Vinyl Record Grading: How It Works
If you’ve only purchased a vinyl record brand new from a popular retail store like Urban Outfitters or Amazon.com or Discogs, then you might not be aware that there’s a fairly intricate grading system in place that evaluates the condition of used vinyl records and jackets sold online.
Through a grading system that ranks the physical appearance and sound quality of a vinyl record from Poor to Mint condition, vinyl record grading is an invaluable resource to record collectors that purchase previously owned records online and want to get an idea of what they can expect before they spend their money.
And if you’re a vinyl record seller, it’s incumbent on you to make sure that you grade the condition of your records as accurately as possible, because buyers are relying on your honesty to help inform their purchase.
And while I’m going to cover selling vinyl records online in another video, I wanted to focus this video on vinyl grading in particular, which hopefully can help you if you ever find yourself in a position where you’ll want to buy or sell used records online.
So let’s take a closer look at vinyl record grading.
Vinyl Record Grading System: How It Works
When it comes to grading records accurately, things can get a little tricky for two reasons.
First, there isn’t an absolute consensus when it comes to how records are graded—we’ll get to that in a second.
And two, record grading is up to the seller’s discretion, which means one seller that’s selling a used album with a few scratches on the surface might grade it a bit differently from another seller selling the exact same album.
With that said, here’s the vinyl grading system that I go by, and is also used by Goldmine and websites like Discogs.
Let’s go from best to worst in terms of condition.
First up is MINT (M). Now, Mint condition jackets and vinyl records are perfect. Because of this reason, my personal belief is that records described as “MINT” should be records that are still sealed.
Near Mint (NM)
Next is Near Mint (NM). Near Mint is virtually perfect, with maybe the exception that there’ll be a very minor amount of shelf wear to the jacket. But the record itself should by glossy, clean, and free from surface marks.
A Near Mint record can technically have been played before, but it must be in such near perfect condition that it sounds as if it has never been played before.
Very Good Plus (VG+) or Excellent (E)
Next up is Very Good Plus (VG+) or Excellent (E). Very Good Plus or Excellent (a difference that’s is more a less a matter of semantics) are records that are in great shape overall, but might be suffering from a few light scuffs or hairline scratches on the surface. None of the problems the record is suffering from should downgrade the quality of the sound, however, as buyers purchasing a record rated Very Good Plus or Excellent are expecting a very high quality record and high quality sound.
As far as jacket are concerned, Very Good Plus or Excellent condition means the record sleeve might have some light scuff marks on it, showing that there’s been a bit of shelf wear. And there might be a small cutout or hole punch in an otherwise great looking album cover.
Very Good (VG)
Next Up is Very Good (VG). In my opinion, this is the grade where you can get the biggest bang for your buck. Records graded as Very Good should sound quite nice when playing on the turntable, but more apparent scratches and scuffs on the surface of the record will cause you to hear the occasional pop, tick or crackle.
Nevertheless, a record graded as Very Good should not be overwhelmed by surface noise in any way.
Album covers that are rated Very Good will, overall, look well taken care of. With that said, you’re much more likely to see a small amount of ring wear or a split seam happening near the top or bottom of the album cover. On top of that, past owners of Very Good album jackets may have scribbled names or notes on the cover, or made small markings or drawings in pen on the front or back.
Now remember when Michael Jackson was reminding everyone in the late 80s that Bad meant Good? Well, the opposite is sort of true here when it comes to grading vinyl records that receive a grade of Good. In my opinion, a grade of “Good” is essentially sounding the alarm to potential buyers that this record or jacket is in pretty bad shape.
Now granted, a record that’s graded as Good is certainly playable. It should be able to play from start to finish without skipping, for example. But that’s about where the compliments end.
Records rated as Good can be expected to have fairly considerable surface noise. They’ll have very visible scuffs and scratches on the surface, and the long-term wear and tear of the records being played has resulted in the sound being absolutely full of surface noise, which overall degrades the listening experience.
Records rated as Good may also be warped records. And while a warped record doesn’t necessarily prevent the record from playing successfully from beginning to end, it does likely require you to purchase a record clamp in an attempt to mitigate the edge warp problem.
- By the way, if you’re interesting in learning more about vinyl record weights and clamps, be sure to check out a video I made (below) on this exact subject:
In regard to album covers, you can expect to see significant ring wear. You might also see some rips on the covers, split seams, significant scribbles in pen by previous owners, stains, stickers and more.
If you’re buying a record that’s graded as Good, you’re likely doing so for one of the following reasons:
1) It’s incredibly cheap
2) The record features music you cannot find in any other released format
3) The record has sentimental value
Fair (F) or Poor (P)
And finally, we arrive at the grade of Fair (F) or Poor (P). These records are often in a shape that…well…just really ain’t respectable.
You should expect these records to be heavy scratched, warped, and in some cases broken. Playing these kinds of records can be an exercise in futility. The only saving grace is that these records may sell for incredibly cheap (we’re talking cents here, not dollars), or simply given away for free on trash day.
Album covers graded as Fair or Poor are in horrendous shape. Not only can you expect to see rips, split seams, and ring wear, but also covers suffering from water damage due to flooded basements.
Now, it’s important to remember that grading your album covers and your records should be done independently of each other. This means that, while you might have an album that only grades out as being Good or Very Good, it’s certainly possible that the record itself is in Very Good Plus condition.
Honesty Is Key in Vinyl Record Grading
This also takes me to my second point—grading the records themselves properly. To put it simply—honesty is very important when it comes to grading records.
Buyers are trusting these grades not just based on how the record looks, but how it sounds too. While it may be hard to test drive an album before you sell it if you plan to sell thousands of records, you actually might want to do this (provided you have a quality turntable and stylus). You don’t want to end up in a situation where the buyer is unhappy with the way you’ve graded a record and begins demanding their money back.
If you can’t test the record before selling, then you may want to “undergrade” a record in order to keep expectations of the buyer lower than expected. So if you can’t play the record before selling it, you might choose to rate a record that appears to be in “Very Good Plus” condition as simply “Very Good.”
At the end of the day, buying records you’ve never seen or heard may seem like a scary process because it requires you to fully rely on someone else’s grading judgment. That’s why if you buy used records online, be it a place like eBay or Discogs, make sure you take a look at the seller’s feedback rating and and user reviews. If it seems like a large majority of past customers had positive experiences, you will likely feel more confident in trusting the seller you’re giving your money to.
- This article was a loose representation of a video I made on vinyl record grading. If you’re interested in watching a walkthrough video I made on this subject, please check it out below:
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