The Secrets of a High-Quality Vinyl Record

CLASSIC COOL High-Fidelity in Los Feliz, Calif., sells new and used LPs.

From The New York Times:

TURNTABLES, those once-arcane machines for playing records, have staged a big comeback as a hipster essential, like cocktails with artisan bitters and skinny jeans with rolled cuffs over oxfords without socks.

If you need a gift for someone who stays ahead of the trends, what could be better than some vinyl with a high cool factor?

But buying a record now is different from when record shops were ubiquitous. Back then you went to a record store and bought a record. Period. Unless you were an audiophile — then you might seek out a boutique label that made special high-fidelity recordings.

Despite the continued six-year growth in sales of LPs — that’s long-playing records, for the uninitiated — practically all vinyl records today are small-batch boutique pressings. There are limited editions, collector editions, audiophile editions and more.

Here is some advice to help save you from giving a gift that will be met with hipster indifference.

Making any gift special means knowing your audience. Why does the recipient like records? Is it for the suitable-for-display cover artwork? That person might like a picture disc, colored vinyl or a gimmicky record jacket. Is the pleasure in playing records at gatherings with friends? That kind of listener might be happy with a standard pressing by a favorite artist. Or is it about serious listening? That person might like a high-fidelity pressing.

In any case, you’ll need to know the recipient’s favorite artist or genre. Or you can always resort to buying an album that was a chart topper on a significant date (note to those born the week of June 29, 1991: you’re getting “Slave to the Grind” by Skid Row).

Finally, there is collecting and there is speculating. If you are buying records as an investment you may be disappointed. “Collectibles in general, you can’t anticipate what will be valuable,” said Terry Stewart, chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, and owner of “hundreds of thousands of records,” he said. To be valuable, a record must be rare and in demand, which is hard to know in advance. The best bet is to give what someone enjoys, regardless of investment value. At worst, he is stuck with a record he loves.

Not everybody collects records for the sound quality, which is often described as richer, smoother and warmer than CDs or digital tracks. Of visitors to the Hall of Fame’s gift shop who buy vinyl, Mr. Stewart said: “Half the kids are buying them to listen to; half are buying them as artifacts.” Artifact collectors might appreciate an album frame for displaying that Captain Beyond 3-D cover on the wall.

Finding picture discs, which have artwork embedded in the disc itself, is easy on Amazon’s new vinyl records department. Scroll down to the Vinyl Search box in the left column and type in “picture disc.” A recent check returned more than 4,300 results, from Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” ($25) to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” ($15).

You may have more fun looking through record bins in a real store, though. Mr. Stewart recommended the iPhone app the Vinyl District, which will locate record shops near you. Or you can just search “vinyl record” online, with your city name.

While you can play picture discs, don’t expect great fidelity. “They sound horrible,” said Michael Fremer, an audio critic and record collector. The possible exception is color vinyl records. “The swirly colored stuff is also not going to sound good, but the transparent color vinyl can,” he said. “They released Nirvana on 180-gram blue and it’s unbelievable.”

Continue reading the rest of the story on The New York Times