It's about time...
It is incumbent upon every true phonomusicophiliac to actively investigate ways to improve their music playback system. Of late, I have explored various interconnects, pondered preamplifier upgrades and dabbled with A/C filters and regenerators. In what seemed to me a peculiarly oblique strategy, my consulting detective for all things audio, Nick Gowan of True Sound in Campbell, CA, recommended that I borrow an Audio Desk vinyl cleaner for a couple weeks. My experience with this device so consumed my attention, so upended my expectations, that I felt compelled to write this commentary.
I expected clean records. I did not expect more musical ones.
But first, personal axioms on the table: the most important of which is that a recording, no matter the medium, no matter the care in microphone placement and technical discipline of the engineer, producer and manufacturer, is only a fictional representation of a musical event. Our imagination makes up the difference. Even so, a playback system should strive to reproduce in holographic terms the recorded performance; it should therefore strive for accuracy – but given the aforementioned axiom, we should ask: accuracy to what reference?
Many audiophiles compare their systems and potential upgrades to their memories of live performance – which I contend is an exercise in futility as we can never know what is actually on the recorded medium, even if we were present at the recording session. I have gone into this question at length in my essay Are You on the Road to Audio Hell? but the nub of the argument is that a useful way to decide if your system is more or less accurate (compared to another system or the same system with a potential "upgrade") is to remove as much of its inherent coloration - dynamic and harmonic - as possible. And the way to do this is to seek more differences between recordings, not any similarity to some notion of reality or holy grail about staging or frequency response, etc.
When considering the idea of a record cleaner, our first requirement is that it results in cleaner surfaces and less noise. This should be a given, but, as it turns out after a few turns with the Audio Desk, cleanliness, though next to godliness, is not enough, and never should have been, really. We were simply ignorant of the fact. The notion that cleaning would have a real effect on the music latent in the groove never seriously came up. What we accept as correct or "about right" in our playback systems is a function of our prejudices - mine, too - and the Audio Desk seriously presents some cognitive dissonance in this respect. More on this as we consider some before-and-afters.
Throughout the week I had the Audio Desk I cleaned several dozen records. Comparisons were a bit challenging because there is some six or seven minutes required for its remarkable ultrasonic cleaning, during which I have to clear my head or, at the very least, not listen to music. No A/B testing here.
That said, there are some things that emerged, regardless of the age and condition of the record: Bass has better pitch definition. Treble has fewer sharp angles that heretofore might have been taken for dynamics, which, once relieved of their residence on the groove wall, result in improved contrast between like events – this is true throughout the frequency spectrum and, along with improved timing, are the most subtle and most profound improvements the Audio Desk offers.
There is more texture everywhere, but it is texture better integrated with the specific instrument or voice source and the space in which it exists. On the other hand, there is almost no "detail" as I understand how audiophiles often use the term -– In place of detail is improved resolution, especially harmonic resolution. (I have always thought that "detail" in this context is merely the result of a system's producing unsponsored quasi-musical sounds that are easily mistaken for the real thing. Ask yourself honestly: have you ever heard "detail" at a live, unamplified concert?) Once a record is properly cleaned, sonic events are returned to their proper place and do not stick out. If you still hear 'detail' you might want to look elsewhere in your system for the cause. As Andy Grove of Audio Note UK observes, "Most audiophiles and engineers seek to increase 'detail' rather than to reduce artifacts."
Once presented with a clean groove wall, stylus tracking is improved, timing and overtones slip into their correct positions and are properly integrated insofar as the recording makes this possible, resulting in more accurate timbres and better differentiation, even among percussion instruments. With a good recording, given a proper cleaning with the Audio Desk, depth is better revealed, whether the result of varying distance from the microphones or electronically manipulated; and - please assume a sitting position for this - you should be able to hear the difference in character between the strings of an acoustic guitar; same for the violin.
Pianos "ring" less; the mechanics of the instrument are better revealed. Violin bowing is more cleanly and more deftly articulated. Instrumentalists play better. Steve Reich's Piano Phase on Nonesuch/Elektra is not merely a mathematical wonder; it's absolutely terrifying in performance. Ry Cooder's soundtrack album of Paris, Texason Warners is demonstration quality in its own right, but given the once-over with the Audio Desk, it is nothing short of astonishing in terms of timbres and spatial differentiation. Vocalists sing better. Sibilants are better controlled. Vocal "grain" often disappears. Audiophile favorite Fairy Tales on Odin is revelatory as Radka Toneff's breathy overlay is at last re-integrated into her voice. Nat Cole's chest cold on the Pure Pleasure After Midnight reissue disappears, as does some of the tubbiness in Speakers Corner's reissue of the Mercury Starker Bach Suites.
Choirs separate and integrate as they should. When you hear Edwin Hawkins' Northern California Youth Choir exclaim "I Heard the Voice of Jesus" (on the original Century label, not a reissue) your goosebumps will make a believer out of you, if only while you're listening to these kids sing their hearts out – and there will be no doubt that they are kids. In an entirely different vein, listen to the dead-on chording by the phenomenal Hi-Lo's on "My Romance" from a six-eye mono LP of Love Nest and you will never be able to accommodate to the scattered tuning of a doo-wop group again without giving them a great deal of slack. Goosebumps once again are in play for the opening Kyrie on Rossini's Petite Messe Solennnellefor two pianos, harmonium, soloists and small chorus. My copy, conducted by Edwin Loehrer, was recorded by Erato and pressed by World Records.
Computer generated music like the Bob James Rameau and Scarlatti albums on Columbia and the granddaddy of electronic music for the LP, Silver Apples of the Moon, generates latent tones heretofore acoustically invisible. Every drop of sound of Celestial Soda Pop on Ray Lynch's Deep Breakfast is an exquisite, unique pearl, each with own character and place in the symphonic soundscape.
Percussive attacks hit with greater velocity and let go with quicker assurance - less overhang equals better dynamics, and with hardly a trace of in-your-face abuse such that you wished you had turned your volume control down. Curiously, you can enjoy your records at a lower playback level because attacks are more clearly articulated, or at higher level because the dynamics are more correctly balanced.
Big band music of all stripes and historical status are symphonically incorporated into choirs of reeds and brass as they should, while enjoying unique soloist spotlighting. Bands shout, scream, dream and swirl as never before. One of the more dramatic effects of cleaning with the Audio Desk is that cymbals, when whacked together, the air between is squeezed out in a most characteristic way – very comforting to feel that happen every now and then.
And speaking of the symphonic, I compared four of my oft-played demo records: the opening minutes of that venerable war horse Also Sprach Zarathustra - this on Decca with Mehta conducting the L.A. Phil; the first movement of Massenet's Le Cid from an EMI Studio 2 LP with the Birmingham Symphony led by Louis Fremaux (an LP that should be in every self-respecting audiophile); a somewhat obscure, but highly thought of LP on the Hungarian Qualiton label (one of my favorite labels, generally): Hungarian Rhapsodies • Csárdás Macabre (SLPX 10104) whose Hunagrian State Folf Ensemble completely blows away the reference Mercury Osipov Balalaika recording; and, just to be mean, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef from RCA's "Classic Film Scores" of Bernard Hermann with Charles Gerhardt conducting the National Philharmonic.
I'll make this short: Jeez!
Alright: a few words, then: I didn't really expect to distinguish all nine harps in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef but there are now more than I had been used to hearing - and such breadth, depth and power. It's to die for. More important, the rest of the orchestra really comes together as a symphony, not a collection of highlighted effects. The Qualiton recording is another torture test for dynamically changing textures. The performance is so exciting, most listeners don't notice the scary bits that my turntable and pick-up had trouble with. No more. And speaking of scary bits, few recordings of a real symphony orchestra put the pedal to the metal like the opening moments of Le Cid. My playback has always had too much edge, which I somewhat reluctantly accepted as dynamic flair. But now that the edge is gone, there is actually more power, not less, while the orchestra feels more like the real thing. And what is there to say about Zarathustra that Kubrick hasn't already said better. Well, there is always a live concert performance, if you can find one. Short of that, there is this Decca. After cleaning, now that the stylus doesn't have to deal with questionable material, the organ pedal is deeper, the orchestra is brighter, while the trumpet is darker, the massed strings are luscious with all kinds of texture, singing as only Richard Strauss can make them.
Elsewhere, at times, the effect is that there seems to be less going on after cleaning rather than more, which could easily be taken for a smoothing of dynamics; but such is not the case. Consider the before and after washing of the new Edel Germany's reissue of Oscar Peterson's My Favorite Instrument from Exclusively for My Friends. What we once perceived as recording artifacts can now be understood as misguided tracking. The clatter of Peterson's attacks in the upper registers of the piano and the tubby sound in the lower half of the instrument, as if the microphones were simultaneously placed both inside and outside the piano box, are prime examples. After cleaning with the Audio Desk the piano sounds more like a single instrument. Everything is better integrated. Instead of tubby resonance we hear the delay of a modest reverb of the room. Oscar's singing is now more clearly separated from the piano now that the clatter is gone. Less confusion means less work for the listener, often unconsciously distracted by uncertainty.
A dramatic transformation occurs once we give The Rochesa pass with the Audio Desk. By any standard, the trio's first album is a strange and wondrous work - eerie at times, obviously manipulated, as if the girls' vibrato-less voices weren't interesting enough. Once cleaned, however, that ghostly, glassy overlay just about vanishes and, in its place, they actually sound like human beings, albeit with a fascinating approach to vocal production. Maggie's low voice, which previously almost disappeared into the mix, is now more on equal footing with Terre and Suzzy. The guitar now has all its strings in play, which is a blessing.
The French label, Astrée, produces some of the most consistently well recorded and produced LPs - and their recording of Debussy's music for piano four hands and two pianos [Atrée AS -2] is no exception. Four hand piano music is especially difficult to bring off in my experience, and the untreated Astrée gives it a good shot. Still there is a hint of ringing and mushiness when textures are dense. After cleaning, textures are a little less cluttered and the action of the piano is more easily discerned, while never commanding attention. The sense of this being a single piano with subtly different registers is nicely revealed.
What about previously unplayed LPs, you ask? I suspect this depends some on how much goop, aka mold-release compound, is left on the disc. On my until-now sealed copy of Sheffield's Direct-to-Disc of Growing Up in Hollywood Townthe result is subtle, but entirely in the "right" direction (see the above notes). But on the Philips Schmidt-Isserstedt recording of Mozart's Die Gärternausaus Liebethe orchestra is more lively and there is clearly more emotional content in the performance, especially noticeable in the speaking parts, funnily enough.
I was anxious to tryout the Audio Desk on the new Beatles in Monoset. In this case I was rather surprised by the degree of re-presenting that the cleaned record offered. On Meet the BeatlesI auditioned Little Bird which lost, for better or worse, a good deal of its electrified effect. On the Double White album, I listened to Martha My Dear, I'm So Tired and Blackbird. These three songs are something of a minor revelation once passed through the Audio Desk. Voices revealed differentiated timbres, bass has pluck, even that bizarre piano at the start of Martha has a shot at something like a real instrument, and wait till you hear what that tapping sound that accompanies Blackbird can sound like. Finally, I checked out side one from the Mono Masters, paying particular attention to Love Me Do and This Boy. These relatively unmanipulated performances are something of a relief after so much of George Martin's finagling on the later commercial albums. Once cleaned, the sound projects greater depth, the beat invites unstoppable foot-tapping, instruments have greater textural clarity, especially guitars, voices have less murk in the reverb. There are some serious treasures to be found in this three record set.
Rock is a curious breed. The genre spans many sub-genres, so just to touch on the subject I played some Talking Heads' Stop Making Senseand Underworld's Born Slippyfrom Trainspottingas it appears on their 12" single. Both Psycho Killer and Burning Down the House really shows off what a clean record sounds like - and I thought mine was clean to start with - nearly silent anyhow. Audiophiles would appreciate the applause; it is as if you can count the hands (I exaggerate but there are definitely more hands at play.) Far more important is that I used to worry that my 25-Watt Audsio Note UK Ongaku might not quite be up to recreating something like concert levels – my ears would clog up as if the power supply was giving out. No longer. All that extra space - call it headroom if you like - that comes from a stylus not having to put up with gunk, and my amplifier not having to turn that into sound, is sweet. Born Slippyis another beast altogether. It's relentless drive can wear an unsuspecting listener out, and it's not like there's a great deal of variety here. But what is now possible is to be taken in, hypnotically, as it were, massaged by a non-stop primitive beat. Exciting as hell, I tell you.
As for old, somewhat worn records with sufferable noise, I thought I'd present a couple to the Audio Desk, if with extremely low expectations: Barber's Best [Decca LK4246] and Ted Heath at the London Palladium [London LL-802]. Both are honest, unfussy recordings with plenty of dynamic power and luscious sound from horns and reeds and, on the Chris Barber Dixieland record, a big vocal from Ottilie Patterson. Both are in less than pristine shape, noise- and wear-wise. On the Barber, Ottilie no longer overwhelms the rest of the group. But Ted Heath's rendition of Dark Eyes might become one of my top drawer demo records: a luscious trombone, a neatly articulated piano, which, even as back-up, still retains that instrument's characteristic percussive tuneful sound, and those marvelous wire brushes on the drums - where did all that space between the wires come from! And when the whole band comes in for swinging tuttis they play with one mind. Very white, but very nice all the same. Both records play through the wear with greater ease.
Whatever surface noise remains is much easier to ignore. I am not the first to notice that "stereo noise" is better separated out of the mix on mono records and into the left and right channels once cleaned, permitting better focus to the music at the center. Since the groove is cleaner than ever before, new life is breathed into early mono recordings. Regardless of spatial presentation, the sense of a performance - that is, actual people playing and singing - is vivid.
Center fill is an even more important consideration on stereo recordings, where misguided tracking leads to random events at the sides, distracting our attention and upstaging the middle.
Tics and scratches are more cleanly articulated and have less wiggy energy that otherwise distract us. Whenever I hear the occasional tic, I smile. Obviously, the apparatus has no effect on mishandled records. On the other hand, wear is less distracting - possibly because the stylus plays difficult patches more easily now, despite that the record had been played with a damaged or incorrectly set up cartridge and tonearm. By the way, static build-up is greatly reduced, if not eliminated, though certainly not forever. One more thing, better tracking means less difficulty with the final inch or so of all too many records. How's that for your money's worth!
This review may give the impression that I fully endorse the product, and I do. However, there is a caveat that you should take seriously. Seriously. Once you clean a record with the Audio Desk, there is no going back. You cannot return the record to its original condition, either for the exercise or because you are in any way puzzled or unhappy. Nor will you be able to demo how well you spent your money on such an extravagance by re-creating the effect. The Audio Desk is not last or first or any other record treatment that can be removed. The Audio Desk is the ultimate removal service, and this consequence should not be taken lightly.
After the Audio Desk, vinyl looks so clean one might want to own this thing just to have the illusion of brand new records. It's hard to put a price tag on the confidence a clean record engenders. Then there are the secondary gain of not having to clean your stylus nearly as often. (I have yet to test just how often.) Cleaner stylus assemblies mean better dynamics.
The Audio Desk is not without drawbacks, the most distressing being that it can only clean 12" LPs. So much for our 10" and smaller... for now anyway, though I gather that Reiner Gläss is taking the matter under advisement. The record cleaner is also anything but quiet, especially once its fans are engaged. If you use the unit in the same room as you listen to music, you can really only do one or the other. I found that about half my records – the thinner ones, usually - needed a few dabs with a clean cloth to absorb the spots of water that wouldn't blow off. And there is some pesky maintenance to perform every 100 records or so.
So there you have it, a component – and I think it behooves us to think of the Audio Desk in such terms, no less than a proper preamp upgrade - that improves tracking the music signal from the outset. This results in better timing since the stylus no longer slips and leaps across unwanted debris, adding undesirable comment and changing velocity viv-a-vis the groove as it goes. Accurate tracking yields better resolution, which means improved harmonic coherence, more correct timbres and spatial relationships, and more honest dynamic contrast. And all of these make for less coloration - harmonic and dynamic – less, distortion, if you will. Every record is now that much closer to the unique performance encoded in the groove.
The Audio Desk is bloody expensive, especially as compared to the competition, if we can still call them that. On the other hand, it is only about half the cost of many a high-end audio cartridge and, since the Audio Desk directly affects a cartridge's performance, its value might be better appreciated. In any case, it's a small fraction of the cost of our record libraries, which will play better than new in many cases after a proper cleaning. So, the gauntlet is thrown. Do you dare to take along a few of your records, old and new, to your local Audio Desk dealer and compare the befores and afters? One thing is certain: neither you nor your records will ever be the same again.
I shall say no more.
That said, I shall give the final word to Phillip Sztenderowicz (Sterling Sound), who reminds us that A clean groove is a happy groove.