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1.5Fi and 2.5Fi Record Cleaners
as reviewed by Bob Neill
The first compact discs I ever heard (c. 1988) sounded like the sonic equivalent of lucite: artificially clear and otherworldly—astral. CD's, transports, and especially DACs have come a long way since 1988. But when I come to them directly from listening to vinyl, I still get a hint of that original experience. I have a sense of slightly disembodied musical information. After I listen for a while, I adjust pretty well because my digital front end is as ‘analogue like' as I know of—by which I do not mean warm and tubey. I mean embodied, of this world. Not as substantial sounding, not as physical, as good vinyl but on the way.
But when I return to analogue, I am immediately reminded that ‘analogue like' is not analogue. And so, since my return from England a year ago, where I listened to Audio Note's Peter Qvortrup's analogue system for several days and then live classical music for several more at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk, I have been reacquiring many of the LP's I impulsively sold off a decade ago. Analogue is not The Answer. If you want to hear the Emerson Quartet, the Florestan Trio, cellists Heinrich Schiff and Petr Wispelwey, Rachel Podger, and Il Gardino Armonico—and I do—you have to hear them on CD's. But if you want to hear music recorded before the mid-1980's and to hear it as no digital transfer can come close to recovering, it has to be LP's.
And because LP's bought now, like mine, tend to be somebody else's, they are not as pristine as we would like. Actually, as I learned during the course of this audition, they aren't even close to what they can sound like, even those that look pretty good. And so, if you are me, you go looking for record cleaning machines. I have learned the principal names – VPI, Loricraft, Nitty Gritty; I have read a couple of reviews; and now I have begun auditioning. Lucky me. Reviewers get all the breaks.
How much should one have to pay for such a machine? What is the price break point? I have read Bill Gaw and Danny Kaey on the $1895 Loricraft and all of the blurbs on the $1395 VPI machine. But neither seemed the most useful place to start. The most sensible price point seemed to be around $500, where there are both VPI and Nitty Gritty choices. And from what I can see with these two, what you get with the more expensive models is more automation. Gayle Van Syckle of Nitty Gritty confirmed this: "Your assumption is correct about the higher-priced units—you're paying for convenience, only." As a guy who wouldn't even own a car with automatic transmission until he was well over fifty, convenience through automation doesn't interest me much.
So first up, it's the Nitty Gritty Model 1.5Fi, which retails for $589. There is a straight 1.5 for $100 less, which makes you apply the cleaning fluid manually. And if you want your machine in oak rather than black, you can pay $659 for the 2.5Fi. (The 2.5Fi is the one featured in the image above.) I like the black just fine, but I did opt for the minimal bit of convenience of the 1.5Fi: I let Nitty Gritty apply the fluid, since left alone, I'd likely spread it unevenly. But for $100, you might want to take a long look at the 1.5.
Does it work?
Yes, it works, and I'll say how in a minute. But first a word on how.
Fill fluid reservoir with proprietary cleaning fluid, which smells like alcohol. Gayle confirms it is approximately 8% alcohol, "but of course it has lots of other goodies too…our ‘secret sauce,' an anti-static ingredient among them."
Press the pump button (large button to the right in photo above) a few times, until the brushy "industrial grade ‘velour/velvet" lips surrounding the cleaning slot (the two comprise the Vac-Sweep) become visibly wet. Put on an LP, tucking its outside edge under the lip of the drive wheel that will be spinning it.
Press the 3-position rocker switch (small button next to pump button in photo) to the rear position and let LP spin (it turns slowly, about 12 rpm with a record mounted) for around three revolutions, then click switch back to the middle position. "The individual fibers of the ‘Sweep' are short enough and fine enough to really get into the grooves of the record; and the nature of the fluid is such that it flows into the grooves, rather than sitting on top in streaks, getting under the dirt and suspending it." Van Syckle.
Press the rocker switch to forward position, activating the vacuum; and let the record spin again, for around five revolutions. "When the vacuum is engaged, it draws out the impurities, leaving no residual behind." Van Syckle.
Return switch to middle position, let the vacuum run down, lift off the record.
Brush off the brushy lips of the Vac-Sweep with the ‘bottle brush' included, turn on the vacuum again, this is to remove any ugliness you've removed from the record and get it sucked down into oblivion. Gayle says it's not necessary to brush the Vac-Sweep after every record (or side) "unless you get a really grungy, nasty one…"
Repeat the operation for the B side.
Remove plastic tray under the unit and dump out the dirty fluid (after you've done several records).
That's it. A minute, maybe two if you're really deliberate. The vacuum is noisy, which is either annoying or reassuring. (Loricraft makes a point of how quiet theirs is.) A "Vac-Sweep replacement kit" is available, which I would guess you wouldn't need until you've done a couple hundred records, though Gayle says this depends entirely on the condition of records you're cleaning.
I had no problem with any of this process. I liked its simplicity and the degree of manual involvement. I like the fact that the record sits on a smallish, record label sized mount rather than a full record sized one to reduce contact with the playing surface. I'm glad cleaning liquid is applied from below and then the excess sucked down and away. Nitty Gritty feel that both of these features work effectively to prevent recontamination, a major concern in designing cleaning machines. The Nitty Gritty machine is rectangular rather than square like the VPI and Loricraft. I guess this would make storage easier. You can get a dust cover for it. Replacements are available for just about all parts, as well as adaptors for 78's and 7 and 10 inch records.
Bach, Motets, Nicholas Harnoncourt, Telefunken. Before cleaning, this record sounded decent but not as moving or engaging as I remember it years ago when I formerly owned a copy. A little disappointing. After a cleaning, it sounded much better overall. I heard a more complex presentation of musical information and a goodly amount of ambience. The venue was audible, fairly dramatically so, as the voices faded to silence. Very impressive improvement.
Bach, Cello Suites, Pablo Casals, Angel. Before cleaning, this LP sounded like the very old (mono) recording that it is, as if the cellist were playing in a gymnasium and at a distance. After cleaning, the cello was more present and more interesting, very physical: richer, woodier. It took over the room. And this record looked pretty clean before the treatment.
Beethoven, Middle Quartets, Vegh Quartet, Valois. Before cleaning, this LP sounded okay, but a little disappointing given its reputation. Afterwards, all four stringed instruments sounded clearer, richer, and had more character. And as with the Bach motets, there was more sense of space and venue. Is it now a great sounding record? No, but it is considerably better than before; and unlike before, engaging.
Beethoven, Cello Sonatas, Richter and Rostropovich, Philips. Before cleaning, the record was noisy and the presentation recessed; the cello was lovely but distant. After cleaning, it was slightly less noisy, the cello was more beautiful still, and it was less recessed. Also, the piano, whose presence I hadn't been much aware of before (!), now seemed brilliant and a full partner.
Brahms, Cello Sonatas, Starker and Bogin, Period Before the treatment, Starker's cello was monumental in its low end impact, a bit uncomfortably nasal in the higher register, and the surface noise was fairly obtrusive. Afterwards, the cello had much more character and detail along with the impact, the nasality was notably reduced, and the surface noise, while still present, seemed less noticeable. This is an old mono recording, I have no idea how old.
Glen Campbell, Live at Royal Festival Hall, Capital. (Sorry, this is one of my wife's favorites based on hearing it on an eight track as a kid. Might as well see if Mr. Nitty Gritty can help it.) Before cleaning, Campbell's voice was a bit brittle and the surface of the LP was noisy. After cleaning, the surface was notably quieter, his voice about the same though a little clearer, and the background orchestra was more apparent.
All of the records I cleaned with the Nitty Gritty sounded noticeably better after the treatment. In a few cases (the above list is just a sampling), I was surprised at how much better. I would say in general that the improvement, in addition to a reduction in surface noise on notably dirty records, was mainly an increase in the traditional analogue virtues: more natural clarity, physical presence of instruments, and ambient information. I would guess that the key to the machine's efficacy relative to the competition will end up being the effectiveness of the Vac-Sweep. Would a "better" brush clean more deeply? Or is this brush entirely adequate, which it may well be. (I asked Van Syckle if she had a bigger budget, what improvements he'd be inclined to make and she responded that she couldn't think of any.)
Again, I like the machine's simplicity, the amount of hands-on involvement it requires. I don't at all mind that the models 1.5Fi and 2.5Fi do not, like the considerably more expensive ($855) Mini-Pro, clean both sides of a record at the same time at once. That involves a sandwich sort of unit the LP must pass through, and god knows what kinds of things can go on "in there," says the techno-coward Neill. I'm sure, based on how well the one-side-at-a-time model works that the two-sides-at-a time version probably works just fine, but it doesn't interest me, especially if I have to pay $250 for the thrill. I like being able to clean the Vac-Sweep manually — to take an active role in insuring that the brush won't contaminate the next record with a predecessor record's leavings—and that the Vac-Sweep, is replaceable. And I don't at all mind that the vacuum is relatively loud. How loud? Like a high powered hair drier?
So there you are. A simple, effective machine for cleaning records that has a utilitarian look to it and that costs what I consider a reasonable sum if you have a growing collection of used LP's. I don't know how much more the expensive VPI and Loricraft machines can do. With any luck, I'll find out. But at this point, I'm quite happy with the Nitty Gritty.
Bob Neill, in addition to being a reviewer, is a home-based dealer known as Amherst Audio and represents Audio Note, Blue Circle, Manley Labs, JM Reynaud, TG Labs, Audience, and Elrod Power Systems.