Collecting records is almost as much of an art form as the music itself. There is a certain dance you must learn to navigate the world of vinyl, and once you’ve mastered the moves you can spot a gem from a mile away. Before that, however, a trip to the record store can be as intimidating and disorienting as it is fun.


The act of buying an album is simple, but being able to figure out which used records are worth it, when pricing is on point, and which sellers to trust can take practice. The devil is always in the details, and when it comes to vinyl LPs, he’s in the grooves of the record. So, while you’ll eventually settle on your own record shopping guidelines, we have answers to common questions that will make the quest for your dream album smoother. 


1. What is the record grading system?

A record grading system is an invaluable tool that will help guide you during your record shopping endeavors. In short, record grading refers to the process of checking vinyl LPs for damage, then “grading” them according to the shape they’re in. Mint (M) is at the absolute top of the food chain. Both the record and sleeve must be in perfect condition to get a Mint rating, so they’re incredibly rare and usually still sealed up. Near Mint (NM) is often the highest rating you’ll find in a store, as they’re practically perfect. NM records can have no visible wear, no stickers, marker, or mislabeling, no off-center pressing, and absolutely no surface noise.


Very Good Plus (VG+) or Excellent (E) records still sound great during playback, but are far more likely to have light signs of wear or discoloration on the sleeve. However, if you don’t mind a little visual imperfection they’re a great purchase. The next step down, Very Good records are far more likely to have scuffs and potential surface noise. They’re generally still playable and good for a listen if you aren’t bothered by a few audible scratches.


Good (G), Good Plus (G+), or Very Good Minus (VG-) are often very cheap, and are bound to have ring wear, unavoidable surface noise, and warping. That said, many can still be played, and if you’re really looking for an album, a G copy is better than none.


At the bottom of the crate are the Poor (P), Fair (F), and Good Minus (G-) records. These puppies usually go for pennies, and often skip and have difficulty completing playback. Some collectors grab these for the cover art or view them as more of an artifact than a playable record.


2. Are used records worth anything?

A lot of audiophiles view their record collection as an investment. They’re investing in a collection of albums they love, while also curating a sellable product. The idea of flipping used records for profit sounds fun and simple, but the reality is far harder than it sounds. 


The condition of a record is going to be a major factor in how much it’s worth. The same album with a Near Mint rating will go for a much higher price than with a Good rating. And even used records in good condition are often competing with tons of other copies. The perfect axis for scoring a record that’s “worth” a lot is finding a vintage vinyl that is in pristine shape. Unless your used vinyl is rare or pristine, keeping a random record with the intention of selling it later isn’t likely to give you a major profit. However, it could give you just enough cash to trade for another lp.


So, to answer the question, the worth of a used record can be measured in a lot of ways, in money, experience, and based on your personal taste. A lot of used records are worth buying because they’re in great shape for playback and come with interesting art and history. But a used record isn’t automatically valuable in financial terms simply because it’s old. You’ll have to dig into how big an artist’s fanbase is, how many copies are floating around and if the demand is there.


3. Is it safe to buy used records online?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is yes, but only if you use your judgment. Online go-to marketplaces like ebay and Discogs make it super simple to find used records on the web. All you have to do is search for the album you’ve been thinking about, and voila, you’ll be matched with an eager seller. However, there is a risk that comes with shopping online, since you can’t physically inspect a used record. Yes, all online sales use the grading system, but that itself is subjective since the seller is the one marking it. Luckily, there are generally photos posted of used records online, and if you’re feeling crafty you can pop it into photoshop, play with the brightness levels, and spot any scuffs the seller might have been concealing.


You can also check the reviews of the seller you’re buying from and make sure they don’t have consistent complaints (and that they’ve been established a while). But also, with the pandemic in tow, a lot of amazing record stores are fully online, so if you want a trustworthy online space to digitally crate-dig, there are great options.


4. How much should you spend on used records?

Naturally, the answer to this will shift based on your personal budget and what kinds of records you’re looking for. In general, new records often range from $10-$40. When it comes to used records, most stores have $1 and $2 bins you can dig through for cheap vinyl, and interesting finds. Well-known or slightly better quality used vinyl often sits between $5 and $15, while rare used vinyl can go for hundreds of dollars. If you feel unsure about the pricing on an album while out at a shop, you can always check online to see what it’s sold for previously. Or, take a chance and visit your other neighborhood record store for comparison.


5. How do you tell what year a vinyl was pressed?

One of the most exciting parts of curating a vinyl collection is the sense of history. When the sound quality is on point, spinning a vintage lp on the turntable can feel like a form of time traveling. And yet, figuring out which year your vinyl was pressed can be its own journey. 


First, you’ll want to check the spine of the record sleeve. If your lp is an original pressing (aka it was pressed when the album came out or if it’s a reissue), then it will have a four-letter and number combination like ABCD-1234. Records that are second or third pressings have two letters and five number combos, like AB-12345. You can also check the sleeve of the record for a barcode. If there’s a barcode, you know for sure it wasn’t pressed before the 1980s.


You can also check the catalog number on the front of the record. The catalog number usually starts with two or three letters and a series of numbers, like ABC-1234567. You can plug the catalog number in on Discogs to find out if it was an original pressing.


6. How do you examine used records?

While it might sound harsh, judging a record by its cover can actually be a useful litmus. If an lp is sitting in a plastic bag or its original shrink wrap, that bodes very well for the quality. It’s also a great sign if the record is neatly tucked in its inner sleeve. Conversely, the cover is dog-eared and tainted with water damage, that’s generally a preview of what the record itself has gone through.


However, it’s always best to look at the record itself before fully judging. You’ll first want to check it at eye level to see if it’s warped or bent at all. Then, you’ll want to find the brightest corner in the shop to fully inspect. Place the record directly under the light source to check for visible scratches or damage. Generally, if the record has a glaring sheen that means it is smooth, slick, and fresh. Similarly, if there are short fibers that look like hair, that means it’s been in the sleeve without much use – another green flag. Any obvious perpendicular scratches or warping is a red flag, you can check light scratches with the back of your fingernail. If you can’t feel the scratch, then it’s unlikely to affect playback. You can always clean your records, so dirt and grime isn’t a definite deal-breaker unless it’s lodged in a scratch.


7. How do you know if the sound quality will be good?

Unless you’re shopping at a thrift store, pretty much all record stores have turntables so you can test out your potential purchases. Since this is the only way to truly know what sound you’ll be working with, it’s recommended you always give an album a spin before taking it home. Otherwise, you could be dropping money on a completely unlistenable album.


8. How do you clean records?

Regularly cleaning your records is the best thing you can do for your collection. Giving your used records a deep clean can improve the sound quality and extend the shelf-life. Regardless of the grading, we recommend you wash every record after buying it, just to ensure you have the cleanest version hitting the stylus. 


There are a handful of equally solid ways to clean vinyl, but the most important rule is that you never use your fingers to remove dust because the oil from your hands is majorly damaging. Only touch the labels and edges of the records during handling.  


You can easily wash your records with a carbon fiber brush like Pro-Ject’s Sweep It record broom, which mounts on your turntable and cleans the surface of your vinyl while it spins. This type of brush is anti-static, which means it both removes dust and static build-up (which helps prevent future build-up). If you’re feeling fancy, you can give your collection a full vacuum clean with the VC-E Compact Vinyl Record Cleaning Machine. The vacuum machine applies a cleaning solution to the records, scrubs them, and vacuums away all of the solution and debris.


You can also dampen a microfiber cloth with some eco-friendly Wash It cleaning fluid and gently wipe your record in a circular motion before leaving it out to safely dry.


9. What are the albums I need on vinyl?

While music taste is deeply personal, there are some vinyl essentials that are simply meant to be played on a turntable. There’s a reason most record collections include a copy of The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. The layers of psychedelic sounds simply make more sense in an analog format. Whether you’re a super fan or a passive listener, if you’re going to have The Beatles on your shelf, it’s hard to beat the feeling of listening to “Here Comes the Sun” blasting from your Abbey Road vinyl. The debut album Endtroducing from DJ Shadow immediately became a landmark recording for instrumental hip-hop and a major inspiration for musicians to this day. With its patchwork of moody vinyl samples, it’s best enjoyed blasted from a turntable, where it can really shine. 


It’s a massive understatement to say What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye was groundbreaking both creatively and politically. Gaye’s nine track narration of the return of a Vietnam War veteran was specifically mastered for vinyl, and that’s how it’s best appreciated. Michael Jackson’s Bad simply hits harder when cranked up in your living room after a successful shopping trip on record store day.


`0. Does colored vinyl sound the same?

The aesthetics of colored vinyl can be deeply entrancing, and for most albums, colored vinyl is harder to find than black vinyl. Historically, record companies and artists have leveraged limited edition colored vinyl pressings as a way to bolster artistic vision and inspire more sales. Colored vinyl (and clear vinyl) is often popular with avid collectors because of the novelty, and potential investment.


When it comes to the sound quality itself, in theory, colored vinyl should sound exactly the same. All vinyl records are made of naturally colorless PVC. In order to create the standard black vinyl color, black carbon is added. For colored vinyl, titanium dioxide and dyes are added. Technically, black carbon strengthens the vinyl in a way that dyes don’t, but the difference shouldn’t be noticeable unless the production process was compromised.


However, when it comes to picture discs and glow-in-the-dark pressings, there is a greater risk for finicky playback. Picture discs pose a particular risk because of their three-layer structure. The first layer is a clear record without sound, the second layer is the picture, and the third plastic layer contains the musical grooves. Because the thin top layer isn’t as hefty as regular records, picture discs can have a shorter shelf-life. When it comes to the ever so rare glow-in-the-dark vinyl, the pigments that enable the glowing unfortunately atrophy the acoustic properties, so surface noise is common. That said, if you buy from a trusted source and keep your records clean, the sound quality should still be solid.


With these tips, you’re now armed with the knowledge to dive deeply into the seemingly endless world of used records!