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Over the past few years I've found it has gotten a bit harder to discern differences since, at least in my area, more vendors of used LPs are using RCMs to clean their stock which results in the removal of a lot of the telltale signs of prior poor handling, i.e. fingerprints, stains, visible grunge. One sign of mishandling that cannot be removed are the squirrely lines on the labels around the center holes. These are indications of sloppy handling when playing records and, in my mind, offer a valuable clue as to how this person's collection was generally handled. Unless it's a title I really want, I tend to pass when I see these marks if they are more than very minor. And then there are just the times when you've got a bad pressing and there is nothing you could have seen or do afterwards that will make any difference. That even happens every so often with brand new pressings. Fortunately I have great relationships with my used record vendors and if a used pressing is really bad they have never had any problems with an exchange. If it's at a garage/estate sale I pretty much pay my money and take my chances.
I agree with jerroot about used record vendors cleaning their records before they put them for sale in a shop or at a show.
So besides checking the labels, pay close attention to the jacket. This will tell you a lot. Any of that white ring rash around the jacket corresponding to where the record would be inside? A pretty good sign that the records were stacked for years instead of being properly stored upright. Walk away! Also is the original cellophane still on the jacket with the opening being sliced with a razor? This is a very good sign that the record was properly cared for and played on good equipment. The original buyer cared enough about keeping the jacket in the same condition as the record.
Last, buy Japanese pressings of your favorite titles whenever you can find them as these have really held up well over the years. Since it was audiophiles that bought them at HiFi shops and at premium prices, you know that they were well taken care of. All of my Japanese pressing are still free of surface noise and among the best I have in my collection.
Simple fact is you cannot tell without playing the record.
I bought a supposedly "pristine" Japanese pressing of Genesis Trick of the Tail from an EBay seller who claimed to have a $10K trurntable and associated arm/cart, a VPI album cleaning system which was used before every playback, etc etc. The surface of the vinyl looked pristine. But on playback the sound was flat, dark, and lacked transient detail. My US Atco versions of the same album sounded orders of magnitude better. Sent it back for a refund.
In another case I bought a 1st pressing of Blind Faith, British pressing. Surfaces where lightly scratched and scuffed profusely. Sound was pristine. So looks don't mean squat, unless you know the owner and know for certain how much the LP was played and on what equipment.
I've been stung too like that.LP looks great at a show.I don't know how to spot a bad one unless play graded.Just last week I was giving my friend some extra Streisand LP's and had what appeared a mint copy of her Broadway LP,which is a good sounding vinyl except this one must had been played on a table that destroyed the soundfield,high end.I have managed to remove unbearable noise on RCA living stereo's and other better sounding labels by repeated deep cleanings manually.For years I had a Fritz Reiner Scheherazade that had unbearable surface noise rendering it not listenable untill I recleaned it manually.Now it's a prized piece in my collection.
Agree with others that you cannot tell from an eyeball inspection. I’ve had records that looked pristine that were trashed, and suspicious looking records with surface marks that have played beautifully. Also agree that deep cleaning can salvage some. Another thing I check is whether the record is warped. You really have to put it on a turntable and spin it. If I am buying online, I engage the seller in a dialogue to suss out as much as I can. For more expensive records, with a return policy, it isn’t worth the time/effort for either party to sell a mis-graded record. For expensive older records, I insist on play-grading, and although that’s not foolproof either, it is another precaution. On balance, it it is still a bit of a crapshoot, but well worth the effort.
As stated, it's a crapshoot. Mishandling: spindle hole damage, ring wear, lack of original inner sleeve, etc. are warning signs. But, I think the biggest risk is vendors who know the tricks and dress-up old records by polishing the vinyl, cleaning the jackets, replacing missing inner sleeves. I see this at audio shows where hucksters are asking very high prices for "rare" used and nos records, many of which are available new or re-issue from legitimate sources. Some show vendors offer headphone listening, but crank the treble down to hide audible hiss. Also, warp is a real risk on sealed nos stuff.
My personal rules are buy lots of cheap (> $1) stuff at thrift stores and garage sales and expect to re-donate 90%. For moderate stuff ($5-$10), deal with reliable local vendors who will accept returns. For audio show vendors, leave your credit cards at home.
When I'm selecting records to buy at thrift stores or garage/estate sales, I always insist upon taking the records outside and looking at them in the sun. The fluorescent lights in record stores and thrift stores will not reveal defects in the records ... but the sun is like putting them under an X Ray. Also, a good thing to have at home is a good LED lamp. They let you see what's on the record too.
Bottom line is that the naked eye can't see microscopic groove damage from worn out stylii, only dirt and surface scratches. Even then, if your stylus geometry is different (van den hul vs elliptical) you may play a different height on the groove then where the wear is from the prior bad stylus used so that the record sounds fine on your machine and bad on your friends.
Good LED flashlight is excellent for seeing even very small hairlines. 120 lumens is enough. As for the OP's question, I agree with the others, you just have to clean and play it unless perhaps you have a powerful magnification device.
davide256, excellent point about stylus geometry, now I know it, thank you.
While you cannot tell for sure with a visual inspection, there are a few clues that help to weed out some candidates. First, look for a lot of use of the record, such as a lot of marks on the label near the spindle hole (caused by someone sliding the record around to find the hole. Another sometimes helpful visual clue is that the playing surface on a well-worn record will sometimes appear grey and not as shiny as a newer record.
Of course avoiding scratches is the obvious way to avoid bad records. However, if it is a title I really want, I will accept records with a lot of scratches as long as the scratches are not deep. I have plenty of used records that sound like they are new even though they have a lot of light scratches; the line-contact profile of my stylus tends to play deeper down in the groove and often avoids surface problems.
very good discussion, thank you all
My biggest problem is being able to tell if a record has groove damage from a mistracking or poor stylus
I own a very extensive collection of mint US, UK, Japanese, etc pressing that I have meticulously cared for over the years. Most of the time I am able to find the gem used records even if they have some issues. I have a ZYX cartridge which tracks very low in the groove which is good, a KL Audio Ultrasonic cleaner which really makes a huge difference in the noise floor and subtle dynamics and try to buy the best looking records. In jazz you sometimes have to lower your standards for old stuff, in classical you get pristine copies for nothing. For music in general and especially rock, I mostly favor old original issues as they typically have more open natural sound. There are exceptions where the reissue is the way to go and the Steve Hoffman music forum is a great place to figure out which to buy. Some labels like Sundazed - every lp is bright and unlistenable. I ate Booker T and the MG albums until I went back to a few slightly noisy originals - can never find totally clean ones. The KL Audio ultrasonic cleaner is a huge investment but worth it for me. It works fantastic and can get the gunk out even on new pressings, but it can’t do anything about record wear from a stylus, etc.
I am a stickler, check for warps, depth of scratches, in New Orleans mold can be an issue, and always hold the discs up to outside light. My local store puts new slip covers on everything and generally doesn’t take anything that doesn’t look good (unless it’s a dollar bin).
Still as others of you have mentioned, figuring out if there is noise from stylus wear is tough, especially from visual inspection. Thanks for the spindle / label tips, I do look at hole wear. I am not one to play test a record on a cheap table and destroy it.
This might rock your boat and go against everything you've ever been taught. Purchase a high mass tonearm, 12" is best. Select a cartridge of your choice that is available with a 'conical' stylus and that tracks at a minimum of 2 grams. (modern lps can track at up to 6 grams without damage… ask a pressing plant)
Now play your records. I know this is very much the Art Dudley approach (that and using an idler drive table), but the records come to life and sound so much better then when using a light arm, cartridge and stylus. It took me years to work up to tracking at 2grams which I do on my modified Dual 1229 with a Grace 747 tonearm. On my Garrard 301 I have a SME 3009 and a Denon 103 tracking at 2.75. This is what I play my pre 1965 LP's on with near perfect results.
Also, the conical stylus is very true to the groove and very easy on it as well. To your surprise, you won't miss out on any bass or treble using it. An elliptical stylus will dig deeper into the groove and do to the shape of the stylus in many cases will cut it's way through the groove, creating wear and surface noise. LP's that you thought were unlistenable, can probably be played back with good results using the conical stylus.
(I am certain that I will all types of grief for this from many of you)
Ever notice how most Japanese audio files will use low watt tube gear, old Altec or JBL horn speakers and high mass idler drive tables, arms and cartridges? The reason is the tone and dynamics they reproduce.
It can certainly change your listening habits and make you rethink things.