April 1, 2005Audiotop Digital Cleaner and Connect Workstation After many years of hearing friends go wild over accessories that they describe as having worked "earthshaking" transformations in their systems, and that I usually hear as marginal improvements or even degradations, Ive become fairly skeptical about tweaks. My experience matches that of Ross Mantle, who in his December 1, 2004 "Opinion" article wrote: "Ive tried many of these accessories, and Ive been generally disappointed in the results."
That hasnt kept me from incorporating quite a few of them into my system. The tweaks I like best are both inexpensive and effective. Perfect examples: the remarkable Vibrapod Cones and their siblings, the Vibrapod Isolators. The Isolators are rubber pucks graded by weight-bearing strength. Cones and Isolators alike are to be placed under components. Used together (Cones atop Isolators), theyre even better. They successfully clean up the sound -- much firmer bass, smoother highs, better dynamics and soundstage, etc. Cost: $6/Isolator, $8/Cone. If all tweaks worked as well for as little cash, Id be a tweak fanatic. But they dont, and Im not.
So I approached the Audiotop Digital Cleaner and the Audiotop Connect Workstation with interest mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism -- especially when I learned that the Digital Cleaner, a 50ml bottle of fluid, retails for $89 USD, the three-bottle Connect Workstation kit for $337. Nor did my skepticism dim when I was told that some users said those products made as much difference as -- or more than -- adding a new preamplifier or power amp.
Audiotop Digital Cleaner
Audiotop is a Swiss company that makes a full line of audio cleaning products, about which detailed information is carefully rationed. All I got when I asked was that they "cooperate with" leading chemical companies, have "performed comprehensive studies" of "surfaces and contacts," and, with the "support of professional analytical chemist[s]," develop products because of their "enthusiasm for music." As for the chemicals that go into their cleaning formulas, mums the word. In Audiotops place, Id keep it secret too.
Audiotop describes Digital Cleaner as a "purified" fluid for use in cleaning CDs and DVDs. All I can say about it is that it has a tangy, up-close smell that encourages using it in well-ventilated areas, and keeping it away from kids, glue-sniffers, and the family pet. Audiotop warns against a variety of inadvisable practices, including swallowing the liquid and using it close to "open fire," although a case can be made that anyone who tries to drink or fry the stuff deserves his fate. I didnt test any of those warnings and strongly suggest that you dont either.
The buyer is instructed to "spray the [disc] surface plentifully," then clean it with a paper tissue (several are supplied). As if "plentifully" werent enough, were also told that cleaning twice yields an "audibly improved result." Audiotop claims its process optimizes the lasers scanning of the disc: less diffusion equals more focused scanning equals better sound because the amount of error correction needed is reduced, thus making more computing power available to the "central computer chip for the true information signal." Sounds reasonable enough to this layman. The claimed results are: "more joy of music, resolution of all frequencies, a spatially stable image, and focus of the musical signal." Also claimed is improved image presentation for video DVDs.
Audiotop says that Digital Cleaner is also beneficial when used directly on the laser optics, but cautions you to first consult your dealer, and that the company takes no responsibility for damage done. That last clause was the clincher for me; I passed on the exercise.
Audiotop Connect Workstation.
Audiotops Connect Workstation is a three-stage cleaning process to improve the conductivity of electrical contacts. We all know were supposed to clean our systems contact points. Some of us do it regularly, some infrequently, some never. That last group is probably listening to grungy, clouded sound -- contact connections oxidize, accumulating airborne pollutants and other nasties. Those who, like me, fall into the "infrequently" category resist regular cleanings because theyre a pain in the butt. The first group, obsessive though they may be, often enjoy squeaky-clean sound. I say "often" because there are many contact-cleaning products on the market, some of which leave residues that can make the user wish he was in that "never" category.
Audiotop suggests regular cleanings: exterior contacts every 8-10 months, interior contacts every year -- more frequently if you live in areas of high pollution. And they say to clean it all -- power-plug connectors, switches, contact pins, everything. Their cleaning process begins by removing dirt and grease with the basic cleaner, Connect 1, which comes in a 30ml bottle of "a highly purified (99.999%) non-specified substance and special tensides." Files, spiral brushes, and cotton swabs are supplied.
Connect 2 is another 30ml bottle of secret fluid, to be used after the Connect 1 has dried. This time were told not to use the files. When dry, the contacts are said to be "analytically purified." Then comes Connect 3 -- a bottle containing 10ml of an additive "with a defined viscosity" that leaves a thin, protective film on the contacts.
Audiotop says this process reduces electrical resistance by a factor of three, thus easing current flow and the "impulse behavior in the electronics." You get better conductivity, less noise, and protection from humidity, corrosion, and wear -- improvements that should last for "up to 10,000 connections or 10,000 uses of the rotary switch."
I didnt treat my components interior contacts. I figured few audiophiles would perform that exercise, and that cleaning the multiple connectors and amplifier tubes and sockets would suffice to tell if Connect Workstation was effective or not. All in all, I can think of better ways to spend a Saturday afternoon. But spending an unpleasant several hours going through the three-step cleaning process did give me a virtuous feeling.
Did they work?
Before that cleanliness campaign, and despite the possibility that my electrical connections might have been in an advanced state of grunginess, I began with the Digital Cleaner because I could then gauge its effects against an otherwise unaltered system with whose sound I was intimately familiar.
I began with RCAs new reissue of the late Robert Shaws 1966 recording of Handels Messiah [CD, RCA 62317], partly because Id been listening to it often for a music review but mainly because one track was afflicted with nasty ticks. After cleaning, the ticks vanished, but I also noticed a slight gain in transparency and greater clarity in the reproduction of the chorus. In "For unto us a Son is given," I now heard the different sections of the chorus and the orchestra much more clearly delineated, with a wider stage picture and a distinctly stronger bass. In the alto solo "He was despised," beautifully sung by Florence Kopleff, I noticed more bite to her voice and the violins, and at the launch of the arias fast middle section, what Id previously believed to be a shifting voice placement became rock solid.
Another CD Id been reviewing, Evgeni Koroliovs superb selection of Mozart piano sonatas [Hänssler 98.468], actually sounded subjectively louder after the Audiotop digital treatment, as if a layer of barely perceived noise had been stripped away. Again, the resonant bass was more apparent, the disc more involving overall.
Pitch definition was another area of unexpected gains. In Maxim Vengerovs terrific performance of Benjamin Brittens Violin Concerto [CD, EMI 57510], the bass drum and timpani had sounded slightly muddy when supporting full orchestral passages. Now the bass drum seemed deeper, more impactful, and the timpani notes had more clearly defined pitches.
Just as I was wondering whether the Digital Cleaner added a bit more treble emphasis, or at least made CDs sound more "digital," I played Otto Klemperers recording of Mendelssohns Symphony 4, "Italian" [CD, EMI 63853]. Digital Cleaning actually made this discs screechy violins less objectionable and revealed greater transparency in climaxes. It also clarified contrapuntal sections, as in the exchanges between the first and second violins, which, though seated on opposite sides of the podium, had sounded slightly muddled before the Audiotop bath.
Before-and-after listenings to Bucky Pizzarellis joyous tribute to Django Reinhardts 1930s Hot Club of France [CD, Chesky JD271], demonstrated that cleaning yielded greater retrieval of details than Id heard earlier. A delighted laugh from someone in the audience was just one instance of an aural phenomenon that became more obvious and location-specific, as were details ranging from more viscerally rhythmic double-bass plucking to individual handclaps in the audience.
For Claudio Abbados new recording of Mahlers Symphony 2, "Resurrection" [CD, Deutsche Grammophon B0003397], I tried a three-stage experiment. The untreated discs didnt impress -- the soundstage was narrow, instrumental sections indistinct, and the tame dynamics undercut climaxes. Then, instead of using the Audiotop cleaner, I ran the disc through my early version of the Bedini Ultra Clarifier, an easy-to-use demagnetizer Ive found successful in improving CD sound. After a spin in the Bedini, the discs strings sounded sweeter, and details such as the barely noticeable violin tremolos under the string basses were now clearly audible. Superior detail retrieval went hand in hand with better dynamics, and the performance itself gained presence and involvement. I then gave the disc the Audiotop treatment but noticed only one significant difference from the Bedini results: a very slightly wider soundstage.
Ive since played at least a dozen more discs both before and after treatment. Virtually all sounded better after treatment with either the Bedini Ultra Clarifier or the Audiotop Digital Cleaner. In one respect they varied significantly: after the Audiotop treatment, I was more aware of the treble, while the Bedini gave that troublesome part of the spectrum a more natural glow.
With some CDs, the two treatments appeared to yield indistinguishable results or very slight differences, a finding that held even when I heeded Audiotops advice to treat discs twice. The second cleanings did confirm the claim of audibly different sound, but "audibly different" and "important" are not necessarily synonymous. The extra cleaning led to a further but marginal increase in the same areas as the first cleaning had: small enhancements of air, detail retrieval, etc.
A crummy-sounding CD will sound crummy no matter what you do to it. A great-sounding CD will sound great both before and after either the Audiotop or Bedini treatments. But either way, the message that a disc right out of the jewel box needs some help to sound its best came through loud and clear.
Audiotop says that Digital Cleaner should also be used on DVDs. This devotee of high-resolution sound is much less interested in state-of-the-art video, evinced by my reliance on a bottom-of-the-line Sony DVD player and a teenaged 27" television set. But while the Digital Cleaners DVD trials were fairly superficial, the results satisfied both my curiosity and Audiotops claims.
The pictures of several DVDs were indeed improved. On old black-and-white films, shades of gray were subtler, details sharper. On color DVDs, the colors were slightly more vivid, the details more precise. An example of sharper detail came in the creepy opening scene of Citizen Kane. During that sequence, which brings us closer, step by step, to Kanes castle, there are some very small, easily missed signs, such as the one on a tigers cage off to the side of the screen. Before Audiotop treatment, the lettering was fuzzy; after it, the sharper image made the sign easily readable.
Having satisfied myself on that point, I plunged into the delightful task of cleaning all connections with Connect Workstation, then settled down to carefully listen to the aforementioned CDs that had been treated with the Digital Cleaner, along with others that hadnt been cleaned.
Treated CDs sounded more or less as I remembered them from the before/after listening phase. Others that Id heard recently but had not treated did sound a bit better, with subjectively lower noise floors and slightly more fluid, easeful sounds. But aural memory is notoriously inaccurate, and sometimes the mind plays tricks; its possible that I heard what I expected to hear.
But then, past cleanings with other products have also led to marginally better sound, if not as noticeably as with Connect Workstation. To be fair, those previous cleanings werent nearly as thorough, though I now know they should have been -- I collected a ton of grunge on the tissues and cotton swabs used during the Workstation cleaning process.
Audiotops promise of lowered noise was kept. As for its claims regarding better conductivity and protection from humidity, corrosion, and wear, confirmation can come only from experience over a much longer term, though Im perfectly willing to accept the companys assertions, given the success of the cleaning process.
I was impressed by the Digital Cleaner: It did what Audiotop said it would do. But at the end of the day, an older version of the Bedini Ultra Clarifier did almost as well and sometimes better, was less trouble to use, and is more cost-effective. Audiotop says its $89 bottle of fluid will clean 130 CDs, or 65 if you take their advice to clean twice. The Bedini (currently $189.95) is a plug-and-play, high-speed spinning device that will keep going till its motor dies, which it hasnt in several years of heavy use.
I was also impressed with the Connect Workstation. Most such products Im familiar with are one-step wipes or simpler fluid treatments than Audiotops, which, though more expensive, is likely to be the cleaning treatment of choice for perfectionists.
The bottom line is that, after using both Audiotop cleaning systems, the sound I got from my system was better. I almost qualified "better" with "subjectively," but its a fact for anyone with ears to hear. Prices and comparisons aside, that makes the Audiotop systems recommendable in my book.
Audiotop Digital Cleaner and Connect Workstation
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