Listening #27 Page 2
Loricraft PRC-4 record-cleaning machine: Terror from the year 2000
Smart Devices, Inc., the Georgia-based distribution company that took on the Loricraft line not long ago, has loaned me a sample of the PRC-4. Having a Loricraft back in my life has been a real treat—and this time I took advantage of the chance to see what it's made of.
The acrylic platter, which is topped with a grippy and cleanable rubber mat, is bolted to a surprisingly well-made, belt-driven subplatter, although its thickly greased roller bearings are designed more for longevity than low noise. A larger-than-usual AC motor provides enough torque that even a heavy brushing won't stop the record from spinning—not that you should try any such thing.
A smaller synchronous motor, fitted with a 20:1 gearbox, drives the vacuum system's pickup arm. The motor's armature is topped with a powerful rare-earth magnet, and the bottom of the arm's main bearing axle is fitted with the magnet's mate: This is the "clutch" that allows you to move the arm around without having to disengage the drive mechanism, as it were. The arm itself comprises three brass tubes: The largest is structural; the slender one that's brazed to its underside carries the clean thread from its spool; and the thin tube on top carries both the spent thread and the sucked-up fluid as they pass through the opening in the arm's smooth nylon tip. Beyond all that, the thing looks like any other pivoted, captured-bearing arm. Loricraft recommends running it at a downforce of about 2.5gm, at which setting the adjustable counterweight is very close to the arm's fulcrum: As a design exercise, at least, this shames more than a few tonearms I've used over the years.
The thing is nicely made overall, with some details especially well done: the rubber switch covers, the dressing of the wires inside (neat where it didn't have to be), the eye-catching contrast between the pale ash cabinet and the shiny black acrylic top. Too bad you can't see the pump from the outside, because it's a thing of beauty, especially to the person who sees beauty in pumps: a sturdy and comparatively quiet dual-diaphragm number from the venerable Charles Austen Company, with an in-line silencer.
The Loricraft comes with a brush of the usual sort: 3" or so long, unfinished wood handle, white nylon bristles. It's all right, I suppose—certainly not as disconcertingly stiff as some—but I prefer the brushes from the Disc Doctor, which consist of an extruded rubber handle with stick-on velvet pads, and which are available in sizes for LPs, 45s, and all the other weird ones, too. It's not that the Disc Doctor brushes clean records any better (although for all I know they may): An LP record groove can be as small as 0.002" from wall to wall, which is something to keep in mind whenever you hear about record-brush bristles "getting down into" the grooves—or, sillier still, bristles that supposedly have an elliptical profile. That's a load of crap.
No, I like the Disc Doctor brushes because their pads are replaceable—meaning that, with care, a single brush could be made to last a lifetime—and because the short-fibered, nappy pads are better at spreading fluid evenly over the entire grooved surface of the record without dripping it everywhere else. Also, because the handles of the Disc Doctor brushes are made of rubber, dropping one on the record's surface is unlikely to do much damage. And, believe me, when you've got fluid all over the place, three motors going at once, and a platter that's spinning at 82rpm, it's easy to get distracted.
Complaints? When I first tried a Loricraft PRC-3 in 2000, I criticized its lack of a dustcover: Cleaning devices should themselves be kept clean, I thought. The folks at Smart Devices agreed, and began supplying a soft, loose nylon cover with each machine—the sort you see on computer printers, fax machines, and those sorts of things. I also criticized the machine's lack of a clip to secure the arm when it's not in use, and that still needs to be addressed. In fact, it's hard to remove the dustcover without it catching on the pickup arm and bouncing the arm around. (Where critics are concerned, no good deed goes unpunished.)
I also criticized the lack of adjustable leveling feet—a lack that also persists, though I'm no longer sure it's such a big deal. At the time, it seemed to me that making the PRC-3 perfectly level helped prevent the machine's only real behavioral flaw: the pickup arm's occasional tendency to jump ahead of itself a fraction of an inch, leaving small spirals of wetness behind. Now I realize that this is at least somewhat record dependent, and that the unmodulated bands between individual songs are more likely than anything else to make it hiccup. (Lead-out grooves, for their part, can really mess with its head.) Nor does the problem seem to change appreciably in response to moderate decreases or increases in downforce. The skipping may be just an unavoidable characteristic of a device in which a relatively small force at one end of a cantilever is used to try to push the other end of the cantilever, by small increments, against frictional resistance: Perfect smoothness of motion is difficult to achieve. I've more or less made peace with that.
Obscured by clods
All of that pales into insignificance when you hear what a Loricraft cleaning can do.
First came the hard cases: records whose grooves were so encrusted with egregious filth that they sounded physically damaged. I've told you about my eBay Sgt. Pepper's, a true story that continues to impress everyone—even people who try to pretend they don't care. (Impossible!) Another was a second-hand copy of Chris Stamey's Instant Excitement (Coyote COY 007), a record that had eluded me until recently, despite my attempts to collect all of his and the dB's' vinyl releases. The intro to Stamey's great version of John Lennon's "Instant Karma," which so depends on the space surrounding those first, ominous chords, was all but spoiled by noise—until the Loricraft had a go. That record is now, no exaggeration, dead quiet. Except for the music, of course.
But the gains of Loricrafting are more, and more subtle, than just that. The PRC-4 has proven so effective that it's gone beyond its predecessor in compelling me to clean virtually every record I play—and the results are sometimes stunning. Maybe it's because the groove modulations that represent delicate overtones and even very-high-frequency fundamentals are so slight and so easily obscured by chunks of crud, but a thorough Loricrafting often brought about gains in clarity and realism in the sounds of some instruments—the triangle in the well-known Reiner/CSO recording of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker suite, for example (RCA Living Stereo LSC-2328).
Now I ask you: Who is there among us who wouldn't want such a thing?
You've heard it all before: an audio critic telling you that there are things out there you've never heard before. And maybe you already know what a good record-cleaning can do for the sound of your music, courtesy VPI or Nitty Gritty and their own, considerably less expensive variations on the theme. What can a Loricraft tell you that you don't already know? Two things:
• Both of the Loricraft cleaning machines I've used have left records both clean and static-free: Sucking up all the fluid and solubilized dirt with a nylon-tipped wand, one spiral at a time, seems much better in that regard than doing it more or less all at once, with a long radial vacuum slot. I imagine that's a more or less unavoidable consequence of the latter's velvet-coated surface, although I don't remember if the VPI and Nitty Gritty machines avoided that problem back in their early days, when a peel-and-stick Teflon coating took the place of velvet.
• Here's something else having to do with those velvet lips: You've got to clean them pretty often if you don't want to recontaminate the next side, or the next record, with dirt picked up from the last. I once ruined a record that way, in the early 1980s—with a speck of grit that had contaminated the pickup tube of my Nitty Gritty, like an unbleached needle. Strange, the things you never forget.
With the Loricraft, by contrast, one simply gives the spool of thread a little twist while the vacuum is on, and a clean bit is tugged into place. Neat, in every sense of the word.
Does the Loricraft's vacuum device get down deeper, closer to the groove, than a radial slot? Does the PRC-4's stronger vacuum suck up more dirt than the PRC-3's? I don't know—and neither does anyone else: record cleaning is another one of those things that's governed more by believability and likability than probability. And I like the PRC-4.
Beyond all that, the Loricraft's undeniable appeal comes down to window-dressing: It's easier to use. It's quieter. And it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch, especially to the person who sees fun in pumps.
Static or no, dirty lips or no, even the most expensive VPI machine, the HW-17, sells for less than half the PRC-4's asking price—and at less than $500, the excellent VPI 16.5 remains the genre's most notable bargain—so it's difficult to see how anyone could think of the Loricraft as even a good value. It isn't. But it's easy to love in its own right, even as that love is hard to explain to people who are indifferent to oddball tonearms and the pull of musty vinyl.