After reading Jacob Heilbrunn’s review of the Audio Desk Vinyl Cleaning Machine in Issue 234 I had to try one for myself. I was intrigued by the idea of cleaning LPs with ultrasonic energy rather than with conventional bristles and a vacuum. In theory, ultrasonic cleaning can reach into groove modulations that even the finest bristle tips can’t reach. Looking at an LP groove under a powerful microscope reveals an incredible world of miniscule nooks and crannies. When viewed this way, it’s easy to imagine how record-cleaning bristles simply don’t have the “resolution” to reach into these infinitesimally small grooves. It’s akin to trying to clean the wheels on a car with a broom handle. Brushes can remove most dust and large surface contamination, but that’s where their utility ends.
And it’s in the smallest features of the groove where fine detail is encoded. The groove’s shape creates the mechanical motion of the stylus as the groove spins beneath it, and then this motion is converted into an electrical signal by the cartridge’s coils and magnets. By the time this electrical signal reaches your loudspeakers, it has been amplified by as much as 200,000 times (0.2mV to 40V, for example). Small effects at the groove level become large effects at the loudspeaker’s voice coils.
The massive amplification of the cartridge’s tiny output voltage is only part of the story of why low-level information is important. The more experience I gain in audio the more it’s apparent that what separates a very good-sounding system from a spectacular-sounding one is the accurate preservation of the finest details of timbre, microdynamics, and spatial information. This is why vibration control, for example, can render such a dramatic improvement in an audio system—it reduces smearing of low-level information.
In the Audio Desk, high-frequency sound waves in the cleaning solution create cavitation bubbles that exert a force on the contaminants, dislodging them from the record’s grooves. This force is able to reach the tiniest recesses. Ultrasound cleaning is particularly effective on jewelry and intricately detailed objects because the cleaning action isn’t reliant on a cleaning brush or other device physically touching the entire surface of the object to be cleaned.
In practice, the Vinyl Cleaner is very simple to operate. After you’ve filled the tank with just over a gallon of distilled water, add a small bottle of solution (two bottles are included). This isn’t a cleaning agent or detergent; rather it simply reduces the water’s surface tension to help the ultrasonic cleaning action. Then insert the LP vertically into the slot and press the red button. You’ll hear a beep, signifying that the Vinyl Cleaner is ready to start. The longer you hold down the red button the more beeps you’ll hear, with each beep signifying an additional 30 seconds of cleaning time for dirtier LPs. The tank fills up with water, the LP starts spinning partially submerged in the water, and four microfiber brushes spin to remove the dirt dislodged by the ultrasonic cleaning action. At the end of the cleaning cycle the brushes stop spinning, the tank drains, and a powerful blower dries the LP as it slowly rotates. Both sides are cleaned and dried simultaneously in about five minutes. The German-made machine is solidly made, and performed flawlessly.
I was beyond shocked when I performed a before-and-after test on the first LP I tried, an original Pablo release of 88 Basie Street. The Audio Desk didn’t just make the surfaces quieter as expected, but rendered a wholesale increase in clarity, the apparent separation of instrumental images in space, vividness, and dimensionality. The opening piano line of “Contractor’s Blues” had greater tone color and a richer texture, and I could better hear the acoustic around the instrument. Then as the ensemble came in playing the melody in unison I heard a more convincing sense of individual instruments. Before cleaning, the instruments and the space around them were slightly homogenized, a character unrecognizable until it was removed. Each of the solo instruments took on a greater palpability both in the space it occupied, as well as in timbre. Textures were denser and more realistic. Midway in Joe Pass’ swinging solo the drummer drives the rhythm even harder with rim shots, which, after cleaning, had a greater musical effect owing to the way the rim shots stood out from the mix, the greater sense of air around the sound, and the heightened impression of depth and of the drummer sitting directly behind Pass. The improvement was on the level of a component upgrade.
I repeated these before-and-after comparisons on about ten LPs, and then set to work cleaning as many records as I could before the Audio Desk review sample had to go back. I went on a binge buying used direct-to-discs through eBay while I still had the machine. And then I came to the realization that the Audio Desk was indispensable, despite its considerable expense. I worked out a “time-share” arrangement with two other writers on the staff—we would buy the Audio Desk and each have it for four months of the year. I suspect that if you hear the Audio Desk's effects, you'll also find a way to own one.
SPECS & PRICING
Dimensions: 13" x 10.7" x 8"
Weight: 12 lbs
Cleaning time: Variable (five minutes minimum)
Warranty: Two years
127 Union Square
New Hope, PA 18938