Depending on your viewpoint, the best – or the worst – thing about vinyl is that it breeds a host of aftermarket gadgets, many of which are not simply derived from the purest snake oil, but are there for a reason. Quite often that reason is one of keeping a microscopic vinyl groove free from the dust and grime that fills our everyday lives.
In fact, record cleaning only, pun intended, scratches the surface. Every aspect of vinyl replay can come in for scrutiny, from ensuring the cartridge is perfectly aligned and has the absolutely correct tracking force, to ensuring flatness and centricity of the record. A good part of this comes down to the nature of the technology itself. The record was the first component of consumer electronics, in fact predating electronics... or electrification of homes. Dragging a rock through a groove and translating those movements into electrical signals is an almost alien concept in a digital world, and prone to errors from rotation, geometry, mechanical moments, and the ingress of dust and even mould-release agents used in the pressing of the record on both the surface of the record and the stylus that tracks it.
Not only can these errors produce poor sound, in extremis they can contribute to physical damage of record or stylus. So, it’s little wonder that there is a vibrant world of vinyl beyond the turntable and the record itself. We chose a selection of some of the best for this issue – however, this could well be the first of many! It’s up to you.
Editor's note: Prices correct at time magazine went to press. Please check with suppliers due to recent fluctuations in the Pound Sterling.
The Okki Nokki RCM (£435) is hardly new but has been steadily improving in looks and build quality over 15 years. It’s a simple all-manual vacuum-suction machine, tidy and low in noise that stands as an exemplar for affordable wet‑cleaning.
The platter motor is bidirectional and runs smoothly in either direction, operated by a simple three-way toggle. The suction cycle meanwhile has the least din of any such machine I’ve tried. All-important suction from the 500W pump is not as high as my favourite VPI HW-17 though, requiring up to four revolutions to dry the surface, where the latter completes the task in under two. That does mean the velvet strips remain in contact with the record somewhat longer, potentially accelerating wear – and these do need regular checking and replacement when worn.
Siting the record on the platter requires care as the spindle is under 2 mm high before the thread starts, and I found it too easy to place a record non-concentrically on the shank shoulders.
The metal clamp feels solid but mind you don’t quickly spin it loose and drop it, as it will damage the record or even the machine as it lands. Getting the right torque took some practice – too loose, and the record stuck to the tube after losing contact with platter. Too tight, and a circular mark was left on the record label from the puck’s rubber O ring.
The supplied goat-hair brush deserves mention; it is an effective two-row brush of natural fibres embedded in a wooden handle. Slightly on the soft side, it works effectively in spreading solution and working it deep into the record.
Cleaning results were very good, if perhaps not quite as pin-drop quiet as with upmarket machines. Nonetheless in its new immaculate white finish besides black, this is the best vinyl cleaning machine for the money. Additional accessories include a clear acrylic lid and 7-inch armtube. It has a notably compact footprint too, a serendipitous 33.3 cm square.
Keeping your stylus clean and free of contamination is a self-evident step in ensuring good vinyl reproduction. Various techniques are possible, from simply blowing or using a record brush to banish dust balls, to the more clinical approach of isopropyl alcohol on a cotton bud. The latter is often frowned upon though, as some diamonds are only fixed in place by soluble glue, and alcohol is feared to wick up the cantilever and compromise rubber suspensions.
Many new cartridges include a stiff brush which can do a good job at lifting obvious build-up. Linn Products advocates a scarier method using the legendary green paper – a strip of abrasive sheet like fine wet’n’dry, with the sandpaper dragged along the needle’s very point.
Over the years I’ve alternated between careful use of a moistened medical-grade cotton bud, and an Audio Technica AT-637 ultrasonic cleaner. A different high-tech approach is offered by DS Audio with its ST-50 stylus cleaner (£75). This has a sliver of transparent gel housed in a compact metal tray the size of a snuff box. The gel is made from an advanced urethane resin that has remarkable ‘sticky’ properties, crucially without leaving a residue, and said to be developed for holding micro-dust in clean-room environments.
The gel in its nickel-plated tray is placed on a static platter, the needle gently lowered onto the fly-paper polymer, then raised. This action quickly captures any debris from the diamond, and just one or two needledrops worked as advertised, leaving the needle entirely muck-free when viewed through an 8× loupe.
Similar products are available, but this is may be the only one that uses ether-based urethane, so that absorptivity is not compromised over time by hydrolysis. In fact, the gel can be removed from its tray and rinsed under a cold tap to clean it, suggesting a good investment for squeaky clean stylus care.
Tracking force gauges
Time was when a simple Shure see-saw balance was deemed sufficient to set cartridge tracking force. Then like so much in audio, and life in general, we went digital. First up was the Winds Arm Load Meter ALM-1/01, originally many hundreds of pounds, followed by The Cartridge Man’s marginally more accessible yet eminently precise meter. Now the entrance fee for a digital balance has tumbled to just a few pounds, thanks to a plethora of Chinese-made devices marketed at jewellery and pharmaceutical enthusiasts.
The van den Hul Stylus Force Gauge (£81) is a seemly starting point among many facsimiles under different names, and there appears to be two distinct types in circulation.
There’s a cheaper plastic-bodied version, typically around £10–20, working to two decimal places and powered by two watch batteries. It has mechanical buttons on its chassis but potential issues – my sample from ten years ago was eating (expensive) batteries before it stopped working altogether.
The vdH gauge is a different proposition, despite sharing the same style. For power it takes AAA batteries (2×), and while I’ve not tested long-term I’d anticipate these lasting longer.
It’s a weightier all-metal affair in die-cast aluminium, about 50% larger at 120 × 52 × 26 mm (wdh), and features a touchscreen with strong green backlight behind the large-segment LCD. Like most such ‘stylus balances’ it betrays its origins with selectable weighing units, handy for assaying your earrings to the nearest carat (ounces and pennyweight also available).
For cartridge calibration it has the benefit of reading to three decimal places, making it easier to see if a nominal ‘1.75 g’ downforce is actually set closer to 1.745 or 1.754 grammes, for instance. Until recently I survived with a Clearaudio Stylus Gauge EXACT, good to one decimal place; now I’m finding adjustments in the order of 0.02 g are audible with a vdH Grasshopper and so I depend on two- or three-decimal precision to record changes and repeat settings.
Ortofon has a high-quality offering in the DS-3, made for the Danish company in Japan. This resembles more closely a laboratory or jeweller’s balance, with a large top plate about 60 mm square that extends on one side to provide a flat shelf to carry the stylus. That platform is set 3 mm above the base, slightly above a heavyweight pressing, but closer to ground zero than the vdH at around 5 mm. This could be of interest to users of ‘stable balanced’ unipivots, which may be sensitive to measurements taken above actual playing level.
The DS-3 also takes AAA batteries, this time not requiring a tiny screwdriver to extract. It reads ‘only’ to two decimal places, in other words the nearest hundreth of a gramme, yet does feel like an even better constructed balance. Its maximum load is 200 g rather than the 5 g of vdH; not essential for magnetic pickups but handy to enable the Ortofon to earn its keep in the kitchen, for example, as well as the music room.