Brilliant Corners #14: The Degritter Record Cleaning Machine and a New Vinyl Listening Space in Manhattan

I've always been a city dweller and can't lay claim to having owned boats, riding mowers, shotguns, basement refrigerators, golf clubs, or even patio furniture. When I moved to a loft from an apartment with a tiny backyard some 13 years ago, I even had to give up my Weber grill. This geographical fact has kept my possessions streamlined. My favorites include a handful of old waxed cotton coats, a couple dozen leather boots and shoes, a few mechanical watches, my Garrard 301 turntable, a roomful of books, and rather a lot of art, much of it made by friends. But without a doubt my fondest possessions are my records. At last count they numbered around 3500. Of course they are beautiful, both as objects and as conduits for music. But what I enjoy even more is the fact that I'm not really their owner, merely a custodian: Most of the records belonged to others before I bought them, and after I'm gone they'll find new owners who'll hopefully appreciate them as much as I do. So I feel I owe it to all of us to keep them in decent condition.

For years, that meant scrubbing and vacuuming them with a VPI HW-16.5 record-cleaning machine. My partner gave one to me for my birthday about 25 years ago. I recall being quite excited about it. It cost around $400 (it sells for two-and-a-half times that today) and, for better or worse, it outlasted my partner. It has also become the best-selling machine of its kind, found in countless record shops, music archives, and homes. The VPI is sturdy enough to last forever, and more importantly, it works. God bless it.

To be completely honest, though, my relationship with the VPI has been a bit rocky. Over the years I've gone on record-cleaning frenzies, vacuuming my way through a couple of dozen LPs at a time, but in between, the machine has lingered on its shelf, sometimes for many months. The reason is simple: While it works, it's not a whole lot of fun to use. Not difficult by any means, just loud and messy. There's the squirting of cleaning fluid and then distilled water onto the record surfaces (the rinse cycle is essential!), the vigorous hand brushing, the vacuuming loud enough to scare away cats and smaller humans, the mopping up of spills, and finally the uncomfortably biomorphic task of emptying the dirty fluid from the plastic tube protruding from the machine's posterior.

So when I began reading about machines that use high-frequency sound waves to blast records with tiny imploding bubbles in a process called cavitation, I was intrigued. (This process has been covered in so much detail elsewhere that I will admit to coming to the party late and say no more about it.) Ultrasonic machines are reputed to be quieter than their vacuum counterparts and to clean records more thoroughly. And some offer a fully automatic cleaning cycle, with no scrubbing required. Of course most are also considerably more expensive. For years I resisted the temptation and added clutter, believing that my vacuum machine was entirely, perfectly fine. But eventually, as it often does, my curiosity got the better of me, and I dispatched an email to the distant land of Estonia, located on the cool and amber dotted shores of the Baltic Sea. And by and by, the Degritter Mark II ultrasonic record cleaning machine ($3280; footnote 1) made its way to my home in Brooklyn.

On the third page of the Degritter's thorough and genuinely informative user manual, there's a photo I think is meant to capture the lifestyle promised by this novel device. It shows a middle-aged man in a metallic-gray suit inside a room filled with Scandinavian midcentury furniture. He sprawls awkwardly in a chair holding a snifter of what I can only presume is an old cognac while next to him, on a sideboard beside a potted plant, a Degritter is cleaning a record. The man's face is fixed in an expression somewhere between satisfaction and cruelty; for some reason, the whole scene is bathed in blue light. While it's easy to poke fun at this rather artless photo, the truth is that for the past several weeks, the Degritter has been sitting on my sideboard beside my potted plants and my chair, in which I've sprawled during record-cleaning cycles with a look of distinct, and probably cruel, satisfaction.

One reason I've left the Degritter in plain sight of nonaudiophile visitors—something it never occurred to me to do with the VPI—is that it's really nice to look at. About the size of toaster oven, made of alloy rather than plastic, it sports a pleasantly sleek, matte-black exterior undisturbed by protruding hoses or other unseemly appurtenances. The only break in its form is its name, set in a white typeface of the kind you might spot over the entrance to a retro diner.

Better yet, the Degritter cleans records from beginning to end with a single push of a button while displaying the progress on a round, smart-looking LED screen, and it does this without emitting any painfully loud or jarring sounds. I have to admit that I enjoy watching the record rotate purposefully in the machine while doing something entirely unrelated, like reading or plotting revenge or composing emails to the Internal Revenue Service.

For those wondering about how the Mark II differs from the original Degritter, reviewed in these pages in 2020, the most significant among the various refinements is the addition of Pulse Mode, which replaces a steady-state ultrasonic frequency with short, higher-energy pulses. The company claims that this makes the machine more effective and lowers its power consumption.

Nothing about using the Degritter Mark II feels kludgy or illogical—it struck me as a product in which the kinks had been smoothed out. Still, the Degritter isn't entirely free of fuss. A full cleaning—you can opt for one to four revolutions plus an optional presoak cycle—takes 11 minutes, considerably longer than a cleaning in the VPI. Part of this is the roughly three-minute drying cycle, which sounds about as loud as a hair dryer. After every 50 records, the filter—which is roughly the size of a single piece of rigatoni—must be cleaned, as does the interior of the machine itself. Failure to do so voids the warranty. Also, the water tank must be filled with a considerable quantity of distilled water and changed every one to two weeks to prevent bacterial growth.

Somewhat annoyingly, when using the machine often, I find that I need to top up the tank every day. And when I clean more than two or three records in a row, the machine goes into a cooling cycle to prevent the water from getting too hot and cooking my LPs, which adds several minutes to the cleaning time. Finally, I wonder about the utility of being able to select fewer than four revolutions—maybe I'm compulsive, but I fail to see the point of using less cleaning than the machine can offer and always opt for the full cycle.

But all this fine print hardly matters if the machine doesn't make your records sound better. Which the Degritter does, though in a different manner than I expected. I'd assumed it would clean records like the VPI, only more so. What I discovered is that it effects a whole other type of cleanliness.

Like most vacuum machines, the VPI is particularly good at removing the really coarse schmutz that causes crackle, hiss, and popping during playback. It also does away with fingerprints and other surface marks (though of course no machine can remove scratches). After a vacuum cleaning, records play with noticeably less groove noise, especially of the most flagrant kind; the VPI makes them look and sound like they had gone through a car wash.

But when I first listened to familiar records after an ultrasonic cleaning in the Degritter, they sounded audibly louder, to the point where I had to turn the volume down by a decibel on the EM/IA remote autoformer to match the previous loudness level. What I heard was increased clarity: Musical textures sounded more forthright and explicit, tonal colors grew brighter and more saturated, and everything became easier to hear.

If you haven't experienced this ultrasonic effect, think about what happens to a centuries-old oil painting when it is being cleaned. Using a solvent, a conservator removes the top layer of varnish along with decades of dirt as well as smoke and other air pollutants, exposing the original paint. A conserved painting looks more detailed but also brighter and more colorful. This is, essentially, what the Degritter does to your records. It removes a layer of sonic dullness, an entire membrane of crap I didn't know was there. The change I'm describing isn't going to make you drop your sandwich on the floor, but neither is it difficult to hear.

Footnote 1: Degritter. Tel.: +372 5884 8839. Email:


ChrisS's picture

...capable dslr to these dark venues to eke out all those hidden photons.

Thanks, "Brilliant Corners"!

Alex Halberstadt's picture

The photos came from the club owner. I think they are meant to be "moody."

ChrisS's picture

...soundtrack of the musique du jour with conversation, clinking glasses, etc. in the background.

Thanks for the article!

Anton's picture

Also a great setting for Johnny Hartman (with or without Coltrane,) Sarah Vaughn, Ben Webster, and Dexter Gordon.

Dark bars are the best!

"So set 'em up Joe...."

Jim Austin's picture

I don't understand why we would want to present a club that's always dark as well-lit. The goal, obviously, is to present the mood and experience. Alex is correct that the photos were provided by the club owner, but if we had done it ourselves, we would have taken the same approach.

Jim Austin, Editor

ChrisS's picture

...but perhaps the club owner's photos could be a bit more informative, interesting, and appealing (sounds like they have great sound system and record collection) and show more decor than "darkness"...?

Just a suggestion.

ChrisS's picture

I don't suppose the irony with the name of this column escapes anyone...

rl1856's picture

The Degritter is an expensive US solution to some, inexpensive to others. There are cheaper all in one alternatives on the market, as well as DIY assemblies at lower price points. AH points to 2 features that should be explored. 1) IMHO the grooves of used lps acquire a microscopic layer of grunge that remains even after a vacuum scrub and clean. The grunge sounds like "shshshshsoowl" in the deep background. Post US clean this layer is removed resulting in a deeper darker quiet background, with much better transient response, where it is much easier to hear subtle soundstage cues such as air and ambience. Lps sound louder and more dynamic. 2) A pre-clean step is necessary to ensure all debris is removed. I use a Spin Clean to remove loose dirt, surface debris, and to pre wet deeper debris. The SC solution also removes fingerprints and other organic residue. THEN into a US bath using a cleaning solution incorporating Tergitol, followed by a rinse, and vacuum dry. My result is astonishingly clean LPs that often have a noise floor lower than that of my system. Some effort is required, but my results justify the investment of time.

rocky rqccoon's picture

I have a wet vac regimen and recently added a Humming Guru to the mix.
My findings echo yours exactly. You need both, and the ultrasonic thing definitely improves sound quality, but you need to get the big crud off first with the wash/rinse the old fashioned way. Hey ho.

bhkat's picture

I bought one of those $200 Ultrasonic tank and LP rotator from walmart dot com(but they're available from amazon and ebay). The single best bang for my buck I have ever experienced in audio.

Indydan's picture

Because owning large plastic discs that wear out, by being scraped by a tiny diamond is stupid.
Tidal Hi-res 10.99$ per month. No cleaning, no wear, no paper mites in the record sleeves, etc.

thethanimal's picture

I used to be in your camp, though not as vociferously opposed to vinyl as you. After several experiences with vinyl, and a particularly quiet week when the internet was out, I cottoned to the idea of a turntable about bought MoFi's entry level deck. It took a while for my brain to adjust and really notice the differences, but now the palpability of musicians and instruments on vinyl is an undeniable step change over streaming Tidal -- even MQA ;-) -- through my Bluesound Node 2i. Drums sound like drums, as opposed to sounding like decent recreated sounds of drums. Of course I still stream quite a bit, as I like to listen to more than just my single Kallax cube of LPs. Your milage has obviously varied, and that's quite alright.

Alex (and Jim), thank you for a fantastic article. I almost felt the leather chairs and smelled the bourbon. More of this, please.

Anton's picture

It is nice to see how deeply you care about others.


Please enjoy Tidal and don’t be ‘that guy’ for vinyl chat.

_cruster's picture

Imagine thinking that people want to hear your bullshit.