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Positive Feedback ISSUE 13
may/june 2004


Foolproof Ways to Buy Excellent LPs
by Robert H. Levi


What do I mean by excellent? How can anything be foolproof? And why would anyone care about LPs in the 21st Century? When I say an LP is excellent, I mean that it has a high signal-to-noise ratio when played back on a system maximized for CDs. No matter what kind of music you listen to, the LP must be quiet and undistorted. "Excellent" means top-notch listenability on a modern audio system. “Foolproof” means that the record has functionally perfect surfaces. These are a real challenge, but through much experience and great expense, I have found three ways to guarantee it:

  • Buy sealed reissue LPs from companies like Classic Records, Speakers Corner, Acoustic Sounds, etc.

  • Buy sealed, newly recorded LPs from the same companies.

  • Buy original vintage vinyl factory sealed.

All other acquisitions must be played before buying if you want results like the ones described above, and that’s largely impossible unless you are a record dealer.

As for why anyone should care about LPs in the 21st Century, it is because vinyl is the only non-compressed music medium for home playback. Compression is a killer of definition and pitch. LPs are capable of making music with the warmth and life of the original. Music is always changing in note and pitch. Its constant reforming of notes makes the LP, a medium that has unlimited sampling, the best choice for most realistic home reproduction. It makes sense to be a collector of LPs in the 21st Century. However, for best sound and most satisfactory listening in the years ahead, you must be selective. If you want complete satisfaction for every dollar you invest, you must follow the three rules. You don’t have to. You can buy cheap and pray, hoping to upgrade your LPs over time when you get lucky. You can also, for big bucks, buy unsealed, supposedly top-shelf vinyl and pray some more. I’ve done both, and both yield disappointing results.

A record-cleaning machine like a VPI 16.5 is a minimum investment for the LP hobby. Without a machine, you can forget about used LP acquisition. Cleaning machines even improve the midrange and signal-to-noise ratio of new vinyl, so are worth owning regardless. However, you can clean damaged or worn LPs ‘til the cows come home and still be disappointed when trying to enjoy the music. Recently, I ignored my own rules and purchased five clean, original Mercuries, the 9-LP Von Karajan 1963 Beethoven cycle on DG Tulip label, and the 9-LP Solti 1973-75 Beethoven cycle on London FFRR, 23 records in all, for $800 plus tax. I closely examined the LPs by eye. The artwork and inside literature were beautiful. The LPs looked nearly unplayed by all the usual signs—label scratches, etc. All were cleaned on a VPI 16.5 with the latest and best L’Art du Son record cleaning liquid from Germany. The results are as follows:

Sibelius, Symphony 2, Paray (Mercury SR90204). Moderate to high tick and pop distortion. The right channel has an Indy 500 race encoded in it due to some gross playback once upon a time. $100.

Rimsky-Korsakov, Sheherazade, Dorati (Mercury SR90195). Moderate tick and pop distortion, not gross but distracting. Some inner groove crunching. $100.

Mozart, Symphony 41, Schmidt-Isserstedt (Mercury SR90184). Low to moderate surface noise with some occasional crunching and thumping. Some high frequency loss due to normal wear. Not as new as it looks, but serviceable. $100.

Dvorak, Cello Concerto, Dorati (Mercury SR90303). Constant moderate to high surface noise, though ticks and pops are low. Some crunching on crescendoes. $100.

Moussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition, Dorati (Mercury SR90217). Cover in worst shape but record in best shape. Low but constant surface noise. Inner grooves distort significantly. Occasional thumping. $100.

DG Beethoven set. Quiet as a mouse. Very low constant noise with some ticking. A few scratches, but most do not intrude. Only the 5th and 7th are noisier than I’d really like, but acceptable. $200.

London Beethoven set. As clean as the DG and sounds better. The 5th is a bit noisier than the others, but well taken care of. I like it. $100.

So even having the eye of an audiophile semi-expert can’t save me from buying losers. I recently came across sealed Mercury’s at $75-100 each, and they were terrific and clean. Box sets are often unplayed or not played in their entirety, so they may be worth buying. Even shredded boxes may contain gold inside. The biggest problem is that the LPs containing the most sought-after music usually have the most damage.

The major problems in collecting vintage vinyl are twofold—vintage records are not getting any younger and hi-fi systems are improving dramatically. One used record store I visited used Bozaks with the tweeters disconnected for auditioning. The amps were very old Mac MC240s. Every record I tried had almost no surface noise. Miracle system you say, horseshit says I. The only way to be sure is to buy sealed and do not play them until you are safely home.

I’ve tried the $3 thrift stores. They generally suck. The measure of success is whether a track or two is playable. Sure, lightning strikes, but not often enough. Some friends recently bought a ton of used pop and jazz vinyl that tended to be better than their classical counterparts. This may have something to do with the recorded velocities of horns versus violins, electric guitars versus acoustic guitars—you tell me. None of these records were without ticks and crunch, but it was less noticeable.

Our systems are improving quickly. Phono stages and cartridges are still improving—shockingly so, I think. Listen to the new E.A.R. 324 or Art Reference phono stages. They are more detailed, revealing, and commandingly musical than $6000 units just five years ago. Cartridges are outperforming their predecessors by wide margins, tracking (and revealing distortion) better than ever. The mantra must be: Sealed! Sealed! Sealed! Who knows, this may have the added effect of bringing down used LP prices. It will certainly encourage the reissuers to reproduce more great vintage recordings, done right this time!

I am an audiophile and a music lover, not an archeologist. Let other guys gather every LP around until their shelves runneth over. Not me. I’m in it to hear the notes just as clearly and musically as when the LPs were produced, maybe even better! I wish there were cheap shortcuts to this hobby, but they remain elusive. You pay less, you get less. There’s no free lunch—just more noise and less music. If this talks you out of the search for all the used vinyl in the universe, you are probably better off. Buy the reissue LP goodies. They’re really superior, and may be the truly authentic rarities of the future. I know one thing: They are our only real hopes from now on.