For a long time now there’s been a large gap in the record cleaner market. Manual cleaning machines such as the Knosti and Spin Clean cater for the budget-conscious record collector, while mid-priced vacuum machines such as the Okki Nokki and Moth among others cater for those who’ve amassed a larger record collection and wish to achieve better cleaning results than a manual, air-drying machine can offer. And of course, machines such as the Audio Desk Systeme or the ClearAudio Double Matrix Professional Sonic are a significant investment for those with the largest vinyl collections.
The gap exists between the budget and mid-priced sector. There’s a significant jump in price between the £100 spin clean (and of course the £40 Knosti), and the widely regarded Okki Nokki and Moth priced at £400 and £500 respectively. The VCS, a new £299 cleaning machine from revered turntable manufacturer Pro-Ject Audio Systems aims to bridge that gap.
In principle the VCS is not unlike the aforementioned vacuum systems. A cleaning fluid (Pro-Ject’s ‘Wash It’ in this case) is applied to a rotating record, and spread to form an even layer at which point the record is vacuumed and the fluid (and dirt) removed. The VCS however includes a few features omitted from many of the machines at this price – including a label protector and a fast, bi-directional platter enabling a record to perform a full rotation in under 2 seconds. Such features may seem trivial, but make a significant difference in terms of cleaning time and record safety.
The machine is supplied as a complete kit including a 100ML bottle of the standard Wash It concentrate which must be diluted at a 5 to 1 ratio with distilled or demineralised water. The standard Wash It formula contains isopropyl alcohol and is not suitable for cleaning 78s – to that end, Pro-Ject offer the Wash It 78 formula which removes the alcohol component and is therefore safe for use on shellac records. A goats hair applicator brush and a ‘ball knob’ clamp are also included along with a power cable, vacuum arm with a spare set of adhesive velvet strips and the platter and label protector.
An optional dust cover is available for an additional £25, the holes for which are pre-drilled in the rear of the machine. A replacement brush priced at £20, record clamp priced at £55, vacuum arm priced at £55 and draining spout priced at £4.50 are also available. The standard Wash It concentrate is available in 100ML, 250ML, 500ML and 1L capacities priced at £15, £20, £28.50 and £40.00 respectively. The Wash It 78 concentrate is available in capacities of 250ML or 1L priced at £20 and £40 respectively.
The machine supports the cleaning of both 10” and 12” records. The base plate and label protector are too large to enable cleaning of a 7” record, as is the slot on the vacuum arm. While it’s an inconvenience, the inability to clean a 7” record isn’t of concern to me as it’s a limitation shared by the competition. The moth can’t clean them lest the vacuum arm is modified, and the Okki Nokki and those that share its design require an expensive vacuum arm replacement. If you’re a DIY connoisseur with the facilities to manufacture a couple of plastic discs and to cut a piece of pipe, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to create a couple of smaller platters and a vacuum arm adapter for the VCS to clean your 45s.
The VCS looks not dissimilar to other machines on the market. Its veneered wood enclosure features a top-mounted 30RPM platter motor and a tower for the vacuum arm, while the rear hosts an IEC inlet socket and a mains switch. On the right, 2 rocker switches cater for bi-directional platter rotation and vacuum power, while the left-hand-side features a fluid level gauge and a plastic cap which, when removed, provides an opening into which the spout can be inserted and the internal 2.5L fluid tank drained..
The underside features an access panel cut into which are a selection of air vents. Visible through those vents are the machines internals including the large vacuum motor, spindle motor and tank. 4 Rubber feet prevent the machine sliding around on your surface, and raise it up enough to allow the vents to do their job.
The level of fit and finish is excellent, as is the build quality. The switches are neatly set into the machine and don’t protrude as they do on the Moth; and the wooden enclosure is sealed to protect against any accidental spillage that may occur. The only issue I encountered with the quality of the machine concerned the label seals on both the base plate and label protector. They consist of a length of an elasticated rubber material pressed into a groove running around the circumference of the clamps. The material would often come free from its groove, and was fiddly to reinstall. ProJect’s UK distributor Henley Designs are aware of the issue and assure me that it will be fixed in the next batch of machines.
Setup is as simple as installing the platter with the aid of a philips screwdriver and placing the vacuum arm into the metal vacuum tower. A small protrusion aligns with 1 of 2 grooves in the vacuum tower depending on whether the arm is in the home or cleaning position. The power cable can then be connected, and the rear mains switch activated.
To clean a record, the record must first be clamped between the label-sided platter and label protector, the rubber seals of which not only prevent fluid damage to the label, but also grip the record removing the necessity to over-tighten the ball clamp. With a record in place, a line of fluid can be applied to the record, and (with the record rotating) spread using the included brush.
Once the record is evenly coated, the vacuum can be switched on and the arm lifted, swivelled, and dropped atop the record. A single rotation taking roughly 2 seconds is all that is required to vacuum the surface of the record at which point the vacuum and rotation motors can be switched off and the vacuum arm lifted and returned to the home position.
This process can then be repeated for the other side of the record. Of course, the bi-directional motor allows the record to be brushed and vacuumed in both directions and in some cases doing so can produce better results; though excessive use of the vacuum can result in a static build-up on the record. Pro-Ject also suggest allowing the fluid to sit on the record for approximately 10 seconds to allow any impurities in the grooves to be dissolved. Total cleaning time on average is less than 2 minutes per record.
Being a vacuum machine the VCS makes a fair amount of noise in operation, though it’s certainly quieter than its competitors. Unlike the Moth, I was able to use the machine for short cleaning periods without the use of hearing protection – though hearing protection is certainly recommended if you’re planning on using the VCS for an extended cleaning session. The VCS doesn’t get particularly hot in operation, and providing the vents beneath remain unobstructed it’ll run for hours without issue.
Results are excellent. First on the machine was a new pressing of Frank Turner’s ‘Tape Deck Heart’. The Wash It fluid combined with the VCS did a sterling job of removing the slightly sticky mould release agent covering the vinyl surface leaving it smooth and shiny. The sound after cleaning is crystal clear and quiet.
Next up, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged arrived from the factory with a generous helping of mould release compound, served up with a layer of dirt and a healthy static charge. The anti-static properties of the Wash It fluid instantly did away with the static charge, and the machine made short work of removing the impurities covering the vinyl surface resulting in another perfectly clean, quiet album.
Of course, the review wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t test the machine with a couple of truly filthy albums. The 2 albums in question were both compilations – ‘Hot Hits 17’ (MFP50057) and ‘Street Sounds Hiphop 20’ (ELCST 20). The cleaning process for both albums was the same, with the fluid being applied in a straight line to the record and brushed across the surface in both directions and allowed to settle for 10 seconds before vacuuming in the clockwise direction for 2 rotations.
The below audio file captures the side 1 lead in groove of ‘HipHop 20’ both before and after cleaning.
As you can hear, the difference is marginal but noticeable. Our ‘hot hits’ record, however, yielded a far different result. Here is a capture of the lead-in groove and the first few seconds of track 1:
and here it is after cleaning:
As you can clearly hear the sound was vastly improved after cleaning. This record also has significant groove wear and was covered in dirt and finger marks – yet after a clean with the VCS it was certainly more than listenable.
In summary; I don’t know about you, but I think those audio files speak for themselves. The VCS is a high quality yet affordable cleaning machine that produces outstanding results. It’s well made, relatively compact, reasonably quiet and extremely user friendly. Truth be told, I can’t think of a machine that offers the features and performance of the VCS for such a modest outlay. Highly recommended.
Update 31/05/2016. All VC-S models now ship with an alcohol-free wash it solution suitable for cleaning both vinyl records and shellac 78s. The record clamps have also been revised – gone are the elasticated rubber seals which were a source of constant frustration to me the more I used the machine. They’ve been replaced with a pair of adhesive foam rubber discs which adhere to the metal plates and grip the record. This is a far better design, especially as the aforementioned ‘ball knob’ clamp is now also attached to the top plate meaning there are fewer parts to lose when the machine isn’t being used.