Record cleaning solution shootout
By Jim Carter
So you have a record cleaning machine, you know, the type that has a vacuum to cleanup any debris that is on your record and now you want to know which cleaning fluids work best? Well I have tested out a few different types so I am here to give you my views on the different ones that I have tested.
The fluids/methods tested here are:
Mobile Fidelity full line including: Plus Enzyme Cleaner, Super Deep Cleaner, Super Record Wash, Pure Record Rinse.
L’Art Du Son record cleaning solution concentrate
Audio Intelligent 3 step cleaning process plus formula 15 enzyme cleaner
So to test all of these solutions I use a VPI 16.5 record cleaning machine, the supplied cleaning brush and the Mobile Fidelity record cleaning brushes. I made sure that I used a different brush for each liquid so as to not cross contaminate any liquids.
First up was the Mobile Fidelity line of products. I started by mainly just using the standard record wash 1 step process. It did an effective job of cleaning the grooves for me and there was definitely a noticeable improvement over not cleaning or even cleaning with a Spin Clean. The one drawback I found was that it didn't seem to spread very evenly over the record so I felt I needed to use more than I probably should have to get a completely soaked record. I then tried a two step process of the super deep wash and the standard wash. I can't say that I noticed much of a difference using both compared to just using the one other than what you may get a little more cleaning because you are cleaning the record twice.
Then I switched to the three step Mobile Fidelity process that includes the Enzyme Wash, Record Rinse and standard Record Wash. The instructions on the enzyme cleaner says for best results you should let the record soak in the fluid for a few minutes. This allows the enzymes to breakdown whatever gunk is on the record so it came be removed easier with the brush and the vacuum. The record rinse is there just to make sure all the enzyme wash fluid residue gets removed off the record. It is basically just a triple distilled water. This process definitely seemed to help with records that had some stubborn fingerprints or dirt that just didn't want to come up. The record sounded a little quieter in comparison to the one or two step process and I attribute this to the enzyme wash for sure.
Next up was the L’Art Du Son concentrate. You basically mix a small amount of this liquid in with some distilled water to create your cleaning solution. This is a little bit of a pain but it does reduce the cost if you just by your standard grocery store distilled water as apposed to finding the triple distilled stuff. I found this formula to be the best when it comes to coverage. It spreads over the record nicely and requires a lot less liquid to get what appears to be full coverage on the record. It has an odd almost cologne odor to it that I found interesting it made me wonder what chemical they are using that creates the order. I feel that this overall seems to do a better job than the Mobile Fidelity one step process just because of the better coverage with less liquid. It is a better value also since the concentrate makes about three times as much liquid as the biggest Mobile Fidelity bottle and it is less than twice the price. That along with the fact that I use less on each record makes it a bargain.
The last solution I tried was the three step process from Audio Intelligent. It was recommended to me by a friend as his go to option so I figured I would give it a try. So the process here is basically the same as the Mobile Fidelity 3 step process. You have the enzyme, the cleaner and the water wash. Audio Intelligent recommends a slightly different process than the others in that it recommends you brush the record side for at least a minute with each fluid to get the best results. Like the Mobile Fidelity enzyme they also say for better results that you keep it on the record for a 3-5 minute time period for tough dirt and grime. They have also introduced a new 4th step that they call Formula 15 which is a second enzyme cleaner which works on different types of grime than the original enzyme.
I have found that the Audio Intelligent process works the best to get you the least amount of surface noise. I have only used Formula 15 a couple of times but when I have it really seems to be an improvement over the standard three step process. The one drawback I have found is that this process does require a little more fluid in each step than the L’Art Du Son solution but it is about the same as the Mobile Fidelity so it wasn't terrible. The only problem is you are using three to four liquids so it adds up from a cost perspective. It is by far the most expensive option of the three but it also seems to be the most effective.
So there you have it. Three different options for your record cleaning machine all of which do a very good job but there was a clear winner. The Audio Intelligent three (or four) step process definitely got my records cleaner and the surface noise is noticeably quieter when I use it even on new records. It is a much more expensive option to be sure and it takes much longer to clean your records but if you want the most effective way to clean your records it is the way to go. The L’Art Du Son solution is actually my favorite one step solution and it is also the cheapest since it’s a concentrate that you mix with distilled water. I have always wondered if I replaced the triple distilled water in the Audio Intelligent and Mobile Fidelity lines with just standard distilled if it will really make that much of a difference. When I try it I will update this review and let you know.
So there you go! Bottom line, if you want a cheap solution go with the L’Art Du Son. If you want the best solution use the Audio Intelligent process. You could always do what I do and that is use the L’Art Du Son for my less important records and the Audio Intelligent on my more prized or really dirty records.
Fiio X5 review
by Jim Carter
Fiio has been making quality portable headphone amplifiers to be used with portable music players for a few years now that really help the sound quality when using high impedance headphones on your portable device. So the next logical step would be to incorporate this technology into a portable music player of their own.
They started with the X3, which was a pretty decent start since it was an improvement in sound quality over the most popular portable players out there (iPods, iPhones and Android based phones). The interface was pretty clunky which was a major flaw in the design of an otherwise fine intro into the portable player world.
So the next logical step? A higher end unit with an improved UI, a better DAC and more options like using it as an external DAC for your computer. Enter the X5. It has all of these things plus two micro SD slots that can accept up to 128gb cards, a coaxial digital out, headphone jack and line out jack.
Features in depth
So not only does this device have two card slots, a coaxial digital out, line out, headphone out and a (multi purpose) micro USB slot it has some other impressive features as well. The first, the ability to plug into a computer through its micro USB connection and use it as a DAC. This DAC has the ability to playback resolutions of up to 24/192 and DSD.
It also has a great function that has been added recently to playback files that are stored on a flash drive. It comes with a male micro USB to female standard USB short cable that can be used to plug in a flash drive. The only downside (and it is a big one) is that it won’t accept every type of flash drive. It only has the ability to accept drives with certain drivers. This can be a real hassle because it is impossible to tell which drives have the compatible driver before purchasing them. I purchased a PNY 256gb drive in the hopes that it would work for me but it didn’t. I was able to find a Sandisk 64gb USB 3.0 flash drive that works and it works like a charm however.
It doesn’t come with any memory built in but memory cards are getting cheap now so I consider that a minor issue. One issue I have found with mine however was slower cards (and I use that term loosely because the cards weren’t that slow) sometimes have a hard time with 24/192 files. It plays them but occasionally it stutters at the first few seconds of the track. I found with the fastest cards and external flash drives this wasn’t an issue.
The X5 also has the ability to import certain types of playlists for playback. I have yet to try this feature out because it seems like a lot of work to create them and only certain software seems to work to accomplish this. You can create your own playlists on the device. This function works well but is tedious and very time consuming.
Some other nice features include gapless playback, high-low amp settings (nice if have low impedance head or earphones that don’t need the extra power), sleep timer, resume play, balance control, EQ (for resolutions 24/48 and under only unfortunately) and play through folders (which only works if you are selecting music through the folder mode). The unit also has about an 8 hour battery life under typical playback (which to me is hi res file playback with the headphone volume at least halfway up).
Transferring files from your computer to the X5 was relatively easy. The drawback I found is when using a Mac the cards will disconnect themselves from the computer after a few minutes of inactivity and the transfer rates are very slow. I have tried using card readers instead and that is faster and a touch more reliable but a hassle because the micro SD cards can be a little difficult to remove from the player.
So like mentioned earlier Fiio listened to the complaints that the X3 UI was terrible so they worked to improve it in the X5. How did they do did you ask? I think the UI is pretty decent but still a touch clunky. They have been doing updates along the way and it is probably pretty close to as good as you are going to get without having a touch screen. They use a modification of the old iPod click wheel and for the most part it works pretty good. The wheel itself is a little touchy at times so I would like to see them improve that but it is something that I have gotten used to so it isn’t a deal breaker.
The unit has four mutli function buttons around the wheel plus an enter/pause button in the middle. On the left hand side it has volume up and down with a power button on the top. There are three lock screen modes for when the screen is off. The first only allows you to control the volume up and down, the second mode adds the enter/pause button and the third adds next and previous track options. I have found if you are using the X5 during activities that it is best to just have the volume accessible because I have accidentally paused and skipped tracks with the other buttons usable. If you are using it in a car or just sitting around the other modes work great however.
So the big moment of truth, does this sound better than the other alternatives out there? I have only been able to compare it to few things but I would say it is at least comparable to the other things I have tested or better. I haven’t found it to be worse than any of them.
I have tested against an iPod classic, iPhone 6 plus, Meridian Explorer, Mac Mini headphone out, Denon Receiver headphone output, Yamaha receiver headphone output and the media’s whipping boy of the moment the Pono player. I used the same tracks in Apple Lossless on all devices and compared with Sennheiser HD-700 headphones and Sennheiser Momentum on ears.
I found that it was better sounding than all of my Apple devices but they definitely gave it a good run for its money. The biggest difference I noticed was better, more accurate bass, less harsh treble and a better soundstage (depth and height). I wouldn’t go as far as saying it blew them away but it was noticeable even in my aftermarket car system.
When comparing to the Pono player and the Meridian Explorer it was much harder to pick a winner. I felt the Pono sounded a little more relaxed and seemed to have a tad less bass power and excitement. The soundstage wasn’t that different between the two. When comparing to the Meridian Explorer they both had different characteristics. The Meridian had a touch deeper soundstage but the X5 seemed to do better with the soundstage height. The X5 also seems to have just a little bit more midrange but I thought the Meridian has a touch better clarity. I would say it is a toss up between the Meridian Explorer and the X5 but they are clearly different sounding. I would give the ever so slight edge to the X5 over the Pono although the Pono is definitely no slouch.
So overall how do I like the X5? It is a little bit of love/hate thing for me. On one hand the sound quality is great and is almost impossible to beat. On the other some of the glitches with the incompatible flash drives and the 24/192 playback issues on “slower” micro SD cards make it hard to love. Are these things that can be worked around? Yes, most definitely. Fiio is on the right track with the X5 and is the best sounding portable player I have heard for the money. You would need to spend a considerable amount more to get something better.
Pros: Great sound, can be used as a DAC with your computer, play back of just about any format (FLAC ALAC, DSD etc), two micro SD card slots allowing for up to 256gb of storage and can play back files on flash drives.
Cons: higher resolution files need the fastest micro sd cards, slow file transfers, very limited compatibility for flash drive play back, no eq for resolutions above 24/48 and no touch screen which makes for a somewhat clunky interface.Would I recommend: If you can get past the cons listed above I think it is a great player and would be the best choice in it’s price range hands down.