Different people are interested in collecting vinyl records for different reasons. Maybe you like the warm analog sound you get from listening to vinyl through a good audio system. Maybe you like the oversized album art and bonus items you just can’t get from streaming audio. Maybe you like the feel of a 12″ vinyl record in your hands. Maybe it’s just the latest hip thing to collect.
Whatever your reason, collecting vinyl records is fun and easy to do. Many vintage records are still available secondhand, record companies are busy remastering and rereleasing classic albums on vinyl, and most of today’s artists are releasing their new music both digitally and on vinyl. Whether you’re interested in the Beatles or Beyonce, there are a lot of great-sounding vinyl records out there to collect.
Where to Find Vinyl Records
During the first half of 2021 unit sales of vinyl records more than doubled over the previous year’s numbers. For the first time in three decades vinyl records outsold compact discs. The top vinyl releases, from artists like Taylor Swift and Harry Styles, regularly sell more than a 100,000 copies each. Even classic albums released on vinyl, such as Prince’s Purple Rain and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, are selling more than 70,000 copies a year. Vinyl is definitely in a major resurgence.
With old school vinyl being the new big thing, where can you find vinyl records to add to your collection? It all depends on what kind of vinyl you want to collect.
Buying Vintage Vinyl
Some vinyl collectors eschew all the fancy rereleases and gravitate towards the original LP releases. When you’re looking for vintage vinyl, the first place to shop is your local record store. Chances are they have a healthy used record section that might hold some gems you’ve been looking for.
You can also look for used albums online. The eBay auction site is always a bit of a crap shoot but rare releases sometimes pop up there. A better bet is Discogs, an online resource and marketplace for both new and classic vinyl. Discogs also has a thriving community of vinyl collectors that can answer just about any question you might have about collecting and specific releases.
Buying New Vinyl
The best place to buy used vinyl is also the best place to find new and rereleased vinyl records. That’s your local independent record store, which not only keeps a good stock of new vinyl on hand but can also track down and order specific albums you might be looking for.
Many big-box retailers are also stocking new vinyl releases in both their physical and online stores. You can shop for vinyl at many Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart locations, although you’re likely to find primarily newer releases and perennial bestsellers.
If you’re looking for less mainstream fare, you need to shop online. There are a number of good online vinyl record retailers, including Amazon, Amoeba Music, Boomkat, Dusty Groove, LPNOW, Presto Music, and Turntable Lab. Discogs is also a good source for new vinyl as well as used. A very helpful source is our popular article Best Websites to Buy CDS and Vinyl.
What to Look for When Buying Vinyl
Not all vinyl records are created equal. There are good pressings and bad pressings – and you need to know how to identify each.
Vinyl Record Sizes
When you think of a vinyl records you probably think of the 12″ long-playing (LP) album, common from the late ’50s to today. However, there have been several other sizes released, including 7″ and 12″ 45 RPM singles, 7″ and 10″ EPs, and older 10″ and 12″ 78 RPM singles. Most collectors today, however, focus on the good old 12″ 33 1/3 RPM LPs.
Specialty Vinyl Recordings
There have been some unusual record formats over the years that some collectors find of interest. These include:
- Flexi discs, made of a thin and flexible vinyl, often included for free with magazines in the 1960s and 1970s. These promotional releases typically had very bad sound quality.
- Cardboard discs, typically “pressed” on the back of a box of cereal. These promotional discs were aimed at children and were horrible.
- Dub plates, also known as acetates, used for test recordings before the final master was pressed. Due to the softness of the acetate they had a limited lifetime.
- Picture discs, normal vinyl records with four-color graphics printed on the playback surface. These collectable items typically had substandard sound quality.
- Colored vinyl, just like normal records except with the vinyl some other color than black. These typically sound the same as normal black vinyl discs.
Vinyl Records from the Classic Era
Many vintage vinyl collectors believe that recordings from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were of higher quality than records being released today. Some believe that the years 1958-1964 were the heyday for vinyl quality, with the quality of pressings going downhill after that due to the assembly line manufacturing methods necessary as the format was adopted by the mass market.
Know, however, that starting in the late 1960s some record plants began to use thinner vinyl that was more susceptible to warping and poor playback. Some discount record labels also tried to cram too many tracks per side (up to 20 on some compilations!) that adversely affected the sound quality. It’s possible that today’s pressings might sound better than some of the later LPs released before vinyl was supplanted by compact discs.
Collectable Vinyl Today
Today’s vinyl records tend to be of better quality than cheap old school compilations but not necessarily as good as the original pressings from the 1950s and 1960s. Some collectors swear by so-called audiophile pressings that are thicker and heavier than normal pressings – 180 and 200 gram discs vs. the more standard 130 and 140 gram pressings. Others say there’s no discernable difference between the heavier and the lighter discs, even though the 180/200 gram discs sell for a considerable premium.
In reality, different pressings from different record plants can sound different. The user forums on Discogs are a good place to discuss different pressings and why they may or may not sound better than others. It’s probably more important to consider the quality of the audio source; many vinyl reissues are remastered today’s state-of-the-art equipment from the original master tapes and often result in a much improved sonic experience.
Grading Vintage Vinyl
When you’re collecting vintage vinyl it may be difficult to ascertain the condition of what you’re buying. Fortunately, most collectors adhere to the Goldmine Grading Guide that rates the condition of a disc on a scale from Mint to Poor. The grading scale is as follows:
- Mint (M), the record is flawless with a perfect cover
- Near Mint (NM), the records is nearly perfect, looking like it was just opened for the first time with no visible defects
- Very Good Plus (VG+), a record that might be classified as Near Mint except for minor signs of wear
- Very Good (VG), similar to a VG+ record but with slightly more wear; they’re in good shape but with some noticeable flaws
- Good (G), the records shows obvious signs of wear but still plays without skipping; might have some groove wear and surface noise, or a worn label or cover
- Poor (P) and Fair (F), both of which are undesirable ratings; these records are typically warped or cracked, tend to skip and have significant groove noise
Obviously, Mint and NM records are going to more rare and cost more than lower-graded copies. In most instances you’re probably going to be looking at VG and VG+ copies. When you get down into the Good and lower ranges, you may be dissatisfied with the quality.
How to Clean and Care for Your Records
If you take good care of your vinyl records they’ll last a lifetime. If you don’t, they’ll start sounding crackly and hissy and just generally unpleasant.
Cleaning Vinyl Records
For best performance, and to get more life out of your stylus, you want to keep dust and dirt off your vinyl records. The best way to do this is with some sort of cleaning device.
The most basic approach is to use a microfiber cleaning cloth, like the ones you can buy in bulk on Amazon. They don’t cost much and all you have to do is periodically wipe the cloth along the grooves of your records.
A better approach is to use an anti-static record cleaning brush. These are designed especially for cleaning vinyl records and they’re easier on the grooves than cleaning cloths. Two of the most popular are the Audioquest Anti-Static Record Brush ($29.95) and the Disc Doctor Miracle Record Brush ($23.50).
If money is no object you can invest in a high-end record cleaning machine, such as the Record Doctor V ($199.95) or Pro-Ject VC-E ($499). These devices will get even the most vintage vinyl sounding good as new with just a rinse and a spin.
Storing Vinyl Records
Vinyl records aren’t as bulletproof as compact discs. You need to store them carefully in order to avoid long-term damage to the vinyl.
First things first. Always store your vinyl records in their album jackets. If you leave the records out of their jackets you can scuff and scratch the vinyl. That means always putting away the disc when you’re done with it; don’t leave it sitting out unprotected.
Second, always store your vinyl discs upright, side by side. Never stack them on top of each other or on a slant, as this can cause them to warp over time and become unplayable.
Third, try to keep your vinyl collection away from extremes in temperature. If it gets too hot – like inside a parked car in the summertime – the vinyl can warp or even melt. If it gets too cold the vinyl can become brittle and break. The ideal temperature range for vinyl records is between 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
When storing your record collection you also need to consider the humidity, which can be a problem in overly dry or overly humid climates. If it’s too humid or too dry the album cover can be damaged. The ideal humidity range is between 45% to 50% — which might mean investing in a humidifier or dehumidifier, depending on where you live.
To further protect your valuable vinyl collection, consider investing in anti-static inner sleeves to replace the standard paper sleeves. You can also protect your album covers with plastic outer sleeves. Both types of sleeves are available from Big Fudge Vinyl, Invest in Vinyl, Sleeve City, and other companies.
Choosing the Right Turntable
You need a quality turntable to play all your newly collected vinyl records. There are a lot of different models available today, and here are some of the most important features to keep in mind:
The two most common types of record players available today are freestanding turntables and all-in-one models.
A freestanding turntable is one that connects to a separate audio system (receiver or separate amplifier and preamp, along with speakers). These are typically higher-quality that all-in-one units but also cost more and require a bit more setup. Some freestanding turntables also have USB connections you can connect to a computer or other device.
An all-in-one system includes a turntable along with a preamp, amplifier, and speakers built into a single self-contained unit. These often look like little suitcases, complete with handle. All-in-one units are typically much less expensive than buying a complete audio system and don’t require any fancy setup. Unfortunately, they also deliver much lower-quality sound. (It’s the old adage: you get what you pay for.)
Some turntables, freestanding or all-in-ones, come with USB connections you can use to connect directly to a set of powered speakers, no amplifier necessary. (A USB connection also lets you “rip” your vinyl recordings to digital audio files on a computer.) Others come with built-in Bluetooth for wireless connection to Bluetooth speakers and other devices.
Belt Drive vs. Direct Drive
When you’re talking freestanding turntables, the motor can be connected to the platter in two different ways. Belt-drive turntables use a rubber belt to connect the two, which decouples the motor from the platter and can reduce motor noise. Direct-drive turntables, on the other hand, directly connect the motor to the platter, which offers more precise rotation speeds and lower wow and flutter. There are pros and cons to each but with today’s modern designs you can’t go wrong with either approach.
Manual vs. Automatic
A manual turntable requires you to physically lower the tonearm at the start of a record and lift the tonearm at the end of each side. With a fully automatic turntable all you have to do is place the record on the platter and press a button; the tonearm automatically moves into position, drops the needle onto the groove, and starts playing. A semi-automatic turntable bridges the two approaches, requiring a manual start but with an automatic stop at the end of the record. Some die-hards insist on totally manual operation to best protect their records; others like the convenience of automatic or semi-automatic operation.
When it comes to judging turntable performance, there are two important technical specs to consider. Signal-to-noise ratio measures how much background noise you can hear; a higher number is better. And wow and flutter measures the accuracy of the platter speed; a lower number is better.
Obviously, price matters. If your budget is tight you might be limited to an all-in-one model or a model with USB output you can connect to a set of powered speakers. If you have a higher budget (and a separate audio system) you can go for a model with better specs and more features. As always, the more you spend the better sound quality you’ll receive.
Taking Care of Your Stylus
A quality phono cartridge and stylus (needle) are essential to high fidelity sound reproduction and to keeping your vinyl records in good shape.
Cleaning Your Stylus
Unfortunately, your stylus can and will pick up dirt and dust from the grooves of your record and physically wear down over time. A dirty stylus can affect your system’s sound quality and cause your records to skip. A worn stylus can actually damage the delicate grooves of your discs.
Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to clean and care for your stylus. The easiest way is to use a stylus brush, which a small brush with soft bristles you can find for $10 or less online or at your local record shop. To clean your stylus, move the brush across the needle from front to back, in the same direction the needle would move through a record groove. Do not brush the stylus from side to side as this could damage it or even break off the tip.
There are also several dedicated products available for cleaning your stylus. Some of the most popular include the Disc Doctor Stylus Cleaning Fluid and Brush ($28), Audio Technica’s AT617a Cartridge Stylus Cleaner ($35), and the Onzow Zerodust Stylus Cleaner ($39). All of these products cost a little more than a simple stylus cleaning brush but are specially formulated to provide a safer and more thorough cleaning.
How often should you clean your stylus? It’s easy enough to do so you should do it often – once a day or even as you place each record on the turntable.
Replacing Your Stylus or Cartridge
A typical stylus, if treated well, will last for about 1,000 hours of playback or 1,500 album spins. Depending on how often you use your turntable, this might be once a year or once every few years. You’ll know it’s time to replace the stylus when your sound quality begins to noticeably deteriorate. The presence of persistent hiss or static is a good sign that your stylus needs replacing, as is constant skipping.
Some cartridges let you replace only the stylus; with other setups you may have to purchase and install an entirely new cartridge. Replacing a stylus is typically as easy as unclipping the old one and snapping in the new one. Replacing a cartridge is a little more complicated, as it involves unscrewing it from the tonearm. The advantage of replacing the entire cartridge is that you can upgrade to a better, more expensive model if you like.
The Joy of Collecting Vinyl Records
It’s great that vinyl records are finally seeing a much-deserved resurgence. Whether you used to listen to LPs when you were young or you’re young now and appreciate the benefits of the format, there’s a lot of good music on vinyl to listen to. Get yourself a good turntable, make sure you take proper care of your discs and equipment, and start enjoying the music you love!
Record Collectors Guide To All You Need To Know About Vinyl LPs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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