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Three-way shootout: record-cleaning machines

Date

Rod Easdown

Zoom in on this story. Explore all there is to know.

Four grand? To clean records? Well, I guess it makes $1195 look cheap, but who would pay $1195 to clean records?

Ah, think about it. There are some wonderful records to be found at garage sales and, if they're not free, they're awfully cheap, but their condition is - well, oh boy. A rare few have been taken care of but most are partially to comprehensively beaten up. Most of all, they're dirty, and nothing cleans them quite as gently as a record-cleaning machine. The audible difference is often quite staggering.

The bad news is that the most effective cleaner this side of $500, the original Discwasher brush, isn't available locally any more. The last time they were on the market here they cost about $70. Now they're on Amazon for $US15.09 ($16.88), and there's a reason for that. Since RCA took over Discwasher, the quality has nosedived. They're nowhere near as effective and not as well made.

Regular cleaning is more than just good housekeeping; it also reduces surface noise on the record - those little pops and clicks you hear in the background that are the signature sound of vinyl. If you go back to records after listening to CDs for years, your reaction to surface noise will range from fond nostalgia to outright rage.

Warm water with a dash of detergent, followed by natural drying in a cool, shaded spot is certainly the cheapest way to clean records, and it's effective. But if you use any of the store-bought cleaning fluids, here's a tip: never, ever use alcohol-based cleaners on shellac or acetate - that is, 78rpm records. If the record won't bend, keep alcohol away.

From warm water, the only way is up. My local specialist hi-fi shop suggested a cleaning brush that came with a large bottle of fluid for $50. He also suggested a stylus brush for an additional $45. Did I want fries with that too?

You can spend well into four figures if you try. This gets you into the territory of record-cleaning machines that wash and dry LPs, the drying being done by a vacuum arm. They look a lot like turntables. If you buy any of these online, here is another tip: the shipping is substantial and they'll be set up for 110 volts.

VPI HW16.5

Spotted for $1195
kedcorp.com.au

This one has been around for more than 30 years and is certainly showing its age but it's still effective, if very noisy. It has a high-torque motor that keeps the turntable spinning (at about 18rpm) while you use the brush and apply the cleaning fluid. Then you swing the vacuum arm over the disc, turn on the vacuum and let it run for a couple of revolutions. The whole process takes less than a minute.

Clearaudio Smart Matrix Professional

Spotted for $2695
kedcorp.com.au

This is not unlike the VPI to use, with much the same process, but it looks more modern and it has the appeal of being German. The turntable moves in both directions, which gives it a slight edge in cleaning, but is has a clamp that needs to be unscrewed and then screwed down again, which is time-consuming. It is quieter than the VPI, but far from silent. Clearaudio also makes the Double Matrix Professional that cleans both sides of an LP at once.

Audio Desk System Record Cleaner

Spotted for $3990
radianceav.com.au

A different approach; this runs more quietly but takes a lot longer. Insert the record vertically, the lower half going into a tank of cleaning fluid mixed with water. It then slowly turns while being sponged with counter-rotating brushes and blasted by ultrasonics. The water is then pumped into the tank and the drying begins. The process lasts about five minutes and multiple records can be cleaned between tank refills. Made in Germany.

Verdict

All these do what they promise. The VPI has been around the longest, it has a strong reputation for reliability and effectiveness, but it looks and sounds clunky. The Clearaudio looks better built, is quieter and just as effective. The Audio Desk cleans best but takes the longest. You'll be amazed at the improvement these make.

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