The Entry Level #16 Page 2

She handed me the record. It was one of the strangest things I've ever seen, and it was clearly awesome: Wilderness Road's Sold for Prevention of Disease Only, from 1972 (LP, Warner Bros. MS 2125). The cover shows four hairy men—the band, presumably—dressed in suits of metallic silver, black, and gold. They're standing at the counter of a futuristic pharmacy, I suppose, and I guess they're shopping for condoms. (As I write these words, I've got the album in front of me; it defies description.) I pulled the record from its gatefold jacket and noticed that it was a white-label promo. It was in its original sleeve, with the original insert, too. From the liner note: "An introduction to the world's finest rock-blues-R&B-satirical-theatrical-musical experience."

Below that great teaser were several lines of praise. The first—"no better music to be heard anywhere in the land"—was from Rolling Stone, and credited to Paul Nelson. Paul Nelson! The planets were aligning. Paul Nelson (1936–2006) was a gifted rock critic whose work has only recently regained popularity, thanks to Kevin Avery's new tribute, Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics Books), beautifully and lovingly designed by Stereophile's friend and contributor Jeff Wong. Only days before, I had attended the signing for Avery's book. Nelson was fresh in my mind.

Then I took note of the record's warp. Wow. Christine wasn't kidding. I'd never seen a record so badly warped. In fact, it wasn't merely warped; it was extremely dished.

"This is perfect!"

Christine let me take the record home for free. I promised to bring it back, flat as new.

Vinyl Flat Record Flattener
Made in the US, the Vinyl Flat Record Flattener ($99.95) is smart, simple, and attractive. The basic package contains two LP-sized sheets of black plastic (the Groovy Rings), two heavy metal plates, two washers, a threaded bolt, a twist-on cap, and a nice storage case. The product is sold direct with a 30-day money-back guarantee and includes free shipping. The review sample's excellent packaging was the first sign of a serious, worthwhile product: Everything inside the box was clean, logically organized, and well protected. Pride had evidently been taken in the packaging of this product. Next, I was impressed by the clear, thorough instructions. I've unpacked components 100 times more expensive than the Vinyl Flat that were accompanied by far less inspiring manuals. I felt good about the Vinyl Flat even before I'd finished unpacking it.

Setup is simple. The user need only remove all the pieces from the package, remove the protective paper from the Groovy Rings, and wipe away any dust. It would be nice if there were a tab or drawstring of some sort to help remove the protective paper from the Groovy Rings. It took me a while to get it started, but once I'd peeled away a small piece, the whole thing came free in no time.

At this point, you're pretty much ready to go. Insert the threaded bolt through the hole in the center of the bottom plate, set the plate on a flat surface, then make a sandwich: Place one Groovy Ring on top of the bottom plate, your warped LP atop that Ring, the other Ring atop the LP, the metal top plate atop the second Groovy Ring, and clamp it all together with the twist-on cap. You'll want to be sure that each component is carefully centered, so that the entire grooved surface of your LP is covered by the Groovy Rings, and the Rings, in turn, are wholly covered by the metal plates. The Vinyl Flat is designed to apply force uniformly across the record's entire playing surface.

But how, exactly, does it work?

Pressure, Heat, Time: Vinyl Flat's friendly website explains, somewhat philosophically, that the ingredients required to repair a warped record are the same as those that originally damaged it: pressure, heat, and time. The Vinyl Flat mechanism provides the appropriate pressure. Heat is supplied in one of two ways: You can put the device in the oven and bake it for a prescribed amount of time, or you can opt for the Groovy Pouch.

The Groovy Pouch ($59.95) is an enclosure of black synthetic fabric with a Velcro seal. It comes with a standard power supply and uses carbon-fiber heating elements to surround the Vinyl Flat with gentle, even heat. You simply place the Groovy Pouch on a nonporous surface, place the Vinyl Flat inside the Groovy Pouch, tightly seal the Velcro opening, and plug the power supply into an AC receptacle. The instructions suggest a four-hour heating cycle for LPs weighing 130gm or less; for heavier LPs, begin with 4.5 hours. Milan Kundera would approve. When the heating cycle is finished, carefully remove the warm Vinyl Flat unit from the pouch and allow it to cool. If the record is still too warped to be played, repeat the process, increasing the heating cycle by 30 minutes.

But who's got that kind of time?

The faster, scarier way to proceed is to use the oven. Included with the Vinyl Flat is a handy table of heating times and cooling cycles for a large selection of record labels, 1950s–present, based on various record weights. There are entries for record weights of 90gm (RCA's Dynaflex and Dynagroove: heat 30 minutes, cool 30 minutes) through 200gm (various labels: heat 50 minutes, cool 75 minutes). There are even entries for some of my favorite labels, such as Jagjaguwar, 4AD, Matador, Merge, and Sub Pop. Very cool. Preheat your oven for 30 minutes at 150°F, then bake the Vinyl Flat the prescribed amount of time.

If you think that baking an LP sounds a little crazy, you're not alone. The idea scared the living Kundera out of me—I'd never even baked a date. But consider this: In the old days, hardcore audiophiles would concoct their own oven-ready LP-flattening devices using whatever suitable stuff they found around the house. If my audiophile forefathers could fix warped LPs using rocks and panes of glass, I could certainly do it using the Vinyl Flat.

I was almost ready to flatten Christine's copy of Sold for Prevention of Disease Only, but there was one step I had yet to take: Before flattening an LP, you must clean it.

I took note of the time, set my old oven to 150°F, and introduced Christine's LP to my VPI HW-16.5 record-cleaning machine.

Audio Intelligent Vinyl Solutions
Have I mentioned that I love cleaning LPs?

Perhaps it has something to do with soul. In our February issue, we published a letter from reader Bert Paul, who wrote: "Why am I recapping a 1973 receiver? Rebuilding a classic bicycle? Why is Art Dudley restoring an old turntable? It could be to save a little of our souls. Remember, we were going to change the world. Instead, we have consumed it."

Paul's words rang true for me. He continued: "When we sit with a rag to polish a turntable part, bicycle chrome, or receiver faceplate, it takes a certain moment: We watch them change, and we, too, change. In that moment, we are restored."

When I clean an old, dirty record, I feel in touch with its previous owner, offering a bit of thanks, and continuing some important cycle. There's something heavy and important about restoring an old object instead of merely replacing it with something new.

For the past year, I've been using Audio Intelligent's Vinyl Solutions to clean dirty LPs. I like Audio Intelligent products—they're simple, effective, and distributed by kind people. The fluids are also very reasonably priced: A 16oz bottle of Enzymatic Formula, designed to dissolve protein-based and other organic contaminants, costs $25. AI recommends partnering Enzymatic Formula with their Super Cleaner Formula ($25/16oz), which includes a small amount of isopropanol. For those worried that isopropanol might damage their LPs, AI offers their Premium Archivist Formula ($25/16oz). I like to complete a cleaning cycle with a rinse of AI's deionized Ultra-Pure Water ($25/16oz), which is said to have gone through a six-step filtration process. And on my lazier days, and/or with less dirty records, I turn to AI's Premium One-Step Formula No.6 ($29/32oz), which does not contain isopropanol and doesn't require a rinsing stage.

On this day, because I wanted to do a very thorough job for Christine, I opted for a three-step cycle: Enzymatic Formula, followed by Super Cleaner Formula, followed by Ultra-Pure Water. Ten minutes later, Christine's Wilderness Road album was sparkling-clean and ready to be introduced to the Vinyl Flat.

First, though, I wanted to give it a listen. And I had just the thing for that: Musical Fidelity's V-LPS Mk.II phono preamplifier was dying for some attention, and I was finally ready to oblige.


Lofty's picture

Satis is a fine restaurant. I also like Madame Claude and that Spanish tapas place on Grove St. a block from the PATH station. Lots of good restaurants in that area of Jersey City.

LA mitchell's picture

Do you ever think about selling all of your precious VINYL and then using the money on a really good DAC?  It's sooooo much easier!   Just kidding, kind of.

p.s. good call on Nite Jewel - I now have it in my favs on Spotify.




Stephen Mejias's picture

Nah, I enjoy working with vinyl's problems.  Digital's problems are much less interesting to me.  (At least for now. At some point in the future, when it makes sense for me to explore computer audio, I will of course become more interested in DACs.)

Jody M.'s picture

What a cliff hanger... did you get Christine's mega warped album flattened?! I'll ask her next time I see her.

I've opted for a bit more expensive approach to warped records - an outer ring clamp, combined with a center weight.

My favorite restaurants in Jersey City: The Saigon Cafe, and Ibby's Falafel.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Heeeeeey, a fellow vinyl-loving, falafel-eating Jersey City neighbor?! Who the heck are you?

What kind of turntable are you using? A VPI? The second part of the story can be found in our May issue, but, yes, I did successfully flatten Christine's record.  Sort of.

Mmm...Saigon Cafe. Mmm...Peppercorn squid!