This month I try out the new VC-E record-cleaning machine from Pro-Ject Audio Systems, one of the world’s largest makers of turntables. At $499 (all prices USD), the VC-E isn’t the cheapest record cleaner out there, but it’s far from the most expensive, and costs less than Pro-Ject’s VC-S2 ALU ($649), on which the VC-E is based.
In and out of the box
My own record cleaner, a Nitty Gritty 1.5Fi ($1015, discontinued), shares a third-floor room with my reference system, and unless they’re really filthy, I rarely cart LPs from System One upstairs. I’m lazy. So to make the process of cleaning LPs with the Pro-Ject VC-E as convenient as possible, I made space for it on the IKEA shelf that holds my System One electronics, right beside Pro-Ject’s X1 turntable ($899).
The VC-E’s case is attractive, sturdy, and made of a composite with a veneer of aluminum, to withstand spills of cleaning fluid. The VC-E measures 12.2”W x 10.5”H x 8.3”D and weighs 14.3 pounds, and looks as good as it’s built. In contrast, my Nitty Gritty, which has served me well, has a plastic top but is otherwise made mostly of wood veneered with cheap-looking vinyl, which makes it look almost homemade, even old-fashioned, in comparison to the Pro-Ject. The VC-E looks as if it should cost twice the Nitty Gritty’s price, instead of the other way around. Adding to the VC-E’s premium feel is its vacuum arm, which comprises two pieces of aluminum and comes with two strips of adhesive felt already attached to its business edge. The felt is the only thing that actually touches the playing surface of the record being cleaned (two replacement strips are provided, for when the originals wear out or get too dirty).
The VC-E comes mostly preassembled -- all you do is remove the case from its plastic bag, set it on a flat surface, and plug the detachable power cord into the inlet on the side panel with the power switch. To attach the vacuum arm, you place it on the plastic tube that sticks out of the rear of the VC-E’s top deck. This tube has two cutouts, for the arm’s two positions: with the arm sticking out one side and out of the way, so that it won’t touch the record; or with the arm swung into its working position above the record surface, ready to suck up cleaning fluid and debris. You change the arm’s position by lifting it slightly and turning it to the desired position.
The only tool you need to assemble the VC-E that Pro-Ject doesn’t provide is a No.2 Phillips screwdriver, to attach an acrylic disc about the diameter of a record’s label to the motor’s spindle, which also sticks up through the deck. This is a simple matter of placing the acrylic disc over the spindle, then inserting into a hole in the disc’s short shaft a single screw and turning it to tighten it. That done, lay atop the disc its little foam-rubber mat. After that, all you have to do is put an LP on the spindle, followed by the record clamp, and twist the clamp down.
Setup was easy-peasy, but there’s an oddity in the VC-E’s design: the vacuum pump’s exhaust is blown up into the underside of the record being cleaned through a vent a few inches to one side of the spindle. I thought this a weird place for the vent, and wondered if there was a downside to having it there -- such as blowing dust particles into the underside’s groove. Pro-Ject does include a clear protective plate, about the size of a 12” LP, to place over the vent. From the manual: “In regular cleaning scenarios, it is not necessary to use the protective plate. However, when cleaning many records . . . (8-10 in a row), and under certain air conditions (warm temperature and/or high humidity) steam from the ventilator outlet can become an issue. If this is the case, place the protective plate on top of the base plate of the clamp.”
But this makes me wonder why Pro-Ject didn’t just vent the exhaust elsewhere -- after all, their VC-S2 ALU vents to the side. Perhaps it has to do with the VC-E’s smaller size, and because the vent is also how you drain any excess cleaning fluid. To empty the VC-E of this excess, just turn the whole thing upside down over a sink. But I never cleaned more than a few records at a time, never had a problem with the vent, and never used the plate.
The VC-E comes with a 100ml bottle of Pro-Ject’s Wash It record-cleaning fluid, and an empty 500ml plastic bottle for diluting the Wash It with water -- you use the marks on the side of the bigger bottle to measure the quantities of each. Per Pro-Ject: “Mix 1 part of Wash It concentrate with 10-20 parts of distilled/demineralized water. 1:10 is better for old and dirty records. For common cleaning or cleaning with warmed-up cleaning fluid a dilution ratio of 1:20 is sufficient.”
The first two records I cleaned were fairly dirty, but the rest weren’t too bad. I mixed up my first and, so far, only batch of record-cleaning solution at 1:15, which I thought a good compromise. I’ll try other concentrations over time, but first have to use up this first mixture.
Use and sound
Because this was the first time I’d be cleaning records with a Pro-Ject product, I called Buzz Goddard, who represents Pro-Ject Audio Systems in the US, for guidance. I’m glad I did -- the process differs somewhat from using the Nitty Gritty, and he gave me a good tip.
Goddard told me that the VC-E relies on the Wash It solution poured onto the record to do most of the work -- you don’t do any manual scrubbing other than brushing the solution on with a goat’s-hair brush (supplied). He led me through the steps:
Lower the record over the spindle and screw down the clamp. Turn on the motor by pressing a three-position switch mounted on the side of the VC-E -- the top position, marked I, rotates the record clockwise; the bottom position, marked II, spins the record counterclockwise; and the middle position turns the motor off.
As the record spins at 30rpm, clockwise or counterclockwise, and with the vacuum arm still in its rest position -- that is, not placed over the record surface -- pour some of the liquid on the record, and use the brush to gently spread it evenly across the entire playing surface. Because the brush is a little wider than the grooves on a record, I found it easy to smear the liquid evenly across one record side while pressing down to get the ends of the bristles into the groove, to dig out debris. Pro-Ject recommends letting the record make two or three full revolutions in each direction, clockwise and counterclockwise, all while wiping it with the brush. The manual says to then “wait a few seconds” after that step if the record is heavily soiled -- I guess to allow the solution to do more work on its own. I was happy to wait -- a wet LP looks blacker and slicker than a dry one, and I kind of wanted to admire it.
The next step, still with the motor turned on, is to position the vacuum arm over the record, which puts the arm’s felt strips in contact with the record surface (they don’t say which direction it should be turning, but I don’t think it matters), and turn the vacuum on using the other side-mounted switch. In this position, the arm immediately sucks away fluid and debris. Two or three revolutions should do the job. You should then let the record sit for a few minutes before playing or re-sleeving it, to ensure that all of the liquid, even if you can’t see it, has completely evaporated.
Goddard’s tip: When you turn the vacuum off, with the motor still running, several seconds elapse before the vacuum action ceases. During those seconds, you slowly take the arm off, which also sweeps away any debris without leaving it behind on the record surface. With the VC-E and other cleaners I’ve used, including my Nitty Gritty, if you let the vacuum and motor come to a complete stop and leave the record in place, the arm usually leaves behind on the LP a little line of debris and liquid that you then have to wipe or brush off. With the arm swung out of the way, you turn the motor off.
The first record I cleaned was Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s Against the Wind (LP, Capitol SOO-12041). Both of my vinyl copies of this album are in poor shape, with surface noise and groove damage, and are pretty dirty from being played so often. I cleaned only one copy, just in case I damaged it my first time out. In doing so, I learned a couple more things.
First, it’s easy to smear too much cleaning fluid on the LP, as the manual warns: “Use only the necessary amount of fluid (6-8ml), enough to cover the record, not the machine!” I drenched side 1 of Against the Wind -- fluid dripped off the edge of the disc. The manual also cautions against the second mistake I made: “If the top plate and screw clamp are too loose, the record will not turn even if the motor is running.” Fearing I’d strip the clamp’s threads by screwing it down too tightly, I’d left it too loose. Everything went fine until the vacuuming stage -- I swung the arm over the LP and turned the vacuum on, but the record didn’t turn, though the motor spun and spun. I was impressed that the vacuum’s suctioning was that powerful. There’s a learning curve to the VC-E, but it’s short and shallow.
That first cleaning of Copy 1 of Against the Wind was a success, and Goddard’s tip worked -- much debris was removed, no line of debris was left on the playing surface, and when I then played it, there was less surface noise, far fewer ticks and pops, and the high frequencies in particular sounded more detailed and clear. Of course, the VC-E couldn’t remove years’ worth of wear and tear on the groove -- I still heard some surface noise that’s not going to go away no matter what I do. But overall, I was happy with the result -- on my first try, the VC-E had done at least as good a job as my Nitty Gritty 1.5Fi. I was also surprised that, despite the Pro-Ject’s procedure being more hands-on than the Nitty Gritty’s, which has a handy, built-in reservoir and hand pump for the cleaning fluid, I could clean a record faster with the Pro-Ject. Perhaps this was because the VC-E spins the record faster and its vacuum is more powerful.
Time to clean my dirtiest, most damaged LP, one I’d picked up for $3 at a Salvation Army store: George Winston’s Winter into Spring (LP, Windham Hill 91019). This album’s ticks, pops, and surface noise are bad enough that, as I said in this column last July, I wondered if someone had spilled a Coke on it -- and that was after I’d cleaned it three times with the Nitty Gritty. In fact, after writing that column, I stopped playing this disc on the Pro-Ject X1 turntable -- some of the remaining pops are so loud that I thought I might damage the stylus.
After covering each side of Winter into Spring in turn with my 1:15 solution of Wash It, I gave each side three full rotations in each direction on the VC-E, all the while pressing down the bristles of the brush. I then let each side sit for over a minute before vacuuming off the solution.
That first cleaning reduced the surface noise considerably, but most important were the changes in the nasty pops throughout the album. The worst of them had disappeared, which meant that they’d been caused by particles of foreign matter stuck in the groove rather than by damage done to the groove itself. The ticks and pops that remained had been lower in level in the first place -- they were still annoying, but now I wasn’t so worried that they’d damage the stylus. The VC-E had done a better job of cleaning this filthy, beat-up record than the Nitty Gritty had. I was impressed.
For this LP’s second cleaning I repeated everything above, with these exceptions: I brushed each side in both directions for only two rotations each, and didn’t wait to vacuum off the solution. I didn’t want to be too aggressive with the grooves twice in one day -- you can overdo record cleaning. The surface noise was reduced just a bit more, though I’m not sure that any of the ticks and pops that had remained after the first cleaning had now been removed. But Winter into Spring certainly didn’t sound worse. But since the improvement after this second cleaning wasn’t as big as I’d heard after the first, I didn’t want to try a third cleaning -- I was probably reaching the point of diminishing returns where the noise level wouldn’t decrease much more, but I’d be in danger of further damaging the record.
Finally, I cleaned my copies of Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love (Columbia COC 40999), Steely Dan’s Aja (ABC 9022-1006), and the Eagles’ On the Border (Asylum 7E3-1004). Tunnel of Love is in good shape -- I always give it a light cleaning with my record brush. Aja and On the Border aren’t in quite as good condition, but they’re far better than Against the Wind or Winter into Spring, and both, like the Springsteen, are reasonably clean. A regular light cleaning is all that’s required to keep these three LPs in good condition, and that was child’s play for the VC-E.
The resulting differences in sound weren’t night-and-day, which wasn’t surprising -- they weren’t very dirty to begin with -- but still, the VC-E reduced their surface noise, which always happens after a good cleaning. The VC-E worked as advertised.
More than turntables
I’ve used Pro-Ject turntables, but I’d never used one of their record cleaners, and had no idea what to expect from the VC-E. Now that I have used this record cleaner, there’s no doubt in my mind that, despite the odd placement of the exhaust vent of the VC-E’s vacuum pump, Pro-Ject knows how to make a record cleaner that’s as good as their turntables and, like them, is available at a fair price.
The VC-E not only worked well, equaling or bettering the cleaning prowess of my Nitty Gritty 1.5Fi at twice the price (when available) -- it’s also better built, and looks more modern. For $499, the VC-E is easy to recommend to anyone looking for a good record cleaner that’s good-looking and should last a very long time. I’m keeping this one.
. . . Doug Schneider