Analog Corner #13
(Originally published in Stereophile, August 12th, 1996)
First, some good news. Allsop has just announced that it is once again stocking replacement pads for their late, lamented Orbitrac record cleaner. For those who don't know about it, the Orbitrac was an inexpensive rotary cleaning device once considered a joke plastic product strictly for vinyl plebes who couldn't afford vacuum-powered record-cleaning machines. (See Wes Phillips's "Industry Update," April '96, p.39.)
But, used as a pre-vacuuming device to clean surface dust and to get schmutz up from the depths of the grooves before vacuuming, the Orbitrac has proven to be an indispensable weapon in the war on dirty records.
Until now, those lucky enough to own the discontinued Orbitrac have had to hand-wash their pads in an elaborate ritual of diluted laundry detergent followed by multiple hand rinses, diluted fabric-softener baths, and still more rinses. Kind of makes you want to switch to CDs....not!
Now, after much prodding in these pages and in The Tracking Angle, and due to the resulting flood of phone calls (thanks, folks!), Orbitrac pads are back. To order, call Allsop at (800) 426-4303. A pack of five pads costs $4.99 plus shipping and handling. If you order five or more sets of five, the cost per pack drops to $3.49. Obviously, the smartest thing to do is order five packs...or more. By the way, rumors of an Orbitrac IIa '90s versionkeep spinning around. We'll keep you deformed.
In July I reported on the grand opening of the Virgin MegaStore in Times Square and its fairly well-stocked vinyl section. One of my correspondents sought out the vinyl buyer last week to see how the LPs were selling. His response: "Three days after opening we were pretty much cleaned out and couldn't believe it." Yeah? Well, believe it!
The high cost of analog
Having recently reviewed a $4500 tonearm, a $3800 cartridge, and a $1500 phono section (sounds like a bargain compared to the other two) using a $6500 turntable, I've decided that, while reviewing such rarefied gear has been fun, and hopefully of some use to readersespecially rich onesit's so far off the financial scale as to be almost sinful.
So next I'm going to tackle some inexpensive turntables, cartridges, and phono sections, including the Rega Planar 2 and 3 (as well as the more expensive 9), the inexpensive Moth turntable (which uses some Rega components), using some budget cartridges and phono sections. Full reports in a few months. I'm sure I'll feel better then, too.
Tools of the analog trade
As I was setting up a turntable recently, I realized how much faster and easier the job was going because I had the right tools at my disposal. So I decided to write about what every well-equipped analog fan should have on hand.
First, you've got to have the right light. There is only one source of illumination appropriate for a turntable, in my book, and that's the LittleLightthe tiny, high-intensity goosenecked lamp you see on mixing consoles in studios, clubs, and concert halls. It just looks right, and its infinitely adjustable gooseneck allows you to put that light right where you need it when aligning a cartridge.
You need one of those little Minivacs, toothe kind advertised for cleaning computer keyboards. It's great for removing dust from nooks and crannies. And if you've got an airbearing arm, the soft-brush attachment is great for removing dust from moving parts without gumming up the works. I also find it handy for cleaning vacuum holddown platters covered with thin cloth matslike the one SOTA uses. Those cloth mats attract dust. The last thing you want to do is suck a record down onto a pile of dust! As Martha Stewart would say, "Minivacs are a good thing!"
You also should have a spirit bubble for leveling. I use both the kind where you center the bubble in a circle on top, and the kind where you center it between two lines on a tube. Someday someone's going to figure out a way to incorporate one into an armshell tube so you can start VTA adjustments from a perfectly parallel reference point and return to it easily.
Another great item, not made for audio but extremely useful anyway, is a small, angled dentist's mirror. It's great for seeing the back of a component without having to move itespecially if you have to place your rack against a wall. Some lucky audiophiles use their equipment racks as room dividers and can access the back easily. For the rest of us, the dentist's mirror, in combination with the LittleLight, really comes in handy.
A good set of Allen or hex wrenches is essential for working on many turntables and arms. While manufacturers frequently supply the specific ones needed for their products, it's a good idea to keep a wide range of sizes on hand. More convenient than the standard 90º angled kind are the screwdriver-like ones made by Bondhus. (Graham and Rockport, for examples, supply these with their arms.)
A plastic bag with some cornstarch in it is good to keep around. Every so often throw your turntable drive-belt in it to absorb oil deposits and restore its gripping power.
Sometimes, with stiff, unshielded phono cables like the XLO Signature, only one routing will be free of hum, and the only way to keep the cable in that particular location is with Velcroanother indispensable item. Stick-on Velcro comes in parallel rolls of the two gripping components: You cut to length and peel off the adhesive backings. Also handy are those expandable, stick-on plastic hooks that open so you can rest cable on them, then close to secure. RadioShack sells both Velcro and the hooks. I wouldn't be without either one.
A must-have item is a really good magnifying glass. I use a big square Bausch & Lomb model. The Graham Arm comes supplied with a dual-power plastic magnifier sourced from Edmund Scientific Co. in Barrington, New Jersey, which also works quite well. As with poison-ivy rash, try to avoid scratching it.
I keep a can of Alberto-Culver's Static Guard on hand at all times; I periodically spray it on the carpeting in front of my turntable to avoid those noisy static pops that can be lethal to your system. This is especially important in winter, when static buildup is the worst. There was a time (the early to mid-'80s) when wiping records with new powder puffs (as opposed to used puffs filched from your significant other because you were too embarrassed to buy them yourself) sprayed with Static Guard was all the rage.
You'd spray one powder puff lightly, rub it with a second puff, and then use the second one on the record. It definitely worked well, and appeared to leave no residue. I haven't done this in quite some time, so I'm not formally recommending you try it. (Anyone other than Sam Tellig still doing this with good results?)
Wow. All of this paraphernalia and we still haven't gotten to products made specifically for analog.
A reasonably accurate stylus pressure gauge is mandatory, and the Shure is good and very cheap. The even simpler and less expensive Ortofon, which uses pressed dimples to form a fulcrum, works surprisingly well, but for about $14 bucks you may as well treat yourself to the Shure.
There are also some vintage Technics electronic stylus pressure gauges out there which show up for microseconds in the "For SaleUsed" columns. I've never owned one, but I've been told they work wellthough I've heard the magnetic flux from the cartridge can affect their accuracy. The world is waiting for a dead-on accurate jeweled-bearing stylus pressure gauge. Any takers? [J.A. Michell of the UK used to make a superb jeweled balance but I haven't seen one in decades.Ed.]
While today's expensive tonearms come with overhang-adjustment gauges, buyers of used or moderately priced arm/'table combos are on their own. The Dennesen protractoreven the plastic versionworks well if you can find one, and Mobile Fidelity's Geo-Disc is also effective. With the Dennesen, if the lateral bearing's center point is not marked on top of the pivot point (almost always the case with uni-pivots), you'll encounter some difficulty getting the protractor's point properly lined up. With the Geo-Disc, accuracy is dependent upon your using extreme care in pointing its guide at the center of the arm pivot. There's also the DB Systems Protractor (I've never used it), and Lyle Cartridges offers an inexpensive plastic gauge that does the job well. I aligned the Graham arm using its superb built-in gauge and checked the Lyle against it. It was dead on.
For straight trackers, nothing beats Telarc's Omnidisc, which is no longer manufactured. Maybe someone can convince Telarc to give up the plating, which probably still exists...?
While we're on the subject of cartridge alignment: Don't forget a small pair of tweezers for gently pushing delicate clips over cartridge pins. Never use your fingers! Also, if you're buying an inexpensive cartridge, it's going to come with inexpensive (read "cheap'') hardware. Spend a few bucks on high-quality stainless steel or brass hex-head screws and nuts (if your cartridge doesn't come threaded). Different folks prefer different metals. If you want to do a meticulous alignment with stainless and then do it again with brass to hear the difference, be my guest.
For accurate adjustment of azimuthie, the cantilever's perpendicularity to the recordto ensure equal output from each channel and maximum separation, Graham Engineering makes a handy little box for about $175. Or you can make your own by taking a set of cheap interconnectslike the kind that came with your VCRand reversing the hot and ground leads to one channel by cutting, stripping, splicing, soldering, and taping. Get a pair of double female adapters and a double-female/single-male $wY-connector.
Plug your tonearm leads into the double female adapters on one end, and the cut-and-spliced interconnects into the other. Plug the $wY-connector into the open end of the interconnects and the single male plug into your phono input. Play a mono record and adjust azimuth (assuming your arm allows it, of course!) until you hear the least amount of output, and your azimuth will be as close to perfect as you're likely to get. Don't forget to disconnect the contraption before playing records!
For precise speed adjustment, there's the K.A.B. strobe system that JS recommended in February '96. I haven't tried it, but I'll take his word for it. I use the Audiotex Stroboscope Disc No.30-230, which I hope is still being manufactured.
Because cartridge output voltage is so low, cleanliness is extra critical at pin/clip and jack/plug interfaces. I like a liquid cleaner such as Sumiko's Kontak or AudioQuest's UltraConnect for pin/clip cleaning, and A.R.T.'s TR-30 for jack/plug cleaning. TR-30 is Squalene oilshark oil. From what I gather, it's the longest molecule known in nature, and I'm told Ferrari delivers their cars with their crankcases full of it. A.R.T. gives you a white plastic dummy RCA jack/plug combo. You put a few drops of TR-30 on your phono cable's plug, insert it into the dummy plug's jack end, rotate it a few times, and pull it out. It will be dark gray in a hurry. The stuff really works! And it doesn't leave an oily residue.
For cartridge care, an electronic stylus cleaner such as the Audio-Technica AT 637 or equivalent is a must-have, along with a manual brush, which you'll get when you buy LAST Stylus Cleaner and/or StyLast stylus treatment (which I've now decided is safe if used sparingly).
If you're running a moving-coil cartridge, you need a demagnetizer. Period. Used Sumiko FluxBusters can be found occasionally for about $100, and also on the used market you might find AudioQuest's battery-operated unit, which I've never tried. Currently you can get the excellent Audio Physic demagnetizer for around $350, and Musical Surroundings has one for about $200 which seems promising. Then there's always the Cardas demagnetizer/cartridge-cleaning record for about $16. It works, and therefore must be considered a "best buy."
Let's not get too deep into record-cleaning here, except to say that for everyday dustbusting I like the Hunt EDA brush, though I wouldn't kick AudioQuest's Record Brush off my vinyl either. I've never liked the Discwasher record-cleaning brush, nor am I enthused about its stylus-cleaning system: the flip-out brush in the wooden case always struck me as awkward and unpredictable. What's been your experience with their stuff?
Those are some of the many little doohickeys, expensive and inexpensive, that make spinning vinyl more fun. If I missed an accessory you find helpfulparticularly one not specifically made for playing recordsdrop me a line c/o Stereophile.