Listening #77 Page 2

Setup was a breeze, and comprised just a few things more than releasing the pump: I had to set the downforce of the vacuum wand, fine-tune the height and angle of the scrubbing brush, and fill the reservoir jar with cleaning fluid. That's pretty much all.

And none of that tripped me up, for one very good reason: I've had the pleasure of living with an older Keith Monks RCM for nearly two years—a generous loan in exchange for my having fixed it for a friend. (I replaced the Delrin vacuum head, the fluid-collection tank, and the pinion gear on the motor that drives the thread-dispensing system, and I repaired and rebuilt the fluid pump and brush block.) Comparing the new Monks with the old was intriguing—and good, clean fun.

First of all, in a general sense, the new machine is built better than the old. The Omni's idler-driven platter is solid—not tinny, like the old one—and it turns more quietly, with a great deal less wobble. The various metal parts that comprise the vacuum wand, and the supporting bits for the brush holder and fluid-dispensing system, are identical to the old in size and shape, yet much smoother and better finished in the new RCM. The Omni's cabinet is built more solidly and veneered more artfully, and inside, the wiring is vastly neater. God bless Keith Monks, but Jonathan's version of his father's machine is more Audi than Austin.

An example: Jonathan Monks has devised a way to render even quieter forsook the German-made vacuum pump used in all Keith Monks machines since 1980—a medical-grade unit that was originally made for the kidney-dialysis machines of the day. (It was indeed less obtrusive than the pump in my apparently very early RCM.) Then again, the Omni's mechanical cleaning-fluid pump, sourced from the British company that made manual windshield washers for the original Morris Mini, is the same as it ever was. The pump worked just as I expected, its origins betrayed by the quaint automotive pictograph on its button. Nice!

Cute in pumps
No matter what degree of faith one has in its maker, a new RCM should never take its maiden voyage with an irreplaceable record. So it was here, when I selected a newly adopted copy of Van Cliburn's recording of the Schumann Piano Concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, ca 1959 (RCA Living Stereo LSC-2455): a perfect choice, given that there are two other copies of it on my shelf, and I'm not too crazy about the ho-hum performance in the first place. The Monks manual wisely recommends "priming" the brush before lowering it to the record, to prevent dry bristles from scratching the vinyl; Nervous Nellie that I am, I went a step further and soaked the bristles with distilled water before clamping the brush into its plastic block. Then I went through the usual steps—dispensing the cleaning fluid, scrubbing the record, vacuuming it dry—all with a bit of tissue in hand to sop up the apparently unavoidable rim-drips. The B-side followed, without event.

I gave the newly cleaned record a spin: It was lovely! A few clicks remained—evidently some physical damage had been left behind during decades of enjoyment—but instrumental voices were now clearer and a bit tighter, and hall sound was more in evidence. Best of all, the record was now listenable, with no new damage: The Keith Monks Omni had made it better and not worse. What a concept!

One down, a bazillion to go. But that, my friends, was where the Omni endeared itself to me: It was so easy to use—so pleasant to use—that the prospect of cleaning LPs became a happy one, and drudgery was replaced with something very like joy.

There was only one bit of literal morning-after unpleasantness: I was preparing to wash my first record of my second day with the Keith Monks Omni when I happened to scrape my hand against the bristles of the cleaning brush, just before lowering it to the record. They were as stiff as a varnished mink.

Obviously, the leftover cleaning fluid had solidified on the brush, the white bristles of which were now tinged the same shade of green as Keith Monks discOvery 33/45. Just as obviously, my next move was to remove the brush from its holder and wash it thoroughly with distilled water. Yet I wondered: Has this been happening with my "reference" cleaning fluid, L'Art du Son, without my noticing? Anything's possible, I suppose.

Because the Keith Monks Omni is supplied with three brand-new brushes, and because two of them remained unused, the next step was easy: On and off throughout that day I washed records with L'Art du Son—applied manually, of course, bypassing the fluid pump altogether—and a fresh brush. Then, at the end of the day, I clamped that brush into its holder, just to let it sit overnight, with no further maintenance. The next morning its bristles were as soft and pliant as new, leaving me to conclude that the Keith Monks discOvery 33/45 fluid must be the more concentrated formula by far. (Interestingly, L'Art du Son is supplied as a concentrate, for mixing with distilled water according to a prescribed ratio.) I don't doubt that the Keith Monks vacuum system removes from the record every trace of whatever cleaning fluid is being used—records cleaned with discOvery 33/45 sounded consistently clean, clear, and "open," and I never saw any incriminating crud on my stylus after playing them—but because washing my brush after every use seems like work to me, I'll stay with L'Art du Son, which makes my records sound just as wonderful. I also prefer its shampoo-like aroma.

All of which brings one other thing to mind—not so much a criticism as a mildly contrary impression. When I spoke with Jonathan Monks in January, he mentioned that his cleaning brushes are made by the same maker of high-quality paintbrushes as those used by his competitors, yet that he's been able to procure for his RCM a much finer and thus superior grade of bristle than all the rest. That indeed may be true, and there was no doubt that the new brushes supplied with the Omni had finer bristles than the original Keith Monks brush I have on hand. But is that necessarily a boon? No one apart from reviewers (a notoriously dumb lot) has publicly suggested that fine bristles are better than coarse ones at coaxing crud from tiny grooves—and certainly not Mr. Monks. Still, I wanted to prevent anyone from jumping to the wrong conclusion about such matters.

So I performed one more "test": I clipped a single bristle from one of the new Keith Monks brushes and, with the help of my friend Neal Newman, subjected it to microphotography at the same time as we were taking pictures of some styli. (Oh, the things middle-aged men do for laughs in wintertime!) The result, reproduced elsewhere on this page, offers irrefutable proof that even the finest bristles of this sort are still several times larger than any stylus tip—and thus too large to actually get into a record groove. The only bristles I've seen that could actually fit between the walls of a microgroove are the ones on carbon-fiber brushes—which are, of course, useless for wet-washing—and the fibers on very-good-quality pads such as the ones supplied by the Disc Doctor and, believe it or not, with the good old DiscWasher. Long-bristled wet brushes are great, necessary things—but you're better off thinking of them more as fluid spreaders than as record cleaners.

Mopping up
In 1969, a team of British engineers used the seminal writings of the late Percy Wilson, former Technical Editor of Gramophone, as the basis of a design for a record-cleaning machine, hoping in particular to land a contract with the BBC. Their money ran out before they made it quite that far, but one member of the team soldiered on, secured the necessary financial backing (from an audiophile banker, as it turned out), and carried on to produce and sell the first practical RCMs. That man, Keith Monks, went on to sell over 10,000 of his machines to professional and domestic users alike.

Confession No.2: At one time or another I have owned or at least used almost every commercial record-cleaning product available in the US, beginning with a Cecil Watts Disc Preener in 1970 and winding through most but not all of the wet-wash, vacuum-dry machines sold in perfectionist audio salons. It has long been my impression that Keith Monks RCMs are the best that one can buy—in terms of effectiveness, in terms of being pleasant to use, in terms of never once, in my experience, having damaged or otherwise worsened a record—and the Keith Monks Omni only further supports that impression.

Are you rich? Do you have lots of records? (If so, would you be interested in adopting a middle-aged heir?) Then a good RCM is not a luxury but a necessity. And if you're looking for the best, well, here it is.