Audiophilia – Optimizing Spend on Turntables (Part 2)

I was delightfully surprised by the enthusiastic and informed comments to Part 1 of this post’s theme a few weeks back.  Because this is indeed a “… a fun range for procurement types because it mandates a focus on value and forces fiscal discipline,” as one reply mentioned, let’s look take a look at optimizing the medium – the vinyl records themselves.

They are exquisitely primitive by design. In fact, I came across an article in an ethnography publication many years ago where an anthropologist described an a-ha moment in which he postulated that ancient pottery, thrown and spun on wheel with a continuous stylus etching, might reproduce sound if played back with amplification from the vocal/noise vibrations from the pottery yard in which it made. And apparently this actually worked in a very crude fashion. He managed to extract undecipherable vocal tones and background noise upon experimentation. I will research this further and report back, but I digress.

Vinyl records, and hard rubber 78s prior, are in fact pressed from masters that are made by feeding an audio signal that vibrates a tone arm to stylus, similar to a complex integrated tuning fork if-you-will, that mechanically impregnates the medium (originally discovered via of a wax medium). Precisely why this works so well sonically is beyond my comprehension – though it clearly does.

These magnificent grooves are absurdly vulnerable. And most vintage records have been carelessly handled with greasy fingers, have had beverages spilled on them and, of course, many are scratched. Some are beyond repair. But a thorough cleaning of the grooves – in both new and vintage vinyl – produces spectacular results. Clean vinyl will also extend the life of your precious needle and cartridge exponentially.

The process may seem daunting, but think about it as a labor of audio love. And, consistent with our ubiquitous modern labor saving devices i.e., the more you spend on a cleaning device, the less labor you will need to expend. For you skeptics, here’s my personal case study:

I started out washing vinyl in the kitchen sink with a mild solution of liquid dishwashing soap, rinse, and air dry. The problem here is that it’s very difficult to keep the label dry. Next, I moved up to a SPIN-CLEAN system. A simple and very inexpensive kit with which you manually spin the record in a solution bath between to agitators just below the label and then let the record dry in stand-up file rack. This process quickly ceases to be audiophile therapy, though the sonic playback improvement is significant.

The crème de la crème alternative is a record cleaning vacuum machine from Nitty Gritty, VPI and others that are available in a range of models with varying automation. When I learned that Nitty Gritty machines sold for between $400 - $1K, I called the factory and pleaded my audiophile obsession on a budget. They cheerfully told me that they had a rehabbed trade-in for $200 – Sold. It takes about a minute to wash and wet vac both sides, I’ve cleaned over a 1000 records and it’s still going strong after five years.

In my next post, I’m thinking about discussing phono preamps. Or shall I move on to super vintage pre-amp and power amp buys?

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