May 2024

When CDs entered the marketplace in 1982, I was 26, and had been collecting LPs for 15 years. My record collection took up a good amount of space in my first, tiny apartment. I didn’t pay much attention to the new format at that point; CDs weren’t widely available, and my local hi-fi shops weren’t carrying CD players. A coworker showed me a story in the Wall Street Journal that predicted the demise of the LP and the fast-approaching dominance of the CD. I scoffed, recalling the promotional push for quadrophonic LPs and playback gear. That format died quickly.

One-dollar records

I first heard a CD at Hi-Fi House, a shop a few miles from my second, slightly larger apartment. It was 1986, and the shop was hosting a speaker demo by a rep from Mission. He was playing the CD of Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life, which was a big hit at the time. Two or three songs in, I was growing tired of the aggressively edgy sound, and when I mentioned that fact to the sales rep, he was scandalized. CDs were the future. Perfect sound, no scratches, and so on.

When The Beatles’ catalog was released on CD in 1987, I bought a CD player. For the first time, the group’s albums were available in the US in their original track listings. (There was still enough demand for vinyl that Capitol Records also released them on LP.) The player I bought was a Marantz and it sounded better than the Sony player I had heard a year earlier. I slowly edged into CDs, but I still preferred vinyl—I bought LPs if there was a choice for a new release.

By 1990, when I got married, buying vinyl had become more difficult. One independent shop in my area still carried some new releases on LP, but most record stores had by then decided to stop selling new vinyl. The format had become such old news that if I wanted LPs, I had to drive to a big city like New York or Philadelphia, where there were enough analog enthusiasts for the format to be viable. Even so, the LP section at Tower Records on Philadelphia’s South Street, for example, was just a small area of the store.

For most people, LPs had outlived their usefulness by the mid-1990s, and were being donated in increasing numbers to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and other places that took such items for resale. There was a Goodwill on the way home from my office, and I’d stop by, two or three times a week, to look for records. At a dollar a record, I could even pick up copies for friends who, like me, remained loyal to the format. I filled in some gaps in my collection, and found some records that turned out to be valuable.

Within a few years, things began to thin out at Goodwill. People had either unloaded all their records, or figured out they could sell them on eBay. Some vinyl dealers also sold on eBay, and a few vinyl retailers moved to the web. Acoustic Sounds, Music Direct, Elusive Disc, and other dealers established a solid online presence selling LPs, as well as music on other formats, such as SACD. Many of them also sold hi-fi gear.


As I recall, only Acoustic Sounds and Red Trumpet Music—gone but sorely missed—sold used records online. Throughout most of the 2000s, I bought most of my new vinyl and some used LPs on their websites, but I bought a lot of used records from eBay. I had also discovered that college towns almost always have a used-record shop and made it a point to visit them.

A few years ago, I started buying used records on Quite a few sellers on Discogs are vinyl shops that have bricks-and-mortar stores but also sell online. The price is clearly stated, you can pay online, and you get your LP in the mail in less than a week. Some other vinyl fans must have also migrated from eBay to Discogs. Until about five years ago, eBay vinyl sales were mostly conducted as auctions, and you could find yourself in a bidding war. It was easy to overpay for an LP. Now, most vinyl on eBay is listed as Buy It Now, and I suspect it was competition from Discogs that caused this change.

Acoustic Sounds

Buying used vinyl is a bit risky. Longtime sellers, especially well-established vinyl dealers, usually describe the condition of a record accurately. Inexperienced sellers, though, are often not so good at describing the condition, and tend to overprice their LPs.

That’s not to say you’re not at risk of buying a bad or overpriced LP from a dealer. So, let’s look at some guidelines for buying used vinyl. My advice about the condition of an album you want to buy will apply whether you’re buying at a record store or online. When you move to buying online, however, a little careful reading and maybe a few direct questions to the seller will be in order.

The first thing you want to do if you’re looking at a used LP in a shop is to, well, look at it. You might want to ask the clerk if it’s OK to pull the LP out of the cover. If the store lists a description of the condition on the outer sleeve—a plastic outer sleeve is a good indication the store has at least some sense of good etiquette for vinyl sales—I’ll take it at its word if the LP is under $10. If it’s more expensive, especially $20 or more, I’ll want to give it a look. I’m checking for any visible scratches.

GenesisA lightly scratched, playable LP

Light scratches from pulling an LP in and out of the sleeve over the years are no big deal since they’re usually not audible. Scratches that cut deeper into the vinyl happened when the previous owner left the record out of its cover in a pile with other records, or otherwise mishandled it. These scratches result in clicks and pops throughout playback. A record with lots of visible, deep scratches isn’t worth buying. Even a record that’s a buck at a yard sale is a waste of time if it’s badly scratched. If you know that even one click on an LP will distract you, put the record back on the rack.

ScratchedThis one’s unplayable

A common argument against vinyl is that it inevitably becomes scratched or warped. However, an LP only gets damaged if it isn’t returned to the sleeve and cover after being played, or if it’s left too close to a heat source. It’s true that some LPs played on bad turntables will have enough groove wear to render them unlistenable. That’s pretty rare, though.

When you move to online buying, you’re going to have to rely on the seller’s honesty or, even less predictably, his or her ability to evaluate and describe an LP correctly. Online sellers often don’t know or follow the guidelines for grading records established by Goldmine magazine, which include the condition of a record cover. If you’re in a shop, you can see if a record cover is in poor shape. If online sellers rate a cover at VG+ but don’t describe its condition, you’ll have to hope they rated it correctly.

When sellers do describe their LPs, close reading is helpful. If they rate a cover as VG+ but note in the description that there’s a four-inch tear at the top, you can assume that the description of the LP itself isn’t accurate, either. As Goldmine notes: “VG+ covers should have only minor wear. A VG+ cover might have some very minor seam wear or a split (less than one inch long) at the bottom, the most vulnerable location.” Small tears are common—most people don’t buy plastic outer sleeves to protect their albums during storage. Sellers should also note any ring wear (an impression of the outer edge of the record), writing, or other marks on the cover.

Split cover

The same caveat applies to descriptions of the LP record itself, which might not match the grade assigned by the seller. “Except for a couple minor things, this would be Near Mint” is a good description of a VG+ record, according to Goldmine. Sellers who note audible scratches or other noise on an LP but rate it as VG+ are common on Discogs and eBay. They haven’t consulted Goldmine or looked at the guidelines on Discogs, which include a link to the ratings page on Goldmine. Be thankful they included a description, but ignore the rating they’ve assigned. Most LPs in that condition should be rated VG at best.

BeatlesThis scratched LP is playable and worth having if it’s rare. For listening, you’ll want a cleaner copy.

A Near Mint record, aka NM or M-, is one that was played infrequently or was exceptionally well cared for. They are nearly as rare as Mint LPs and I’ll wager that a lot of records on Discogs and eBay listed as M- are really VG+. If sellers play LPs and describe them carefully, you can often be more confident about the condition and the price. Collectors refer to this practice as play grading.

You don’t want LPs that are less than VG+. A record in VG+ condition should clean up well, and in most cases will be quiet during playback, with perhaps some light groove noise between songs. Plenty of LPs pressed in the ’70s, when many labels began to use recycled vinyl, will have some light noise anyway. A good cleaning often reduces that noise significantly.

Mint-condition LPs have only been played once or twice at most, and can be costly. If I really want an LP in Mint condition and new pressings aren’t in print, I’ll pay the price, within reason. Collectible records in M or M- condition can be very expensive. Goldmine describes a Mint LP as “often rumored but rarely seen.” Records pressed in the ’50s and ’60s are especially hard to find in M or even VG+ condition. Good, light-tracking turntables were uncommon back then. Affordable turntables with magnetic cartridges and lighter tracking became more widely available in the ’70s, and LPs from that era and later were often treated with more care.

I purchased an LP from a dealer on Discogs who rated it as M-, and I knew full well that it probably wouldn’t be. I assumed it would be VG+, but the first 30 seconds or so on each side were unbearably noisy. Inaccurate ratings like that occur when the seller doesn’t actually play the record. In this case, he didn’t even visually grade it correctly. There was a small scratch on one side and other signs of wear.

I only paid 12 bucks for the LP, which is why I risked buying it without a play grade. I did send a harsh message to the seller through Discogs, noting that the LP didn’t even merit a VG- rating, and requested a refund.

If a seller is asking more than $15, plus shipping, for a record and lists it as VG+ without any description, I send an email asking if it has been play graded. If the answer is no, I’ll skip that listing. If I really want the LP and other copies aren’t available, I may risk it, but only if it’s less than $20. At that price or higher, if the seller won’t play it to help me determine if it’s worth the asking price, I move on. Discogs and eBay are worldwide marketplaces, and another copy will come along.

Damaged cover

When I return an LP for a refund, I make sure to note that my return shipping should be covered. On a couple of occasions, I’ve had to remind the seller that it was his or her error that led to the return, so I shouldn’t be expected to pay return shipping. In all the years I’ve been buying used vinyl online, I’ve only had to return a small percentage of LPs, and the sellers have always refunded my money, including shipping.

I’m flexible with my evaluation of the ratings I’ve described. If the LP plays back well, I’ll put up with a two-inch split at the top or bottom edge of a cover that would pull down the rating. I’ll also tolerate a record rated as VG+ that veers briefly into VG if it was inexpensive—under 20 bucks, as I said earlier. However, if the recording has a lot of quieter passages, or the music is something like a collection of solo acoustic guitar pieces, I’ll expect the LP to be consistently VG+ or better.

If you think vinyl is more work than it’s worth, or just don’t like it as a format, I’ve probably reinforced your opinion. If you do like vinyl, used LPs are worth the hassle because you can hear how a musician, producer, and mastering engineer presented the music, first time around. For me, one of life’s great pleasures is going into a record shop and looking through the bins of used records. When my wife and I are traveling, she checks Google Maps for record shops. If she finds one, she knows she’ll have at least an hour free for a long walk.

. . . Joseph Taylor