When I went to Japan as an ESL teacher in my mid-20s, it marked not only a change of location and culture, but also a change from student to working adult (and I use the term “adult” loosely). With that change from student to worker came the need to buy a professional wardrobe, and as a poor recent graduate on a tight budget, that meant careful planning of items to be purchased pre-departure.
Dress pants, dress shirts, a blue blazer, dress shoes and several ties. All good, right? Unfortunately not. I arrived in the Land of Rising Tech sans belt, socks, tie-pin/bar (discovered I hated flappy ties), and overcoat (Sapporo in April can still be pretty chilly). I had most of the basics but felt incomplete for my first month or so until I got paid and could complete the wardrobe with necessary accessories.
So too for many of us audio lovers in our adventures setting up first systems or adding to existing ones. We plan out the budget, divvy it up by percentages for speakers and amp(s) and source(s), and think we’re done. Then a few weeks (or months) later we find ourselves with multiple components stacked on top of each other on top of a turned over milk carton, speakers that don’t sound right as they’re not placed correctly and records that sound awful after a few plays as we’ve nothing to clean them with.
This week and next I’m going to take a tour through some of the accessories I’ve picked up (and some that I haven’t – yet) since getting into vintage audio and back into vinyl. Some I’d classify as optional, but most are requirements if you really want to get the most out of your system, whether budget or high end. This week I’m going to focus on clean records and improving the quality of your vinyl playback.
A clean record sounds better. It also does something very important – it extends the life of your cartridge.
Anti-Static Record Brush
The simplest record cleaner, great for dry environments, especially in winter. An anti-static brush reduces static and removes dust particles from your record before play. Mine is made by Audio Technica ($19.94 at Amazon), but there are dozens of models out there. If you’re wet cleaning your records every few plays or on a periodic basis, the anti-static brush should be enough to keep your records pop free in between deep cleanings. It won’t clean very dirty records but is a good regular maintenance tool for your vinyl.
Record Cleaning Brush
I remember that in high school my mom used a Discwasher ($22.99 at Amazon) cleaning brush, and this was one of the first accessories I picked up for myself. This is basically a directional velvet-covered pad attached to a nice ergonomic wooden body. Spray some fluid on the leading edge of the velvet pad, wipe and and twist the brush in the direction of the grooves for a few rotations, and you have a nice clean record. It will never deliver the same level of cleaning as a record cleaning machine, but it’s something.
Not required every spin, but good every few plays. The old ones (from the ‘70s and ‘80s) had a nifty hollow in the hardwood body that held the little cleaning fluid bottle. In a cost-cutting effort (no doubt), the wood is lighter and cheaper, and the hollow is no more. Still a must-have item.
Record Cleaning Machines
There are several different solutions for serious cleaning of records, costing into the thousands of dollars. An ultrasonic cleaner (like those from Degritter or CleanerVinyl) or a vacuum cleaner (Okki Nokki and Pro-Ject VC-S are quite well known) will do a superb job but may be an investment too far for someone just getting started. VPI have been manufacturing record cleaning machines for almost 40 years with the entry-level model running almost $700.
The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. was using the top VPI model for its work in regard to the National Archives but we’re talking about a unit that runs over $3,000 and was being used to clean thousands of records. A robust unit for sure but probably not for the average collector.
Record cleaning machines are very noisy. Our Editor-in-Chief, Ian White uses both a VPI HW-19 and Record Doctor VI (we’re giving one away later this month) in his laundry room at home because it is far away from the rest of the house where it can be heard even with the television on. Both machines also have to be emptied after each batch of records; their respective reservoirs can only hold a limited amount of dirty water and cleaning solution.
Vinyl Cleaning Solutions
There is no shortage of record cleaning fluids on the market and just as many opinions in regard to which solution cleans the best and does the least damage to your records. There are various means of applying and rinsing off the (straight or diluted) fluid and then drying the record.
I opted for a simple, manual SpinClean Mk. II ($79.99 at Amazon) record bath. At well under a hundred bucks, the price was right, and I have to say I’ve been impressed with the results. The Spin Clean has a narrow bath section, cleaning pads on each side, and roller guides at each end; fill the bath section with water, put in a capful of cleaning fluid, insert a record between the pads and spin clockwise and counter-clockwise three times each, then remove and dry with the supplied towels. Do enough records in one session and you can dispense with the daily workout.
I buy a lot of records on Discogs, and the first thing I do when they arrive is give them a thorough cleaning. Early on I wasn’t doing this, and I had records that played at a G+ or VG level jump up a couple of grading points after I did finally give them a good bath and towel-off. This I consider one of my best accessory buys.
To me there doesn’t seem to be much point to cleaning your records if your cartridge stylus is dirty. Over time, any dirt and gunk you haven’t managed to remove from your records (with whatever cleaning method you’re using) gets carved out and builds up on the stylus. This in turn can result in a) reverse transfer of dirt back to your records from the stylus, and b) impact on vibration of the stylus in the record grooves and thus the sound emitted by your cartridge.
As I mentioned previously, a dirty cartridge doesn’t last very long and with re-tip prices getting rather expensive, it takes only a few seconds to carefully clean your stylus. The simplest stylus cleaning solution is a stylus brush (these cost next to nothing), but overzealous or faulty use of the brush could result in damage to the stylus. If you do opt for a brush always brush parallel to the stylus from back to front. Never the other way, and never sideways.
The Basics Won’t Break the Bank
For the vinyl lover, I’d classify all four of these accessories as essential. Having a clean front end to your vinyl system (the records and your stylus) will extend the life of both records and stylus and maximise the quality of sound transmitted to the rest of your system. A basic collection of anti-static, cleaning and stylus brushes will set you back around $50. My set of four comes in at a bit under $200. Whatever solution you settle for, a small investment now will reap rewards in the long run.
Next week we’ll look at a few more accessories that, though perhaps less essential, can have a big impact on enjoyment of your audio journey. If you have any accessory suggestions, leave a comment, or message me on Instagram at @audioloveyyc.
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