How to Judge an LP

OK - so I'm new to vinyl, and I envision myself stopping at the church rummage sale, scrounging around for good LP's. How to I judge the quality of an LP just by looking at it? What matters and what is superficial? What should I avoid at all costs? Should an LP with a missing sleeve be automatically disqualified. I might have used to know this back in 1980, but the memories don't last! Thanks all you vinyl heads!
Hi, Peter. I have been record collecting for 30 years, and the first thing you'll need is a way to clean the used records, because many will be very playable under the coating of dirt that is commonly on them. When people are selling records, they generally don't have them cleaned for you. You have to do it yourself. This will elevate quite a number of noisy LPs into the playable category.

Now to judge them, you need to be able to look through the dirt at the actual surface of the record. Generally, if the surface is shiny, that is a good sign. Very dull surfaces typically indicate high wear. But not always. Slight marks that could have been caused by the paper sleeve are not a concern for playability. Even slight scratches that are not deep, may not even be a cause for concern, although they may possibly be slightly heard. The method that I have determined about the playability of scratches(from visual inspection) is that if the scratch goes across the blank band between tracks, and is not making a mark across the blank band, then it is likely to be ok. If it is deep enough to make a mark across the blank bands, then it is probably not ok. This is not to say that you may not hear the "ticks" as it passes the scratched areas, but they will probably not be any worse than a dust "pop" or other random noise that you will get on a used LP. Other damage such a gouges or divots, are much more likely to make the record unplayable, at least on the songs where they appear. I have bought many albums with what appears to be disqualifying damage, because the damage is a gouge, and it is not on any of the songs that I want to play on that album. If all the songs I want from that album, are not affected, I'll buy it anyway, if it is a low price.

Now, when you get the album home, and play it, even after cleaning, you can have a record that sounds like crap, because sometimes you just cannot see visually, the wear that has occurred. This happens fairly often, and is just part of the deal when you buy used records. If it has been played on a poor TT,then it may have some of the highs shaved off. During those passages, you'll just hear a "cchhhhh" where the singer is belting out a high note, or something. That record is history. Nothing can be done about that. I have bought records that looked perfect, that were afflicted with that problem. That is just the luck of the draw.

Nothing is automatically rejected until you look at it closely. I have bought many records which had no inner sleeve.

Now alot of people might reject some records that I would keep, because I can clean them, and I have a very good TT and phono section that keeps noise to a minimum, and I have been listening to LPs all my life, and I have learned to not be overly sensitive to certain kinds of noise. Very finicky people should only buy new records, because they will be too finicky to accept any flaw that might appear on a used record. And used records will have flaws. You learn to be more accepting of this, when you are trying to get an LP that has been out of print for 40 years, and you have only seen 1 copy in your life, and it is in your hands, and it looks like it might have some wear. It is better to have some kind of copy, just to have the music, than it is to reject that copy, and you may never see that album again. This has happened to me a number of times.

Oh, and regarding warps, a very smooth long warp, will be more likely playable, than a short peaky warp. If it looks like a "ripple" then leave it alone. Non-flat records with gradual warps can sometimes sit flat on the TT if you have a record clamp. Dish warps are bad, and will usually make at least one side of the record unplayable, at least for the outer track or two.
Hm, hm TWL you make the whole used lp thing sound soooo appetizing! I bought my first lp in over a decade (possibly a decade and a half) the other week (Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Caravan, a German import on ZYX, originally a Riverside release) and it was brand new. I have not played it yet for fear of causing it harm or of the ultimate vinyl let-down... It takes a strong constitution to go for used vinyl. I always believed lps were quite fragile. If you wanted to keep them in good shape, only TLC would do. Now with this vinyl renaissance, it appears the aficionado believes that they are very sturdy and accepts records in really inferior condition. Obviously, they still produce sound even when scuffed and scratched, but is it what most people would want to hear? I got quite a shock in the shop where I bought this lp to see the fellow there going over some sad looking newly received used lps and cleaning them with a hand towel or dish towel! He had some lighter fluid on the counter as well as some other cleaning agents. I really don't know if he was using the lighter fluid on the records' surfaces themselves, but one thing I noticed is that the records looked quite shiny once he had finished with the towel treatment. So shiny records in shops, beware! Unless your hobby is vinyl record collecting, do yourself a favour, buy them new, or at least from an original owner who you can believe took good care of them. TWL your list of defects is accurate. I think they are way more prevalent than what you think and way more objectionable. You seem to almost like these defects and think it something of a challenge to play these records, good for you. Whether vinyl is better than the other little discs should be assessed only with pristine lps, I think. Sort of like a handicap race come to think of it. From the mid-fi trenches. Good day.
I have found slight warps can be straightened out by placing the album between two pieces of glass, and putting weight on it for an extended period of time.

Also, I don't know why, but older mono records can look really bad and still play fairly quiet.

A trick for finding records at yard sales. If you don't see any records, ask loud enough so everyone around can hear. More than once I have been led to another location to find a nice stash.
The above points are good, but even new LPs are a gamble. For instance, I recently purchased the new Linda Thompson LP and it's a bad pressing. A huge mark on one side (which is audible) and random noises throughout. You never know what you're going to get new or used, but with used LPs the rummage sale prices often make them well worth the gamble (if they look relatively scratch free, that is).

Listen to Twl. You'll get the hang of buying used once you've taken the plunge a few times. The gouge thing is something you should pay particular attention to. I've seen quite a few gouges on new LP's and they play perfect. You'll get to a point where you can tell with reasonable accuracy if the gouge is a manufacturing event or caused by mishandling.

Pbb, would you please stop with the negative comments when a poster wants some analog help? Again, I assert that you have never heard an excellent analog player set up properly. It seems all you want to do is "take the wind out of his sail". Most of us vinyl-heads don't do a wholesale condemnation of digital even if we believe vinyl to be sonically superior. Please post the general location where you live. Perhaps a member in your area will be gracious enough to invite you over for an audition. You may email me and arrange a visit. I promise to be a gracious host and will make a great meal if you bring the wine. I'll let you select any vinyl from my collection for critical listening and promise that for desert you'll be eating your words.
I won't go into detail, since Twl has it covered, but I have found many, many LPs in thrift shops. Some play perfectly and some are trashed. I am often surprised to find that the one that looks the best on visual inspection is noiser than the one with all the scuffs and dust. I also frequently find new, sealed LPs in the bins with the old. What you find might depend on your musical interests. I have found classical LPs to be in generally in better condition than rock. Broadway shows are the worst of all--at least in my area.

One thing that I've found is that if you clean your LPs by hand (Disk Doctor) they will sometime have a fair amount of background noise on the first play, but will quiet down after another play or two.
Pbb, I find it highly unlikely that I am not aware of exactly how prevalent these defects are, and exactly how objectionable they are. I have owned more used records than most people have ever even seen. I have played used records for most of my life. I buy and sell and trade used records, and have done so for 30 years. I am acutely aware of the entire used record market, and probably forgot more than most people will ever know about records, their conditions, rarity, value, and usage. During my lifetime, I have probably bought, sold or traded, over 250,000 records. I have had personal record collections of over 20,000 records at a single time, and the majority were bought used. I am not the biggest record collecter around, but I certainly have more than enough experience to know about the "prevalence" of vinyl defects in used records.

I am also aware that there are some who cannot, or will not use records or analog gear. Fine. That's more records for me. I know just what to do with them.
I haven't even said a disparaging word, and I am tempted
to take your offer. I'm in Washington State.

I'm just outside Boise. Send me an email if you like. I'll not require you to eat your words. ;>)
I can certainly understand PBBs hesitation about purchasing used LPs. Just the idea of a rock slamming around a soft plastic groove trying to replicate wavelengths that approach light itself is enough to make some go running from the room. But my practical experience is quite otherwise. I believe that one reason is that modern stylus shapes ride in a different portion of the groove due to their small overall shapes with greater width. The Kenner Plug 'N Play along with it's BSR kissin' cousins rode very high in the groove and caused damage in a different area than the modern rig mines. Sure there are scratches, warps, gunk and all the rest, but I find most of the used records that I buy, and my collection is over 2500, to be anywhere from acceptable to quite good. There is a higher level of transient noise on LPs than CD; that's just a given. I find that, when the record player is correctly set-up, most of this noise takes place in a different plane than the music and is easier for my perceptual gating mechanisms to tune out. With much digital media the distortion is within the fabric of the music and though lower in absolute terms may be harder to take, at least for some.
You've all missed !!!! It's the music which is so often unavailable on CD, DAD, hybrids and especially SACD. The literally millions of titles only found on old stock vinyl. As a friend and I always banter back and forth "It's the music stupid"!
Really doesn't matter if it's only available on LP if you can't listen to it. But the covers shure look nice. It's the covers, stupid.
Not much need to add to Twl's excellent rundown (though I wouldn't take Pbb to task quite so hard for his basically complimentary and reasonable response - his point of view is not maybe the same as all of ours, but it doesn't strike me as being an attack or off the wall). I routinely enjoy records, especially 45's, with flaws and noise levels that would scare off most audiophiles for sure, but then again they probably wouldn't be listening to some of the kinds of music involved in the first place. However, when it comes to classical, it's got to about perfect or nothing at all for me. Some further tips: scratches that run more or less in the direction of the grooves will usually be more problematic than radial ones as far as causing skips goes; mono records can have their surface noise decreased by monoing the signal; an opaquely filmy-looking surface often indicates heat damage even without the presence of warping and will cause constant background hiss despite cleaning; be more picky the tinier the groove size is and more tolerant with a larger groove; beware a 'ragged'- or slightly whitish-looking groove which ususally indicates past mistracking even without scratches present; don't be automatically dissuaded by the presence of deceptively abundant fingerprints, dust, or even mildew on desirable records that don't show other obvious wear beyond scuff-marks, as these will often clean up quite nicely. Happy hunting!
Beware of records pressed on lightweight polystyrene rather than vinyl. This is an exclusively US thing, very common on 45s but also found on the LPs of certain labels, especially US Decca/Coral/Brunswick from the 50s, early Pickwick and Halo/Rondolette budget albums, and some smaller New York based labels of the 50s and 60s. The styrene LPs stopped coming around 1966, but the 45s continued well into the 90s.

Styrene pressings "ding" instead of "thud" when you tap on them. They're very lightweight but usually pretty thick. The labels are often (though not always) glued onto the record surface rather than pressed into it, or else printed directly onto the plastic.

The reason you should care is that groove damage is invariably much worse with styrene--it's a softer surface that can be chewed to bits by a worn or misadjusted stylus, or one that just contacts the groove wall in "the wrong way". I've heard some very expensive brand-new cartridges that, for whatever reason, eat styrenes for lunch. I have a box of never-played styrene promo 45s that I keep for testing new stylii for my V15-VXMR. And some of them flunk!

I'd say about 60% of the styrenes I've purchased have had problems, even if they looked stone mint. It's a good thing to watch out for to avoid disappointments and properly assess the gamble you're taking. Look for whitish-looking groove damage, even very slight--that's usually the red flag on a styrene pressing.

All used records are a gamble. Just accept it, make your best guess, then chance it. And you're allowed to buy fried records if you still think you'll get enjoyment out of them.
Narkspud is correct about styrene records, but I would point out that these only represent a very tiny minority of pressings overall, even with 45's. They also usually feature a pretty diagnostic 'squared-off' edge, and avoid clamping them, as they will crack more easily than bend, unlike most PVC.
I buy used LPs at $4.00 a pop from a local dealer who is quite choosy as to what he buys. I clean them with my Nitty Gritty and if they are bad, they take them back. What could be better? Got about 4,000 at present.