WHAT CAN YOU DO to get better sound from your vinyl records? One way to achieve higher fidelity is to purchase more sophisticated equipment, such as upgrading a turntable, tonearm, cartridge, phono preamps or all of the above. Or, you can tweak your current system using some conventional and lesser-known tools of the trade. Here’s a look at four products from Music Hall Audio to accessorize and enhance any analog setup.
By Todd Whitesel
1. Music Hall Mat
Most turntables come equipped with platter mats, composed of materials ranging from felt to hard rubber. And beyond the “stock” mats, there are dozens of after-market record mats engineered for the quirks and vagaries of vinyl. Music Hall’s “Mat” is a very thin and lightweight cork mat that works with any table. Unlike most record mats, the Music Hall’s outer edge is dotted with 12 cork isolation discs, which slightly elevate and support LPs and also decouple them from the platter itself. A single cork disc fits over the spindle and supports the center of the record, below the label. This was my first experience using a cork mat, and I liked the results.
Compared to felt, records played using the cork mat had a cleaner sound with better detail and dimensionality. It also grips the platter better than felt, which helps prevent mis-tracking that can occur when felt “slides” as the platter rotates. Three other big pluses: Because the mat is so thin, it doesn’t cause problems when playing heavy vinyl, such as 180- or 200-gram LPs. Thicker mats often can raise the LP surface high enough to require adjusting the VTA. In itself, that can be a minor annoyance, but what if your turntable doesn’t permit VTA adjustments? You’re out of luck. Secondly, the Mat is designed for playback without a record clamp, so if your turntable’s spindle is not threaded or long enough to accept a clamp, you can still enjoy the benefits of the mat. Lastly, felt attracts dust and static. Cork doesn’t have those issues.
2. Milty Zerostat 3
At first glance, the Zerostat 3 looks like something from a 1960s science fiction film — its blue plastic body and barrel seem rife to deliver stun rays to mutant aliens, but its opponent lies elsewhere. This antistatic “gun” delivers streams of positive and negative ions that help eliminate unwanted static on LPs and other discs. And it’s likely that if you’ve played only one vinyl LP in your life, you heard static soon after needle drop. To use the Zerostat 3, slowly pull the trigger inward, and then slowly release it. As the Zerostat releases ion streams, a light hissing sound is emitted. Zap your LPs, and static problems are dramatically reduced. If you’re still skeptical, take a foam packing peanut and rub it on your pants to accumulate static electricity. Place it on the surface of an LP or CD, and when it sticks, zap it with the Zerostat and watch it fall away.
Static doesn’t typically present an audio problem with digital discs; however, static can attract unwanted particles that can affect playback. I often borrow DVDs from my public library; many suffer untold transgressions and often look like they’ve been cleaned with gardening tools and polished with sandpaper. Sometimes my player just can’t read the data from heavily damaged discs. I was faced with such a situation recently, and on a whim, I grabbed the Zerostat and gave the DVD a couple quick ion blasts. After loading the disc into the player once more, I was delighted as the disc quickly stopped spinning and the menu screen appeared on my TV; I just pressed play, and it was movie time. It’s a strange-looking device, but it works!
Milty claims, “One can reasonably expect on the order of 10,000 such ‘squeeze cycles’ during the lifetime of the Zerostat.” Figuring two cycles per disc/LP, that covers 5,000 plays — enough for once-a-day use for more than 13 years.
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3. Milty Pixall MKII Record Roller
The Record Roller resembles and works just like a household lint roller, employing a roll of sticky tape that picks up dust and debris from offending surfaces — in this case, the surface of records.
It comes loaded with 6 feet of tape that can be discarded as necessary and eventually replaced after enough uses. Using the Pixall is easy: Set an LP on a clean, flat surface (not the turntable platter) and roll it across the entire record surface, taking care not to contact the label and potentially strip it. The roller is easy to use and extremely effective; it’s probably the best dry-cleaning record tool I’ve encountered. After a swipe or two with the Pixall, I could detect no visible dust or other crud remaining. This is a quick and easy way to clean records.
4. Hunt EDA Mark 6 Brush
I didn’t count them all, but the Hunt EDA Record Brush is touted to contain more than 1 million antistatic carbon fibers.
Unlike many record brushes, the Hunt puts the fibers on the outer edges of the brush while a velvet-like “static grounding pad” provides support and enough heft to keep one from pushing down too hard on a record. The idea is to let the longer fibers get into the grooves and extract dust instead of just passing over the surface with a padded brush, which can actually push debris into the vinyl. The brush works best with a light touch: I got great results by making one pass parallel with the grooves and then another from the label out to the edge.
Hunt’s brush stand serves double-duty, as the metal base is designed to clean the brush after use. Simply run the fibers across the edge to remove any dust, and you’re good to go. The brush perfectly complements the Zerostat and Record Roller. Start by cleaning the record’s surface with the roller, follow with the brush, then the Zerostat and the brush once more. This four-step, dry-cleaning process is the next best thing to a wet wash — and perfect for day-to-day vinyl maintenance.