AOM Logo January 1998

The Nitty Gritty 2.5Fi Mk.II Record Cleaning Machine

Andrew Chasin

Although vinyl reissues continue to be released with encouraging frequency, the typical vinyl collector must still rely heavily on second-hand LPs to completely satisfy his cravings. Unfortunately, buying used LPs can be wrought with frustration as visually impeccable surfaces can turn out to be sonically much less so. I've lost count of the number of times I've come home with armloads of vinyl "treasures" only to find that many of them are unacceptably noisy. Thankfully, much of the surface noise many believe to be endemic to vinyl playback can be either eliminated or greatly reduced by following a proper LP cleaning regimen. Now I'll be the first to admit that cleaning LPs is not my idea of a good time - I'd much rather spend my increasingly rare free time listening to music instead of scrubbing and vacuuming records. But with the addition of a new analogue front end to my reference system, and the resultant increase in the number of used LPs being added to my vinyl collection, it became clear that a record cleaning machine was a necessity. Just as I was coming to this realization, Gayle Van Syckle of Nitty Gritty contacted me and asked if I would be interested in reviewing their 2.5Fi Mk.II record cleaning machine. By now my answer should be fairly obvious.

The Dirt
2.5Fi Mk.II
Among serious vinyl collectors, the name Nitty Gritty is synonymous with quality record care products. For years the company has supplied high quality replacement record sleeves (in which many of my most treasured LPs are currently nestled), record cleaning fluids and brushes, and a complete line of record cleaning machines. The subject of this review, the 2.5Fi Mk.II record cleaning machine, is a semi-automatic device which wets, scrubs and vacuums an LP for the purpose of removing both surface and groove-embedded dirt and debris. The "semi-automatic" qualifier stems from the 2.5Fi's reliance on its user to manually flip an LP over to clean its other side - only Nitty Gritty's more expensive Mini Pro series of machines clean both sides of an LP simultaneously.

The 2.5Fi Mk.II consists of an attractive, solid oak base upon which are mounted the following: a soft, round platter (the size of an LP label) through which protrudes a brass-tipped spindle, a motorized, rubber capstan, Nitty Gritty's velvet Vac-Sweep record cleaning pad, a fluid reservoir, and a pump for saturating the Vac-Sweep with fluid drawn from the reservoir. Also occupying the 2.5Fi's top panel is a large, three position, rocker-style switch used to control the operation of both the vacuum and the capstan's motor.

Setup of the 2.5Fi is straightforward and involves nothing more than filling its fluid reservoir with cleaning fluid (one bottle of Nitty Gritty's Pure-2 fluid is supplied) and connecting its AC cord to a grounded outlet. The 2.5Fi's fluid reservoir is large enough to contain the entire contents of the supplied fluid bottle, so frequent refills should be unnecessary (each bottle of Pure-2 is said to clean about 125 records). When more fluid is required, Nitty Gritty strongly recommends (and stipulates in their warranty) that their own Pure-2 fluid be used. Those wishing to use their own favorite home-brewed formulation should be aware that such use may void the 2.5Fi's warranty. Having said that, I should point out that several Audiophilia contributors have used their own vinyl cleaning cocktail in conjunction with Nitty Gritty's machines, and have reported no deleterious, long-term effects.

To clean an LP using the 2.5Fi, the Vac-Sweep cleaning pad must first be saturated with cleaning fluid. This is accomplished neatly by depressing the fluid pump four or five times (the pump may need to be depressed several more times on first use in order to prime the fluid lines). Don't worry if you pump too much cleaning fluid onto the Vac-Sweep as a small drain hole is provided to dispose of the overflow. The LP is then placed dirty side down on the turntable/spindle and the capstan is adjusted such that the LP's edge fits snugly into the groove machined around its circumference. The capstan is adjustable in the horizontal dimension via a spring-loaded slot, and in the vertical dimension via two screws hidden under small, circular, plastic caps. Unfortunately, the two screws are located inconveniently below the 2.5Fi's top surface and can only be adjusted with a small, Philips-head screwdriver at least 1 ½" in length (alas, not included). Chances are you won't need to make a vertical adjustment anyway unless you own LPs pressed on unusually thick vinyl. I got away without ever adjusting the capstan in the vertical dimension for even the thickest audiophile releases in my collection. Once the capstan is adjusted, the far edge of the rocker switch is depressed in order to activate its motor, causing both it and the LP to rotate. During rotation, the fluid-saturated Vac-Sweep scrubs the entire surface of the LP. After two or three rotations, the near edge of the rocker switch is depressed, causing the 2.5Fi's scrubbing cycle to be terminated and the high-powered vacuum to be activated. During vacuuming, the LP is again spun by the motor-driven capstan. While the LP is rotating, the vacuum removes the dirty fluid from the record's surface (which usually requires about four or five rotations), and the spent fluid is drained through a slot beneath the Vac-Sweep into a bottom-mounted, removable, plastic tray (the lid from a Rubbermaid Serve 'n Store to be exact - not pretty, but it works). The LP's opposing side is cleaned similarly. While it might sound a bit involved, it only takes about a minute to complete the entire process.

Due to its powerful 1/4 hp. motor, the 2.5Fi's vacuum is rather noisy. In fact, an informal measurement with a Radio Shack SPL meter indicated a sound pressure level of approximately 89dB at a distance of two feet from the 2.5Fi during its vacuum cycle. In the interest of domestic harmony, I'd suggest confining your cleaning sessions to daytime hours.

Although the 2.5Fi is built quite ruggedly, some of its parts, like the Vac-Sweep and capstan, will, in time, require replacement. Thankfully, Nitty Gritty offers such replacements (available through their authorized dealers) and has priced them reasonably. One other thing to keep in mind while using the 2.5Fi is that it can overheat if used for extended periods. If the top surface of the 2.5Fi becomes very warm to the touch, it should be left to cool down before further use is attempted. Few cleaning machines, the 2.5Fi included, are designed to clean entire record collections in a single session.

One very positive aspect of the 2.5Fi's design merits emphasis: at no time during the cleaning process does a freshly cleaned LP surface come into contact with a portion of the cleaning machine which has touched a dirty surface. This is because a freshly cleaned (downward facing) side becomes the upward facing one when the opposing side is cleaned. This is in direct contrast to the VPI cleaning machines which clean the upward facing side first, forcing the newly cleaned side to come into contact with an LP-sized platter previously in contact with the dirty, downward facing side. Although the VPIs are highly respected cleaning machines, their requirement for a clean LP surface to come into contact with a potentially dirty surface during the cleaning process, runs counter to my idea of good design. I, for one, prefer Nitty Gritty's contamination-free approach.

Associated Components

Analog: VPI Aries turntable, Audioquest tonearm, Benz Micro MC Gold moving coil cartridge
Preamplifier: Audible Illusions Modulus 3A with John Curl designed gold MC phono board
Power Amplifiers: Celeste Moon W-5, Sonic Frontiers Power 2
Loudspeakers: ProAc Studio 150
Cables: D Lin Audio Silver Bullets 4.0 interconnects, Transparent Audio MusicWave Plus loudspeaker cables, Cardas Hex 5C phono interconnect.
Accessories: Echo Busters room treatment products, Lead(less) Balloon turntable stand with Air Head isolation base, Target equipment stands, Stylast stylus treatment, 15A dedicated AC outlets.

Coming Clean
I tested the efficacy of the 2.5Fi using records with varying degrees of dirt-induced surface noise. I've always cherished my copy of Bill Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard but was always bothered by the many ticks, pops and other forms of surface noise which resulted from the neglect of its previous owners. After cleaning this LP with the 2.5Fi, I was delighted to find that almost all of the noise heard previously was gone! While I still heard the odd glitch, the surfaces were far quieter than I thought possible. The complete ambiance of the Village Vanguard was now audible for the first time, and was lit up by the extraordinary playing of Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian. Simply wonderful!

I recently acquired a small collection of classical LPs from a co-worker. In it was a superb original RCA Living Stereo recording of Rubinstein's Chopin Ballades. While there was no permanent damage to the LP's surface, there was enough dirt deep in the grooves to seriously curtail my listening enjoyment. It took two cleanings on the 2.5Fi, but the result was worth it. The noise floor of this album was significantly reduced - so much so that low-level details once obscured (like Rubenstein's repeated inhalations) were now fully laid to bare. While this may not be one of the most sought-after Living Stereos (after all, it isn't even a shaded dog!), the playing is remarkable and the sound is more than adequate. Definitely one of my better recent finds, now completely enjoyable after a thorough cleaning on the 2.5Fi.

Another recent acquisition was a Philips pressing of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Bernard Haitink. While not terribly noisy, there was an annoying "swishing" sound heard during the first five or six minutes of side 1. After only a single cleaning, the 2.5Fi completely eradicated the noise, leaving me with a five dollar LP which, I dare say, has no sonic equal in the digital domain.

In every case in which groove damage wasn't present, before and after comparisons of cleaned and uncleaned records led to the same result: the cleaned record had a significantly lower noise floor than it had previously, allowing the true benefits of analogue playback to be fully realized.

Of course if you think that only used and abused LPs benefit from a good cleaning, then think again. The 2.5Fi reduced the low, but audible, background noise of my carefully handled Athena pressing of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances to mere tape hiss. Quiet passages were now nearly completely free of the ticks, pops, and other sonic blemishes that have turned many away from vinyl playback - their loss.

Now, I'm not going to tell you that the 2.5Fi transformed every tick and pop-ridden LP into a sonic gem, nor did I expect it to. While the 2.5Fi did a terrific job removing dirt, dust and finger prints from both the surfaces and grooves of abused LPs, some records (like my Everest pressing of Shostakovich's 6th symphony - sigh) were simply beyond its powers of restoration, suffering from scratches and, in some cases, irreparable groove-wall damage. Having said that, it's worth noting that the number of LPs which didn't benefit from a cleaning with the 2.5Fi were few and far between - most were markedly improved, many were completely transformed.

If you're still committed to the LP format and either already have a sizable LP collection or plan on acquiring one through the purchase of used LPs, you simply cannot afford to be without a record cleaning machine like the Nitty Gritty 2.5Fi. I found the 2.5Fi to be a well designed, easy to use, and very effective LP cleaning machine. Furthermore, it's attractive appearance, rugged build, and compact size made it a welcome addition to my listening room. Although the 2.5Fi won't rescue scratched or otherwise damaged LPs from the vinyl scrap heap, it can work wonders with LPs soiled with dust, dirt and oily finger prints.

If your budget allows, I can't recommend the Nitty Gritty 2.5Fi highly enough. If not, Nitty Gritty makes less expensive machines which clean equally well, but eschew a real oak base and semi-automatic operation. Do yourself and your LP collection a favor and give one a try.

2.5Fi Mk.II Record Cleaning Machine
Manufactured by Nitty Gritty Record Care Products, Inc., 4650 Arrow Hwy., Suite #F4, Montclair, CA., 91763
Phone: (909) 625-5525

Price: US$ 579, Pure-2 cleaning fluid: US$ 15.95 (16 Oz.), US$ 36.95 (1/2 gallon), US$ 63.95 (1 gallon)
Vac-Sweep replacement kit (includes four Vac-Sweeps): US$ 13.95
Capstan replacement kit (includes four capstans): US$ 13.95

Source of review sample: Manufacturer loan
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