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Getting Started Guide – Buying, Playing and Collecting Vinyl Records

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This past Christmas, my sister-in-law got a record player from her boyfriend, and needless to say, she was stoked. In the process of unpackaging the box and setting it up for her, Tanya asked me all sorts of great questions, which were fundamental to owning a record player and collecting vinyl.

“Does the type of record player really matter?”

“Where’s the best place to buy albums?”

“Why can’t I find a cheaper version of Lady Gaga’s Joanne on opaque pink swirl vinyl?”

“How do I work this thing?”

After our impromptu Q&A session one sunny and unseasonably warm winter afternoon in Raleigh, North Carolina, Tanya pitched me a great idea too. She suggested I write a “Getting Started Guide” for people new to the vinyl records scene, like her. There are tons of people in this world that have an advanced understanding of vinyl records and who have been collecting for decades, but there are also tons of people new to the scene, or looking to get into it, who need good information to get started.

So that’s what this is – a one-stop-shop for everything beginners need to know about buying, playing and collecting vinyl records, plus some tips and tricks, advanced info, and a way to ask me questions, if you still have any.

To make navigation of this guide easier, the below content is organized as follows:

  • Record Players
  • Vinyl Records
  • Accessories

Record Players

What record player should I buy?

Before you dive into buying vinyl, you should probably own a record player. Many people, like me inherited their first record player from a friend or family member, and many people like me, enjoyed and suffered through that experience. Old record players look cool and function just fine, but they often need repair, which can be costly and time consuming. For example, it took me four months to find a replacement cartridge/needle for a vintage 60s Sony record player I inherited from my aunt, who was also named Tanya.

From that experience, I learned that buying a new record player, even one that’s cheap and low end to start out, is worth it. When deciding what record player to buy, narrow your search to what matters most to you (e.g., ease of use, style, functionality, brand, etc.) and your budget, then go forth and buy the one that matches your criteria.

When going through this process, don’t hesitate to make a decision and move forward because it’s important to remember that record players are like girlfriends – your first is never your last.

Tip – Record players can be coupled with compatible speakers at the point of purchase, which makes things easier with an all-in-one option for beginners so you’re ready to rock right when you open the box. If you want to know what player-plus-speaker combos are out there, simply search Google with a query like “record player with speakers” or check out the current list of what’s available on Amazon.

You may also have a style you’d like your record player to match. If that’s the case, check out this article, which includes the best bargain for beginners, Fluance RT81 High Fidelity Vinyl Turntable.

What are the main parts of a record player and what do they do?

Record players or turntables have several basic mechanical and electronic components that make them work. Here’s a beginner’s guide to each part and some tidbits to improve your knowledge.

Plinth – The foundation of the turntable that supports the rest of its components. Its basic function is to isolate the components mechanically from each other, so it’s usually better if the plinth is made of a heavy material.

Platter – The spinning surface that records are placed on. Typically, heavier platters perform better and are made of acrylic.

Spindle – The protruding end of the motor shaft located right in the center of the platter. It’s the component that holds your vinyl snug when playing.

Tonearm – The elongated part that holds the cartridge which holds the stylus/needle. Together, they’re what produces sound on a record player. Tonearms can be straight or curved, and there’s a healthy debate regarding which shape is better. In my opinion, it really doesn’t matter, but here’s a Reddit blog if you interested in learning more.

Cartridge – The electro-mechanical device that translates the information in record grooves into an electrical signal that can be amplified to produce music. The cartridge connects to the tonearm securely via the headshell, and it holds the stylus/needle.

Stylus/Needle – The stylus, or needle, is what digs into the vinyl’s grooves and reads the music. The fancy verb to describe the process is “to undulate”, which means to move or go with a smooth up-and-down motion. That’s the action you see when a record’s spinning and the music’s playing. The tonearm gently moves up and down as the cartridge picks up undulations in the vinyl’s groove walls. Is it just me, or did that sound hot?

Tip – Cartridges can be the difference makers in the sound quality of your music, and not surprisingly, prices can reflect their importance, even to the extent of a cartridge and stylus costing you more than your turntable. For example, I own (and love) a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC that came with a Ortofon 2M red cartridge and stylus. The record player costs about $500, and to upgrade the needle (to an Ortofon 2M Black), the price can range up to $750. Here’s an article to learn more.

For everything you need to know about cartridges, check out this fantastic resource – the complete guide to turntable cartridges.

Vinyl Records

Where are the best places to buy vinyl?

It depends on what you’re looking for. If you like to dig through records bins with less than laser focus, and you’re open to buying albums impulsively, then there’s no better place to buy vinyl than your local record store. Plus supporting a local, small business is never a bad idea, unless the owner’s a jerk.

If you live in a metropolitan area, you may even have multiple stores to choose from, each of which may have their own specialty. When I used to live in Washington DC, I’d spend entire Saturdays riding my bike around the city and stopping at record stores, each of which offered a little something different. While you don’t need a bike or multiple record stores to capture some of that experience, just hop in your car or head out on foot to your local shop. Every time you visit a record store, there’s a vinyl there waiting to find you. You may not be looking for it, but if you take the time to look, that special LP will find you.

Another in-person option for buying records is to visit record fairs. You can probably search online to see what fairs exist and when they are. Record fairs usually offer lower prices and way more vinyl to choose from since multiple vendors are there. If you end up going to a record fair, plan on spending a few hours there to soak in the whole experience. Visiting fairs, even infrequently, can quickly build up your collection.

Last but not least, embrace the digital age and buy vinyl online. If you’re looking for new releases, you have all sorts of options. I recommend Amazon for cheaper prices and faster delivery, but there are plenty of other options out there too (e.g., PopMarket, ExperienceVinyl, EIL, etc.). If you’re interested in buying used records online, I recommend Discogs and MusicStack. Both sites are community-based and driven, and Discogs has an unmatched logging and grading system that can get meticulous, but leads to buyers (like you) knowing exactly what they’re getting.

How much are my records worth?

Vinyl records can be worth a lot, or next to nothing. Condition of the vinyl and its outer jacket obviously matter, but so does the version and pressing. Special releases, cool inserts, limited runs, splatter designs, and the like rule today’s market, and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of which version you own and how much it’s worth.

The truth lies in the matrix. Every vinyl record has an etching and/or stamped unique identifier on the innermost smooth part of its circle, which ultimately tells you which version and pressing you own. An easy way to check and catalog your records is via Discogs since it contains nearly every album and pressing ever released. Simply use the search bar and type in the artist’s name, album title, and/or the entire matrix runout ID and you’ll be provided with historical sales data and statistics of minimum, median and maximum prices paid for each record. It’s a quick and easy way to find out how much your records are worth, and it’s also convenient when cataloging your growing collection and how much it’s worth.

Another option is to use PopSike, an easy-to-use searchable database that provides extensive online sales info, so you can see how much each vinyl sold for via an archive of almost every online auction site – 20 million sites to be exact.

How should I store my vinyl?

Vinyl storage has evolved in recent years, which has led to more options being available to buy, versus needing to be custom built. If you’re just starting out, all you need are record bins that frontload albums, which make them easier to flip through and more accessible. Here are a few options for under $30 – Paulownia Wood Potato Bin and Crosley Album Crate. If you want affordable, but more stylish options, companies like Urban Outfitters and HHV have pages dedicated to record storage too, with the latter offering choices for our friends outside the U.S.

If your collection is getting bigger, which is a good problem to have, you may need to invest in storage that couples as furniture or cabinetry. IKEA offers cheap and functional options, like the Kallax, which is perfect for storing vinyl, and it comes in various sizes to match the size of your growing collection.

VinylFactory.com posted a nice piece on other storing options too, which is available here – Bored of IKEA? 12 alternative ways to store your records.

Tip – Most vinyl storage options require side storage, so all you see is the spine of the outer jacket. That’s not awful, but it’s not ideal either. Flipping through records that are frontloaded allow you to see the album’s cover and make it easier to pick stuff out. I recommend coupling side storage and front load options, so you have a way to store more records (side storage) and a means to flip through records too (front load). The photo below is what I use at home, which offers the best of both worlds and keeps recently/often played records in the smaller front loaded storage option, and the rest of the collection alphabetized and categorized via side storage.

Tip – If you’re into do it yourself (DIY) projects, building your own record storage bins could be your best option. Here’s a forum that offers instructions, blueprints, etc., and a testimonial for those interested but unwilling to dive headfirst into DIY.

Should I put my records in plastic/polyethylene sleeves?

Yes, you should. Albums can be expensive, they hold sentimental value, and they’re meant to last forever. A simple way to show that you care is to put your records in plastic poly sleeves, which shouldn’t cost you more 25-50 cents a piece. Two exceptions to warranting plastic sleeves are albums you find in $1 bins or ones that are already in crappy condition. Just let those ones be – time will do its thing and nature is meant to take its course.

Here’s a high-quality, low-cost option I can vouch for after trying a few different types of sleeves – 100 poly sleeves for $30.

The same company sells larger poly sleeves as well, which are ideal for protecting box sets and thicker albums that contain 2 or more records – 25 thick poly sleeves for $15.

Accessories

What is a slipmat and do I need one?

A turntable slipmat is an essential accessory for your record player. Not only will it protect your vinyl from sliding around on the platter (unless the platter has a built-in rubber layer), which can affect sound quality or even damage your records, it’s also a fun way to give your record player a style all its own.

The most popular types of slipmats are made out of rubber, felt or cork, and they come in a variety of styles, from basic/plain/one solid colors to all sorts of fun designs, like cats on synthesizers in space, DJ Yoda, or Michael Jackson hugging a baby tiger. Here are a few sites worth checking out to add some style to your turntable via the slipmat – Ear Candy Music and Etsy.

Tip – One thing to remember when adding a rubber or cork slipmat to your turntable is that you will likely need to reset your turntables’ VTA since these types of mats are almost always thicker than felt. Adding even a millimeter or two to your platter’s height will throw the VTA off. If an adjustment isn’t made, you may notice your vinyl sounding slightly duller or treble heavy. Use your ears to guide your hand, and if an adjustment is needed, pull out the easy to use VTA balance tool that came with your record player or buy one for about $5.

How do I play 7” 45 RPM albums on my record player?

Simple! All you need to do is buy a 45 RPM 7” adapter for about $10, which allows you switch between 12” 33-33 ½ RPM LPs and smaller 7” 45 RPM records. It’s that easy, just be sure to hit the button on your turntable that switches between the two speeds.

How do I keep my vinyl clean?

There are lots of options to clean vinyl, so pick at least one to keep your records free of dust, dirt, and oils that transfer from your hands. Keeping your records clean can be the difference between having a great listening experience versus haunting memories of hearing nothing but annoying pops or skips that can ruin everything. Here are some options when it comes to various wet and dry cleaning accessories with links to the products being referenced.

Tip – The most important thing you can do to keep your records clean is to handle vinyl on its edges.

Brush – Brushes are cheap and offer an easy way to remove static, dust and dirt from your vinyl. If you pull out a record and see anything on the surface, give it a brush in a circular motion along its grooves. In most cases, a brush is all you need to remove the debris affecting sound.

Roller – Another cheap option that works well is the roller. It’s made from sticky, reusable rubber that can be washed off under hot water, and it acts like a magnet pulling up static, dust and dirt.

Microfiber towel – Microfiber towels are cheap and what you should use to wipe down your records. Don’t use your t-shirt! Fabrics like cotton can scratch your vinyl and create problems that can’t be wiped away.

Manual Deep Cleaner – In my opinion, this is the best value cleaning option. You can make an album that looks smudgy, dirty and dusty and make it shiny, clean and looking brand spanking new in a matter of seconds. I currently use the Studebaker vinyl record cleaning system, but other options are comparable. Just make sure you use distilled water and not tap to avoid chemicals that can harm your vinyl.

Automatic Deep Cleaner – Automatic cleaners are not for beginners, so don’t feel like this is a must, because it’s not. Automatic cleaners are pricey, but they are the best way to deep clean your records. They also usually come with vacuum air-drying suction options that remove the need to hand dry records after cleaning, which is a part of the process when using a manual deep cleaner. If you have a few microfiber towels on hand and you’re only washing a few vinyl records at a time, using a manual cleaner is the way to go.

1 thought on “Getting Started Guide – Buying, Playing and Collecting Vinyl Records”

  1. Thank you for putting this together! I’ve always wanted a record player and this is quickly becoming an end of day ritual. Thanks for making this a fool proof adventure and I can’t wait to play my growing collection of Techno Tanya, Pop and 80’s baby records with you and the fam jam

    Reply

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