Vinyl records were extremely popular in the mid 20th century. Back then, if you wanted to listen to music from the comfort of your home, vinyl and a record player was the only option.
However, that changed when new musical innovations started popping up—first cassette tapes in the 60s, then CDs in the 80s. With the onset of mp3 in 1991, vinyl started fading into obscurity.
But over the past decade, vinyl records have made a strong comeback. In fact, vinyl album sales surpassed CDs in 2020.
Following this surprising resurgence in recent years, we decided to create a collection of ten terms every vinyl records enthusiast needs to be familiar with.
Now, let's dive in:
1. Record Grading
Record grading is the classification of a vinyl record in terms of its physical condition and sound quality in order to accurately describe its value to potential buyers. Here are the standard grades for record albums, from best to worst:
- Mint (M) - the record is in perfect condition. This means that it is usually sealed and has never been played. Nowadays, it's very difficult to come by records in M condition, especially for classic bands.
- Near Mint (NM) - the record has been played no more than a few times and has no visible defects. Most often, record sellers won't use a higher grading than "near mint" If you are looking for the best vinyl in the market, you should search for NM records.
- Excellent (E) or Very Good Plus (VG+) - the record may show some slight signs of wear which don't affect the listening experience. Most people will be satisfied playing VG+ these records.
- Very Good (VG) - the record will lack most of the original gloss found on higher grades. Groove wear is evident on sight and scratches are deep enough to feel with a fingernail. For most collectors, VG is the lowest grade for which they will pay for.
- Good (G) - the record has been played extensively and its audio quality has deteriorated significantly. But it's still playable.
- Fair (F) or Poor (P) - the record has not been properly cared for. The listening experience will be hundred by considerable surface noise, cracks and scratches
- Bad (B) - No reason to buy such a record as it will be unplayable.
Always do your due diligence, as one seller that's selling a used album might grade it a bit differently from another seller selling the exact same album.
Revolutions Per Minute (RPM)
Records are often classified by the number of revolutions they make on a turntable per minute or RPMs. This number gives the listener an idea of how much music is recorded on the disc.
78 - this was the official record standard in the 1920s until the late 1950s. These early records had their shortcomings. They carried only about five minutes of sound on each side. Also, they were made of shellac, which made them quite brittle and prone to shattering. 78s are hard to come by today.
33 ⅓ - The speed used for nearly all long-play (LP) record albums from 1948 to the present day. This speed allows for a longer playback time (up to 20 minutes) than the earlier 78 RPM.
Because the records were made of polyvinyl chloride, these records earned the nickname "vinyl."
45 - This was considered a middle ground between the first two formats. It debuted in 1949 and was often called a "single," It held one song on each side.
This is a physical impression on a vinyl record caused by an inaccurate attempt to place the record on a phonograph or turntable.
An abundance of spindle marks, even on a record with little apparent wear, may indicate that the vinyl has been played excessively and may exhibit unwanted surface noise during playback.
Surface noise is the abnormal or excessive clicks or hisses in the background when playing a vinyl record.
An inner sleeve is a protective covering that's placed in direct contact with the surface of a vinyl record. It is intended to protect the disc from coming in direct contact with the outer cover, as the rough surface of the cover might damage the record.
Some have a cut-out center hole to allow you to view the record without having to remove it from the sleeve. Others contain lyrics or other information about that specific recording.
Many collectors buy aftermarket sleeves that offer much better protection than the ones supplied with many records. This is because most original record sleeves are made with generic plain paper, plastic or cardboard.
The signal coming out of your turntable cartridge is around 1,000x lower than the signal coming from a CD player or a streaming device.
In order to hear music from vinyl through your speakers, you first need to boost the signal to a level that can be played properly through your sound system.
This is where a phono stage (also known as a phono preamp) comes in.
A phono stage (also known as a phono preamp) is an audio component that provides the connection between the record player and an amplifier.
Phono preamps come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. For example, you can get a dedicated phono stage or get one built into an amplifier, receiver or even powered speakers.
An original pressing typically refers to a vinyl record that was cut from the original master recordings. As they are the first records to be pressed, some consider these to be the best-sounding records. However, this is rarely the case.
Many original pressings of classic records like The Beatles or Pink Floyd have probably been used countless times.
It's very unlikely you will find one in "near mint" condition. So for many older records, reissues sound much better.
Also, determining whether a record is an original pressing can be a bit tricky since there are no set industry standards.
Stereo is a recording format where the music is presented in two distinct channels of sound, one on the left and one on the right. This is the primary way artists intend their audience or listeners to hear their music.
In fact, stereo has been the de facto audio standard for vinyl records since 1968.
A stereo system for listening to records will incorporate a turntable, phono stage, amplifier and a pair of loudspeakers.
Talk to any vinyl enthusiasts and they will excitedly share how much they love the three-dimensional listening experience created by a well-designed two-channel stereo system.
The physical production of vinyl begins with an aluminum disc covered with cellulose nitrate, a coating similar to nail polish. This special disc is known as a lacquer.
Audio grooves are cut into the face of a blank lacquer using a machine called a lathe.
This device transforms the acoustic energy of the studio recording into the physical movement of a needle which carves the music's grooves into the lacquer.
The cut lacquers are then sent directly to an electroplating facility to be used as the substrate in the electroforming (a process that makes the metal parts which are eventually used to press records.) These are the "master" plates.
There are only two facilities in the world that produce the lacquer discs needed to assemble master plates for pressing records— Apollo Masters Corp, US and MDC, Japan.
Sadly, the Apollo Masters Corp experienced a devastating fire in 2020 and suffered catastrophic damage. As a result, they had to close indefinitely.
No vinyl glossary or guide would be complete without mentioning audiophiles. Merriam-Webster defines an audiophile as "a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction," Well, spend just five minutes learning more about audiophiles and you'll quickly realize how simplistic this definition is!
Audiophiles are an exceptional breed of people who are known to take their fascination with sound quality to obscene levels.
Some dig into every minutiae detail of speaker technology, or sound engineering. Others have sound systems worth more than your car!
But generally put, an audiophile is someone who has a deep appreciation for how high-quality music recordings sound. And most happen to be vinyl lovers!
The typical vinyl record is 12" and will weigh between 120-150 grams. However, some newer "audiophile-grade" records come in heavier weights of 180, 200 or even 220 grams.
The increased weight of these disks makes them more resistant to warping while providing a sturdier platform for the stylus to rest on. Warped or bent records can distort the music pressed upon them and cause the stylus to jump/skip.
Some people have linked the higher weight directly to a whole host of sonic benefits, such as noise reduction and deeper bass/higher treble.
Notwithstanding, any sound improvement over standard records will largely be due to the better mastering and manufacturing procedures often allotted to heavier records.
There's just one caveat —this type of vinyl often commands higher prices than the standard grades, often fetching 2-3 times more per disk.
The development of vinyl records over time is fascinating. If you're part of the growing number of listeners discovering vinyl, welcome on board, we hope this guide helped you understand vinyl records more thoroughly.