Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

For the last several years, turntables have been at the center of my audio life. It had something to do with the vinyl revival, and the fact that I was one of the few SoundStage! Network reviewers who never lost the faith -- mostly because I have somewhat esoteric (read: strange) tastes in music, and own a large library of recordings on vinyl that have never been digitized. So I kept ready for action my late-1980s Dual CS-5000 turntable and myriad cartridges -- one ADC, four Grados, two Shures, one Stanton, one Sumiko -- until what goes around came around again: the LP.

I’ve been at this game a long time. In those years I’ve learned that not everything de rigueur today will be so tomorrow. But some turntable accessories seem to be of enduring usefulness. Those are what I talk about here.

Basic record cleaning

There are probably more ways to clean LPs, more fluids and devices, than there are stars in the firmament. Here I mention a few I’m familiar with. If you don’t see your favorite, or one you want to learn more about, remember -- I haven’t tried them all, and would rather say nothing than mislead or misinform you.

Discwasher

From Discwasher to GrooveWasher: In the late 1960s, a university professor and audiophile was unhappy with the record-cleaning processes then available. He invented a nifty solution: a nappy pad affixed to a walnut handle, a brush for cleaning the pad, and a small bottle of proprietary cleaning fluid. He called this kit the Discwasher, and it quickly became successful -- so successful that the professor was overwhelmed with trying to produce enough of them to fulfill his orders, and by audio companies willing to buy him out. He sold Discwasher to one of those companies, which not long thereafter was bought by another company, which in turn was bought by a conglomerate, which was bought out by someone else, who spun off all their audio lines to someone else who, not long thereafter, went bankrupt. All along the way, the purity of Discwasher was cheapened by its successive owners, until it became pretty much useless for cleaning records.

In 2019, enter GrooveWasher. Its founder, Steve Chase, recalls that his family was deeply involved with Discwasher from 1972 to 1982. Then, not long ago, Chase’s son, a recording engineer, told him that the bands he was recording were releasing their music on vinyl.

Chase developed his own record-cleaning fluid, based on the research of Discwasher’s inventor, Dr. Bruce Maier. Chase designed his own walnut handle with directional fiber, and set up his own firm, GrooveWasher.

Back to 1972: Having read many reviews of the Discwasher and in need of a good basic record-cleaning system, I bought my own Discwasher and, later, two big bottles of their magic D4 cleaning fluid. Since then I’ve religiously cleaned my records before every use: both sides, even if I’m playing only a single cut. My LPs never get very dirty, and those two big bottles of D4 lasted until early this year.

GrooveWasher

That’s when I discovered GrooveWasher. I ordered the basic Walnut Record Cleaning Kit of fluid and brush ($34.95, all prices USD), and tried it. It worked just as well as, if not a bit better than, my 48-year-old Discwasher.

Other basic record-cleaning devices: Allsop’s Orbitrac record-cleaning system, so well thought of that Allsop brought it back into production after having discontinued it some 20 years before; and record brushes from AudioQuest, Clearaudio, Grūv Glide, Hunt, Mobile Fidelity, Musical Surroundings, Okki Nokki, Ortofon, and Pro-Ject, among others. These brushes usually cost between $15 and $35. There are also some basic record-washing devices, such as Spin-Clean’s Record Washer, that start at about $80.

But a GrooveWasher won’t be enough to thoroughly clean really filthy records. If you buy a lot of used LPs, you’ll need a bigger hammer . . .

Record-cleaning machines

A record-cleaning machine cleans LPs deeper and therefore better than a record brush can -- important if you’ve had your records a while and haven’t cleaned them before each play, or if you pick up used records at garage sales and stores.

Most record-cleaning machines are variations on the same basic concept: a revolving platter very similar to a turntable’s, a record brush for applying cleaning fluid to the record’s surfaces, and a vacuum arm lined with bristles and/or velvet, to suck up the dirt-bearing fluid. Some platters are motor driven; the platters of less-expensive machines are hand-cranked.

The general technique is to place the record on the platter, apply that model’s proprietary cleaning fluid (usually diluted into a solution) to the cleaning brush, rotate the record so that the fluid is applied evenly across the entire surface, then turn on the vacuum, swivel the arm over the record, and spin the platter to suck up the fluid and dirt, while drying the record surface at the same time. Flip the record and repeat.

VPI

It’s most economical to machine-clean records in batches -- the cost of the cleaning fluid can add up. When you’re comparing record cleaners, remember that you’ll need to empty its dirty solution into a sink or toilet, so try to find a model that makes that job easy.

Record-cleaning machines tend to be big and bulky, and their vacuum pumps can be noisy. They start at around $200 and can cost $5000 or more, and they include parts that need to be periodically replaced; e.g., felt pads and cleaning solution. But there’s no doubt they do a better job of cleaning LPs than does the basic record cleaner, and if you have a valuable record collection, they’re just the ticket. Manufacturers of record-cleaning machines include Clearaudio, Music Hall, Nitty Gritty, Okki Nokki, Record Doctor (from AudioAdvisor.com), and VPI Industries.

Better record sleeves

Generally, the inner sleeves that protect the LP from its stiff cardboard jacket are made of thin paper that tears easily, exposing the grooves to damage. Better inner sleeves will keep your records cleaner and safer.

The best inner sleeves have inner sleeves of their own, of soft plastic backed with semistrong paper. The best I’ve seen are Mobile Fidelity’s Original Master Sleeves. If you’ve bought any of MoFi’s wonderful vinyl reissues over the years, you know the Master Sleeve. I like it because its paper lining is rigid enough not to fold over, thus making it hard to insert the disc. They’re not the cheapest you can find -- in bulk, depending on the supplier, they run 20¢ each or so -- but they do the job well.

Mobile Fidelity

Online sources of record sleeves are Amazon.com, BagsUnilimited.com, ClearBags.com, SleeveCityUSA.com, and the wonderfully named Sleevie Wonder. Look for sleeves with paper liners, like MoFi’s Original Master Sleeve. You won’t be sorry.

Stylus cleaners

In the past, some cartridge manufacturers included a stylus-cleaning brush with each cartridge. You don’t see that much anymore, so it’s up to the user to choose the best way of keeping his or her styli clean. A stylus can dislodge dirt from the record’s groove, and that dirt can then be fused to the stylus and cantilever by the heat caused by the friction of the groove’s motion as it’s pulled past the stylus. This can dull the highs, and generally distort the sound. Cleaning the stylus after every ten hours of playing time should suffice.

Many stylus cleaners are similar to GrooveWasher’s SC1 Stylus Cleaning Kit ($19.95), which comprises a felt pad at the end of a small handle and a bottle of cleaning fluid.

GrooveWasher

Other stylus cleaners are available from LAST, Lyra, Mobile Fidelity, Ortofon, Pro-Ject, and Thorens, and usually cost from $15 to $30. Most interesting is the Extremephono Solid-State Stylus Cleaner (SCC1), for $29.99 from Amazon, though I don’t know what they mean by “solid-state.” It uses a gel pad that contains a cleaning solution. You lower the stylus onto the pad and its contents using only the tonearm lift -- Extremephono is very emphatic about this. They claim that enough solution is included to last you five years.

Stylus-force gauge

A stylus-force gauge should be found in the accessories drawer of every turntable owner, to ensure that the cartridge is tracing the groove with the optimal vertical tracking force (VTF). Some turntables are supplied with basic gauges, but often, better ones are available for not much money.

For years now, I’ve relied on Shure Bros.’ manual SFG-2 gauge, but that now runs as high as $40 on Amazon. Manual gauges are available from Ortofon and Clearaudio for somewhat less.

Shure

A better choice today is an electronic gauge, which can be accurate to 0.01gm and start as low as $12. Some are self-calibrating; others come with a calibration weight with which you set the gauge before measuring a stylus’s VTF. At the upper end of the range, Rega Research’s MK2 sells for about $250. I’ve never used one, so I don’t know if it’s 20 times better than a $12 model -- but given Rega’s reputation, it’s probably worth it if you can afford it.

Bubble levels, record clamps, speed strobes

A turntable works best when its platter is perfectly level, and a bubble or spirit level is the best way to ensure that it is. I’ve used one that I bought years ago for $5, but there are better ones today.

The niftiest level I’ve seen is made by Viborg and fills three needs of the turntable owner. Primarily a 280gm record clamp that fits over the record spindle -- the best place for determining if the platter is level -- the Viborg Black has a nice circular bubble level at its center. It also has strobe markings for 33⅓ and 45rpm. The Black version is available in 60Hz and 50Hz versions -- you can get the one that matches the frequency of AC power in your location. Look for it on Amazon Electronics under “Viborg Black 60Hz 280g Record Weight LP Disc Stabilizer Turntable Vinyl Clamp HiFi” -- it currently sells there for $26.90. While Viborg is named for a city in Denmark, their clamps are made in China.

Viborg

Other manufacturers of bubble levels are Audio-Technica, Clearaudio, Music Hall, Pro-Ject, and VPI. In fact, VPI’s Crosscheck is a variation on the usual design, comprising two straight bubble levels: one each to level a platter from front to back and from side to side. I’ve seen it for as little as $10.

Test records

In the heyday of hi-fi and stereo, many test LPs were available to help the user determine phasing, frequency response, channel identification, tonearm resonance, etc. The most famous came from CBS Laboratories, the folks who developed the LP itself. I’ve seen used copies of this disc, Technical Series: Professional Test Record (Columbia STR 100), advertised for a few hundred dollars. Others were put out by manufacturers, prime among them Shure Bros., as well as such audio magazines as Hi-Fi Stereo Review (US) and Hi-Fi News & Record Review (UK). They were available at nominal prices and were very popular.

When the LP went out of fashion, so did test records. Today, I can find only two that follow the classic format: Analogue Productions’ The Ultimate Analogue Test LP ($39.99) and Ortofon’s Test Record ($49). AP’s offering seems to offer more test tracks, but either can be of great help in ensuring that your turntable and cartridge are set up and working properly.

Analogue Productions

If your tonearm has a removable headshell and you want to experiment with different cartridges (a fascination that can quickly become very expensive -- take it from me), a spare headshell is always a good idea. There are many available, ranging in price from $12-$15 to several hundred.

And if you go that route . . .

Cartridge alignment protractor

It’s important for the cartridge to be properly aligned with the record groove. Improper alignment can lead to poor and/or distorted sound, and can damage your records.

But be warned -- this gets fiddly. If you don’t have a lot of patience for the fiddly, stick to cartridges pre-mounted in headshells. There are many such available.

The most basic cartridge-alignment protractor is a plastic rectangle with a set of mirrored, calibrated scales. You set the stylus in a small circle, to ascertain that the sides of the cartridge are parallel to the lines on the scales at two different points along the tonearm’s travel across the record surface. These can be found online for $10-$15, but the nicest I’ve seen, made by DB Systems, goes for about $40.

On the next level up are protractors that look like a record mat: a disc 12” in diameter, with the alignment scales printed or incised on them. These are theoretically a bit less of a trial, but don’t have a mirrored surface to ease accurate alignment, and cost significantly more than the basic protractors. They’re available from Avid, Mobile Fidelity, and other companies.

Dr. Feikert

Of the professional-quality alignment machines, the most famous is Dr. Feickert Analogue’s Universal Alignment Protractor -- extremely accurate, and extremely pricey at $249. Unless you’re very particular, very wealthy, and/or do this for a living, the Dr. Feickert is a luxury.

Azimuth alignment gauge

A stylus’s azimuth is the angle at which it meets the groove -- ideally, the stylus should be perfectly vertical to the record surface, at an angle of 90°. A cartridge whose stylus is out of azimuth will produce sound that’s consistently louder in one channel than in the other, and might even damage the groove.

In most cases, azimuth is adjusted at the factory, and in many is not adjustable by the user. That’s a good thing -- the right way to do this involves a multimeter, a monaural or test LP, and a lot of time.

Hudson

But if you must adjust, acrylic gauges are available online for $15 to $20. A decent multimeter costs about $25. But remember to figure in the hassle of measuring the voltage of each channel at your preamp’s outputs, adjusting the azimuth, and doing it all again.

My advice: Resist any such temptation. In most cases, you’ll become hopelessly frustrated and end up having to take your turntable to a service shop or dealer.

Assorted hardware

These are the screws and nuts and shims needed to mount a cartridge in a headshell. When I’m installing a cartridge, it’s frustrating to discover that I lack the right screws and/or nuts, or the shim of just the right thickness. Usually, the cartridge maker includes screws and nuts that work with that cartridge, and with most headshells. But drop one of those tiny bits of metal on a carpeted floor, and often the only way you’ll find it is with a vacuum cleaner -- and then you have to dig through its bag to find something less than 0.25” across and 0.1” deep.

Hardware kits are available from such name brands as Audio-Technica, and from online dealers such as LPGear.com. They usually run from $6 to $10, depending on the number of items included.

What’s most important?

By all means, cleaning those records! If you use something simple, like the GrooveWasher, clean each record every time you play it, even if the record is brand-new and you’ve never played it before -- especially if you’ve never played it before. If you use a record-cleaning machine, a good cleaning after every two or three playings should suffice.

Cleaning the stylus after every ten hours of playing time should keep it in good shape.

Check the VTF regularly. I do this every month or so.

That’s it for my recommendations. I hope you’ve found something here that will help you more fully enjoy your vinyl.

. . . Thom Moon
thom@soundstagenetwork.com