February 1, 2006Hannl Micro Record-Cleaning Machine
For those of us who havent completely abandoned analog for the brave new world of digital, a record-cleaning machine is less an accessory than a necessity. Thats especially true for the guardians of collections begun many decades ago and for those who scrounge dusty used-record stores, thrift shops, and flea markets in pursuit of shaded dogs, bluebacks, and other goodies that can turn up looking as if theyve spent years in a cesspool.
Cleaning records can sometimes seem a quasi-religious ritual performed by an obsessive cult. But without it, the grime collected in an LPs grooves can yield sound as fuzzy as the dust ball clinging to the stylus itself.
My own record-cleaning machine, an ancient VPI 16, recently died after more than two decades admirable service. So it was fortuitous that, no sooner had it passed on to analog heaven, Scot Markwell, of www.themusic.coms Gear Shop, called to ask if Id be interested in reviewing a record-cleaning machine from Hannl, a German firm whose three models are claimed to be quieter, better built, and to do a more thorough job than competing vacuum-suction cleaners.
Another not inconsiderable consideration: the Hannls appearance is elegant enough that it can easily avoid banishment to a basement or spare closet, thus not only ensuring domestic tranquility but making it all the more easy for you to clean your LPs in the first place.
Of course, my answer was yes.
The mighty Micro
The top of Hannls line of record cleaners is the Aragon, which sells for a cool $2999 USD. Next down is the Mera, at a still-eye-popping $1999. Bringing up the rear, though hardly a budget item, is the Micro at $1399. I sprang for the Micro, figuring that its diminutive size and lower price would make it more attractive to most audiophiles. Also, the extras boasted by its big brothers, such as the Aragons pushbutton fluid-dispensing pump and the double arms of both higher models -- one each for suction and drying -- arent must-haves.
When I unpacked the Micro, I found it as handsome as Scot Markwell had described -- clean lines, its silver-and-black color scheme attractive, its compact solidity all but screaming "Quality!" But I was surprised to find no dustcover, something I consider essential. A call to Markwell revealed that a dustcover is indeed available, for another $100. If you plan to buy a Micro, it makes sense to get it with the protective cover, especially if, like me, you live in a city in which dirt and air are synonyms.
Markwell described the Micro as the baby brother of the Hannl family, and theres more than a superficial family resemblance in its slightly scaled-down design: similar arm, easy-to-clean black exterior and silver-chrome side trim, powder-coated platter of machined aluminum (with removable mat), and sturdy suction motor. At less than 14" wide, about 9.5" high, and 13" deep, the Micro fit neatly atop the utility cabinet in my home office, where my VPI 16 had lived for so long (though without the Micros elegant aura).
The Micros side panel houses an AC receptacle and an on/off switch, the front panel a pair of knobs separated by a small LED and a three-position switch. Operation is simple, but it took a few cleaning cycles until I got the hang of it. If Hannls German-language manual were available in English, users might get a running start; I made do with a translated cheat-sheet that read as if written by a German high school student on his way to getting an F in English. Ill spare you the juicier examples -- the Micro is easy enough to figure out -- but Hannl really should provide Anglophones with something more comprehensive and comprehensible.
I placed an LP on the Micros platter and secured it with the heavy hold-down clamp. The power of the Micros suction pump locks the clamp to the LP by the clamps rubber-ringed inner rim, to cover and protect the records label. The switch in the center of the front panel has three positions: clockwise rotation (Rechts, for right), stop, and counter-clockwise rotation (Links, for left). Schpritz your cleaning fluid of choice onto the record and, using the supplied brush, spread it uniformly across the surface. (More about fluids in the next section.)
The right-hand knob controls the platter speed. Turn this to normal rotation, then set the direction switch to clockwise motion. Then turn the speed control down to lower the turntable speed to 2-5rpm. Next, turn the left-hand knob to its lowest power setting. Raise the arm, position it diagonally across the record, then lower it back into its housing until its velvety felt pads touch the record surface.
With the Micro set for low speed and low suction, youll hear a low-volume, high-frequency sound as the record side is vacuumed dry. The Micros pianissimo whine is nowhere near the ear-splitting howls weve learned to endure from most such machines. Next, repeat the process by switching to the counterclockwise rotation, which will remove the fluid from the arms pads.
Hannl says to end the process by first switching off the suction, then lifting the arm from the record, both while the platter is still turning. Then increase the platter speed and switch it off. This should work for most LPs, but I found that the really filthy ones benefit from another go-round or two. Fluid residue is emptied via a hose attached to the bottom of the unit and secured by a plastic clip that can be loosened to empty it into an external receptacle.
Hannls English instruction sheet makes several claims for its cleaning process: Intense but gentle cleaning; clear reduction of noise; no static charging of record surface; and lower load on machine, therefore increased durability. After several months use of the Micro, I can say that those claims are accurate. The process yielded clean record surfaces, but so have other cleaners that also use vacuum-cleaning methods. Hannls variable-speed option allows much quieter operation (although rotating the platter at high speeds brings the old vacuuming noise back in all its glory). Nor did I notice any static during cleaning or playback -- also as claimed -- despite having the Micro in residence during the winter months in a steam-heated, thickly carpeted room that can make a handshake seem like Dr. Frankensteins lab during a lightning storm. As to the alleged increased durability, my ancient VPI lasted so long that a definitive assessment of the Hannls longevity will have to wait another two decades or so. But Im prepared to accept Hannls claim on faith, given the Micros outstanding fit and finish.
Along with an application brush and extra pads for its arm, the Micro arrived with a plastic jarful of Hannls cleaning fluid and a small applicator bottle. Scot Markwell suggested I try another of the Gear Shops imports, a record-cleaning fluid from LArt du Son, and I took him up on it.
Such ready agreement shouldnt be taken as a sign that Ill say "yes" to any suggestion -- Im usually reluctant to complicate a review with added variables. But I was already familiar with LArt du Sons CD/DVD cleaner, having found it more effective than any other Id used. After cleaning, even new DVDs had more sharply defined images and colors, and the sound coming out of my tinny TV speakers was more palatable. CDs high frequencies were smoothly liquid, the bass stronger, textures more lifelike. I was curious to see whether their record-cleaning fluid would work a similar magic.
A few days later, a bottle of concentrated LArt du Son fluid arrived with instructions to add it to a gallon of steam-distilled water from my local supermarket and shake well. I shook the concoction like a world-class maracas player, then poured some into a smaller container.
Hannl wont say whats in their cleaning fluid. Most commercial manufacturers dont, nor do many home-brew makers. LArt du Son doesnt either, though they assure the buyer that their fluid "contains no alcohol, is non-toxic, and environmentally friendly." I wish I could say the same for myself. This did give me confidence, however, in the absence of any harmful chemicals of the sort that cling to the bottoms of LP grooves and cause damage.
Thus armed with two new cleaning fluids and a Mercedes-class cleaning machine, I settled down to compare the two -- my limit for such an exercise. There may be better fluids out there, but Im neither inclined nor obsessive enough to make a comprehensive survey. The goal of a system is to play music; fiddling with a hundred different cleaning fluids would leave no time for that.
Back to analog
I had a hidden motive in agreeing to review the Hannl Micro. Though I now rarely find the time to listen to LPs, I have never abandoned my preference for their sound. As a music reviewer, most of my listening time is vainly spent trying to keep up with the constant flood of new CD releases and reviewing them for various print and online outlets. Meanwhile, several thousand LPs sit forlornly on my shelves, wondering when, if ever, theyll again feel the pressure of a stylus on their grooves. Reviewing the Micro offered a welcome opportunity to return to analog.
Theoretically, one might take two identical copies of an LP release, clean one on the Micro and the other on a rival machine, then repeat the process with another pair of LPs and a different cleaning fluid. At that point theory bumps against reality: no two LPs are identical. Dozens of points in the manufacturing process can generate minuscule variations that compromise the methodology. I did quickly compare the Micro with perhaps the most popular American record-cleaning machine, the VPI 16.5, using a "like-new" sample generously brought to me by David Fischbein, an old friend well known in New York City and Westchester County audio circles.
Both the Hannl and the VPI performed well, in the sense that, after being cleaned, LPs looked pristine and usually sounded better. That came as no surprise -- most vacuum-based record cleaners, including Hannls, are variations on Harry Weisfelds original VPI. I often think any such machine should bear a Thank You plaque to Harry on its front panel -- before the first VPIs came along, record buffs had to shell out megabucks for imported machines, or roll up their sleeves and scrub their vinyl in the bathtub.
I selected some favorite LPs, some of them vintage issues whose every little scratch and tick is indelibly notched in my memory; some I cleaned with the Hannl fluid, others with the LArt du Son. All got the Micro treatment and were played back on my Forsell Air Reference turntable.
First up were some Classic Records reissues of such audiophile staples as Netania Davraths performance of Canteloubes Songs of the Auvergne, a Vanguard release available on one of Classics 200-gram Super Vinyl pressings. This was followed by Ravels Piano Concerto in G Minor, performed by pianist Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer, conductor Charles Munch, and the Boston Symphony -- a Classic reissue of an RCA Living Stereo "shaded dog" release [LSC-2271] that in many ways improves on the original -- succeeded by several Classic jazz reissues originally released by Verve. All came off the Micro in sparkling condition and played cleanly, whichever fluid had been used, though I did notice that those cleaned with LArt du Son had more life and body to the sound of the instruments.
The real test came from golden oldies that hadnt been played for a while. The first of those is especially dear to me: a selection of Bach works performed by pianist Agi Jambor and released on a monophonic Capitol LP [P8348] in the mid-1950s. While Jambor was widely admired for these outstanding performances, theyve never come out on CD. With Hannls fluid, some distortion almost halfway through side 1 revealed that debris had collected on the stylus. After another cleaning, the record played well. Using the LArt du Son fluid on side 2, the fuzzy alarm bell didnt sound until the side was almost over. A second cleaning was still required, an experience I repeated with many old recordings, especially those Id bought used.
I also noticed that side 2 of any LP tended to sound fresher and more involving than side 1. This I attributed to pressing variables, different microphone placement, or just plain gremlins, which often account for different sides of an LP sounding slightly different. But I was replicating my findings with the spanking new Classic reissues, which suggested LArt du Sons superiority.
Further listening forced me to conclude that the differences in the post-cleaning sound indicated that it didnt clean groove sides and bottoms as well. (I didnt check behind the ears.) Records cleaned with the Hannl fluid didnt always sound as good as I remembered them. Memory does play tricks, but recall that I was using records in pristine condition as well as vintage LPs with which I was intimately familiar, some of which Id regularly listened to for 20 or 30 years.
When I cleaned similar records with LArt du Son, the dynamics, clarity, and bass were as good as or better than expected. A prime example was a favorite London blueback, Massenets Scenes Alsaciennes [CS 6139], whose four delectable movements include plenty of audio cues. The third movement, for example, opens with bells quietly tolling in the distance. Later, a juicy solo cello is joined by the clarinet, and they duet over a warm bed of strings. Trumpets sounding retreat begin the finale, a festive dance, and as they recede into the distance we hear music depicting villagers spilling into the square for evening revels.
Cleaned with LArt du Son, this discs soundstage was even wider than I remembered it, the instruments in the duet farther apart and closer to what theyd sound like on a concert stage, the bass line in the festive dance firmer and more visceral, the trumpets retreating farther into the distance.
Another old favorite is the Verdi Requiem led by Georg Solti (his first, on London OSA 1275; his later recording, on RCA, isnt in the same league). After Id cleaned these discs with LArt du Son, I was surprised by the bass drums power and depth in the thrilling Dies Irae. The chorus in that movements opening section had always sounded muddy on this and other recordings, the words a blur. Now, however, the clarity of the chorus was a pleasant shock.
I like gear that does what its claimed to do, and pride myself on not being taken in by hype. The more extravagant the claim, the more suspicious I get. Thats one reason I liked the Micro so much -- it did what Hannl says it will do. The Micro is not only an efficient record-cleaning machine; it does the job without the noise made by other such devices. Its also a handsome, well-built piece of equipment thats likely to elicit oohs and ahs from your guests, even as they ask, "What is that thing?" It doesnt do anything the VPI 16.5 doesnt do as well for half the price, but if youve got the gold and want a well-built eye-catcher, you cant go wrong with the Hannl Micro.
Hannls cleaning fluid gets lower marks -- it lost the head-to-head duel with LArt du Sons fluid, which fully lived up to its claims of improved dynamics, transparency, soundstage clarity, and strengthened bass. All I expect a record-cleaning fluid to do is to get the schmutz out of the grooves. LArt du Sons fluid did that, along with enough more good things to make it a permanent addition to my system and to earn my hearty recommendation.
Hannl Micro Record-Cleaning Machine
Hans Günter Hannl Reinigungssysteme
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