The Secrets of a High-Quality Vinyl Record

ROY FURCHGOTT 5/30/12 NY Times

TURNTABLES, those once-arcane machines for playing records, have staged a big comeback as a hipster essential, like cocktails with artisan bitters and skinny jeans with rolled cuffs over oxfords without socks.

If you need a gift for someone who stays ahead of the trends, what could be better than some vinyl with a high cool factor?

But buying a record now is different from when record shops were ubiquitous. Back then you went to a record store and bought a record. Period. Unless you were an audiophile — then you might seek out a boutique label that made special high-fidelity recordings.

Despite the continued six-year growth in sales of LPs — that’s long-playing records, for the uninitiated — practically all vinyl records today are small-batch boutique pressings. There are limited editions, collector editions, audiophile editions and more.

Here is some advice to help save you from giving a gift that will be met with hipster indifference.

A WORD ON COLLECTIBLES Making any gift special means knowing your audience. Why does the recipient like records? Is it for the suitable-for-display cover artwork? That person might like a picture disc, colored vinyl or a gimmicky record jacket. Is the pleasure in playing records at gatherings with friends? That kind of listener might be happy with a standard pressing by a favorite artist. Or is it about serious listening? That person might like a high-fidelity pressing.

In any case, you’ll need to know the recipient’s favorite artist or genre. Or you can always resort to buying an album that was a chart topper on a significant date (note to those born the week of June 29, 1991: you’re getting “Slave to the Grind” by Skid Row).

Finally, there is collecting and there is speculating. If you are buying records as an investment you may be disappointed. “Collectibles in general, you can’t anticipate what will be valuable,” said Terry Stewart, chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, and owner of “hundreds of thousands of records,” he said. To be valuable, a record must be rare and in demand, which is hard to know in advance. The best bet is to give what someone enjoys, regardless of investment value. At worst, he is stuck with a record he loves.

FOR THE OBJECT COLLECTOR Not everybody collects records for the sound quality, which is often described as richer, smoother and warmer than CDs or digital tracks. Of visitors to the Hall of Fame’s gift shop who buy vinyl, Mr. Stewart said: “Half the kids are buying them to listen to; half are buying them as artifacts.” Artifact collectors might appreciate an album frame for displaying that Captain Beyond 3-D cover on the wall.

Finding picture discs, which have artwork embedded in the disc itself, is easy on Amazon’s new vinyl records department. Scroll down to the Vinyl Search box in the left column and type in “picture disc.” A recent check returned more than 4,300 results, from Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” ($25) to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” ($15).

You may have more fun looking through record bins in a real store, though. Mr. Stewart recommended the iPhone app the Vinyl District, which will locate record shops near you. Or you can just search “vinyl record” online, with your city name.

While you can play picture discs, don’t expect great fidelity. “They sound horrible,” said Michael Fremer, an audio critic and record collector. The possible exception is color vinyl records. “The swirly colored stuff is also not going to sound good, but the transparent color vinyl can,” he said. “They released Nirvana on 180-gram blue and it’s unbelievable.”

FOR THE AUDIOPHILE Audiophile recordings can be new or used, but buying used can be chancy, especially online. “There are people on eBay who will say ‘first pressing’ or ‘collectible’ when it’s not,” said Mr. Fremer. It’s also hard to know the true condition of the record, which is critical to the value.

First pressings, which come as close to the original master disc as possible, matter to audiophiles. “When a record is new, a lot of attention is put on it,” said Michael Hobson, owner of High-Fidelity, which sells records and stereo gear in Los Feliz, Calif. “In subsequent re-pressings, quality tends to slip.”

You might find bargains by haunting yard sales, but it requires knowledge and time. A reputable dealer will cost more, but you can feel reasonably assured about your purchase. Mr. Fremer recommends Recordsbymail.com, the Web site Acoustic Sounds and themusic.com.

New high-fidelity pressings are less risky, but there are still challenges. The quality is affected by the source recording, the quality of the vinyl compound used and how well it is pressed, among a slew of factors. But there are some signs that point to a better recording.

One, said Chad Kassem, owner of Acoustic Sounds, is if a recording has been re-engineered for specialty high-end digital formats, like a gold CD or Super Audio CD recording. “It’s not a 100 percent way to tell, but if they went to all that work, they are going to put it on the best canvas,” he said. “If they went to that trouble, it was good before they got there.”

Another tipoff is the playback speed. While 12-inch records commonly spin at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, some higher-fidelity 12-inch records spin at 45 r.p.m. “It’s always better at 45, just like faster tape speeds are better,” Mr. Fremer said. “You just have to get up to change the record more often.” Those pressings come at a premium, though. At Acoustic Sounds a 33 1/3 of Fleetwood Mac is $25, while the 45 r.p.m. two-disc set is $45.

All other things being equal, heavier vinyl pressings are usually preferred by audiophiles. Records usually range from 120 to 200 grams in weight. But all things are seldom equal. “If someone does a good job mastering a record and puts it on 120 gram, it’s going to be better than a bad master on 200 gram,” Mr. Kassem said.

The best way to get a quality recording is to do some quality research, said Craig Kallman, chairman and chief executive of Atlantic Records, who owns one of the world’s largest vinyl collections. “To really be safe, go online and read the blogs,” he said. “There are so many links in the chain, you can’t just go for the label that says ‘virgin vinyl.’ ”

Also of interest to audiophiles are direct-to-disc recordings. Musicians skip taping to record a live studio performance directly on a lacquer master disc. Fewer processes mean better sound. “In each step there is additional noise,” Mr. Hobson said. “There is a decrease in fidelity.” However, since the whole side is cut in one take, the performers tend to play conservatively. “What you gain in fidelity,” said Mr. Hobson, “you lose in performance.”

FOR THE FASTIDIOUS If you don’t know enough about a recipient’s listening habits, there is an alternative. Records and turntables need regular care.

If you are buying used records, said Mr. Fremer, you will need a record washer for deep cleaning. “On the cheap you can get a Spin Clean,” an $80 device that gives your records a bath.

To clean off dust before playing he suggests a carbon fiber brush, which can commonly be found for $10 to $35.

Loud pops can be reduced by removing static from records using a $100 Milty Zerostat gun.

Replacing the rough paper sleeves that come with some albums is a good idea. Mr. Fremer prefers rice paper-style sleeves, which are sold in bulk for 3 to 4 cents each.

The final tool in the basic arsenal is a stylus cleaner, which usually starts at about $15.

Use the stylus brush frequently, counsels Mr. Fremer. “Clean the stylus after every side,” he said. “Care for your records properly; they will outlive you.”

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