VPI MW-1 Cyclone Record-Cleaning Machine

by Dennis Davis | May 4, 2015

© www.theaudiobeat.com

While some audiophiles can remember the date they acquired each component they've owned, I can barely assemble a list of what I was using ten years ago, let alone recall the make of that first fold-up stereo system I picked up back in the 1960s. You want me to remember the name of every phono cartridge I’ve had? Not a chance. But I do remember that in 1982 my apartment was burgled and my stereo system was carted off with a few accessories left behind -- my VPI "magic bricks" and my VPI HW-16 record-cleaning machine (RCM). I still have those VPI bricks, one of which shows some deep scratches that I imagine happened when the thief lifted up a component and the brick fell to the floor. I hope it hit his foot on the first bounce! The record-cleaning machine has long since been replaced, but to this day, and since the time they were first introduced about 33 years ago, I’ve had one of Harry Weisfeld’s record-cleaning machines close at hand.

It’s hard to believe that before Weisfeld popularized in-home record-cleaning machines, cleaning a record meant wiping an LP with a moistened brush or heading down to the local audio dealer with a stack of dirty LPs to pay for the use of a Keith Monks machine. As revolutionary as the Monks RCM was, it was not really a practical product for two reasons. First, it was expensive. Back in the 1970s, the idea of spending as much on a RCM as on a top-flight cartridge seemed totally insane. The second issue was that it took an eternity to clean a record, because it cleaned records in "real time." The record cleaning wand "played" the grooves like a tonearm, so you could grow old cleaning a handful of records.

Unlike most people who spend their lives wondering, Why didn’t I think of that? Harry Weisfeld put on his thinking cap and sorted out how an RCM could be developed to overcome the obstacles of time and expense. Sheila Weisfeld, Harry's late wife, would never have condoned Harry's spending the young family’s fortune on a luxury like a Keith Monks machine, so Harry had to make an alternative. He had already developed record weights and a turntable isolation base, so why not a record-cleaning machine? And why not make one with a wand that cleaned the entire width of an LP at a single pass? Once this solution presented itself, much of the Rube Goldberg design that made the Keith Monks machine unique fell naturally by the wayside. Harry’s HW-16, introduced in 1981, became his first hugely successful product, followed shortly thereafter by "magic bricks," tonearms and turntables. The audio industry quickly recognized that vacuum cleaning dramatically improved the sound of LPs, and over time the VPI machines became a staple of a high-end music system.

Tonearms and turntables, the mainstay of VPI’s business, have been redesigned and reengineered over the years to take advantage of improvements in materials and manufacturing processes, not to mention incorporating the parade of Harry Weisfeld’s developing ideas. The record cleaners, by comparison, have remained little changed. The one radical change occurred early on. Record-cleaning wands need to have a relatively soft material to come between the precious vinyl of the dirty LP and the tube itself. The original HW-16 used two strips of Teflon glued along each side of the lips of the suction wand, which was itself fixed to the lid, so that the wand lowered onto the record as you lowered the lid. The Teflon was soft enough and sufficiently similar to vinyl that if everything else went right, it would cause no damage while it glided along the entire playing surface of the LP several times per cleaning.

Unfortunately, like life itself, everything did not always go right, and VPI customers soon found that the Teflon strips could catch and imbed into the vinyl small bits of debris vacuumed from the grooves. The results were rather disconcerting. I remember discovering the problem myself after pulling an LP off the VPI and wondering why it had a non-concentric groove evident on the pristinely clean surface. Then I looked back over the last half dozen records I had cleaned and discovered they all had the new groove! I can still remember how I felt that day. Had Harry Weisfeld been in the room, I’m not at all sure that he would have survived to develop all the wonderful products he has over the last several decades.

That short disappointment notwithstanding, the basic VPI machine carried on with few modifications over the years. Harry added a set of felt strips to the suction wand and developed an armtube to hold the wand and float in a hole in the machine’s plinth, resulting in a name change for the machine, HW-16.5. After 30 years, the HW-16.5 looks little changed from the original machine. The turntable uses an 18rpm motor. A recent change was to make the vacuum tube automatically adjust to accommodate records of any thickness. The fluid is pulled down into a stainless-steel, fully enclosed tub, and is manually drained through a plastic hose that exits the rear of the machine. I’ve used the same glass milk bottle for collection of used fluid for decades. For some time, VPI offered HW-17 and then HW-17.5 machines that employed two arms -- one for dispensing fluid and the other for its removal. Addition of the second arm required a larger footprint than the '16.5, and I never found the second arm useful. I owned an HW-17.5 and never cared for the robotic application of fluid, preferring to apply it by hand.

The real change occurred when VPI introduced the HW-27 Typhoon, which was essentially a '17.5 on steroids. With a body constructed of steel rather than the standard pressboard material, it was made to last. Even more significant was the introduction of a higher-power and yet quieter vacuum motor. The motor of the standard machine is quite noisy -- I kept a pair of earplugs handy and never ran the machine without inserting them. The Typhoon was a godsend in noise reduction and allowed the earplugs to be saved for use at rock concerts. More significantly, the Typhoon lived up to its name in removing water from the record surface with much greater force than the standard VPI motor. VPI claimed it had twice the suction power as the older machines. The Typhoon had one drawback from my perspective -- the footprint was too large for the space I have assigned to a record cleaner, and the features added with the extra size of the machine were of no value to me. I've never used the fluid application arm, and therefore had no use for the extra function and added cost of the Typhoon.

And now a growing contingent of cleaning enthusiasts swear that new ultrasonic record cleaning machines, such as the Korean KLAudio KD-CLN-LP200 ultrasonic cleaner ($4000) and the German Audio Desk Systeme Vinyl Cleaner ($4450), are the Second Coming in terms of speed, convenience and, some say, the efficacy of the cleaning process. Both of these models are like record toasters -- your insert the record vertically into a slot in the top -- and offer a high degree of automation. A third alternative, the "built in the USA" UltraSonic V-8 and Dryer Cube ($1995) costs less, but it demands more space (it's two units -- one to wash and one to dry) and looks more like a home-brew product than the other more commercial units (which, in fact, it is).

In the face of all this, VPI has released a new cleaning machine, the MW-1 Cyclone, priced at $999, a very significant step up from the basic '16.5 machine now priced at $649. Rather than going ultrasonic, and hence ultra expensive, the MW-1 Cyclone opts to build on the strengths of VPI's existing design in significant ways. The new cleaning machine’s design refinements are at least in part the work of Harry Weisfeld’s son Mat, who now is the chief executive and bottle washer at VPI, hence the "MW" rather than the "HW" prefix we’ve grown to expect over the decades.

The new MW-1 Cyclone bears a more than casual resemblance to the HW-16.5. The size and hence footprint appear identical. Under the hood, a casual glance at the cleaning wand and turntable uncovers no obvious differences. The record clamp is a larger size and easier to use (and perhaps more effective) than the one supplied with the '16.5, although it is available as an option with that machine. The '16.5 lid was built on a hinge, so it folded up and rested against the wall. I always used my '16.5 with a gooseneck lamp hovering over the cleaning machine, so I always left the lid up, defeating its purpose as a dust catcher. The Cyclone opts for a removable lid rather than a hinged lid. Lift it off and set it on the floor when using the machine and replace when finished. The initial-production-run lid is made of a polycarbonate sheet not quite as thick as the original lid, and my sample curled a bit. This is a small annoyance and one VPI is addressing with a lid made from thicker-gauge plastic. Like the '16.5, the Cyclone drains from a plastic tube running off the back of the machine and held closed by a clip that allows you to open the drain tube.

What’s immediately different in appearance is the fact that this machine's chassis is constructed of metal rather than pressboard. Under the hood, the vacuum-pickup-tube assembly shows signs of refinement. With older machines, you had to guess how far into the assembly the tube should be placed to line up properly with the LP. The new assembly has a steel pin pointing into the entrance, and the tubes have a slot opening at the top, so that the depth the tube slides into the assembly is limited by the pin, thus taking out the guesswork. The tube assembly has also been reworked to make it adjust better for record thickness. A new slot carved into the underside of the assembly is the visible evidence of this change.

These modifications have one downside for long-time VPI owners: Tubes and assemblies from older '16.5s will not work with the Cyclone. Like the '16.5, the Cyclone accommodates tubes that are made for 10" and 7" records. Newly slotted tubes for these record sizes can be purchased separately.

The other big difference between the '16.5 and the Cyclone is the ability of the motor to work bidirectionally. You can wash and dry records in both directions. The big advantage here is said to be in the drying cycle. Dry clockwise in one rotation and then reverse for a rotation. Harry Weisfeld has a scientific explanation for why this works better, but simple observation shows how effective this is in quickly pulling every trace of dirt-infused moisture from the record groove.

My record-cleaning regimen is so ingrained that I can perform it in a near coma. I apply Disc Doctor fluid by hand using a Disc Doctor brush. Then I vacuum off the fluid. I use a squeeze bottle of filtered water to rinse the brush and let it drain in a photographic-print tray. Then I squeeze filtered water on the record in front of a VPI brush as the table spins, letting it spread over the surface before vacuuming off. Yes, I know there are record-cleaning fanatics who insist on using separate wands for the wash and rinse cycles. Others insist on scrubbing the cork mat after cleaning one side and before flipping the LP over. Others swear that any use of a machine degrades the record-cleaning experience.

In light of this, using the new Cyclone is a godsend in speed and functionality. First, it’s 20dB quieter than the '16.5. Think about that -- the difference between a fairly quiet restaurant and a rock concert! The increased suction of the heavier-duty motor, in addition to more effectively lifting dirt off records, also cuts down on the time needed to clean an LP. Convenience is all well and good, but the prime function of a record-cleaning machine is to clean records, not to make your life more convenient. A record cleaned with the Cyclone came away from its bath cleaner and shinier than with other VPI cleaners. I’ve probably cleaned ten thousand LPs on VPI '16, '16.5 and '17.5 machines. Compared to these older VPI machines, the Cyclone is a sports car in a land of station wagons.

How does this super-vacuum approach to record cleaning stack up to increasingly popular but very expensive, ultrasonic machines? Some ultrasonic owners swear they can hear a significant improvement on LPs cleaned with an ultrasonic machine over a vacuum cleaner. Others are less fulsome in their praise, but have fallen in love with the convenience of cleaning a lot of records in a short period of time. Harry Weisfeld has experimented at length with the new machines and believes that the ideal solution is to use an ultrasonic machine for cleaning and then a Cyclone for drying. He has tried the ultrasonic machines and finds that they make high-frequency transients sound less real, but that a proper drying spin on the Cyclone clears up this problem.

The proof is in the pudding, of course, but the trick is figuring out how to taste the pudding. Comparing the old '16.5 to the Cyclone is almost child’s play -- you can see the difference in the surface of the record. Comparing the ultrasonic and Cyclone methods is a much more difficult task, as both leave the surface sparkling clean, and neither (if executed properly) leaves an obviously noisy surface.

One route is to take two identical records and clean one using ultrasonic and the other using vacuum technology, and assume no record-to-record variation exists. Another method is to clean a record with one technology, listen and then clean it again using the second technology and listen for improvements or degradation. If you think cleaning a record on a vacuum-cleaning machine is boring, time-consuming or mind-numbing, I can assure you that comparing the sound of records using different cleaning machines makes the cleaning process seem almost stimulating.

I’ve tried every variation I could think of, using both the Audio Desk Systeme and KLAudio units owned by several local friends eager to show off their machines. Before the Cyclone landed on my doorstep, I cleaned around a dozen LPs on an Audio Desk Systeme machine and compared them to similar results with an HW-16.5. There was no doubt that the Audio Desk Systeme achieved a more consistently spotless result than the '16.5, and because it looked cleaner I may have talked myself into believing it sounded better. Over the four months since the Cyclone arrived, I’ve run a couple more dozen trials with both KLAudio and Audio Desk Systeme machines, this time with different results. I’ve not been able to detect that the ultrasonic machines get a record any cleaner looking than the Cyclone, and I don’t hear the high-frequency problem identified by Harry Weisfeld either. Nor do I hear the range of other audible improvements reported by others in the sound of an LP cleaned with bubbles over those cleaned with suction on the Cyclone -- the Cyclone is that good in pulling everything from the grooves.

I can see five meaningful differences between the two technologies: convenience, cost, functionality, long-term reliability and, last but not least, appearance.

Convenience seems to be the big factor that everyone mentions when they swoon over the advantages of the ultrasonic machines. The most frequently heard story goes something like this: "I just acquired 500 new LPs, and without some automation, they will just sit in a corner of the room and never get cleaned." Marc Mickelson, who has more space and fewer records than I have, has fallen in love with his Audio Desk Systeme Vinyl Cleaner for this very reason, and his review of it can be found here. There are no doubt record collectors who come upon vast collections that, on first glance, seem overwhelming. I, for one, have never tried to get more than 50 newly acquired records in the door at one time, and that hasn’t happened more than a handful of times in decades of record collecting. If I showed up with 500 new LPs, I suspect that I would find the locks changed.

But let's assume that such a stash fell into my lap, and they were all original Blue Notes in near-mint condition that would require no weeding out -- in other words, 500 records that I would want to clean and listen to. I’m not going to listen to them all at once. I can clean both sides of a record on the Cyclone in two and a half minutes. A break of less than three minutes between records is not a major inconvenience in an evening's exploration of a collection of new treasure. I’ll go a step further -- spending a few minutes with each new LP gives me pleasure and a sense of involvement that are missing from farming out the job to a less involving machine. And it incorporates an element of personal involvement that adds to the pleasure of vinyl experience. Say I dug an original copy of Clifford Jordan’s Blowing in from Chicago from my new treasure trove of 500 LPs. I sure won’t be putting that LP on a robotic machine to save a few minutes. I’d take my time, maybe even three whole minutes, and savor every second!

Cost is a no-brainer. For one grand and a dollar change, the Cyclone is yours. The ultrasonic machines will set you back over four large -- or more as you start adding accessories, unless you opt for the more utilitarian UltraSonic V-8. The difference represents the cost of a respectable phono stage or cartridge. Or you could fill some mighty large gaps in your Blue Note collection. Better yet, you could pick up 60 to 70 Music Matters Blue Note reissues for the difference in price. Translated into those terms, the Cyclone can start looking like the record-cleaning-machine bargain of the century.

The main functionality issue is that the Audio Desk Systeme ultrasonic machine is limited to cleaning 12" records. KLAudio has introduced record clamps to hold 10" and 7" records, but in operation those clamps require a lot more setup time and may not fit every one of your smaller discs, which are not all cut to exactly the same size. The VPI Cyclone, like most vacuum machines, does an equally fine job with 10" and 7" records.

As to reliability, I’ve owned a VPI machine for decades and only experienced one problem that I could not fix on my own, (other than the original Teflon-tape issue). That problem arose from forgetting to drain the fluid tank, causing the fluid to leak out of the stainless-steel container and soak into the fiberboard structure. Given the Cyclone’s metal construction, that (truly rare) problem is solved. The ultrasonic machines have lots of parts that can fail, be changed and go out of production. There is something reassuring about a company that has been around as long as VPI. Perhaps 30 years from now, Mat and his lovely fiancé Jane will let their son take over the company and fix your Cyclone after your children have inherited it. Audio Desk Systeme has been around a very long time -- I’ve owned their CD disc-cutting machine for many years, and tried their CD cleaner (a short-lived product). They have a reputation for backing their products. KLAudio is a more recent player, but its machine is built like the proverbial brick house. Nonetheless, the VPI machine is a far simpler technology with less to go wrong.

Finally, one can never totally overlook appearance. As fine a product as the Cyclone is, at the end of the day it’s a pretty utilitarian-looking black box -- not really that much fancier in design than the UltraSonic V-8 cleaner. The KLaudio, on the other hand, is a particularly attractive package and would have made a fine-looking companion to my Spiral Groove turntable. I cannot imagine a more seductive-looking record-cleaning machine to match with the color scheme of my system, and I can see how this factor could tilt the scales for some.

I’ve recently spent much time trying to pick out a new car to replace a well-worn vehicle. The time-consuming experience reminded me that more than any other part of the audio kit, picking out a record-cleaning machine is a complicated and personal endeavor. Whether you pick a budget Japanese sedan or a Ferrari, either choice gets you the basics of transportation. The trick for most drivers is finding the sweet spot that fulfills basic transportation needs and also meets the emotional requirements for something more than mere survival.

The same thing applies to record-cleaning machines. Some budgets will only allow for a hand-washing and -drying system, while others can manage the most expensive choices. Whether you pick a Ferrari or an ultrasonic record cleaner, you are paying a premium for a luxury that some may find too dear. The trick is finding the sweet spot -- where a lot less money gets you oh, so close to heaven. The MW-1 Cyclone, with its bulletproof construction and outstanding cleaning, hits that sweet spot dead on.

Price: $999.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

VPI Industries, Inc.
77 Cliffwood Ave., #3B
Cliffwood, New Jersey 07721
(732) 583-6895

Associated Equipment

Analog: Spiral Grove SG1.1 turntable, Lyra Atlas stereo and Titan i mono cartridges, Nordost Valhalla 2 tonearm cable, Audio Research Reference Phono 2 SE phono stage.

Preamp: Audio Research Reference 5 SE.

Amplifiers: Audio Research Reference 150.

Digital: Audio Research Reference CD7, Luxman D-08U.

Speakers: Avalon Transcendent, Sonus Faber Olympica III.

Headphones: Audeze LCD-3.

Headphone amplifier: Cavalli Liquid Gold.

Cables: Nordost Valhalla 2 interconnects, speaker cables and power cords.

Power distribution: Quantum QB8 AC-distribution unit and Qx4 power purifier; Furutech GTX D-Rhodium power receptacle.

Supports: Stillpoints ESS Grid, Stillpoints Ultras and Ultra 5s.

Accessories: Record Doctor cleaning fluid and brush, VPI "magic bricks," Audio Physic cartridge demagnetizer, Shunyata Dark Field Elevators, Acoustical Systems SMARTractor, Dr. Feickert Analogue’s Platterspeed app.

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