Hello fellow Audiolics! Welcome to another meeting of Audiolics Anonymous, our support group for the insatiably tweaked. Have we done any listening this month, or have you been spending most of your time tweaking as usual?
Well, I don't believe it, Forty-Eight Audiolics articles and counting. When Steven R. Rochlin, our editor, asked me four years ago if I would be willing to write a column for him to get his web magazine I thought it would be just a few. Here it is, four years later and I still have not run out of topics. And what a great one I have today for all of the audiophiles out there still playing vinyl, or for those who want to get into it. Specifically, a record cleaning machine out of England that is a superb but expensive piece.
But first, some housekeeping. After publication of last month’s article on AC cords, I received a reply from Frank Dickens of Silent Source Cables, with a concept I had not thought about before: i.e., can there be too silent a background to the soundstage from AC cables. Frank wrote:
Up till now I thought the way AC cables worked was to pass as pure a 60 Hz/120 Volt sine wave as best as possible with blockage of the extraneous noise carried on the wave, yet without affecting the amperage or voltage. I have yet to hear a system that had too little noise, but maybe Frank has brought up a valid point. I would love to hear from others on this concept.
The major topic for today is a record cleaning machine, the Loricraft PRC3 produced by Garrard and Loricraft Audio (of Lambourn, Berks UK). It is distributed in the USA for $1,795 by Smart Devices Inc. It has been around for years, off and on in the United States, but SMART Devices decided to begin regular importation of it as they were becoming marketing agents for the Elp Laser Turntable and needed a cleaning machine as the laser is just as sensitive to dirt on the record as our cartridges.
So who needs a record-cleaning machine? Anybody who listens to vinyl. Even brand new records fresh out of their wrappers have pressing materials in the grooves that gum up the needle and prevent it from perfectly tracking the undulations. These days, with the paucity and expensiveness of new vinyl, it is even more important for the cleaning of those yard sale and used record bin discs. You would be amazed how you can turn a completely unplayable old disc with multiple surface scratches into a reproducer of beauty with a proper cleaning.
For the past 22 years, I have been using the same VPI 16.5 Record Cleaning Machine, which I bought from Clark Johnsen of The Listening Studio in Boston, when I made my first purchase of a high-end audio system way back in 1982. It is actually the only piece of equipment I still have from that time. Except for a replacement of the drive and suction motor and new cleaning brushes, it has functioned perfectly over the years. Until the Loricraft arrived I had always been happy with the results obtained. The price was, I believe, $400 way back then and about $500 now. They also sell a Model 17 which will automatically clean both sides of the record, for about $1,000.
There are several other record cleaners available beginning with the lowest priced $200 Nitty Gritty, and the $450 Zenn. Then, there is the Moth $700 record cleaner from England, which looks like a cross between the VPI and a Nitty Gritty. At $2,200 in black and $2,700 in clear finish, the new Clearaudio Matrix cleaner appears to be a cross between the VPI and the next unit. Finally, there’s the granddaddy of them all, the multi thousand dollar Keith Monks record cleaner, which one can still purchase from England. Thus, the Loricraft falls in the middle for price.
All do the same thing, using a solution usually of an alcohol and/or other cleansing base to bathe the record and loosen materials from the vinyl. Then use a vacuum running through a brush mechanism to suck away the contaminants or high speed rotation to throw off the material (ZENN), leaving hopefully a pristine surface. All are of very sturdy build and should clean many thousands of records without problem if the cleaning brushes and pads are replaced appropriately. With all of these you need to use a cleaning solution to loosen up the contaminants and suspend them so that they can be removed from the record surface, hopefully without damaging the surface or leaving residue chemicals to gum up the sound. I have tried just about all of them over the years, including Alsop, Last, Pfanstat, Discwasher, etc., and have always found the Disk Doctors Miracle Record Cleaning Fluid and brushes to be the best on all counts. For $82 one gets a quart of the fluid and two of his brushes, sufficient to do several hundred records after the 1:2 dilution with distilled water. He recommends a wash, vacuum, rinse, vacuum two-stage process, which I have been using with the VPI to great effect.
SMART Devices sends a pint of their cleaning fluid, a brush, and an extra bobbin of thread with the unit. Their solution, which normally costs $13 with shipping per pint, is in a spray bottle, and worked as well as the Disc Doctor fluid I normally use to clean records, both with the VPI and Loricraft, and for the life of me, I could hear no difference in the record using either solution. The spray action of the Smart Fluid is easier to control as far as volume is concerned, which is important with the Loricraft as "a little dab'll do ya".
There are two problems with these brush-vacuum type units. First, is that if you totally remove all of the solution, due to the vacuum, a static charge will build up on the record. Thereby giving static pops as the recording is played. Thus, it is recommended that on the last rinse you only suction the recording until there is a very fine film left, then let it air dry and allow the needle to clean off the residue with the first playing. Obviously this is a pain as you have to allow each side to be played once to get the maximal cleaning effect. Alternatively one can completely vacuum dry the recording and use either a Zerostat destatisizer gun, which works fairly well to remove static electricity, or a anti-static solution such as Gruv Glide, which also leaves a fine residue on the record which sounds like a very fine tape hiss.
Second, the brushes on the cleaning arm become dirty fairly fast, need thorough cleaning, or removal and replacement or you start transferring dirt and mold from one record to others, especially the very dirty ones.
Thus we come to the Loricraft. This unit's cleaning mechanism is based on a prototype first produced in the 60's by Percy Wilson who was a technical editor for Grammophone Magazine. Unlike most other machines which use a high vacuum motor with a brush that covers the entire surface of the record, but does not extend down into the grooves, the Loricraft uses a mechanism very similar to a the needle and arm of the playback machine. The needle is replaced with a fine nylon string running on a smooth nylon nozzle, which floats on the surface of the record.
The thread runs in the groove with suction being applied through the vacuum wand of high intensity but over a very small area of the string. Thus the nylon is actually cleaning deep into the groove, with the materials actually being vacuumed back just a few grooves at a time. The record is spun counterclockwise at 80 RPM with a very quiet industrial motor, and the whole process takes only about one minute per side. The suction also draws the string through the vacuum wand so there is always clean material touching the groove, rather than reused brushes carrying grime from record to record.
The unit is built like the proverbial brick outhouse, weighs a ton, has a beautiful shiny black finish, and comes with a five year warranty. They have been around for many years working with the pro theater industry so you do not have to worry about them disappearing. It has an industrial vacuum motor which can be run continuously without overheating, so you can do all of your records over a continuous 24 hour period without overheating the machine if you are into masochism. The fluid catching system is a bottle on the side of the machine so you can see when it is full. The VPI has an open container inside the machine and I once had a problem with the fluid leaking out when I moved the unit after a couple of hours washing records.
So how good is it for $1,795? Compared to the VPI, the Loricraft is whisper quiet, with only a very slight hissing sound when the vacuum is running. Since the unit is conducting static charge away as it is cleaning, none is left on the record. All of the fluid is suctioned back, leaving no residue, and no static charge. I found no improvement with two cleanings, thus; only one cleaning cycle is necessary compared to the two with the VPI.
I have three minor problems with the unit. First, there is no dust cover with the unit. There is one available separately, for $25, but I would think for the price, at least a cloth cover should come with it to keep its beautiful high luster surface and record platter clean of dust. (FLASH: I sent this article to SMART Devices for review, and Norm Schneider, the owner agreed with me, so from now on a cover will come with the unit.)
Second, and probably my fault, if you use too much of the cleaning solution, due to the high RPM of the platter the fluid will fly off the platter smearing the machine's surface. While not very much, it can also splash cleaning fluid on surrounding objects. Thus the spray bottle sent with the unit vs. the Disc Doctor’s squirt one.
Third, the wand sometime will skip across a record and thereby not cleaning the entire surface, almost as if it needs an anti-skating force. They recommend a tracking force of 2.5 grams of the wand against the record, which can be measured with a stylus force gauge. I found closer to 2.8 grams was necessary. Also, the unit must be level like a turntable. Finally, a little trick. If you push the arm beyond the spindle and back again, it seems to track much better. It is actually fun the first few times to watch the wand track across the record sand leave a clean glistening surface where scum was before.
So how well does it work compared to the VPI? Very well indeed! First I experimented by taking two of my least noisy records that had been previously cleaned with the VPI, playing a well known track, then running them once through the Loricraft and replaying. There was an immediate sense that more information was coming through from the grooves, with less background noise, a more open soundstage, and an increase in the ability to hear background information. While not as great an increase as I had heard previously washing originally with the VPI, it did show me that the Loricraft was indeed opening up the grooves to the needle.
Next, I wanted to check just to see if it had been the long time period between the previous VPI cleaning and the playing that caused degradation. First, I changed the pads on the VPI to make sure I did not have a dirty surface touching the record, and used the same scrub brushes and fluid with the two machines. I took two recordings that I had not listened to before from a recent yard sale purchase, cleaned them with the VPI, listened, then cleaned them with the Loricraft and listened again. Again, more information came through after the Loricraft cleaning with less background hiss.
Finally, to make sure it was not the double cleaning with the VPI first, and the Loricraft second, that made the difference; I reversed the order. Thus cleaning with the Loricraft first. Interestingly, the Loricraft-only cleaning sounded quieter and more open than after it was reclined with the VPI. Thus, the VPI must have been leaving either some residue that the Loricraft was not, or possibly some static charge that the Zerostat was not removing. In either case, the Loricraft did a superior job at cleaning.
The final finding was a surprise to me. Usually, after three or four record sides I normally clean my Kondo KSL IO-J needle with its supplied Zerodust Stylus Tip Cleaner. This is a blob of clear material with a very sticky surface that you lower the needle onto, which removes any junk on the tip as effectively as any liquid stylus cleaner with no chance of gumming up the mechanism with residue. One can see the junk picked up by the needle on the surface of the cleaner. Usually, even after freshly cleaned records, there is some residue after three to four sides. Not after the Loricraft. I had to play back 6-7 sides to see any residue after just one cleaning with the Loricraft. That, my friends, is how clean the records are.
Finally, I had an audiophile from England over named Bob Steele, who was staying on his boat nearby for the summer as he wanted to buy a preamp I had for sale, and had him listen to several VPI cleaned records followed by a relisten after the Loricraft. He also couldn’t believe the difference, although I am sure he was happy it was an English product winning. Guess I was not imagining the difference.
So is the Loricraft worth the $1,795? Certainly not to the CD generation. But for anyone with a large record collection that they want to play with maximum fidelity, it may be. I have seen record stores that charge $2 or more per side to clean records, so if you have 500 of them and clean them twice you would have paid for the unit. (At least you can use that argument with your wife.) Also, the Loricraft is truly beautiful to look at and operate.
I have not compared it to the Keith Monks or Clearaudio, and they may do a better job, but they are more expensive. I found the VPI to be considerably better years ago than the Nitty Gritty, and the Loricraft was superior to the VPI, but both are considerably cheaper than the Loricraft. For somebody who wishes to listen to their records for many more years, its a reasonable investment. Those who may want to transcribe their vinyl 20-bit/88kHz or higher digital, the Loricraft will certainly minimize noise transfer. It is probably the same price you would pay for a new cartridge or tonearm, and will give you as much if not more sound improvement. But then I have gone crazy and have a Walker Proscenium turntable resting on a Arcici Suspense System with a Kondo IO-J cartridge, so you can see how much I am willing to spend for great analog reproduction. Are you?
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