This guide will teach you the popular wisdom and accepted standards of what to look for and what matters in the collection of Vintage Audiophile LPs. I will limit this guide to information on American, classical music, audiophile LPs. And I will not talk about condition. Everyone knows that in vintage collectibles of any kind, better condition equals higher value. And there exist some standards of what is considered “mint”, “near mint”, “very good”, etc. But that is for another guide.
The word "audiophile" literally means "someone who loves to hear". These days the word is used in communities of recorded music afficionados to mean those among them who place a very high value on the quality of sound reproduced in the recording. Since I collect & deal in vintage long-playing, vinyl record albums, and in exclusively classical music, this is what I'll be focusing on. To define what makes one recording of a higher "quality" than another may seem a wholly subjective and therefore impossible task. However, people have been collecting vinyl LPs, comparing them to one another, and sharing opinions and information about them since the late 1940s, and certain widely agreed upon standards have emerged.
In the audiophile community, the generally accepted idea of what an excellent recording sounds like is that if you were to close your eyes and listen to it you might believe that you were hearing the music at a live concert performance, in a hall with perfect acoustics, seated at the sweet-spot of the auditorium, and with no coughers, snifflers or candy-unwrappers anywhere in the building. I know already what you youngsters are saying. "But didn't the invention of compact discs create this perfect quality of sound?" "If audiophiles want the best possible sound quality, why look for it in old vinyl records?" The popular opinion on this matter is quite simple but requires a bit of explanation.
Hearing is an analog experience. That is, a continuous wave of sound (vibrations) enters the ears and is transmitted to and interpreted by the brain. Vinyl LPs are analog recordings. The sound they transmit is a continuous wave of sound, and they were created by a continuous wave of sound causing the needle to cut the groove in the record. CDs are created with tiny discrete bits of (digital) information. No matter how small & close together they may be, there is always space between them; the information on a CD will never be a continuous flow of sound. Therefore it is an imprecise, imperfect reproduction of the live music experience. Keep in mind that this is all popular opinion - I have my own personal opinions about the topic which I'll get to later. With this in mind, the questions become: Which vintage LPs have this superior sound quality? Why? How does one recognize it when merely looking at a vintage LP?
Audiophile Record Labels
When collecting audiophile LPs, the first things to look for are label name and date of recording. The label name is usually prominently displayed on the album cover in one of the corners. The popular wisdom as to which record labels in which years produced the very best of the best in audiophile sound quality is as follows:
RCA Living Stereo (from around 1958-1964)
Mercury Living Presence (1958-1964)
London bluebacks (1958-1964)
British Decca SXL series (1958-1964)
EMI ASD series (1958-1964)
Columbia SAX series (1958-1964)
Lyrita (from the 1970s to the mid 80s)
Some collectors argue that the recordings from the 50s and 60s are really only of collectible quality until around 1962, while still other factions insist that the "late 50s to early 60s" timeframe is much too narrow and that excellent audiophile collectibles exist outside of those dates. Yet another breed of audiophile collector insists that nothing pressed before the late 1970s is of collectible quality, and they collect only LPs of the late 70s and 80s (as a side note, almost all collectors agree that anything pressed in the early to mid 1970s is of poor sound quality). Ultimately, if you are a true audiophile, you'll want to listen to the recordings and decide for yourself which you think sound best. But for assessing current market values and popularity, the above list is a good place to start.
There is some popular lore in the community that the British Deccas are of a superior quality to the London bluebacks, but the fact is that these records are the same. Specifically, they were pressed from the same original stamper record, in the same factories at the same time. After pressing, some (the Londons) were labelled differently for sale in the United States. Amazingly, even though this is fairly common knowledge, there persist ideas that one is better than the other. What is true, however, is that the British Deccas are rarer, simply because fewer were labelled British Decca than London. And that is just as simply because the American market was larger than the market in England. So in that sense, they may be considered more valuable.
Dating & Assessing Value
Among the labels I’ve already covered, the common wisdom says that the earlier in the audiophile era the record was pressed, the better. And, within any one pressing of an LP, the earlier the better as well, and I’ll discuss that later. First, let’s talk about finding the year of pressing. Keep in mind, too, that there may be recordings which were originally pressed in the audiophile era, but which then continued to be sold out and re-pressed and re-released over and over again until outside the dates of the audiophile era. For example, On the London label, LP catalog #CS6163, "Ruggiero Ricci performing the Paganini Caprices", was originally pressed around 1960 (within the desirable 1958-1964 timeframe), but continued to be re-pressed and sold into the 1970s (outside the dates of the audiophile era).
On RCAs, the year at the end of the notes on the back cover denotes the year the record was released, and doesn’t help much in determining value. To recognize early pressings (and higher value) it’s better to look at the LP cover and the round label on the vinyl itself.
The words “Living Stereo” appear on all or nearly all RCA audiophile LP covers (depending on what your cutoff date is). The more elaborate and larger the script of the text “Living Stereo” is, the earlier the pressing.
Next, you’ll want to examine the round label on the vinyl itself. The earliest and most valuable RCAs will have what is called a “shaded dog” label. In these, the famous RCA dog & gramophone logo has shading around it. Later pressings have the same white dog & gramophone, but without the shading, and these are referred to as “white dog” labels. Still later came the RCA label with no dog at all. Many in the audiophile collector community consider even the white dog label LPs to be too late to be collectible, although I personally disagree.
First check that a London bluebacks LP has the actual blue back cover that the name is derived from. Value diminishes significantly in the absence of the blue back cover.
On London LPs, the round label on the vinyl itself is deep red with a silver band, and its design evolved. Most notably, the silver band became narrower twice over the years. Therefore, the labels with the widest silver band are the earliest pressings (and therefore more valuable). There were about seven different label designs total on this era of London LPs, and the more subtle changes can provide even more detailed clues and more precise dating of an LP.
Deccas can be dated & valued by looking for a blue border of the back cover. Later LPs do not have a blue border.
The inner round label of Decca LPs are black with silver text. Like the London LPs they have a silver band which is wider in the earlier pressings and narrower in the later pressings.
On EMIs your best dating information is on the round label on the vinyl. The very earliest ones have a label referred to as the “White/Gold” label, for obvious reasons. Later pressings have what is called the “semicircle dog” label and still later pressings have what are known as “postage stamp nipper” labels.
Mercury’s first audiophile LPs start with catalog #90001 and continue through #90260 (the catalog # on all LPs appears on the label). Of these, pressings from earlier years have back covers that are printed in color, and later pressings have B&W back covers. For catalog #s after 90260 all the back covers are printed in B&W, and for these, the dating clue lies in whether there is solely text on the back cover, or whether a photo on the right hand side accompanies the text. Earlier pressings have text and a photo, but somewhere around catalog # 90300 (in the early 1960s) the photos were eliminated and the back covers contain only text thereafter.
Mercury labels have many dating clues. Color is one. The earliest are dark maroon and silver. Later years had a light maroon and silver label (the design is the same but the maroon is not as dark). In addition to label color, the design of the Mercury logo changed over the years and it is useful to know that the large printed font logo signifies an earlier pressing than the smaller, cursive font logo.
Throughout the years and label designs, some of the more rare and therefore more valuable Mercury LPs are the “Promotional” pressings. These are identified by the word “Promotional” right on the label. Frequently, the promotional LPs also have a completely different label color (green, orange, yellow, white, gold, blue, black, etc.) I could go on and on and on about Mercurys pressed for other countries, and how those labels evolved and thus how to date those LPs, but for this beginner’s guide, I think I’ll stop here.
More Precise Dating & Valuation
Once you have determined the year of an LP, you may want to go on to determine how early or late within that year a particular piece of vinyl was pressed. Vinyl LPs were pressed from a molten lump of vinyl by a heavy metal stamper, which pressed the soft vinyl into a record. After cooling, it became the hard vinyl we know as LPs. There is a conventional wisdom which says that the metal stamper, after pressing many many LPs, would become worn down, gradually producing vinyl LPs with shallower grooves, and therefore inferior sound quality. So, knowing whether an LP was the first one pressed by a particular stamper, or the last, is of value to collectors. And again, earlier is better. The stamper number is your clue to when in the life of the master stamper a particular LP was pressed. The stamper is a tiny engraving or etching in the deadwax area of the LP, the area of vinyl just outside the label and before the sound groove. To find the stamper, hold the LP up in a bright light, and tilt and search until you see the tiny text appear.
For RCAs the stamper number is a long string of numbers which ends with a hyphen, and then a number followed by an “S”. For this guide, let’s ignore the long string and look only at the number after the hyphen and before the “S”. Simply, the lower the number, the earlier the pressing, and therefore the higher the value of the LP. Since each side of the vinyl can have been pressed at very different stages in the life of the stamper for that side, the most desirable RCAs must have “1S” on both sides.
RCAs have another marker in the deadwax, which is a letter denoting the plant where the LP was pressed. Collectors have their favorite pressing plants, but a general order of desirability among collectors seems to be: H (Hollywood), I (Indianapolis), R (Rockaway).
On Mercurys, you will see a stamper indication of “FR” followed by a number, or “RFR” and a number, or “M” and a number. The FRs will be in a printed font, and the RFRs will be in what looks like hand-written script, and the Ms will be in a printed font. And the order I’ve just given is chronological. The earliest Mercurys will have the stamper “FR”, the next will have “RFR” and the most recent years will have “M”. In the community, LPs with the “M” stamper are considered by many to be outside the collectible audiophile era.
Decca & London
The stamper on Decca & London LPs (like RCAs) will be a string of numbers followed by a hyphen and then a number and then a letter. After the hyphen, the number is chronological in the pressing, and the letter signifies the plant where the LP was pressed. Again, for the number, lower is better (more valuable). There may very well be a collectability ranking of pressing plants on Decca & London LPs, but I am not familiar with it.
There is a terrific website at "www dot Mikrokosmos dot com" which sells reference books full of visual samples of most of the different classical music recording labels over the years.
Again, nearly all collectors agree that the oldest LPs (of any label) are collectible and valuable, and factions of collectors drop off and jump on the bandwagon at every stage of the audiophile era. Some don’t collect anything past 1960, some will collect LPs pressed into the late 1970s. Still others collect only LPs pressed in the 1980s. The one and only nearly universally collected audiophile label of the 1970s is Lyrita.
Please visit my eBay store, Scott Campbell LPs , for nearly a thousand classical music vintage LPs at any one given time.