Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Walker Audio Prelude Record Cleaning System

If you know a lot of people who are into vinyl like I do, there's always someone who has a more obsessive-compulsive way to clean records than you. It's sort of like getting two avid sports fans in the same room and watching them try to outdo each other in terms of sports knowledge and trivia. Forunately, I'm not one of those audiophiles who spends a lot of time worrying about getting my LPs absolutely clean. While I've insisted for years that you NEED a record cleaning machine in order to truly enjoy vinyl, you won't see me hand-washing my LPs in a clean room with reverse osmosis water and a HAZMAT suit.

I've used Nitty Gritty record machines since the mid-1980s, usually in conjunction with some sort of cleaning fluid and brushes. I've tried them all over the years, with the exception of some of those foo-foo brands that charge $100 for a few ounces of their magical elixir. For the last few years, however, I've settled on the QuickWash fluid and brushes from the Disc Doctor. This system is easy to use, effective and it doesn't cost a fortune.

When I visited Terry Combs at Sound Mind Audio last weekend, however, he asked me what I used to clean my records. I told him. He asked me if I knew about the Walker Audio Prelude Record Cleaning System. Well, I had heard of Walker Audio before--their Proscenium turntable is one of the world's best. And, not coincidentally, it is the 'table Terry uses as his reference (when he isn't playing 78s on his Micro Seiki, of course). He retrieved a box from the back room and told me to give it a try. This box was sizable for a record cleaning solution, and it was heavy. I peeked inside and saw a lot of brushes, bottles and jars. "Is it complicated?" I asked. "Not really," he replied, pointing out that some of the home-brew rituals the hardcore collectors employed were much more anal-retentive and complicated.

Then I remembered something. Nearly every LP Terry had played for me, with the exception of the older 78s, sounded absolutely pristine. Surface noise was almost non-existent. Maybe, just maybe, this Walker Audio system was everything it claimed to be.

Once I took the box home, unpacked it and read all of the instructions, it seemed fairly simple and straightforward. No, it's not just a brush and some fluid. First you get a jar of concentrated, active enzymes that must be mixed in small amounts just prior to use. Once the enzymes are mixed with water and activated, they only last about eight hours until they die. You use one of the two supplied measuring scoops and the one empty squirt bottle to mix your enzyme solution. That is step #1.

Step #2 is a pre-mixed cleaning solution, which is pretty self-explanatory. Step #3 is a rinse made from Ultra Pure Laboratory Grade Water. Not distilled water, but ULTRA PURE LABORATORY GRADE WATER. I was tempted to take a sip, but this stuff is almost as expensive per ounce as a bottle of 16-year-old Lagavulin. (By the way, you have to rinse the LPs with the Ultra Pure water twice, which sort of makes it a four-step process.) I checked on the Walker Audio website, and there's now a fourth (or fifth) step that includes a new high-performance rinse that extracts even more foreign matter from the grooves. I may grab a bottle of that later as well for comparison.

You also get three brushes and plenty of replacement pads. The brushes are numbered one through three and are used for each of the three steps to avoid cross-contamination. They are otherwise identical. Walker even supplies a handy plastic tray to hold the brushes while you're cleaning records. You also get a small plastic ruler, and it took me forever to figure out what it was for (it's not identified in the otherwide detailed instructions). I found an explanation on the website--it's for cleaning the fluid out of the brushes! It's a simple and elegant solution.

Mixing and preparing the enzyme fluid was fairly easy and straightforward. You get two tiny plastic scoops--one is larger than the other. With the smaller scoop, Walker says you can clean five to ten records. Simply use a rounded scoop and fill the empty squirt bottle with the Ultra Pure Laboratory Grade Water to Level A. The larger scoop is obviously used for cleaning larger amounts, and you simply fill the bottle to Level B. I used the smaller scoop and found that this amount cleaned way more than 10 records. Maybe I'm not using enough fluid when I'm cleaning, although it certainly seemed to be the right amount. Regardless, you'll have to throw the fluid out when you're done so just make a night of it and clean until it's gone.

The brushes are directional and have arrows marked on one side. The direction of the record spin should actually go into the arrow. Unlike most brush manufacturers, Walker does not encourage you to SCRUB SCRUB SCRUB! Take it easy, they say--vinyl is soft.

Once I was ready to clean, I selected several different records. First, I grabbed perhaps my best-sounding LP--my Three Blind Mice pressing of Tsuyoshi Yamamoto's Midnight Sugar. This is an utterly clean, pristine album with almost no surface noise on the entire disc. I chose it to see how the Walker kit would improve an already nearly perfect LP. I went through the cleaning process and then played the LP. I didn't hear any startling differences. But after a few minutes, I heard something, well...NEW. I heard a bit more decay on the brushed cymbals, and I could distinctly make out the circular motions of the brushes. I've never heard that before. So even on a sparkling clean album, the Walker seems to extract just a bit more music from the grooves. Very interesting.

Next, I pulled out a Decca pressing of Louis Armstrong's Satchmo on Stage. While a great pressing, this particular album was a $3 thrift store buy, and it was dirty, dirty, dirty. It had lots of greasy fingerprints on it, and when played it exhibited a healthy amount of surface noise. I used the Walker kit on this LP and when I was done it positively glowed and sparkled. The fingerprints were completely gone. I've been disappointed in the past to find that most record cleaning fluids simply can't eliminate greasy fingerprints. The Walker kit exterminated them with extreme prejudice. I could see a few scuffs here and there, but no cleaning system will repair a groove to its original state or eliminate scratches. Still, the album looked almost brand new. And it played great, with only about 10% of the original surface noise still present.

Next, I had a very special project in mind for the Walker kit. My Athena pressing of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances from Donald Johanos and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra has always been one of my favorite LPs in terms of sheer sonics. But alas, I have played the hell out of it over the years and it's become overcome with pops and scratches. I haven't been able to listen to it for a few years now because it is so heartbreaking. So I gave this poor, hobbled friend the Walker treatment. For the first couple of minutes I noticed only a slight reduction in groove noise. But then, it suddenly disappeared. I heard a few scattered pops here and there, but my dear friend was suddenly VERY listenable again! For me, that convinced me that the Walker is by far the best record cleaning system I've tried so far.

I do have a couple of caveats, however. First, since you're using about four times as much liquid as you would with a single-fluid product, there's about four times the chance that liquid can slosh around and get on record labels, your hands, your clothing, everything. I found it necessary to keep a small towel nearby just to keep everything dry. Second, since you're vacumming your LPs four times instead of one, your record cleaning machine may start to overheat. My Nitty Gritty was hot to the touch after just two LPs. Since you're compelled to clean at least ten records everytime you break out the Walker system, you might want to pace yourself. Those vacuum cleaner motors on most RCMs can burn out if you aren't careful.

Finally, there's the issue of price. The newer four-step Prelude System, known as the Prelude Quatro, costs $215. The version I have, which is listed as the deluxe kit, runs about $168. Actually, once I saw all of the materials you receive in the kit, I wasn't at all surprised at these prices. In fact, I can easily see the kit lasting me ten or twenty years or so. And you can buy the individual parts of the kit a la carte, so to speak. In that context, the Prelude is an extremely good value.

Then again, after I saw what the Walker Audio Prelude Record Cleaning System did for my Rachmaninoff LP, I'd happily pay even more. This is head-and-shoulders better than anything I've ever used before. If you're a serious record collector, you really should give this a try. The Walker Prelude gets my highest recommendation.

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