My lo-fi “reference” system

As recently as a few months ago I had pretty much decided to give the final ax to my audio system. It had been a few years since I formally reviewed anything and decades since I worked in the high end, with the exception of my ongoing distribution of Harmony Design. Then I hedged a bit and considered dumping everything except for my beloved REGA P3, which I hope to keep and enjoy forever, and a yet-to-be purchased phono pre and headphone amp. For speakers, I had intended to go pro with something like a pair of outstanding Adam A7X. Pure simplicity.

But then, there’s always a then, have you noticed, I began to wonder if I could go forward by going backward, at least for now? Backward meant old. The REGA is old, the Rotel RA-1062 is old and I’m old. I’m on a streak. My first step towards old was a pair of passive speakers. Sure, the fantastic Role Audio Enterprise were taking a nap in my closet but are too big for the tiny room and the Rotel could never quite excite the Role’s bottom end. I started scouring Craigslist and you all know how that can be. One ad kept calling out to me, but I did my best to ignore it. It was for a pair of truly ancient Canton Karat 930 DC. Canton is a German company. They had tried to follow ADS into the US but they could never quite pull it off. The Karat has lot of what I need, especially a front port and not too much bass. These guys had to be able to make nice with a wall pretty much right behind them.

Charmingly enough, the pair on CL had a very fine hairline split that I wanted to see before I parted with my hard-earned $65. Yup, $65 for the pair. The guy who was selling them was a good guy, getting ready to take a new job in North Carolina. He said he was into ADS and had dreams of restoring the Karats Seen but unheard, I handed over my $65 and took them home.

The ECC/EU requires that binding posts not be spaced at .75″ so those silly Euros don’t plug and ungrounded AC cord into the inputs of their old Rogers LS3/5a. This leads them to use some non-standard (read: dicey) speaker terminals. The ones on the Karats secure enough but still I resolved not to test their integrity with spade lugs. Bananas! Old speakers love bananas.

Problem is that neither of the speaker cables I had on hand (both of which cost between seven and ten times what the Karats cost) used the lowly banana. As is so often is the case, the answer lay with thinking with the brain I used so in 7th grade. So, I ambled over to Home Depot and picked up a 12 foot, 16 AWG extension cord and got out the scissors. Voila! Two 6′ speaker cables.

To match the low-fi street cred of the rest of the system I also had the REGA downgraded. Not downgraded exactly, but I did send my Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO III to be restored which meant I needed a new and cheaper cartridge in the meantime. Since the REGA had been shimmed for the BPS I decided to go with another Sumiko, the MM Rainer. All of you MC guys can sneer but this little guy sounds great and tracks well. Installation was a snap but my hands are not as steady as they used to be.

The Karats are perched upon some no-name, MDF stands I also found on CL. Hey, they only wanted $22 for the pair but being the kind of guy I am I gave the seller $25 and told her to go out and have a party. That’s the kinda guy I am. I’ll admit that I intend to buy some carpet-piercing spikes for the stands. Until then, I just have to hope that the cat doesn’t think about how fun it would be to leap onto one of the Karats and send the whole thing, cat and all, toppling into the REGA. That’s not if but when. See Murphy’s Law.

Does the whole shebang look better in B&W? I didn’t think so. The headphones are my Beyer-Dynamic DT-990 Edition and my ancient but well-preserved Sennheiser HD-600. The HD-600s have done more international than I have, although that’s not saying much. They’ve been to Sweden, to help voice the Harmony Design, and Singapore when I tried to get an old friend of mine to distribute Harmony Design.

He didn’t go for it, but that’s Ok.

Have I owned my last high end system? I really don’t know. I do know that my lo-fi reference is fun and musical. Still, I am having some proper speaker cables made. I just know the extension cord is choking the Karats.

Golden ears never rest.

My lo-fi “reference” system

Records / LPs / Vinyl & Wet-Cleaning Brushes

For the last year or so I’ve been reconfiguring the way I listen to music. It’s been a gradual process but like a number of other things in my life it’s accelerated toward the end of this year. I’m doing what I can to make my collection portable. The Great LP Rip of 2022 has been a big part of that. While I have no intention of selling or giving up my LPs I also don’t have a great interest in significantly increasing the size of my collection. Those days are gone and even though I do buy an occasional LP my purchase of digital music either in CD or iTunes or Bandcamp exceeds those by at a ratio of at least 10 to 1.

Of course I own a record cleaning machine! I mean, who doesn’t? Very few people keep their records as they should and since nearly all of my newly-acquired LPs are used, proper cleaning is a necessity. I’ve owned my humble black Nitty Gritty Model 1.0 for a long time. It’s the very essence of simplicity, which I like. NG makes much larger and more elaborate models but all of them share the same vacuum. Am I really so lazy that I need something to spin the LP while I clean it? Almost, but not quite.

I was cleaning a record yesterday when I realized that I was missing my genuine NG cleaning brushes. They’ve been MIA for a minute now and I’ve been using folded microfiber cloths as a cleaning applicator. But, the LP I was cleaning was actually dirty, as in I could see dirt on it when I was at the record store. If I had not also seen the alluring sheen of what I call Inky Black vinyl underneath I would never have taken the chance on it. Come on, this is David Lindley…the only David Lindley LP I don’t own! The only question involved what to use to actually clean the grooves? I’d been reading about various new and old products, all of which promise to safely plumb the depths of the fragile grooves while removing harmful detritus. One had a crowd-funding effort that caught my eye. I’m not going to plug it here since the guy who developed it isn’t smart enough to set up a website to sell it or even to reply to an Instagram message. But, he made a good point about the diameter of bristles on most wet-cleaning brushes. He pointed out that the most popular material, goat hair (go figure) has a typical diameter that exceeds the diameter of a typical groove. Now that got my attention. He also made points of the facts that typical velvet cleaning pads lack the necessary groove-reaching length and that velvet inevitably compresses over time. Points taken. Too bad the guy won’t sell me one.

Everyone has heard of and some even do the unthinkable. They clean LPs with a combination of diluted Dawn and a toothbrush. Beyond the fact that Dawn is a detergent the surfactants of which can easily break down the PVC of an LP. Bad idea. And, a typical toothbrush would probably bring all of the disadvantages of a goat hair along with enough stiffness to create its own scratches. But, what about those super-soft, ultra-fine toothbrushes I’ve been using for the past decade or so, the ones people think are for little kids? I say sheer perfection if used carefully. The results on the LP at hand were amazing. Do I recommend their use? No way. Like I said, very few people take proper care of their records and I’m not going to be the guy to tell the careless to use something that could damage their LPs when employed by the careless. I’m still researching brands. In the end, I may buy 5 toothbrushes, cut off the heads and glue them onto a piece of wood. It’s yet another work in progress. By the way, I only use NG Pure 2 cleaning fluid. Accept no substitutes.

While I was researching brushes I came across a really entertaining blog. The guy’s in the UK and he reviewed not only a goat hair cleaning brush but also his Moth MkII cleaning machine. Even if I don’t agree with the ethos of his overly complex cleaning machine the guy wrote some great stuff about the joys of buying used records in the UK. It’s too bad that he hasn’t posted since 2017. Maybe the muse will strike him again someday.

I’d like to share an email I sent him the other day:

Dear Shelf-Stacker

I’ve been enjoying your blog for the last few days now. Some great stuff there. I’ve only returned my limited attention span to my vinyl of late. I’ve been wanting to rip them for a while but I kept stumbling on the method I would use. I finally decided on one over the summer and it’s coming along Ok. I’ve no intention of selling or disposing of my vinyl, I enjoy playing it too much. But, it’s very cool to be at my girlfriend’s house, and mention some obscure LP, and be able to play it for her using pCloud (which I highly recommend, aside from the annoying name). I don’t anticipate growing my collection much anymore. A few have survived, enough to fill my beloved Per Madsen rack. About 1,500 were lost in a flood (read: plumbing debacle) a decade and a half ago. They didn’t just get wet. I could have dealt with that. No, the flood was caused by a burst hot water line from old galvanized plumbing. So, rusty water climbed onto the records and then particles dried into the grooves. While it was possible to remove individual specks of rust it always left a scratch. Truly, each affected LP was a total loss. The idiot from the insurance company tried to offer $500 which was quickly increased to a dollar a record. I finally settled for $4.50 a record which in those days (LPs were not worth then what they are now) was not a terrible deal. Still, what a mess. Pisses me off to this day.

The first piece of yours that caught my eye was about the Tonar Goat Wet Cleaner brush. I have a beloved Nitty Gritty record cleaner but somehow all of my NG brushes have gone missing. In their absence, I have used very good quality microfiber cloths as cleaners and the NG to dry. I thought to myself that surely someone has come up with a better brush by now. The goat hair deal does not get me going, however. I had an intuitive sense that the diameter of the goat hairs themselves were unlikely to plumb the depths of the LP’s grooves, and I think I am correct about that.

I woke up with an idea. I’ve used these super soft toothbrushes for years. I mean they are SOFT. Most people who see them assume they’re for little kids but au contraire. Best of all, the actual bristles are exceptionally small, around .08mm in diameter, that’s what makes them so soft. Anyway, I bought a fairly old LP today that was genuinely dirty (as opposed to typically dusty). Even though it was dirty it had a really nice inky blackness that I always associate with good pressings (this example was from New Zealand) and then used the NG fluid and a new super-fine, super-soft toothbrush

The results were really good. I mean, I’ve always gotten good results from the NG but this was significantly better and this record was dirty.

So, not so much a recommendation as a thought. It’s amazing that there are still Parastat brushes floating around on Ebay…used, no less. No thanks. I have uncontrollable images of someone using them on their toilet or dentures. I’m not sure which possibility is more distasteful. So, I’m a toothbrush man from here on in. My plan is to buy a 5-pack, cut the heads off, and glue them to a piece of wood or plastic and voila!

I also love your stuff on used records. It seems there is little difference from the UK to the US in this regard. However, there are even more of what I disparagingly refer to as tweak shops here in the US. Shops that put on those silly outer sleeves and charge triple what an LP is worth. 

I divide my LP buying among a triad of local shops. One (Deadly Wax) is very local to me and owned by a really nice fellow. Aside from his reticence to create a Folk section his store is hard to complain about until you see his prices. They usually make me wince a little but occasionally I’ll find something and I’m glad to part with my dough since he’s such a good guy.

The second place (Canterbury Records) is in Pasadena, where my girlfriend lives. It has scads of potential but is really a disaster when it comes to browsing. The owner has literally tons of records. But, many are hidden away on mysterious shelves below the shelves. 

No, you may not look through those records. 

And, no, you may not buy those records under any circumstances. 

You see, the genius owner has yet to evaluate those records, nor will he ever, most likely. The available stock is still huge but I seldom find anything there and usually leave muttering about pretty much every aspect of the store.

My favorite is CD Trader (unfortunate name, I know) in nearby Tarzana. Yes, that part of Los Angeles is really named after Tarzan. Hey, it was Hollywood! Anyway, it’s big but well organized and has a nice blend of the costly and the not-quite-so-costly. Plus, the guys at the counter are always kind and know their shit. When one of them saw the LP I had he called out, “Cool! Only pressed in New Zealand, right?” “Right,” said I, impressed with the latest example of the legend of record store clerk wisdom. 

They do, also, have a lot of new vinyl and I’m sad the young little dipshits who buy them think the prices are acceptable. On the other hand, perhaps they are. The first LPs I bought back in the 1970s cost $3.99 and I was making a little less than $3.00 an hour at the time. Now, I see new LPs starting at around $18.99 with some inexplicably priced at $24.99 and above. Minimum wage in California is right around $15-16 today so I guess the inflation is not totally insane, but it seems like it is.

Finally and most importantly I am wondering what caused you to stop posting, if in fact you have? This vinyl resurgence can’t (or at least I don’t think it can) last forever. It’s a great time for guys like you to shepherd the clueless to happiness or at least away from the kind of confused foolishness they will suffer in other corners or the internet, especially as regards vinyl. None of my business. I’m just asking blogger to blogger. While I still blog I know the self-imposed pressure to post and I, like perhaps you do, chafe against it.

Anyway, I think you bring a wise and entertaining voice to something near and dear to my heart. Thanks for making the effort!



Records / LPs / Vinyl & Wet-Cleaning Brushes