It's about time...
It is incumbent upon every true phonomusicophiliac to actively investigate ways to improve their music playback system. Of late, I have explored various interconnects, pondered preamplifier upgrades and dabbled with A/C filters and regenerators. In what seemed to me a peculiarly oblique strategy, my consulting detective for all things audio, Nick Gowan of True Sound in Campbell, CA, recommended that I borrow an Audio Desk vinyl cleaner for a couple weeks. My experience with this device so consumed my attention, so upended my expectations, that I felt compelled to write this commentary.
I expected clean records. I did not expect more
But first, personal axioms on the table: the most
important of which is that a recording, no matter the medium, no matter the care
in microphone placement and technical discipline of the engineer, producer and
manufacturer, is only a fictional representation of a musical event. Our
imagination makes up the difference. Even so, a playback system should strive to
reproduce in holographic terms the recorded performance; it should therefore
strive for accuracy – but given the aforementioned axiom, we should ask:
accuracy to what reference?
Many audiophiles compare their systems and
potential upgrades to their memories of live performance – which I contend is an
exercise in futility as we can never know what is actually on the recorded
medium, even if we were present at the recording session. I have gone into this
question at length in my essay Are
You on the Road to Audio Hell? but the nub of the argument is
that a useful way to decide if your system is more or less accurate (compared to
another system or the same system with a potential "upgrade") is to remove as
much of its inherent coloration - dynamic and harmonic - as possible. And the
way to do this is to seek more differences between recordings, not any
similarity to some notion of reality or holy grail about staging or frequency
When considering the idea of a record cleaner, our first
requirement is that it results in cleaner surfaces and less noise. This should
be a given, but, as it turns out after a few turns with the Audio Desk,
cleanliness, though next to godliness, is not enough, and never should have
been, really. We were simply ignorant of the fact. The notion that cleaning
would have a real effect on the music latent in the groove never seriously came
up. What we accept as correct or "about right" in our playback systems is a
function of our prejudices - mine, too - and the Audio Desk seriously presents
some cognitive dissonance in this respect. More on this as we consider some
Throughout the week I had the Audio Desk I cleaned several
dozen records. Comparisons were a bit challenging because there is some six or
seven minutes required for its remarkable ultrasonic cleaning, during which I
have to clear my head or, at the very least, not listen to music. No A/B testing
That said, there are some things that emerged, regardless of
the age and condition of the record: Bass has better pitch definition. Treble
has fewer sharp angles that heretofore might have been taken for dynamics,
which, once relieved of their residence on the groove wall, result in improved
contrast between like events – this is true throughout the frequency spectrum
and, along with improved timing, are the most subtle and most profound
improvements the Audio Desk offers.
There is more texture everywhere, but it is texture better
integrated with the specific instrument or voice source and the space in which
it exists. On the other hand, there is almost no "detail" as I
understand how audiophiles often use the term -– In place of detail is improved
resolution, especially harmonic resolution. (I have always thought that "detail" in this context is merely the result of a system's producing
unsponsored quasi-musical sounds that are easily mistaken for the real thing.
Ask yourself honestly: have you ever heard "detail" at a live, unamplified
concert?) Once a record is properly cleaned, sonic events are returned to their
proper place and do not stick out. If you still hear 'detail' you might
want to look elsewhere in your system for the cause. As Andy Grove of Audio Note
UK observes, "Most audiophiles and engineers seek to increase 'detail'
rather than to reduce artifacts."
Once presented with a clean groove wall, stylus tracking is
improved, timing and overtones slip into their correct positions and are
properly integrated insofar as the recording makes this possible, resulting in
more accurate timbres and better differentiation, even among percussion
instruments. With a good recording, given a proper cleaning with the Audio Desk,
depth is better revealed, whether the result of varying distance from the
microphones or electronically manipulated; and - please assume a sitting
position for this - you should be able to hear the difference in character
between the strings of an acoustic guitar; same for the violin.
Pianos "ring" less; the mechanics of the instrument
are better revealed. Violin bowing is more cleanly and more deftly articulated.
Instrumentalists play better. Steve Reich's Piano
Phase on Nonesuch/Elektra is not merely a mathematical wonder; it's
absolutely terrifying in performance. Ry Cooder's soundtrack album of Paris,
Texason Warners is demonstration quality in its own right, but given
the once-over with the Audio Desk, it is nothing short of astonishing in terms
of timbres and spatial differentiation. Vocalists sing better. Sibilants are
better controlled. Vocal "grain" often disappears. Audiophile favorite
Fairy Tales on Odin is revelatory
as Radka Toneff's breathy overlay is at last re-integrated into her voice. Nat
Cole's chest cold on the Pure Pleasure After
Midnight reissue disappears, as does some of the tubbiness in
Speakers Corner's reissue of the Mercury Starker Bach Suites.
Choirs separate and integrate as they should. When you hear
Edwin Hawkins' Northern California Youth Choir exclaim "I Heard the Voice
of Jesus" (on the original Century label, not a reissue) your goosebumps
will make a believer out of you, if only while you're listening to these kids
sing their hearts out – and there will be no doubt that they are kids. In an
entirely different vein, listen to the dead-on chording by the phenomenal
Hi-Lo's on "My Romance" from a six-eye mono LP of Love
Nest and you will never be able to accommodate to the scattered
tuning of a doo-wop group again without giving them a great deal of slack.
Goosebumps once again are in play for the opening Kyrie
on Rossini's Petite Messe
Solennnellefor two pianos, harmonium, soloists and small chorus.
My copy, conducted by Edwin Loehrer, was recorded by Erato and pressed by World
Computer generated music like the Bob James Rameau and
Scarlatti albums on Columbia and the granddaddy of electronic music for the LP, Silver
Apples of the Moon, generates latent tones heretofore acoustically
invisible. Every drop of sound of Celestial
Soda Pop on Ray Lynch's Deep
Breakfast is an exquisite, unique pearl, each with own character and
place in the symphonic soundscape.
Percussive attacks hit with greater velocity and let go with
quicker assurance - less overhang equals better dynamics, and with hardly a
trace of in-your-face abuse such that you wished you had turned your volume
control down. Curiously, you can enjoy your records at a lower playback level
because attacks are more clearly articulated, or at higher level because the
dynamics are more correctly balanced.
Big band music of all stripes and historical status are
symphonically incorporated into choirs of reeds and brass as they should, while
enjoying unique soloist spotlighting. Bands shout, scream, dream and swirl as
never before. One of the more dramatic effects of cleaning with the Audio Desk
is that cymbals, when whacked together, the air between is squeezed out in a
most characteristic way – very comforting to feel that happen every now and
And speaking of the symphonic, I compared four of my
oft-played demo records: the opening minutes of that venerable war horse Also
Sprach Zarathustra - this on Decca with Mehta conducting the L.A.
Phil; the first movement of Massenet's Le Cid
from an EMI Studio 2 LP with the Birmingham Symphony led by Louis Fremaux (an LP
that should be in every self-respecting audiophile); a somewhat obscure, but
highly thought of LP on the Hungarian Qualiton label (one of my favorite labels,
generally): Hungarian Rhapsodies • Csárdás
Macabre (SLPX 10104) whose Hunagrian State Folf Ensemble completely
blows away the reference Mercury Osipov Balalaika recording; and, just to be
mean, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef from
RCA's "Classic Film Scores" of Bernard Hermann with Charles Gerhardt
conducting the National Philharmonic.
I'll make this short: Jeez!
Alright: a few words, then: I didn't really expect to
distinguish all nine harps in Beneath the
12-Mile Reef but there are now more than I had been used to hearing -
and such breadth, depth and power. It's to die for. More important, the rest of
the orchestra really comes together as a symphony, not a collection of
highlighted effects. The Qualiton recording is another torture test for
dynamically changing textures. The performance is so exciting, most listeners
don't notice the scary bits that my turntable and pick-up had trouble with. No
more. And speaking of scary bits, few recordings of a real symphony orchestra
put the pedal to the metal like the opening moments of Le
Cid. My playback has always had too much edge, which I somewhat
reluctantly accepted as dynamic flair. But now that the edge is gone, there is
actually more power, not less, while the orchestra feels more like the real
thing. And what is there to say about Zarathustra
that Kubrick hasn't already said better. Well, there is always a live
concert performance, if you can find one. Short of that, there is this Decca.
After cleaning, now that the stylus doesn't have to deal with questionable
material, the organ pedal is deeper, the orchestra is brighter, while the
trumpet is darker, the massed strings are luscious with all kinds of texture,
singing as only Richard Strauss can make them.
Elsewhere, at times, the effect is that there seems to be less
going on after cleaning rather than more, which could easily be taken for a
smoothing of dynamics; but such is not the case. Consider the before and after
washing of the new Edel Germany's reissue of Oscar Peterson's My
Favorite Instrument from Exclusively
for My Friends. What we once perceived as recording artifacts can
now be understood as misguided tracking. The clatter of Peterson's attacks in
the upper registers of the piano and the tubby sound in the lower half of the
instrument, as if the microphones were simultaneously placed both inside and
outside the piano box, are prime examples. After cleaning with the Audio Desk
the piano sounds more like a single instrument. Everything is better integrated.
Instead of tubby resonance we hear the delay of a modest reverb of the room.
Oscar's singing is now more clearly separated from the piano now that the
clatter is gone. Less confusion means less work for the listener, often
unconsciously distracted by uncertainty.
A dramatic transformation occurs once we give The
Rochesa pass with the Audio Desk. By any standard, the trio's first
album is a strange and wondrous work - eerie at times, obviously manipulated, as
if the girls' vibrato-less voices weren't interesting enough. Once cleaned,
however, that ghostly, glassy overlay just about vanishes and, in its place,
they actually sound like human beings, albeit with a fascinating approach to
vocal production. Maggie's low voice, which previously almost disappeared into
the mix, is now more on equal footing with Terre and Suzzy. The guitar now has
all its strings in play, which is a blessing.
The French label, Astrée, produces some of the most
consistently well recorded and produced LPs - and their recording of Debussy's
music for piano four hands and two pianos [Atrée AS -2] is no exception. Four
hand piano music is especially difficult to bring off in my experience, and the
untreated Astrée gives it a good shot. Still there is a hint of ringing and
mushiness when textures are dense. After cleaning, textures are a little less
cluttered and the action of the piano is more easily discerned, while never
commanding attention. The sense of this being a single piano with subtly
different registers is nicely revealed.
What about previously unplayed LPs, you ask? I suspect this depends some on how much goop, aka mold-release compound, is left on the disc. On my until-now sealed copy of Sheffield's Direct-to-Disc of Growing Up in Hollywood Townthe result is subtle, but entirely in the "right" direction (see the above notes). But on the Philips Schmidt-Isserstedt recording of Mozart's Die Gärternausaus Liebethe orchestra is more lively and there is clearly more emotional content in the performance, especially noticeable in the speaking parts, funnily enough.
I was anxious to tryout the Audio Desk on the new Beatles
in Monoset. In this case I was rather surprised by the degree of
re-presenting that the cleaned record offered. On Meet the BeatlesI auditioned Little Bird which lost, for better or worse, a good deal of
its electrified effect. On the Double White
album, I listened to Martha My Dear, I'm So
Tired and Blackbird. These
three songs are something of a minor revelation once passed through the Audio
Desk. Voices revealed differentiated timbres, bass has pluck, even that bizarre
piano at the start of Martha has a
shot at something like a real instrument, and wait till you hear what that
tapping sound that accompanies Blackbird can
sound like. Finally, I checked out side one from the Mono Masters, paying particular attention to Love
Me Do and This Boy. These relatively unmanipulated performances are
something of a relief after so much of George Martin's finagling on the later
commercial albums. Once cleaned, the sound projects greater depth, the beat
invites unstoppable foot-tapping, instruments have greater textural clarity,
especially guitars, voices have less murk in the reverb. There are some serious
treasures to be found in this three record set.
Rock is a curious breed. The genre spans many sub-genres, so
just to touch on the subject I played some Talking Heads' Stop
Making Senseand Underworld's Born
it appears on their 12" single. Both Psycho
Killer and Burning Down the House really
shows off what a clean record sounds like - and I thought mine was clean to
start with - nearly silent anyhow. Audiophiles would appreciate the applause; it
is as if you can count the hands (I exaggerate but there are definitely more
hands at play.) Far more important is that I used to worry that my 25-Watt
Audsio Note UK Ongaku might not quite be up to recreating something like concert
levels – my ears would clog up as if the power supply was giving out. No longer.
All that extra space - call it headroom if you like - that comes from a stylus
not having to put up with gunk, and my amplifier not having to turn that into
sound, is sweet. Born Slippyis
another beast altogether. It's relentless drive can wear an unsuspecting
listener out, and it's not like there's a great deal of variety here. But what
is now possible is to be taken in, hypnotically, as it were, massaged by a
non-stop primitive beat. Exciting as hell, I tell you.
As for old, somewhat worn records with sufferable noise, I
thought I'd present a couple to the Audio Desk, if with extremely low
expectations: Barber's Best [Decca
LK4246] and Ted Heath at the London Palladium
LL-802]. Both are honest, unfussy recordings with plenty of dynamic power and
luscious sound from horns and reeds and, on the Chris Barber Dixieland record, a
big vocal from Ottilie Patterson. Both are in less than pristine shape, noise-
and wear-wise. On the Barber, Ottilie no longer overwhelms the rest of the
group. But Ted Heath's rendition of Dark Eyes
might become one of my top drawer demo records: a luscious trombone,
a neatly articulated piano, which, even as back-up, still retains that
instrument's characteristic percussive tuneful sound, and those marvelous wire
brushes on the drums - where did all that space between the wires come from! And
when the whole band comes in for swinging tuttis they play with one mind. Very
white, but very nice all the same. Both records play through the wear with
Whatever surface noise remains is much easier to ignore. I am
not the first to notice that "stereo noise" is better separated out of
the mix on mono records and into the left and right channels once cleaned,
permitting better focus to the music at the center. Since the groove is cleaner
than ever before, new life is breathed into early mono recordings. Regardless of
spatial presentation, the sense of a performance - that is, actual people
playing and singing - is vivid.
Center fill is an even more important consideration on stereo
recordings, where misguided tracking leads to random events at the sides,
distracting our attention and upstaging the middle.
Tics and scratches are more cleanly articulated and have less
wiggy energy that otherwise distract us. Whenever I hear the occasional tic, I
smile. Obviously, the apparatus has no effect on mishandled records. On the
other hand, wear is less distracting - possibly because the stylus plays
difficult patches more easily now, despite that the record had been played with
a damaged or incorrectly set up cartridge and tonearm. By the way, static
build-up is greatly reduced, if not eliminated, though certainly not forever.
One more thing, better tracking means less difficulty with the final inch or so
of all too many records. How's that for your money's worth!
This review may give the impression that I fully endorse the
product, and I do. However, there is a caveat that you should take seriously.
Seriously. Once you clean a record with the Audio Desk, there is no going back.
You cannot return the record to its original condition, either for the exercise
or because you are in any way puzzled or unhappy. Nor will you be able to demo
how well you spent your money on such an extravagance by re-creating the effect.
The Audio Desk is not last or first
or any other record treatment that can be removed. The Audio Desk is the
ultimate removal service, and this consequence should not be taken lightly.
After the Audio Desk, vinyl looks so clean one might want to
own this thing just to have the illusion of brand new records. It's hard to put
a price tag on the confidence a clean record engenders. Then there are the
secondary gain of not having to clean your stylus nearly as often. (I have yet
to test just how often.) Cleaner stylus assemblies mean better dynamics.
The Audio Desk is not without drawbacks, the most distressing
being that it can only clean 12" LPs. So much for our 10" and smaller... for now
anyway, though I gather that Reiner Gläss is taking the matter under
advisement. The record cleaner is also anything but quiet, especially once its
fans are engaged. If you use the unit in the same room as you listen to music,
you can really only do one or the other. I found that about half my records – the thinner ones, usually - needed a few dabs with a clean cloth to absorb the
spots of water that wouldn't blow off. And there is some pesky maintenance
to perform every 100 records or so.
So there you have it, a component – and I think it behooves us
to think of the Audio Desk in such terms, no less than a proper preamp upgrade -
that improves tracking the music signal from the outset. This results in better
timing since the stylus no longer slips and leaps across unwanted debris, adding
undesirable comment and changing velocity viv-a-vis
the groove as it goes. Accurate tracking yields better resolution, which means
improved harmonic coherence, more correct timbres and spatial relationships, and
more honest dynamic contrast. And all of these make for less coloration -
harmonic and dynamic – less, distortion, if you will. Every record is now
that much closer to the unique performance encoded in the groove.
The Audio Desk is bloody expensive, especially as compared to
the competition, if we can still call them that. On the other hand, it is
only about half the cost of many a high-end audio cartridge and, since the Audio
Desk directly affects a cartridge's performance, its value might be better
appreciated. In any case, it's a small fraction of the cost of our record
libraries, which will play better than new in many cases after a proper
cleaning. So, the gauntlet is thrown. Do you dare to take along a few of your
records, old and new, to your local Audio Desk dealer and compare the befores
and afters? One thing is certain: neither you nor your records will ever be the
I shall say no more.
That said, I shall give the final word to Phillip
Sztenderowicz (Sterling Sound), who reminds us that A
clean groove is a happy groove.