Last month we talked about the equipment and hardware requirements you would need for vinyl playback. This month we’ll take a look at the ins and outs of buying vinyl. And there are, obviously, only two choices regarding purchasing vinyl LPs: New or Used.
With new vinyl, we have two choices to consider: First, there is the path of finding ‘NOS’ (New Old Stock) LPs. This is very difficult and involves much time (as well as much expense) dedicated to tracking down un-opened copies of original pressings – many dating back to the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when considering the most desirable pressings. This specific time frame is often referred as ‘The Golden Age” of vinyl. The quality of the vinyl used was usually quite superior to later years and much greater care was taken in the manufacturing process and higher quality standards imposed (not to mention the quality of the recordings themselves). The availability of these recordings are extremely limited and, therefore, costly (some titles going for well into the thousands of dollars range). Still sealed vinyl that was produced during the late 1960’s all the way up until the 1990’s can also command very high prices, although many common sought-after titles can usually be purchased somewhere in the $30 – $90 price range (if you can find them).
The second type of “new” vinyl is, well…. New. There are many companies that have sprouted up to support the resurgence of the demand for newly pressed vinyl LPs (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, Sundazed Records and Acoustic Sounds to only name a few). These companies fall into two general categories – those that release new artists on vinyl and those that re-issue the more desirable recordings of the past. These titles are much easier to find and buy than the ‘NOS’ pressings, but they are not without their own set of caveats. First, let’s accept the fact that the good old days of going into Sam Goody’s (or Virgin Super Store if you are much younger than me) and buying a new vinyl LP for $9.99 is not coming back. These new titles and re-issues still range in price from about $25 to $50 (or more). It’s a matter of simple economics. According to industry statistics, vinyl LPs only account for 1.4% of total recorded music sales. These companies do not benefit from the economies of producing large production runs, so the cost per LP is relatively high. And, to top that off, the equipment needed to produce vinyl recordings mainly consists of 50-year-old (or older) cutting lathes, presses, and their ilk. The last new “Presser” was manufactured in 1982, so these machines are being held together by ‘a wing and a prayer’. Parts are no longer available and there is no support industry. Add the fact that there are very few trained, qualified operators around, and this is not a recipe for sonic success. There are, of course, exceptions, and some of the new pressings are quite good, but, in my humble opinion, most are not up to the sonic quality levels of the originals. Just compare a clean copy of one of the better RCA ‘Shaded Dogs’ to one of the newer ‘Audiophile’ pressings and let your ears be the judge.
The second option available to the newly converted vinyl enthusiast is purchasing used LPs. Since the stereo LP has been around since 1958, there are millions of used LPs available – they just have to be found. Here is where things start to get very interesting. Used vinyl can be found in many different ways. Many ‘thrift stores’ have bins of used LPs that can usually be had for $1 or so, then there are the local ‘garage sales’ which also sell for around the same price. Moving up the chain you have the large online auction and ‘buy-it-now’ sites such as; Ebay and Amazon, that offer thousands of titles, usually starting at the $4 range and rising from there depending on quality and rarity. And then we have the specialty “Audio Community” sites in AudiogoN, Audio Asylum and Audiomart. And these sites cater to the more discerning audio enthusiast. As one can clearly see, there will be a much greater selection of titles available when buying used, and also cost savings, but not without some serious caveat emptor.
Those are the basics. The following are my own observations in regards to the world of purchasing vinyl. As with all opinions, some may take issue (and there will always be the occasional exception to my statements). In the interest of “full disclosure”, I should state that I currently sell vinyl online, utilizing the services of one of the “Audio Community” websites, but my opinions are based in my 40-plus years of collecting, buying, selling and enjoying vinyl LPs. As such, let’s dig in.
First, it is my humble opinion that most “modern” pressings do not sound as good as an original pressing of equal condition. I tend to find them somewhat antiseptic sounding and less “true to the Music”. Also, many are over-hyped, with exaggerated equalization and sound less natural to the ear. True, they may have less surface noise, but I am after the musical experience more than the Sonic – impress your friends – Blockbuster experience.
Next, while it may be fun to rummage through all those Thrift Store and Garage Sale bins looking for vinyl treasures, keep in mind that the quality of most of these LPs are poor at best. When I look back on how I took care of my LPs as a teenager, I tremble with the horror. My experience is that the yield of acceptable LPs will be about 25-30% and good sounding LPs will be even less. (Then again, for a dollar each…) Also, be prepared to clean these LPs – they will need it.
The online auction and buy-it-now websites are rampant with dealers and sellers whose goal is to move volume. These dealers give you a “visual rating” regarding condition and playability. While there are some dealers who are reputable, many just give the record a quick wipe with alcohol to brighten it up and improve its look. Remember, a vinyl LP can look un-played and still be a sonic disaster, filled with groove distortion, tinny or dull sound, and even loud surface noise. To stand a fighting chance in finding a good sounding LP, I would not recommend buying anything with less than a NM (Near Mint) rating. And even then you can expect about a 60% satisfaction rate. Again, be prepared to do some cleaning.
Before I continue further I would like to say a few things about what I refer to as record “cleaning”. The best results will be had with a readily available RCM (Record Cleaning Machine). These can be easily located online and use a wet-wash and vacuum procedure. The best RCMs can be found used starting around $300 (and going to the thousands), but they are essential if you are going to be collecting vinyl. Even new pressings need a cleaning, as they are sometimes loaded with mold-release agents and other chemicals that degrade the sound. There are wet-cleaning machines without vacuum capability – usually priced in the $100 range – and do a credible job. Consider one these options as a necessary accessory if you are buying LPs from the above mentioned sources.
Your best bet for buying used audiophile LPs is within specialized “Audio Community” websites. Here you will find a few thousand offerings ranging from a few dollars to the hundreds. There are always vendors selling on these sites, but most often, you will find individuals selling off their personal collections. You will find a more honest rating system, as most of these members are enthusiasts themselves. But, as in dealing with any other seller there are certain things to watch out for.
Firstly, most (perhaps 99%) sellers only use visual descriptions when rating the quality of the LP. As stated earlier, the physical condition is not necessarily a correlation to the sound quality or noise/distortion problems. A few (myself included) play-grade each LP and will report any audible defects that may exist. Personally, I like to provide a brief description of the sound qualities of each and every LP – commenting on imaging, tonality, definition et cetera. I believe the buyer should have a good idea of what the recording will actually sound like when played. Ideally, you would look to sellers who provide a personalized sonic evaluation of quality, that is, if you want to get the best sound and with the least disappointment. In this case, your yield of good recordings will be around 95% or better. However, this service comes with a price, as there a significant amount of time is involved with the listening and evaluating of each LP prior to their sale. Also, many of the LPs purchased on these sites will be cleaned prior to shipping (I, and many others, clean each and every LP), saving the buyer from doing so.
None of the above is meant to imply that you should only buy from sellers that give the greatest level of detail and evaluation, as you may very well find equal quality recordings from sellers that provide little to no detail. However, you are likely to have a much lower yield of finding really great sounding LPs, albeit at a lower price. Like anything else in life, the old adage still stands: “You get what you pay for”.
The quest in finding quality used vinyl can be frustrating, costly, and time-consuming. Or it could be fun, exciting, and extremely rewarding. It all depends on your approach, your expectations and a bit of luck. However you proceed to gather you vinyl is your own choice, but remember, it should always be fun.