This is an attempt at an objectivist review: does this relatively inexpensive piece of kit flatten warped records without major damage to sound quality eg no distortion due to crushed grooves?
Others . . . and I'm looking at you in particular, ncdrawl . . . may be along later with needle drops, spectral analyses, A/B listening tests and so on. But the main reason that I have been looking into a flattener is to do with the aesthetics and quasi-religious ceremonies associated with vinyl replay. Dropping that needle into the groove is such a pleasure: except for some 'pre-loved' albums there is no background noise, just a few seconds delay before the glorious music pours out of the speakers. What I don't like to see is the cartridge bobbing along like a cork in the ocean. Just ruins the mood . . .
There's a strong argument for just getting rid of warped records - giving them to the BHF shop (rather like leaving kittens outside the PDSA) - and just buy them again. But I find increasingly that new vinyl is warped, and I'd love to be able to sort that out.
My issue is not of poor tracking as such - the PU7 seems to handle everything with style and grace. Nor is it poor quality sound - my Jamaican pressings with a seemingly randomly placed spindle hole are far more of a sonic problem. I just want my vinyl to lie flat on the damn turntable.
The Furutech device being somewhat out of budget I need to look at alternatives. Sticking the album between two sheets of glass and then a) stacking books on top or b) heating the sandwich in a low oven or c) heating the sandwich out in the Texas sun. All methods have their promoters, all methods have given newbies poor results. Serge Auckland has a variant involving a hairdryer and glass sheets, seems to work for him but I'm not sure that he has disclosed all the precise details needed for it to be externally reproduced: what brand of hairdryer (I'm serious), what nozzle, what settings, what distance from the vinyl, what angle from the vinyl, static heating or rotational etc. I'm a devotee of steam cleaning vinyl and my way works (after plenty of research) but the forums are full of people saying that steam cleaning either a) did nothing to the record or b) wrecked it. It works within the specific parameters I use and yes, I believe that the brand of steamer I use (Penguin from Robert Dyas) is a critical factor.
It's all in the detail, which is why a plug'n'play option such as Vinyl Flat got me interested. VF is a screw-down record-sized clamp that presses thin flat rings over each side of the vinyl. Thus all of the applied pressure is directed at the grooves and none at the label area. Makes sense to me. The recommendation is to bake in a very low oven for 20-30 minutes or to use the matching heating bag: lower temperature and so maybe 4 hours or so of heating.
Many hifi forums have reviewed this specific kit and it is rare to see anyone who does not think it to be useful. Many find that a second heating/cooling cycle is better than extended heating times, for instance with warped 180g vinyl. Many mention that they find the inventor (John Martindale) a delight to do business with, if perhaps a little obsessed with the issue of dewarping vinyl.
My story: I emailed John on a Saturday for a quote for UK shipping, got the quote on the Sunday,
'Shipping the Vinyl Flat costs $48 and shipping the Groovy Pouch costs $33 via USPS Priority International Mail (two boxes - the Vinyl Flat is heavy, so we ship it separately in a Flat Rate Box). So, the total for both items is $79.95 (Vinyl Flat) + $59.95 (Groovy Pouch) + $48 (shipping Vinyl Flat) + $33 (shipping Groovy Pouch) = $220.90.'
So the shipping fees do make it less of the bargain it seems when you first hit the website. Paid by PayPal and on the Monday morning got a link to the parcel tracker saying it was now in his Post Office. Then it goes a little pear-shaped: arrived in the UK and sat on by Customs for a few days (maybe they thought that it was a land mine?). I paid import duties (£18 I think) and after a few more days they graciously agreed to deliver it.
Everything is well-packed with clear directions. The press itself looks very good. The heating pad came with a UK plug - thanks John - and there was a spare wingnut (the ball seen in the photos is for use in the oven: that heating pouch requires the lower profile of a wing nut). The protective rings look like some sort of compressed cardboard, very smooth surfaces although with some tiny pockmarks.
So do I try a charity shop disaster first? Do I hell. Out with Disc 1 from 'Sea Change' by Beck - one of my favourite albums but one with a bend in it despite being bought new. I did send it back but the replacement had the same fault (I forgot to make a tiny mark inside the sleeve before returning it, damn).
Steam clean it, wipe with new microfibre cloth and check for any surface material. Into the clamp, advised to use 'finger pressure' which I interpret as slightly less pressure than is needed to make the vinyl extrude from the clamp . . . 4 h heating, let it sit in the pouch for an hour, remove and let cool for another hour. Fire up the turntable.
The warp is still there, although substantially reduced. The topmost vertical excursion of the outer rim of the vinyl has gone from perhaps 7 mm to 2-3 mm. So back in the clamp, and back in the pouch, same as before. This time the warp has almost completely gone. There is some residual wobble of the cartridge but I suppose I need to lower my expectations: John is claiming his invention increases the playability of warped vinyl and I have no challenge to that aim.
Second trial: 'Party Time' by the Heptones, recent reissue. Thinner vinyl this time. Same results: warp is substantially reduced after one cycle, further improvements with a second cycle.
Both albums sound fine to me when tracking the dewarped area.
Next weekend I'll work on a few more albums, especially new ones that are gently 'bowed' rather than having a localised crease. Plus maybe some corrugated vinyl as well.
Quite happy to have started by under-cooking rather than over-cooking.