I’ve got quite a large LP collection that I endeavor to keep as unsullied as possible. Goodness knows it’s not because I’m a mysophobe; one glance around my listening room is enough to dispel any notion that I’m Mr. Clean. But it’s a universally accepted fact that if you want to hear everything on your records and not be sidetracked by annoying snaps, crackles, and pops that can overwhelm the content—or at least minimize those annoyances—you must spin clean records. That’s where the Degritter Ultrasonic record cleaning machine (website) comes in.
For the past 25 years, the LP ablution ritual at Casa Lindberg has been assigned to my VPI HW-16.5, which is a wet vacuum cleaner-type machine. Although the VPI. has continued to perform magnificently, the ascendance of ultrasonic record cleaners over the past few years has piqued my curiosity. And my curiosity was piqued because ultrasonic disc cleaning has been lauded in many circles as the ne plus ultra of modern vinyl cleaning. I mean, really: what kind of vinylphile wouldn’t want to avail their LPs of the best available laundering process? And, gee, we’re talking about ultra-sonic cleaning: it’s even got sonic in the name (and let’s not forget ultra)! So count me in. The challenge, however, was to choose which of the available machines would suit my purposes.
First, a little background. How does ultrasonic cleaning work? Unlike other LP cleaning processes, ultrasonic cleaning uses cavitation bubbles induced by high-frequency sound waves to agitate a liquid. It’s a safe and effective method for cleaning intricate/delicate small parts, jewelry, etc. And ultrasonic cleaners have been around for decades. According to Wikipedia, the first commercial ultrasonic cleaning equipment appeared in the 1950s and eventually came into more general use in the form of relatively inexpensive home appliances by about 1970.
Surprisingly, it’s only relatively recently that ultrasonic cleaners emerged as a cleaning option in the vinyl disc domain. I say “surprisingly” because the tiny grooves and nooks and crannies of records are ideally suited medium for the ultrasonic scrubbing bubbles. Vinyl’s resurgence has inspired some creative folks to examine how the ultrasonic cleaning process could be harnessed to maximize the sanitization of our beloved discs.
As you probably know, there are now several vinyl ultrasonic cleaning routes available, but none appealed to me either from the expense standpoint or from an execution standpoint (some just seemed kludgy in one way or another)—or both. The most basic, do-it-yourself or almost do-it-yourself versions consist of what is essentially a generic OEM ultrasonic tub surmounted by some mechanism that rotates the disc(s) in a bath of distilled water that’s possibly mixed with a surfactant or some other additive. In some of these setups, drying is achieved by good old-fashioned natural air circulation; in others, an onboard or outboard fan does the duty.
A relatively recent variation is the attractively priced Kirmuss cleaner, which has gotten excellent reviews from the doyen of the Analog Planet, Michael Fremer, and The Absolute Sound’s Andre Jennings. It’s capable of cleaning multiple 12” records (dependent on the version) and there’s even a slot for a 7” or 10” disc. However, I found the cleaning process (it doesn’t dry) as described—and as seen on video—ridiculously labyrinthine and time-consuming, especially since a good part of the Kirmuss cleaning process doesn’t involve the machine at all; it consists of manually wrangling the disc armed with various brushes, sprays, and microfiber cloths. Assuredly not for me at any price, given that my goal is to spend what time I have left on this earth enjoying listening to my LPs rather than cleaning them.
Moving up the automation ladder—and way up the price ladder—is the Audio Desk, another ultrasonic cleaner that’s gotten excellent reviews. It’s a machine that cleans and dries discs in one fell swoop. Even though it’s obviously well-thought-out, it seemed a bit overly complicated and expensive to me, and not only from an upfront dough standpoint; it also appears expensive to maintain, given the replacement cost of the machine’s rollers, filters, cleaning fluid, and wiper blades. The now-discontinued Klaudio machine was another highly regarded automated ultrasonic cleaner/drier that was even more expensive than the Audio Desk, although it required virtually zero maintenance other than changing the distilled water after cleaning 50-100 LPs. Both the Audio Desk and the Klaudio are happily used by knowledgeable friends whose expertise I trust; however, my own inertia and innate tight fistedness prevented me from taking the ultrasonic plunge. Until now . . .
Enter the Degritter
Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that I’m in no way dismissing other ultrasonic record cleaning machines on the market (or not) out of hand, since I don’t have experience with any of them.
Back to the Degritter: it’s an ultrasonic cleaner specifically designed from the ground up to ultrasonically clean and dry records. That means that the Degritter’s not a repurposed/retrofitted OEM ultrasonic unit (to be fair, I don’t believe that the Audio Desk or the discontinued Klaudio cleaners are repurposed units, either). The attraction for me? First, the Degritter was somewhat more affordable than the Audio Desk and now discontinued Klaudio; second, based on my perusal of Degritter’s website, the machine seemed at least as convenient and user-friendly and maybe more convenient and user-friendly than other options. Certainly not cheap at $2,990 from MusicDirect but, being a lazy cuss, its automation and convenience were very attractive.
Regarding Degritter’s specific cleaning technique, I’m just going say that the machine uses distilled water that’s agitated by a 120kHz cleaning frequency generated by four vertically oriented ultrasonic transducers driven by a custom 300-watt amplifier. I’ve read the various debates/claims as to which ultrasonic frequency is optimal for cleaning LPs. And I’m not going to join the fray, given that I don’t have any experience with other ultrasonic cleaners or cleaning frequencies to even participate in a semi-intelligent discussion on this topic. According to Degritter, 120kHz creates smaller and, therefore, more effective cleaning bubbles than the usually employed 35kHz-40kHz frequencies. Sounds reasonable to me.
The folks who designed the Degritter have expended a good deal of ink (virtual and actual) explaining their choice of cleaning frequency, along with the rest of their design. I won’t regurgitate that information in this article; I’ll merely encourage you to check out their website.
Setup is about as straightforward as even the klutziest could wish for. Just remove the water reservoir, fill it with distilled water to a level somewhere between the conveniently marked Min/Max lines, replace the tank, engage the degas function (maximizes the cleaning effectiveness of the supplied fluid), add the recommended amount of the Degritter fluid, and you’re ready to go.
You want convenient? Here’s the Degritter process: take one LP and place it in the slot on top of the machine, press the right-hand button, after the “Welcome” screen appears, turn the right-hand knob to the cleaning cycle you want (quick, medium, or heavy), push said knob. Within a few minutes (approximately 5-10 minutes, depending on the cleaning cycle), your record will be ultrasonically cleaned and fan dried. Repeat for the next record.
But that’s not all. In addition to the adjustment for the degree of cleaning, there are adjustments for water level, drying time, and fan power, along with the previously mentioned degassing function. There’s also a screen that indicates the water temperature, the total number of cleaning cycles, and the currently installed software version.
Results? Okay, first things first: like every other record cleaner on the market, the Degritter won’t work miracles. I know the desire to resurrect schmutz-encrusted, scratched, and otherwise damaged discs to their original glory burns in the hearts of most vinyl lovers, myself included. Although the Degritter has a “heavy” cleaning cycle, it won’t magically restore the copy of “Are You Experienced” that you spilled the contents of your bong on (among other things) and used as a frisbee during your college days (my advice: buy a reissue). Nor will it fill in the information blotted out by deep gouges, scratches, pressing flaws, and other assorted material blemishes. Sorry.
Here’s what’s important, though: every LP that passed through the Degritter sounded better. Not just less noisy, but better.
Of course, the improvements varied from record to record. The improvements wrought on some discs were downright startling; on others, the effect of Degritter-ing was more subtle. An LP that qualifies for the startling category is my copy of España (London CS 6006, blueback), a very noisy disc (I’m a little hazy, but it may have been a dumpster rescue)—and that’s after it had been through the VPI. a few times. I popped it in the Degritter on heavy cycle and, what do you know? The LP was transformed into the sonic spectacular it’s purported to be. And it’s not only a marked reduction in noise level: the qualities for which this disc is renowned were undoubtedly enhanced and many more revealed.
Although not quite as startling, a heavy Degritter cleaning made significant improvements to my copy of Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra’s take on Bartok’s Second Suite for Orchestra (Mercury SR 90098, FR 1/1). Like many vintage Mercurys in my collection, the vinyl was somewhat noisy, something that I’d come to assume was inherent in most Mercury pressings. But apparently that noisiness isn’t necessarily inherent, as the Degritter cleaning reduced this disc’s noise to insignificant levels. And I got similar results to varying degrees with my other Mercurys. Oh boy!
My treasured edition of the two Liszt Piano Concertos (featuring Julius Katchen) tickling the ivories supported by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ataulfo Argenta (Decca SXL 2097, scalloped blue band), already a winner, was notably elevated several sonic notches after a trip through the Degritter’s medium cycle. I thought my system had wrung as much as it could out of this wonderful LP, but I was wrong—and not for the first time.
It’s important to note that not just old, previously VPI-ed discs benefited from Degritter treatment. A few months ago (before the Degritter) I bought a copy of the Audio Nautes reissue of Chesky’s Magnum Mysterium (AN 1801). This is a beautifully recorded performance of lovely music that I somehow missed acquiring in its original incarnation. No matter, though, as Audio Nautes gave this reissue the royal treatment. As always with new records, I ran it through the VPI to remove any compounds, fingerprints, et al. that may still lurk on the disc. Then on to the turntable!
However, when I first played the disc, I heard what I thought to be mistracking on a couple of the cuts. That seemed odd because the Rockport/Air-Tight PC-1 Supreme combination tracked even the most demanding LPs in my collection with aplomb. Either the disc was untrackable, which I found hard to believe, or defective; in fact, I was about to send the LP back. But after the I had used the Degritter to clean a few discs, I thought I’d see what effect it would have on this brand new—and apparently troublesome—LP. Guess what? After a trip through the medium cycle, any hint of what I thought was mistracking vanished. I obviously can’t identify the specific gunk the Degritter ultrasonic treatment removed, but whatever it was clearly affected the initial playback.
And I had the same experience when I cleaned the Durufle Requiem LP (Argo ZRG 787) I bought used and attributed the breakup I heard in heavily modulated sections to prior damage. Chalk another one up for the Degritter. Not every LP was revived to the same extent, though, and some discs that I thought were damaged were, in fact, damaged.
My experience thus far is that the medium cycle is just dandy for most discs. But if a disc is new, I run it through the quick cycle to remove any lingering detritus infesting the unused LP. I use the heavy cycle for obviously needy/noisy discs, based on eyeballing and earballing. However, sometimes discs that I’ve cleaned on medium really benefit from a run through the heavy cycle. You just never know . . .
After I’d cleaned a couple of dozen records, I compared the software version on my unit to the latest version listed on the Degritter website and found that it had been updated. Updates require downloading to an empty SD FAT32 card and then inserting the card into the Degritter. My first task was, of course, to find out what the heck constituted an SD card (FAT or otherwise), since I had absolutely no clue. Once I’d glommed on to that information, I had to determine whether my desktop computer had an SD slot. An internet search told me that such a slot is usually located somewhere on the front of a desktop computer.
I can tell you that I’ve had this computer for quite a few years and I’ve never seen any such slot or any other orifices on the front of my computer. On the top and the back, yes; but those are for USB cables, ethernet connections, etc. Well, I rooted around under my desk for a bit and . . . guess what? To my astonishment, the front of my computer has a panel that slides down to reveal not only the desired SD slot, but a couple of more USB ports, and slots labelled xD Smart Media, MS/PRO/Duo/PRO Duo, and Compact Flash I/II/MD. Zounds! Once assured that my computer was appropriately fitted out, I ordered the required card from Amazon.
To date, I’ve updated the Degritter’s software three times and the process was simple and painless, once I’d (semi) conquered my technical ineptitude. Something I’ve thought about, though: there already have been at least seven software updates since the machine was introduced. On the one hand, the number of software updates gives me pause because I can’t help but wonder whether the Degritter was as well thought out as it appears to be at first glance (and use). On the other hand, though, the updates show that the Degritter folks are serious about maximizing the machine’s performance and ensuring their customers get the most out of their purchase. In addition, it shows that the Degritter’s control system is extremely powerful and flexible.
I found the whole Degritter cleaning process logical, clearly explained, and very user oriented; here are just a few examples.
The water level is adjustable in three levels: low, medium, and high (what a surprise). How do you know which is right for the LP to be cleaned—and why should you care? Since the goal is clean the entire record down to the innermost grooves, Degritter has provided a strip that indicates the correct water level. You just hold the strip at the edge of the record and find the level that corresponds with the runout space after the innermost grooves. Low is the default level and I’ve found that it’s the correct setting for many of my LPs. For the rest, the medium setting does the job; I’ve yet to use the high setting.
Then there’s the eyedropper provided that’s graduated in milliliters, so you know that when you’re told to put 1-2 ml. of the supplied Degritter fluid into the water reservoir, you’re not guessing. One of Degritter’s recent software updates generates a signal you when you’ve cleaned 50 records, so you know exactly when to clean the filter. Another software update installed an automatic maintenance program that cleans the valves after every 60 washing cycles. These and other thoughtful touches were sure appreciated by this user.
The Degritter doesn’t require a great deal of maintenance, but it does require some. Starting with changing the water every week or so. And that’s easily managed since the reservoir is removable. Then there’s cleaning the filter after fifty records (now alerted via the latest software update). This task is accomplished by unscrewing the plug on the right side of the machine, rinsing the mesh filter, and replacing the foam filter (if necessary). And that’s it.
Thank goodness, none of these activities constitute brain surgery and special tools aren’t required. If only changing phono cartridges were this easy! I almost forgot to mention that the Degritter fluid and the foam filters are reasonably priced, so you won’t have to take out a second mortgage just to keep the machine operational.
My only very minuscule nit concerns the filter plug. The plug screws in flush to the side of the machine and has a slot head into which you’re instructed to fit a coin. Although a quarter does the job, I believe that a simple knurled knob would be far more practical and ergonomic. Of course, a knob on the side would wreak a tiny bit of havoc with the Degritter’s streamlined aesthetics, but we’re talking about a record cleaner, for goodness sake, not an objet d’art. Definitely not a design flaw, just an improvement I think would be worthwhile.
DeGritter, a Conclusion
Ultrasonic cleaning works. What’s more, the Degritter makes ultrasonically cleaning LPs about as convenient as LP cleaning can get. It’s muy user-friendly, has an admirably straightforward user interface, its various functions have plenty of adjustability, and its software is easily upgradable, to boot. Best of all, the Degritter seems to be essentially foolproof, as proven by this fool!
Is the Degritter perfect, then? What is? If you’re cleaning records on an industrial scale, the Degritter cleans a single record, so it probably won’t fill the bill. Also, it’s certainly not quiet in normal mode. Although Degritter’s user interface thoughtfully provides an adjustment for fan speed—and hence noise level—lower fan speed means longer drying time. Then there’s the fact that cleaning 10” or 7” records requires a separate $80 adapter for each disc size.
Finally, there’s no getting around the pesky pecuniary detail that the Degritter is expensive. Although it’s less expensive than some current and recently deceased ultrasonic cleaners, it’s considerably more expensive than the Kirmuss and various D.Y.I. approaches and repurposed OEM tanks. Fortunately, however, for my needs, none of these considerations are relevant. As far as multi-disc cleaning, I’ve only ever cleaned one record at a time (remember, the VPI cleans a single disc at a time), so no big deal. And I always clean records while my system is warming up, which means any noise the Degritter generates isn’t a concern; after all, the VPI that I’ve been using all this time isn’t exactly the epitome of quietness.
As to disc size constraints, I don’t have any 7” discs and only a few of the 10” variety; besides, given the initial outlay for the Degritter itself, an $80 adaptor or two isn’t significant if I decide I need one.
And what about the expense? I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that I know that relieving myself of almost three thousand simoleons on a record cleaning machine may seem more than extravagant during these uncertain times. My only defense is that I had to sell a piece of equipment to finance the purchase. I must add that, at the time I ordered the Degritter (mid-February 2020), it appeared I was sufficiently well-off to treat myself—and my record collection. So much for appearances. Nevertheless, it’s a purchase I don’t regret and a great investment in my ever-growing record collection—and a time/labor-saving investment at that.
If you’re at all interested in pursuing ultrasonic record cleaning, you should check out the Degritter; it might just what you’re looking–and listening–for.
By Darryl Lindberg