I love second-hand vinyl shopping – but don't leave record stores without doing this

I love second-hand vinyl shopping – but don't leave record stores without doing this
(Image credit: Future)

You’ve spent the best part of an hour digging through crates of records in a store or stall and your patience and determination have finally been rewarded: you have found something you like for the price of a pint or two and are swiftly heading to the counter before someone in a Motörhead T-shirt says it’s his even if though you’re holding it. But not so fast, because have you even pulled the record from the sleeve and checked that your Chosen One doesn’t have a light scar across its surface? Look at the damn thing.

It might seem obvious, and perhaps it’s already part of your crate-digging process, but you’d be surprised (or not, perhaps) how many people I see tucking records under their arms and heading to the checkout and handing over a card without even pulling the vinyl from their sleeves to see their condition or asking the owner to play them. Just because it’s being sold in a physical shop on a high street or at a market or whatever, as opposed to on eBay or Discogs, doesn’t mean it’s in ‘mint’ or even ‘very good’ condition – even if the cover is in good nick (which, to be fair, is often a good indicator of whether the record inside is too). If you’ve found a bargain you think is too good to be true, it might just well be. Shop owners are oft experts, of course – they know how to price records depending on their condition and, therefore, worth.

Make sure to take the record out of the cover and sleeve, walk over to the brightest part of the store, and actually inspect it in the best light you can. It’s OK – you can do that. As with trying on hats (but not trousers) in front of a mirror in TK Maxx, you don’t have to look around the room for approval. The brightest light will reveal the most glare from the vinyl (the more glare the better as that indicates a record that hasn’t been used as much) and highlight any defects. Focus on one area of the record at a time and slowly tilt and rotate the record in the light to cover every angle in your hunt for flaws.

So, what are you looking for exactly? Scratches, mainly. Scuffs, often from paper inner sleeves, can sometimes look worse to the eye, but most will rub off with a clean and, unless they’re particularly nasty, won’t be audible. Scratches, on the other hand, will almost certainly be audible unless they are very shallow, as they will affect how the stylus reads the record. Ones running parallel to the grooves will call the stylus to skip into another groove (or get stuck in the same one, repeating the sound within that groove), while perpendicular ones will cause a clicking sound or – worse – loud pops.

If you spot one or some, you could lightly – ever so lightly – run your finger over it to check its depth… or whether it’s actually only a stray hair. Some in-store discretion wouldn’t go amiss here, mind you, as fingers over records is generally a no-no. Especially ones you don’t own (yet). Shallow scratches you can’t feel at all should be OK, but if you can feel a proper abrasive scratch then your sensitive stylus definitely will.

Don’t get caught up with dust or superficial grime as that can typically easily be cleaned off with an anti-static brush or one of many available record cleaners on the market, though on the odd occasion that there’s a lot of it the store owner likely won’t mind cleaning it behind the counter so you can be rest assured that it isn’t concealing anything more harmful. Yes, like a scratch.

While unlikely (it’s never happened to me), records can sometimes warp (bend slightly) and consequently wobble around a bit on your platter, so before you carefully pop that record back in its sleeve, bring it to eye level and look at it side-on to make sure it’s horizon-straight.

In my opinion, digging through used vinyl and finding a gem is one of the most rewarding experiences a music fan can have, but playing a record with audible imperfections beyond what can be considered charming can also be one of the most disappointing. Check records before you buy, and that time and money spent crate-digging will invariably be worth it.


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Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10 years in the hi-fi industry, she has been fortunate enough to travel the world to report on the biggest and most exciting brands in hi-fi and consumer tech (and has had the jetlag and hangovers to remember them by). In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.