Affordable mainstay of vinyl records and turntable maintenance, the LAST Factory of Livermore/CA has now applied its chemical experience of audiophile cleaning solutions to the shiny bits-is-bits polycarbonate discs. Various popular -- or popularly ridiculed -- tweaks include demagnetizers, colored pens and veritable circumcision to true a CD's edges. All have proven that laser scatter and micro charges can negatively affect a CD/DVD laser's ability to properly retrieve the embedded information. One sensible theory posits that sonic improvements in the wake of such treatments are due to a reduction in error correction interpolation.

What clearly doesn't require fancy theorizing? Why scratches and dirt would cause signal dropout, laser stutter or utter unplayability of tracks or entire CDs. It's also become common knowledge that how you remove specifically a DVD is important. Prying it loose from one side will slightly bend the disc to risk separation of the data layer from the substrate. This can make a disc unreadable altogether or incur read errors in specific areas. Always lift out the CD/DVD by applying pressure to the central nub of the case, not via asymmetrical pressure to the disc proper. Truly, I've never understood why Mobile Fidelity's ingenious flip lock case for their gold CDs didn't enjoy universal adaptation. The moment you opened their case, the central CD restraint lifted all by itself and the CD could safely be removed without any pressure or torquing.

Disclaimer: I have never performed a strategic survey of existing CD cleaning solutions. By default, the Walker Audio Vivid is the only one I have acquaintance with - because it was sent for evaluation. As reported in its review, the before-after differences were silly obvious even to non-audiophile visitors. A combination of Furutech RD-2 disc demagnetizer treatment and subsequent application of Vivid have since become de rigeur whenever I want to enjoy CD playback at its optimum (admittedly, sometimes I'm simply too lazy to bother).

Readers made of sterner stuff did conduct comparisons between various commercial cleaning solutions and reported back. The Vivid was either their clear favorite or otherwise in the top two of whatever they compared it against. I feel thus comfortable that vis-à-vis today's fluid, this Walker product would make a valid benchmark. Alas, the LAST liquid which is sprayed onto a disc in a fine mist also claims to repair mild scratches and abrasions, something which the Vivid expressively does not.

Not owning a sufficiently scratched CD, I would need to burn one and deliberately mistreat it to get an idea how much this fluid could do to make it playable again. But first, audiophile observations. How would an application of mist, buffed off in straight center-to-edge movements with the enclosed blue cloth, translate to the ears?

Aria and Aria 2 by Paul Schwartz [Astor Place Recordings, 4009/1997 and 4017/1999] are ultra-cool, opera-meets-house creations that, conceptually, recall the famous Blue Diva aria of the Fifth Element hit. Schwartz hired classically trained singers and real strings, then added Hip-Hop/House-style beats, ambience and first-rate production values. The older Aria's seen plenty of action over the years as evinced by finger prints, a dull surface and visible scratches. Alas, none of these marks were serious enough to cause audible skipping. Put differently, without inspecting the CD closely, my Cairn Fog as transport didn't give away that the software fed to it was anything but immaculate - it read just swell.

Regardless, a one-time treatment induced LASTing effects. Playback easily sounded 2dB louder because of the associated benefits which improperly level-matched A/Bs usually create: The louder take offers more detail, better focus, clearer depth perspective, more weight, density and fullness. It was nothing a kid with a ghetto blaster wouldn't have heard in an instant. That's also exactly what I heard. Of course, I couldn't revert back for multiple A/Bs. Still, my wife detected it in her upstairs work area as well. Subtle? Absolutely not. To be more systematic, I now burned two short compilations CDs for repeat A/B swapping. This would eliminate original vs. copy variables and limit audible differences to the treatment proper.

Armed with three tracks each ("Willow" from Aria; "Ziroq" from Ziroq by Ziroq [Triloka] and "Victor's Doina" from Riens dans les poches by Bratsch [Network]) I compared each treated track multiple times against its untreated version. Step 2 would apply Vivid to the untreated disc and compare two discs treated with different cleaning solutions. Step 3 would deliberately scratch one of them to hopefully induce audibly errant behavior, then treat it with multiple applications of LAST to see whether the disc would thereafter sound different. Ready?

Probably because both discs were brand-new to exhibit zero signs of use, the delta of performance now significantly shrunk over the first impression. The differences concentrated on low-level retrieval which gave the treated disc both a slighty sharper, crisper mien and, reliably confirmed after multiple A/Bs, better definition of secondary or tertiary motifs embedded deeper into the musical fabric - like the synth burbling behind Rebecca Lucer' soprano, subdued in import and focus against the spotlighted percussion and prominent bass beats. The treated version allowed me to follow the synth accompaniment more clearly, in fact, I didn't notice it as a distinct element before. Once I did and concentrated on it during subsequent comparisons, I realized that the treated one wasn't just more obvious but also allowed me to hone into a specific sampled timbre rather than just notes. Too, certain struck triangle clangs rang out longer, Rebecca's voice was more delineated than the slightly fuzzier comparator version. In short, all these attributes belonged into the realm of heightened resolution. I had slowed down, from the earlier goofy grin affair of blatant obviousness to the kind of finer-tipped refinements that make up the usual returns once all the basics in a system have been addressed effectively.

The Carlos Castaneda-flavored Rumba Gitana track by Ziroq, with its higher intrinsic reverb setting obscuring things, was a tougher call. I couldn't securely latch onto anything in particular except for certain percussive transients during the opening that seemed to crack harder with the LAST version - but on a whole, this was hair-splittin' terrain. The accordion/violin duet by Bratsch, with the parallel vocalizing and momentary whistling, was more obvious again. The Gipsy-style sawed and limping viola accompaniment gave off more micro details of horse hair scraping against metal. The unison lines of accordion and whistle were more cleanly separated and distinct, explosive lip movements more forceful.

Suspicious that I had perhaps exaggerated the initial 2dB judgment, I pulled out another old CD from my library, The Studio Recordings - New York 1985 with Vladimir Horowitz, cued up to the opening movement of Schumann's "Kreisleriana" [Deutsche Grammophone 419217-2]. I listened to the first two minutes three times in a row to get a decent fix, then sprayed the CD. Sure enough, the slightly watery indistinction evaporated, things again sounded a touch louder, distinctly crisper and more articulated. For an encore, I spun the CD that first introduced me to the mighty Pakistani Qawwali phenomenon Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan thirteen years ago - the brilliant crossover collaboration with Michael Brook Musst Musst [RealWorld 91630-2], with track two, the romantic "Tery Bina", one of my favorites.

Welcome back to silly smile country. From the very first tabla beat, the difference was once again hit-you-over-the-head apparent, a new lease on life for a tired old recording. Prior to the LAST misting, ambient data appeared compressed and murky. Post-spray, the cobwebs lifted, the layer of gunk and grit vanished to make things sound bigger, lighter and more energetic. The verdict thus far was plain: When used as a maintenance tool akin to cleaning records, the LAST spray clearly worked exactly as advertised, the magnitude of improvement apparently contingent on buildup of contaminants on a CD's surface. To double-check the latter beyond the earlier A/B of CDRs, I cued up a brand-new, never-yet-played CD, Hakim's Entre dos Orillas [Sony LAK-84531/2-502038].

While I was prepared to regress into wishful thinking, I instantly spotted two unequivocal verifications: The faint breathing of the guitarist and brief appearances of something approaching mild tape hiss. Neither were audible pre-treatment though I had intentionally listened to the first minute of track 5 three times in a row. This would avoid the common phenomenon of hearing more the second time around, simply because it's the second time and you already know what to expect. Besides these two examples of hearing low-level data that was plainly not present without 'the juice', I observed the same fine sharpening of outlines and overall suspicion that things had gotten louder - though not as much as with the prior examples. This suggested that the LAST spray acted not merely as cleaner but also optical enhancer. It did its aural cleansing even on surfaces that were virgin and unspoiled.

Comparing the two CDRs, the previously untreated now polished with Walker Audio Vivid, I was surprised to detect any differences at all; though it bears stressing that they were easiest spotted within the first five seconds of a track. Going back and forth repeatedly, the bass beats of "Willow" were plumper and weightier on the vivified disc, as though everything had achieved a few added pounds of heft and mass. Ditto for the low drum whacks on "Ziroq". The thicker Walker fluid seemed to add, er - weight and body. Feeling as though stretched awfully thin on an already very flimsy branch of credibility -- comparing the "sound" of cleaning fluids -- I decided to leave this advanced lesson in tweakdom to stouter souls. How would I scratch up one of these two CDRs to test LAST's claim of minor scratch repair?

I grabbed a paper towel, wetted a small spot with spittle, picked up a few grains of sand in front of the barn, blew off the larger pieces until I had only a few tiny dots left and swirled those over the polycarbonate with barely any pressure. I intended not to scratch through the substrate into the data layer but merely mess up the perfectly refractive surface with interference patterns. And? Let's just say that Jackson Pollock would have been proud. The CD still played back without obvious dropouts. Alas, compared to the unmolested one, the high frequencies in particular had acquired a nasty tinge of annoying steeliness - a custom-sanded version of digititis. If these audible effects were due to the error mechanism guessing wildly rather than knowing for sure what it was looking at, it sure wasn't pretty. Would LAST still work in this scenario? The instructions advised to use multiple treatments for more serious scratches. Since this fluid isn't abrasive, any repairs would likely be due to an infilling of the micro grooves cut into the plastic surface by my grains of sand, repeat applications adding microscopic layers to build up said infill. I repeated the misting/buffing ritual thrice and listened again, the other CDR serving as comparator for normal.

The hi-hat and ultra-sonic synthesizer swirls clearly had mellowed out again, with the majority of annoying edge also in the vocals snuffed out. Still and by comparison, the treated unscratched CD was distinctly more three-dimensional, with more detailed depth and none of the remaining forwardness that still plagued the repaired disc. Though not a comprehensive investigation, this experiment did suggest that LAST also lived up to its claim to minimize scratches and abrasions. The ruined CD unequivocally sounded better post-treatment than before, though the scratches were every bit as visible to the naked eye. The miracle LAST couldn't accomplish was to make the repaired disc sound as good as the normal one - which, to be blunt, would clearly be expecting the impossible. Time to visit the website and find out how much a bottle of the stuff would set one back.

Golly Gee, all of $19.50 for my 1 oz. bottle with cloth. For the price of a questionable import CD, you could acquire this little kit to bring back to life all your old moldy CDs. Hear them again as they perhaps once sounded when fresh and new - or perhaps never quite managed regardless of virginity. I'd rather fall on my sword for hearing differences between tubes than CD cleaning solutions. However, I won't hesitate for one wimpy second to proclaim the LAST CD/DVD Cleaner/ Treatment as delivering exactly on its promise, for a price that seems eminently fair. Give it a shot - I don't see how you could lose. One thing's clear as day: CDs require maintenance just as vinyl records did of yore and still do today. Perfect digital sound forever does require upkeep, too - and never mind perfect. Let's just call it very good when everything comes together properly!

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