What do I look for in used records?

I've been absent from vinyl for years. Actually, unless I resort to my 25 year old Pioneer SX-850 and Technics SL-1400, I'm still absent. But after reading some of the posts here, I dropped in the local Goodwill to see what might be found, and picked up a 1955 copy of Brahms Violin Concerto - Heifetz/Reiner RCA Victor Red Seal LM-1903.

I'll admit, I don't really know what I'm getting with this. I'm not even sure this is stereo, since the label just states: A "New Orthophonic" High Fidelity Recording.

Is this good? There were several others that I could have also grabbed, but thought I'd ask here what to look for before proceeding. thanks
I like the local used record stores here around Lancaster, Pa., and the Pa.Record Expo that meets here monthly. I also like the guys that grade the records and I go for near mint, mint or VG+. Having said that, I look for a record that has no visible scratches. Dirt is ok, as I can clean it off. I went to the local Goodwill, and got some as a result of reading posts as well. Got a record that looked as though it met my criteria, cleaned it and lo and behold it sounded terrible. Pitched it. Also, if the person who owned the record previously put in a new sleeve, I tend to feel real good about it. I recently bought about 7 albums for a quarter a piece, with the covers pretty beat up. But the records were in new sleeves or at least looked good, and they sounded great(Record Expo). So, I haven't answered your question specifically, but I don't know the answer to your question specifically. Find some places you trust and enjoy yourself. Check other posts for cleaning procedures.
Tough question to answer.
Buy what you want to try! Most of the LPs in the thrift shops are not going to be "valuable" except to the buyer.
I have found stuff like STEREO shaded dogs (mono are nice but cheap resells)(the dead wax codes start with 1s, so a 79s is pretty much a later issue) and Merc 90000 series. six eye Columbia or later two eye Columbia (Columbia dead wax stampers start 1A then progress throught the alpha to 1aj etc then 2a... so an early pressing is more desirable, That means even if you have a title, look at more to find an earlier pressing... a GREAT way to spend/waste time)
The other labels matrix numbers are a secret art know only by a small cabal of LP mavens... not me sadly.
Condition is everything: a scratch makes a LP WORTHLESS. (unless it is a rare and valuable one say a 'Blue Note jazz LP') Dirt is not a problem, except it can hid scratches. A DULL surface usually indicates the LP is very worn, especially if dull more towards the center. (but some labels are pressed with an even but dull finish.)
A badly worn jacket should NOT be passed up automatically... it can and often does hid a very good condition LP. and conversly, a great jacket may contain a dreadful ruined LP.
Stereo is rare before the mid-60's and any LP from before then will certainly be MONO. Avoid 'electronically rechanneled for stereo" they suck... get the original mono instead.
Never buy any without checking that the label and cover match. And folks DO buy Lps just to get a better cover.
LPs without the barcode on the back are earlier than ones with a barcode... and more collectable.
Remember that scuzzy LP may be the only copy you will ever see, or it may be super common... experience is the teacher.
And pass on those Mitch Miller singfests, so other seachers have something to slog through too!
To add a little bit more to the above posts, the first mass produced stereo recordings were available in the late 1950's. I believe they were predominately classical releases (someone correct me if I'm wrong). The collectors go primarily for the RCA, Mercury, and London records (from this era). As for identifying the stereo versions the RCA's are of the LSC-xxxx series (Living Stereo) and the Mercury's are of the SR90xxx series (Living Presence). I'm not so sure about the London's, I know the early issues are identified by their light blue back (of the jacket), but I don't know if they are all stereo. As for the mono releases, the RCA are identified by LM xxxx and the Mercury are identified by MG09xxx. With respect to the album Wdi found, it is a mono and probably predates the first stereo releases (1957?).
Pmotz...I believe that the first release of a stereo record was a Dukes of Dixieland LP from Audio Fidelity. I don't have that very first issue, but I do have several other Dukes records that they issued in the months following. The audio quality of those first records was better than 99 percent of the LPs that have come out since. Audio Fidelity, before the advent of stereo, had already established themselves as an "audiophile" label (as the name suggests). I don't know if today's Audio Fidelity outfit has any connection with the old one. I have been unimpressed with their recent work.
Eldartford- Thanks for the info, I've seen Audio Fidelity records over the years but never bought/listened to one. Sounds like I'm missing something good!
One more thing: the 'bad' scratches can be nearly invisible in flourescent light. They are thin but deep, like a knife cut, usually the needle causes these. They almost always have a harsh 'tick' sound.
The 'non-scratch scratch' (called 'scuffing')are broad marks from brushing the LP against an object. These marks often make no noise at all. (if you cannot feel it with your finger or fingernail, it will probably play without a ticking noise)
Cleaning is all important. The dirty looking ones often are easier to clean, wash 'em and play! The clean looking ones sometimes have an overdose of dreadful grunge buried in the grooves, that is really hard to get out. they sound terrible until they are properly cleaned. They need to soak! to get that stuff out.
Wonderful, thorough introductory remarks, so far. My only extra thought is that certain scratches are less offensive sounding than others. If you find a famous performance or recording you really want to hear you can still take a chance that the basic audio and musical quality will make a $1 or less expenditure worth trying. Sometimes overlooking one or two "skips" lets one hear enough to still appreciate the magic left in the forty to fifty year old grooves. If there are multiple scratches try to pay only 25 cents. After trying a few, if the ticks and pops annoy too much then in the future go only for the visibly clear surfaces. Clear surfaces do not guarantee good sound, but it gives you a better chance.
Wdi...You can tell if a record is stereo or mono by the appearance of the grooves. Grab two records that you know are stereo and mono, and see what I mean.
Good general info from the folks above. LM-1903 is mono, as Pmotz indicated. LSC-1903 was the stereo version. "New Orthophonic" was RCA-speak for the superior equipment and techniques they developed just before the stereo era began in 1954. They used the phrase on both mono and stereo releases. As others have said, RCA records from this era were among the best ever made.

Do not assume that your mono pressing is necessarily inferior to stereo. Quite the contrary! Most 1955-65 RCA recording sessions were taped simultaneously on two seperate machines, one for each format. Since the mono machine used the entire tape for one track, it often captured inner details and dynamics better than the stereo setup. I have an RCA mono LP from that era, Arthur Rubinstein/Beethoven's 5th concerto. It lacks the width of stereo but it gloriously reveals the shadings of AR's playing and a million orchestral colors.

Entry level rigs and systems will not reveal everything that's on such a fine record, but that doesn't mean playing it won't be thoroughly enjoyable. Just take care your stylus is undamaged and your setup is accurate. If that record's clean it's a real treasure, and of course you already know how good the performance is. I have a current reissue on audiophile vinyl. Mine cost $27 but if your's is undamaged it may actually sound better. Good find!
Having bought several hundred used records in the past year, here are my observations.

I have looked closely at my used records which have persistent noise under a microscope and found that they have a slight roughness or tearing to the otherwise smooth groove walls that was presumably caused by damage from a bad needle. These are LP's that to the naked eye appear in excellent condition. The noise you will hear is a slight static or distortion at the more intense points of the music. Unfortunately, this type of damage is very hard to observe unaided but it seems to be quite prevalent. Visible scratches may or may not be a problem as many are just along the record surface and do not impact the needle as it plays deeper in the groove.
I agree with the posters above that stereo recordings are not better than their earlier mono versions. In general, I have found that the reissues from the early 80's on, even the ones claiming to be "audiophile" versions are inferior to earlier recordings. To me they just sound like the CD with the analog noise. They lack completely the "presence" that makes well recorded vinyl superior to digital. This unfortunately, confirms that vinyl is dead except for those who, like me, want to sour the earth for real old records. If you're planning on making up your collection from vinly recorded after 1984, I suggest you just go with high quality digital.
Thanks everyone for the detailed help. How is the quality with some of the other labels I'm seeing; such as, Angel, Tops, Vanguard, Vox, Westminster, and Seraphim?

By the way, I went back and picked up 7 more:

Brahms Sonata no. 2 - Piatigorsky/Berkowitz - Columbia ML 2096 (This one is a 10" disc, Long Play Microgroove, whatever that means)

Ravel Concerto in G - Munch/Schweitzer - RCA Victor LM-2271 - 1959

Sibelius Symph. 6&7 - Karajan - Angel 35316

Tchaikovsky/Moussorgsky - Mitropoulos - Columbia ML 5335

Respighi Fountains/Brazilian - Angel 35405

Beethoven Pastorale - Stern - Tops L-1618

Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade - Rossi - Vanguard SRV-103

I'm not seeing dates on most of these.

Unfortunately, these will probably just sit on a shelf until I can spring for a phono stage and perhaps a new cartridge/stylus.
Obviously it varies from record to record, but here are my impressions based the few in my collection. Serious collectors could tell you more.

Angel - okay to good
Tops - thought they made baseball cards
Vanguard - okay
Vox - okay to good
Westminster - easily the class of this list; glorious mids, detail and presence; older records have restricted frequency extremes but are still wonderfully alive
Seraphim - same as Angel, more or less
OK, I’ve finally purchased a phono stage and a new cartridge (along with too many more records to bore you by listing), and have moved the turntable to my main system.

It can be hit and miss on what kind of shape they’re in. Some are obviously scratched, some it’s hard to tell if it’s just dirt. I hope I’m not grinding the needle to an early grave.

Others sound remarkably well.

For example, I agree with the comments above regarding some of the old mono records; they can sound pretty good. I had naively expected the sound to be localized to the sides with each speaker, but was pleasantly surprised to find everything right in the middle. So you don’t have the instruments spread across the stage like with stereo, but there’s a fullness and warmth that’s very nice.

Eldartford mentions that mono and stereo records appear different. I think that I see what he’s talking about – the stereo tend to have a more fuzzy look to them it seems?

I’ve found an old Rimsky-Korsakoff set, RCA Victor DM-504, that has an even different look to it altogether, and each record weighs a lot more than anything else I’ve come across. It looks like maybe the grooves are deeper or perhaps more pronounced? I’m not sure what the significance of this is.

Also, most of these old ones don’t have a date anywhere on the jacket that I can find. How does one figure this out?
It's possible that the DM-504 set is a 78 RPM set. 78s are heavier and thicker. The groove size is also much, much larger than an LP. If the set is packed in a book like package, with paper sleeves attached to the binding, it's almost certainly a 78 set. (Although, I have seen one LP set from the very early fifties that is packed this way.) If this is a 78 set, be careful--the records were fragile, and should NOT be cleaned with an alcohol based cleaner. You might save such a set to play with--there are many people who still play 78s.

As for the stereo/mono question, it's actually easy to tell with many records recorded in the earlier days of stereo--the earliest stereo records would advertise the fact on the record label and the sleeve. But, some companies (like RCA) would have a fancy name for their mono records, and a promise that the record would sound good on your phonograph today, and even better on a stereo phonograph. These mono records might have been better than stereo--in fact, they often were (if nothing else, it took a while to work out the stereo bugs.) But, they are still mono records.

In time, if you have enough mono records, you might look into getting a setup where you can have a cartridge just for mono LPs. The sound is supposed to be much better--although it requires cartridge or stylus swapping, or else a second turntable.

Finally, the "microgroove" label is just talking about the long playing record technology. The LP groove is much smaller than a 78 RPM record, and the groove was called "microgroove."
It was later than '55, as it is also available in stereo, as LSC 1903. Here is a link to the version I picked up on ePray:


This rendition of the Brahms, now available on 200-gram vinyl, is higly regarded. (newer releases have a painting of brahms on the front)
JC2000 - Yes the Rimsky-Korsakoff 3 record set is in a box with paper sleeves, bound at the spine like a book. I had wondered if this might be 78 rpm, so I've been afraid to attempt to play it. The grooves are definitely larger and each record nearly weighs as much as a dinner plate.

I've picked up a dozen or so mono records (33's) so far, so thanks also for the suggestion to try a mono cartridge; I guess that’s another reason to have multiple headshells. I probably need to save my lunch money toward a better table also.

Steve6 – The Heifetz/Reiner I have has a painting of Brahms, rather than a photo of Heifetz.

So what's the trick to determining the age of this stuff?
OK, sorry to dredge up an old thread; but I have a few more questions in regards to labels.

What is the consensus on Nonesuch? Odyssey?

Do phrases like London's "ffrr - Full Frequency Range Recording" and Columbia's "360 Sound" mean anything or is that just marketing nonsense?

I have come across quite a few shaded dogs; but unlike Elizabeth's, mine are all mono. Did RCA switch to the unshaded dog shortly after the advent of stereo? (Not that I'm forgoing the mono ones - I recently snagged a shaded dog box set of all 9 Beethoven symphonies, LM-6901, in great shape).

Are British imports considered any better than US pressings?

What about Japanese? A more unusual find for me has been a Deutsche Grammophone manufactured by Nippon Grammophon which states "A reminder of your visit to the German pavilion at the Osaka World's Fair in the bicentenary year of Beethoven's birth, 1970". Wasn’t my visit, but I’ll still enjoy the record anyway.

Thanks for the help!
The marketing slogans reflected certain technical features, although the marketing aspect was probably most important.

For example: "Dynagroove" (RCA) meant that the signal had been processed so as to compensate for compliance of the vinyl.
Look to see that they have a little hole in the middle.
Hey Elizabeth, they have bar codes on record jackets?
I'll buy anything I see on Everest and Nonesuch

I love the Nonesuch stuff - kind of an "artsy" label, often with recordings of, uh, less-widely sold music - Japanese zither, Scott Joplins' Rags, "The Play of Herod," "Swedish Court Music of the 16th Century," you get the idea - and are usually (in my experience) very well-recorded and packaged, and the vinyl is usually pretty nice

Everest also had similar marketing strategies, and also produced high-quality LPs - the covers (like contemporary Deccas) are often bizarre/cool/retro-cool - take your pick