The past year of home-bound entertainment has, if anything, afforded music lovers plenty of time to listen to their audio systems. It’s also given me an opportunity to dig in—and add to—my vinyl collection, buying more records than I need through online sellers. But, bordering on being diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, I like my stuff perfect. Which is why, unlike most collectors, I tend to buy only sealed LPs, records that haven’t had a breath of oxygen in years, hermetic in their original shrink wrap or heat-sealed plastic sleeves.
The benefit of being a fan of early music (pre-Baroque compositions whose worldwide audience could likely be shoehorned into a small apartment) means that innumerable great analog recordings made from the early 1950s through the mid-1970s are available for a pittance, pressed by great labels like Telefunken, Archiv and Argo. The ritual of awakening a record after 70 years of slumber is akin to discovering treasure in an ancient Egyptian tomb, at least for audiophiles.
Yet just because a record has never been played doesn’t mean that it is necessarily pristine, as anyone who’s carefully examined the surface of a new LP can tell you. Many pressings go straight into the sleeve with fingerprints, dust or mold-release agents used in stamping still embedded in the grooves or on the surface. I traditionally use a Ramar record brush to banish dust from a record’s surface, but getting Medieval means taking a dive into wet cleaning. There are a few multi-thousand-dollar ultrasonic cleaners on the market, but aside from their cost and complexity, I wanted a simpler cleaning regimen. I decided to bring out the heavy artillery from Pro-Ject Audio Systems.
Enter the Pro-Ject VC-S2, a $699 machine about the width of a turntable and 11 inches in height. It spins, vacuums and dries an LP with a quick process using Pro-Ject cleaning fluid applied with a goat-hair brush. The clear, odorless liquid is diluted by the user in a formula of one part cleaner to anywhere from 10 to 20 parts distilled water. Mint records can use a more diluted solution; filthy bargain-bin vinyl will benefit from a stronger mix and possibly two cleanings. The cleaner evaporates quickly, and clearly Pro-Ject chemists have come up with an excellent agent for removing all manner of unwelcome petroleum- and water-based residue.
One simply places the LP on a “platter” the diameter of the record label, threads a clamp onto the spindle, and adds a few drops of the clear, alcohol-free fluid onto the record surface, and flips a rocker switch. The goat-hair brush, saturated with the liquid, is pressed onto the rotating surface for a couple of revolutions, then reversed for two spins with another flip of the switch. For good measure, I go in clockwise rotation once again, then lower the vacuum wand and repeat the sequence. The result is a bone-dry record that’s as spotless as it can ever be. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and the biggest surprise was the uncannily silent surface of new records—made newer still with the VC-S2. And while it may be fantasy to think that a clean car is quicker and drives better than a dirty one, there is no question that my records have never sounded as good as after a wash and dry with the VC-S2.
For grins, and knowing that many collectors like dumpster diving at their local used-record dealer, I took a handful of albums I’ve had since my university hi-fi days back in the early 1970s. Ridden hard by a Stanton 681 EEE cartridge mounted on an AR turntable, these were never abused but nowhere near new. And while the Pro-Ject couldn’t turn back the hands of time by repairing scratches and groove damage sustained by dragging the Stanton’s diamond boulder through the grooves, the surface noise was considerably reduced and, dare I say, the old things sounded surprisingly good!
The whole Pro-Ject routine is addictive for a clean freak. Hitting the cleaning-agent bottle for a weekend bender of maintenance is easy to do, and with perseverance and patience, it’s possible to get through a few hundred records in a long day. The good news is that, once cleaned and regularly dry-brushed, there should be little need to enlist the device again. In a hobby where most incremental sonic improvements carry a four-figure price tag, and gear of substance competes in cost with new automobiles, it is a welcome component that does so much for so little. I wish I’d discovered the Pro-Ject VC-S2 sooner, but then, like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s nothing preventing me from doing it all over again, just for fun.