Pro-Ject VC-S3 Record Cleaning Machine Reviewed

Pro-Ject’s VC-S has, in my opinion, been the most efficient, quietest, and best value vacuum record cleaning machine on the market since the initial £349 model launched in 2016. The 2017 MK2 improved the vacuum arm, clamp and motor, and in 2019 the VC-S2 ALU brought a complete re-design with an aluminium enclosure and better internal components, widening the gap between the VC-S and the competition even further. A more compact version, the VC-E, was also launched. The Brexit aftermath, European import costs and rising material costs pushed the price of the VC-S2 to £449 by the time it was discontinued.

Now in 2023 the £499 VC-S3 supersedes the VC-S2 ALU with claimed improvements across the board. The more compact VC-E2 has also been introduced to include many of the new features in a smaller, space-saving form factor for £150 less. This review focuses on the VC-S3 as that is the machine I have, though many of the details within will apply to the VC-E2 and the cleaning performance of the machines should be similar if not identical. The larger VC-S is for users who want to be able to clean larger batches of records at a time. The machines are not specified for commercial use.

Cutout Front

So what’s new? Most obvious is the revised styling, featuring rounded, fluted extruded aluminium corners to give the enclosure a more pleasing aesthetic and greatly increase its rigidity. The older model had a folded panel forming the front, sides and back (with rear joint), and four metal rods with internally threaded ends at each corner bolting the enclosure together.

The enclosure is made from an aluminium composite panel, sandwiching a stiff plastic foam material with thin skins of aluminium to form a stiff board that is lightweight, strong and more cost-effective than a solid aluminium sheet of the same thickness. The machine is lighter than it looks, easy to carry under 1 arm despite being the larger of the two models on offer.

Corner Closeup

The rest of the machine is broadly similar with the same IEC inlet and power switch on the back, the same control switches on the right-hand side, and the same 2.5 litre fluid reservoir with a left-side fill scale and draining and exhaust vent. The arm valve looks identical, but that is where the similarities end. A notable minor change is the removal of the acrylic plates with etched printing that surrounded the tank scale and switches on the older machine. The new machines have the printing silkscreened directly onto the aluminium enclosure, and a press-fit vented cap over the tank exhaust.

The platter and clamp are now made of plastic with four magnets embedded in each. Rather than screwing the clamp into place, you simply place a record on the platter and drop the clamp over the label. The magnets provide a strong hold to clamp the record in place, effectively sealing the label from fluid splashes and spills, but requiring only that the clamp be pulled straight up to remove the record. This means the VC-S 7-inch cleaning kit no-longer fits the new machines, though a revised kit with the newer clamp style is slated for release later this year.

The vacuum arm has a revised felt strip which surrounds the slot in a single piece, rather than a pair of strips running parallel to the slot with a gap between them. The felt material, and the arm itself are unchanged.

The turntable gearbox is the same and is one of the fastest of any machine on the market, spinning at 30RPM with plenty of torque to get in deep with a brush and tackle the most stubborn dirt. The vacuum motor is new and has a Cataphoretic surface treatment. Cataphoresis is the process of electrochemically depositing an epoxy-type coating on a metal part. It is an industrial painting technique that uniformly deposits a 10-40 micron layer of anti-corrosive paint across the entire part, effectively preventing corrosion. It also looks good, in person and on paper.

The motor mounting is new too, with solid aluminium mounting pads, metal piping and a substantial fan shroud which cyclonically directs the vacuumed fluid and dirt into the tank. It’s quite an upgrade over the older VC-S. It runs cooler when used for long periods and seems to produce more vacuum pressure than the already impressive VC-S2 could manage.

The VC-S machines have always been well built and the VC-S3 is no exception, though I have some gripes. The edges of the aluminium enclosure panels are quite sharp, as are the edges of the turntable and clamp. The vacuum arm is loose in its mount even with the retaining screw tightened all the way, and it is quite a loose fit to the vacuum pillar. The clamp itself feels good enough, though the aluminium plates and turned knob of the old clamp feel a lot more robust. I wonder how long the plastic record spindle on the new machine will last, and for this price the platter at least should have been an aluminium plate, if not the clamp.

Due to a combination of the diameter of the sealing discs and the clamp design, the end of the slot in the vacuum arm doesn’t come as close to the sealed area of the record label on the new model either. This can result in fluid being left behind from the vacuum process if you’re heavy-handed in your application or spreading. It’s beyond the runout groove of virtually any record, but excess may have to be removed manually with a microfibre cloth during the cleaning process.

There are outstanding design niggles too that haven’t been addressed. Many claim the VC-S is noisy – and it is, though it’s quieter than most competing machines. Most of the noise comes from the exults air blowing through the waste fluid reservoir, which is a thin plastic tank (quite glittery a repurposed plastic jerry can) that vibrates and resonates with the quantity of air passing through it. Damping this tank with a self-adhesive rubber sheeting reduces the noise of the machine considerably and is an easy modification to make.

Likewise the enclosure panels are machined to neatly slot together and the sides clamped between the top and base panels, held together by the extruded corner pieces. The tolerance of the slots in the new machine seem to have been improved though with fractional material variances there is still a chance that panels will vibrate, adding to the noise of the machine. Gluing the panels on at least one edge with a silicone sealant, or making the slots a higher tolerance fit would help enormously. Adding some internal damping to the enclosure panels wouldn’t hurt either.

Cutout Top

But why not go all the way and build a tank as part of the enclosure? Internal walls in the same aluminium composite, or a 5-6 mm acrylic or engineered plastic sheet, fitted to machined slots in the chassis walls and lined with rubber damping to solidify the enclosure and reduce the noise. Or you could get really clever and shape the tank to direct the air in a smooth, controlled passage to the exhaust outlet, which could cut noise even further. The 2.5 litre tank is overkill, as the fluid evaporates quickly especially in the heat of the air exhausted by the vacuum.

The new VC-S machines are supplied with a new ‘Wash It 2’ cleaning fluid. This is a pre-mixed cleaning solution, unlike the original ‘Wash It’ which had to be mixed at a 10:1 or to 20:1 ratio with distilled water. It seems that not everyone got the memo and enough people were mixing it with tap water and complaining about the results that Pro-Ject decided to produce a premixed solution. The new ‘Wash It 2’ fluid comes in 250, 500 and 1000 ml (1L) bottles. 3-5 ml of fluid is recommended to clean one side of a 12-inch record.

The ‘Wash It 2’ fluid is plant-based, non-toxic, non-flammable and eco-friendly. It does not contain alcohol and is perfectly safe for use on Shellac records. It is recommended to be used between 20 and 40 degrees celsius, and can be warmed slightly in the microwave before use. I can’t claim to have exhaustively tested to see if microwaving it makes any difference to its effectiveness as a cleaner, but it smells great when you do.

The unmixed concentrate is now discontinued. If you can follow instructions and are capable of sourcing distilled water locally or from one of the thousands of online suppliers, it was a most cost-effective way to buy fluid. A 1 litre bottle of the new ‘Wash It 2’ fluid costs £15, plus shipping. The concentrate could make 11 litres at a 10:1 ratio for about £60, including the water, which would clean 2000 records easily. As cleaning fluids go however, the ‘Wash It 2’ premix is still cheaper than ClearGroove’s plant-based ‘T-Total’ and most alcohol-based pre-mixed and concentrated fluids on the market.

Setup is simple and everything required to operate the machine is included. With everything removed from the packaging, you fit the two plastic spacer washers over the motor spindle, add the platter with its bushing oriented so that the grub screw in the side of the aluminium bushing aligns with the flat section of the spindle, and tighten with the included hex key. The clamp drops on, as does the vacuum arm, and an IEC power lead is included.

Usage is unchanged and is simple too. On the right are two switches. The uppermost switch engages the turntable in either direction, and the switch below controls the vacuum. With a record and the clamp in place, and the motor spinning in a clockwise direction, you apply 3-5 ml of fluid to the record and brush it across the surface with the included brush. Once coated, you can optionally allow the fluid to settle for 30 seconds to a minute, allowing it to penetrate the groove and loosen any dirt or contaminants. You then raise the vacuum arm slightly, which allows it to pivot to lie across the record surface. While you’re doing this, switch on the vacuum and drop the arm down into its second position, pointing toward the clamp.

The fluid and any dirt on the record surface will be vacuumed and the record should be completely dry within a couple of rotations. You can switch the direction of rotation after a rotation or two if you wish. Avoid letting the vacuum remain on the record surface for too long, as it can cause a static charge ot build on the record. I switch the vacuum off with the arm still in place, and then lift the arm as the vacuum slows to a stop. Doing this not only avoids flexing the record under the high pressure of the vacuum, but also prevents the strips of the vacuum arm leaving a wet spot on the record.

You then flip the record and repeat the process on the other side. The process is simplicity itself, and with practice you can clean a record in a couple of minutes, or less. If you work with care you won’t make any mess to speak of either, though the enclosure will resist minor spills, and the machine has a thermal cutoff so you’ve no need to fear overheating if you’re cleaning a large batch. My VC-S ALU has done batches of 50 or 60 records at a time without missing a beat, and I’ve no reason to believe the VC-S3 couldn’t handle the same volume if not more.

I positioned an Audio-Technica AT2020 condenser mic on a stand in front of each machine, roughly 150 mm (6 inches) away from the front of the machine, centred from side-to-side, and with the mesh grille just above the top of the machine. Both machines were sitting on a stand I purpose built ot hold the VC-S, and the machines were positioned identically for the test. The mic was not touched when the machines were switched. I put a 180-gram record on the platter of each machine, installed the clamp, and lay the vacuum arm across the record before switching the vacuum on for the recordings.

I adjusted the gain of the interface to peak at 0dB with the vacuum of the VC-S2. The room volume was an average of -33.5dB with reference to that level. Here is the old VC-S2 ALU:

And the VC-S3:

As you may be able to hear, the newer machine has a different tone and is perhaps slightly louder, though it’s not a major difference. The motor of the noise machine appears quieter, but the sound of the air rushing through the tank and the valve is louder. The VC-S2 I used for this comparison has not been modified in any way. The turntable motors are about the same in volume,. I can operate the machines comfortably, but would recommend headphones or hearing protection for extended usage sessions.

So how does it perform? Really, as well as the old machine did. I can’t hear any difference after cleaning records that were first cleaned on the VC-S2. I don’t have a microscope (nor the eyesight to operate one if I did), but I’d wager that there’s little difference in terms of cleaning performance. There is a significant difference in efficiency though. The magnetic clamp speeds up the cleaning process dramatically, particularly if you’re working through a box set or a big batch. The few seconds it takes to screw and unscrew the old clamp add up, while the new clamp is a simple twist and lift action to remove, and sets itself into place when you drop it over the spindle.

It’s not without a drawback though. I noticed with some discs a lack of grip, compounded by the pressure of the vacuum, which would cause the disc to stop rotating while the turntable kept running beneath. The screw clamp applied a great deal more pressure to the label, not least because it was a more substantial metal design. The magnetic clamp is limited by the strength of the magnets since it weighs hardly anything, and the magnetic strength appears approximately halved by the thickness of the record.

, The upshot is that there are times you find yourself helping the record to rotate under the vacuum on the new machine. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is a shortfall the older VC-S machines didn’t suffer, and one that I’m surprised wasn’t picked up during R&D. I’ve run 40 or so records through the VC-S3 and around 25% were affected.

A possible solution might be a grippier rubber disc on the surfaces of the turntable and clamp. I will experiment with this and relay and positive findings. It may be that a better turntable and clamp design using ring magnets and thicker plates is the way to go, and a possible candidate for a 3D printed modification. Expect to read about those here if they come to fruition. The third option would be to forego magnets entirely in favour of a twist-lock knob that engages a spiral channel in the top of the spindle, or a set of spring-loaded bearings to install and release with a single twist.

My thoughts on the new VC-S are generally positive. It’s a well-built machine that still delivers excellent cleaning performance. The VC-S3 moves the lineup forward with a well-built vacuum motor that should prove more reliable over time, a smart new enclosure design, and a new clamp that is wonderfully convenient, accept when it isn’t.

At a pound shy of £500, however, it’s creeping toward pricey. And it’s lacking some obvious points of refinement. The flimsy tank and undamped enclosure contribute an unwelcome din to an otherwise quiet party, there’s no 7-inch and 10-inch cleaning kit at launch, and the new clamp system detracts from the premium look and feel, and struggles to perform under pressure.

Side View

If you have a VC-S2 ALU already, and screwing the clamp doesn’t bother you, you’ve little to gain from the upgrade. If you have one of the original machines, or are looking to move up from a VC-E, the VC-S3 should be on your shortlist. Despite its shortcomings, it’s still the most effective vacuum machine I’ve used regardless of price, and I’ve used most of them at one time or another.

There will be many who don’t heed my advice and upgrade anyway, which will see plenty of redundant VC-S2 machines available on the used market. And if you’re an occasional user cleaning a few records at a time, don’t discount the new VC-E2. It’s a more compact machine, and the VC-E2 gives you all of the refinements of the VC-S3 but at a more sensible price.

Don’t get me wrong, though. The VC-S remains ahead of the competition. Most record cleaning machines are, in reality, primitive, dysfunctional, uncomfortable loud, poorly constructed and ugly enough to upset a blind man’s aesthetic senses. It’s a wonder some of them work at all. The VC-s has some way to go in terms of refinement, but it’s still one of the best looking and most efficient record cleaning machines you can buy.

By Ashley

I founded Audio Appraisal a few years ago and continue to regularly update it with fresh content. An avid vinyl collector and coffee addict, I can often be found at a workbench tinkering with a faulty electronic device, tweaking a turntable to extract the last bit of detail from those tiny grooves in the plastic stuff, or relaxing in front of the hi-fi with a good album. A musician, occasional producer and sound engineer, other hobbies include software programming, web development, long walks and occasional DIY. Follow @ashleycox2

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