It’s a cruel joke. It’s the gods laughing at us. The lovers of LPs—I hesitate to call us record collectors—are the most tightly wound subcategory of audiophiles. We fuss and obsess over the tiniest variations in cartridge alignment, hundredths of a gram in tracking force, single degrees of VTA. And the irony of it is we’re subject to—at the mercy of—the smallest, invisible particles of dirt lodged into record grooves. We can clearly hear dirt and contaminants that we can’t even see.
This paradox would make a perfect detail in a Hieronymus Bosch depiction of a circle of hell. Down in the far left corner, there’d be an audiophile in a filthy trench, trying to shield a six-eye pressing of Kind of Blue from a sprite that’s raining down a mixture of liquid tar, toenail clippings, and metal filings.
I’m sure you’re aware there’s a healthy cottage industry that supplies cleaning machines, brushes, and solutions to those audiophiles who really, truly want to do everything in their power to keep their records clean. The processes range from the most intricate, such as the Kirmuss system, which involves intense pre-scrubbing followed by a spin in an ultrasonic cleaning machine, on through to the tried-and-true vacuum-powered wet wash and all the way down to a simple spray-on, wipe-off hail-Mary swipe with a velvet brush.
Bottom line—if you own a turntable and a bunch of records, you undoubtedly have some kind of record-cleaning regimen, and there’s a very good chance you’re looking to improve your game.
I’ve arrived at a healthy place in my record-cleaning life. I use a VPI Cyclone vacuum-powered machine, and mix my own fluid from distilled water, isopropyl alcohol, and Kodak Photo-Flo 200 surfactant. I do one wet wash with my cleaning solution then follow that up with a splash of distilled water to flush off the alcohol. It takes me about a minute per side, and since most of my records have already been cleaned, I don’t have to do it that often. The VPI really is overkill for my needs, given that it’s a near-industrial-quality machine, but I’m totally cool with overkill. I’m well aware that my system isn’t the last word in archival-quality disinfection, but I’m totally cool with that also. My system works reasonably well and that’s good enough for me.
I have three other acquaintances who regularly wash records. Or try to. Rich purchased an all-in-one ultrasonic machine that cleans, drains, and dries a single record in one step. That machine recently failed when the magic smoke escaped from its circuitry. My neighbor Ron and I are going to disassemble this thing to see if we can fix it.
Ron owns a Keith Monks machine that’s out of service due to the unavailability of replacement parts. He now uses a Spin-Clean manual record bath. I purchased a Spin-Clean for my own use a bunch of years ago as these are just fantastic, but when I got the VPI, I gave the Spin-Clean to another neighbor, Rob, and he’s thrilled with it.
Simple is better when it comes to cleaning records, I believe. Water and electronics don’t mix, and I’ve observed that, if diverging from a fully manual method like the Spin-Clean, it may be best to choose a tool that’s built with durability in mind.
And that’s where iSonic comes in. A while back I received an iSonic P4875(II) ultrasonic record-cleaning machine from Motet Distribution here in Canada, and the big news is that iSonic isn’t some fussy audiophile company. No sir, iSonic is a manufacturer that makes ultrasonic cleaning machines first and foremost. The LP part isn’t the core of their business.
Along with the machine itself, iSonic sells their MVR10 accessory, consisting of a motor and attendant parts, which facilitates the ultrasonic cleaning of up to ten LPs at one time. The P4875(II) and MRV10 come packaged as a kit that retails for $799 (all prices USD).
The iSonic is obviously an industrial product. Not so much because it’s overly heavy or roughly designed. On the contrary, it’s quite tidy and well thought out. Rather, its industrial vibe comes across due to its simplicity and clarity of focus. The P4875 was clearly not designed from the ground up as a record-cleaning machine. It’s easy to see that this product is a general-purpose ultrasonic cleaner that’s designed to be modified by the end user depending on its particular application.
Looking at the iSonic website, I see all kinds of trays, baskets, and adapters in the professional section that you can insert into their cleaners so you can clean whatever you choose, and their personal section contains all manner of smaller ultrasonic cleaners and off-shoots. I’d wager that the iSonic folks took careful note of the resurgence of vinyl and the attendant interest in record cleaning and realized that all it’d take to make their own ultrasonic record cleaner was an adapter on which to hang and spin the records.
I like this approach. iSonic knows ultrasonic cleaners. It makes sense to buy one of their cleaners rather than buying one from a company that knows records and then has to source their own ultrasonic cleaner.
The actual record-spinning attachment is obviously an afterthought in the above spirit. It’s a motor with an attached shaft, and it hangs in a sturdy manner from the side of the machine proper. It’s a well-built unit that spins at 5 rpm, and it’s powered by its own little wall-wart power supply. The attachment pivots to assume one of two positions—fully vertical or horizontal. You load the records in the vertical position, then lower them into the bath to start the cleaning process. Also involved in this orientation is a small block of Plexiglas, which you can use to prop the shaft at a 45-degree angle when you want to drip-dry the records after they’re cleaned.
In use, the iSonic is quite simple. The most complex part is loading the records onto the spindle. To do this, you raise the spindle to the vertical position and start loading records. The order goes like this—small spacer / record clamp / LP / record clamp / small spacer, repeat. Once you’ve filled the spindle, you screw a clamp on the end to hold everything tight. You can fit ten records on the spindle, and there are plenty of clamps and spacers. Should you decide you want to do fewer than ten, simply fill the dead space with extra spacers. The system works well, and—like I said—it feels more like an industrial solution than an audiophile-specific one. Once the spindle is loaded, you lower it from its pivot point down into the cleaning bath.
About those record clamps—I was extremely pleased to see that each clamp features an O-ring at its periphery, which means that they’ll keep the record labels dry. This is a really good idea, and the possibility of wet labels was one of the few complaints I had about the Spin-Clean, which relies on manual dexterity to keep water off the label.
At this point you have to decide whether you’re going to use the supplied record cleaning fluid. Judging by the smell, it’s alcohol free, but I must say, I was a touch hesitant, given that iSonic isn’t the first name I think of when it comes to record-cleaning solutions. I ran several batches through the iSonic—one with no solution, another with the full dose recommended on the label, and one with a half dose. The results were essentially the same with all three batches, although my preference is to always use plain distilled water after using a cleaning solution, so I’m conflicted about whether I’d use the iSonic fluid. If you do want to flush the records afterward, that’s a whole bunch more distilled water and another full cycle. Given that I got good results with just water, I honestly think I’d continue with that method.
There are a number of buttons on the iSonic’s control panel, but you really only need to select the appropriate time period. The manual suggests eight minutes. There’s a heat setting that Motet says is safe for records, but I didn’t use it during the review, and a “degas” setting, which is designed to settle water that’s shot straight out of the tap. There’s no need to use this for distilled water poured directly from a bottle.
So fill it up, load your records, drop the shaft into the bath, and fire it up. The iSonic is quite quiet, although you wouldn’t want to run it in the room while you’re listening to music. There’s a bit of a dentist’s drill sound while it’s going that kind of made me want to swat imaginary mosquitoes away from my ears, but it’s not loud or overly offensive.
When the cycle is complete, you use the supplied plexi spacer to prop the records up at 45 degrees to let them drip dry for a bit. At this point, you unscrew the end cap and start pulling off records. iSonic supplies a box of Kimtech Kimwipes, lint-free wipes that feel like sturdy facial tissues. Motet Distribution one-ups this by throwing in a pack of four high-quality microfiber cleaning and polishing cloths. My review sample arrived with only the Kimwipes, and they’re not that absorbent, so I went through a few more than I think is ideal. The microfiber cloths would definitely be the way to go.
iSonic supplies a length of braided hose that fits on the end of the drain spigot at the bottom of the machine. When you’re finished with your cleaning process, just drain the machine into a bucket. There’s also a supplied lid to fit over the top of the machine, so I guess if you’re going to use it again within a couple of days, you could just put on the lid and leave it. The water reservoir is eight liters, which is a huge amount of fluid, and I’d expect you could clean a lot of records before it got even slightly dirty.
So I pulled off one record at a time, held it against my chest with the flat of my hand against the periphery, and wiped it dry with a bunch of Kimwipes. This part of the regimen is rather hairshirt—identical to the Spin-Clean process. It’s inelegant, but it works.
And the results? Excellent by any stretch. I used a bunch of garage-sale finds on the first go-round, and some of them were quite dirty. At first, I was somewhat skeptical about whether the close proximity of the records might limit the machine’s ability to clean up close to the lead-out groove, but I didn’t see any indication of this being the case. The treated records seemed uniformly clean.
Pre- and post-cleaning listens revealed huge gains. Ticks and pops were dramatically reduced by the iSonic’s cleaning process, as was surface noise. These improvements were of the same nature as those I’ve experienced from my VPI and the Spin-Clean. As I’ve stated in the reviews of both of those record cleaners, there’s absolutely no way to A/B these products, and I’m unwilling to even guess which cleaning regimen is best.
Keep in mind that you have to charge up the cleaner with nearly eight liters of distilled water, which is a fair bit of liquid, so it only really makes financial sense to set it all up when you’ve got a whole bunch of records that need cleaning.
And that’s the nut of this machine. It’s not a convenience machine that you can use when you notice one record is dirty and you want to clean it before playing. No, in order to get value out of the iSonic, you need to set aside a few hours to clean a whole pile of records.
You could also use it for other things, I guess. While I was cleaning one batch of records, I suspended my wife’s diamond engagement ring in the bath from a chain that I looped over the rotating shaft and was thrilled to see it emerge looking like it had been professionally cleaned at a jeweler’s. At that point I began looking around the house, trying to think of other items I could run through the iSonic. I started mentally cataloging folding knife parts that could use a tune-up, but that’s going too far, especially considering this isn’t my machine.
Point being, the iSonic is one of those rare audiophile products for which you could actually find other uses. There’s value here, that’s for sure. If you’ve got a whole bunch of records that need cleaning, the iSonic deserves a good, solid look.
. . . Jason Thorpe
Warranty: One year, parts and labor.
2243 S. Throop St.
Chicago, IL 60608
Phone: (847) 850-0404