History of Vinyl Records
Starting a vinyl record collection is an exciting adventure that can become a life-long passion. The music record itself has existed in some form or another since the late 19th century. Thomas Edison invented the first record player, the phonograph, in 1877, and it was improved upon by the likes of Alexander Graham Bell.
In place of a flat disc, these prototypes used a rotating, wax-coated cylinder and a stylus moved across them in a zig-zag like fashion to reproduce soundwaves.
The flat record made its first appearance in the 1890s, when Emile Berliner began experimenting with a “lateral-disc” version of the wax cylinder that implemented a spiral groove in place of the zig-zag pattern. He coined the term “gramophone” to apply to disc-playing phonographs.
From Shellac to Vinyl
Berliner’s style of gramophone ultimately became the dominant audio recording format for much of the 20th century. Later improvements were made to the turntable, drive system, and stylus, all greatly enhancing sound quality.
Perhaps the most important change was in the material of the disc itself. The first iterations were composed of shellac, which was brittle and could not be easily transported. In the 1940s, a new compound was developed that produced discs that were both stronger and more flexible: polyvinyl chloride. Records produced with this material became known as “vinyl” records.
By the 1950s, nearly every home in the US had a record player, or “stereo.” Vinyl production was refined and high-quality music could now be produced inexpensively and in large quantities. A mid-mod home was not complete without a turntable and a carefully curated record collection.
Vinyl records have always remained popular with hobbyists and audiophiles, who believe firmly that vinyl produces the most authentic reproduction of live music.
Outside of these specific circles, however, vinyl has had a general resurgence in popularity in the last decade or so. In fact, the US saw $461 million in record sales in 2021, far outpacing any other physical form of music in the country (CDs, cassettes, etc). As of today, it remains the most popular physical form of music worldwide, in spite of global closures due to COVID-19.
Perhaps it is the nostalgia of playing a record. Perhaps it really is better quality. Or perhaps it is the physical connection you have to your music when using a turntable. It is almost ritualistic: you slide the record out of its sleeve, flip it between two hands so it hovers parallel to the table, and carefully line it up with the center spindle. You place your record over the spindle and turn the table on, lower the stylus, and music magically begins to play. If you don’t have a counter weight, you might need to put a penny on the headshell to get it just right. These little steps connect you on a deeper level with the music, since it relies heavily on you to play right.
Choosing Vinyl for a Collection
If you have been curious about starting your own vinyl collection, it can seem a little daunting at first. What records do you buy? Should you buy new or used albums? How much should you spend on a single album?
The truth is, starting your record collection is as simple as…buying some records. Really! Local used record shops are an especially great place to start. Staff are usually very knowledgeable and passionate about music. You can ask for suggestions based on artists you already like and genres you are interested in.
What to Know When Buying Used Records
The main thing you will want to consider when buying used vinyl is its condition. All used records have a grading system that will tell you if they are a good investment:
P/F means “poor” or “fair.” These records may be missing their sleeve and have deep scratches and warps that greatly affect their ability to play. In general, records with a P/F rating are not worth the money and frustration.
G/G+ means “good” or “good+.” These albums are usually “playable,” meaning they won’t skip. However, they may still be marked by scratches and other flaws, and the sleeve may be missing or in bad shape. Steer clear of these unless it is a record you’ve really been searching for or you have had more practice examining a record for flaws.
VG means “very good.” There may be some cosmetic issues and surface defects that can slightly affect sound quality.
VG+ means “very good+.” This is the best place to start when buying used records, especially if you are new to it. These albums are in great shape and have only minor cosmetic issues that do not affect the sound quality.
NM/M means “near mint” or “mint-.” These records may have been opened but never played, or only played a few times. The packaging should be pristine and the record should play with absolutely no issues.
M means “mint.” This is the rarest grade in a records store, since it requires that the album be unplayed and possibly even still factory sealed.
As for how much to spend on these records, you can assume they are priced fairly based on their condition and how rare they are. Or, you can compare with other used versions on a site like discogs.com.
Buying New Vinyl
These days, most artists offer their latest albums in vinyl format, so it is relatively easy to find. You don’t have to worry as much about imperfections when buying new vinyl, so buying online is a great option so long as the seller is reputable.
While Amazon and Discogs are great resources, consider buying new albums from your local record store. They will have less volume and may take greater care to package your items. They will also be available on the phone if you have any questions about your purchase.
Selecting a Turntable When Starting a Vinyl Collection
Of course, you will need a way to play your records now that you’ve started collecting. There are many options available and the one you choose will ultimately depend on your personal preference and needs. Keep in mind, however, that when it comes to turntables, you get what you pay for.
Sound quality goes down with price, so it is worth it to spend a little more on a quality turntable that does justice to your records. Avoid smaller, all-in-one models. These are limited by built-in speakers and amps and do not allow for parts to be upgraded.
A good place to start is a turntable with a built in pre-amp and separate power speakers. Get a system that allows for upgrades as you become more versed in the world of vinyl. For example, you may want to add an external pre-amp to integrate your turntable with a digital streaming setup.
Consoles are a great way to display your turntable and your growing vinyl collections. Newer versions specifically designed for records are available in mainstream stores, like Home Depot and Overstock.com. If you are in this for the long haul, however, why not go for something as beautiful and bespoke as your record collection?
Pobo Lifestyle restores vintage consoles from the 1950s-1970s and outfits them with the latest turntable technology. The result is a timeless, mid-modern piece with the highest quality sound system. You will be transported to the golden age of vinyl when you play records on one of these gorgeous consoles.
Whether it is the quality of sound, the ritual of playing the music, the “hunt,” or some nostalgic longing, vinyl records have stood the test of time and will likely be around for generations to come. There is a reason why many people fall in love with vinyl, once they try it.
Do you have a vinyl collection? What are some of your best finds? Let me know in the comments!