It seems incredible that vinyl officially overtook the CD as the leading music-hardware format in the US for new releases in 2021. And vinyl accounted for one in four album sales in the UK, the highest proportion since 1990! Del Amitri’s fifth album, Some Other Sucker’s Parade, barely sold any copies on vinyl when it was released in June 1997; like most people, I purchased my copy on CD. The record has never been reissued on vinyl, so analog enthusiasts are now paying over $300 (all prices in USD) for a secondhand copy. This is no isolated example; a huge proportion of titles remain out of print, forcing enthusiasts to track down secondhand copies.
My local record shop has an impressive array of new vinyl
As anybody who has bought secondhand vinyl online knows, such purchases can be problematic, to say the least. I have lost count of the number of times I have bought records that dealers have claimed to be in VG+ or Excellent condition, only to slip them out of their inner sleeves and find them festooned with mold that would intrigue Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. Call me a prude but I genuinely recoil when faced with the residue from people’s fingers on certain discs. One can only assume that the former owners worked in sanitation or gutted fish on a trawler before coming home to play their records. If your purchases turn out to be fairly clean, you will find that many of their former owners seem to have spent their leisure time skateboarding over their record collections, with each pass of the trucks slicing a myriad of scratches across the finely etched grooves.
One of the joys of vinyl as a format is that it allows the best possible presentation of album artwork, as well as lyric sheets and production notes. In the ’70s and ’80s, artists such as Pink Floyd, Asia, Yes, and others competed to attract record buyers by creating album artwork of stunning quality. Such albums positively demand to be purchased on vinyl so the artwork can be fully appreciated.
As I pull an album from the racks of vinyl in my local used-record emporium, I often ponder how it got there. What is its history? Who owned it, and more to the point, how on earth did the cover end up in this state? Was it hastily retrieved from a bombed-out building in some war-torn country? Did its previous owner defect from the Eastern Bloc, driving through a biblical hailstorm with it lashed to the roof of their car? Clearly I am atypical in that my pampered vinyl spends most of its time encased in clear-plastic sleeve protectors on my shelves, and when I do play an album I deftly slip it out of its poly-lined inner sleeve onto the platter, barely touching the record’s rim and the label in the process. As the record plays, I might carefully browse the accompanying sleeve notes or lyric sheets. I have 40-year-old records that have survived my student days, seemingly suffering none of the traumas evidently endured by the record collections of so many others.
Loricraft to the rescue
On hearing about my travails in secondhand vinyl, West Sussex–based SME offered to lend me one of its highly regarded Loricraft PRC6i record-cleaning machines. This machine is based upon designs originally developed by Percy Wilson, the late technical editor of Gramophone magazine, in the 1960s. The rights to the design were eventually sold to Terry O’Sullivan, who had established Loricraft Audio to manufacture plinths for Garrard turntables. The first Loricraft Audio record-cleaning machine (RCM) emerged in 1990. From the very beginning, Loricraft RCMs were designed for continuous running and built for commercial as well as domestic use. As a result, these machines have been widely adopted by radio stations, music retailers, and record collectors worldwide. SME acquired the Loricraft operation in 2018 and set about refining the designs. The new PRC4i and PRC6i machines were launched in 2021.
The Loricraft PRC6i
The range comprises two models: the PRC4i is the entry-level machine, priced at $3243, and utilizes a slightly noisier but powerful double-ended (28l/min) vacuum pump; and the PRC6i is the top model in the range and retails at $3929. The PRC6i incorporates a near-silent suction pump rated at 18l/min, which was originally used in medical dialysis machines. The beautifully built cabinet of the PRC6i is slightly taller (22″W × 16″D × 13″H) than that of the PRC4i, reflecting the larger dimensions of the medical-grade pump. The PRC6i weighs in at a considerable 38 pounds, which bears testament to its heavy-duty construction.
The chassis of both machines comprises a CNC-machined wood cabinet complete with hand-finished genuine walnut or black-ash veneer. The top plate of each machine is beautifully finished in gloss black, with three high-quality, positive-feel toggle switches located to the right of the top panel. These switches are unlike anything I have encountered on a hi-fi product before—they feel like something you’d use to switch on the landing lights of a Boeing 747! One switches the pump suction on or off, and the other two control platter rotation (forward or reverse), and arm movement. For the latter, Off means the arm stays in place, and On means it’s driven slowly across the record by a custom-made gearbox system incorporating high-precision horizontal and vertical yoke bearings. While we’re on the subject of the arm, I couldn’t help but notice the exquisitely brazed metal pipe running along the top of the arm tube to carry the waste fluid away. The whole cabinet is sealed against fluid spillage.
Notice the superb top-panel switchgear
The real key to the design, however, is the suction arm and thread bobbin. Every time the suction arm is parked in its rest position, the bobbin automatically turns to reveal a new piece of woven-nylon thread, ready for the next record to be cleaned. At the head of the arm, where a cartridge would be on a tonearm, is a small suction head that generates a powerful vortex to suck up the cleaning fluid and associated record contamination. The cleaning head is separated from the record surface by the thread, which prevents the vortex-generating head from scratching the record. The contaminants and spent fluid are sucked into a jar mounted on the side of the machine, where it can be easily removed and emptied. The record sits on a reversible, washable rubber mat on the platter, which is driven at fairly high speed by a high-torque motor. The precision-made bearing and spindle are mounted in a phosphor-bronze housing to resist lateral forces on the bearing from the use of the cleaning brush.
Waste jar mounted on the right side
The machine came supplied with a bottle of L’Art du Son record-cleaning fluid and a high-quality cleaning brush. SME experimented with a variety of different fluids from third-party vendors and selected this one as the best for use with its machines. The cleaning fluid supplied must be diluted with distilled water before application and should be sufficient to clean 1000 records. Alternative brushes—for example, to clean 7″ singles—as well as a full range of spares and accessories, are available from SME at a modest cost.
The operation of the PRC6i is very intuitive. Simply place the record on the platter, sprinkle a few drops of cleaning fluid onto the record’s playing surface, put the supplied nylon cleaning brush in position on the record and start the platter spinning. Use the brush to spread the fluid around the record to clean the grooves as it rotates. On heavily soiled records, it is worth running the platter both forward and backward. When the cleaning fluid has been worked properly into the grooves and any contaminants dislodged, remove the brush and move the vortex arm into position on the record. It’s then just a matter of switching on the suction and the arm movement. The arm will track across one side of a 12″ album in around a minute and the record surface will become bone dry and noticeably cleaner. The rubber platter mat is easy to reverse or wipe clean, but I didn’t find this necessary very often as most of my records were already reasonably well maintained.
Designer Percy Wilson always favored driving the platter in the reverse direction and placing the vortex head on the runout groove on the far side of the record spindle. He claimed that this was a better way to remove contaminants that have been driven into the vinyl by the stylus when playing the records. I tried using the machine that way, and in the normal clockwise direction with the cleaning head placed on the lead-in groove as you would when playing a record, but couldn’t really discern much difference in effectiveness.
Despite having a sizable record collection, I have never actually owned a high-end RCM. For years I have used a Knosti Disco-Antistat, a cheap, manual disc cleaner that has plenty of bang-for-the-buck at around $70. The Antistat comprises a bath of cleaning fluid and a set of brushes mounted so that they clean the record when it is spun by hand. The downside is that the record is sitting in a bath of fluid that’s been contaminated by the records you have previously cleaned. The other issue is that there is no mechanism for sucking off the contaminated fluid—drying is achieved simply by air-drying the cleaned record on the supplied drying rack. I have often considered the purchase of an RCM from Pro-Ject Audio Systems or Nitty Gritty, but have been slightly put off by the noise, which is like sitting next to a vacuum cleaner, and the fact that the velvet drying head must inevitably become clogged with contaminants from previous records. In addition, it seems to me that having to lug the entire machine to a sink or bath to empty it of cleaning fluid is somewhat cumbersome.
The Knosti Disco-Antistat—the best option for the fiscally challenged!
The Loricraft machine eliminates all of these disadvantages. Firstly, it’s whisper-quiet to a degree that it makes some other machines sound like Concorde taking off! I’ve always found that my enjoyment of music depends on the mood being right, and noisy cleaning machines destroy the atmosphere of a record-playing session with their aggravating din—perhaps I’m just becoming more curmudgeonly in middle age! The Loricraft is so quiet that I can now clean records as I play them, instead of batch-cleaning records and keeping that activity separate from my music evenings, because the Loricraft doesn’t spoil the mood. In addition, it is perfectly feasible to clean records while other family members watch TV in the same room, something that simply isn’t possible with louder cleaning machines.
The second advantage of the Loricraft machine is that the automatic feeding of fresh thread means that there is never any contamination of a record by a dirty suction head, which is a problem on all machines that use fixed vacuum heads (i.e., all of the automated ones I am familiar with apart from Loricraft and the Keith Monks machines). I believe this gives both the Loricraft and the Keith Monks machines a unique and very significant advantage. In addition, the concentrated vortex really does an outstanding job of removing and sucking everything out of the groove compared to the wider-slot designs fitted to many machines. After around a minute, the record is visibly spotless and totally dry.
As I remarked before, I have owned most of my records from new, and always played and stored them carefully. Over the years, my cleaning regime usually involved little more than a Hunt EDA Mark 6 cleaning brush swept across the record before play to remove dust. I was rather surprised when cleaning my well-kept records to see the color of the dirty cleaning fluid that was returned to the storage jar of the machine. That’s proof, if any was needed, that age takes its toll on even the best-kept vinyl, and contamination is inevitable. Emptying the collection jar is a breeze and easier than having to take the whole machine to the sink.
Beautifully finished top plate
In terms of results, I am pleased to report that cleaning with the Loricraft delivered a drastic reduction in surface noise on many records. A great example was Tanita Tikaram’s Ancient Heart (WEA WX 210), which I purchased new in 1987. This is a wonderful album, but despite my care it just seemed to be one of those records that was plagued by surface noise from new. Because the music is acoustic in nature, crackles and pops could frequently be heard over the music. After cleaning it on the PRC6i it was a whole different story; any crackles were rare and related to the occasional scratch on the record, not dirt. The effect was dramatic, and my enjoyment of this album was enhanced significantly. Furthermore, I detected a greater level of clarity and precision to the sound, especially in the higher registers: on female vocals, the piano, and the strings. There was less sibilance, or fizz, which in some ways was similar to the kind of improvement one experiences with a significantly better moving-coil cartridge.
I had similar results on countless other albums, and even records that were brand new seemed to show a reduction in surface noise when run through the Loricraft process. As for some of my dirtiest secondhand purchases, the effects were dramatic: all traces of fingerprints and stains were totally eliminated, while surface noise and sonic transparency were both markedly improved. There was simply a sense of greater ease, smoothness, and detail to the sound, and a significant reduction in grain. Records that had been simply unplayable became somewhat enjoyable, provided their problem was dirt and not scratches in the first place.
A further benefit I noticed during my time with the Loricraft was a significant reduction in static charge on my records after they had been cleaned. Records seemed less inclined to attract dust particles after cleaning, so evidently that fluid is clever stuff! I made a point of putting all my cleaned records in brand-new poly-lined inner sleeves after cleaning, and I would suggest this is good practice to avoid recontamination from old sleeves.
It would be foolish to ignore the fact that three grand or so is quite a chunk of change to invest in a record-cleaning machine; however, in the context of a record collection of around 1500 discs with a value of roughly $50,000, its cost is relatively minimal. The Loricraft reduced surface noise dramatically and provided a significant uplift in reproduction quality and musical enjoyment on every LP I tried it with. In addition, dirty records wear out an expensive cartridge faster, and owning an RCM makes buying secondhand records far more viable and enjoyable.
If you’d told me at the start of this review that I would end up seriously contemplating purchasing an RCM that costs as much as a pretty nice turntable, I would have said you were crazy—but the fact is, I am! The Loricraft is just so beautifully engineered, so incredibly effective, and so quiet and unobtrusive that I don’t ever want to hand it back. It has prompted me to delve deeply into my record collection to clean and play albums that I haven’t heard in decades. In addition, rendering them spotlessly clean, accompanied by the gentle thrum of its pumps and motors has proved a surprisingly rewarding pastime. These old records hold such lovely memories, and I have whiled away many pleasant hours restoring them to their former glory. The reality is that having used a machine of this caliber I simply wouldn’t want to settle for anything less.
The Loricraft further cements its appeal by being backed by SME, a firm who have an unblemished record of supporting every product they have ever made since the 1950s. Building a record collection is a lifetime’s passion and while the Loricraft is a significant investment, it’s comforting to know that it is built to last and is the only record-cleaning machine you will ever need.
A more elegant solution for a gentler age
The Loricraft PRC6i is a machine for those who delight in the rituals and pride of vinyl ownership. It is flawlessly built, a pleasure to use, and cleans vinyl more effectively than anything I have yet tried. Your records will sound significantly quieter and better thanks to machines like the Loricraft. In this second golden age of vinyl, it’s a wonderful irony that the phonographic record, the very first mass-market physical music carrier, might just turn out to be the last.
. . . Jonathan Gorse
- Analog source: Michell Engineering GyroDec turntable, SME Series IV tonearm, Audio-Technica AT-OC9ML/II cartridge; Trichord Research Dino Mk 3 phono stage with Never Connected Dino+ power supply; PS Audio Stellar Phono preamplifier.
- Preamplifier: Naim NAC 82.
- Power amplifier: Naim NAP 250.
- Power supply: Naim HiCap.
- Loudspeakers: ATC SCM50PSL and SCM40.
- Cabling: Chord Company Sarum T loudspeaker cables, Naim NAC A5 loudspeaker cables, Naim interconnects on all Naim amplification, Chord Company interconnects for phono stage and other primary sources, QED interconnects for secondary sources.
Loricraft PRC6i Record Cleaning Machine
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor.
c/o SME Limited
Steyning BN44 3GY
Phone: 0044 1903 814321
Phone: (732) 890-1246