Analog Corner #59

If you were preparing to archive your LPs to CD-R, what would you do first? Right. You'd scrub your records and whip your turntable into shape—maybe even upgrade your cartridge and/or phono section. In March The New York Times's "Circuits" section published "Janis and Jimi, Come Back from the Attic," an article about digitizing and archiving vinyl that I don't think even mentioned the word "turntable." Obviously, analog is news unfit to print.

The piece was saturated with the usual LPs-in-the-past-tense clich;aes and trite word associations: "LPs" = "dusty," "LPs" = "old," "LPs" = "attic," "LPs = "ticks and pops," "LPs" = "fragile." According to the piece, which was written by a computer guy, only people of a "certain groovy generation...—you know who you are—still find it hard to part with their large collections..."? Though there actually may be "interesting music in the sleeves of [kids'] parents' dusty old [gotta have "dusty" when you have "old"] Elvis, Thelonious Monk, or Otis Redding albums."

Today's reasonably priced digital recording systems make it possible and, perhaps, desirable to take those tired old analog platters for "...a last spin." What's more, the article continues, if you become proficient with sound-editing software, you "can even create CDs that sound better [my italics] than the album because they can reduce...the hisses, snaps, crackles, and pops." Isn't that special? Are we talking about vinyl or cereal?

Elsewhere in this issue of Stereophile you'll find a review of the Apogee Electronics PSX-1000, a pro-audio 24-bit, 44.1–96kHz A/D–D/A converter that is finding favor with audiophiles interested in digitally archiving their LPs. But first, here's the scoop on cleaning records.

Nitty Gritty 2.5Fi vacuum record-cleaner

(Nitty Gritty is no longer in business-Ed.)
I use a vacuum machine on my LPs, but not to clean them. Here's why: If you put a dirty LP on a cleaning machine of any brand, much of the filth (dust, dandruff, nicotine, THC, body oil, dog hair, etc.) will end up on the cleaner's "velvet"-lined lips, from which it will simply be deposited on the next record you "clean." The stickier and more pernicious the substance, the more likely its transference to the next LP—even if you clean those lips regularly. And you can't see this kind of contamination on the record.

A better method is to pre-clean your dirty LPs. I do so with my record-cleaning fluid of choice: The Disc Doctor's Miracle Record Cleaner, which contains no isopropyl alcohol. (The Disc Doctor, Duane Goldman, has a Ph.D. in chemistry and is convinced that isopropyl is not good for vinyl.) Once the fluid has been spread on the record (I use Disc Doctor's applicator pad), I remove what I can of it with Allsop's Orbitrac cleaning device.

Once the record has been cleaned of surface dirt and the crud at the groove bottom has been lifted closer to the surface, I wet it with distilled water. Only then do I use a vacuum machine to remove the water, and with it (I hope) what little dirt and other contaminants may still be lurking in the grooves. Of course, you have to change or wash the Orbitrac pads regularly, but what's most important is that the final vacuuming step results in the least amount of contaminants being deposited on the lips for later redistribution onto your "clean" records.

The much simpler cleaning regimen recommended by VPI and Nitty Gritty consists essentially of applying the fluid to the dirty record and vacuuming it off. Sort of like "Drop on Freezone, lift off corns." I wish it were that simple. It can be, but don't expect clean records to result from a single such treatment—at least not for long, unless you clean or change those lips often. Even then...

The Nitty Gritty 2.5Fi ($529 in black wood grain, $599 in oak) is, like all Nitty Gritty machines, compact and very easy to use. The Nitty Gritty system uses fixed but easily replaceable lips attached to the unit's chassis. Nitty Gritty's drive system features a small, flanged, spring-loaded rubber capstan drive with a groove cut in it wide enough to accept the edge of a 180gm LP. You use the record to push the pulley back, which allows the spindle on the machine's surface to access the LP's center hole. If you don't insert the LP's edge carefully into the groove and the pulley slips out when you push back, the spindle can skid across the surface of your record.

Once the LP is seated on the spindle, you flick a rocker switch to set it rotating. The 2.5Fi includes a fluid reservoir and a hand-operated pump. Once the pump is primed, eight to ten depressions of its piston should be sufficient to wet the underside of the LP, the fluid being applied to the record from the first of the two lips. There are two problems, however. First, in order to be sure you've covered the entire LP with fluid, you have to bend down and inspect the record's underside with a flashlight, or use a mirror and light—you simply can't take a chance that you're leaving part of the record untouched by fluid. Second, the lips become saturated after the pumping action. That makes not putting a truly dirty LP on the Nitty Gritty even more critical. Otherwise, all you'll be doing is spreading wet schmutz all over the record. (VPI's Model 17 pumps fluid onto the record through a separate nylon-bristle brush.)

Once the fluid is evenly spread across the record's surface, you reverse the rocker switch to activate the vacuum. In three to five spins over the lips the record is dry; you remove it, turn it over, and repeat the process. One advantage of the platterless Nitty Gritty system is that the cleaned side doesn't end up on a dirty platter, where it can be recontaminated with dirt. If you use a VPI, I recommend you put a clean mat on the platter each time you turn the record over so the just-cleaned side doesn't become re-contaminated.

I fill the 2.5Fi's reservoir with distilled water rather than cleaning fluid. I first clean both sides of the record on an auxiliary platter. (Never mind that I used the VPI HW-17's; you can use a garage-sale turntable.) Then I put the record on the Nitty Gritty, pump distilled water onto the surface, and vacuum it dry.

While you might think the saturated lip would leave a line of moisture on the vacuumed LP, I found that it didn't, though occasionally it did leave a few minuscule drops. These were easily removed via an easily accessed waste-fluid tray.

Nitty Gritty recently introduced a $54.95 movable spindle adapter that lets you clean 7" and 10" records with equal ease and convenience. A set of four new lips is reasonably priced at $15. VPI gets $20 for a single pair which comes attached to a new suction tube. Nitty Gritty is quick to point out that its four-lip kit can be used with the VPI tube. Instead of chucking the entire tube, just peel off the old lips and replace.

Nitty Gritty vs VPI
Though I haven't tried the Moth unit that was on display at HI-FI '99, I think the VPI HW-17F is probably the best record-cleaning machine available. With its built-in fan, bidirectional motor, integral nylon brush, electric fluid pump, and very strong vacuum, it is a true workhorse that can clean almost endlessly without overheating; and, given my cleaning routine, the platter is convenient.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to spend $1100 on a record-cleaning machine. If you want to spend less than $500, there are the VPI 16.5 ($495) and a number of competitively priced Nitty Gritty machines. The VPI 16.5 requires you to manually squirt fluid on the record, while Nitty Gritty's $519 1.5Fi—which gives the same mechanical performance as the more costly 2.5Fi, but has sidepanels of plastic oak veneer instead of the 2.5Fi's genuine wood—includes a convenient reservoir and manual pump. You can get the 1.5 without pump for $442.

Or you can "roll your own" with the totally manual Record Doctor II machine, made by Nitty Gritty for online retailer Audio Advisor, which sells all of these machines at a small discount. After a while you'll find turning the record by hand tiresome, so why not save up the extra coupla hundred bucks and buy one that does it automatically? Nitty Gritty also makes machines that clean both sides at the same time—a real timesaver.

If you don't want to go crazy with the cleaning regimen I've described—actually a highly simplified version of one described in an article by Michael Wayne in issue 3 of The Tracking Angle (R.I.P.)—Nitty Gritty's 2.5Fi cleaning scheme is fast, easy, and works reasonably well, as long as you clean the lips after each dirty record. The advantages of the Nitty Gritty system are compactness, fewer moving parts, less expensive lip replacement, and the convenience of a fluid pump, all for about the same price as VPI's 16.5, which omits the pump. The advantages of the VPI system include the platter (a disadvantage if you don't keep a clean mat handy for the just-cleaned record side) and what appears to be a stronger vacuum. (Nitty Gritty recommends you clean no more than 10 records per session to avoid overheating the machine, then let it cool down for 15 minutes before resuming. That should give all but the most anally compulsive, hand-washing–obsessed audiophiles enough cleaning time—and even some leftover time to actually listen to music.)

Some reviewers claim that one machine "sounded better" than the other, but gimme a break. Even with the difference in vacuum strengths, I seriously doubt any reviewer could, by only listening, identify which machine had cleaned a record. If used properly—ie, not as instructed—either machine will do the job.

As for Nitty Gritty's Pure 2 cleaning fluid, it smelled of isopropyl alcohol, as do a number of other commercially available products. So I didn't try it. Given how inexpensive are the alcohol-free fluids from Disc Doctor and other firms, why would you want to start messing with your own concoctions? Disc Doctor even sells his fluid in highly concentrated form so you don't have to pay for shipping water all over the country.

My conclusion? Any vacuum machine beats no machine at all. The Nitty Gritty 2.5Fi worked well using the methodology I've described. I don't think using it per the instructions does an effective job, nor do I think saturating one of the lips is the best way to spread liquid on the record; but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the cleaned record was dry, and that the wet lip didn't leave a smear on the record.

If you're serious about your vinyl and about the long-term health of your precious stylus, you can't afford to be without such a machine.

VPI's Cure for the No VTA Blues
Roy Gandy is a swell guy, and his Rega Planar turntables and separately available RB250, 300, 600, and 900 tonearms are among the best values in analog audio. This is why so many turntable manufacturers use OEM versions of Rega tonearms for their designs.

Rega's loudspeakers, amplifiers, and digital gear are equally fine performers and reasonably priced, but Gandy has some decidedly iconoclastic ideas, one of which is that records don't need to be cleaned. He believes the stylus pushes the dirt out of the grooves as it plays. No comment. (ScanTech's Jonathan Carr, designer of Lyra cartridges, has commented, though his remarks can't be printed in a family magazine.)

Gandy also believes that the importance of adjustable VTA is overblown, and he's got the math to prove it. Furthermore, he believes that tonearm rigidity is far more important, and that it is usually precluded by VTA adjustability. That's why his arms have fixed mounts. He also believes that most of the sonic differences noted from adjusting VTA are really a result of the other geometrical changes that occur when you loosen and tighten things while changing VTA.

A number of aftermarket devices are available for adjusting VTA on Rega arms, including ones from Basis, JA Michell, and now VPI. To my eyes, the VPI seems to maintain the desired rigidity while allowing for about a full inch of vertical adjustability. It's nicely machined from aluminum, has a sturdy mounting collar that attaches to your 'table via three screws, and costs a very reasonable $150.

The only downside is it doesn't fit the standard Rega opening. If your armboard is removable, you can send it to VPI and they'll drill it out for you, or you can do it yourself.

Tough Love for Unruly Electrons
Must have been a room full of yuks when Alexander Fleming held up a piece of bread and proclaimed to his peers, "This mold will save millions of lives." But who laughed last? Hold that thought as you read about the $299.95 Symphony line conditioner from Quantum Life Products.

The problem, according to QLP's literature, is that as soon as "a musical or visual signal comes into contact with electricity, it inevitably becomes scrambled and distorted...due to the inaudible noise being generated by the chaotic, random motion of the electrical current along the signal path." This, according to the literature, "radically contributes to raising the noise floor." Worse, it leads to what QLP calls "signal indecision," which I guess is a kind of electrical angst from which untreated power suffers. The noise and angst destroy "edge harmonics, resolution, timbre, and front-to-back imaging," resulting in "a flat, two-dimensional impression."

Enter the Symphony. "After years of exhaustive research" (seems like all research is "exhaustive," doesn't it? No wonder scientists look so gaunt and unhealthy!), "Quantum Life Products has developed an honest, timely solution to...electromagnetic noise in small signals." Just by plugging the Symphony's wall-wart power supply into an outlet on the line from which your audio system draws power, you will hear "increased timbral clarity, higher resolution, elimination of high-end harshness, greater bass definition, [and] better front-to-back imaging....Your audio system will produce expanded dynamic range, enhanced imaging, and spatial realism." Music "will maintain...the crystal clarity of digital along with the warmth of analog." Don't forget that moldy bread.

Can't beat all that for 300 bucks, right? So what's in the box and how does it work? "The technology employed in Symphony is based upon an electromagnetic processing method" that makes "coherent the random, chaotic motion of the electrons in the components of the circuit design."

In other words, for the most part, the circuitry inside the box doesn't do anything. It's simply a carrier for the effect, because it has been treated in some way with the mysterious "electromagnetic processing method." Look, I'm not endorsing this—I merely regurgitate here the technical roughage I've been forced to ingest.

Once the processing renders the electrons in the circuitry "coherent," whatever that means, they remain that way, apparently indefinitely. When you plug in the wall-wart, "it is theorized that a synergism of interaction between the atoms of the house wiring (and of connected electrical devices) and the electrons in the current stream flowing through them takes place."

Apparently what happens is that the "coherent" electrons whip the incoherent ones into place upon contact. This occurs in a few minutes and affects "all of the electricity in your home...from the power meter forward..." The device also contains "microprocessor circuitry" that functions as an efficient "carrier" of the technology while emitting "specific preprogrammed frequencies to pulse the AC [via] an inductive/resistive circuit [that] acts to couple the frequencies to the AC line via an external transformer" (the wall-wart).

So is the Symphony moldy bread or penicillin? I had two Symphonys and a Symphony Pro, the latter said to have a more pronounced effect. It looks nicer, too, and plugs directly into the wall instead of using an outboard transformer.

I first heard the "effect" about a decade ago, when Tice claimed to have put this "technology" into a RadioShack digital LED clock (the famous Magic Clock). I could swear I heard a difference almost immediately when the clock was plugged into the wall, as did the other reviewers present. The difference was—and I hate to use the word—a more, um, coherent sonic picture, a kind of subtle "rightness" and "jelling" that I could then identify only by its disappearance upon my pulling the plug on the device.

I know I'm opening myself up to humiliation here, but I've now heard the same effect with the Symphony and the Pro...or at least I think I do. The placebo effect is pretty potent in these kinds of circumstances, so who knows? But with Symphony in-circuit, the sound feels "right"; when the plug is pulled, the "zone" collapses.

Yes, that was a mocking tone in my description of Quantum Life's product and technology. I know I should dismiss QLP's pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo and ridiculous claims for sonic improvements, but just because they can't adequately explain what's going on doesn't mean that it isn't going on [see the May issue's "Undercurrents"—Ed.].

I don't think the Quantum Life folks are charlatans. I think they really believe they have created a process that improves the sound. They could be wrong, and I could be wrong in thinking I hear an improvement or even a difference when the device is plugged in. But since QLP guarantees your satisfaction or your money back (excluding shipping and less a 15% "restocking fee"), it'll cost you about $45 to appreciate the sonic effects or feel like a fool. Even though I think I hear and appreciate the effects, I'm not keeping either model around—even at accommodation prices. You might feel otherwise.

This just in...
I've just received a test pressing of Classic Records' all-analog monophonic reissue of Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold As Love. If you're a Hendrix fan, you need this stupendous-sounding record. For sheer visceral musical pleasure, it stomps all over the stereo editions, whether original British Track, Reprise "pink steamboat," or Japanese. Not convinced about mono? Axis will make you a believer!

Sidebar 1: Resources

Allsop, 4201 Meridian St., Bellingham, WA 98226. Tel: (800) 426-4303, (360) 734-9858. Fax: (360) 734-2010.

Audio Advisor, 4717A Broadmoor SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. Tel: (800) 942-0220, (616) 656-9585. Fax: (616) 656-9592. Web:

Disc Doctor, Tel: (314) 205-1388. Web:

Nitty Gritty Record Care Products, 4650 Arrow Hwy. #F4, Montclair, CA 91763. Tel: (909) 625-5525. Fax: (909) 625-5526.

Quantum Life Products. Tel: (800) 809-5480, 310-394-4488.

VPI Industries, 77 Cliffwood Ave. #3B, Cliffwood, NJ 07721. Tel: (732) 946-8606. Fax: (732) 946-8578.

Allsop, Disc Doctor, Nitty Gritty, and VPI products are available from a variety of analog specialty retailers.—;Michael Fremer

Sidebar 2: In Heavy Rotation

1) Jimi Hendrix, Axis: Bold As Love, Classic mono LP, 180gm
2) Iggy Pop, New Values, Arista/Sundazed LP, 180gm
3) Iggy Pop, Soldier, Arista/Sundazed LP, 180gm
4) The High Llamas, Snowbug, V2 LPs (2)
5) Van Morrison, The Skiffle Sessions, Exile/Virgin LP, 180gm
6) Clifford Brown Allstars, Emarcy/Speakers Corner LP, 180gm
7) Led Zeppelin, BBC Sessions, Atlantic/Classic LPs (4), 180gm
8) The Who, BBC Sessions, Polydor LPs (2)
9) Kinks, Kinda Kinks, Castle LP, 180gm
10) Various Artists, Voices of the Real World, Real World CD—Michael Fremer 

rshak47's picture

for many years, and it served me well. I moved on to a Loricraft PRC-4 about a dozen years ago, and it'll be my last RCM.

Eskisi's picture

Vinyl must be the only retro hobby that insists on competing with new technology in the performance arena.

I drive a 1962 sports car and sometimes also wear mechanical watches. NO ONE in those hobbies ever claim that an Austin-Martin DB6 will outperform a Lexus or a Vacheron Constantin will keep better time than a digital Citizen.

Listening to a record is very pleasant, as is a Sunday drive in a classic British sports car. But the straight wire perfection digital can attain, it is not and will never be. Let us also not forget the pedestrian sensing automatic brakes or the ease of making near-instant, perfect copies.

Why can we not enjoy our gear without this non-stop bashing of digital, ridiculing of mainstream people and journalists? You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Lothar's picture

Whoa! Sounds like a mid-1980s "perfect sound forever" ad. Honestly, it sounds like you are confusing "outperform" with "sounds better." I would never argue that my retro hobby "insists" on competing with new technology as I'm not in the business of evangelising anyone -- I listen for my own pleasure. For most, I think it's clear that digital is the future of audio and always will be. In my case, analog is the present, and for a brief and idiotic hiatus starting in the late 1980s and ending in 1996 when I came to my senses and found my way back to analog, it always will be. That doesn't mean I won't listen to well mastered CDs or SACDs, but neither has any hope in hell of "competing" with any of my Lyras tracking a well recorded, well mastered record. Maybe someday. Not holding my breath.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I was introduced to record cleaning machines back in the mid 1980's. db audio of Berkeley [great shop, RIP, yes—they used no caps in their logo] had a Keith Monks RCM. Customers could bring in their LPs and, once shown how to use the device, clean them and re-sleeve in a slick [but unfortunately not quite archival quality] new inner sleeve with the db audio's logo, phone # and address. Real good cleaning machine, pricy, took its own sweet time getting through an LP side. Gave me an excuse to listen to gear I could never afford. Eventually led me to Stax Earspeakers with a hybrid amp.

Not too much later, I got my hands on a VPI 16 RCM, still have it. It wore out. Any electrical device that holds water or similar fluids should not be made of MDF. And the problems that MF cites with having to keep pads clean eventually rendered the machine useless. I was using it up to about two years ago.

There's a really good record store in town—Tower District Records—that will ultrasonically clean and re-sleeve your LPs for a reasonable rate. I've had about 60 washed in the last month, the results are worthwhile, eliminating low-level noise that the Keith Monks and VPI machines couldn't reach, though it should be noted that the Keith Monks machine is better at removing obvious surface junk. I think Bob Lambert is using the V-8, know he cleans 8 at a time and there's a drying cycle that takes additional time.

It's interesting that the ultrasonic cleaner is particularly good at removing veils from the oldest LPs. There's "The Louis Armstrong Story - Vol. 1" Columbia CL 851, Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five. These are historic transfers—needledrops—of 78s from the early electric recording era. It's a six-eye pressing, so I guess it's a re-press, there's plenty of scars on the LP's surface. There's very good digital transfers of this material on JSP, but these earlier transfers have more life to them. Prior to cleaning, the surface noise rendered the LP unlistenable, afterwards the LP was clearly preferable to the CD. I've got a lot of the old Capitol grey and green label Frank Sinatra LPs, they're next in line for a bath.

I make a lot of needledrops to digital media, most of the LPs I transfer really need cleaning. Not to mention a conical stylus tracking at 3 grams, or more if necessary, 'cause it's a jungle out there.