trade shows, I appreciate that the SOTA has an exhaust fan that keeps the motor from overheating--something that has killed other RCMs I've owned. I also like that the Audio Intelligent fluid gets sucked up into the SOTA's vacuum tube more quickly than other competing brands, and yet leaves the surface black and shiny and gorgeous (it's all about surfactants).
That leaves only one question about record cleaning fluids--should you go with a multi-step cleaner or one of those easy-to-use one-step formulas. Again, the choice depends upon your preferences, especially when you ask yourself the question "Is it worth it to spend ten minutes cleaning one LP?" I've used the multi-step cleaning regimens before. They usually involve a live enzyme cleaner that can break up dirt at a molecular level, a standard detergent wash and one or more rinsing stages that involve ultra-pure water. They will make your LP just about as clean as it can get, unless you want to spend $3600 on an ultrasonic machine. Multi-step cleaning processes are usually labor-intensive, though.
In my old age, I've gravitated toward one-step cleaners. I put in all the work when I was young, and now for the most part my LP collection is in pretty spectacular condition. I rarely encounter an LP that needs more than a one-stage solution. But there's a reason for that. I don't really go to used record stores or Goodwill for records anymore. Haven't done that in years. I'm no longer looking for that unicorn LP because I'm not a collector. I'm a music lover. That means I just want it to sound as good as it can, and in most cases that involves putting a new record through a one-step clean before I play it for the first time.
That said, you probably need to invest in enzyme cleaners and ultra-pure water if you're serious about listening to LP's (by serious, I mean anyone with a turntable that doesn't have a plastic carrying handle). Enzyme cleaners can really bring new life back to old, dirty records. Ultra-pure water helps with removing the residue from enzyme cleaners, detergents and old Discwasher fluid. The only caveat is that enzyme cleaners get activated when they are mixed with water--hence the words live enzyme cleaner--which means they have limited lifespans of just a few hours once you've mixed up a batch. A dry enzyme powder can also "go bad" in a couple of years, even if it's stored in a cool and dry environment. These cleaners are often expensive, so you can see how the clock is always ticking if you're going to head down this road.
In other words, there isn't an answer to which record cleaning fluids and RCMs are the best. I know hundreds of serious vinyl fans, and they clean their records a hundred different ways. The only time I've ever sat up and noticed how pristine someone's records sounded was the day I met a guy with an ultrasonic cleaner. Most audiophiles already take good care of their LP collections. The fluid they use isn't going to make or break that.
But hey, maybe one of those guys uses a Discwasher system and I don't know it. Maybe the Discwasher system is somehow misunderstood or maybe we've been using it incorrectly or maybe there's a new version of the Discwasher and it's the best thing out there. I'm not about to turn the trusty old Discwasher into the Technics SL-1200 turntable for 2018--especially when I think the new SL-1200 is a winner. I don't want to awaken the sleeping giant that is the Discwasher Army.
But if I'm wrong about Discwasher, tell me. And if you can find a more effective alarm clock than setting your music streamer to play "Hijack" at 6 in the morning, tell me about that as well.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at email@example.com and see his Blog site
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