By Dave Thompson
How do you clean your records? A sleeve swiped across the vinyl? A dab of cleaner and a quick scrub with a patented pad? The whole-hog Spin Clean procedure, which kills 95 percent of all known dust, dirt and animal footprints dead? Do you put cleaning on the back burner in favor of upgrading your cartridge, stylus, speakers, amplifier or other gear?
Or, do you put several pounds of buzzing, whooshing, whirring technology to work to remove the muck you can see (and the grime that you can’t), to burrow down to the very soul of each groove and remove flecks you never even imagined might be lurking there, and to transform even the most pristinely preserved platter into a brand-new listening experience?
Right. And I’ve got a really nice bridge you can buy, too. You’ll find it located right next to that meadow where the starship Enterprise is parked and the unicorns are grazing.
No, really. This seemingly too-good-to-be-true cleaner really does exist. It’s called the Audio Desk Systeme, and this vinyl washing unit has the power to transform your musical enjoyment from simply listening to your Yngwie Malmsteen records to feeling as though you are standing next to Mr. Malmsteen as he performs. It has earned critical praise from audiophile experts, who noticed even brand-new, audiophile quality pressings showed marked improvement after treatment.
Before and after pictures can be doctored. Videos can be fixed. Sound clips can be faked. Writers can be bought off. It soon became obvious that this system needed a proper workout by someone whose favorite albums live in scratchy paper sleeves in the basement, near the cat litter box; someone who would rather take his chances on the contents of the dollar bin than look for a clean copy elsewhere; and whose Archive of Awfulness features a box of albums so scrunched and munched that even the most optimistic collector has condemned them as unplayable.
In other words, it needed me.
Ever wondered why your brand-new Bob Dylan album on Mobile Fidelity crackled the first time you played it? Why the first Led Zeppelin album doesn’t sound as loud as it used to? Why your mono copy of “Freak Out” has developed a skip since the last time you had it out of its sleeve? How that snapping, crackling, popping and hopping copy of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” purchased for $4 became an object lesson in how not to spend $4?
A gramophone record is a piece of extremely sensitive precision engineering. We all see the grooves. But we don’t see are the microscopic indentations within each groove, from whence the stylus picks up the sound. The tiniest fleck of dust adhering to one of those indentations can disguise, distort or even dismiss the signal it’s supposed to carry; a lifetime of these indentations can mask more than you’ll actually hear the next time you play the record.
Most of the aural flaws that we consider to be scratches, dings and damage to a vinyl disc are actually caused by dirt. Not just regular dirt, from fingerprints, fluff, hair and damp pigs’ noses. We’re talking ingrained dirt, microscopic globs of esoteric grunge dating back to the day the record was pressed, flecks from the manufacturing process itself. These are the things that a regular cleaning, or even a super-duper one, simply cannot dislodge. They’re almost as much a part of the vinyl as the vinyl itself.
And that’s precisely the problem the Audio Desk Systeme was designed to combat.
It’s easy to use. Fill the vat with distilled water (four liters, or a little more than one gallon), add the supplied cleaning fluid and pop the disc between the rollers, edge first. Simply press the button, then take a six-minute break as four multi-directional rollers wash the record, an ultrasonic condenser bombards the surface of the disc with soundwaves (much like a jewelry cleaner) and a fan dries it. Basically, if it moves — even unwillingly — it’s history.
Each vatful of water cleans roughly 150 albums, more if they’re new and you’re just giving them a precautionary wash. Because the fluid is filtered, it maintains its effectiveness throughout the run. Occasionally, the low fluid indicator may sound a warning before you’ve reached that quantity. Just top it up and keep going. There’s a simple filter, an easily accessible white sponge. Between cleaning sessions, give it a rinse. It’s just that easy.
So how does it really affect your record? The aforementioned copy of “Wish You Were Here” spent six minutes being run, spun and blow-dried in the machine; it now sounds as good as the day somebody else first bought it, save for two jumps that result from a legitimate scratch.
Next was a single dollar’s worth of pre-loved Kinks (the U.K. Pye Golden Hour) further handicapped by the ridiculously large number of minutes of music crammed onto the disc. As any vinyl hound knows, 22 or 23 minutes of music per side is the optimum before sound quality and volume begin to decline. Half an hour’s worth is pushing the format to its limit, and not only in musical terms. The grooves themselves are so narrow that even the tiniest speck of dirt can cause massive problems, up to and including volume loss.
Although the cleaner could do nothing about the deep scratch midway through Side One, it raised the volume, improved the bass signal and lifted so much goop from the grooves that the album today sounds as good as it ever did. In other words, it turned the record into something I’d want to listen to, as opposed to hanging onto it only for the sake of that admittedly super-groovy sleeve.
And these were results heard on an oft-refurbished 1970s Thorens turntable, an Insignia amp and a year-old cartridge and speakers so impressive that they don’t even have a makers’ name on them. (OK. The needle was brand new. But that’s it.)
Of course, these kinds of results don’t come cheap. You’ll spend nearly $5,000 to get an Audio Desk Systeme under your roof. But you’re not just buying a record cleaner.
If you’re a collector, you’re buying the opportunity to rejuvenate your entire record collection, raise its aural quality (and visual appeal) to a standard as close to “new” as it can be. No, it doesn’t remove scratches, and if the record is well-played, there’ll still be some crackling and pops. But almost every other fault that you hitherto attributed to the record being worn, or worn out? They’re gone. If you’re a dealer, you’re buying the chance to bump a G+ graded album to VG or better. You’re taking a record that might once have been priced at $5 (and sat unsold for years) and transforming it into a $25 disc that will likely sail off the shelf.
The Audio Desk Systeme doesn’t perform every conceivable miracle. But it performs enough that your ears — and the ears of anyone else who hears its handiwork — will thank you. The music sounds like music again.
Which, of course, is where we get into controversial territory, and the nay-sayers line up and say “Bah, that’s impossible.” Or something even less complimentary, if various online discussions are anything to go by. So, fine. Have it your way. Just don’t come running to me next time you’re listening to your treasured Mantovani album and a trumpet solo you’ve never heard before comes leaping out of nowhere and scares the pants off you.
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990” 8th edition and “Goldmine Record Album Price Guide” 7th edition. Both can be purchased at www.krausebooks.com