Analog Corner #80

"Powdered eggnog, tunes on vinyl," read the headline on the front page of a holiday season New York Times. It was a story about Marines in Afghanistan who were spending Christmas in the newly reopened American embassy. The place had been quickly abandoned in 1980 and, incredibly, when the American soldiers entered the building, they found everything left just as it had been more than 20 years before. So, said the Times, the poor deprived soldiers listened to The Who and Led Zeppelin on vinyl while drinking reconstituted eggnog.

Wouldn't it have been funny had one of the soldiers been a vinyl addict?

"Wow, that's an original UK Track pressing of Who's Next! Keep yer greasy paws off the grooves, private! Here, lemme check the stylus pressure before we play it..."

Sarge tweaks the 'table and the uninitiated get their first taste of black plastic.

"Damn, that record sounds better than my CD! How can that be? I've never heard Entwistle's bass sound so kick-ass!"

Unfortunately, the story didn't catalog the embassy's vinyl collection or the make and model of turntable. Whatever happened to "All the news that's fit to print"?

I was about to fire off one of my typically heated letters to the editor when I stopped myself, thinking maybe "tunes on vinyl" was simply a statement of fact, and not necessarily linked to the "powdered eggnog." Maybe I am growing up.

Another Armor-All Debacle?
At the risk of getting into some hot water, may I suggest you consider steam-cleaning your records? I got an e-mail from a reader telling me about the Eureka Hot Shot 350A, a small, handheld steam-cleaning device that he uses to "pre-spot" LPs before cleaning them with a vacuum machine. The Hot Shot is supposed to be used on greasy stove tops, showers, toilets, or, using the supplied accessories, on upholstery. "To clean LPs, I was told to avoid all attachments and shoot straight from the bottle," he wrote.

It sounded wacky, but when it comes to cleaning an LP, I'll try anything that sounds like a good idea. I ordered a Hot Shot from a vacuum-cleaner website for about $75. When I'd finally gotten up the nerve to try it, I filled it with distilled water, plugged it in, and when it started steamin' about three minutes later, I cradled a dirty record in one arm and, with my other hand, gave the vinyl quick shots of steam from the Hot Shot. For obvious reasons, you should avoid steaming the label; my aim was good enough to do that, but just in case, I kept an absorbent towel handy.

The idea is to loosen ground-in dirt and caked-on crud to make it easier for the cleaning fluid to float the pollutants in suspension so the vacuum can suck them away. The steam was hot, but not hot enough to melt or warp the records.

Pre-steaming worked particularly well on mistreated used records, many of which come without inner sleeves and thus have a grimy, filmy, difficult-to-remove substance on their surfaces. Steaming also worked very well on mildewed records. About 10 years ago I rescued a Reader's Digest set of Music of the World's Great Composers from a wet basement. The outer box was trashed, but the records seemed okay, although there was powdery stuff all over many, and with some, the paper inner sleeves were stuck to the grooves. A mess. Until the Hot Shot arrived, I'd never found the time or the will to try to resurrect the set. The steam softened the paper and loosened the gum, making both easy to remove. A second shot of steam, drying with a soft cloth followed by the Disc Doctor's regimen, a final vacuuming, and the records were once again playable, and mostly quiet.

The e-mailer who suggested the steam process wished to remain anonymous, but said that he'd pulled three copies of the same album that he had. One copy was sealed, one was used and had been cleaned (but not with steam), and the third was used and steam-cleaned. Guess which sounded best to him?

I haven't had time to do an A/B/C comparison, nor will I likely ever, but based on the results I got from cleaning a crud-encrusted LP of Johnny Cash's Any Old Way the Wind Blows (Columbia KCS 32091), I'd say the Eureka Hot Shot 305A is a valuable weapon in the war against dirty vinyl. If you're wondering about the Hot Shot's ability to clear off the white, scummy residue that sometimes leaches out of the polybags used by London, Columbia, and some other labels, so am I! I know I have some of those somewhere, but couldn't find any in time for this month's column.

Remembering the furor over Sam Tellig's recommendation of treating CDs with Armor-All in the late 1980s, I hereby offer this steam-cleaning disclaimer: I will not be responsible for readers who damage their LPs with the Hot Shot.

Brushless Stylus Cleaning: The Onzow Zero Dust
It's a circular mound of semi-gelatinous goop in a box, onto which you gently lower your stylus. After a few seconds, you lift the stylus, and it's as clean and residue-free as the proverbial whistle—or baby's butt. In fact, a baby's soft skin is what manufacturer Onzow likens Zero Dust to. The dirt left on the transparent mound is testimony to the effectiveness of the process.

The Zero Dust's cover contains a magnifying glass so you can see just how much schmutz the goop has removed. When the goop is so populated with dirt you can't find a clean spot upon which to plop your stylus, you wash it off with some detergent and let it dry. It's then as good as new. Upside: no potentially dangerous brushing, and no fluids. Downside: if you like to leave your platter spinning, you'll have to stop it each time, or find another steady surface upon which to perform the operation.

Never raise the Zero Dust to the stylus. If your movement is anything other than vertical, you might do serious damage. I'm only speculating about this, as I (obviously!) haven't tried it. The Zero Dust costs around $70 and is available, I believe, from the usual analog accessory dealers. Music Direct carries it. Highly recommended.

(Despite Zero Dust's effectiveness, every so often I clean my stylus with Disc Doctor stylus cleaner and a soft brush, just in case. Guess I'm a traditionalist.)

VPI Aries Extended turntable with JMW Memorial 12.5 tonearm
It's been a few years since I've reviewed a VPI product, and because I didn't think the reasonably priced Aries ($2800 for Extended version) had been covered in Stereophile, I asked VPI's Harry Weisfeld to send me one.

Given the space constraints of this column, I'm happy to say that most of what you'll need to understand about the Aries' technical details were well covered in Brian Damkroger's recent review of the special left-handed version of VPI's TNT Mk.5 (December 2001, p.139.). The Aries uses a similar bearing (the one supplied with the TNT IV), platter, and standalone motor in a case a few inches shorter and 4 lbs lighter. And, of course, the 12.5 tonearm ($2800) is the same.

The biggest differences are the suspension and plinth. The TNT is suspended. The Aries rests on four corner cones that used to be hard-mounted to the plinth, which is 2"-thick MDF stiffened with a 10-gauge steel plate bolted to the bottom. Now the cones are attached with a Neoprene sandwich in a way that allows for some horizontal give. The 12.5 arm (".5" refers to an upgrade, not an added half inch of length) is bolted directly to the plinth. As with the top-of-the-line TNT V-HR, there's no changeable armboard for added rigidity. The Aries Extended is very similar, then, to a TNT V-HR minus the air suspension and flywheel. At $5600 including arm, it's a much better value than the TNT version, don't you think? Which is not to say it sounds as good. (I didn't have both here to compare.)

As I unpacked the Aries and easily set it up, it was obvious to me that, since I'd last had a VPI in-house, the firm's quality of fit'n'finish had gone way up—especially of the arm, which has also been upgraded since the original version I reviewed a few years ago.

BD's review covered the workings, upgrades, and setup quite well, so I'll get right to the point: You can save a great deal of money by buying the Aries instead of the TNT, and I bet you the sound is very, very close. But if you're not super-careful about what you place it on, and if you don't level it precisely, you won't get what you paid for.

The Aries Extended will not fit on a standard rack, so I had to use one of the Grand Prix Audio acrylic platforms atop my new Finite Element stand, which has built-in tuning forks and makes everything I've placed on it sound better...but that's for another time. The Aries on the acrylic was a disaster: despite the motor's rubber feet, it fed back into the plinth and right up into the arm—especially when the second contact point near the armrest was screwed down for extra rigidity. Remember: With an essentially suspensionless design, rigid mounting is a two-way vibrational street! A high-pitched motor whine was clearly audible under the music.

The solution for me was to put an A.R.T. carbon-fiber composite Q Damper under each of the four cones, and four Wagner (Division of DiversiTech) vibration dampers under the motor. Someone handed me the non-audiophile Wagner dampers at a press event, and they sat on a shelf until the problem with the Aries. I don't know what Wagner makes them for, but boy, did they work! Using my trusty stethoscope, I found that the motor noise had been completely blocked from reaching the plinth.

Speaking of the motor, the turntable ran slightly slow—probably less than 1%. I added VPI's SDS motor controller ($1000), which I'd bought a few years ago, and brought the speed up to precisely 331/3rpm. Adding a precision motor controller to any top-shelf turntable is a no-brainer; if I were buying an Aries, I'd get it with a controller.

I put the higher-resolution Helikon SL cartridge on the JMW arm and the regular Helikon on the Simon Yorke/Immedia/Vibraplane combo and did lots of listening. The first conclusion was easy to reach: Today's JMW/Aries combo is much better than the JMW/TNT combo I auditioned a few years ago. How much of the improvement was a result of the arm's upgrade, the improved bearing, other 'table refinements, or all of these, I don't know. But the bass tightness and textural resolution were much improved, and much closer to the performance of the Yorke than I remember the TNT I owned being when I reviewed the original JMW arm. Background noise was never a problem with the TNT; once I'd eliminated the feedback, the Aries, too, presented jet-black backgrounds. I found the bass performance of that original combo pretty warm and fuzzy compared to the Yorke/Immedia's tight, focused, rhythmically assured bottom end.

Still, the lower-resolution, lower-focus Helikon on the Yorke out-resolved the SL on the Aries/JMW 12.5 combo. Kick drums in particular still had more focus, definition, textural context, and rhythmic "pop" through the Yorke/Immedia combo, but the difference wasn't nearly as pronounced as it had been a few years before. When I reversed cartridges, of course, the differences between the two presentations were more pronounced.

The sonic picture the Aries/JMW 12.5 painted was still big, assured, and relaxed, but far more detailed overall, with faster transients and far greater rhythmic excitement than the original arm delivered with my TNT. It took but a few seconds to switch phono-cable leads between the two 'tables, and after a few tracks the comparisons became predictable—but not before the non-biased (no antiskating) JMW pointed out to me that, after removing the SL to use it on the JMW, I'd overcompensated the Immedia arm for skating during a hasty setup. The JMW's center-image positioning and focus were far more convincing, as was the overall lateral soundstaging. (Now there's a quote ripe for misuse!) I dialed back the antiskating on the Immedia and saw the error of my ways.

While I believe that no antiskating is better than improperly designed and/or set-up antiskating, I still think skating is real and that antiskating is a benefit. (Twisting the tonearm wire loop to create a counterforce is simply not an acceptable solution.) At the end of the record, the JMW arm flew in toward the spindle, as you'd expect with no antiskating. That told me the stylus was biased toward the inner groove wall. Of course, with too much antiskating applied, the opposite wall will get the excessive force, so take care when setting antiskating on your tonearm.

As one reviewer put it, the original JMW arm—with its laid-back, smooth, soft, and (I felt) uncertain presentation—sounded as if the music was struggling to get out. The 12.5 edition on the VPI Aries was still not for a speed'n'detail freak like me, but the music flew out unimpeded. Compared to my reference, the images were bigger, richer, somewhat rounder and softer, the pace somewhat slower. But the sound was compelling, the presentation substantial, with form and rhythmic solidity—all things I'd had trouble finding with the original design. And tonally, the arm was far more neutral than the original, because it wasn't weighted down in the midbass/bass region.

I found the original tonearm's performance deficient in some ways. I can't say that about what I heard from the JMW 12.5/Aries combo. Its presentation differed from that of my reference, and from what I prefer, but I could hear where many listeners might prefer it. I listened through the same two sides of Frank Sinatra's Live at the Sands (Reprise 2FS 1019) on both rigs, and they sure sounded different, but both had strengths and weaknesses. One thing's for sure: I'd avoid using softer, mellower cartridges with the JMW/Aries combo.

The JMW 12.5/Extended Aries combo is easy to set up and to use, especially if you like to tweak VTA with every record (I pity you), and especially (because you can change perfectly set-up armtubes in seconds) if you want to use more than one cartridge—say, a mono Helikon or Grado for your mono LPs. At $5600, this is VPI's most attractive high-performance package. And you can easily upgrade the bearing to the Mk.V.

Benz Micro Glider L2 moving-coil phono cartridge
Another significant upgrade of a fine, reasonably priced performer, Benz Micro's Glider L2 ($795) incorporates some significant improvements, including a 6 by 40µ;m nude, line-contact, low-mass stylus, side-bonded by hand to the laser-trimmed edge of a solid boron cantilever. A new high-tech O-ring damper of soft butyl rubber is said to provide better consistency, longer life, and greater resistance to temperature variations. A change to the rear pole-piece assembly is said to make it easier to adjust azimuth during manufacturing. New silver coil windings are used, and the tracking angle has been reduced to 20° from 22°, allowing the armtube to be more parallel to the record surface. And the new 24K gold-plated aluminum frame makes the bodiless Glider L2 look good. The L2 has a moderately low output of 0.4mV and an internal impedance of 12 ohms, with loading recommended anywhere between 100 ohms and 47k ohms. It weighs 6.8gm and tracks at between 1.8 and 2.2gm. (Also available are M2 and H2 versions, with 0.8mV and 2.5mV outputs, respectively.)

Yes, but what did the Glider L2 sound like? I carefully mounted the nude L2 in a Graham armtube and tracked it at 2.0gm in the Graham 2.2 tonearm. The 40-hour break-in period was anything but painful. The original Glider was competent, sweet-sounding, and reasonably detailed, but was also, for my tastes, boring—especially on top, where it lacked transient snap. The Glider L2 is so much better overall that it wouldn't have been out of line to have renamed it altogether. However, the original Glider was a very popular cartridge for many reasons; I don't blame Benz Micro for sticking with the old name.

While the change in tracking angle means the arm doesn't have to be quite as far down in back as before, it still needs to be down somewhat. When I ran the arm with the tube parallel to the record, the prodigious bass was sloppy and uncontrolled. With the arm dialed down a bit, the bass locked into place to provide a fine foundation for the music. That tells me that though the Glider L2 is not an expensive cartridge, it should be treated like one—don't mount it on an arm whose VTA you can't adjust, or your chances of getting the most from the L2 will be a crapshoot.

Once everything was dialed- and broken-in, I sat down for many hours of listening pleasure. The L2 proved a far more interesting cartridge than the original Glider. The top end was more extended and more detailed, with more shimmer to cymbals and bite to brass. It was still on the smooth, slightly warm side compared to some other cartridges, but this balance struck me as ideal for the kind of systems and turntables it's likely to be used with.

As with the VPI Aries, the L2's fit'n'finish are much better than the original; I believe the line in the manufacturer's blurb about "better consistency" was in answer to a criticism of the Glider that I heard often: that there was sample-to-sample mechanical and sonic variation. The L2 appears to be a much more refined product, and it sounded that way. I played Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth (4AD 3013) and found the bass performance impressively deep and well-controlled, while the shaker had the correct "woody" overtones, without smear. Lisa Gerrard's ululations were well-textured; I could easily hear what she was doing with her upper throat to achieve them. The sound was properly fleshy without being warmed-over.

The differences between the $795 Glider L2 and multi-thousand-dollar cartridges were detail, speed, and resolution of depth. Image sizes were somewhat bigger than life and the overall focus was slightly soft, but with the bigger images came a big, exciting soundstage. Overall, the Glider's harmonic depth and complexity were very satisfying; even snobby audiophiles used to far more expensive spreads will have no problem spending a few hours with the L2 tracking their vinyl.

A Glider L2 will set you back only $600 if you trade in one of Musical Surroundings' other cartridges, $650 if you trade in anyone else's. There are two ways of looking at trade-ins. Since most of what gets traded in is essentially worthless, either the distributor is taking a cut in profits as an incentive to get you to buy or as a reward for brand loyalty, or they've built the loss from the trade-in into the list price. I don't have Musical Surroundings' books in front of me, so I don't know whether or not their trade-in policy is a loss-leader. But remember: Just because two cartridges sell for $800 each doesn't mean that the one you can get for $600 is necessarily the better deal. That said, given the Benz Micro Glider L2's high build quality and sonic performance, it's a good deal whether you've got an old Glider or an old shoe to trade in, or nothing at all.

And finally...
Acoustic Sounds has licensed some metal parts originally used in Fantasy's outstanding OJC series of jazz and blues LPs. The new records are being pressed at RTI on 180gm vinyl and are available for $20 each. Check out the Acoustic Sounds website:

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Muddy Waters, Folk Singer, Chess/Classic 180gm Quiex SV LP
2) Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Analogue Productions 180gm LP
3) The Byrds, The Preflyte Sessions, Sundazed 180gm LPs/CDs (2 each)
4) Radiohead, I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, Parlophone import LP
5) Built to Spill, Ancient Melodies of the Future, Up LP
6) The Strokes, Is This It, RCA 180gm LP
7) The Byrds, Sanctuary III, Sundazed 180gm LP
8) Misha Mengelberg Quartet, Four in One, Songlines Hybrid SACD
9) Jim O'Rourke, Insignificance, Drag City LP/CD
10) Mercury Rev, All is Dream, V2 180gm import LP

Tom L's picture
Hergest's picture

You do realise this is an article from 2002 yes? With Zerodust probably selling a great deal more nowadays to a much larger vinyl market than 16 years ago then one would expect the price to drop significantly.

Tom L's picture

...I did realize that. I was just updating the price. Is that OK?

jokerman's picture

The Zerodust damaged two (2) of my styli totalling $600 for 2 replacements. Yes, I stupid enough to try it a second time thinking that it must have been something else that damaged the first one. Use that product at your own risk!

Zardoz's picture

Unless there is movement of the Onzow when you lower the stylus on to it, there shouldn't be anyway for it to cause damage.
Just wondering what kind of issue you had.

Steelhead's picture

I was gifted one by a cool seller a few years ago on some vinyl related purchase I made.

I tried it a couple of times and it appeared to have too much tension and the stylus just rested on top of it (do not know if this was in fact true but this is how it appeared to my eye). Very lightly pressed down and the stylus came away clean and no issues.

However the above process was too much for me and also I am like a bot or droid and have used LAST stylus cleaner and stylast for so many decades that NOT using it is unimaginable for this lp spinner.

I liked that it took care of dust buildup much more effectively than LAST and I use small judicious blasts of compressed air with the LAST treatment. It worked well but was just too dicey for this old guy to futz with it the way I used it.

I paid it forward and gave it to someone who wanted one.